The answering machine was blinking. We had three hang-ups in a row and a message from a mystery lady saying “Phyllis? You there? Call me. There’s been a…development.”
Outside, the New England landscape was stripped down to her shabby underthings – frumpy without a pretty blanket of snow to dress up her figure. There have been no good blizzards to speak of this winter, unless you count the October freak that snuffed out power for weeks and splintered our lovely tulip magnolia in half–the tree that explodes in pink blossoms every year for Ben’s birthday.
The first thing we do, always, is put the kettle on. The bags come in. The children stumble inside and squeal in horror at how frigid the house is and jostle for a spot on the sheepskin throw. It’s a tiny house, though, so it heats up quickly, the little woodstove chugging away to warm the floors and corners and bedsheets. That cast iron stove so terrified us when the girls were wobbling, grasping toddlers, but it is now our salvation, and once the logs start popping inside, we know the place is ours again.
But the process is never complete, the house not fully alive, until a good satisfying meal gets cooked in the big, blue pot that guards the stove. A real, wintry one. Our choice this time around: pork paprika. It’s my mom’s bachelorette dish, the one that emerged with her out of Richmond, VA in the late 60's and rose above a sea of cream of mushroom soup-based standards that long ago fell by the wayside. She can’t even remember where the recipe came from, except that the original was intended for veal and she changed it somewhere along the line. One time she proudly cooked this dish for her post-college roommate, Betty, whose taste buds she accidentally assaulted when she shook in the better part of a jar of cayenne pepper…instead of the intended paprika. It was the first and last time she ever made that mistake.
About ten years ago, the first time Mom cooked pork paprika for Ben, she hooked him and there was no going back. Now, there's no way she can not cook it for us when we visit them in Colorado in winter, especially after a cold and vigorous day outside skiing, when our legs are jello and our fingers and toes are still burning back to life. And so this year, when it looked like the vacation was about to pass without her having made it, Ben politely pointed out that fact to her. And so, to start 2012 off right, we enjoyed big, heaping bowls over noodles for New Year's day dinner.
And then we reprised it a week later for Ben's parents, who were up for the day. I browned and paprika-ed and simmered it on our stove, and the little house sighed with happiness. We let the flavors find each other in the blue pot while we went out for a Sunday hike. October's storm had yanked down trees and peeled off entire sections of hillside beside the trail, but the hike along Bee Brook was still lovely and bracing, and bowls of pork paprika made a warm, spicy ending to a satisfying day. Afterwards, as we sat around the table and listened to the wood popping in the stove, there was no denying that the last of the cobwebs had been dusted away and the blue house was home once more.
Notes on this recipe: my mom never measures when making this, and come to think of it, nor do I. I did my best to get the amounts down, but still: think of this as a guideline. You might want more mushrooms, or fewer. You might decide chopped peppers are in order. All paprikas are not created equal, so play with amounts of hot vs. sweet and taste and adjust often (I strive for a subtle degree of heat but mostly lots of brightness). This, I think, is key when making any kind of savory dish. Also, the meat: my mom usually uses pork loin, since it's lean and readily available, but I used shoulder and – sorry mom – it was tastier. Shoulder is always my go-to cut for braises and stews, as it has more texture, flavor, and marbling. This one came from the Arcadian Pastures stand at the Grand Army Plaza greenmarket in Brooklyn. The mushrooms–earthy creminis–came from Madura farms. I used a pork stock I had made from the pig and frozen, but you could also use chicken stock or even water. The secret ingredient, though, is a few hours' rest time–I highly recommend this step if you can find the time…or better yet, give it a night's rest and look forward to it the next day.
Serves at least 4
- 2 lbs. pork shoulder, cut into 1-2 inch cubes and trimmed of excess fat
- 1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2-3 TBS sweet (not smoked) paprika
- 1-2 TBS hot paprika
- Salt, pepper
- Vegetable oil, such as canola
- 1 TBS butter
- 4 medium onions, diced into smallish pieces
- 1 lb. white or cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced thin (about 1/8”)
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 pint pork or chicken stock
- 1 cup tomato sauce (or a combination of diced tomatoes and tomato paste)
- 2 TBS crème fraîche or sour cream (approx. – adjust to taste)
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, some salt and pepper, some of the sweet paprika, and some of the hot paprika. Toss pork into flour mixture to coat each piece. Heat a dutch oven (such as le Creuset) or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high flame, add oil, and patiently brown the meat in batches on all sides, taking care not to crowd pieces in pan or burn the outside of the meat. Transfer to a clean plate. When all meat has been browned, splash wine into the pot to deglaze. Add stock and simmer for a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, in another skillet, heat butter and sweat the onions until translucent. Add mushrooms and shake in some more paprika (this will depend on your taste and the strength of the paprika, but unless you like it super spicy, count on about half as much hot as sweet, and taste as you cook. You can always add more as you go) and a little salt, and sauté for a few minutes. The vegetables will, at some point, release their liquid. At this point, turn the heat up a notch until the liquid has mostly evaporated and mushrooms have begun to brown a touch. At this point, remove pan from the heat. Add the meat back to the pot with the liquid, add tomato sauce, and turn the heat up until it boils. Add a bit of water if needed to cover meat in liquid. Turn down heat and allow to simmer for about 45 minutes, then add the vegetables. You can splash a bit of water in the pan and scrape all that sautéed goodness into the pot with the meat.
Cook on a low simmer, stirring occasionally, for another hour or so. Taste and add more paprika if needed; mixture should be a lovely russet at this point. If liquid seems to be getting too low, splash in a bit more water. It’s done when meat is tender and yielding. Ideally, you will make this the night before and re-heat the next day. The flavors really come together this way. But, even if you can let it rest an hour or two and re-heat before serving, you'll see the difference. Taste for seasoning at the end, add more salt, pepper, and paprika if you need to, and finally stir in a generous dollop of crème fraîche before serving – this will round out any sharp edges and take the deliciousness to a whole new level. Serve over egg noodles.