Monday, July 5, 2010

Lack of Inspiration Equals Story and Recipe

Sans's Rules of Inspiration:
  • When you can write, eat out. 
  • When you can't write, cook. 
  • When you really can't write, write about cooking. 
So for the first time in a very long time, I give you a recipe (which is a roundabout way of saying I find myself completely unable to write).

A few weeks ago, I decided to invite my entire Hoosier family over to my mom's house for a cookout. My dad came from a family of 13 children. Ten of his siblings are still alive; ten have or had spouses who still live in central Indiana (which ends up adding 9 more people to the possible guest list). I have 31 first cousins, a half-brother, and a niece. And my mom has a sister and brother-in-law, who also live close to her. I didn't do the math of an open invitation until the morning of said event...and then, typical of my characteristic procrastination, it hit me like a ton of frozen hamburger patties: "Oh, my God, I'm supposed to feed these people!"

To top off the situation, I was feeling incredibly lazy, which is, apparently, a normal part of grieving. When you're in mourning, the smallest effort takes incredible physical and mental energy, yet you're still operating as if you're living under normal circumstances.  There's no fever or muscle aches or sneezing or coughing to remind you that things AREN'T normal, so you keep on until you get sucker punched by reality, which happens at extremely inopportune moments.

Like this one.

I'd been craving a pulled pork sandwich from Fat Daddy's of London, Arkansas (actually  housed in a gas station on Highway 64 smack dab between the towns of London and Russellville over 600 miles away, thus making takeaway out of the question). I had seen plenty of recipes for the sandwiches and figured nothing could really be easier to make even though I had never attempted making the sandwiches myself. So I jaunted off to the store to buy a pork butt and nearly consigned myself to Kitchen Hell for committing the first cardinal sin of entertaining: Never serve your guests a dish you've never made before.

Ah, well. One should live dangerously every once in a while (especially since, in the Big City, one can always have Chinese delivered).

So I bought a 12-pound pork butt roast (which is actually the shoulder and is also called a "blade roast" in case you find yourself cooking in a part of the country where they call it by a different name as I, myself, did) for $7.00 (yes, seven bucks for 12 pounds o' meat).

I brought the thing home, sat it on the counter, and stared at it, then at the slow cooker.

Then at the roast.

Then at the slow cooker.

Then at the roast.

Then at the slow cooker.

Then the roast.

No feat of human engineering was going to shrink a 12-pound pork butt to fit into a 4-quart pot.

After considering Plans B, C, D, E, and F, I settled on Plan G: cut the roast off the bone into several large pieces, rub them down with spices, sear them on high heat, shuffle them off in a shallow turkey roaster, and set them out (in the roaster) on the grill to cook slowly at 250 degrees for a period of 10 hours...or until the propane ran out, whichever disaster occurred first.

Plan H was Moo Goo Gai Pan, in case you were wondering at what point I intended to abandon all hope.

ASPHYXIATION WARNING: Searing a piece of meat that's been rubbed down with spices can lead to death due to smoke inhalation. Open the windows before attempting the aforementioned technique. (BONUS: if you're trying to get 11 cats out of the house, this is your weapon of choice.)

Before I continue, let's talk barbecue. I could lose a lot of valuable writing time researching the various types. I've decided not to because there are no real facts regarding the issue, only opinion. What I've gleaned about the varieties is this: the Memphis kind is dry. Ribs are rubbed with spices and then slow-cooked in a smoker. The resulting dish is served with your choice of several mostly-tomato-based sauces ranging from sweet and mild to terrifically hot—so hot in some instances that servers are required to prove you can handle the sauce by having you taste it on a French fry before they can legally bring it to your table (and I'm NOT kidding).

Kansas City style is wet. My dad was a connoisseur of this method and generally roasted pork ribs (although in KC, there is a wide range of meats considered appropriate for barbecuing, including something called "burnt ends") in an oven on low heat for a very long time to seal in the juices. He, then, grilled them over high heat on a charcoal grill (frequently done in a pit in KC, as I understand) while he basted them continually in a tomato-and-molasses-based sauce until they were done.  It was labor intensive, and since I eschew anything sweet tasting, not exactly to my liking.

