Backward Braising with Pork and Fennel—A Dynamic Duo

Lynne Curry from Fine Cooking dishes on the benefits of Backward Braising. Try her wonderful aromatic Braised Pork Shoulder with Fennel, Garlic, and Herbs, it is delicious!

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Braised meat is a beautiful thing. Thanks to low, slow cooking in a flavorful liquid, the meat becomes crazy tender and full of flavor. It’s the perfect choice for winter dining, when you’re hankering for a hearty meal and having the oven on for a few hours is most welcome. A braise is practically foolproof and only better if made ahead, so it’s great for both casual family meals and stress-free entertaining. This method is supposed to be even easier, although we both thought it took the same amount of time and work, if not a bit more.

When braising, you typically sear meat to brown it for flavor and color, then add liquid and aromatics before cooking it until tender. With this “backward” method, you braise the meat to tenderness first, then brown it in a hot oven. The end result is more of the meat surface is browned, which we consider a plus.

There are several rewards for doing this. You skip the messy step of searing the meat on the stovetop and have no chance of burned fat leaving an off taste. You also create a flavorful broth in the pot, which means you don’t need to have stock on hand to braise.

Slow cooking followed by a blast in the oven creates tender meat with an appealing crust, all without searing. The flavor combination in this braise is reminiscent of porchetta, and leftovers make a great sandwich. For the best results, season the pork at least a day ahead, or up to three days (ours was in the rub for 23 hours.)

The meat from this recipe can be served for dinner as is, in chunks or slices along with its sauce and, say, some potatoes. But you can also shred the meat to use in tacos, as a filling for ravioli, or as a topping for risotto, polenta, or pasta along with some of the sauce.

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Fennel seed is coarsely ground in a mortar and pestle.

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Combine the garlic, zest, rosemary, salt, sage, fennel seeds, and pepper in a small bowl.

Ingredients

For the spice rub
  • 8 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbs. finely grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
  • 2 Tbs. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 Tbs. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. coarsely chopped fresh sage
  • 2 tsp. coarsely ground fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 3- to 31/2-lb. bone-in pork shoulder roast
For the braise
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 fennel bulb, chopped (about 2-2/3 cups), plus 1/2 cup fennel fronds for the braise and more for serving, if you like
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
  • 2 cups dry white wine

Directions

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Using a paring knife, trace the fat seams of the roast and around the bone to make a series of deep incisions on both sides, without completely separating the muscles.

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Coat the meat all over with the rub, massaging it between the muscles and on all sides of the roast.

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Put the pork in a Dutch oven or high-sided skillet that fits it snugly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours and up to 3 days.

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In order for room to add wine, and the chopped onion and fennel, we transferred the roast to a larger braising pot.

Season the pork
  1. Combine the garlic, zest, rosemary, salt, sage, fennel seeds, and pepper in a small bowl.
  2. Using a paring knife, trace the fat seams of the roast and around the bone to make a series of deep incisions on both sides, without completely separating the muscles. Score any external fat or skin and fat with a series of incisions 1 inch apart. Coat the meat all over with the rub, massaging it between the muscles and on all sides of the roast.
  3. Put the pork in a Dutch oven or high-sided skillet that fits it snugly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours and up to 3 days.

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Since our roast was nearly 4 1/2 pounds, we roasted it for 3 1/2 hours.

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After the roast has cooled slightly, the meat is pulled off of the bone in large chunks.

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The shredded meat is put back into the pot in one layer over the veggies.

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Brown one side in high heat for 20 minutes, then turn and brown the other side for another 20.

Braise the pork
  1. Remove the pork from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 1 to 1-1/2 hours before cooking.
  2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 300°F. Uncover the pork, and add the onion, fennel bulb and fronds, rosemary, bay leaf, and wine. Cover tightly and cook until the meat is fork-tender, 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
  3. Leaving the liquid and vegetables in the pot, transfer the meat to a rimmed baking sheet to cool slightly. Separate the meat into large chunks, and remove and discard all the fat.
  4. Discard the bay leaf. Skim the fat from the broth. Return the meat to the pot, and arrange the pieces in a single layer. (The dish can be prepared up to this point and refrigerated for 1 to 2 days. Reheat at 300°F, covered, for 30 minutes before proceeding with the recipe.)
  5. Raise the oven temperature to 425°F. Cook the pork, uncovered, flipping once, until the exposed surface is well browned, about 40 minutes. Serve with the vegetables and sauce, garnished with fennel fronds, if you like.

by Lynne Curry from Fine Cooking

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We served ours with roasted fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts.

FYI, while braising is similar to stewing, the two cooking methods do have some slight differences.

BOTH are moist heat, slow cooking methods that tenderize the beef and develop rich beef flavor.
BOTH start with less-tender beef cuts as this cooking method softens the strong muscle fibers and connective tissue, guaranteeing tender, moist, flavorful results.

The Difference?
Braising cooks large cuts of beef in enough liquid to partially cover the meat .
Stewing uses small, uniform pieces of beef pot roast or beef for stew meat that are totally immersed in liquid.

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