Pork shoulder has got to be the broke carnivore’s best friend. Yes, it’s got a lot of connective tissue, it’s kind of stringy and can be really tough, but when you can walk out of the grocery store with nine pounds of meat for less than 10 bucks — not unusual when there’s a weekly sale — those are problems that can be overcome.
The front end of the pig gets very little love. The ham gets most of the glamour, gracing some of the most festive meals of the year. One might even suspect that butchers were trying to spread some of that hind end glamour to the shoulder when they started calling it a “Boston butt,” because the Boston butt has nothing at all to do with the pig’s actual butt. It’s a shoulder cut, a not very highly esteemed one, that butchers in New England would throw into barrels for transport or storage. Those barrels were called “butts,” hence “Boston butt.”
Since cooking low and slow is the key to getting the best results from a tough, cheap cut of meat, it’s no surprise that most people utilize a crock pot to make pork shoulder palatable, and shredding that fall-off-the-bone tender pork to make pulled pork BBQ is just a no-brainer. It can be as easy or complicated as you want to make it. Make a dry rub, throw in some aromatics or a little braising liquid, or just grab a shoulder when they’re on sale, pop in the freezer until you’re ready for a butt-load (means a barrel full. See above.) of barbecue and then sling the whole frozen shebang into the crock pot and wait. It will be a long wait but a low-maintenance one.
But what happens if you get tired of pulled pork? It’s a hard scenario to imagine but we’re talking about a lot of meat here. A thick, rich meat sauce for pasta, usually made with beef, can also be done with pork shoulder. Carnitas are another useful way to utilize pork shoulder. Even Chairman Mao had a favorite.
“Low and slow” has been around for a lot longer than crock pots. Braising meat in a small amount of liquid, either on top of the stove or in the oven, is the classic way to deal with tough cuts. Cutting carnitas into chunks before cooking, which reduces the connective tissue, covering them with citrus juice and water for a slow braise is the classic method. After a couple of hours of simmering, turn up the heat and boil off the liquid. When only rendered fat is left in the pan full of now-tender meat, the meat chunks will brown. The hardest part is leaving it alone so the super-tender chunks don’t disintegrate. If you cut the pieces small enough, a quick stir-fry will do the trick. It’s hard to believe that Crispy Salt and Pepper Pork comes from the same cut of meat as barbecue so soft you can eat it with a spoon.
For a meat eater trying to stretch grocery dollars, an expanded repertoire of pork shoulder recipes can be a big help. The four recipes that follow could all be made from one big pork shoulder. That’s a lot of food for less than ten bucks.
Slow-Cooker Pork Shoulder Pasta
The sauce may be made ahead and frozen or stored in the refrigerator up to two days in advance. This recipe can be doubled or tripled if you have a large pork shoulder — and a big enough crock pot.
2 1/2 pound bone-in pork shoulder
1/2 lb. bacon (diced)
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
6 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tbsp.)
1 cup dry red wine
1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds,
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 pound tube-shaped pasta, cooked
Grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons zest from 1 lemon
If you want to just plop all the ingredients in your crock pot and get on with your life while the slow cooker works its magic, go right ahead. But you’ll get better flavor if you invest a few minutes (and a dirty pan) to pre-brown the ingredients. Cook bacon in large Dutch oven or skillet until most of the fat is rendered. Put bacon in crock pot but retain fat in pan. Salt and pepper all sides of the pork roast and brown in pan over medium-high heat. Turn to a different side as each side browns, should take about 8-10 minutes total. Put meat in crock pot. Cook onions until translucent but not brown. add garlic and cook one minute more. Throw on herbs and spiced and cook another minute or two, until aromatic. pour everything into crock pot and deglaze pan with wine. Scrape up the tasty brown bits and pour with wine into crock pot. Add tomatoes to crock pot.
If you want to skip all the browning, place pork shoulder, bacon, onion, garlic, wine, tomatoes, bay leaves, fennel, thyme and red pepper flakes in a slow cooker. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Stir to combine, cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. Remove pork from slow cooker and transfer to a platter or cutting board. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaves from sauce. When pork is cool enough to handle, shred meat and discard fat and bones. Return meat to sauce, and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings. Allow to warm through.
