Pulled Pork Shoulder Mojo
We haven't been posting as often as we'd like. Summer and a new job has kept us busy in the real world. We've been enjoying food when we can, especially with the summer Kids' Iron Chef battles, and it looks like work stress may be easing off soon. Who ever said a recession was the best time to do a startup? I'm working twice as much for half the pay right now. But, employment is always desirable, and we gotta do what keeps us in shallots.
It's still violently summer here in Central Florida. Daily rain, hot temperatures, higher humidity. Not necessarily when the thoughts turn to braising. But, it's been a while, and that mouth-watering tender meat sounds so good. So, what to do when it's hot and sticky, but you get the braising bug? Well, you can't go wrong with Cuban cuisine. One of our local restaurants does a braised pork mojo, and all that citrus just screams out tropical. And pig is always seasonal, 12 months a year.
I took a pork shoulder "picnic" cut and braised it for hours in an orange juice mojo. Rather than slicing it and serving, I took Southeastern summer tradition and pulled the pork, serving it on buns with the reduced braising sauce. Pulled Pork Mojo!
I've made this a couple times this summer, but the cut of meat has been a little different. A lot depends on your local supplier, which might just be the local supermarket. Pork shoulder can be bought as a "picnic" roast. Sometimes this is the entire front shoulder joint of a pig, which can be over seven pounds. Sometimes they cut this in half, and the chunks are three to four pounds each. Sometimes they cut it in half, take the bones out, then wrap it in cotton netting to keep it together. The first time I made this, I used a whole shoulder, but I was cooking for ten and serving as slices. This last time, I was cooking for two, but I knew I was going to pull the meat, which would create leftovers for days, so I picked a half-shoulder. Unknown to me at the time, it was the boneless netting version (I wasn't paying attention -- I was just happy to see it on sale). It's still good (a 9.5 instead of a 10), but I think there's still a bit of flavor and some sort of cooking ... texture/essence ... that exists when the bone is still there, as opposed to the floppy meat pieces when the cut has been hacked through to remove the joint.
Anyway, let's cook some pig, mojo-style. Mojo itself is one of those Latin cooking terms in a lot of use these days, like ceviche or chimichurri. The basic concept is "sour orange" which is roughly 3-4 parts orange juice to 1 part lime juice, plus some kicks like garlic, ginger, and cilantro. I like to toss in some roasted red jalapeño for heat. For this attempt, I was tragically out of cilantro, but it was still amazingly good, which should be good news for those who have that genetic aversion to cilantro.
I started by removing the unfortunate cotton netting, trimming off the larger chunks of fat, and seasoning the whole picnic with salt and pepper. I heated a skillet over medium high until it was hot, added some olive oil, then browned the shoulder on all sides.
I put the browned pork in a ceramic roasting pan and added five fat cloves of garlic, smashed. I took a roughly two-cubic-inch chunk of fresh ginger and chunked and smashed that as well.
I squeezed in the juice of five limes, then sliced and seeded two red roasted jalapeños, and added those.
As if there's not enough acid in the braise, I added a couple tablespoons of rice vinegar, then a half cup or so of white wine, then orange juice until it's roughly 1/3rd of the way up the pork. This acid is mainly for a variety of flavors, not a ceviche-style method of cooking (which would only penetrate the surface, anyway).
To get the braise started, I preheated the oven to 325, but heated the roasting pan on the burners until the liquid just started to barely simmer. Some foil over the top, and in the oven it went.
All of this is pretty straightforward, and here's the only tricky part. I pull back the foil and check the meat every 30 minutes to see how much the liquid is simmering. If it's simmering a lot, I turn down the heat until there's a gentle bubbling, maybe a few bubbles every couple seconds. It's not the same every time due to temperature differences in the different cuts of meat, and if there's a bone or not. For this roast, I turned it down to 300 after 30 minutes (and flipped the pork), then 275 the next 30 minutes (and flipped the pork), and the temp was fine there.
Once that gentle simmer is happening, there's a lot of forgiveness. Flip the pork every 30-45 minutes and that's it. Boiling or heavy simmering will force out the moisture and make the pork tough. A bare simmer will absorb the moisture from the braise, tenderizing and generating a ton of flavor -- pork into the liquid, liquid into the pork, everything organically happy with one another like one of those biosphere terrariums.
How long to braise? Again, it's different for different cuts, but it's not rocket science. Poke it with a fork, and it'll be obvious. The first few checks, maybe 60 or 90 minutes or two hours in, and it'll still be tough, maybe causing some anxiety whether it will ever be tender. Then, like magic, you'll remove the foil, poke it with a fork, and the whole thing will fall apart. This particular three pound boneless cut was in for two and a half hours. My full picnic with the bone was about four hours, and that bone just fell out into the liquid when I pulled on a corner.
Because of the uncertainty, this isn't something to whip up for a last minute party. However, it does not suffer (and perhaps will improve) by cooking it in advance, and then reheating before serving, as long as the meat stays in the braising liquid.
So, two and a half hours later:
The braising liquid will become the sauce for the pulled pork. However, there's a lot of rendered pork fat sitting on top of the liquid. I roughly skimmed it off with a ladle, then when I was down to the actual orange/lime-juice with flavors, I ladled a couple cups into a smaller saucepan. I added a couple tablespoons of brown sugar, and whisked it in over low heat.
After reducing by about 1/4 to 1/3rd, I wanted to make a nice, thick barbecue-like sauce out of the mojo braise. I whisked a tablespoon or so of corn starch with about 1/4 cup of white wine, and added it to the simmering mojo sauce, which thickened it up nicely.
When it comes to pulling pork, I like big chunks. Some like to shred it into thready wisps, and go for it if that's what you like, but I just take a couple forks, and just tear into bite-sized chunks.
For plating, I toasted some sesame buns under the broiler, then piled on the pork and poured some sauce over that. A nice pickle spear (for that true southeastern barbecue touch) and an ice-cold beer, and there you go.
Deconstruction: If you've made it this far, there's no secret that I love this technique. Personally, I had it for lunch for the next three days, and it didn't get old. In fact, just writing this post, I'm craving it even more. I need to find a bone-in 4-pound picnic for Labor Day, I think.