ON CHRISTMAS DAY more than 20 years ago, at a friend's medieval manor house in the southwest of England, I sat down at a banquet table lush with holly, ivy and red roses. Though darkness had fallen early, raging blazes in two walk-in fireplaces and dozens of flickering candles kept the damp at bay and softened the edges of the formal room. Then a hush fell over the assembled guests as a procession of waiters marched in three browned and fragrant crown roasts of pork.
Prepared with fresh herbs, garlic and onions, as well as orange juice to enhance the natural sweetness of the meat, this dish has since become my centerpiece of choice for pull-out-all-the-stops wintertime entertaining. There are few cuts as majestic as a crown loin—the name for two rib racks cracked at the bone, bent into a circle and tied together with kitchen twine (a task any butcher will perform at no charge). It combines the scrumptiousness of pork chops with rack-of-lamb chic. With the chop ends "Frenched"—the process by which the meat is scraped away to reveal the curved bone tips—a crown is especially festive, whether or not you choose to take the extra step of gussying up the bones with old-fashioned white paper frills. Served on New Year's Eve or to replace the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas goose, luscious chops cut from the crown never fail to wow.
There's another reason the pork crown roast so appeals to me: The surprisingly low-price cut makes a huge splash quite inexpensively, a godsend at this money-draining time of year. Crown cuts of veal and lamb are several times more costly than the pork and, to my way of thinking, several times less flavorful. A 12- to 14-rib pork crown roast serves the same number of people, and generously, with each rib equaling one large serving of meat, which can be thinly sliced or left on the bone, pork-chop-style.
Many recipes suggest filling the crown with a pork stuffing before roasting, a great way to extend the meal to feed additional guests. Still, I prefer to cook the roast unstuffed and then, after cooking, spoon some bright and gingery braised red cabbage into the empty crown. Unfilled, the meat cooks more quickly and evenly, and it caramelizes all over, inside as well as out. I've successfully tried the same approach using fillings of creamed spinach, carrot purée, buttered noodles, caramelized baby onions, sautéed zucchini, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and a pan roast of yams, potatoes, bulb fennel, parsnips and onions.
A crown roast is user-friendly in every way. At a time of year when changes in travel plans and unforeseen extra guests mean that meals are often delayed or rejiggered at the last minute, the fact that it requires 20 minutes resting time once cooked—and can easily rest up to an hour—provides wiggle room for all sorts of contingencies, plus plenty of time to throw together a gravy or Yorkshire pudding using the flavorful drippings from the roasting pan. Following the recipes below, you can prepare the cabbage while the meat is in the oven and then toss it in a pan over a high flame to reheat just before serving. That leaves only filling the crown, presenting it to the guests and then hearing the same hush fall over the room that I remember from that wintry English Christmas so long ago.
Crown Roast of Pork
Total Time: 2½ hours Serves: 12-14
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh marjoram (optional)
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
½ cup sliced fresh fennel fronds
1 bay leaf
1 crown roast of pork (12-14 chops), "Frenched" by butcher
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil mixed with 2 cloves garlic put through a press
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 cup water
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or Sherry vinegar
¾ cups dry white wine
1 cup chicken or pork stock
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Pinch of cayenne pepper or several drops Tabasco Sauce
3 tablespoons finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
Ginger-Braised Red Cabbage (see recipe below)
What To Do
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Strew onions, garlic, thyme, marjoram, carrots, celery, fennel and bay leaf across bottom of large roasting pan. Place a rack over the vegetables and place pork roast on top.
2. Paint roast and vegetables with garlic oil and season everything with salt, pepper and dried thyme.
3. Cover bare ends of rib bones with small pieces of aluminum foil to prevent burning, and roast in middle of oven for 20 minutes.
4. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees, and pour water into bottom of pan. Roast until instant-read thermometer reads 140 degrees when stuck into thickest part of meat, 1-1½ hours more.
5. When roast is done, transfer it to a platter or cutting board and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Roast must rest at least 20 minutes before cutting.
6. While meat rests, skim any visible fat from drippings. Place pan on stove over medium heat. Add sugar, vinegar and wine and bring to a boil while deglazing pan. After 2-3 minutes, add stock, juice and cayenne or Tabasco. Simmer, stirring frequently and mashing vegetables into liquid until a sauce forms, 5-10 minutes. Strain sauce through a coarse sieve (if a smooth sauce is desired) into a sauceboat, add parsley and season with salt and pepper. Keep sauce warm until ready to serve.
7. To serve, spoon cabbage into center of crown roast, sprinkle with remaining herbs (from cabbage recipe) and bring to table. Cut roast between bones, one chop per person. Spoon a portion of cabbage onto each plate alongside meat. Spoon a tablespoon or two of sauce over each chop and pass remaining sauce in sauceboat.
Ginger-Braised Red Cabbage
Total Time: 20-25 minutes Serves: 12-16
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoon olive oil
2 large red cabbages, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 large red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 sweet apples, such as Fuji, Red Delicious or McIntosh, peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
2/3 cup apple cider
2/3 cup cider or malt vinegar (white vinegar can be substituted)
6 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2/3 cup candied ginger, finely chopped
½ cup fresh chopped parsley, chives or cilantro
What To Do
1. Melt butter with olive oil in a large, deep sauté pan with a cover or a large Dutch oven. Add cabbage and stir to coat.
2. Season with salt and pepper and add red onions, apples and fresh ginger. Cover pan, lower heat to low-medium, turning cabbage once in a while until it is soft but still slightly firm, about 15 minutes.
3. Remove lid, pour in cider, raise heat and cook, uncovered, until cider is reduced by at least half.
4. Add vinegar and sugar and simmer, stirring frequently, 4-5 minutes.
5. Add candied ginger and cook to heat through, stirring, 30 seconds.
6. Remove pan from heat and stir in half fresh herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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