Irish Pork Roast

IMG_3735Some nationalities get a lot more culinary attention than others. For instance, Italians are known so much for their pasta, most people would be willing to believe the Italians invented it. Mexican cuisine — thanks to some very fine restaurants and notable chefs — has been elevated from what was previously the equivalent of junk food to high-brow fare. If you start digging around for Irish food, though, you may find yourself coming up empty-handed — especially if you had something in mind other than Fish & Chips or Guinness-Soaked whatever.

It’s not that I feel there’s been some great culinary cover-up over the centuries. Ireland, even until recently, has always been a place in the midst of contention, war, and (more often than not) great poverty. So, it’s no wonder the Irish are known more for their music than their food. Irish ancestry almost guarantees you know more songs about starving or longing for a lost love than you do great Irish recipes! When the Irish began coming to America in droves during the potato famine, many of the women who were hired as domestics were criticized for their plain, lackluster meal planning. But that doesn’t mean that Moira can’t cook!

What we should associate with Irish cuisine is a well-blended mix of Irish and Irish-American tastes and ideas. In fact, the best recipes focus more on the use of Irish products and ingredients rather than recipes that originated on the island. My favorite reference is a book I stumbled upon in the library a couple years ago and quickly added to my personal library: The Irish Heritage Cookbook.

What I like best about this book is that it isn’t full of the wishy-washy, leprechaun-infested nonsense that litters streets and storefronts in the weeks preceding St. Patrick’s Day. It’s full of simple, flavorful, uniquely Irish dishes — many of which you probably will not have heard of or have seen on a menu in your local Irish Pub. Aside from the recipes, the book is a well-documented look at the different regions of Ireland, their history, and their distinctive, culinary influences.

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Today’s recipe, however, is one of my own Irish creations. It came from my many failed attempts at making even a decent pot roast in a slow cooker. It’s Irish because I’m Irish… and that’s reason enough!! James and I have served this at St. Patrick’s Day dinners (which are a big deal for us) and we also serve it occasionally during the year when a slow cooker kind of dinner would be handy.

A slow cooker is a life-saver — especially in the hottest parts of summer. But, the slow cooker presents a lot of challenges as far as taste and texture. Some recipes and slow cooker cookbooks would have you believe that a delicious, home-cooked meal is as easy as dumping a bunch of ingredients into the pot, turning it on, and then walking away. That’s a bunch o’ blarney, my friends! Give yourself a little more credit as a home cook! Cooking isn’t so easy that a mere machine can do it; it takes brains, taste buds, heart…

And so, if you’re going to make a roast in a slow cooker that’s worth eating, you’ll need to do some light prep work that will set you up for success and also add some finishing touches at the end that will make up for the flavors lost in the long, slow cooking time.

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One mistake a lot of home cooks make with a slow cooker is to add way too much cooking liquid. I suppose this stems from the eternal fear of burning dinner. Instead of having relaxing thoughts of dinner being cooked while you’re at work, you’re distracted with thoughts of renter’s insurance and — do I smell smoke??!

I assure you, the lid of the slow cooker will keep every bit of the liquid you add to the pot inside the pot. I didn’t know this when I got my first slow cooker. I plopped a nice pork roast into the pot, chopped up some onions and some other vegetables, threw in some herbs, filled the pot with chicken stock, and went on my merry way. When I came home, the house smelled great, but the good sensations ended at the nose. The meat was tough and tasteless. The vegetables had all but disintegrated.

IMG_0647What’d I do wrong? Several things, but the main thing was I added way more liquid than was necessary to cook the roast. When you add too much liquid, you just wind up with boiled meat instead of roasted or braised meat.

The other more notable mistake: I’d not taken the time to brown the roast before adding it to the pot. Browning the roast not only seals in the juices, but also presents an opportunity to add flavor (browned meat) and texture (the flour mixture helps seal in juices adds a flavorful punch to the meat, and elevates the juices from broth to gravy).

Let’s Talk Ingredients

Pork loin is not the same cut of meat as pork tenderloin, though they do both contain the words “pork” and “loin”. Both are lean cuts from the back, but a tenderloin is the small muscle nearest the spine while the “loin” is actually a slice cut from the overall larger back section (usually containing at least part of the tenderloin). Can you substitute pork tenderloin for pork loin? IMG_0648Yes, but the cooking time will likely be shorter and the overall shape of the cut is longer, so you may have to cut it in half to make it work for your slow cooker. Other than that, you probably won’t notice much of a difference, honestly.

