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Stewing About Weather

OK, it’s nearly summer and I’m still making stew.

What gives?

Hey, I wasn’t the one that ordered up last week’s crazy, uncharacteristic rainstorm in the Bay Area. Is it global warming? A freak occurrence that doesn’t mean anything? Or?

I like to think of it as Mother Nature’s way of telling me there’s still a little time left to enjoy one of my favorite methods of cooking — braising hearty vegetables with a tough, economical cut of meat in  one big ol’ pot on the stove or in the oven until they all turn tender and irresistible.

When I get the hankering for great stew, I often turn to “Braises and Stews” (Chronicle Books) by San Francisco food writer Tori Ritchie. It’s loaded with comforting dishes that are simple to prepare. Best yet, Ritchie’s renditions often take a little less time than other, standard versions found elsewhere.

Her “Harvest Pork Stew with Pumpkin” is a fall dish, to be sure. I changed it up to “Pork Stew with Kabocha” because I love the sweet, nutty, starchy Japanese squash enough to eat it practically year-round. You probably do, too, as it’s a standard in restaurant tempura.

By the way, a great tip to make cutting up a hard kabocha a little easier? Microwave the whole squash for a minute or so until the nearly impenetrable exterior softens enough so that you can get a cleaver or tip of a sharp, heavy-duty chef’s knife into it without much trouble.

For the stew, chunks of pork shoulder meat go into a Dutch oven with onion, canned tomatoes, paprika, kabocha cubes, corn kernels, and edamame. It  simmers for a little over 90 minutes on the stove, before a dash of apple cider vinegar is added to round out the flavors.

The natural starch from the kabocha thickens the braising liquid until it’s nearly the consistency of Japanese curry sauce. The pork comes out so tender. And the kabocha’s inherent sweetness is balanced by the subtle, bright tang from the vinegar.

I like sunshine as much as the next person. But if we end up with more rain in the Bay Area before summer arrives, I won’t fret. I’ll just take the opportunity to enjoy a whole lot  more stew.

Pork Stew with Kabocha

(Serves 6)

2 pounds pork stew (from shoulder), trimmed of excess fat

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons paprika

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

Vegetable oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) chopped tomatoes

1 bay leaf

1 kabocha or 1 small pumpkin or about 2 pounds butternut squash

1 cup frozen, thawed edamame or lima beans

1 cup fresh or frozen, thawed corn kernels

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Cut meat into 2-inch pieces and pat dry with paper towels (do not rinse). Spread meat on a large piece of waxed paper or the butcher paper it came in. In a small bowl, combine flour, paprika, a generous pinch of salt, and several grindings of pepper. Sprinkle flour mixture over meat, toss to coat, then shake meat in a colander to rid it of excess flour; do in batches if the colander is small.

Coat bottom of a 5- to 7-quart Dutch oven with a thin film of oil and set pot over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers, add enough meat to cover bottom in 1 layer. Cook, without stirring, until meat lifts easily from pot with tongs and is well browned on bottom, about 5 minutes. Turn and brown on the other side, about 5 minutes more. Transfer meat to a plate and continue with remaining meat, adding more oil to pot in between batches as needed.

When last batch of meat has been removed, add onion and 1/2 cup water to pot, stirring to released browned bits. Cook, stirring often, until onion is softened and liquid is almost evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, 1 cup water, and bay leaf and let come to a boil. Return meat and any accumulated juices to pot. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, with a large, heavy knife, cut the kabocha or pumpkin in half through stem end. Scoop out and discard seeds and strings. cut kabocha or pumpkin into chunks, then with a small sharp knife, pare off the peel. Cut flesh into 1-inch cubes.

After meat has cooked 1 hour, add kabocha or pumpkin to the pot. Let liquid come to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer 30 minutes more. Stir edamame or lima beans and corn into the pot, then cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked and meat is very tender, about 10 minutes more. Stir in vinegar. Turn off heat and let stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving, to settle flavors.

Adapted from “Braises and Stews” by Tori Ritchie

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