Little Pot of Porky Joy

North Carolina is a piggy state.  Our pork processing industry is the nation’s third-largest, generating almost a billion and a half dollars a year.

But where Tar Heels really shine, is in the preparation and consumption of it.  I can explain in four little words.

Eastern NC Barbecue.

Short of Puerto Rico, nobody even comes close to the wondrous things we can do with a pig.  It’s a mystical art that reaches back through the centuries.  The Taíno people, an indigenous population who lived, among other places, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico invented barbacoa, the slow cooking of wild boar upon wooden frames. 

There are stories that pirates in the Caribbean took up this cooking method.  Because of the state’s unique position jutting far out into the Atlantic and the cause of many a ship’s doom, there was quite a population of those same pirates that eventually, whether by choice or by shipwreck, came to call NC home.

Did they bring along the idea of barbacoa with them, which then was passed along to the rural population who had access to whole, freshly slaughtered hogs?

With this heritage, residents of the Old North State have eaten pork in many delicious forms.  Barbecue, sausages of all types, and has anyone ever been to a Southern funeral where there were no ham biscuits?

I think there’s a state law mandating piles of them must be at the get-together after any good North Carolinian is laid to rest.

Pigs were domesticated first in Europe and Asia.  In France, they invented a rich unctuous dish that’s naturally preserved.  It’s a dish that is unfamiliar to many people in this state but has a lot in common with our own porky sensibilities.

It’s slowly cooked, using pork shoulder, a cut that needs time to coax out its flavor and texture.  It’s rich, using the fat as well as the meat.  The fat also preserves it by getting poured into a layer on top and hardening, which serves as a barrier to sick-making microbes.

It’s called pork rillettes (re-yets).  And it’s the easiest fancy French food you’ll ever be lucky enough to put into your own pork hole.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Pork Rillettes

2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 pound pork belly, skin removed, cut into 1-inch pieces

½ cup brandy

1 ½ cups chicken stock

12-15 gratings of fresh nutmeg

10 peppercorns, cracked

10 juniper berries, crushed

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

5 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Salt to taste

Heat oven to 250°.

Place everything except salt and vinegar into large heavy pot with a lid.  Cover, and place inside oven.

Cook 2 ½ hours, then have a peek.  You’re looking for the stock and brandy to be cooked out, and the meat to be completely soft and falling apart.  If the stock hasn’t cooked out, uncover and cook for thirty more minutes.

When pork is sitting in fat only, remove from oven.  Discard bay leaves and thyme twigs.

Pour into colander or sieve, catching and keeping the fat.  Place pork and solids into stand mixer fitted with paddle and mix on low until meat is almost a paste.  Add ¼ cup of the reserved fat and mix on low until fully combined.

Divide into 8 small jars or ramekins.  Gently press smooth to remove any air pockets.  Top each with a spoonful of reserved fat.  Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks if fat cap is undisturbed.  Once the cap’s been broken, you have five days.

Spread on toasts or crackers, or place a dollop on chicken breasts, steak, fish, or roasted veg.  

I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Shame

Having no cell phone means having no disembodied voice telling me where to go when traveling to the unfamiliar.  Most of the time that’s a welcome reprieve from everybody else in my life either telling me where to go or thinking it so loudly I can hear them in my sleep.

I do own a GPS, it’s a hand-me-down from The Kid’s college days.  But, it’s anything but user-friendly, and every time I touch it I lose the map I want and instead am given directions for a brisk 2,700-hour walk from my house to a soda shop in outer Mongolia.

Recalculating…

So, I had three pages of hand-written directions to get me to Ayden, North Carolina, home of the Skylight Inn.

And I did really well, too.

Until I got about five miles from my goal.  Then I wandered the countryside like a drunken time lord.  I stopped at a convenience store and got directions.  It took three more stops before I pulled into the parking lot of Skylight Inn—thirty minutes late.As I pulled in, a truck pulled out.  I didn’t know it, but it was driven by my host Sam Jones.  He’d been waiting, but he eventually ran to the post office.

