A tender-flavoured winter stew of pork, sage and apple, a well-loved combination that I like to think of as a polygamous marriage (with pork being the boy, of course, and sage and apple the spirited gals*).
Apple is without a doubt the senior wife in this flavour alliance, because few other ingredients have such an affinity with the juicy sweetness of pork. 'On a plate, these two are made for each other,' writes Niki Segnit in her brilliant book The Flavour Thesaurus. 'With a plate of proper roast pork, by which I mean one with a curly roof of crackling, your apple pulls back the curtains and throws open the window of your plate.'
Sage is an interesting but strident herb that works best when used sparingly. (In other words, an aggressive bitch among herbs; delicious in small doses.)
I almost always bake stews in the oven these days because I find that long slow cooking at a steady temperature produces a better result than a pot put over a flame. Oven-baked stews don't catch on the bottom of the pot, and you can neglect them as they gently burble to perfect tenderness. Do stir the stew now and then, though. Or reach into the oven with gloved hands and give the dish a firm shake.
Ask your butcher for the most suitable cut for this dish. I've made it several times using pork neck (and it's faintingly good) but I think, because this is such a mild-flavoured stew, a leaner cut is better suited.
* Please don't admonish me for this. After all, 'pork' is not a suitable name for a woman.
Oven-cooked Pork, Sage, Cider and Potato Stew
4 T (60 ml) oil (mild olive oil or sunflower oil)
2 T (30 ml) butter
4 leeks, white parts only, rinsed and sliced
two stalks of celery, finely sliced
4 large carrots, peeled and cubed
2 bay leaves
a large sprig of fresh sage (about 6 leaves)
an 8-cm sprig of fresh rosemary
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 kg lean pork (cut from the shoulder or leg), cubed, or in thick strips
3 T (45 ml) flour
2 cups (500 ml) dry cider (such as Strongbow)
2 cups (500 ml) water
½ cup (125 ml) clear apple juice (Liquifruit, or similar)
3 T (45 ml) Dijon mustard
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
8 large potatoes, peeled and quartered
salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup (125 ml) cream
the juice of a small lemon
a handful of chopped fresh parsley
Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Heat half (2 tablespoons) of the oil in a large, shallow ovenproof pan or casserole dish. Add the leeks, celery, carrots, bay leaves, sage, rosemary and a pinch of salt. Cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables have softened slightly. Don't allow the onions to catch or burn. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside.
Put the flour in a deep bowl and season with salt and black pepper. Add the pork and, using your hands, toss well so that every cube or strip is dusted with flour.
Add the remaining oil to the pan and turn up the heat. Brown the pork cubes, in several small batches, for a few minutes, or until they have developed a golden crust. Add more oil, if necessary. Push the browned cubes to one side of the pan while you brown the rest (or set them aside on a plate). If there is a lot of fat in the pan, tip all the cubes into a colander set over a sink and drain off the excess. Now return the vegetables, herb sprigs and set-aside pork to the pot. Mix the cider, water and apple juice in a jug and pour it into the pan, stirring briskly with a spoon or whisk to disperse any lumps. Bring to a gentle boil. Stir in the mustard and lemon zest. Add the peeled potatoes and season with more salt and black pepper, if necessary.
Mix everything together well, cover with a lid or tin foil and place in the oven. Cook for an hour at 170ºC. Open the oven, remove the lid, and give everything a good stir. Turn down the heat to 160ºC and cook for another half hour or so, stirring once or twice, or until the potatoes and meat are very tender, and the gravy has thickened a little. If the gravy seems too thin, put the pan on the hob and allow to bubble gently for ten minutes, or until it has reduced to your liking. Immediately before serving, stir in the lemon juice, cream and chopped parsley. Don't reheat on the stove, as the gravy may curdle. Serve piping hot, with a plain green salad, or some hot buttered peas.