Hog Wild

Pulled pork (aka barbeque) is something Southerners can sometimes get a little peculiar about. The Texans have their brisket, but you best not show up elsewhere and expect to hear ‘beef’ and ‘barbeque’ in the same sentence. Everyone has their own special way to make pulled pork, but the general assumption is that it’s cooked ‘low and slow’, and smoked. On a grill or in the oven? Charcoal? A spice rub or sauce prior to cooking? The choices are limitless.

And although choices are aplenty, I won’t pretend to be unbiased in where I stand on the barbeque itself – I prefer the whole pig smoked outdoors on the ‘pig cooker’, practically overnight (preferably over a few beers in the wee hours of the morning), simply seasoned, and doused in vinegar and not much else. In that respect, I am Eastern NC through and through.

In fact, for Christmas dinner one year, my Aunt Faye and some other folk did just that – we had a certified pig pickin’, sans turkey and all that other mess, and ate outdoors on paper plates, with cups of sweet tea at our feet and coleslaw and hushpuppies crowding our plates. It was blissful, and while I fancy the turkey and stuffing, I’ll gleefully admit that the ‘year of the pig’ was one of my favorites, dinner-wise.

Before I go any further, let’s discuss the sauce a bit. You see, the sauce that covers said pork has various areas divided for eternity, probably moreso than any culinary tiff, definitely any tiff in the South. The battle primarily takes place in NC, where a vertical line divides the state in two halves, a tomato at the root of all evil.  Western NC sauce is sweet, with tomato, while Eastern sauce is hot and spicy, tomato-less, and if I must be truthful – the best. You’ve also got the crazies from South Carolina who use mustard as their main sauce ingredient, and I’ve seen other versions as well, but I daresay these are the main three.

With all this said, you may have noticed by now that the pictures you see before you are in fact not my ideal version of pulled pork (i.e., you see pork shoulder, rather than the whole pork, which wouldn’t be weird if we were referring to Western barbeque since they tend to only use the shoulder). You may remember that I live in a condo in Chicago, and as a result I seriously doubt we’d be able to procure a pig cooker for our balcony, let alone locate a whole hog to toss on the cooker. You may also be thinking to yourself that you’ve already seen pulled pork here before, and you’d be correct there too. But those of us who like our NC barbeque and can’t get “the real deal” regularly have to improvise, and by improvise I mean find a recipe that sounds pretty decent, and one that works with balconies and less than a backyard full of people.

This recipe was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. For one, there was no spice rub (!), but instead a generous basting of a mustard sauce, which scared me a little. Also, it utilized two techniques – a low and slow stint in the oven followed by a brief visit to the grill, with wood chips. It seemed to be a good combo, so I gave it a whirl, with a few adjustments along the way.

The end result is an incredibly juicy hunk o’ pork that could possibly feed a roomful, but in our world it fed four of us, with a little leftover. I like to think of that as a testament to how good it was, and as it turns out, the mustard gave the pork a nice flavor, but the smoke is really where it’s at. Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to the barbeque back ‘home’, but in the meantime, it will most certainly do.

Carolina Pulled Pork
Adapted loosely from Food & Wine, September 2010; serves 8

time commitment: 10 hours (1 hour active time)

printable version (pork & sauce)

¾ c Dijon mustard
2 T dark brown sugar
2 T kosher salt
2 T pepper, freshly ground
1 T smoked paprika
1 T onion powder
8 lbs bone-in pork shoulder (Boston butt)
2 c mesquite wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes, drained
Eastern NC bbq sauce (below)

Special stuff: a thermometer with a cord that can go into the oven is perfect for this so that you don’t have to constantly check the temperature. For the first stage of cooking, plan for about 1 hour / pound of meat.

Preheat oven to 225 F. in a medium bowl, whisk together mustard through onion powder. Set the pork shoulder, fat side up, in a roasting pan. Brush pork with mustard mixture and roast, uncovered, for ~8 hours, or until the internal temperature registers ~170 F.

If there are any roasting juices (not fat, juices), pour them into a measuring cup and refrigerate to separate fat. Keep at room temperature after fat is poured off.

Heat grill to 400 F. line roasting pan with aluminum foil and scatter the presoaked wood chips over the bottom. Place pork back in roasting pan. Put roasting pan on grill and close; smoke until internal temperature of meat reaches 185-190 F.

Transfer pork to work surface and let rest for 30 minutes. Pull meat off the bones and discard bones and outer layer of fat that’s remaining. Using two forks, finely shred the pork and transfer it to a large bowl. Toss meat with some of the bbq sauce and roasting juices (if any). Serve with bbq sauce and coleslaw!

Vinegar-Based Eastern NC bbq Sauce
chiknpastry recipe; makes 2 cups

printable version (sauce only)

1.5 c apple cider vinegar
1 c water
1 T tomato paste
4 T dark brown sugar
1 T crushed red pepper flakes
2 t smoked paprika
1 t chile powder

combine all ingredients in small saucepan and bring to boil. reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. add more red pepper flake, if desired.

Smoked Out, Spiced Up

I made a routine trip over to The Spice House a few weeks ago to stock up on a few items that were running frighteningly low (seriously, what would I do if I ran out of cumin? green cardamom pods?). Fortunately, I’d ditched outta work a little early that day, otherwise I would have been caught in the midst of one of Chicago’s final festivals of the summer had I waited and ventured over to Old Town on the weekend.