He returned quickly, but in the meantime, I changed into boots and put my hair under a cap—I wanted to be able to go wherever Sam would let me.  After suiting up I went around back.  There an unexpected sight greeted me.

Sam

Sam, and his kingdom of logs.

About fifty feet from the restaurant and continuing as far as I could see was pile after pile of split logs, ready to be tossed onto the fire and turned into glowing charcoal to cook the pigs.  Coming toward me from this forest was a young man pushing a wheelbarrow holding at least four million logs.

Vulcan of this forge is also known as Daniel Williams.  He is the man who keeps the fire burning, the pigs readied for the pit, the pork cooked, and the golden skin as crispy as a bad perm.

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The Skylight Inn cookhouse fireplace.

Inside the cookhouse, it’s at least 4000 degrees.  But this is an old-fashioned place for an old-fashioned way to cook pig.  So, the only way to regulate the temp is by shoveling more or less burning wood around and under the pig.  The only thermometers used are the probe version to check the internal porcine temp for doneness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I arrive the pigs, which have been cooking overnight, are finished, and ready for the next step in their progress to becoming lunch.  Mike Parrot, AKA “Chopper” comes in with a large basin and takes a portion of porker back with him into the kitchen.

I follow him in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChopper attacks the pig with skill, a touch of showmanship, and a pair of large, shiny, lethal-looking cleavers engraved with his nickname.  He also has the same design tattooed onto one bicep, made toned and strong from the breaking down of up to ten or more pigs a day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMike asks me if I’d like to give it a whirl.  On any other playdate I would happily roll up my sleeves and jump right in, here I regretfully decline.  I know myself, and I know that any length of time wielding those weapons of deconstruction would give a new nickname.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo Chopper for me; I’d forever be known as “Stumpy”.

The day I spent at Skylight was very full.  So full, in fact, I have to finish this tale next week.  Join me for a field trip with Sam, my first bite of cornpone, and more time in the forge.

Thanks for your time.

 

This Little Piggy Came Home

piggy bank vidya suryBaking can be a little trickier, but most of the time when I try a new savory recipe, I’m pretty sure of the end result.

But, not always.

I got three pretty pork loin chops a few weeks ago.  They were thick, but not so thick that they’d be a pain to cook.    I got them on sale because they were slightly long in the tooth.  Not so much that they were furry, but soon would be.  So, they needed to be cooked or frozen right away.But the upshot was, I bought three pretty respectable chops for $3.  And, I had a recipe that I’d been wanting to try.  The only thing I needed to pick up was a small carton of half & half.

The recipe was for a garlicky spinach sauce.  Then put the meat in it and serve with egg noodles and a green salad.

Sounds like we had a nice dinner, doesn’t it?

Yeah, not so much.

Unfortunately, is wasn’t this type of funk…

Somewhere along the way, the sauce picked up some funk.  Not funk like food gone bad, but funk like a whole lot of cheese was in it.

But there was no cheese in anything.  I felt like I was in one of those babysitter horror movies, “It’s coming from inside the house!”, only “It’s coming from inside the sauce!”. I think the spinach and mushrooms just turned the earthy flavor of the sauce up to about a thousand and eleven.  It didn’t work.

So, I am not sharing that recipe.  Instead, I’m going to give you a dish that I have been making for as long as we’ve been married.  And because I’ve been making it since well before I could cook worth a fig, it’s easy.

Pork and Zucchini Cream

zucchini pork

1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into 2 X ½ inch strips

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound zucchini, washed, left unpeeled and sliced into ½ inch rounds

1 yellow onion chopped

4-6 cloves garlic

½ teaspoon dry thyme

2 cups heavy cream

¾ cup skim milk

Red pepper flakes (optional)

Big handful of fresh parsley

Salt & pepper

Place the sliced zucchini into colander and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt and let sit for an hour.  After an hour, pat it dry with towel (paper or clean kitchen).

