A Good Side to Serve With Pork Shoulder

by Cynthia B. Astle

A good side dish for pork shoulder would be anything that balances out the taste of the meat. Unlike beef, which has a strong fatty or "slippery" taste on the tongue, pork is a lighter, leaner meat and the taste can be described as "umami," a savory flavor that, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, is now among the five tastes identified in food. Of the four other tastes, pork shoulder's "umami" seems to pair best with dishes that have sweet or bitter flavors. Ideal complements for pork shoulder could include one sweet and one bitter side dish.

Discovering a Savory Taste

The taste of "umami," now commonly attributed to meats, seafood and certain vegetables, wasn't always recognized in cuisine and science. It's a Japanese word roughly meaning "pleasant and savory" in English. Chemist Kikunae Ikeda first used "umami" about a century ago by to describe the taste of Japanese seaweed soup. Like his contemporary, the renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier, Ikeda realized that he tasted something beyond the four basic flavors of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Ikeda determined that the "delicious" taste of umami was related to what we now know as L-glutamate, a substance common to all living things. Science has since discovered that taste buds include receptors for L-glutamate, which is abundant in human breast milk. Thus, umami is really the first "delicious" taste we experience. It's no wonder then that Its concentration of L-glutamate makes pork such a mouthwatering entree.

Sweet-Tasting Fruits and Vegetables

Side dishes made with sweet-tasting fruits and vegetables have long been favored as pairings with pork because they enhance the meat's savor. Apples in various forms from stews to applesauce are a traditional side dish with a savory pork shoulder. Pears or plums can serve as a change of pace from apples as a fruity side dish with pork. Among vegetables, carrots, with their abundance of natural sugar, can be roasted together with onions and garlic in the same pan as a pork shoulder. Butternut squash, pumpkin and yams also bring sweet complements to a pork shoulder.

Bitter Greens Give Balance

Bitter greens offer a buffet of side dishes whose tastes complement that of a pork shoulder. For example, a traditional Southern-style New Year's Day dinner centers on pork roast paired with slow-cooked greens and black-eyed peas for good luck. Traditionally, turnips, collards or mustard greens are served, but more exotic alternatives such as kale and kohlrabi are now available as well. When preparing greens, it's best to buy about 1-1/2 times as much as would be normal serving sizes for other vegetables. That's because all greens contain a lot of water and lose volume when cooked.

Cabbage Works Well

Lightly braised cabbage makes another good side to pork. Vegetables in the cabbage family such as broccoli also can complement pork's flavor. Crisp salads composed of crunchy greens boost the overall "deliciousness" of a meal centered on a pork shoulder. Use tomatoes sparingly in salads accompanying pork, though, because tomatoes have their own strong umami taste. As savory as umami can be, too much at one meal overwhelms the palate.

About the Author

Cynthia B. Astle is a longtime journalist who has written on practically every topic of human interest for newspapers such as the "United Methodist Reporter," magazines including "Response," "Arts Ministry" and the "Progressive Christian" and websites such as Darkwood Brew and United Methodist Insight. She was also a food editor and restaurant reviewer for the "Clearwater Sun."

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