Irish Whiskey has not grown on me as a beverage (unless you add a little bit to my coffee when I’m not looking), but I love it as a cooking ingredient. The brand we buy (Bushmill’s) has a marked sweetness that’s somewhere next to caramel and has a strong, deep flavor that infuses the nearly blank canvas of the pork.

I try to stay away from grocery shelf varieties of bouillon — they’re usually tremendously high in sodium and chock full of MSG and other bad guys. If you’ve ever noticed, the first ingredient on the box of a typical brand of chicken bouillon is usually salt, followed by sugar, followed by corn starch, followed by monosodium glutamate (MSG). Somewhere down on this list, you’ll eventually find the chicken, but it’s usually nowhere near the top.

Ordinarily, I prefer to use homemade chicken stock or some ready-made chicken stock from the soup aisle. But, in the case of this recipe, I really needed to punch up the flavor and add a touch more saltiness to the pot without adding more liquid. So, I had to resort to using bouillon. Better Than Bouillon is a brand carried in a lot of grocery store chains. The first ingredient: Chicken Meat and natural juices. I like how these folks think!! If you aren’t able to find this brand, just study the nutrition labels and pick whichever brand seems the best choice for you.

The short laundry list of herbs I’ve come up with for this dish was not added for the folksy cause of making this “green” and therefore Irish, but because the flavors go a long way to marrying the whiskey and the pork. I always crush dried herbs just before adding them to a dish (unless I’m told not to) because that little step really brings out the essential oils from the leaves and they go right into your dish.

Two spices you may not normally associate with meat (mace & nutmeg) also add a very uniquely Irish dimension to the flavor. If you aren’t able to find mace at your grocery store, just use 1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg instead of 1/8 teaspoon.

Irish Pork Roast
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 6

    2 – 2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast
    1/4 cup all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1-2 tablespoons canola oil
    3/4 cup Irish Whiskey (such as Bushmill’s)
    1/4 cup water
    1 1/2 teaspoons chicken bouillon (such as Better-Than-Bouillon)
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
    1/2 teaspoon dried sage, crushed
    1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon, crushed
    1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
    1/4 teaspoon ground mace
    1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1 medium onion, sliced into 1/4-inch crescents
    2-3 large garlic cloves, sliced thinly
    1 cup water
    1/2 teaspoon chicken bouillon
    1/4 cup all-purpose flour, approximately
    additional dried herbs, to taste

    Wash and pat dry the pork roast.

    Mix together the flour, salt, and black pepper; dust the roast all over with the flour mixture, reserve any remaining flour mixture.

    Over medium-high heat, heat the oil in a large skillet until it begins to shimmer. Add the roast and brown for 3-4 minutes per side on all sides.

    Meanwhile, to the slow cooker, add the whiskey, water, bouillon, dried herbs, mace, and nutmeg; stir to combine. Place the browned roast into the whiskey mixture. Dust the top of the roast with the remaining flour mixture. Add the onions and garlic to the slow cooker (allow some to stay on top of the roast).

    Cook on LOW for 5-6 hours or until roast is completely done. (Roast will be very tender, but still sliceable.)

    Remove roast and place on a platter to cool slightly. Remove the broth and juices from the slow cooker and place in a large saucepan over medium heat. In a small bowl, whisk together the water, bouillon, and flour. Add the flour mixture to the saucepan and bring to a low boil, stirring frequently. The mixture should thicken to a gravy consistency, but more flour may be necessary.

    You may correct the seasoning of the gravy by adding additional dried herbs: thme, sage, tarragon, and rosemary. (additional mace and nutmeg will not be necessary)

    While the gravy thickens, slice the roast into serving slices. Add the slices back to the slow cooker followed by the thickened gravy. Set the slow cooker to WARM and prepare the rest of the meal.

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There are lots of ideal side dishes that could accompany this roast: green peas, green beans, asparagus, a steamed or roasted vegetable medley, etc. For this particular occasion, I boiled some little new potatoes we bought at the farmer’s market and steamed some broccoli we’d also picked up, that day. But, if we’re in the mood to really celebrate our Irishness, I make sure to whip up some Colcannon potatoes (I’ll post a recipe for those in the future) and either Irish Brown Bread or Irish Soda Bread (recipes to follow all in good time) to go along with dinner.

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~ by Jason on July 2, 2010.

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