Nowadays, hard cider, an alcoholic beverage, shows up on menus everywhere. Made from the fermented juice of tart apples (and/or other fruit), this pleasingly acidic, slightly bubbly beverage pairs beautifully with food and proves easy sipping. This fall, I’m incorporating hard cider into my cocktail hour and my cooking.
Reportedly cider sales have grown by 60 percent in the past five years, but I’m not trying to be trendy. I drank my first glass of hard cider decades ago in a pub while backpacking though the UK. A charming bartender talked me into a glass. Served barely chilled, it was dry, delicious and less filling than beer. I’ve enjoyed cider ever since when traveling in England, France and parts of Spain where it’s been a popular beverage for centuries.
As it once was on this side of the Atlantic. Cider, historians tell us, was the drink of choice for Pilgrims because it was safer than bacteria-laden water. After Prohibition, finding hard cider in this country proved tricky; it seems we preferred beer.
Slowly, cider has been regaining recognition in this country. In 1981, cookbook author and television host Jacques Pepin, shared his method for making cider in a November issue of the Chicago Tribune’s food section. I was happy to learn the method but never made my own. When I wanted apple flavor in a dish, I splashed in a bit of Calvados or applejack.
Today, the choice of ciders at my local store impresses. I can select various sweetness levels and flavor variations. I seek out imported ciders or small-batch artisanal ciders, made from local apples, such as Virtue Cider, for drinking. For cooking, a moderately priced, dry cider, such as Stella Artois Cidre, Strongbow Gold Apple Hard Cider or Crispin Hard Cider, infuse food with acidity and a pleasant apple flavor and aroma.
Braising browned lamb or pork shoulder in cider renders the meat tender with just a touch of sweetness. I add crisp apples, such as Honeycrisp, Granny Smith and Braeburns here, sweet red peppers and aromatic rosemary plus white beans for a creamy texture. After a couple of hours in the oven, the combination yields a creamy, golden-hued fall stew.
Lamb stew, cut from the leg or shoulder yields a fuller-flavored, less rich stew than pork. If using lamb, you’ll likely need to order it in advance from most supermarkets. Pork shoulder proves a less pricey option that pairs beautifully with the cider and apples.
For braising stews, I prefer the gentle cooking and pan juice concentration that happens with a tightly covered heavy pan or Dutch oven in a moderately hot oven. For convenience, you can make the recipe in a slow-cooker set to low. Because there is little to no evaporation in the slow-cooker, the stew may be quite liquidy; simply spoon the stew liquid into a pan set over high heat and boil hard to reduce it into a thicker consistency.
Serve the stew in warmed shallow bowls with a side of mashed potatoes seasoned with sour cream, apples and garlic. Pass bottles of cold, crisp cider, and make a toast: Everything old is new again.
CIDER-BRAISED STEW WITH RED PEPPER AND WHITE BEANS
Makes: 8 to 10 servings
Stews always taste even better the next day, so I routinely make a large batch. If desired, this recipe can be cut in half; be sure to use a smaller Dutch oven so the liquid covers the meat during the cooking.
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder or lamb stew (from shoulder or leg), cut into 1 inch pieces
⅓ cup flour
Salt, freshly ground pepper
3 to 5 tablespoons safflower or expeller-pressed canola oil
1 large sweet onion, cut into ½-inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 large red bell pepper, cored, cut into 1-inch dice (about 1 ½ cups)
2 ribs celery, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
2 large crisp-tart apples (total 12 ounces), peeled, cored, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 2 ½ cups
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bottle (12 ounces) dry sparkling cider
3 to 4 sprigs each: fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano (or ½ teaspoon each dried)
½ cup chicken broth
2 cans (14.5 ounces each) white cannellini beans, drained
Chopped fresh parsley and chives for garnish
Sour cream and apple mashed potatoes, see recipe
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Pat pork or lamb pieces dry. Mix flour, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper in a zip-close food bag. Add a few pieces of the meat at a time; shake to coat well. Transfer to a plate while you coat the rest of the pieces.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy-bottomed 6-quart Dutch oven set over medium heat. Add about one third of the flour-coated meat to the pan in a single, uncrowded layer. Cook, turning occasionally, until nicely browned on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat to brown all the meat, adding oil as needed.
3. Stir onion, red bell pepper and celery into pan drippings. Cook and stir, 3 minutes. Stir in apples, garlic and cider, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Boil gently to reduce the liquid slightly, about 5 minutes.
4. Return the browned meat to the pot. Stir in the herbs and chicken broth. Heat to a boil. Cover the pan tightly, and place it in the oven. Bake, stirring once or twice, until the meat is fork-tender, about 1½ hours.
5. Remove herb sprigs. Stir in beans. Heat to a simmer over medium heat. Taste for salt, adding more as needed (usually ½ teaspoon).
6. Serve sprinkled with fresh herbs and accompanied by the potatoes.
Per serving (for 10): 393 calories, 19 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 83 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 27 g protein, 638 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Slow-cooker variation: Prepare the recipe through step 3. Put apple mixture, browned meat, herbs and chicken broth into a slow-cooker. Set the slow-cooker to low and cook covered until meat is nearly tender, 4 to 6 hours. If pan juices are too thin, pour them off into a saucepan and boil hard to reduce them to the consistency of cream soup. Then finish the recipe as directed in step 5.
SOUR CREAM AND APPLE MASHED POTATOES
Makes: 8 servings
If working in advance, cover the finished, hot mashed potatoes with plastic wrap set directly on the surface and then top with the lid of the pan. The potatoes will hold like this, off the heat, for about 30 minutes until serving time.
2½ pounds golden yellow potatoes, scrubbed clean, cut into eighths
2 medium tart green apples (total 9 ounces), peeled, cored, chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
½ cup milk
4 to 6 tablespoons sour cream or mascarpone
4 tablespoons butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Put potatoes, apple and garlic into a large pot. Add cold water to cover by 1 inch. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Heat to a boil, then simmer gently with lid slightly askew. Cook, checking potatoes occasionally with a knife, until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well.
2. Return the drained potato mixture to the pot. Make a well in the center of the potatoes and pour the milk into the center. Set the heat to medium under the pot. When the milk starts to boil, reduce the heat to low, and start mashing vigorously using a potato masher. Mash in the sour cream and butter until the mixture is fairly smooth. Season to taste, usually about ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Remove from heat. Serve.
Per serving: 193 calories, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 3 g protein, 164 mg sodium, 3 g fiber