Monday, November 1, 2010
Recently, at a class on sustainable meats (very ably taught by Jackie Church of The Leather District Gourmet), the icebreaker question posed to me was, "What's your favorite thing to cook?" Sitting next to me, Laura and Rob of The Two Palaverers gasped (or at least it sounded like gasping to me), while I gasped internally.
Favorite...thing...to...cook. Pause. Question mark.
The words slunk through my brain, as though my internal movie camera had been set to shoot the film of my life at 120 frames per second. Glancing around, and noticing that no one else was operating in super slo-mo, my brain quickly ratcheted back into the normal pace of life.
I responded, "Um, pasta. Homemade pasta. Seasonal sauces. That sort of thing."
Super effing eloquent me, huh?
This incredible lack of mastery of how to communicate my all-time most desirable thing to cook is only made worse by the fact that I am asked this question at nearly every book event I attend, and, probably not surprising to you, but somehow surprising to me, during many a private conversation with friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.
So shouldn't I have a better response than lapsing into what is essentially an accelerated (and slightly panicked) process of elimination that, counter intuitively, feels as though my mind is playing the role of Kim Bassinger as she drifts away underwater in the video for Mary Jane's Last Dance? (Just the underwater drifting part. Not the dead part. You do know this video, do you not? Please go have a look if you know not of what I speak.)
As it turns out, I do not have one favorite thing to cook (hence all the gasping - internal and external when the question is posed). However, I can narrow it down to this: I enjoy the process of cooking. The slowing down. The chopping of vegetables (yes, I am one of those people), the seasoning, the searing, the stirring, the observing - when is it ready, finally ready, to share? And the artistry of crafting something - something edible, aromatic, that inspires gnawing, groaning, and yes, even drooling.
You see yourself there, with your tattered napkin at the ready, don't you? Placing your fork down, catching your breath, napkin to mouth, dab-dab, dab-dab, a sip of your wine, or beer, or water, and then back to the fork and food again.
Sometimes, that thing that I love to make is homemade pasta with a seasonal sauce. Sometimes it is a soup with hard-won home-grown organic (bug-eaten holes and all) vegetables. Sometimes it is a slow-roasted tomato, or roasted cauliflower. More often, it is a slow-cooked piece of meat. One that will fall off the bone. One that is savory, succulent, possibly even agro, and dolce. A dish like this one, this pork that welcomes autumn whether plated next to roasted pumpkin and creamy polenta or served atop a roll to help get you through the game sans hunger pangs.
Pear and Sweet Onion Pulled Pork:
serves 6 to 8
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
(1) 3 to 4 pound pork butt (pork shoulder is also fine, just try to get one with as little bone as possible)
freshly ground black pepper
2 medium pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 2-inch cubes (approximately 2-inch cubes - they are a rounded fruit after all)
1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon dried thyme, or 1 tablespoon fresh
2 cups apple cider
Though the active time of this recipe is around 30 minutes, the pork does braise for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, so this is most definitely not a weeknight meal. Unless you're somewhat unemployed like me, then you have time to braise away on a Wednesday. However, if you're gainfully employed, it's a good Sunday afternoon dish from which you may then repurpose leftovers during the week.
Remove the pork from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it. Pat the surface dry with a paper towel, then season the butt (could. not. resist. This will get worse. You have been warned.) all over with salt and pepper.
In a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid (such as a braiser or Dutch oven), heat the oil over medium-high heat.
Once the oil has a shiny, shimmery appearance, carefully place the pork into the pot to avoid the hot oil splattering back at you. You want to hear the meat sizzle as soon as it hits the pan (as a test to determine whether the oil is ready for browning, you can also drop a breadcrumb or two into the oil to see if it sputters away).
Brown each side of the pork (including the short ends, which I usually do last. They do require a little balancing act with the tongs and a steady, oven-mitted hand holding the pot still), 3 to 5 minutes per side. If the meat doesn't pull off of the pan easily, it's not completely browned. It's nice of the meat and the pot to band together to let us know when we're ready to move on to the next step, isn't it?
After all sides have been browned, reduce the heat to medium. Add the pear cubes and quartered onion (don't worry about breaking the onion layers apart - that'll happen as they cook, or if they fall apart on their own), then drizzle the honey over the roast, and sprinkle the thyme over the pork, pears, and onions.
Pour in the apple cider, bring the liquid to a gentle simmer (keep an eye on this - if the pot gets too hot, and the cider is percolating away rapidly - say, at near-boiling - the cider will cook off and you'll have a stuck-to-the-bottom butt on your hands), cover, and cook, flipping the butt occasionally (also to avoid that stuck butt we just discussed) for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, or until the pork is pulling apart from itself.
Serve the pork forth with the aforementioned creamy polenta, or mashed sweet potatoes, or even the quinoa, squash, and black bean salad a couple posts down from this one.
Estimated cost for one big pork butt: $21.43. You may be stepping away from your computer, aghast at the tally starting in the twenties, but 4 pounds of meat will easily feed 8 people, so the per-serving cost is $2.68. Plus, if you're trying to save money, it's very likely that you only buy meat when it's on sale (like we do here). For pork butt, that generally brings the cost down by a dollar per pound or so. The pork butt costs $3.99 at regular price at Whole Foods (and, yes, you can find it for less elsewhere, this is true. However, I like to give the option of buying hormone-free meat, and from there, one can make the shopping decision that works for him or her). We've already discussed that we're buying 4 pounds, so let's figure $16.00 for the meat. The oil costs 96-cents, the pears cost $1.79 per pound, and two pears will probably get you to that one-pound mark, so $1.79 it is. The onion should cost around a dollar. The honey costs 50-cents, the thyme costs 18-cents, and the apple cider costs $1.00 ($3.99 for 8 cups).