I am thrilled to introduce today’s guest post by my friend David. We met through the crew team in 9th grade and have been part of an amazing, close-knit group of friends ever since. After high school in Virginia, David headed farther south and honed his cooking skills and barbecue connoisseurship, which he is sharing with us today. Thank you, David, for this mouth-watering post!
The Humble Foodie welcomes guest posts–if you are interested in sharing a story about food, a favorite recipe, or a DIY project, email me at alicia (at) humblefoodie (dot) com with the subject line “Guest Post”.
Let me begin with a thank-you. I want to thank Alicia and her incredible blog for saving my hungry/sorry/tired behind on more than one occasion and in more than one pinch. Can I just say how awesome it is to be writing a guest post for her? One word: Humbled. The truth is, if this type of meal doesn’t earn you a spot on a foodie blog, what will?
I live in the Great American South. Somewhere in my little corner of Southeast Georgia I have fallen in love with Southern food. Hams, hogs, cornbread, Collard greens (Greens), Okra, Corn, Oysters, Sweet Potatoes, Grits, Shrimp, Tomato Pie, and last but not least, Barbeque. I’ve fallen in love with that last one. Not just any barbeque, but good, slow hardwood-smoked barbeque that makes you want to slap you leg and yell “DAMN that’s good!”
For all you Northern folk, barbeque is a general term that is usually applied down here exclusively to pork. The flavors and consistencies vary regionally across the South from Texas to North Carolina. They’re all delicious, but different strokes for different folks, you know?
As barbeque has traveled throughout the South it has picked up nuances from each region that allow them to call it their own style. East Coast barbeque sauce is primarily vinegar-based and peppery. The meat is chopped or sliced. It seems to be that the further West you go from the coast the percentage of tomato content in sauce goes up. In South Carolina and Georgia the sauce changes to a more yellow mustard-based sauce but the pork is still chopped or sliced. It is really Memphis, Tennessee that started “pulling” their pork apart to appear shredded. Hence the name “Pulled Pork Sandwich”. The Memphis style sauce is very tomato rich, but sweet due to the molasses content. However different the sauces and side dishes are the constants in southern-style barbeque are 1.) Pork, and 2.) Slowly cooked. Now that I think y’all get a general idea of the scene in the South, let’s move on to my own attempt at this deeply revered dish.
Every Christmas our group of about 12 friends from high school try to get together for a dinner party, gift exchange, and libations. This year I was invited to plan the menu and sous-chef for the host. I’d been reading quite a bit about pork roasts since I wanted to try one while home for the holiday. I then discovered that I’d have access to the finest grilling equipment including an electric wood smoker. If there was ever a time to try this thing out, it would be now. I would be bringing proper barbeque to Northern Virginia.
Saturday morning came bright and early as Dad and I braved the blowing winds to trip down to the local farmers market in search for local pasture-fed meat. I wanted for a 9-10lb pork shoulder for the smoker but found three, 2-3lb mini shoulders instead. They were cheap, and they were sold. Now what?
I called in the mother of barbeque, who gave me the step-by-step instructions for defrosting, seasoning, and establishing a timeline that we were going to need to stick to in order to serve the shoulders on time. Working back from our chosen dinnertime of 7:30pm we figured we needed to start at around 11:00am.
The shoulders were left out Saturday afternoon to partially defrost. That night I used a dry rub seasoning mix that I picked up from my home town favorite BBQ place, Southern Soul Barbeque. Locally owned and operated, this old converted gas station produces some of the finest meat around and now they have a whole line of sauces and rubs for purchase online and in Crate and Barrel stores nation-wide. (Sorry for the shameless plug for my favorite BBQ place, more on them later.) I let the shoulders season in the fridge overnight.
Fast forward to 10:30am Sunday morning. I went over to my buddy’s house early to warm up the smoker and get things started. His parents have a beautiful electric smoker that feeds wood pellets into a fire box to produce the smoke. What is unique about this type of equipment is that you can adjust the temperature precisely and accurately to ensure proper cooking. The ideal temperature for slow-smoked bbq is anywhere between 225-260 degrees F. The closer you can get it to 225, the better the smoke penetration and thus, better flavor. Smoke poured from the chimney of the machine and the temperature hit 225 deg F. The shoulders went on the rack at 11:15 am to begin their slow maturation into delicious pieces of heaven.
