It's been so mild around here this winter that there hasn't been much opportunity to prepare the kind of warming, hearty dishes that make my least favorite season worth enduring.
So, while I won't say that I exactly enjoy the below-freezing temperatures we've been having for the past couple of days, I'm planning to take advantage of this cold snap by cooking a few dinners that wouldn't seem quite right in warmer weather.
High on my list is a pork loin roasted on a bed of sauerkraut, a favorite that I presented in a FoodLetter back in February 2002. Almost five years having passed, it seemed fair to bring it around again. Like most of my dishes, it's probably changed a bit over time.
A couple of points before we move on to the recipe: First, it's worth repeating my rant about the unnatural culinary perversion called "enhanced" pork, often sold under brand names like "Moist and Tender." This is industrial pork injected with a slimy solution of water, sodium phosphate and lord knows what. It's worth the effort to seek out natural pork, preferably processed by producers in your own region. The difference shows in both the texture and the taste.
I also urge looking for a pork loin with the bone in. Boneless roasts are everywhere these days, but I'm hard to persuade that cooking on the bone doesn't impart more flavor - and it may save you a buck or two.
I'd also mention that the German delicacy sauerkraut, sliced cabbage fermented with salt, may not be for everyone. I didn't care for it myself until I was well into adulthood. If you're willing to give it a try, though, this recipe offers an easy introduction. My procedure - rinsing the kraut well, then soaking it in a little quality beer and flavoring it with a sprinkle of caraway seeds - gets rid of most of the strong lactic sour flavor that makes kraut challenging to some. As a bonus, this process also makes the dish much more wine-friendly.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves four, or two with plenty of leftovers)
3-4 pound (1 1/4 to 1 3/4 kilo) pork loin, bone-in
2 or 3 large garlic cloves
16 ounces (480g) sauerkraut
1 teaspoon (5g) caraway seeds
1 cup (240 ml) hearty beer (see below for specific suggestions)
1. Preheat your oven to 425F (220C). While it's heating, slice the garlic cloves into slivers and stick them into slits all over the pork loin. Put the roast in a small roasting pan, fatty side up at first (there's no need for a rack). Roast, allowing about 30 minutes per pound, roughly two hours for a 4-pound roast.
2. While the pork is cooking, put the sauerkraut in a large bowl, rinse it in fresh water and drain well. Then stir in the caraway seeds, black pepper to taste, and the beer. Any hearty beer will do. I often use a German dark wheat beer, a personal favorite, but a good lager (Pilsner Urquell or equivalent), dark Porter or Stout will work - even Guinness - bearing in mind however that these beers are on the sweet side and will add a little sweetening to the dish). I would advise against using American pale ales (Sierra Nevada and its kin) because of their strong hops aromas; and at the risk of sounding like a beer snob, you don't want lightweight industrial lager in this dish.
3. After 30 minutes roasting time, turn the pork over, fat-side down. Then, after another 30 minutes or so, take the roast out of the oven and pour off any fat that has accumulated in the pan, taking care not to discard the tasty crunchy bits. Turn the pork again, pour the kraut-beer mixture all around it, and return it to the oven until the pork is done. It's OK, but not really necessary, to take it out once or twice and stir the kraut.
4. When the roast is done (see below), take it out of the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
<b>ABOUT PORK COOKING TEMPERATURE</b>: Most of us were brought up with firm rules about never under-cooking pork, and many respectable cookbooks insist that it be cooked to at least 160F (70C) internal temperature. Nowadays, though, even regulations as strict as the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law require only that pork be cooked to "a minimum internal temperature of at least 145F (65C)." A bit of rosy pink in the middle of a pork roast is perfectly safe, and it signals a juicier, more tender slice than you'll get with well-done pork. But it's still prudent to use a meat thermometer to ensure that it's not under-cooked.
<B>MATCHING WINE:</B> Let's be frank: Beer is the drink of choice here, and I don't mean lightweight industrial swill but hearty artisan brews across a range of styles, from quality lager to darker, malty-sweet beer. Indeed, why not drink some of the beer you cooked with? I'm particularly fond of German dark wheat beer (Dunkel Weiss) both in and alongside this dish. On the other hand, my trick of rinsing the sauerkraut and replacing the vinegar with sweet beer mellows it considerably, and with the pork, this dish is absolutely wine-friendly. Just about any Riesling will do, but I wouldn't say no to a Gewurztraminer or a fuller-bodied Alsatian Pinot Gris, or even a Pinot Noir.
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