My favorite thing about cooking is how creative it lets you be in the kitchen. I am not a recipe follower. In fact, I avoid sticking to a recipe like I avoid romance novels. There is definitely an allure; I just can’t make myself go there.
That said, if I’m wondering how to make something, or what ingredients go in a traditional dish, I will look up a recipe. No, this does not make me a hypocrite. There are certain aspects of cooking that don’t just come naturally, usually the more difficult techniques, and I understand that in order to be at your creative best you need a foundation of skill and knowledge. However, once I look up a recipe and read it, I usually just close it right there. Time for the creativity to begin. Screw the rules.
Yesterday, I made pulled pork. We’ve made this quite a number of times at Phinney Market (my former employer in Seattle), but I was never directly responsible for it. Ah, the luxury of having multiple talented chefs in one kitchen! I decided it was my turn to take a stab at finger-lickin’ awesomeness.
I knew I needed a slow cooker, or an oven set-up that would allow me to cook the pork for at least five hours. No Crockpot, but I did find a Le Creuset Dutch oven in the bottom drawer. Perfect. After doing some research on the durability of the hard plastic lid handle, I opted to cover the base with aluminum foil and cover the whole thing with a cookie sheet. Improvised lid. Voila.
At a local butcher shop I asked for some pork shoulder. All they had was pork butt. Rolling with the porky punches, I bought half of what looked like a giant pork ass. Mmm, tasty! Once home, I decided to make a rub for the meat. Leslie’s spice cabinet had two spice rubs in it, but stubbornly (or creatively) I decided to make my own. Here’s my rule about spices: Once you pick a flavor profile (smoky, Asian, sweet, spicy), use whatever you have. I wanted something savory, a little spicy, smoky, with a hint of sweet (so, basically everything. I’m difficult like that). I started pulling things off the shelf: mustard powder, chili powder, paprika, Lowry’s seasoned salt, cinnamon, sea salt, white pepper, black pepper… whatever looked good. I mixed some of each into a small bowl, going heavy on the paprika, chili powder, salt and pepper, then got a flash of brilliance. Ground coffee! In it goes. Once the mixture smelled like the idea I had in my head, I put it in a small, dry frying pan to toast up. Toasting your spices first makes a HUGE difference. It allows them to release their aromas, and like toasting bread, it helps create a new, unique, toasty flavor. Turn the skillet on low and wait for the smell. You’ll know what I mean.
Once the spices had cooled, I rubbed them rather violently into the hunk of pork. (Handling my ingredients is also one of my favorite things about cooking. I was hoping that by slapping the pig butt around a little it would get nice and tender. Muahaha!) When it had reached toasty sienna-colored submission, I wrapped it back up in the butcher’s paper and put it in the fridge for at least two hours. Many thumb-twiddling minutes later, I put my earthy-smelling, raw pork perfection in the crock pot. In went most of two bottles of hard apple cider (some for the pork, some for the chef!), a splash of apple cider vinegar and a splash of water. (Really, it was mostly just hard cider). Two bay leaves, some extra salt, and a bunch of carrots and mini potatoes (because hey, you might as well cook the rest of dinner at the same time) later, it was ready for my improvised lid and the oven.
Then the real wait begins. Afraid the impatient, hungry sounds coming from my stomach would wake the neighbors, I started reading. And whaddaya know, six hours later I was halfway through a book and we had pulled pork for dinner.
Who knew a pig’s ass could taste this good?!