When ready to serve, toss sauce with cooked pasta and garnish with Parmesan and lemon zest.
When serving up your carnitas, don’t forget a little Tex-Mex green onion slaw.
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder or pork butt, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2 to 3 limes)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. Kosher salt, plus more to taste
Tortillas, for serving plus avocado slices, chopped cilantro and fixings of your choice (pickled jalapenos, onions, green onions, lime wedges and tomatoes are all good.)
Place the pork in a large Dutch oven or heavy pot. Add the orange juice, lime juice, garlic, cumin, salt and enough water to just barely cover the meat. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer uncovered for two hours. Don’t touch the meat. After two hours, increase the heat to medium-high and while occasionally stirring and turning the pieces, continue to cook for about 45 minutes, or until all of the liquid has evaporated, leaving only the rendered pork fat. Let it sizzle in this fat long enough to brown at the edges, turning pieces gently (they’ll be eager to fall apart), only as needed. When pork has browned on both sides, it’s ready. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve on warmed tortillas with fixings.
Green Onion Slaw
A delicious accompaniment to carnitas. The delicate green tint of the green-onion dressing is quickly overpowered by the red cabbage to make a beautiful reddish-purple slaw. This recipe would make great barbecue slaw, instead of the ketchup-y mess that is usually offered.
1 cup green onions, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 Serrano chiles
2 tbsp. mayonnaise
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup pure olive oil
1 head purple cabbage, finely shredded
1 small red onion, halved and very thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
Blend green onions, vinegar, chiles, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and oil in a blender until emulsified. Place cabbage and red onions in a bowl, add the dressing and stir until combined. Fold in the cilantro and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Crispy Salt and Pepper Pork
If you aren’t into grinding pepper, don’t let the foodie snobs hold you back. Use ground pepper. And if you don’t want to invest in Sichuan peppercorns, just use more plain black pepper.
1 pound boneless pork shoulder (butt), cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns
Pinch of red chile flakes
1 tbsp. peanut oil (make sure it’s refined for high heat), or grapeseed or safflower oil
1 tsp. flaky sea salt
1/2 cup soft herbs, such as cilantro, mint, chives, and/or basil
1 small jalapeño or other chile, seeded and sliced or chopped
Crisp lettuce leaves, torn and/or sliced cucumbers, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
In a large bowl, toss the pork cubes with the fine sea salt. Using a spice mill or a mortar and pestle, coarsely grind together the black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, and the red chile flakes. Add the spices to the pork, tossing well. Let it rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Heat a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron or stainless steel, not nonstick) over high heat until it is very hot. Add the oil and let it heat until it is shimmering. Then add the pork and sprinkle it with the flaky sea salt. Stir-fry until the pork cubes are golden brown all over, 5 to 7 minutes. Do this in a couple batches if needed to be sure not to crowd the meat in the pan, or it will steam, rather than brown. (To get a good sear on the meat and avoid sticking, it helps to leave it alone in the pan for a minute or two before stirring, then leave it alone again, repeat. It should be nice and brown on the bottom each time you do this.) Transfer the pork to a platter and top it with the herbs and chile. Serve with the lettuce and/or cucumbers, with lime wedges on the side.
Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork
Apparently, the budget-friendly charms of pork are not limited to the proletariat. Red-braised pork was supposedly a favorite dish of Chairman Mao. The story goes that he brought Hunan cooks to Beijing and insisted they prepare it for him regularly. And why not? Mao’s chefs used pork belly but there’s no reason you can’t use the shoulder. Just cook it a little longer.
1 lb. pork shoulder
2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 tbsp. white sugar
1 tbsp. Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
3/4 in. piece fresh ginger, skin left on and sliced
1 star anise
2 dried red chillies
a small piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
light soy sauce, salt, and sugar
a few pieces scallion greens
Plunge the pork into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized chunks. Heat the oil and white sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and splash in the Shaoxing wine (or sherry). Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chiles, and cassia. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40-50 minutes (or longer). Meat should be tender. Toward the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce, and season with soy sauce, salt, and a little sugar to taste. Add the scallion greens just before serving.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.