“I like some of your recipes, such as they are. I mean, you don’t give any precise measurements, or things like that, but I kind of follow along and I try to do something similar and, most of the time, it works out.”
I am standing in an aisle at the market. The woman has blocked my path with her shopping cart. She has me pinned against the shelf as I reach for a box of Pim’s filled cookies. I am buying two boxes, lemon chiffon; they are on sale. They remind me of my English ancestors, on Mom’s side of the family.
“Great,” I say, staring at her faux, leopardskin print scarf. I am afraid to stare at anything else; she seems somewhat unstable. An untoward focal point could incite a ruckus.
“You know, I don’t give precise measures for a reason. I think each time you step into the kitchen, even if you intend to use the same ingredients you worked with the day before, the process should be an adventure. You should come up with something just a bit different. Cooking is like painting: You’ve got the elements in hand and, after a while, you know how they interact when introduced to each other. You plunge ahead, guided by a vague plan, and the thing itself, the creation, tells you where to go next. With cooking, you are guided by the eye, by taste and smell, and by sound as well. The creation tells you what is happening to it and helps you determine what comes next. As it is with painting, the critical knowledge in cooking is knowing when to stop.”
This is profound stuff, I think. I’m pretty darned proud of myself. And they said a degree in philosophy was worthless. Let this be a lesson to them!
Leopard Gal is not listening. “Do you always cook such small pieces of meat?”
“In almost all your recipes, you use small pieces of meat. Every once in a while, you braise something larger, but generally, you don’t roast things, do you? Are you frightened?”
By golly, I think, Ms. Leopardi is right. I generally use smaller cuts of meat, and I sauté a great many proteins; I braise on occasion, but roast?
“I am no stranger to roasting,” I say. “I have no fear and I’ll prove it.”
The Leopard Queen squints. “Is that a piece of lettuce stuck to your shirt collar?” She turns on the heel of her high-heeled boot and hustles away.
The gauntlet has been tossed, the challenge issued.
Consider this the Huge Hunk o’Meat Meditation.
For my project, I require a major mass of protein, a gargantuan wad of flesh.
And, I am going to roast it.
Since I am going to roast a gigantic piece of meat, Kathy and I might be gnawing on the leftovers for four or five days, and I will probably have to give away a pound or three. But I’m gonna do it.
Which meat, and what cut?
As far as I am concerned, there are two prime options: a leg of lamb or a massive portion of pork. Beef won’t do the trick.
Kathy hates both lamb and pork, so I will go with the lesser offender. And the cheaper.
Pork, it will be. Dietary law for two venerable religions is thrown out the window … for science!
Plus, I am hosting the “Siberia With a View Lamb Slaughter” later in the spring, complete with bottles of Bourgogne, and there is no need to put any undue stress on the supply of cuddly little lambkins until the time is right. No need to panic the population whilst the tykes are getting fat.
A hefty portion of one of our porcine pals is what is in order. I intend to roast a ponderous piece of pig for at least eight hours and that leaves me with the notorious butt.
No, this is not an old friend I had in Denver many years ago who went by the name “The Notorious Butt” — this is a pork butt. It’s quite a bit smaller than The Notorious Butt, and smells a whole lot fresher.
It has nothing to do with a pig’s butt; rather it originates at the other end of the beast, in the shoulder. That’s where you find the pork shoulder, the pork blade shoulder, the pork shoulder butt — i.e. the pork butt roast, the Boston butt, the Boston shoulder, the Boston-style butt, etc.
Why this cut?
For the answer, all you need do is look at the monster. It is marbled with more fat than just about any cut of any kind of meat this side of the pig’s belly — enough flab to moisten the meat internally during the course of long exposure to low heat. The meat is flavorful in itself, due to the huge amount of blubber, but it also takes on other flavors very well, via insertions and rubs.
There’s enough fat in this cut of pork to stop your heart. Eat enough and your next blood draw will contain visible solids. This is a good thing, now and then. Believe me.
I want a biggie. At least six pounds and, depending on how the butt looks, maybe a lot more. Ah, but that’s the way it is with butts, eh?
I scurry to the meat counter and find two, very large pork shoulders for sale. I ask the woman tending the counter if there are any Boston butts in the back. Big butts.
