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IN THE KITCHEN

Whole Hog : Sausage, Beans and a Bit of Endive From an Unabashed Pork Lover

February 08, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

How do I love pork? Let me count the ways.

I love pork to the depth and breadth and height of the hog. I love to braise it slowly and to grill it quickly. I love to fry it, roast it, stew it, steam it and stuff it. I love it ground into sausage and smoked into ham.

Not to get too rhapsodic, but you can do almost anything with pork. Get a nice fatty butt portion (actually, it's the front shoulder) and you can roast it to an almost melting texture. Cut a thin lean piece, dip it in egg wash and bread crumbs and you've got a quick-cooking cutlet that tastes better than most of the pallid stuff that passes for veal in today's grocery stores.

There are the glamour cuts like the ribs, which are so much better barbecued than beef. But there's nothing plainer than pig's feet, which are indispensable when I make posole. And a nice slice of fatback is the lagniappe that finishes a great bowl of collard greens.

One of the best things you can do with pork is add it to beans. In fact, the latter are almost unthinkable without the former. It's hard to imagine cooking up a big pot of pinto beans without throwing in a chunk of salt pork. And what would baked beans be without bacon?

I keep a couple big bags of beans in my pantry and, especially at this time of year, I find myself dipping into them with some regularity. Beans have a lot of charm in cold weather: They give a rich texture without having a lot of fat, they have a warm, earthy flavor, and you can basically stick them in the oven and forget about them.

It's become almost a ritual at my house on chilly, rainy Sundays: Fire up some flavorings in a cast-iron Dutch oven, toss in the beans and let them bake, low and slow.

Remember, too, that dried beans do not need to be soaked before cooking. It does nothing for the digestibility and only moderately shortens the cooking time. In this recipe, for example, the cooking time without soaking is about two hours--time you can spend doing something outside the kitchen. Soaked, the beans would be done in about 80 to 90 minutes--but that doesn't count the overnight soak.

This recipe has had an interesting evolution. It began life as cassoela, a Milanese stew of pork ribs, sausage and cabbage from Biba Caggiano's "Trattoria Cooking." The way the flavors of the sausage and ribs mingled intrigued me. As much as I love each separately, together they seem to create a third flavor--brown and deeply savory--that I don't find in either.

Given my porky proclivities, the next step, obviously, was to try this combination with dried beans. This was very good--kind of a quick cassoulet--and I probably would have been satisfied with the recipe at this stage.

Then, in one of those coincidences that convince you that fate loves a good dish, I was cutting up some curly endive for salad while the pork and beans were finishing in the oven. A tough winter green, endive is overlooked by a lot of people, but the pale green hearts, especially when dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette, make a hearty salad that's sturdy enough to stand up to all kinds of stews.

The fibrous outer leaves are usually discarded by salad makers but frequently find their way into thick winter vegetable soups. Why not add them to the pork and beans? I did and it lifted a very good dish into something really special. The slightly bitter edge of the endive cuts right through the richness of the pork and beans, and the beautiful jade-like green is the perfect complement to the dish's tawny beige and brown.

It's important that you add the endive off the heat no more than 10 minutes before serving. You want it to cook just long enough to soften the tough leaves, but if you cook it too long, it turns into threads of olive drab mush.

PORK AND BEANS . . . AND ENDIVE

Those who disdain the very idea of matching food and wine should this dish with any other red wine and then with a decent Chianti. It is an absolutely superb match.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound Italian sausage

1 1/2 pounds country-style pork ribs

Salt, black pepper

2 carrots, chopped

2 onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 pound dried beans

5 cups water

2 cups chopped curly endive, tough green leaves only

Heat oil in heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cut sausages in half and sprinkle ribs with salt and pepper to taste. Brown sausages and ribs in hot oil, removing to plate when finished.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat and add carrots, onions and garlic to pan. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften. Scrape bottom while stirring to free brown bits.

Place beans in pan and stir to mix with vegetables. Add water and 2 teaspoons salt and return meat to pan. Cover and cook at 300 degrees until beans soften, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. After first hour, check beans every 30 minutes, stirring and adding more water if necessary. Dish should have stew-like texture when beans are done.

When beans have softened, remove from oven and add chopped endive. Stir well to mix, remove from oven and set aside until endive has wilted, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

557 calories; 547 mg sodium; 78 mg cholesterol; 33 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams protein; 3.58 grams fiber.

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