I mean, not entirely. But if I’m going to call it a food blog, then by crumpets I’d better start writing about food again.
So, to the question of the week: What do you do with sixteen pounds of pork shoulder?
The answer is: EVERYTHING. But of course, freeze it.
We’ll get into how I acquired that amount of meat in a minute, but I’m designing this post around another Kitchen Axiom of mine, or maybe it’s a Recession Tip, or maybe it’s both.
David’s Guide to Living in a Recession Tips #2 and 3
#2: Buy in bulk (when it makes sense).
#3: Process it yourself.
Let’s address these in order. If you’re like me, and you’re not a 9-to-5 worker (for me, it’s more like 8 to 8, in two-hour chunks), you’ve got the time to save yourself money on food purchases. So if you’re driving by the Save-A-Lot and you see a sign advertising pork shoulder for $0.99/lb, perhaps you, Gentle Reader, will react as I did, and immediately acquire some.
Having never been to the Save-A-Lot before (which is a discount grocer like ALDI), I suppose I should have expected the pork shoulder to come in this quantity:
It ended up being about 16.5 pounds, of which perhaps only a pound or two was bone (I checked).
Since the picture above is from a home kitchen, you can obviously tell I purchased the damn thing. Why not buy in bulk? Normally, you’d find a 3 or 4-pound pork shoulder roast of similar quality at something like $3.99/lb or more when it’s not on sale, sometimes more.
Well, here’s a reason not to buy in bulk: if you don’t remember to take care of it within a coupla days of taking it home, you’ll forget about it in the back of your fridge, and a week and a half later that meat will spoil, and you’ll be out 16 bucks and change. And you’ll be kicking yourself.
Now I bought this meat well, well before its sell-by date, and I urge you never to buy discount meat that isn’t extremely fresh. Be frugal, but don’t be stupid. Should that be an axiom?
David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 6
Be frugal, not stupid.
So yes, buy in bulk. But then, having done so, don’t forget Recession Tip #3: process it yourself.
We eat a lot of processed food, and I’m not even talking about the stuff you shouldn’t be eating, like instant mac-and-cheese, biscuits inna can, and discount hot dogs (all of which being things I eat from time to time. Except for discount hot dogs). I’m defining processing here as not just the addition of preservatives, stabilizers and (unfortunately) fillers to food, but any work that anyone does on the food you buy, whether that’s cutting, packaging, or cooking.
In general, you want to be very chary about your meat: the general rule for health and safety seems to be that you want as few hands before yours to have touched it as is possible.
So, before that pork shoulder reached my kitchen, people had to:
1. Slaughter the pig
2. Butcher the pig into salable units
3. Vacuum-seal a shoulder in plastic, and
4. Truck it to a discount grocery store
Compare that, for example, with the sort of pre-made roulades and hamburgers that come in your grocer’s case, or, perhaps more saliently, with family-sized packages of ground meat that combine multiple meat-sources in the same package. The place my parents shop at back home grinds its own beef; they take pieces of chuck and grind them fresh on-site. This is always better than buying something that was pre-ground at an enormous industrial processing plant, or at least it will be until American processing regulations get more stringent. All of those ground beef recalls in the past decade have been due to contamination by coliform bacteria like E. coli, which is exclusively found in feces.
It’s enough to make you want to stop eating meat entirely. Which is why it’s always best to grind your own meat, or at least find a scrupulous, clean, and trustworthy butcher who’ll do it for you.
But back to the matter at hand: there’s no way at all that a young man living on his own could possibly cook and eat all of that meat at once. I mean, there is, but I’d never want to eat pork shoulder again in my life. Oliver Sacks did that once with lamb kidneys, according to his account on Radio Lab.
So that means we’re gonna hafta do some surgery. NURSE. Bring me the cleaver and the boning knife.
As you can see, I’ve cut the whole roast in half with the cleaver. Then I separated out all the fat, because there is a lot of fat. You’ll find it on the underside of the roast, although I think it’s actually the top, anatomically, of the shoulder; they probably package it so you can see the quality of the muscle. And given its color and thickness, I’m going to just guess that it’s subcutaneous rather than some kind of visceral fat.
Not that it really matters that much. It comes off pretty easily regardless. Now, I got this roast in a fresh and pliable state, but to make home butchery easier, I threw it in the freezer for about an hour. It firms up just enough to make the whole process just a little less slippery.
Now, some of you will probably get rid of that fat, and I understand that impulse. However, I paid for all of this shoulder, and I’m going to use all of it, by gum! I also intend to make sausage, which requires a certain amount of fat as a sheer necessity. And, okay, I threw out the bones without really thinking about it, because they weren’t that large.
This isn’t everything-but-the-oink home-butchery, but it’s close. Now, when you’ve got the fat and the lean tissue separated, cut the fat into strips or cubes and place it in a baking pan, with some space between each one.