In a large heavy skillet, add half the oil and butter.  When butter’s melted, working in batches, place the zucchini down in one layer and cook at medium-high until there is deep caramelization, flip and cook other side.  Remove to towel-covered plate.  Repeat until all veg is cooked, adding a bit more butter and oil as needed.Add the rest of the fat, onions, and thyme into the same pan and cook until the onions get golden.  Add garlic, and when it just begins to toast, pour in dairy and add pepper flakes.  Lower to medium, bring to boil and let reduce. 

After ten minutes season pork strips and add to sauce.  Cook for ten more minutes or until it’s is of sauce consistency.  Stir in zucchini & parsley and serve over starch of your choice—something unexpected is fun; like Israeli couscous, griddled Texas toast, or grits.

Serves 6.So, there’s a true yin and yang this week.

On the dark side is the reminder that I’m not infallible discerning the flavor of the dish by reading the recipe.

But, on the happier end of the scale, even when I couldn’t cook, every once in a while, I and my diners would get lucky, and I’d turn out something that was actually tasty.Thanks for your time.

Definitely Dixie (kind of)

I’m broken, and it’s all because of my mom, The Kid, and Fresh Market.

I used to be like all the other proper Southern children and eat any pimento cheese that was offered.  And like any good Southern child, ate it on spongy white bread.

But then two things happened that changed everything, and broke me.

First, my mom came to visit from Greensboro one day.  I honestly don’t remember her ever having arrived empty-handed.  Well, on this fateful day, knowing that I love both pimento cheese and Fresh Market and she brought me a tub of the goo they make in-house at that culinary Aladdin’s cave.

Secondly, when The Kid was in middle school we made a trip to the supermarket.  In the chip aisle, my spawn asked for a specific bag of pretzels.  The ones requested were Utz Special Dark sourdough; another kid had brought them for lunch, and they were a big hit among the lunchroom set.

They were also a hit at Chez Matthews, I took to keeping them around for The Kid’s lunch and to munch on.

One day I had some fresh pimento cheese from Fresh Market in the fridge.  I also had a bag of dark pretzels on the counter.  I wandered into the kitchen looking for something on which to snack.  I pulled out the cheese, and opened the pretzels.  I dunked and tasted.

My whole world shifted.

When The Kid was little and faced with a new food, I used to say try it, because you never know, it might be your new favorite.

The pretzels and the pimento cheese were both tasty on their own.  But the sum of these savory parts made for a whole that was so intensely delicious I needed to sit down.  I may have passed out from the sheer sensory overload.

A couple years ago, I was making oven-baked pork chops.  I needed some breader.  And I just happened to have the better part of a bag of Utz’s on hand.

After grinding in the food processor, I coated the chops and threw them in the oven.  The special dark specialness did it again.  We loved them.

The other day I was making pork chops had an epiphany: I would make a stuffed hybrid.

Stuffed pretzel pork chops

pimento pork

4-1 ½ inch thick boneless pork loin chops

1 cup your favorite pimento cheese

5 cups Utz Special Dark sourdough pretzels, divided

2 cups heavily seasoned flour

2 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Cooking spray

Prepare stuffing:  Run 5 or 6 pretzels through food processor until finely crushed.  Measure out 2 tablespoons and mix it with pimento cheese.  Set aside.

With a thin flexible knife cut a pocket into chops.  Cut a small slit (2 inches or less), horizontally in the side.  Push knife into pork, being careful not to cut all the way through.  Wiggle the knife back and forth opening up the pocket.

Put cheese mixture into a zip top bag and cut off one small corner.  Place bag into pork chop, and squeeze in about ¼ of cheese into each.  Place into fridge for at least an hour to chill.

Grind up the rest of the pretzels into large, coarse crumbs.  Place into shallow dish.  Put flour into another bag, and pour buttermilk into another shallow dish.

