The secondo or main entree of my Italian dinner party last Saturday was Spezzatino di Maiale, an Italian pork stew that I simply adore and have made many times. The recipe is from Kathleen Sloan’s Rustic Italian Cooking. I still remember the first time I made this stew, and that first taste where I was struck by the bright flavours from the rosemary, parsley and red wine and the richness from the falling-apart-tender pork and pancetta. The recipe also calls for the vegetables to be finely chopped, which I think adds an extra element of refinement to the dish.
Sometimes I prepare this stew the day ahead and refrigerate it overnight, for reheating on the day of the dinner party. After all, like all good stews, it’s better on the second day and this approach certainly reduces your workload on the day of your dinner party. But, working all day Friday and making this stew in the evening doesn’t always fit into my schedule. This time, I elected to make the stew first thing Saturday morning and cook it all day in the slow cooker. Not only did that leave the kitchen clear for the baking and other cooking I needed to do, but this method ensured that the stew’s tantalizing aroma fragranced the entire house. Guests arriving remarked that they could smell it on the front porch. What a great way to whet your company’s appetite for the feast you’ve prepared for them!
As a side dish, or contorno, a quick and easy white bean mash was just the ticket. With very little effort, this is a healthy alternative to potatoes. I’ve made this before with white kidney beans, but this time I was able to find canned canellini beans at London’s Covent Garden Market for a truer Italian touch. As you might imagine, these beans need a hefty flavour boost, which you can accomplish through your choice of herbs and aromatics. I used garlic, rosemary (from my herb garden, where it’s still going strong), shallot, parsley and lemon zest, along with salt and pepper. One of the tricks to this dish is to partially mash it, so there are whole beans to add more character. I made the beans just before the guests were to arrive. Okay, that was the plan, but I was still at it when the first two people arrived, so we all chatted in the kitchen while I finished and then popped the lidded pot into a warm oven to hold until dinner.
For serving, I put a good heaping of the beans toward the backs of the plates, then mounded the stew against the front of the mash, letting the richly reddish-brown juices and colourful vegetables pool around. Our guests praised this course, which was the centrepiece of the meal. Again, because we were having a multi-course meal, I kept the servings to a moderate size, offering everyone the option of seconds if they chose.
The Culinary Enthusiast raved about the stew, and we had enough left over to see us through several more meals, each time the flavours more pronounced than the last. I have the feeling this one is going to be on the request list now.
Pork Stew: Spezzatino di Maiale
Serves 4 to 6. This is one of my all-time favourite recipes and I’m presenting it with only slight variation as written in Kathleen Sloan’s Rustic Italian Cooking. I always buy a pork loin roast for this stew, and for another time-saving and clean-up reducing strategy I ask the butcher to cut it into chunks for me. For the wine, I use whatever Italian red I’ve bought to serve with dinner.
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 lbs lean stewing pork, cut into 2-inch (5 cm) chunks
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
- 2 carrots, scraped and finely chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3 tbsp chopped pancetta
- 2 branches fresh rosemary, leaves only, finely chopped
- 1 cup robust dry red wine
- 1/2 cup beef stock
- 1-1/2 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, with juice (I used Romas that I froze in September)
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional) (I like to use a minced red chile pepper instead)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a Dutch oven or large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add pork and, in batches if necessary, brown on all sides, transferring to a plate or bowl when done.
Add garlic, onion, celery, carrots, parsley, pancetta, rosemary and, if necessary, another 1 tbsp (15 ml) of olive oil; sauté for about 5 minutes.
Return pork to the pan and mix to combine well with the vegetables and herbs. Add red wine; cook for about 5 minutes. Add stock and cook for another 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes and their juice, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper; stir and bring to a gentle boil. Immediately reduce heat and simmer stew until sauce is thickened and meat is tender, about 1-1/2 hours.
Note: I prefer a slightly thicker sauce, so near the end of the cooking time I add a slurry of a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch briskly stirred to dissolve in cold water. Stir well and turn up the heat for a couple of minutes to thicken the sauce.
White Bean Mash
Serves 6. If you want to make in advance, cover the pot and hold in a low (200º F) oven until serving time. This is how I made this dish on Saturday night, but it’s more a suggestion than a recipe.
Heat a good amount (several tablespoons) of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add two minced cloves of garlic, a finely chopped shallot and the finely minced leaves from one branch of rosemary. Warm through in the oil, not letting the garlic or shallot brown. Add two 27-oz (796 ml) cans of drained and rinsed canellini beans and stir well. When the beans have warmed, mash them roughly, leaving some whole. If necessary, stir in a bit of water to loosen the mixture. Add a handful of flat-leaf parsley finely chopped, a grating of lemon zest, and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir well, then taste and adjust the seasonings. At this point you can serve the beans, or cover the pot and hold in a warm oven for up to an hour or two.