If you're like me, you constantly find yourself trying to re-purpose things that might otherwise get tossed out. Corn cobs turn into stock, vermouth just past its prime transforms into vinegar, the crumbs and dust left over from packages of dried mushrooms gets further ground up with spices, for a crust on pan-roasted meats. You get the picture.
Recently, I found myself in possession of a ton of whey, after making a batch of cheese on the stove-top. The cheese was the purpose of the endeavor, but as I stood there looking at the half gallon or so of delicious dairy byproduct, I couldn't help but think of something to do with it, other than pitching it down the sink. I tasted the whey, and was transfixed by its nutty, salty richness and pleasant lactic tang. For a second, I considered simply spooning the stuff over some rice and going to town, but that might have seemed gluttonous.
My first thought was to use it as the base for a braise, as I've come to enjoy the slightly cheesy funk and depth of flavor created when meats and milk join for long periods over low heat. Unfortunately, I had to work the next day, and didn't want to burden myself with such a long (albeit only moderately involved) cooking process. The next thought was a brine, leaning on the not insignificant salt content of the liquid to season and tenderize a large cut of meat, while the slight sweetness and tart lactic qualities balance the salt, and add their own nuances.
I grabbed a smallish (around three-pound) pork loin from the store, filtered the remaining particulates from the whey, and bagged the pork and whey together in a zip-top storage bag, along with a few sprigs of thyme, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a large piece of lemon peel. I squeezed out as much of the air as I could, and stashed the bag in the fridge for 18 hours or so. Given that pork loin is a relatively lean cut, I figured it would benefit significantly from its brine bath.
The next evening, I pulled the pork from the brine, patted it dry, and let it rest at room temperature. It smelled great already, with the nutty, lactic aroma of the whey wafting from the meat, combined with the sharpness of garlic, and a rounded brightness and herbal undercurrent from the lemon and thyme. When it had come to room temperature, I rubbed it with salt and pepper, and seared it on all sides in a hot pan, before roasting it at 350 for about an hour and a half, slivers of a quartered onion accompanying the meat for flavor and a bit of moisture.
With around 25 minutes left in the cooking time, I added a handful of mushrooms (oysters and chanterelles), and a handful of peeled red pearl onions. When the pork was ready, I pulled it from the oven and placed it on a cutting board, tenting it with tinfoil to rest. The onions and mushrooms stayed on, getting a nice caramelized flavor in the onions, and evoking savory, earthy depth from the fungi.
Ordinarily, when I pan-roast meats, I deglaze the pan and use the fond and drippings as the base for a pan sauce. With brined meats, a pan sauce made this way can be unpalatably salty. The brine not only adds its salt to the proceedings, but also concentrates as the liquid evaporates. In order to avoid this, I decided to make a sauce separately. To a base of veal stock, I added a little bit of madeira and calvados, along with a handful of diced prunes and a whole garlic clove, and slowly simmered it on the stove top to reduce and concentrate.
As the pork was roasting and the sauce reducing, I started in on a batch of basic polenta, combining four parts water and one part corn meal, and slowly simmering. I timed everything to be ready at once, and called the family to the table as I whisked a pat of butter into the sauce, and finished the polenta with more butter and a bit of parm.
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To serve, slices of pork sat atop a mound of polenta, onions and mushrooms piled on top. A drizzle of sauce ran down from the components of the roast, creating rivulets in the corn mush. A scattering of sliced chives added color, and a freshening bit of flavor on top of all that richness. It was a deeply satisfying meal. My older daughter declared it the best thing I'd ever cooked.
While it certainly evolved from the original instinct toward thrift, it all came from the simple desire not to throw something out. I guess it's appropriate, then, that as soon as we had finished that dinner, I began re-purposing its leftover components for the next one. More on that later.