Food & Drink

Make double use of hard cider for your dinner

Hard cider imparts an apple sweetness when used in cooking.
Hard cider imparts an apple sweetness when used in cooking. Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS

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. This fall, I’m incorporating hard cider into my cocktail hour and my cooking.

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 decades ago in a pub while backpacking though the UK. A charming bartender talked me into it. Served barely chilled, it was dry, delicious and less filling than beer. I’ve enjoyed cider ever since in England, France and parts of Spain.

In America, historians tell us, cider 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 here. Today, the choice of ciders at my local store is becoming impressive. 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, 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 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 is a less pricey option that pairs beautifully with the cider and apples.

For convenience, you can make the recipe in a slow-cooker on low. Because there is little to no evaporation in the slow cooker, the stew may be more like soup. To thicken it, spoon the cooking liquid into a pan over high heat and boil it to reduce it.

Serve the stew in warmed bowls with a side of mashed potatoes. And serve it with bottles of cold, crisp cider, of course.

Cider-Braised Stew

Stews always taste even better the next day, so I make a large batch. If you cut this in half, 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

1/3 cup flour

Salt, freshly ground pepper

3 to 5 tablespoons safflower or canola oil

1 large sweet onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups)

1 large red bell pepper, cored, cut into 1-inch dice (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 stalks 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 1/2 cups)

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 (12-ounce) bottle dry sparkling cider

3 to 4 sprigs each fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon each dried)

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 (14.5-ounce) cans white cannellini beans, drained

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Pat pork or lamb pieces dry. Mix flour, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a resealable plastic 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.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy-bottomed 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add about a third of the flour-coated meat in a single, uncrowded layer. Cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat to brown all the meat, adding oil as needed.

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.

Return the browned meat to the pot. Stir in the herbs and chicken broth. Heat to a boil. Cover tightly and place in the oven. Bake, stirring once or twice, until the meat is fork-tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove herb sprigs. Stir in beans. Heat to a simmer over medium heat. Taste for salt, adding more as needed (usually 1/2 teaspoon).

Slow-cooker variation: Prepare as directed up to putting the stew in the oven. Put apple mixture, browned meat, herbs and chicken broth into a slow cooker. Cover and set on low for 4 to 6 hours. If pan juices are too thin, pour them into a saucepan and boil hard to reduce to the consistency of cream soup. Then add the beans and heat through.

Per serving (for 10 servings): 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

Yield: 8 to 10 servings