Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: Smoked Pork Shoulder Ragu

Brother John and (new) Sister Julie’s wedding was last weekend in Grayling, Michigan.  When describing the setting of the wedding to people at work, I used the unfortunate choice of words “family compound” which caused extensive Kennedy jokes while I was out.  In reality, it was good old Matabanic Lodge which I’ve discussed previously in posts about Poutine and Dumplings.  Since it was the summer in Michigan and the Hub Hollow gang was in tow, it meant a lot of this:

I still haven't figured out how to make a quality iced coffee in the massive commercial coffee maker at Matabanic, but I'm working on it

I still haven’t figured out how to make a quality iced coffee in the massive commercial coffee maker at Matabanic, but I’m working on it

a little of this:

"A little" is not accurate as I'm sure you've guessed.  One of my favorite beers fresh and cold in large volume.  Became a constant source of argument in the morning over who forgot to ice and disconnect the tap

“A little” is not accurate as I’m sure you’ve guessed. One of my favorite beers fresh, cold, and in large volume.  Became a constant source of arguments in the morning over who forgot to disconnect the tap and ice the keg

a healthy dose of evening music:

I attempted to take this picture about 25 times.  No matter how many iPhones I am convinced to buy, they take sh*tty low light pictures

I attempted to take this picture about 25 times.  No matter how many iPhones I am convinced to buy, they take sh*tty low light pictures

and one awesome wedding:

That's not Julie, that's the officiant.  John is celebrating Julie rounding the bend with her father in a guided riverboat

That’s not Julie, that’s the officiant.  John is celebrating Julie rounding the bend with her father in a guided riverboat.  It was a pretty awesome setting for a wedding and amazingly no drunks canoed by shouting regional dialect curse words

There were 23ish family members and close friends at Matabanic for the wedding, plus a gaggle of children.  Despite the intimidating size of the crowd and my previous failures cooking for large groups of people, I decided to volunteer for a meal.  In theory with the help of Brother Tim.  I say “in theory” because Tim was likely to resume his normal role of helping early on, getting bored, then criticizing, punching and complaining about timing intermittently. And that was before I remembered he would be on crutches from recent surgery.  Oh well.

My goal, in honor of Julie’s sister Katy and John who both worked at Spannocchia in Italy, was to make a variation of Cinghiale al Pappardelle but with ingredients I could find in middle-of-the-hand Michigan.

Cinghiale is wild boar, a meat that tastes most like a lean and flavorful pork.  With that in mind, and knowing I likely couldn’t find a large quantity of boar easily in Michigan, I decided to start with a pork shoulder and build a rich slow cooked pasta sauce around the meat.  The flavor of shoulder meat is relatively similar to cinghiale but with a higher fat content.  With that in mind, I wanted to render out a little fat before cooking the pork in the sauce but also add some boar-ish earthy flavors back to the meat.  Which brought this bad boy into play.

The old Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.  Tim has a ton of experience with this thing which made the process even more unpleasant since it required following orders from stupid jerkface cargo shorts Tim

The old Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.  Tim has a ton of experience with this thing which made the process even more unpleasant since it required following orders from stupid jerkface cargo shorts Tim.  Also, first time I have ever used “boar-ish” to describe anything other than my behavior

The idea was to debone a ten pound picnic shoulder, divide it into smaller pieces, coat with a mild but slightly Italian-flavored rub, then briefly smoke it over applewood and hickory chips.  When I say briefly, I am comparing it to the normal 8-10 hours one would usually smoke a pork shoulder, so I mean two hours.

After deboning, I think I had 7-8 pounds of trimmed meat which I thoroughly coated with a rub of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried basil, and a little paprika.

I had a miserable time deboning this shoulder due to the consistently dull knives at Matabanic.  As I drove back to DTW for our flight home I remembered the brand new sharp Henckel knife I had hidden in the attic and let loose with a guttural roar of annoyance

I had a miserable time deboning this shoulder due to the consistently dull knives at Matabanic.  As I drove back to DTW for our flight home I remembered the brand new sharp Henckel knife I had hidden in the attic and let loose with a guttural roar of annoyance

Although the lid stays untouched on a smoker, there is still a decent amount of charcoal and wood chip reloading into the base to keep the temperature between 200 and 250.  I balanced that responsibility with my day long task of overstuffing the wedding guests by serving large amounts of poutine for lunch. I’ve covered poutine before, but wanted to make sure I got credit for multi-tasking so I mentioned it anyway.

