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Stew Sensation

This is without a doubt one of the best stews ever.

Since it was published four years ago in Gourmet magazine, I’ve made this “Braised Pork with Orange and Fennel” at least annually, if not twice or thrice a winter. It’s the one stew I can’t wait to make once the weather turns the least bit chilly.

Moreover, it’s the stew that created a sensation when I wrote about it a year or so ago in the San Jose Mercury News Food section. Readers wrote to tell me how much they loved the flavors of orange zest, fresh ginger, soy sauce, cinnamon, and anise seeds. A friend even recalled that women friends at her gym were all gabbing non-stop about how divine the dish was.

Who can blame them? The pork shoulder cubes cook up tender alongside slices of fennel in a sauce that’s hauntingly part Asian and part Italian. Serve it over plain steamed rice or, as I do, over soft, spoonable polenta cooked with plenty of Parmigiana.

The presentation is pure rustic comfort. The taste is a savory sensation. It’s homey enough for family; chic enough for company. And it’s a straightforward recipe that cooks up mostly unattended, so it can be easily whipped together even on a weeknight if you find yourself with a little extra time on your hands.

I’ve already made it once this winter. Try it, and there’s no doubt, you’ll be making it again and again, too.

Braised Pork with Orange and Fennel

(serves 6)

1 (1 1/2-inch piece) cinnamon stick

1/2 teaspoon anise seeds

3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, smashed

4 (1/2-inch-thick) slices peeled fresh ginger, smashed

2 (4-by-1-inch) strips fresh orange zest (or if you like orange as I do, use the zest from one entire orange)

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup Chinese rice wine or medium-dry sherry

2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

3 fennel bulbs, stalks cut off and discarded, then bulbs sliced lengthwise 1/4-inch thick

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro


Put oven rack in lower third of oven, and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap cinnamon stick and anise seeds in a small square of cheesecloth and tie bundle closed with string. Pat pork dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a deep 6- to 8-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown pork in 3 batches, turning, about 4 minutes per batch. Transfer to a bowl as browned.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from pot and cook onion and garlic over moderate heat, stirring until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add ginger, zest, and sugar, and cook, stirring 1 minute. Stir in soy sauce, rice wine, broth, pork with any accumulated juices, and cheesecloth bag. Braise mixture, covered, in oven 1 hour.

Stir in fennel and braise, covered, in oven until fennel is very tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Discard cheesecloth bag, then season pork mixture with salt and pepper, and stir in cilantro.

Note: Braised pork and fennel (without cilantro) can be made 1 day ahead and cooked completely, uncovered, then chilled, covered. Reheat on top of stove, then stir in cilantro. The stew also freezes well.

From Gourmet, January 2004