My relationship with cooking pork is much like the oft-debated “When was our first date? Was it the night on Lover’s Overlook when we fondled each other with our clothes on? Or was it the first time you took me out for dinner at Johnny Rocket’s and paid for my meal?”
Excluding bacon, the first time I cooked pork was soon after I moved home from Japan. I was just starting my individual foray into the world of cooking techniques and, intrigued by the idea of braising, I decided to try braising a pork belly. I expected something similar to Chinese spare ribs or those delectable slices of chashu/charsiu you get in ramen.
I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t even find pork belly. I braised some part of a pig in coconut milk and spices, and I was so excited to try this homemade delicacy. I had braised! I had made pork! It would taste sooooo delicious!
It tasted like Death.
Let me clarify: that’s Death with a capital D. It didn’t necessarily taste bad, though at the time I figured I might never braise a pork whatever-it-was again (it’s been long enough, I should give it another chance.) It just tasted…dead. Not like blood, not like mold (cough cough, lamb, cough cough), not like rot. But like flesh, or like dirt. Eating those chunks of whatever part of the pig I bought, I had a striking sense that this thing had lived, had skin, muscle, and bones, and then had died.
For my vegan and vegetarian readers, I apologize for the graphic imagery. For the rest of you, I rarely have qualms about what I’m eating, because as much as I can, I try not to eat things that would give me qualms (or salmonella, but that’s an entirely different monster.)
So it wasn’t that I felt psychologically or spiritually that this thing was dead. It just tasted dead. Like Death.
If I had to find a better analogy, I would say it tasted a little like dirt.
At the time, I figured that pork usually tasted like dirt, forgetting that I had actually eaten plenty of un-dirt-y pork in my life already, and I decided to focus on chicken instead.
That brings me to the second date, the one where he actually took me out in public, to a restaurant, as a couple, and paid for my dinner: Easter, 2016.
Knowing that pork and lamb are the common Easter dishes, I decided I would go out on a newly-blossomed limb and try one or the other. I gathered together a packet of spring pork and lamb recipes, attempted a shepherd’s pie well before the holiday to prepare, decided with certainty that I would never cook lamb again (that tasted like an entirely different kind of Death), and then picked out a pork recipe for the big celebration: Brunello Cucinelli’s pork tenderloin with garlic and rosemary.
I had to make a few tweaks to the process because Signor Cucinelli is far more skilled than I was, but when we finally cut into the garlicky, floral pork roulade, it tasted…like Life?
That’s tacky. Sorry. It tasted like spring. No capital letters.
Everyone who tried it (my grandma and my parents) agreed that it needed to come around again, so throughout the last 2 years, I found times to try the recipe again, or to try other (simpler) pork recipes (one of which will feature on the blog later this year), or, feeling super creative, to adapt that recipe for the season.
And so that’s what we have: in December, feeling the cold of winter deep down in places where cold should not be, I went whole-hog (not literally) and changed up the recipe to suit the season: rosemary became fennel and star anise; the garlic became garlic, apples, walnuts, spices, and honey; the white wine for roasting became apple brandy; and the white wine pan sauce became brandied apples with butter, shallots, and spices.
Basically, it’s baklava but with pork instead of phyllo dough, and savory-sweet instead of only sweet.
And if you’re wondering why the blog is titled “Winter Stuffed Pork,” I’ll give you a hint: cranberries are for autumn, spinach is for summer, and spring remains to be determined.
pork loin roulade with apples and walnuts
Learn from my mistakes: pork loin and pork tenderloin are not at all the same thing. They both go by many names, but what you’re looking for in this recipe is pork loin, pork roast, or center loin. It’s a big chunk of meat, shaped like a block, with a nice layer of white fat on top. If it looks kind of like a certain genital thing, it’s a pork tenderloin and will turn out completely differently in this recipe (so don’t use that one.)
Also, get yourself a good digital meat thermometer. When roasting meat, it’s easy to overcook the meat, and with pork more than anything else, it’s easy to dry out the meat too much. Anything you cook will continue cooking after you remove it from its heat source, so you can consider removing the pork from the oven when it registers between 140 – 145* degrees Fahrenheit. Adding brandy and cider to the roasting pan/Dutch oven will help, and if you think your pork dried out just a bit too much, then go heavy on the brandied apples on top.
*For anyone who doesn’t have a lot of experience cooking meat, make sure you cook pork all the way through (it’s not the same as beef, which has a wider range of safe temperatures.)
for the pork roulade
8 garlic cloves
1/2 c walnuts (2 oz)
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp fennel seeds, divided
1 tsp anise seeds or ground anise
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1/2 c honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt plus more
1/2 of one large granny smith apple, or any other red apple (save the other half for the brandied apple topping)
1 2-pound boneless pork loin or tenderloin
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 c apple brandy
for the brandied apples
1 shallot, cut in half and sliced
1/2 of one large granny smith apple, or any other red apple
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c apple brandy
1/2 c apple cider
1/2 c honey
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp orange zest (zest from 1/4 of a large orange)
make the pork roulade
Preheat oven to 400°.
In a small food processor, pulse together the garlic cloves, walnuts, 1 Tbsp of the fennel seeds, a hefty pinch of salt, the spices, a splash of olive oil, and the honey, until coarse and chunky but not too pasty. Set aside until the pork is ready.
Place pork, fat side down, on a cutting board with the short end toward you. Holding a sharp knife parallel to board and about 1/2 inch up side of loin, make an incision along entire length of one side. Continue cutting, lifting meat with your free hand as you go, until loin is open and flat. Alternately, stand the pork up on one of the long sides so you’re cutting vertically, if that’s easier. This process is called butterflying.
Cover the butterflied pork with a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper, and using a meat mallet, pound out the meat until it becomes a little thinner and more even.
Spread garlic mixture over inside of loin and season with salt and pepper. Chop the half of the apple into small chunks, about 1 centimeter or 1/2″ wide. Place the apple bits evenly around the pork on top of the garlic mixture.
Roll pork tightly; using kitchen twine, tie at 1 inch intervals. Rub the outside of the roulade with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and the remaining 1 tsp of fennel seeds.
Place the pork, fat side up, in a large cast iron pot, skillet, or roasting pan. Add the apple brandy; roast pork until an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of loin registers 140 – 145*, about 1 hour (the pork will continue to cook a bit after you take it out of the oven.) *Start checking after about 40-45 minutes.
When the pork is done, remove it from the pot and set aside to rest. Pour the liquid and fat from the pot into a large measuring cup and scrape out any brown bits. If needed, bring the liquid and fat to a simmer before you pour it off so that you can deglaze the pot and scrape out any stubborn browned bits. Keep the mixture for the topping.
make the brandied apples
Place the emptied pot or a clean sauce pan on medium heat and add a splash of olive oil.
Chop the other half of the apple into small chunks just like the first half.
When the oil is heated, add the shallot slices and apple chunks and saute for 3-5 minutes until both start to brown a bit.
Add the minced garlic and saute for about a minute until you can smell the garlic.
Add the apple brandy and bring to a simmer, deglazing the pot again and reducing the liquid by half. Pour the roasting liquid and fat back into the pot and add the apple cider, then bring everything to a simmer. Add the honey, bring to a simmer/boil, and let it cook until it thickens slightly, about 10 minutes.
Add the butter and orange zest, and whisk until the butter melts. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Slice the roulade evenly (slices about 1″-2″ thick), and serve with the apple brandy sauce.