Once the poutine was complete and the meat had smoked a little over an hour and a half, I began the sauce prep.  With one of the largest pots in the kitchen heating on the stove, I started running piles of vegetables through Matabanic’s 30 year old Cuisinart knockoff.  Two fennel bulbs, two large yellow onions (very large), 6 carrots, 6 ribs of celery, and a peeled bulb of garlic were all chopped down to near mush and went into the stock pot with a couple tablespoons of butter.

The Cuisinart tactic won't give me any street cred with your Italian grandma, but I've found it effective when trying to make non-bolognese pasta sauce

The Cuisinart tactic won’t give me any street cred with your Italian grandma, but I’ve found it effective when trying to make non-bolognese pasta sauce

After 5-10 minutes of occasional stirring and avoiding anything getting burned to the bottom, I added 2 lbs of sliced mushrooms and stirred some more.

I know the demi glace sounds like an odd choice, but I had seen one recipe for cinghiale that called for a mushroom demi and figured with this volume of sauce it couldn't hurt

I think the first picture was before I added the chopped carrots.  This is a 10 quart stock pot but it really was about as full as it looks here.  I had zero concept whether I was making way too much or way too little sauce

After a few more minutes of cook time, I stirred in two cups of tomato paste until it was well mixed in with the vegetables.  Another few minutes of alternating stirring and pacing, then added salt, black pepper, a liter and a half of red wine, and almost a quart of chicken broth.  Once well combined, I allowed that to come up to heat while I headed outside to collect the smoked shoulder pieces.

I spent about five minutes staring at this blankly trying to decide if I should continue smoking half the meat and only use half in the sauce.  It smelled so good and I was nervous the sauce wouldn't pan out.  When Pete is cooking for you, the secret ingredient is always self doubt

I spent about five minutes staring at this blankly trying to decide if I should continue smoking half the meat and only use half in the sauce.  It smelled so good and I was nervous the sauce wouldn’t pan out.  When Pete is cooking for you, the secret ingredient is always self doubt

Beyond the extremely positive color, crispiness, and aroma, the smoking also appeared to be a success from the amount of fat that had rendered out into the drip pan.  Since this would be cooking the rest of the way in the sauce, I wanted to get a lot of that fat out beforehand.

The pork went to a cutting board where I cut each piece down to roughly the same size, about 3″x3″ pieces.  They smelled really friggin good and I again doubted my decision to use all of it, but in they went into the bubbling sauce.

When everything fit I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself since I had totally wung the proportions.  That's right, I had no idea if I had made enough for the number of people or the volume of pasta I would be cooking, I was just celebrating that I fit everything in the pot I chose arbitrarily

When everything fit I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself since I had totally wung the proportions.  That’s right, I had no idea if I had made enough for the number of people or the volume of pasta I would be cooking, I was just celebrating that I fit everything in the pot I arbitrarily chose

It was a snug fit, but when stirred, all of the pork was completely submerged in the sauce.

Look, I didn't want to admit it right away, but this thing came dangerously close to Major Dag territory due to me constantly forgetting to take pictures.  I know this is completely redundant with the previous picture, but I didn't have much to work with here

Look, I didn’t want to admit it right away, but this thing came dangerously close to Major Dag territory due to me constantly forgetting to take pictures.  I know this is completely redundant with the previous picture, but I didn’t have much to work with here

And then, in line with my original plan of being able to step away from the kitchen while still cooking for a large group, the lid went on and the sauce simmered for four hours.

During that time I went tubing and showered up, but mostly stressed out about whether the food would be edible or taste like Sweet Baby Rays pasta.  I ended up hedging my bets and established goodwill toward the experimental dinner by putting out a couple platters of sliced gravlax that I cured the night before.  Nope, don’t have a picture of that, just look at last week.  Only difference was I made a little creme fraiche to go with it this time.

As we hit the final stretch before dinner, I spent a solid 30 minutes bringing a huge pot of water to a boil.  While that took forever, I used a large spoon to stir and break up the pieces of now falling apart-tender pork and stir everything together.

I know it looks like chili, but this isn't supposed to be a traditional tomato sauce.  It's a ragu y'all!!!  I feel like that term lets me get away with anything

I know it looks like chili, but this isn’t supposed to be a traditional tomato sauce.  It’s a ragu y’all!!!  I feel like that term lets me get away with anything

Once the water was boiling, I added 8 pounds of dried fettuccine and cooked to the low end of the recommended time so it would be slightly al dente.

With the pasta cooked, I pulled down the enormous hotel pan that has been above the Viking range for as long as we’ve been coming to Matabanic.  Usually these things are used for serving buffet style, and the one I grabbed is actually intended for use as the deeper steaming pan under the shallower top pan.  But I needed the room.

