Last evening I trudged out to the chicken coop to lock the ladies in for the night and it was cold. The leaves still on the ground (yes, we’re a bit behind on our fall raking) gave a crisp rustle as I walked through them. As I breathed, little puffs of air were visible.
All five chickens were already set for the night; three in one nesting box and two in another. The third box sat empty. Even the birds know that it’ll be a cold night and they’ll want to be cuddled together for warmth. One of them fussed at me as I peered in to make sure all were present and accounted for and then I closed the door.
I enjoy putting the girls to bed and missed doing it while we were out of town for a week. I missed it, but I didn’t worry about them or whether they were being taken care of properly in my absence. That’s because we have awesome neighbors/friends.
Despite the fact that it was cold and raining just about the entire time we were gone, our friends came over twice a day; in the morning to let Red, Speckle, Huey, Dewey and Nemo out and again in the evening to shut the coop door. They did this even though not a single chicken has laid an egg since a hawk landed in the middle of them and scared them eggless so their work would be without fowl reward.
Sure, I might have to field a few questions about why a strange woman was walking around my back yard in her jammies on Christmas morning, but I can deal with that. It’s so worth it.
I wanted to do something special for our friends as a thank you. The best thing I could think of was to serve them a meal. What better way to show appreciation than to make a dish you’ve never tried before from a magazine you’ve never heard of?
Way back in the dark ages when slow cookers (aka, crock pots) were all tall cylinders, instructions consisted of simply a list of ingredients that you threw into the pot prior to gloping in a can of condensed soup and turning the thing on. Thank goodness times (and slow cookers) have changed.
While they still save a bunch of time at the serving end of the process, the creators of slow cooker recipes now realize that there must be a little work done on the front end in order for the food to be really, really spectacular. I’m so happy about that.
Take this recipe for instance. Sure, it’ll take a bit of time to slice the fennel and onions and slightly longer to mince the garlic. But you can do that while you’re searing the pork, for which you’ll need to set aside a good 15 minutes or so. Don’t be stingy with the browning either. Let the meat develop a good amount of color and make sure that some bits get stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Why? Because once you add the browned pork to the slow cooker, you’ll be pouring some white wine into the skillet. Most of the stuff on the bottom will immediately release, but you should still scrape up anything else that stays stuck. That’s the base of a really, really good finishing juice.
So, you’ve put down a layer of sliced onions and fennel, right? Upon that bed add the browned pork. Sprinkle on the minced garlic, some rosemary and oregano and salt and pepper. Add a big can of drained tomatoes and the wine from the skillet.
Cover the slow cooker and let her go for 7-8 hours (or 5 hours if you’re me and making this for a late lunch). Try not to hyperventilate as the day wears on and the aroma from the cooking stew fills the house.
It appears that the folks at Eating Well served their stew with polenta. I used mashed potatoes since I was making this for friends and not everyone (including me) cares for polenta. The stew was a huge hit with everyone. The meat was fork tender. The juice was rich and flavorful with the combination of fennel, onion and garlic playing off each other. The mashed potatoes were a good counterpart to the slight tang that the wine and fennel provided. Even Dudette asked for seconds.
This stew is a perfect cold weather dish and one that is perfectly suitable for serving to guests. I may have never seen this magazine before, but it’s definitely going to make repeat appearances in my kitchen over the course of this year!
What I’d Do Different Next Time
I’d have liked a gravy with the stew instead of the runny juice, even though it had a lot of flavor. I think I’d create a slurry of a tablespoon of corn starch and a quarter cup of water and add it in the last few minutes of cooking. I’d pour it in, stir, then turn the slow cooker on high. That would make it thick enough to stick to the meat and coat the potatoes perfectly.
8 cups thinly sliced fennel (2-3 medium bulbs), plus 1/4 cup chopped fronds
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 1/2 pounds pork shoulder or Boston butt, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper, divided
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3/4 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained
Spread fennel and onion in an even layer in a 5-6 quart slow cooker. Cover and refrigerate fennel fronds.
Sprinkle pork with 3/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add about half the pork and cook until brown, 4-5 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker. Repeat with the remaining oil and pork. Add wine to the pan and scrape up any browned bits; remove from the heat.
Sprinkle garlic, rosemary, oregano and the remaining 3/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper over the pork. Top with the drained tomatoes and pour in the wine from the skillet.
Cover and cook for 5 hours on high or 7-8 hours on low. Stir the stew well to combine. Serve garnished with the reserved fronds.
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