Gathering around the table with friends and family should never stress the host. At least that’s the plan. I try to remember the reasons we gather: friendship, camaraderie, laughter, holiday cheer. Still, menu planning puts pressure on even the most accomplished cook.
Slow-cooked, tender and tangy pulled pork proves the answer to many of my warm-weather entertaining dilemmas: It’s not expensive, little active time is required of the cook, it can go casual or more upscale, and it’s easy to make. Most of all, nearly everyone embraces the flavors and the effort.
This holiday season I’m once again relying on slow-cooked pork’s crowd-pleasing and cook-friendly appeal. With a major exception: I’ll employ the oven rather than an outdoor grill. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the trickiness to cooking on a grill in snow and ice. First, the oven heat will be slow and steady; second, the house will smell amazing!
To serve a dozen guests, or to have leftovers for future meals, I order a large, bone-in pork shoulder roast from the local butcher. Cut from the top portion of the front leg, the shoulder goes by different names around this country. Most commonly, the cut from the area near the loin containing the shoulder blade bone is called a Boston butt or a shoulder butt roast. It’s well-marbled with fat which means flavor and help keeping the lean meat tender.
I ask my butcher to leave a modest (1/4-inch thick) layer of fat on the top of the roast.
The final texture will be tenderest when the meat is cooked slowly for a long time. You can ask for a boneless roast for easier carving, but you’ll want to have it tied into a compact shape for even cooking.
Since the cooking time take between 10 and 11 hours, I often cook the roast overnight — an option I much prefer to leaving the house with the oven on.
When I’m close to home on the weekends, I season the roast the night before and refrigerate it uncovered. Early the next morning, I set it in the oven so it’s ready for an evening gathering of friends. Of course, intrepid grillers can cook the roast on a gas- or charcoal-fueled grill. Be sure to employ an oven thermometer to help maintain an even temperature. If it is bitter cold outside, you may need to allow for extra cooking time.
I add a couple of cups of water to the pan to help prevent smoke from pan drippings while the roast cooks. Then the pan drippings transform into amazing au jus when the pan is deglazed and the juices seasoned.
How to serve this meltingly tender pork? You have many options. My favorite is sliced super thin and served over buttered egg noodles or creamy mashed potatoes with a spoonful or two of the pan juices and a sprinkling of chopped fresh green onions or chives.
I’d never pass up slices of the pork served over a bowl of brown rice and baby spinach with lots of red pepper hot sauce. Bite-size pieces can be tucked inside a flour tortilla with a bit of shredded Jack cheese for a great quesadilla. Finely chopped leftover pork makes a wonderful weekday supper when piled inside a baked russet or sweet potato with a dollop of sour cream.
The pork makes great sandwiches when pulled into smallish bits for piling on toasted brioche buns with a scoop of coleslaw. To pull the pork, work while it is still hot from the oven, using a large carving knife to cut the meat away from the bones. Then use two large forks to pull the boneless meat into long attractive shreds. The shreds can be added to the pan juices, seasoned with salt and reheated. Or, pack into freezer containers and freeze up to several months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator. Serve a colorful slaw with the sandwiches for piling on top or enjoying alongside.
SLOW-ROASTED, CHILE-CRUSTED PORK
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 10 to 11 hours
Makes: 12 to 14 servings
To reduce cooking time, ask the butcher for 2 smaller roasts — a 4- to 5-pound roast will cook to tenderness in about 6 hours.
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons each: dark chili powder, smoked paprika
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons each: salt, coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 bone-in pork butt shoulder roast, about 9 pounds, with a generous layer of fat
2 cups chicken broth or water
1. Mix sugar, chili powder, paprika, onion flakes, garlic powder, salt, pepper and dry mustard in a small bowl. (Spice rub can be made up to a week in advance; recipe makes a generous 1 cup; you’ll need about 3/4 cup for the pork.)
2. Have a deep roasting pan with a wire rack ready. Pat pork roast dry. Use a very sharp knife to cut four 1/2-inch deep slits evenly spaced on both sides of the roast. Set roast on the rack in the pan, fat side down. Coat heavily with some of the spice rub. Turn roast fat side up. Coat sides and top with the spice rub. Roast can be refrigerated, uncovered, up to several hours or overnight.
3. Heat oven to 250 degrees. If necessary, remove roast from refrigerator while the oven heats. When the oven is hot, place the pan with the pork on the oven rack. Carefully pour 2 cups water into the pan (but not on the roast). Roast until a meat thermometer registers 170 degrees and a fork inserted in several spots is easily removed, 10 to 11 hours. (Add more water to the pan as needed.)
4. Transfer the roast to a cutting board. Allow the meat to rest, tented with foil, about 20 minutes. Set the roasting pan over medium heat; stir in chicken broth. Heat to a boil; cook to reduce the juices slightly. Season to taste with salt and some of the remaining spice rub if desired.
5. Use a sharp carving knife, or an electric knife, to very thinly slice the pork. Sprinkle the slices lightly with salt. Serve hot, drizzled with some of the pan juices.
Nutrition information per serving (for 14 servings): 224 calories, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 29 g protein, 343 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
CREAMY MASHED POTATOES
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Makes: 12 servings
2 pounds medium-size golden potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 pounds small russet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, cut into 2-inch chunks
6 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/4 cups half-and-half
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
Chopped fresh chives
1. Put potatoes into a large deep pot; add water to cover the potatoes by at least 1 inch. Add garlic and salt. Heat to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; loosely cover the pot. Cook at a gentle simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Drain well; return to the hot pot.
2. Make a well in the center of the potatoes; add the half-and-half and butter to the well. Set the pot over very low heat. Use a potato masher to mash everything together until the potatoes are smooth and creamy. Taste and adjust the seasoning for salt. Remove the heat. Cover with parchment paper set directly on the surface of the potatoes and the pot lid. Potatoes will stay hot for up to 30 minutes. Adjust with a little more half-and-half and butter if they get too thick.
Nutrition information per serving: 227 calories, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 29 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 3 g protein, 605 mg sodium, 3 g fiber