The pasta went in first, then I ladeled in the sauce, pausing after every few ladels to mix, toss and stir the pasta to make sure it was fully distributed.  With about a quarter of the sauce left, I realized I had miraculously guessed correctly and made approximately the right amount of sauce for the pasta (or vice versa) and dumped the rest in to be tossed.  It was definitely meaty, but the pasta was well coated without being overly saucy, like the original I consumed multiple times in Italy.  Plus a little fresh parmesan cheese grated over the top.

I was horrified when I flipped through my phone hours after the meal and saw how many gaps there were in the photos and that this was the last one on my phone.  I didn't even get a pre-cheese or plated picture.  I am an awful person

I was horrified when I flipped through my phone hours after the meal and saw how many gaps there were in the fotos and that this was the last one on my phone.  I didn’t even get a pre-cheese or plated picture.  I am an awful person

You wanna see a jiggling pile of anxiety?  Watch me after I’ve cooked for twenty people and expectantly look at each individual person’s reaction as they taste the food.  It is really poor form on my part.  Anyway, instead of guessing how other people felt about it, I will just say that after the 23 guests, 5 babysitters & nannies, and Kelly (our breakfast cook and overall kitchen wizard) took their first and seconds, there were only 2-3 portions of leftovers.  And now here’s my thoughts:

I love this style of pasta dish where the actual fettuccine is only lightly coated in flavorful sauce but there are plenty of chunks of meat or vegetable ragu in every bite.  I just don’t like pasta swimming in red sauce so the proportions were right on for me with this one.  The flavor was definitely a little surprising at first; you don’t expect a smokey barbeque flavor with your pasta and it was definitely the first taste to come across.  After you got past that first note, the richness of the other flavors in the sauce came through and made for a few layers in each bite.  Overall, the shock of the smoke flavor from the first bite goes away after a few and the pasta just ended up being rich, meaty, and enjoyable.  Not exactly like the pappardelle al cinghiale of my dreams, but close enough that I felt it was a decent homage.

Next up will be my third crack at beef tongue.  I got dis.

Advertisements

Tortillas and Carnitas

When you live walking distance from some of your best friends and write a blog about cooking weird foods, you occasionally get random edible gifts.  Like this item that I found in my mailbox one day when I got home from work.

If I hadn't been warned that something would be in my mailbox, this probably wouldn't have made it inside the front door. Sketchy tub of white stuff doesn't exactly scream "bring me into your home where your infant is waiting"

After opening, carefully, I could tell it was rendered fat of some sort.  My first guess was leftover fat from my friend Nate’s Thanksgiving turkey (because it smelled roasted), but it turned out to be lard from Nate’s wife Emily’s favorite sandwich shop Cutty’s.  Well then.

Cutty's might have pulled the old hollow-center TCBY trick with their pork fat. Spoofin', this stuff smelled slightly smoky and deliciously porky, way better than the stale candle smell I associate with lard

So, whaddya do with a big old tub of pork fat?  Ask Kristi, she has been married to me for two and a half years.  Wokka Wokka!  Be sure to tip your bartenders folks.

Anyway, I had seen a couple flour tortilla recipes a few months ago (when I was trying to work through my original purchase of 25 pounds of flour) that used lard.  They looked freaking delicious, so I ended up going with a Ree Drummond recipe that had the highest lard to flour ratio.  There was a lot of lard to go through after all.  And what better compliment to a pork flavored tortilla than some delicious carnitas as a filling?  Let’s get started.

The tortillas are pretty simple to make, but you need to prep them a few hours in advance.  2 and a half cups of flour go into a bowl with baking powder, salt, and about a half cup of lard.

Most other recipes use a lot less lard, but those recipes are for p*ssies

A few minutes with the pastry cutter later, and it looks kind of like wet sand.

Actually, less like wet sand and more like Kraft parmesan cheese. Mmmmm, Kraft parmesan cheese

Slowly stir in one cup of hot water and you end up with a wet looking dough, similar in moisture/stickiness to homemade pizza dough.  From there I tipped it out onto a lightly floured surface and kneaded in a little additional flour until the dough wasn’t sticking to the counter nearly as much.

Identical looking to my breads and pizza doughs, but smelled completely different. Replaced the smell of yeast with pork

I covered the dough ball with a clean kitchen towel and let it rest for a couple hours.

While that sat, I got started on the carnitas.  Rick Bayless, whose tweet of the link to my first post a year and a half ago got me hooked on writing this blog, had an easy to follow recipe for oven roasted carnitas.  Bake thick slices of pork shoulder covered for an hour at 375F, then cook uncovered at 450F for another 40-50 minutes to brown and crisp.  The exact opposite of the times and temperatures I usually use with pork shoulder, but you gotta trust the man.

