Friday, September 2, 2011

Fennel Scented Pork Roast

Fennel Scented Pork Roast
Well, we survived Hurricane Irene's relentless onslaught on the northeastern US with no appreciable damage. We were very lucky- some of the neighbors did not fare so well- with problems ranging from downed trees, to power outages. Less than a mile down the street was where some of the worst flooded areas of the state began. We were very lucky.

My poor vegetable garden, however, was not so lucky. Few of my plants survived, and the ones that did  probably won't have time to produce any more fruit. My fennel plant in particular, was doing well, but ended up broken and mostly uprooted, so I needed to find a way to make some use of it rather than discarding it altogether. I also had a pork roast in the freezer, and a limited selection of other groceries to work with until the roads re-opened, and the (flooded) local grocery store re-opened, but something good was well within reach- and, personally, a big juicy hunk of pork is a great way to celebrate our good fortune.

So let's talk about this piece of pork. Everyone likes boneless pork chops- they cook quickly, and are easy to make. You can use that popular brand of breadcrumb coating, and pop them in the oven and have a quick and easy meal. That, while good, gets boring after a while. If you start with a pork roast, you'll find that you have many more options- and you'll find yourself paying less per pound. The only difference between a pork roast and the chops is a few minutes of slicing. Working with the whole roast or loin increases your options for cooking and adding flavors- and if you start running out of ideas, you can always cut them into chops as usual (but at a lower price per pound!). My nice pork roast and my handful of fennel, made me think of the kind of flavors you would find in a sausage or a sausage based stuffing.

Before roasting this piece of pork, it's going to need some seasoning- so I put together a simple dry rub made from dried, powdered spices in the cabinet... there's something to be said for fresh spices, but if you learn to work with the dried stuff, you'll be able to put together a great meal even if your local grocery store ends up under three feet of flood water. I always feel that unless you're going to spend a lot of time coming up with and testing a complicated spice blend, your best bet is always to keep it simple- start with a base of salt and black pepper and use no more than three other flavors that compliment each other well. Since I'm going with a sausage theme, my rub will be made of salt, black pepper, garlic, and powdered sage. No, I'm not using the fennel yet, but I am creating a base that will add up to something like a classic sausage seasoning blend when the fennel flavor comes into play later. Take your rub and coat the pork roast with it, then place the roast in a baking pan/dish that you've lightly greased with a touch of oil.

Set the oven to a low temperature- about 250 degrees, and give yourself about two hours of cooking time- that should be just about enough to leave the pork fully cooked but still juicy. The quality of meats has improved to a point where the FDA admits that pork is safe to eat even if it is still a little pink in the middle, but pinkish pork still scares a lot of people, so I usually opt to make sure my pork is fully cooked. If you, like me, don't trust your ability to time your cooking very well, I strongly suggest using a digital probe thermometer to monitor the cooking process. I prefer the kind that lets you keep the probe in the meat while it cooks- I set mine to about 160 degrees for pork, and let it ride.

About ten or fifteen minutes before done (or 10 degrees before your target temperature if you use a probe) increase the oven temperature to around 400. This will help form a nice crust on the outside of the meat and concentrate all the flavors there. As with any large piece of meat, when you finally take it out of the oven, you'll want to let it rest for ten to fifteen minutes before cutting it. If you slice the roast before it has a chance to rest, all the juices will end up on your cutting board rather than on your plate. The rest period gives the meat a chance to re-absorb the juices as the muscle fibers relax after cooking.  This rest period also give you a chance to put together the other component of our pork dish... a very simple sauce of sorts.

My dear departed fennel plant was actually the "bronze" variety - it produces more woody stems, and does not seem to form the large bulbs at the base that green fennel is known for. Mine had already begun to flower when the hurricane uprooted them- and the little yellow flowers were practically dripping with fragrant, anise-flavored pollen. The green variety is the one usually used in cooking, but this woodier, bronze variety obviously has a lot of aroma and flavor  that can be used. I've also been intrigued with the idea of using an oil to extract flavors from herbs- an idea that I've put to use while making pasta dishes several times. Just before taking the roast out of the oven, I took a pan, and started with two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and about an equal amount of butter over low heat. When the butter is melted and starts to blend with the oil, add a little salt and black pepper, and the fennel. I took my fennel stalks, and using a pair of scissors, I cut off the flowers that seemed to have the most pollen, and cut up some of the stems and leaves into manageable pieces, and put a handful in the butter/oil mix. Let it cook for about ten to fifteen minutes, stirring so all the fennel gets a chance to give up it's flavors to the oil. We will use the oil, but leave the fennel itself behind, so you may want to have a strainer handy or be ready to carefully spoon out the oil.

While you wait for the pork to finish resting, spoon or strain some of the fennel oil over the roast- just enough to moisten the surface. The remaining rest time should give this oil a little time to soak in. When you are ready, slice the roast into pieces about 1/4 inch thick (or as thick/thin as you prefer!) and serve with your favorite vegetable and some rice. When you plate the meat, drizzle a little more of the fennel oil on the meat (and a little on the rice too!). Fennel can be overpowering, but infusing it into an oil mutes this effect. Since it's the last flavor we added, it remains distinct, but still allows the garlic and sage from the rub to come through, which completes the idea of a classic sausage flavor profile where garlic, sage, and fennel tend to dominate. While it may be a little heavy for a summer meal, this flavor profile is just about ideal for a winter holiday dish.

On a more serious note- we were VERY lucky, but a lot of people who live near us were not- just down the street- literally within walking distance, families are still reeling from the effect of the flooding that followed hurricane Irene- many homes and businesses in the area have suffered greatly, and may never fully recover.  I strongly urge anyone with the means to consider helping out with a donation, or volunteer work with the Red Cross. Thanks for listening!

No comments:

Post a Comment