Flavor Inspirations: Pork Shoulder Edition
Just about any dish does better when made with in-season ingredients, pork butt, aka pork shoulder, included. But whatever season you're in, you need to use low-temperature, low-heat cooking to render the pork tender.
Winter brings with it all the cold-hardy vegetables that serve as the base for oh, so many classic comfort foods. Chicken and dumplings, Irish lamb stew and shepherd's pie, for example, build their foundations on a melange of aromatic vegetables, then add body with a starch and heartiness with meat. Apply this formula to pork shoulder, and you have a killer new favorite: winter pork stew.
You can use just about any winter vegetable here and come up with a winner. Roughly chop 2 pounds of pork shoulder, and simmer it until tender in a 5-quart Crock-Pot or Dutch oven along with one can of chopped tomatoes and enough stock to cover. For vegetables, just go crazy.
Start with 2 onions, 2 carrots and 1/2 celery root, all chopped, and add enough winter vegetables to reach about three-fourths up the sides of the pot; simmer until tender. Examples:
- Brassicas, such as kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage varieties
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Sweet dumpling squash or pumpkin
- Sweet potatoes.
In spring, the fields and vegetable patches in most of America come alive with all those light, scrumptious goodies you promised yourself you'd eat more of this year: fennel, fava beans, Swiss chard, corn, fiddlehead ferns, morels and asparagus, to name a few of many. Each makes an awesome addition to pork shoulder.
Spring vegetables tend to have light flavors and textures that don't hold up well to braising, so sear the pork and slow-roast it at 250F instead of braising it. After braising and pulling the pork, try a few of the following side dishes that showcase the versatility of pork:
- Garlic-rubbed pork shoulder with fava bean and fennel salad, with fresh herb dressing.
- Herb-crusted pork shoulder with warm pea, corn and asparagus salad.
- Chinese five-spice marinated pork shoulder with sauteed artichoke, fennel and morel salad (salad chilled).
Obey your seasonal rhythms and visit the grill this summer. You don't have to go the smoking route, either. Instead, use the grill as a flavor-enhancement tool by grilling the pork for an hour or two to develop a glorious crisp crust; then transfer it to the oven to finish cooking, and get the best of both worlds. Also consider using the grill rotisserie for cooking; you'll get a light smokiness that doesn't overpower other elements in the dish.
You can do the same with the side dishes too; a few minutes on a hot grill, just long enough to leave grill marks, brings out the lightness in several summer fruits and vegetables, including Chinese long beans, tomatoes and ramps (limited availability). Check out these "nonsmoking" summer pork dishes for something new:
- Marinated pork shoulder with grilled ramps.
- Chipotle-rubbed pork shoulder with jicama-cucumber salad with Asian dressing.
- Tacos al pastor (tacos made with rotisserie pineapple-chili-achiote marinated pork shoulder).
If pork had a favorite season, it might just be fall. So many pork-friendly vegetables and fruits come into season that you could largely choose two or three of anything and come up with a full meal. Apples, wild mushrooms, broccoli rabe, cabbage, soybeans, hardy herbs, sugar pumpkins and tomatillos are a few ideas to get you started. Dishes to try include:
- Cider-brined pork shoulder with pumpkin-maple-bacon mash.
Pork shoulder adobo with brown rice and wild mushrooms
(pork shoulder marinated in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic). * Pork-chorizo meatballs served in Spanish-style cabbage soup.
Pork shoulder benefits from brining too. For the most juiciness, mix together 1 gallon of water with 1/2 cup of kosher salt until the salt dissolves. Submerge the pork shoulder in the brine, and let it stand in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.