Coat pork with 3-part dredge; shake in flour, dip in buttermilk, and heavily coat with pretzels.  Put back in fridge for another hour to cool and set the cheese.

Preheat oven to 350.  Put oil into a heavy baking dish.  Set in pork chops and give them a spritz of cooking spray on top.

Bake for 15 minutes.  Using a fork and spatula, gently flip them over and bake 15 minutes more. 

Remove from oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes.  Serves 4.

And how did my mom, The Kid, and Fresh Market break me?

They all contributed to spoiling me for any other pimento cheese.  Nobody else’s tastes good anymore.  And when it’s topping a very specific dark brown, knotted piece of dough, I am reclining among the angels in snacking heaven.

Way to go, guys.

Sadly, there’s no kit to fix me…

Thanks for your time.

The big bad wolf called…he wants to come for dinner

Alright you guys, today I’m bringing you all along for culinary jalopy ride/scientific experiment.

Here at Chez Matthews, we love smothered pork chops.  But there’s a major fly in the ointment when using modern grocery store pork.

Today’s modern mass-produced pork has very little fat.  Many pork chops, either bone-in or boneless are from the very leanest part, the loin.  This makes for a tender and juicy chop when cooked just to 143 degrees.  But when cooked low and slow this quality translates to dry and stringy.

I’ve been thinking about doing a slow-cooked smothered pork dish that would only get better by a long sojourn in a low oven.

A North Carolina gold mine.

A pork butt (or shoulder), the cut used to make NC barbecue and carnitas, is full of fat and connective tissue that when cooked slowly becomes tender and unctuous.  But, they’re huge hunks of meat.

There is though, a compromise cut.

It’s something called boneless country ribs.  They aren’t actually ribs, but cut either from the blade end of the loin near the shoulder, or the shoulder itself.  The leaner loin-cut rib works here, but the best cut for this dish is the butt.

Happily, it’s also a buck or two cheaper than its leaner neighbor.

Slow-cooked smothered country ribs

Rub:

dry rub

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon porcini powder

1/2 teaspoon caraway powder

1 teaspoon za’atar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon thyme

Pinch of fresh nutmeg

Mix together and rub all over 2 pounds boneless country pork ribs.  Cover, refrigerate, and let sit 24 hours.

Caramelized onion:

car onions

2 yellow onions, chopped

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon dry thyme

1 teaspoon za’atar

I large bay leaf

Salt and pepper

Put oil in pot on medium low.  Add onions, thyme, za’atar, bay leaf, salt and pepper.

Cook on medium-low until golden amber in a large heavy pot with lid. Remove from pot.

Heat the same pot on medium-high.  Brown meat on all sides in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil.  Remove from pot and set aside.

Mushroom gravy:

shroom gravy

2 pounds mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, divided

2 tablespoons sassafras jelly or 1 tablespoon apple jelly and ¼ cup root beer

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 cup white wine

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups beef stock

1 cup skim milk

1/3 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

Roux:

roux ing

3/4 cup butter

3/4 cup flour

Melt butter in a small saucepan on medium-low.  Whisk in flour and cook until the color of peanut butter.  Set aside.

Directions:

Preheat oven to 250.  Heat pot on medium-high.  Add mushrooms, rosemary, and 1 tablespoon thyme to pot along with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.  Cook until liquid has released from the mushrooms and cooked off.  Add cooked onion.  When mushrooms begin to brown, add jelly and tomato paste.  Cook until jelly dissolves and tomato paste has begun to darken (about 3 minutes). 

Pour in wine and cook until pan is dry again.  Add stock, stir in mustard, Worcestershire, and dairy.  Heat until boiling.  Whisk in roux until gravy thickness.  Check for seasoning.  Add in meat and cover.  Place in oven and cook three hours.  When done, skim off any fat from the surface.

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Serve over rice.  Makes 5-6 servings.

