We hosted a block party on the 5th of July and I was casting around for inspiration when I hit upon a great post on barbecue by my fellow blogger Drick of Drick’s Rambling Cafe. Drick is from Alabama, where they know a thing or two about real barbecue. Now, I’ve done a lot of grilling in my life but true barbecue—slow cooking over a very low, smoking fire—was something new for me and, frankly, a bit intimidating. Images of whole pigs or sides of beef sitting on enormous grates, smoking for an entire afternoon, had convinced me that barbecue was not something that you could easily do at home. But Drick kindly relieved me of that misconception: a fine barbecue could be had with a backyard gas or charcoal barbecue using gentle indirect heat.
So I knew that I wanted to feature real barbecue for the block party and, after some vacillation between ribs and pulled pork, I decided on the pulled pork. And then some great Mexican dishes to go with. Here was the menu:
Pulled Pork “Pibil”
Calabitas con crema
Ensalada de nopales
All accompanied by guacamole, salsa mexicana (aka “pico de gallo”) and salsa verde (aka tomatillo sauce), as well as, of course, lots of tortillas to make soft tacos.
I’ll get around to featuring all of these dishes, but today I will focus on the main event, the pulled pork. As Drick explains, it is actually quite easy to do. In fact, although it takes long, slow cooking, like a lot of such dishes it practically cooked itself. Typically, you begin by coating your roast with a ‘dry rub’ (a mixture of dried herbs and spices) and letting it sit, as long as overnight, to marinate. You then slow cook the roast over gentle, indirect heat, basting it with a ‘mopping sauce’ (a thin usually acidic liquid that is traditionally applied with a miniature mop, hence the name), until the meat is fork tender.
Since my party was going to have a Mexican theme, I decided to use a simplified version of the marinade you would use to make cochinita pibil, a typically Yucatan way of making suckling pig with Mayan origins. My marinade consisted of a wet rather than a dry rub, made by blending together chile powder, pimentón (smoked paprika), salt, pepper, garlic, cumin and oregano, moistened with enough juice of naranja agria (bitter orange) so it takes on the texture of a thick paste. Since I didn’t have naranja agria, I approximated the flavor using regular, freshly squeezed orange juice, mixed with the juice of half a lime. The night before, I rubbed this paste all over the pork shoulder and stuck it in the fridge overnight. (If you want the real, authentic color and flavor, add achiote (annatto) to the marinade instead of the chile powder and paprika, but, there again, I didn’t have it on hand.)
The next day, an hour before I began to cook, I took the pork out of the fridge to come back to room temperature. After pre-heating the barbecue, I slapped the pork on the grill over indirect heat—meaning that you make sure that the burner(s) directly under the meat is turned off (for a gas grill) or clear away any briquettes under the meat (for a charcoal grill). In my case, I had burners on either side of the meat but if your barbecue is smaller—say with only two burners—just turn one off and leave the other on.
You cover the barbecue and adjust the flame so that the temperature inside hovers around 300-350° F (150-180° C) and continue cooking until the meat reaches an internal temperature of around 180-190° F (85-90° C), which in this case, for a four-pound (2 kilo) roast took about 4 hours. Pork is safe to eat at a much lower internal temperature (as low as 160°F or 70°C) but to reach that wonderful falling apart tenderness that characterizes pulled pork, you’ll need to wait.
But, as I said, the process is quite painless. Just turn the meat from time to time and baste it with a mopping sauce. In this case, I simply used that same combination of orange and lime juice. The only tricky part was trying to keep the temperature inside the barbecue at the right temperature. I’m sure it’s something that becomes second nature after some practice, but this being my first attempt, I found that it was just too easy for the temperature to get too high—which resulting in a slightly charred (but still delicious!) outside crust.
When your meat is done, take it off the grill and let it rest, covered with aluminum foil, for about 30 minutes. Like any other roast, this ensures that the meat will remain juicy. Then you can either cut the meat up or—as the name suggests—pulled it apart pulling the meat apart with two forks. Pour over any accumulated juices and sprinkle with a bit of salt if you think it needs it.
I have to tell you, the meat was absolutely wonderful. Tender, juicy, savory… just slightly spicy. It made an incredible filling, topped with a bit of salsa verde or guacamole, for soft tacos. Not bad for a first attempt. The guests were impressed. (I even caught one of them afterwards sneaking a few more pieces of meat in the kitchen—a true compliment!)
So, my friends, if like me you’ve been wary of barbecue, take a tip from Drick and take the plunge. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the results!
NOTES: The cut of pork is very important. Shoulder is the ideal cut. Do not attempt this dish with pork loin, which is much too lean and will dry out.
If you want to make real cochinita pibil, line a Dutch oven with softened banana leaves, lay some sliced onion at the bottom of the pot and take your pork should (or suckling pig if you have it) and lay it over, covering it with the tops of the leaves. Cover and roast in a moderate oven for at least 90 minutes. Traditionally, the dish was cooked by burying it and starting a fire over the pig, so I would think that you could simulate that by using a barbecue. Some recipes call for adding a bit of water and simmering it over the top of the stove or in a pressure cooker.
For some American style dry rubs and mopping sauces, be sure to check out this great post from Drick’s blog.