This will go into the freezer. Now, you could just shove all of this into a plastic bag and let it freeze up like that, but then you’ve got a solid mass of pork fat, and if you only need, say, half a pound instead of three, you can reach into the bag, remove a couple of pieces as though they were ice cubes, and leave the rest of the meat undisturbed.
After I put my two baking sheets of fat into the fridge, I was left with this – for reference’s sake, let me just say that that is the largest bowl I own:
Cut across the grain into, again, strips or cubes, and store in your fridge in an immense container until you can take a spatula to the frozen pieces on the sheets in your freezer and decant them (after a fashion) into freezer bags.
And don’t forget to label everything. I ended up with five freezer-bags full of pork, each clocking in around 3 pounds, which comes to the approximately 15 pounds of actual meat that I purchased. I am not likely to run out of this for a very long time.
OKAY ENOUGH RAW MEAT, let’s have a recipe.
TUSCAN BOAR STEW
Freely adapted from Susan Hermann Loomis’ recipe from her book, The Italian Farmhouse Cookbook.
This is a rustic, rich stew with wine and tomatoes that won’t win any prizes for attractiveness, but is certainly delicious.
You will need:
- Some pork shoulder, perhaps 2-3 pounds
- 1 onion
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- 1 28-oz can of whole tomatoes
- 1 cup of red wine (I used a 3-buck Charles Shaw cab)
- a hefty bunch of Italian flat-leaf parsley (well-rinsed. they can have sand in ‘em)
- 1-2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1-2 tsp Italian seasoning (marjoram, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary)
- and a dutch oven or heavy 5-quarts-or-larger pot
I like to start by heating my cast-iron dutch oven over a low flame and throwing in a couple of pieces of frozen pork fat to render out – five was definitely too many. I’d use two or three. Throw these into the pan with a teaspoon of salt, and let it cook down slowly while you busy yourself with other kitchen tasks – chances are you probably haven’t butchered yourself an enormous pork roast like I did, and you’re probably working from a fresh cut of meat rather than a plastic bag of frozen, so take this time to cut up your meat into the proper chunks, or, if your meat is already frozen and bagged, defrost it in your sink, still in the bag, with a steady stream of cold water going over it.
If you have the time, now would be a good time to chop your onion and garlic:
When the pieces of fat have rendered, and have gotten all crispy and brown on the outside, remove them from the pot and place on a plate with some paper towel to dry, and then either to eat or discard, as you see fit.
Now, brown the pork in batches in your skillet, cooking perhaps two to three minutes a side; reserve the cooked pieces in a bowl. You will probably want to eat a piece or two, but the meat is still pretty chewy. I’m just warning you. I did it anyway, knowing that.
When the meat’s complete (and can’t be beat, cause it’s all reet! … sorry.), add in your aromatics, and cook until those turn translucent. Now would also be a good time to add the fennel, and maybe a few peppercorns. You want them to offer up their flavor, and, sure, for a stew it’s a little weird to introduce them so early in the game, but I think it’s okay if the long cooking time blunts their flavor slightly; I really like the way a stewed peppercorn feels between my teeth.\
Return the meat to the dutch oven, and add your cup of wine.
Then, add your parsley, which you may either coarsely chop or do nothing at all to, save remove it from its stem – apparently flat-leaf parsley is better for stews than curly-leaf parsley. I’ve never tried it the other way, so I don’t know what happens to curly-leaf parsley when you stew it.
Bring this mixture to a boil, and then simmer it for about half an hour, stirring every five minutes or so, until the wine has almost completely reduced. It’s only a cup, and your dutch oven has a lot of thermal mass as well as surface area, so it won’t take that long to do. When it happens, deploy the tomatoes, as well as the italian seasoning.
Bring it to a boil again, then cover and simmer for two hours or more. Once you break down the collagen in the pork, it’s all gonna be the same temperature. I like to remove the lid around hour 1.5, to let some of the liquid escape in steam form.
As with nearly any stew, you are free to ignore this thing while it cooks. That’s the beauty. Don’t leave the house or anything (and given the way it smells, why would you want to?), but go ahead and leave the room: watch a movie, work on cleaning the basement (that’s what I did), read the newspaper. Whatever you like.
After about half an hour to an hour, it should look like this:
After about two hours, it should look like this:
The tomatoes should be falling apart, the pork should be fork-tender, and your house should smell wonderful.
Serve this with pasta, polenta, rice, or some kind of grain, and the wine it was cooked in. Like I said, it won’t win any beauty pageants, but i assure you it is delicious.
Perhaps understandably, there will be more pork dishes to follow. I see no reason, however, to disallow the substitution of beef chuck in this, or any other recipe that uses pork shoulder. Go to it, cooks of America (and elsewhere)! Make me proud.