5 pounds of picnic shoulder on sale for $5.85. Now, THAT is the best deal at the grocery store. I wish I'd bought ten of them

I only wanted to cook half of the shoulder and freeze the other half.  Meant there was some deboning and skinning to be done.

Haven't talked about my ridiculous t-shirts in a while, but this is a new one. The correct way to wear it is tucked into some light blue jeans featuring an insanely long zipper and held on with a braided leather belt. Best complimented with a pair of running sneakers and tube socks

Bone out, skin off, I was ready to cut this into two slabs.

I couldn't throw away the skin, I just couldn't, there's too much fat on there to throw away!

The slab of shoulder that I planned to cook I coated heavily with a homemade rub of salt, paprika, cayenne, garlic, and onion powder.  The skin got a sprinkle of the leftover rub as well.

Food Savers are so awesome. Ever since picking up a ton of bags at Costco I food saver stuff at a borderline-compulsive level

The skin went into a separate greased baking dish, fat side up.  I poured about a quarter inch worth of beer into the pork shoulder dish and covered with foil.  Both headed into a 375F oven for an hour.

I regret not covering the skin too. Have yet to successfully make good cracklins in my oven. Speaking of my oven, the bottom is starting to look a little like Tim's oven, which is essentially the frat house basement of the oven world. Need to clean that soon

While that cooked, Kristi and I went to work on the tortilla dough.  After a couple hours of resting, the dough was ready to be separated and shaped into individual ping pong-sized balls which would eventually be rolled out into individual tortillas.  Basically, you pull a hunk off the dough ball and roll it between your hands into a ball shape.

Role reversal!!!! Kristi and I switched places so you could actually see nice looking hands handling food for once. Plus, it proves that taking a picture of food with a person in it is way harder than Kristi makes it seem. Awful work by me

After about 5 minutes of tense teamwork (specifically, me pointing out the inconsistencies in the size of the dough balls Kristi was making while making everything from a softball to a marble myself), we had our tortilla-sized doughballs ready.

Good teamwork! Actually, they ended up being too small and we had to remake them all once I started rolling them out

While those rested for an additional hour, the cover came off the carnitas and the oven temp went up to 450F.  For the next 30 minutes, I let the liquid in the base of the shoulder pan cook off while flipping the skins often to avoid burning them too badly.  Couldn’t avoid it though.

I think that upping to the 400s was a great call for the pork, terrible call for the skins

After thirty minutes, with the skins out of the oven, and the carnitas being flipped every 5-7 minutes to get nicely browned, I started rolling out and cooking the tortillas.  Pretty easy really, just roll them out as thin as possible, peel off your counter, and throw in an un-greased nonstick pan over medium/high heat.  Well, actually, it sounds easier than it is since it definitely takes a few botched rounds before they start coming out well.

Not m'best, but the great thing about tortillas is how much can you complain about something that you can pile meat into and eat? Still did the trick, just had a couple holes and was poorly shaped

Gettin' better. I get a lot of good use out of this crappy $10 griddle I got 8 years ago, but every time I make pancakes on the weekend I wish I made them more often. You don't care about anything I just said

 

After some continued trial and error, I eventually got into a good groove and came out with a decent looking stack of tortillas.

Similar to pancakes, but with a lot more rendered pork fat. You know, for your health

After 4-5 turns, the carnitas came out of the oven and was easily pulled apart into chunks with a knife and tongs.  Along with the tortillas, we served some of our go-to toppings (grated Monterey Jack, salsa, and caramelized onions) and a homemade corn salsa of corn, cilantro, chopped onion, crushed red pepper, and lime juice.

The lettuce was, and always is, a total bust when presenting a taco bar like this. Lettuce is out of the Old El Paso taco night commercials from the 80s; it has no place in most decent tacos

Well, I don’t want to over-sell homemade tortillas, but these are in a completely different world than the crap I buy at the grocery store.  They have their own delicious flavor (vs being just a floury vessel), are a little thicker in a good way, and have a fresh cooked taste that is completely unmatchable.  Just awesome.

This was my fourth taco. I was breathing heavily and sweating at this point, which means I was either eating, exercising, or sitting stationary

The pork had a good texture for tacos; big chunks that were tender but also a little chewy due to the size.  The cheese and caramelized onions made the meat even more rich, but the flavors from the corn salsa was essential since it helped cut the richness of the other flavors.  Very, very good tacos.

Next week will cover some goat related cooking (for reals this time, it is the super bowl after all).