From here on out it was a matter of standing around, monitoring the temperature, and basting the shoulders about every 45-60min with a diluted apple juice solution. This is the great part about slow-cooking with an electric smoker; once the smoke is rolling you are free to defect to other household tasks like watching football, making biscuits, and catching up with friends.
We had figured for about 6 hours on the smoker for the shoulders to be fully cooked and sufficiently smoked. Also recommended for those doing this at home; pull your ‘que off the smoker and wrap it in tin foil for the last 60 min of calculated cook time at 225 deg. The tin foil retains the moisture in the meat and ensures the meat reaches proper internal temperature. Eating undercooked pork/game infected with the roundworm species Trichinella spiralis can cause Tichinosis. The disease isn’t prevalent in the U.S. at present but after watching two seasons of Walking Dead, I really didn’t want to chance it. Into the oven then!
The best BBQ pit masters measure their success with the depth of the “smoke ring” in their ‘que: that is, the depth of penetration that the smoke achieved during the process. The smoke actually cooks the meat along with the heat of the smoker but naturally the deeper rings are the most desirable. I was told that any ring thicker than ¼-inch was something to brag about. When our pork came out of the oven I was charged with the task of pulling/chopping it. In a perfect World the meat would have been pulled apart into strands easily but something was different with our shoulders. Either the muscle fibers in the meat didn’t break down enough or our shoulders weren’t marbled well enough to fall apart. They weren’t pulling apart at all so I decided on a “pork strips” option similar to the cuts of prime rib you so often see. Upon slicing, we discovered a smoke ring just under ½-inch wide. Bam, we had done it. We felt like proper pitmasters at that point. If you’ve never chopped ten pounds of meat or removed several pieces of swine scapula before, you are missing out. I have a deeper appreciation for butchers and BBQ-ers everywhere after the burn I felt in my forearms from the chopping process.
We sampled some discarded strips with higher fat content and were astonished. The flavor was fantastic. There were strong flavors of onion and wood smoke, combined with the game flavor of the pork. I had hoped for decent results, but this was above anything I thought we could do as first-timers. The guests arrived, the pork was plated, and the feast began. Everyone loved it. Even the steadfast vegetarian at the table said it made him consider eating meat again (judging by vision and olfaction only here folks!) Insulting enough, there were leftovers. They went into an omelet the next morning. Oh my poor cholesterol and triglycerides!
Daunting as it all may sound; this process was one of my favorite cooking experiences of all time. At an age where I can appreciate quality food, I would much rather put this much work into a single meal every so often to impress friends than eat/cook mediocre food all the time. I know that not many of the readers here are at a place in their lives to own a smoker or even a grill. No worries! Slow roasting can also happen in an oven over the same amount of time and at the same temperature. There are plenty of techniques for infusing flavor into oven-roasted meats to be found in cookbooks and online. Dedicate one Saturday afternoon in the deepest part of winter to run your oven at several hundred degrees and do things the slow way for once. You’ll be amazed at the results. If I have to leave you with one thing to take away from all this is: low and slow.
Supporting your local farmers is a great way to ensure food safety and proximity. This time of year there may be slim pickings at farmers markets but this is also when farmers need business the most. No farms, no food! Happy New Year to y’all!
I got into cooking when I realized that it is an investment of growing returns. The more you put into your cooking the more it gives back. It may actually be the Italian heritage that keeps me in the kitchen. It may also be thoroughly enjoying the process of following directions to arrive at a final product that tastes like real food. I like cooking because the hard work that went into what you cook is as tangible as possible when a beautiful meal is sitting in front of you.
I’m at a point in my life when cooking is expressive and fun. I also have a broom closet-sized kitchen with rudimentary equipment. Some day I will live in a house with a beautiful, efficient kitchen where my love of cooking can really blossom. Until then, intricate things like home made meringue and Turduckens are off my list of things I can cook. On the other hand, having less allows me to practice what I call “caveman cooking”. I like dishes I can make with my hands, which are my most frequently used kitchen tools. Hand-squeezed marinara like grandma made in the old country. Hand mixed dough for artisan bread. The act of getting messy not only puts you in touch with your food via tactile sensation but it also saves on cleanup. Try it sometime, getting dirty in the kitchen could feel very at home to you.
My best advice for people looking to improve their cooking is to buy quality ingredients. Focus mostly vegetables, spices, and the occasional meat. Preferably local. It doesn’t even have to be organic. Meet the people who grow your food. Having a relationship with the hard working people who produce food from dirt, water, and sunshine is something to be cherished. No farms, no food!