“I mean, something like these,” I point at the tremendous slabs in the case, “only a mite bigger.”
She scoots to the cooler and returns with “the last one.” She has to wheel it out on a cart.
I am doubly in luck: the beauty is on sale and I cruise in at less than a buck-and-a-half a pound.
Kathy catches me unloading the groceries when I arrive home.
“Dear lord, what is that?” She backs away from the flesh, a look of terror on her mug. She is no friend of meat. And big pieces of meat affect her proportionately.
“It’s Boston butt, née Boston shoulder, also known as pork shoulder roast, and known to some as …”
“What are you doing? Why is that thing in our house?”
“It is in our house, so I can cook it. Don’t worry … it’s dead. It’s gonna be swell.”
I must be light on my feet, so to speak, in order to mitigate her horror. “And, this is a new kind of pork shoulder. The darned pig was breast-fed for more than two years, so you know how happy he was as a piglet. Then, he was fed only the finest, organic produce — not a touch of pesticide, tainted animal products, hormones … nuthin’ but the best. At age four, he was taken to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, put under with an anesthetic and a team comprising the world’s most accomplished orthopedic surgeons removed his shoulder. A specially-fitted prosthesis, made of space-age materials, was attached and the hog was sent home to spend the rest of a long life scampering in the barnyard — with remarkable agility I might add — with the other happy farm animals.”
She leaves the room.
The kitchen gimmicks for this brute: low temperature, a seriously long time in the oven (enough to send the monthly gas bill through the roof) and powerful seasonings.
The flavor options are numerous, but I think two are necessary, given the nature of the flesh: fennel seed and red chile. Also, garlic is a must. Lots of garlic.
I toast a jar’s worth of fennel seeds and a bunch of coriander seeds in a heavy frying pan over medium heat, along with a serious splatter of whole black peppercorns, until the fennel begins to turn color and the smell gets all toasty good. I cool the seeds and peppercorns, then crush them in a sealed plastic bag, banging away at the mix with a rolling pin. I add a bunch of ground red chile — in this case, some of my prime Espanola red, which is mighty powerful, earthy stuff.
I take an entire, large head of garlic, peel the cloves, mince all but two of them on a large cutting board, then, using a bit of Kosher salt as an abrasive, I mash the minced garlic into a paste with the side of a chef’s knife. I add the spices to the garlic, add some kosher salt and just enough olive oil to create a thick paste.
The other two cloves I cut into extremely thin slabs.
I take the wad of pig, trim the fat on the top down to less than a quarter inch, and separate the muscles along the lines of fat. I put the spice paste into the cavities then pat the meat back into shape. I use a sharp paring knife and cut slits at random across the exposed surfaces of the meat. Into each slit I stuff a slab of garlic. The rest of the spice mix I massage on the surface of the meat.
I preheat the oven to 250. I plop the pig on a rack in a roasting pan, cover the pan loosely with foil. I splash a small bit of chicken broth into the bottom of the pan to keep the first drippings from burning, and into the oven it goes.
For nearly nine hours.
Overnight does the trick. There’s nothing like waking to the smell of roasted pork. It’s better than baby powder.
Out of the oven comes the butt and it cools in the pan.
Cooked overnight, then cooled for a couple hours, this makes for a mighty fine mid-day feast. The meat can be rewarmed, if necessary. There is no need to carve this beauty — merely pull hunks away, slip off the fat and the meat falls apart, ready for further shredding.
What to serve with it?
Sky’s the limit.
Pasta, perhaps, with olive oil, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Chunky mashed potatoes.
Better yet, how about some of the shredded pork in a grilled pita, along with sliced, roasted onions and peppers, some pitted kalamata olives, diced cucumber, diced tomato and crumbled feta cheese? With a splash or three of yogurt/lemon/garlic sauce.
A simple salad — baby greens, with some shredded cabbage —dressed with a shallot, lemon and mustard vinaigrette, makes a fine companion.
You need veggies? Try some warm garbanzo beans, slicked with melted butter, showered with fresh-cracked black pepper and a bit of ground cumin, and spritzed with lemon juice.
Dig in. It’ll take days to devour the meat.
And, while you’re eating, try to visualize that hog cavorting in the barnyard.
His shoulder bothers him a bit just before it rains, but otherwise, he’s doing fine.