The Carolinas have their own style of barbecue. A cut of meat typically labeled as a roast is slow-cooked in its own juices for a long time to break down its toughness (technically, this is braising). It is then "pulled." That is, the cook uses two forks to tear the resulting meat up into a big pile which is then served on buns and topped with a vinegar-and-tomato-based sauce—very heavy on the vinegar.

As the Three Men will tell you, "In Arkansas [where I'm from], the sauces vary. Because the state borders Tennessee, Texas, and several other states, one can find a wide variety of barbecue styles and sauces in Arkansas. Side dishes can include baked beans, coleslaw, and potato chips."

So if you want to sample all the styles, visit me. I can take you to Sim's, where you'll be treated to Kansas City style, Whole Hog Cafe, where you'll enjoy Memphis style, and Fat Daddy's, where the barbecue is strictly Carolina.

Back to the recipe. After looking at the ingredients of several different vinegar-and-tomato-based sauces, I decided to wing it (heck, I'd pretty much been winging it since 7:00 a.m., why change course mid-stream?). I started with 2 cups of cider vinegar (16 ozs. / 1 pint) and 2 cups (16 ozs. / 1 pint) of ketchup, heated over a low burner to thicken.

ASPHYXIATION WARNING: Simmering vinegar and ketchup releases all the acids in both ingredients into the surrounding air, which could easily overwhelm an elephant. Open the windows before attempting this technique or, preferably, wear a gas mask. (BONUS: This will run nearly every living thing out of the house, including cats, humans, earwigs, army ants, and several species of moths. Its effect on chipmunks and raccoons has yet to be established, but I'm working on it.)

As with the spices I mixed for the rub, I just started tasting until I had something akin to Fat Daddy's yet uniquely my own. To make the meal, I put out Kaiser rolls, the sandwich meat, the sauce, and coleslaw in that order, so people could make their own sandwiches. Unfortunately, my Hoosier family had never heard of putting coleslaw on their barbecue. None of my prodding convinced them of the benefits, so it ended up being a side dish. Nevertheless, my uncle proclaimed his as "the best sandwich I ever had!" and added, "You should open a restaurant."

That might require a little more planning than I'm obviously used to as well as a health department inspection I could never pass. 

If you try this, just remember to taste, taste, taste, and adjust to your palate.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches

1 12-pound pork butt roast (a.k.a. Boston butt, pork shoulder roast, pork blade roast)
Spice rub, to taste
A small amount of oil with a high smoke point (soy, sunflower, or peanut)
1 large onion, chopped 
6 cloves garlic, minced


Good quality hamburger or sandwich buns

The best coleslaw you can find or make—just ensure it's not the "runny" kind (more on that another day if my inspiration continues to elude me)

Spice Rub
This is my best guess from memory:

1/4 c Hungarian paprika
2 T chili powder
1 T kosher salt (because pork ain't kosher without it)
1 t cumin
1 t garlic powder
1 t freshly cracked black pepper
1 t powdered cayenne
1/2 t cayenne flakes

I'm only sure about the first two ingredients. Otherwise, this is also my best guess from memory.

2 c cider vinegar
2 c ketchup
2 T Grey PouponTM mustard
2 T tomato paste
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T powdered cayenne
1 t Tobasco TM
salt as needed

Pre-heat grill to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Chop onions; mince garlic. Cut the roast off the bone into pieces that will fit into a shallow roaster when placed on the grill. Pat dry. Rub pieces with spice rub. Sear in skillet on high until browned on all sides. Place pork, onions, and garlic in roaster and slow cook on the grill for 10 hours.

Nine hours in, make your sauce. Mix vinegar and ketchup and bring to a boil, then lower temp to simmer.  Add spices to taste. Simmer, uncovered, to the consistency of your choice.

After taking the pork off the grill, remove the mixture and pull apart with two forks. Transfer to a bowl.

Allow guests to assemble sandwiches: top buns with pork, sauce, and coleslaw.

Serving Suggestion: Pinto beans, potato salad, and Diamond Bear Pale Ale.

Photo credit goes to jk5854 via Flickr.