Well, it turned out delicious.  The meat was literally falling-apart tender.  The connective tissue had completely broken down and gave it that rib-like mouth feel.

And Petey, who I sometimes think likes pork more than he likes me, loved it.  He claimed the leftover pork and rice for lunch tomorrow.  I also had two deli containers of gravy left.  One portion will be used for baked meatballs in a day or so.  The other’s in the freezer for a future project to be named later.

So, my experiment was successful.  But really, how bad can pork and gravy ever be?  It’s not like my kitchen fiddling was going to create a monstrous porcine/human hybrid.   But just think; if it did we could have had a huge pig pickin’ that could baste itself and make the sides.

Don’t worry, this is actually a still from a Doctor Who episode.

Thanks for your time.

 

Things I’ve done with a butt

 

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The pork butt torte.

When Petey and I first married, not only could I not cook, I had no idea how to cook for two. At home, my mother always made enough at each meal to feed many, many unexpected guests. In my entire childhood, while it may not “have been fancy,” as mom would say, there was always plenty, no matter how many sat at her table, or needed a to-go plate or fourteen.
So when I made meat loaf for my handsome groom, it was always at least four pounds, and then I couldn’t figure out why I had a frat party’s worth of food going fuzzy in the fridge.
It took a long time, but I finally figured out how to cook for a realistic number of diners. Since then I am obsessed with using all the food that I buy, and wasting as little as possible.
But when I plan on making Boston Butt, the shoulder of a pig, I always buy a cut as large as my big dutch oven, “Old Blue” can handle. Usually about five pounds. When the Kid was at home, I could make an eight pounder in“Mrs. Lovett”, The Kid’s massive cooker. But the pot went north, along with our child, and most of our money.
And not one ounce of an oinker goes to waste.
Last Monday night I made a 4 1/2 pounder. I cooked up a pot of yellow rice with pigeon peas as well. I marinated the hunk of pig in the fridge over night. Early in the day I dried it off, rubbed seasoning all over it, and gave it a dark brown sear on all sides. I brown my aromatics (the flavoring veg, and spices) in the same pot, deglaze, put the roast back in the pan fat side up, and pour in liquid until it comes about halfway up the sides of the pork.
I am purposefully not advising on other ingredients. You can make it any style you want. From beer, cabbage, and carrots to fish sauce, yuzu and five spice. Have fun, but keep tasting your concoction for flavor and balance.
Bake it low and slow. The lowest safe oven temperature to cook it is 225. Monday, my little piggy took six and a half hours. This meat will tell you when it’s done. When the muscle groups of the roast are falling away from each other, and you can easily shred even inner meat with a fork; it’s done. Don’t try to force the pig, it doesn’t work.
For our rice and pigeon peas, I put some pig chopped, into a pan with achiote-garlic oil. I crisped it up, and put a handful on the top each serving of rice.
At the end of cooking it, I had four bags of slow-roasted pork to freeze for later.
Last night, I added some Mexican spice and made a torte in a spring-form pan. I layered rice (leftover from Monday, and spiced with poblanos) and pork with freshly roasted corn between tortillas. I put sliced tomatoes, and sliced Oaxaca cheese on top. At the end, I spread a lime-cumin sour cream, into which I’ve whisked some fine white masa. This bakes up like a super creamy polenta. I sprinkled shredded cheddar, snipped chive, and a fine dusting of smoked paprika on the top of the polenta. It went under the broiler to puff, and brown. I let it rest for a bit, release the ring, and am left with a layered cake kinda thing, full of a Mexican dinner.
Another night my bag o’ pork might be used on tacos, sandwiches, or baked potatoes. I put it in pies, casseroles, and pasta. I have the slowest of slow-roasted pork, which only takes defrosting time.
If I’m in the kitchen, making a huge batch of something, Petey, veteran of many dinners for two, featuring casseroles for eight, looks nervous. But if I have a piece of pig the size of lawn mower in the oven, he just looks hungry.
Thanks for your time.