Jack & Ginger

As by now cannot have escaped your notice, the recipes I post and post about here are not old standards.  They are not tried and true, they are not perfected, sometimes they do not even include measurements.  They are my fun and foibles in the kitchen and my reports about how they turn out.  Thus, when I get excited about a recipe or an experiment; excited enough that I take photos of the ingredients and careful note of the process, and the end result peters out a bit under my wild expectations, I am often struck with perturbation.  To post or not to post?  Usually I decide to share rather than not to share, but there is that lingering question.

The most recent dilemma rests with Thursday night’s dinner.  I was jazzed about this one.  My husband is a chicken and beef (and sometimes salmon) man, and yet he loves pulled pork.  More specifically, he loves Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen’s pulled pork.  With a side of mac and cheese and yams, most often.  But he seriously digs that stuff.  Naturally, then, I was excited to run across a recipe for pulled pork made in the crock pot, and decided to add some of my own alterations and give it a try.  We picked up a beautiful two pound pork butt from Long’s Meat Market, and on Thursday morning I chopped, dropped, plopped, and poured ingredients together in the slow cooker, and left.  Five hours later the house smelled like a BBQ restaurant.  Eight hours later I swear the dog had left drool marks all over the hardwood floors.

It came apart like butter.  It collapsed over itself in the crock pot as I tried to pull it out.  It dripped moisture and smelled like heaven and looked soft and fragrant and luscious.  My salivary glands went into overdrive.

And then we ate it.  And it was… good.  It wasn’t fabulous.  It certainly didn’t rival Papa’s platter.  It was a little watery, a little porky, and it didn’t have that saturation of BBQ sauce that pulled pork ought to have.  So I wondered, after spending all day (well, sort of) on a meal, after arranging the ingredients just so for a foodie fashion shot and thinking of a clever name and even taking mental notes about how much of each component went into that yawning, welcoming whiteness of my slow cooker, and then having it not be stellar, should I still post?

Clearly, the answer is yes.

Here’s how it went down, with thoughts on reparations for next time:

2 lb. Hunk ‘o pork butt

1 big red onion, frenched (cut in half end to end, then sliced into thin angled wedges) 

5-6 roughly chopped cloves of garlic

2-inch hunk of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

1 cup ginger ale

1-2 shots Jack Daniels or other whiskey

1-2 cups BBQ sauce (any type you like)

Put the onion slices, garlic, and ginger in the bottom of your slow cooker.  Plop the pork butt on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Pour the whiskey, ginger ale, and sauce over the top of the pork.  Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.

At this point, I took the pork out of the slow cooker and used two forks to pull it into loose meaty strands.  Then, because there were potatoes that needed buttermilk, butter, and a good deal of mashing, I plunged my pulled pork back into the liquid that had collected in the bottom of the slow cooker.  This was a mistake.  Instead, I should have emptied the vessel, added an inch or two of BBQ sauce, and mixed in the pork.  It would have stayed drier, it would have collected the flavor of the sauce, and it would have been better prepared to hold together when we slopped it onto burger buns to transport to our eager mouths.

Tasting, we got the rich soupy porkiness of the meat, spice from the sauce, and maybe the barest hint of garlic and ginger.  I don’t know what the whiskey contributed, besides perhaps help in breaking down the muscles of the pork, but it was fun to be able to add it.  Maybe a slight tartness made its way into the meat, but that was all I sensed.

The other thing I missed, which can’t be helped because I used a crock pot, was the crusty crunchy hard edges of the pork that result from barbecue treatment.  The texture of the pulled pork is so lovely, but it is nice to have a bit now and then that puts up some resistance.  I have always thought searing the outsides of a piece of meat before putting it in the slow cooker defeated the purpose of a one-pot, easy meal, but I wonder whether that would help here as well.

So, certainly not a failure, but not the most resounding of success stories either.  Still, I do have that old family BBQ sauce recipe kicking around that I’ve never tried, and homemade sauce draped over luscious piggy goodness couldn’t be anything but an improvement…

Do you have a favorite BBQ sauce recipe?  What makes it special?

