Slow-Cooked Pork with Cider and a Wild Salsa Verde.
I am often to be found wandering the woods and valleys of North Somerset, in all seasons and all weathers. I love the summer, with its warm lengthy days and lush green landscapes, the autumn is a feast of fungi, spring is full of life and hedgerow morsels, but what of winter? Winter is freezing. Winter is dark days and shivers. Winter is dead. Except it isn’t.
Go and Explore Your Alice-in-Wonderland Local Forest in January
There is something special and almost other-worldly about a forest in January. As you tramp the frosty paths and muddy tracks, there is a barely discernible hum, a vibration, like the whole world is under the surface of a frozen pond, holding its breath and shaking and waiting. If you stop and listen, you can hear it, and feel it in the soles of your double-socked feet. There is also plenty to find and to forage. Winter salads, herbs, velvet shank mushrooms, and the wild garlic is already starting to poke its slim green fingers at the sky, beckoning in the spring. It’s worth wrapping up warm, popping a dram of something strong in a flask, and getting out there.
It’s very useful, as a forager, to visit and revisit your favourite spots at all times of the year. You’ll familiarise yourself with all the changes the seasons bring, and get used to the life cycles of the plants and fungi you have discovered. You’ll begin to be able to predict when things will be ready, and you’ll get to know the land, better and better as the year progresses.
This recipe is a winter warmer, with slow-cooked pork and root vegetables singing of winter, whilst the wild salsa verde whispers of spring and things to come. They go together beautifully.
Firstly a little about the wild plants I have used in the salsa.
Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa
This sharp, tangy leaf can be found all year. It grows in fields and woodland clearings, sometimes in large amounts. The leaves are dark green, a little plump, and arrow shaped, with sharply pointed lobes (never rounded). The taste is lemony and refreshing, due to its oxalic acid content. Oxalic acid is toxic, and although it is present in tiny amounts in sorrel it is best to bear this in mind before consuming handfuls of the stuff. A little will do you no harm, a lot will. It pairs well with fish (as a sauce), but you can use it anywhere you want to add some acidity to a dish.
Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
I tried this for the first time last year, and it instantly cemented its place on my list of essential wild ingredients. It’s generally around from March onwards, but I have found young shoots as early as mid-January (last week, in fact!). You must be careful, as it is a member of the carrot family which includes some of the most poisonous plants about, and it also has a big brother, the giant hogweed, whose sap causes nasty burns. Usually you can find last years dried out flower stems among the new plants, and if any are taller than around one metre it is best to leave it alone. The young shoots, before the leaf uncurls, are what you are after. These can be steamed or boiled, and have an extraordinary flavour somewhat akin to parsley with a hint of sweetness. John Wright in his River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook has a recipe for hogweed tempura, which I can recommend.
Alexanders Smyrnium olustratum
We have spoken of this plant before. Abundant in the winter, sweet and unique in flavour, it makes a great vegetable when steamed. It can be mistaken for hemlock water-dropwort, a seriously poisonous species, so be careful!
Wild Garlic Allium ursinum
The forager’s favourite. I love this plant, as it can be harvested and used throughout its life. Leaves, flowers, seeds and roots are all edible (although you need the landowners permission to uproot any plant), and taste of garlic with a hint of chives. It is great in soups and stews, and wild garlic pesto is a must. The flowers add a pungent beauty to any salad. I’ve got about a million recipes for this plant, some of which I’ll share with you later in the year. Some I shall not, as they are secret.
As ever, be careful when foraging, but especially so when picking young plants. Often some of the distinguishing characteristics are yet to develop, and the risk of misidentification is increased. If in doubt, don’t eat it!
Right. To the nitty-gritty.
Wild Salsa Verde
½ a handful of sorrel
½ a handful of alexanders, tough stems removed
½ a handful of young hogweed shoots
¼ handful of wild garlic
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of cider vinegar
2 teaspoons of capers (I used nasturtium seeds that I pickled last year, which gave a nice peppery punch, but capers are equally good)
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Roll the foraged plants into a cigar shape together and finely chop. Chopping herbs together seems to meld all the flavours, and smells delightful as you are doing so. Finely chop the anchovy and the capers. Add, along with the herbs, to a mixing bowl. Mix in the rest of the ingredients, season, and set aside for a good twenty minutes to allow all the flavours to infuse. I find it best to make this as soon as you return home from your foraging expedition, as the plants will lose some of their flavour if left in the fridge for too long (here speaks the voice of sad experience).
Slow-cooked Pork with Cider and Wild Salsa Verde
500g diced free range pork shoulder
2 medium carrots, peeled and roughly diced
2 medium parsnips, peeled and roughly diced
½ a leek, washed and cut into round slices
6 – 8 shallots, peeled and halved
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, roughly chopped
3 bay leaves
A sprig of thyme
A sprig of rosemary
1 handful of kale, washed and finely shredded (remove the tough stalk from the leaf)
500ml (hot) organic or free range chicken stock
500ml still, medium cider
100g plain flour
Salt and pepper
In a heavy bottomed oven-proof casserole dish, melt the butter until it is starting to brown and sizzle. Add the shallots, leeks and garlic, and fry until starting to colour. Remove from the pan and set aside. If the pan has dried out, add another knob of butter or a slug of olive oil. Add the root vegetables and cook until lightly browned. Remove and set aside. Season the flour with salt and pepper and use to coat the pork. Add to the pan with more butter or oil if needed (more butter is always a good thing, I find). Cook until starting to colour and then remove and set aside. Deglaze the pan by adding a splash of cider, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any lovely crusty flavour bits. Replace all the ingredients in the pan, along with the bay leaves and thyme and rosemary (tied into a bunch using clean string). Pour over the rest of the cider and the stock, and give the whole thing a good stir. Put the lid on the casserole dish and place in a pre-heated oven at 180C. Cook for 2 hours, checking and stirring every thirty minutes or so. When the pork is falling apart, remove the dish from the oven, remove the bay leaves, thyme and rosemary, check the seasoning, and add the kale. Let the whole thing sit for ten minutes to cool a little (this allows the kale to cook through but remain crunchy), then ladle onto warm plates. Spoon over a little of the salsa verde and serve with crusty bread. This is, without doubt, my current favourite winter dish (this will change, as I am fickle).
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