I love that place, and when explaining to those who are less, say, discriminating in their spice-buying, why I get my spices from there, and there only, I vacillate between a few equally valid reasons.

1) I like to keep my spices fresh, and as a result I buy in small quantities. No, I don’t put dates on the bottom of my spice jars, and I don’t throw every single bottle out and start over every 6 months, as other spice nazis do. Hell no, I’m not throwing out saffron – I don’t care how old it is! But since I can buy in small quantities (typically 1 oz at a time), I do, and this way I’m replacing many of them every 6 months anyway, or even less.

2) I swear I save money, even if I spend $10-20 bucks on spices each trip. I can’t help it that I am tempted by the cute container of smoked sea salt and the enticing aroma of Tahitian vanilla bean. But seriously – the spice jars at Whole Foods are ~4 bucks a pop, and the weekly grocery bills are already unruly. Maybe that’s just WF, but either way, I’m convinced it has to be cheaper to buy from bulk bins since I’m not throwing out money for the exact same glass jar I already have at home. Just sayin’.

3) The folks there are so dang nice. My blogger buddies, Alice & Jared, even got to hang out there one afternoon – so you can read an in-depth account of their trip here! I had a rather detailed convo with one of the “spiciers” (yes, using this word as a noun instead of an adjective here..) while she was bagging all my goods the other day: she was curious about the star anise I was buying, commenting on how pretty it is and asking, “what do you do with it?”.

Ahem. Well, aside from steeping it in beverages (hello, Thai iced tea) and other dishes, sorta like you would a cinnamon stick, and baking, the list goes on and on. But my focus this time, and my need for a refill, was because I was smokin’ with it. Yep, smokin’. I think she peed her pants when I said that. Okay, maybe not, but she did wrinkle her nose quite a bit.

I’d found a very intriguing recipe in a recent Food & Wine magazine from an interview with a chef in North Carolina, Andrea Reusing of Lantern, a place that’s now on my list of to-do’s over a future NC visit. Turns out, her husband co-founded Merge Records (Arcade Fire, aka one of my favorite three bands of this year, anyone?). NC-based and friends of Arcade Fire aside, I loved the idea of smoking with tea and spices – loved it. And while many of you (myself included) don’t have a home smoker, you can rig it up with no problem, as I did with a wok, a cooling rack, and tin foil.

The result, after a day in a soy-based, spiced brine (you know I heart brines!), a quick smoke over the stovetop, and some more time in the oven, is an extremely moist, mahogany-colored piece of chicken that tastes like you’ve stepped right into a house of spices and a chicken coop in paradise simultaneously. The outer skin crunches against your teeth, and the juices run carelessly into your mouth and down your chin. And while I didn’t bother too much with the accompanying sauce, I’m sure the sweet tang is a nice partner to this anise-loving chicken, if you can stop eating it long enough to spoon a little onto the next bite, that is.

Tea & Spice-Smoked Roasted Chicken
Adapted from Food & Wine via Lantern Restaurant, September 2010; serves 4

time commitment: 20 minutes the night before + 24 hours brining time + 1.75 hours the night you intend to eat it (pssttt – it’s worth it!).

printable version

chicken brine
2 quarts water
6 garlic cloves, smashed
5 dried red chiles
4 star anise pods
3 T honey
one 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
zest of 1 small orange or tangerine, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
one 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 c soy sauce (gluten-free, if needed)
1 small yellow onion, quartered
1 T sugar
1 whole chicken, wing tips removed

smoking mixture
1/2 c jasmine rice
1/4 c plus 2 T sugar
1/4 c plus 2 T loose black tea
6 star anise pods, broken into pieces
4 dried red chiles, broken into pieces
vegetable oil, for rubbing
1 t Sichuan peppercorns, crushed

scallion-ginger sauce
4 scallions, white and pale green parts only, minced 
2 T finely grated fresh ginger 
2 T canola oil

special stuff: roasting pan or wok & a large pot or Dutch oven

brine the chicken
in a large pot (a Dutch oven large enough to hold the chicken), combine the water, garlic, chiles, star anise, honey, ginger, orange zest, cinnamon, soy sauce, onion and sugar. Simmer over moderate heat for 10 minutes. Let cool.

place chicken in pot of brine and turn the chicken to coat it completely with brine. Turn the chicken breast side down and place lid on pot. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

prepare the smoking mixture
preheat the oven to 375 F. In a bowl, combine the rice, sugar, tea, star anise and chiles. Line a wok or small roasting pan with a double layer of foil. Scatter the tea mixture on the foil and set a rack in the wok/pan. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry. Transfer the chicken to the rack, breast side up; be sure it doesn’t touch the side of the pan. Tent heavy-duty foil over the chicken and seal all around the edge of the pan. Seal overlapping pieces of foil with tape.

set the roasting pan/wok over high heat and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to moderately low and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for 3 minutes. Uncover the chicken and let rest for 10 minutes.

transfer the chicken to a rimmed baking sheet, breast side up. Rub the chicken with canola oil, sprinkle with the Sichuan peppercorns and season lightly with salt. Roast in the upper third of the oven for 35 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 425 F and continue to roast for about 35 minutes longer, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the inner thigh registers 165. Transfer the chicken to a carving board and let rest for 10 minutes.

make the scallion-ginger sauce
In a bowl, combine the scallions, ginger and oil and season with salt. Carve the chicken and serve with the sauce.