Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Friday, May 07, 2004

Weekend Food Section: Cuban-style Pulled Pork

I haven’t done a recipe post in a while, but this one I thought was worth sharing. It takes planning, but very little effort at all to make – and makes brilliant use of a very inexpensive cut of meat: pork butt (or shoulder roast). Do give it a try.

I grew up in North Carolina – so I have an abiding appreciation for pulled pork barbeque, a dish which is utterly impossible to re-create in anything resembling a home environment. It takes many hours over low heat (175°F), an assortment of carefully selected charcoals, and a whole lot of smoke. You could conceivably do it, quite nicely actually, if you were to spring for something like the ingenious Traeger pellet-smoker. But even that option is not available to apartment-dwellers like me.

As a result, I had pretty much abandoned the idea of preparing pulled pork in any form, until I ran across a recipe that suggested another tack altogether. The recipe, for a Cuban-style braise in Douglas Rodriguez’s Nuevo Latino, turns out to be eminently suitable for home preparation. It also struck me that the method would turn out a product that was quite appealing in it’s own right – and far more interesting than some tepid imitation of honest-to-god barbeque. It turns out that does, and it couldn’t be much easier.

Essentially, you make a marinade – perhaps a ten-minute process, tops. Then the pork goes into the marinade, and into the fridge, overnight. Then pork and marinade spend a few hours in the oven the next day, and voilá: you’ve got deeply flavorful, tender pork, ready to go into sandwiches, quesadillas, or whatever else comes to mind. That’s really about it.

Herewith, the details. I bought my pork butt yesterday, marinated it overnight, and then braised it this morning while spending entirely too much time watching the Rummy-before-Congress spectacle.

Here’s the marinade formula, enough for a 3-5 lb pork butt:

1 large onion, chopped
8 cloves garlic (peeled)
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves, cleaned and chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 Tablespoon cumin seeds
2 Tablespoons salt
3 bay leaves
6 peppercorns
½ cup distilled white vinegar
1 qt water.

There’s very little to do to prepare the marinade. Just get out your food processor, and work your way down the list. Apart from peeling the onion and garlic, and cleaning the cilantro (which is often sandy), even the ingredients require very little handling. Just toss in everything but the water, and start the machine. Then pour in only enough of the water to allow the mix to puree smoothly. Mix in the rest of the water after you dump the marinade it into your cooking vessel. (I learned the hard way that even when your food processor doesn’t look like it’s overflowing, it can do so via that hollow center post that holds the blade. You really don’t want to get green sludge all over your kitchen, as I did…).

Once you’ve got your marinade ready – immerse the pork in it, cover, and refrigerate overnight. You can peek and turn it once or twice, just to make sure everything marinates evenly. But there’s no need to fuss. Time does the magic.

When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 300°F, put the pot with the pork and marinade on top of the stove, and bring it to a boil uncovered. The moment it boils, remove it from the heat, cover it, and place it in the oven. You’ll want to check on it from time to time, maybe every 30 or 40 minutes or so, but that's about all. Just turn the roast in the liquid occasionally, and make sure that the liquid is just barely simmering, and not more. You may even need to lower the oven heat to 250°F or less, which is fine. Low and slow are the watchwords here.

Doug Rodriguez claims the process should take about two hours. I found that it took three – though that didn’t surprise me. Braising recipes often lie. The times are almost always wishful-thinking, more than likely the least amount of time that there is any chance, ever, that the dish will be ready. It’s done when the pork is tender enough to pull apart easily with a fork, and not a moment sooner. The clock won’t tell you this; the meat will.

Once it’s done, let it cool in the liquid for a couple of hours. Then fish the meat out, drain it a moment, and then, using two forks, shred it by hand. In the process, you’ll be able to tidily separate out any yucky sinewy stuff. At this point, you should taste and adjust the seasonings. There’s salt and pepper in the marinade, but you may want a bit more. And, while Chef Rodriquez doesn’t call for it – Chef Ned likes a splash of Tabasco here, along with a light drizzle of champagne vinegar. It may not be authentically Cuban, but that's beside the point: somehow pulled pork without a bit of red pepper just doesn't seem right ...

At this point, you can serve it, or refrigerate or freeze it and reheat it later. Reheated in a bit of olive oil over high heat, the pork will brown and crisp in places, simply adding another dimension to the experience.

For the definitive North Carolina test, I had to serve this in the traditional, un-fancy manner: on toasted hamburger buns, topped with homemade coleslaw. Yum.

Is it barbeque? Of course not. Will I cook it again – absolutely.

In fact, I may have to pick up some good melting cheese and some fresh tortillas tomorrow, to explore that quesadilla option….

UPDATE: Alert reader Shari points out South Knox Bubba's post, from the same day, outlining a method for pulled pork on the grill -- which sounds like it should work nicely (though I would still vote for one of those barbeque-smoker grills, like the Traeger mentioned above, and would take the advice of the old pit masters I've met, and keep the fire down to 175°F if at all possible). ALSO -- for those who are interested -- the quesadilla's made with this stuff were a hit. The method: reheat and crisp up some of the pork, and set it aside. Grate some good melting cheese, such as Monterey Jack or Mexican Chihuahua cheese. Preheat a small skillet; brush one side of a fresh tortilla with oil. Lay it oiled side down in the pan. Sprinkle on grated cheese, keeping about 1/2" border clear. Add the pork to one half, then fold the tortilla over into a half moon. Press down, and turn a couple times until the quesadilla is golden and crisp on the outside. Serve.

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