Stocking the freezer. This is serious business. If, in fact, your need is is so acute you have no energy for idle chat, scroll straight to the bottom for an excellent alternative to the cornucopia of bolognaise, moussaka and beef cheeks you have huddling next to your ice trays and vodka.

If not, read on.

I know about the importance of stocking a freezer. I’m not talking about randomly lobbing two stray sausages into a frosty tundra because you’re not sure what else to do with them. I’m talking about strategy. It was an insurance policy that I purchased in full before Will was born. It was how I channeled most of my mad nesting urges (that, and getting pretty frenzied with a Dymo label maker). We had plenty of chicken broth in plastic bags, roast carrot and hummous soup and a nifty dual hued ragu (it started out blonde, then could be doctored to deep tomato red with just a few generous squirts of tomato paste) on standby. Eating that ragu over consecutive nights was like the novelty of discovering your new favourite sweater has a striped interior and can easily be worn inside out when you accidentally put it on the wrong way (true fact).

I find the things which freeze best are often made from secondary cuts that are slow cooked. The connective tissues which break down gently over low heat also don’t tense and seize during their time in the cold. So if in doubt when making a slow braise; of mince, of lamb shoulder or shin, chuck or cheek, pork neck or belly; make extra (and label it).

Why? Because at some stage you, or someone you’re close to will thank you. Perhaps work is devilish. Perhaps you’ve got a small person who just discovered the access code to level nine of Dante’s circles of tantrum.  Perhaps you just can’t kick the flu you got a few weeks ago and now you’re nursing a chest infection (true fact). The likelihood is that at the end of the day all you have the energy for is to find something appealing down there,  press a few buttons on the microwave and pour yourself a stiff drink.

IMG_9162Or perhaps, your zeal for novel things to stash away has increased after you discovered that some of the folk with a brand new baby you’ve been doing meals on wheels for have been slyly ranking the freezer offerings received from their nearest and dearest (in a private, loving sort of way*). On learning this your insanely competitive nature comes to the fore. You’re no longer content to be just another bolognaise or ragu among many  (even if yours is made over six hours with porcini, the best part of a bottle of shiraz and beef cheeks).

No, to really excel, you rationalise you have to stand out. And how?

Go east my friend.

It’s not often that you’ll find something Chinese hanging out next to the ice cream. But there’s no reason it can’t.  You don’t have to constrain these warming flavours to swift Szechuan stir fries  (like this) or soups.  Low and slow will work just as well. As for proteins; beef cheeks or chuck would work in this recipe, as would chicken legs or thighs, but it’s the natural sweetness of pork which makes this particularly  stellar. The aromatics are also key; there’s a curious prickling heat from Szechuan peppercorns, freshness from both the ginger and mandarin peel and an exotic twang from the star anise. The mandarin peel may seem curious- something that might be more at home in the compost than a Le Creuset, but trust me. It’s killer. You could easily bulk this braise it out with chunks of daikon or peeled sweet potato, but I find simple lumps of carrot work just fine.

I like to serve this  in a slow carb fashion over quinoa instead of rice and with a sharp smacked cucumber salad for extra heat and freshness –  (and a hit of smugness on the side for forward planning ahead and thinking outside the square).

*Nb, we’re still waiting to hear how this one fared in the rankings. Fingers crossed.

Szechuan Braised Pork with Star Anise and Mandarin

Serves 6 with quinoa/brown rice and a smacked cucumber salad. Nb, you could also make this in a slow cooker, but reduce the amount of water you add.

Shopping/foraging

1.25 kg pork shoulder, off the bone
2 tbsp neutral tasting oil
1 star anise
1 chilli, diced
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and cut into coins
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, crushed with the end of a rolling pin, or in a mortar and pestle
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 bunch of spring onions, ends trimmed and cut into 2cm lengths.
2 tbsp brown sugar/honey
Peel of 1 mandarin
150 ml soy sauce or tamari (if gluten free)
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

 Here’s how we roll

1) Cut the pork into medium chunks- approximately the size of a set of playing cards. Add half of the oil to the bottom of a Dutch oven or heavy based pan and brown it in batches. You want to get a good sear on the meat (if you do it all at once and crowd the pan, it will stew rather than sear). Use the remaining oil and repeat until all of the pork is well browned. Set aside.

2) Add the star anise, ginger, chilli,  Szechuan peppercorns, carrot chunks and white and pale green parts of the spring onions to the empty pan and sautee for 2-3 minutes.

3) Return the pork to the pan. Add the mandarin peel and pour in the soy, rice wine vinegar and sugar.  Use a metal spoon to scrape up any flavouring that has stuck to the bottom. Add enough water to halfway cover the meat and bring to the boil.

4) Lower the heat to a simmer and cook with the lid off for 2-3 hours, checking occasionally. Cook until the sauce is sticky and rich and the meat is pulling apart with a fork.  Taste and check the seasoning and balance of flavours before serving. You may want to add additional soy, sugar or chilli and top with the remaining chopped spring onions.

5) Pluck out the mandarin peel and star anise and serve with quinoa or brown rice, with steamed greens, or a serving of smacked cucumbers on the side.