Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pulled pork, take one

Yesterday I finally embarked on making pulled pork. Its tremendous popularity in the last five or so years has made it a frequent menu item everywhere, and it's fast becoming a feature of many establishments including the food trucks that stake their whole business on it. While this is definitely not a bad thing, it does make me want to conquer this ubiquitous object of our desires.

Really, pulled pork came from roasting a whole hog in a barbecue pit for hours and hours, tender- and lovingly basted and kept turning - including through the night - to ensure even, slow cooking. American barbecue culture can probably claim the phenomenon, but this method of creating juicy-fall-off-the-bone pork is also seen in the Central & South Americas, and Asia, for example in the Philippines with their famed lechon (perhaps an American legacy in the country) which I enjoyed late last year.

Lechon being sold on the street, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Obviously cooking an entire pig is a luxury of time and money that not all of us can afford. So, in the day when the pork shoulder, or "Boston butt" in America, was an economical piece of meat to buy, as it was a fatty, tough-skinned, hard-working piece of meat, folks made lemonade out of lemons. They understood that slow-and-low cooking could make this piece of meat tender, flavourful, pull-apart and juicy.

I don't know about you, but I am often allured by the '8 to 14-hour slow-roasted pulled pork' on the menus, yet recently, I've become skeptical. The last few times I've encountered it, the pork has been dry, a little stringy, not all that flavourful. I find vendors often relying on their accompaniments, e.g. sauce or slaw, to try and salvage the lack of moisture that one comes to expect from pulled pork. (One exception, however, was the pulled pork burger I tasted a month ago at Duke's Brew & Cue in Hackney, London. Amaze.)

However, last night, I felt empathy. Whether it was that my pork shoulder was boneless (most recipes recommend bone-in for maximum flavour, which I'd attest to usually, but my shoulder was on sale and at a good price); and/or, that I just didn't leave it in the oven for long enough (6 hours at 140degC/285degF) to let the muscular tissue to break down and dissolve. The result, in any case, was dry pork with a thick layer of fat still existent under the skin. Next time, I will undoubtedly go for bone-in shoulder and at least 8 hours cooking time, or however long it takes to allow the meat to become spoonable. (I admit, I was late putting it in, impatient... and hungry!)

After 6 hours and resting before trying to achieve crispy skin (which I burned half of due to being impatient, again) 

In terms of flavour however, the pork was delicious. A little dry, yes, but tasty. I simply seasoned it in ample salt and pepper before roasting (however I'm curious that in Felicity Cloake's experimentation, she barely mentions pepper and favours sugar for basic seasoning - another aspect to test). I also set it atop quartered onions, garlic cloves and sliced carrots, to keep it elevated and allowing fat to drain off (cooking the carrots and onions to a gluttonous level). I regretted not rubbing in a little smoked paprika ten minutes after it went in the oven, in the after-thought of wanting to impart a slight smokiness, but as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt encourages, I was happy enough to allow my pork to sing for itself, leaving the extra flavours for the accompaniments.

Despite not being able to pull the pork apart easily with my fingers, we made lemonade too. After allowing the meat time to rest, I simply sliced the pork up, breaking the meat apart as I lay it onto 'refried' black beans and chickpeas (homemade from dried and after simmering until tender, crushed roughly over low heat with olive oil, water, smoked paprika, ground cumin and coriander, and minced garlic and chopped onions - both taken from beneath the pork), which was smeared over freshly fried crispy corn tortillas, and topped with shredded baby spinach and buttercup lettuce (the inner crisper leaves), sliced green onions, a handful of seeds (sesame, flax, pumpkin, sunflower) mixed together with mayonnaise, the juice of half a lime, and a touch of hot sauce (Encona Barbados Creole Pepper Sauce is my current go-to). And believe me, the pork's moisture content was no dampener on these delicious tostadas.

Baby spinach and lettuce 'slaw'
Roast pork tostadas with 'refried' black beans & chickpeas and baby spinach & lettuce 'slaw'

Today's lunch with leftovers proved the pork to be capable of more delight: toasted wholemeal pita bread halves, lightly smeared with hot sauce and topped with some crumbled matured cheddar, baby spinach, the black bean and chickpea mix, torn pieces of roast pork, with homemade chargrilled red pepper, a final sprinkle of seeds and a squeeze of lime juice.

Roast pork providing more delight - a variation on above, with leftovers and some

I try not to do it in front of other people, but when the food is this good, I can often be heard saying just that: "This is so good," I said to myself, repeated again inside my head. This is also often followed by some mm-mmm-ing and 'happy claps' inside my head (like I put that food down for a second, yeah right!). The meatiness of the pork against the sweet peppers, spicy hot sauce and sharp yet creamy tang of aged cheese... alongside the textural combination of the seeds, crushed beans/chickpeas, spinach and slightly dry pork... I was delighted with myself. And delighted with food.

I am most definitely looking forward to getting the local butcher to fix me up a bone-in pork shoulder soon. Now that I've started, I feel I need to get this pulled pork thing right. Luckily, the perks that come from experimenting with swine are also very appealing.

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