Slow and Steady wins the Roast

Now that the slow-cooker and I are friends, I put it to work again yesterday.Calling on the small, tissue-papery pages of the instruction-and-recipe manual that came with the machine, I set out to break through N.’s clogged nostrils (courtesy of the first cold of the season) by embarking on Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic.

Still clad in pajamas, I made a bed for the chicken by cutting a few longish spears of celery and arranging them over the bottom of the stoneware. Then, after evicting the gizzards from the chicken’s insides, I shoved a sprig each of Italian parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage safely inside to flavor our bird from the ribs out. The chicken settled nicely into the pot as well. After counting up and scattering around forty cloves of unpeeled garlic, which was an impressive 2½ bulbs, I chopped up another sprig of each type of herb and sprinkled that over the top of the chicken. I added some sea salt and pepper as well, for a little extra flavoring.

The smell that pervaded the house for the rest of the day would have driven away even the most determined vampire. It was divine. The dog spent much of her day pacing slowly through the kitchen, nose in the air and hard at work. I spent much of my day making excuses to go into the kitchen and cast loving glances at dinner. After about hour five, N. informed me that he could smell something, and after hour six or seven he altered his evaluation to decide that something smelled good! This was all I could have hoped for, but there was more.

After about nine hours, our bird was so tender that it fell into pieces when I tried to lift it from the slow cooker. I pulled out as many cloves of slow-roasted, golden-brown, almost sweet-smelling garlic as I could, and while the chicken cooled a little I sliced half a loaf of leftover sourdough bread and, after liberal application of olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper, broiled it until golden to serve as our vehicles for garlic consumption.

The chicken was moist and delicately herby, while the garlic oozed out of its skins to top the toast, needing no convincing whatsoever.We suffered a few burned fingertips from our anxious efforts, but as you can see, that didn’t even slow us down.

Summer comfort food

The woman at right is my Aunt Nancy.

Just below her is one of the many, many reasons I love her.

My slow-cooker and I have a Machiavellian relationship. I want desperately to love it, but I fear it. My reasoning for this is, like many of my food fears, mostly irrational. Shortly after acquiring said slow-cooker, I created a disappointingly leathery pot roast. From that day forth until two or three nights ago, I’ve been wary of the beast, and it has sat in a cabinet. However, a few days ago I embarked on Nancy’s slow-cooker baked beans recipe that I’ve adored and coveted for a number of years now, and I can say with surety that I’m no longer afraid (I think), as it came out perfectly.

The mixture of beans is great, and despite the 6 hours of cooking time, they keep their texture very well. Imagine the little bowl of frijoles de la olla that you get as a side at some TexMex places. Though our baked beans do not remotely resemble those frijoles in taste, the final texture is fairly similar. The beans hold their shape, but the liquid ingredients create a kind of mix between a sauce and a glaze, and somehow hold the beans in a kind of suspended animation of glory.

Nancy’s Crockpot Baked Beans:

1 can baked beans (all cans between 14-16oz).

1 can lima beans

1 can butter beans

1 can kidney beans, rinsed

½ lb. bacon, cut up and fried

1 large onion, sautéed in bacon grease

1 c ketchup

1½ – 2 c brown sugar

2 tsp vinegar

Drain and rinse lima, butter, and kidney beans only (baked bean liquid is necessary for the sauce). Mix all ingredients together. Either cook in a slow cooker for about 6 hours (add a ladle of water if they seem dry), or bake in the oven in a 2 qt casserole at 350o for 1 hour.

I’ve thought about ways you might amend this recipe to be vegetarian, and I think it just wouldn’t be as good. The bacon adds necessary elements of flavor. The sauce becomes quite sweet from the ketchup and brown sugar, and though bacon can also be somewhat sweet, the meaty flavor does contribute something to the finished product, cutting through the starchy beans and the syrupy sauce. Maybe it’s a smokiness that the beans can’t quite develop sans pork product. In any case, the closest I’ve come so far to developing a theoretical veggie version is maybe experimenting with flavored vinegars, rather than the standard white.

In any case, the final result according to the recipe is a bubbling mass of sweet, protein-packed goodness. It’s like edible magma that warms you up from inside. In a way, the flavor reminds me a little bit of that sweet red bean paste that sometimes comes in steamed buns. I served this with sautéed cabbage and peppercorn crusted pork loin. Drool.