With dishes like this, every year should be called the year of the pig

by Terry B on December 29, 2010

Inspired by a traditional Italian dish and a memorable Chicago evening, Milk-braised Pork with Tarragon is complex, delicate and delicious. Recipe below.


The end of the year inevitably gets us thinking about what lies ahead. For that reason, my maternal grandmother always served pork on New Year’s Eve. She said it was because pigs root forward when searching for food, while chickens scratch backward. In the new year, you want to move ahead. Chicago chef Rob Levitt is making a big move ahead, swapping his toque for a butcher’s apron. By the time you read this, his new butcher shop The Butcher & Larder may well be open, selling cut-to-order meats and charcuterie from locally sourced, humanely raised animals. He’ll also offer a limited menu of sandwiches. I’m sure we’ll become regulars there. Marion was inspired to make this dish by a wonderful dinner Rob cooked on his last night at the Bucktown restaurant mado. I’ll let her tell you about it.

I went much of my life without ever even hearing of milk-braised pork. Then on the last night of Rob and Allie Levitt’s tenure at mado, we had the good fortune to attend one of their farm dinners—not exactly a farm dinner in the way Terry’s grandmother would have known it, but more of a full-on Bacchanalian pageant. Among this parade of dramatic, luxurious dishes, served on a platter with a few other flashier meats in an almost off-handed way, was some milk-braised pork.

Well, I had never tasted anything like this.  It was so mild, so suave and light. With such a simple descriptive name, was it an old American Midwest specialty? Was this some traditional German dish?

It turns out that this is a traditional dish, from Bologna. In the original version, it’s utterly straightforward: pork, milk, salt, pepper and time.  After snooping around on line, I decided to add some fresh tarragon and lemon zest, a little bit of miso for some extra umami (in memory of a wonderful pork ramen broth in Los Angeles), and then, at the end, to thicken everything up, a bit of beurre manié.

As you cook this, the milk caramelizes and turns a beautiful amber color.  That is characteristic of this dish. Also characteristic is that cooking milk for this long makes it breaks—the sauce will be very globby. Just go with it—that’s what this recipe does. At the end, reduce the sauce a bit, then whisk it well, then thicken with a bit of beurre manié.

Milk-braised Pork with Tarragon
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, stripped from the branches and left whole
Another tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped coarsely
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-pound shoulder pork roast (see Kitchen Notes)
4 cups whole milk (see Kitchen Notes)
1 teaspoon white miso paste
black pepper

For the beurre manié:
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons flour

In a Dutch oven or pot deep enough to hold the pork when the lid is on, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat and brown the pork on all sides. Brown all of it. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the rest of the olive oil to the pan and scatter the whole tarragon leaves (not the chopped leaves) around the roast and fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Pour all the milk around the pork, then add the miso paste and whisk it into the milk. Bring the milk to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover it completely and simmer for 30 minutes. After the first half hour, turn the pork. Cook another 30 minutes. Add the chopped tarragon, and turn the meat again. After 30 minutes, turn it once more. Cook another 30 minutes.

When the meat has cooked for two hours, test it to see if it is tender. If not, keep cooking. This will probably take at least 2-1/2 hours to cook.  Each time you check, the milk will be more and more golden.

When the pork is tender and well done, carefully lift it out of the cooking liquid and set onto a platter to rest. Lift it carefully so it doesn’t break up—I used our huge fish lifter and a ladle.

Prepare the beurre manié by mashing together the butter and flour. Drop the beurre manié bit by bit into the simmering sauce, whisking to thicken it.  Don’t make this really thick; a lightly thickened sauce is what you want. The flavor will be mellow and deep and really like nothing else.

When the pork has rested for a few minutes, slice it. Sometimes all it wants to do is shred and defy the goal of attractive slices. In that case, think pulled pork—a fantastic sandwich, or something awesome to put on top of a baked potato.

There are lots of ways to serve this. We had it with mashed potatoes and zucchini coins sautéed with garlic. It would also be wonderful with egg noodles (for the super mellow sauce) and a bright fresh salad.

Kitchen Notes

The cut of meat makes a difference in the slicing outcome, but any cut you use will come out complex and yummy. Rolled, tied pork loin or pork tenderloin are all likely to give you sliceable results. Boston butt, pork chops and pork shoulder cut into 8-ounce chunks… all good.

Regarding the milk, the classic version uses whole milk. But on the Internet I ran into several recipes using 2% milk, and those authors said the results were just as good.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia Fox-Giddens December 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm

From the picture to your writing, this meal sounds delicious. The pork looks so tender and the sauce on top even yummier.

[email protected] December 30, 2010 at 1:37 am

The meal looks delicious! I love your grandmother’s reason for serving pork on New Year’s Eve…makes sense to me.

Alanna December 30, 2010 at 3:33 am

Oh how I love milk-braised pork – despite its homely appearance. When I served it for my family before Thanksgiving, instead of doing the whole add flour-whisk smooth thing, I just put small ramekins on the plates and let people DIP. Not a drop was left.

Toni December 30, 2010 at 3:50 am

I’ve never heard of or had this dish, but you’ve got my mouth watering. I love recipes that are simple, but offer richness and depth, which this recipe seems to do.

Thanks to both of you for another year of wonderful reading and food ideas!

Mary_Eats December 30, 2010 at 3:08 pm

This looks delicious! I had seen a Jamie Oliver recipe where he braised chicken in milk, and then while taking a cooking class in Tuscany, I got to try turkey braised in milk and it was wonderful! Must try this for myself.

Anita December 30, 2010 at 7:52 pm

I plan to try this, but I have a question – is there any reason why you would pour in the milk and only then whisk in the miso paste? Wouldn’t it be easier to whisk the paste into the milk before pouring… that way you wouldn’t have to work around the pork.

Marion December 31, 2010 at 2:15 am

Thanks, Cynthia! Yum is definitely the word.

Lisa, it does, when you think about it.

Alanna, that is a great idea and we will try that next time. We do love wet food.

And thank you, Toni, and a rewarding and prosperous 2011 to you.

Mary, now you’ve made me curious. How did they manage the turkey? What size of turkey?

Anita, good question. The reason is that the miso blends in faster when the milk is warm. It really is no trouble to work around the pork, which is just in one big piece. Kind of nudge it to the side and whisk away.

Christina January 1, 2011 at 1:14 am

So delicious. My mom used to braise pork in milk with a load of spices–fennel, chile, lots of garlic–and the lumpy curdly “sauce” was the stuff of heaven. Man, this is making my mouth water.

Much love this New Years to both of you. May 2011 be delightful!

Marion January 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Christina, those spices sound just wonderful and now I want to try your mom’s version. And a wonderful 2011 to you, too!

Mary_Eats January 1, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Ah, I should clarify – it was a turkey breast, not a whole turkey!

Marion January 1, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Thanks, Mary! That makes sense. I sense an experiment in our future.

Laura January 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Oh milk braised pork is one of my favorites, but it had never occurred to me to add any aromatics other than lemon, I imagine the tarragon was fabulous! I love the rationale for serving pork on New Year’s, too bad I had lamb this year…do lambs root forward as well I hope?

Happy holidays to you both!

Marion January 2, 2011 at 10:23 pm

As a matter of fact, they do! And the tarragon was fabulous. For some reason, lately we’ve really been crazy for it and putting it in many things.

Katherine January 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Example # 4,975 that Bologna is the best place in the world to eat, overeat, and then eat some more. Thanks for the recipe Marion and Terry — I can’t wait to try it!

Terry B January 7, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Thanks, Katherine! And I’m glad someone’s keeping count of these things.

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