At this point in the culinary year, I often stare blankly into my box of CSA farm veggies, hoping that they will speak to me. Praying that their encrusted, monochromatic jackets of soil will somehow peel magically away, revealing glistening ideas as to what to create with them, like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage.
More often than not, I am left disparate and alone; the vegetables have yet to inform me of their intentions. And so, like most moms looking for a quick fix meal before homework and conferences and emails, I turn to pasta and sauce. Not exactly the nutrition I was hoping for, and certainly not utilizing all the hard work my farmers have put out for my benefit!
Last night was no different; I stood and stared at turnips, potatoes, and carrots – the Big Winter Trio. It was raining and chilly outside, weather that cries out for a stew. It was also early enough, about 4:30, so I had time to hit up a simple one-pot meal. But, I am SO tired of what I have dubbed the “CSA Stew” – a hodge-podge of mixed, chopped root vegetables, bound together with brown gravy and usually beef, over noodles. Even the German in me was protesting! What to do…?
A quick scour of the pantry turned up a random can of unsweetened coconut milk, and I managed to find some ginger chunks in my freezer. Garlic is a staple, okay, and a tiny chunk of pork belly came out from the depths of the freezer as well…my wheels churning, I decided it was time for Thai Tuesday!
While Thai food is notable for its bright, tropical flavorings and lots of seafood, they also consume a great amount of pork, and in the northern part of the country, it is not unusual to see a hearty one-pot meal. Inspiration in hand, I seasoned the pork with salt and pepper. A bit of oil sizzling, I threw into the Dutch oven a small sliced onion, a few chopped garlic cloves, chunks of (still frozen) ginger root, and a couple of my dried chiles from the summer. After a minute, pork went in for a brief sear on each side, then chicken stock, the can of coconut milk, and a generous handful of lemon thyme (which, fortunately, I had covered with mulch before winter, in a pot on my patio. Lemon thyme contains the same volatile oils as lemongrass and kaffir lime, two Thai aromatic staples, and is a fine substitute in the Northeast U.S.). Bring to a boil, drop to a simmer, cover on…and away it went, for a good two and a half hours on the lowest heat, no crockpot required!
We left for our parent-teacher conference, and upon our return the fragrance of coconut and citrus wafted throughout the house. I chopped some white turnip and potatoes, and added them to the simmering liquid; after about 8 minutes, they were perfectly fork-tender. Shredding the pork and adding it back made every bite a perfect medley of meat, veggie and sauce; it was rib-sticking, fragrant, foreign yet so familiar, and precisely what this rainy February evening called for.
Christine’s Thai Inspired Pork Belly Stew
(serves 4 generously!)
1 (1 lb.) piece pork belly, skin off
1 small onion, sliced thinly
3 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 inch piece ginger, cut in thick slices (no need to peel)
1-2 whole dried red chilies (optional, for heat; add more if you like it hot!)
2 c. chicken stock (water is fine, if you have no stock on hand)
1 can unsweetened coconut milk*
1 handful lemon thyme sprigs**
2 large turnips, peeled, cut in ½ inch cubes
2 large all-purpose potatoes, cut in ½ inch cubes
1 tbsp. fish sauce*
1 tbsp. lime juice or coconut palm vinegar*
1 tsp. oyster sauce*
cooked brown rice, for serving
- Season the pork belly generously with salt and ground black pepper; set aside.
- In a Dutch oven, heat about 1 tbsp. olive oil or bacon fat on medium heat. Add onion, garlic, chilies and ginger, stirring, for 1 minute (do not brown the vegetables!)
- Add pork belly, and sear until a light brown crust forms on each side, about 2 minutes per side. Add chicken stock, coconut milk, and thyme sprigs. With the pork fat side up, bring to a boil, then drop to the lowest simmer and cover.
- Cook undisturbed for 2-3 hours (check at 2 hours for tenderness; the pork should be falling apart).
- When pork is meltingly tender, carefully remove from the pot and set aside. Add the turnip and potato, bring to a rapid simmer, and cook until fork tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Pour liquid from the pot into a gravy separator, to remove excess fat. Return the thick sauce to the pot. Remove fat from pork belly, shred the meat, and stir into the vegetables and sauce.
- Season to taste with fish sauce, lime juice or vinegar, and oyster sauce. Serve at once, hot, over cooked brown rice.
This recipe can be done in a crock pot as well – Add all ingredients through lemon thyme into crock and place on lowest setting for 5 hours. Proceed from Step 5 above to finish the meal.
*Coconut milk, fish sauce, palm vinegar, and oyster sauce are common seasoning staples in the Asian kitchen, mush as we use ketchup or Tabasco. They can be inexpensively found at Asian markets or the ethnic section of all grocery stores, and last indefinitely, so I consider them a good pantry flavor investment!
**Lemon thyme can be hard to find in stores, so I recommend growing your own! Plant starters can be found in any nursery department, and the attractive spreading herb grows easily, and is hardy enough to stand up to winter’s cold bite. Lasts a lifetime! If you don’t have, you may use 1 stalk crushed lemongrass and 1 kaffir lime leaf in lieu of lemon thyme for this recipe (also found in Asian groceries).