I often think that living in a small scruffy New York City apartment is akin to a pioneer life in a log cabin somewhere remote. Sure, the commute is easier, but the myriad quotidien affronts and man traps of a city existence certainly resemble the perils of life on the range.
This is never more true than in winter when leaving your apartment on an icy weekend is about as enticing as wading through thigh-deep snow while being pursued by a pack of ravening wolves. On the those days, when opening your front door results in a nasty swirl of city trash blowing across your threshold, there is nothing better to do than hole up and compensate for your super’s inattention to heating your building to legally established levels by braising something porky for however many hours it takes to chase the chill back, at least as far the verminious bathroom and its dripping condensation.
In this case, it was some seriously chunky pork neck bones – whose original owner must have been a champion of his breed – braised in a rosemary-scented Guinness broth. Typical of parts of the English Midlands where malty, hoppy ales abound and rare breed pigs grow fat on acorns, apples and whey, this is an ancient recipe and in it lie the origins of the famous baked bean dish that, when transposed to the rather more Puritanical colonies, banished the beer in favor of the sweetness of readily-available sugar coming up from the Caribbean, so becoming Boston baked beans. For those pioneers, the presence of such a stew on the table during a long Massachusetts winter must have been even more important than for us hard-pressed city dwellers today.
It is also very similar to a stew my Great Auntie Annie used to make when a crowd of family descended on her Solihull semi-detached so that the grandkids could spend the day riding around the garden on her husband’s 1/16th scale-model railway. It’s not clear to me how often Great Uncle Roger used his train when there were no young guests in the house, but I rather enjoy the idea that if you peeked through the box hedges of a quiet Birmingham suburb on any given weekday morning you might find a highly eccentric retiree rushing around his back yard on a toy train.
For we grandkids, all the excited shreaking and ducking under low hanging bushes as the train chugged around at a decent clip always left us red-faced and famished. My Great Aunt, the youngest of nine kids, knew instinctively how to cater for large groups of young ‘uns, stretching a cheaper cut of meat with white beans, potatoes, and iron-rich ale.
The quality of the final product relies greatly on the quality of the beer used in the braise. Lager is of no use here and light beer (if it is ever worth drinking) should be completely avoided. A fine malty and/or hoppy English-style brew that will give strength, depth and some sweetness to the stew is what you’re seeking. Auntie Annie used to use Flowers’ Original, a floral English ale (then) made in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. Similarly, pork necks with plenty of connective tissue and marrow are ideal because the former breaks down to thicken the sauce and latter makes a simple and rustic dish somehow luxurious.
Of course, unlike life in the country where heating is controlled by the number of logs on the fire, your apartment heating is bound to come on, clanking and groaning itself into overdrive, just as you plate this dish, forcing you to sweat through it, and all night long in your bed, in spite of the open window. The following morning, perhaps only to escape the dry, oppressive internal conditions, the grey, freezing city will magically appear more inviting and your struggle on the subway marginally less onerous.
Pork Neck Stew with Guinness, White Beans and Rosemary
(feeds 4 adults)
– 2lbs pork neck bones, cut up
– 1 large spanish onion, diced
– 3 medium or 2 large carrots, diced
– 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
– 2 large floury potatoes cut into large (1 inch) dice
– 1 large sprig rosemary
– 1x8oz can chopped tomatoes
– 1x8oz can cannellini or other small white bean
– 2x16oz cans Guinness
– 2-3 tablespoons vinegar
– (optional) 2 teaspoons brown sugar
– salt and black pepper
– (optional) 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
– in a large heavy bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil to medium high and brown neck bones in batches until all well browned on all sizes.
– remove neck bones and add onions and carrots. Salt lightly and saute until onions are translucent. Add garlic and (optional) hot pepper flakes.
– saute for a further two minutes before adding Guinness (or ale of your choice) and canned tomatoes).
– stir well and add rosemary. bringing it to a boil and simmering covered for one hour. (Alternatively, cover and bake in a 300F oven for an hour).
– when the hour is up, simmer uncovered for another hour or until liquid has reduced by half.
– Add potato and simmer until cooked through, about 25 minutes.
– Add canned beans, stir well and simmer for another five minutes.
– Taste, correct seasoning with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat. Add vinegar (and sugar depending on the sweetness of the beer).
– Serve with the same beer or a powerful red wine and plenty of crusty bread for sopping up the sauce.