Thursday, October 21, 2010

Remembering Sheila: Porc Colombo

I was shocked and deeply saddened last year when news of Sheila Lukins' untimely death at the age of 66 was reported. I'm a huge fan of Sheila's-- she had a wonderfully original way with food and her recipes never disappoint. Although I have made one or two dishes from Sheila's cookbooks since her death in August of 2009, I've basically surrounded myself in a cocoon of numbness about having lost one of the most inspiring cooks of our times.

According to the NY Times, Sheila's recipes "intrigued, and then guided, the increasingly adventurous palates of New Yorkers." In my opinion, with her 1982 cookbook (written with gourmet shop partner Julee Rosso and Michael McLoughlin) The Silver Palate, Sheila changed the way Americans cook and eat as significantly as Julia Child changed the culinary landscape.

Everyone always said Sheila was the culinary genius behind the Silver Palate, while Julee Rosso was the marketing whiz. That may well have been the case, as I was very disappointed in Rosso's first solo turn, Great Good Food, published in 1993, the year their culinary partnership dissolved.

What I loved about Sheila's work, almost as much as her creativity in the kitchen, was her sense of whimsy and joie de vivre. She was an artist, and her books are filled with her hand-drawn lettering and illustrations, as well as humorous anecdotes. (A particularly funny story concerned the preparation of a roast suckling pig.) The Silver Palate was one of the few cookbooks I owned when I first started cooking. The warmth, whimsy, and sense of fun made me feel I was cooking with a friend in the kitchen.

So, this week when Boston Butt pork roast was on sale in my area, I wondered, what in the heck can you do with a Boston Butt? Then I remembered a pork stew recipe from Sheila's All Around the World cookbook.

Sheila's stew, Porc Colombo, is a rich, West Indian-style curry pork. I also then recalled the comical misadventures suffered by the was-band in procuring the main ingredient. (So I may not want to live with the guy, but he's always had a wonderful sense of humor.)

We had just moved here to Mecca after years of living in the culinary wasteland of the Ozarks. All kinds of ingredients I'd never been able to get were everywhere! I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Sheila's recipe required a mystery (to me) ingredient called boneless pork shoulder. I asked the was-band to please pick some up the next day.

Well, the was-band, being the highly frenetic organism that he is, decided to go to the grocery at 4 or 5 a.m. so as to get a head start on the day. Just being able to go the grocery at that hour was a novelty! Though not necessarily a good idea. The was-band dutifully scoped out the items in the butcher case, but could not find any pork shoulder. There was, however, a mysterious thing called Boston Butt.

He managed to track down the third shift butcher guy and explained that he was looking for pork shoulder. "What's the difference," he asked, "between Boston Butt and pork shoulder?" Meaning, of course, can you pretty much use them for similar purposes?

The butcher guy gave him a puzzled look and said, (I am not making this up) "Sir, it's from the other end of the animal."

O RLY?? I'd never have guessed.

Well, actually, it's not. Boston Butt is also cut from the pork shoulder, but from the blade side as opposed to the arm side. Fat lot that guy knew, eh? I'm not sure what it says about the state of butchering in America when two former vegetarians can figure out that amazing fact in 2 minutes with a web search engine. Don't they teach them that stuff in butcher school?

I figured Sheila's stew would be the perfect use for my super-bargain roast. Somehow, making that wonderful stew, with a main ingredient confusingly called "Boston Butt" seemed as fitting a tribute as any to Sheila. I'm sure she would have gotten a good chuckle out if it!

Here's to you, Sheila! You will always live in our hearts.

Sheila Lukins
November 18, 1942 – August 30, 2009

The recipe below is fabulous. It was inspired by a meal Sheila had at Le Colibri (The Hummingbird) restaurant on Martinique. Although traditionally made with goat, Sheila chose to use pork for her version. My roast, alas, was not boneless, so I had to bone and trim the pork. The stew has some great extra touches. The meat is marinated in fresh lime juice and garlic, and then rubbed with a sugar and spice mixture prior to browning.

The sugar & spice rub for the meat

Sheila includes a wonderful recipe for mixing your own Caribbean curry powder, which I highly recommend. DS hates "curry," but he loved this one. This stew is spicy and flavorful but not spicy-hot, though you could add more cayenne if you'd like to increase the heat. In my bowl was a sumptuous mixture of flavors with the rich, falling-apart tender pork, warm spices, and a medley of carrots, green pepper and sweet potatoes that perfectly played off the sweetness of the spice rub. Sheila suggests serving over rice, though we enjoyed ours plain.

Le Colibri Porc Colombo (Rich Curried Pork) by Sheila Lukins

3 lbs. boneless pork shoulder (or Boston Butt), cut into 2-in. pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. fresh lime juice
3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
2 T olive oil, or more if needed
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 T Colombo Curry Powder (recipe follows) or best-quality curry powder
6 c. chicken broth
6 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2 in. rounds
12 oz. sweet potato (about 1 1/2-- I just used 2), peeled and cut into 1-in. chunks
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1 in. pieces
2 bay leaves
2 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 t. dried thyme leaves
5-6 cups cooked white rice

1. Combine the pork, garlic and lime juice in a bowl. Cover and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
2. Combine the sugar, allspice, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Remove pork from the marinade and coat it with the sugar mixture, rubbing it into the meat well.
3. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Brown the pork in small batches, adding more oil if necessary. Remove the browned pork pieces to a bowl.
4. Add the onion to the pot and cook, stirring, over medium-low heat until wilted, 10 minutes. Sprinkle the curry powder over the onion and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add 2 T chicken broth if the onions begin to stick.
5. Return the pork to the pot along with the carrots, sweet potatoes, and green pepper. Add the bay leaves, thyme, and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer over medium heat until the pork is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the fresh thyme (if using) and bay leaves and serve with white rice.
Serves 6-8

Here's my stew, just before adding the chicken broth and simmering.
We were too hungry to take photos of the finished product, but if I get a chance, I'll add one later. (We have leftovers!)

Colombo Curry Powder by Sheila Lukins

1 T. ground coriander
1 t. ground fenugreek
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1/4 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. ground turmeric
1/4 t. ground cardamom
1/4 t. dry mustard
1/8 t. ground mace
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Makes just over 2 T.

This makes the perfect amount for the pork stew above, but if you plan to store it, transfer to an airtight jar and store in a cool dry place.

I actually had all the ingredients for the curry powder on hand, except the ground ginger, which I had run out of and needed to get anyway. I only had whole fenugreek seeds, but it took just a few seconds to grind them in my electric spice grinder (it's really a coffee grinder, but I don't drink coffee). I am embarrassed to admit this, but I bought the seeds for an Indian food fest shortly after we moved here. Evidently I've got a lifetime supply of fenugreek seeds. I love fenugreek leaves (aka Kasoori Methi) and the seeds taste pretty similar-- sort of reminds me of fresh basil.

And to all those movers over the years who have scoffed at me for tenderly packing up my spice collection, who's laughin' now??

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