Wednesday Dinner: Slow Cooker Pork Shoulder with Tomatoes and Fennel

My dislike for the slow cooker/crockpot is well documented here at Al Dente. I believe that, at best, it takes the best of intentions and overcooks them into a mess of glop. At worst, it enables people to “throw a bunch of stuff into the crockpot” and produce dreck. The slow cooker is the 21st century equivalent of Man-Wich or Hamburger Helper. It takes otherwise good food and destroys it.

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But, from time to time, the slow cooker can be employed to create goodness. The keys are, not unlike other recipes, measure and balance. You cannot take a bunch of raw veg and meat, cover it in liquid, cook it for 8 to 10 hours, and expect it to be good. No, you need to work out the final desired flavor and work backwards. Ideally, you want this to have a rich pork and fennel flavor. You activate the fennel by cooking it first, releasing all of that natural flavor. By adding the tomatoes, you trap the flavors and transfer it without struggle to the pork. Yes, you could braise this on a stovetop or in an oven to finish it but the slow cooker makes more sense. By cranking it to the longest setting, you evenly distribute the heat over time to marry all of the flavors together. It’s quite a thing.

And this is anything but “throwing a bunch of stuff into the crockpot.”

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WHAT WORKED: The aromatics. Listen, the fennel and pork provide the bulk of the flavor here, but it’s the herbs and garlic that enhances the tomato base and takes the flavor to another level. I would also suggest cooking this in advance, as I did, and letting it stand for a couple of days before serving. It allows everything to rest and the flavors to mingle about.

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WHAT DIDN’T: I still hate the slow cooker. Or, maybe I just hate my slow cooker. Maybe a little of both.

EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy enough.

BEST FOR: A meal that you can cook a day or two ahead of time.

SERVE WITH: Plenty of bread and grated cheese. And, yes, you will have a ton of leftover sauce for later.

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Slow Cooker Pork Shoulder with Tomatoes and Fennel
  • One pork shoulder (5 to 6 lbs. if bone in, 2 1/2 to 4 lbs. if boneless)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, fronds and stem discarded, and thinly sliced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled, washed, and cut on the bias
  • 1 large onion, sliced thin
  • 6 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine (I used pinot grigio)
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. herbes de provence
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 Parmesan rind (if available)
  • Cooked penne or rigatoni*
  • *: The amount is up to you. I made 1 lb. for two people, leaving me a quart of leftover sauce, and a full container of leftovers.

Liberally season the pork shoulder with salt and pepper, and set in the bowl of the slow cooker.

Add oil to a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and wait for it to shimmer. When it does, add the fennel and carrots. Saute, stirring to coat in the oil, until the veg begins to brown at the edges. This should take 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onion and stir until it begins to soften, about 4 minutes.

Lower the heat to medium and add the garlic, stirring to combine. Saute 3 minutes until you get a robust garlic-onion-fennel aroma.

Pour in the wine and bring to a boil. Let it boil for a minute, then add the Worcestershire, tomatoes, tomato paste, herbs, a two-fingered pinch of salt and a couple of turns from a black pepper grinder. At this point, add the cheese rind if you have one. Stir everything to combine.

Pour the sauce over the pork and make sure the meat is sufficiently covered. Turn the slow cooker to the lowest setting (10 to 12 hours).

**AT THIS POINT** You can transfer covered slow cooker pan to a refrigerator and let stand up to three days before serving.

Before serving, skim the fat from the top of the pan. Shred the pork with two forks or by hands into sinewy strands. Reheat the sauce and meat together and ladle over cooked pasta. Serve hot.

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