Acid and Fat

My neighbor Chris, a man of noble appetite and impeccable palate, invited us over for a Sunday barbecue. It was the much-hyped, much-feared “Carmageddon” weekend, in which the busiest freeway in the country would be shut down for two days. No one was going anywhere. So the commute 50 or so feet to the Watermans’ house sounded perfect. And I took it as a good omen when I saw Chris out in his pajamas at 8 a.m. that morning, tending to his smoker.

The Man & his smoker, "R2D2"

Chris hails from Florida, close enough to the smoking belt of the Deep South to count. Onto his grill that sunny morning went a beautiful Texas brisket and, perhaps more to the point, a 7-lb pork shoulder. Several times during the day I stole through the bushes to lift the lid and take a glimpse. At 5 p.m. we commenced to the Watermans’, and a short time later Chris, with appropriate pomp and ceremony, lifted the animals from the grill and adjourned to the kitchen. I followed like a scrappy alley dog, and was handed a large fork and knife, deputized to pull the pork’s flesh from bone. An honor and responsibility I accepted with earnest purposefulness. The meat, tumbling from the bone in a glistening confluence of pink flesh, smoky skin and silky fat, was plated and presented, along with an introduction from the erudite host in which he explained the proper sauce to use with which meat — smoky, spicy barbecue with the brisket, and with the pork: a thin, piquant vinegar-and-red-pepper mixture in the North Carolina style.

I repaired to a sunny chair on the deck with my plate of vinegar-soaked pork, where a moment later Chris joined me. There was little room for words as we dug in. But after a few focused moments of mastication, followed by a cleansing swig or two of red wine, we were ready to talk. I uttered the only three words that came to my mind: “Acid and fat.”

Chris’ response was equally pithy and profound. “Indeed.”

What ensued between bites and grunts was a brief but interesting conversation about the pairing of fatty foods with acidic sauces. Chris’ Texas-style brisket was good, but the pork was profound. And that profundity was found in the beautifully balanced contraposition of the richness of the meat with the bracing, spicy acidity of the vinegar sauce.

Pulled pork shoulder with pepper vinegar sauce

Dig around a bit and you’ll discover the pairing of acid and fat a central technique in nearly every cuisine. I pointed out to Chris that his North Carolina shoulder echoed the Mexican preparation of carnitas, dressed in a tortilla with the acidic complements of lime juice and tomato salsa. Chris got even more elemental, retorting that acid and fat was the very basis of the classic French vinaigrette. At the sushi bar, rich and fatty fishes like salmon or mackerel are often subdued with tart ponzu sauce. In the Mandarin kitchen, crisp fried chicken is elevated with a sauce of sweet, vibrant orange. The French serve their patés with cornichons, while the Germans braise their sauerbraten roasts in red wine vinegar.

How would this abstract observation translate into practical advice for your own cooking adventures? Simply remember how acid and fat can complement one another, much like cheese and wine — themselves of course an acid and a fat! Your morning croissant is good with butter, and it’s good with jam. But combine the rich fatty butter with a sweet, acidic jam… and Edith Piaf songs will be issuing from your sated lips. Your fillet of grilled fish is transformed into a sublime meal when served over rice with nothing more than butter and lemon juice. Witness how much better an egg salad sandwich tastes when its mayonnaisey richness is cut with the acerbic counterpoint of pickles. And a dry-aged rib eye hot off the grill requires nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice to achieve perfection. When cooking with fats, consider whether or not whatever you are making would be well-served by a squeeze of lemon or dash of vinegar.

Or, take a crack at Chris’ NC-style pork shoulder, adapted below from my own experience and memory:

*   *   *

Slow-smoked North Carolina-style pork shoulder
serves 6-8, with leftovers

1 pork shoulder with bone, 5 to 7 lbs.

brine:

2 quarts  water
1 cup salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1 onion, cut in half

dry rub:

1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tbsp. pimentón
1 tbsp. dried ground mustard
1 tsp. celery seeds

sauce:

1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp. ketchup
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp. hot red pepper flakes

(*note: You don’t need a smoker to make a good pork shoulder. But it sure helps. What you do need is heat of about 225 to 250 degrees, and smoke. If you don’t have a smoker, use a charcoal grill and wood chunks (hickory, oak, alder, etc.) soaked in water. You want to keep the temperature inside the grill at 225 to 250, and you want the meat to not be on direct heat. You’ll periodically place some wood chunks soaked in water on the coals to create the smoke. Alternately, you can cook the shoulder in a 225 degree oven for several hours, and finish it on a gas or charcoal grill with wet wood chips for smoke.)

The day before you cook your pork shoulder, make your brine: combine 2 quarts of water with 1 cup salt, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 bay leaves and 1 onion, cut in half. Stir until well mixed. Place your pork shoulder in a deep roasting pan, a pot or a large Ziploc bag and cover with the brine. Let marinate overnight in the fridge, turning the pork shoulder once or twice during the process.

Remove from brine on cooking day and pat dry. Mix together rub ingredients: brown sugar, paprika, pimentón, dried mustard, celery seeds and salt. Sprinkle pork shoulder liberally on all sides with your rub.

Your pork shoulder will cook for 5 – 7 hours at a very low heat, so you’ll need to get started early. Prepare your smoker or grill. Place a pan of water above your coals and below your grill to catch drippings and keep the smoker moist. (Alternately, if you are cooking in the oven, place the pork shoulder in a large roasting dish and cover tightly with foil.) When the heat reaches 22o to 240, begin cooking. Check frequently to make sure the heat is consistent and the shoulder is not burning.

Once your shoulder is smoking, make your sauce. Heat vinegars in a pan over medium-high until they begin to simmer. Remove from heat, stir in sugar and pepper flakes, and let cool. Divide sauce 2/3 and 1/3. Use the 1/3 to lightly baste your pork shoulder with a pastry brush, every hour or so while it is cooking. Save remaining 2/3 for once you’ve pulled the meat.

For those cooking in the oven: after 5 hours, remove the shoulder from the oven. Heat your gas or charcoal grill to its lowest temperature, and place the shoulder on the grill. Baste with sauce. Put some soaked wood chips on a piece of foil on top of the coals or flames. Close cover and cook for one hour, turning and basting a few times. Add more wood chips as needed.

When pork is finished, after five to seven hours depending on your cooking method (meat should shred easily when poked with a fork), remove to a large cutting board and let sit for 15 minutes. Using a large fork and sharp knife, pull and cut meat from the shoulder to a large platter. Once the platter is full, drizzle with some of the vinegar sauce, and serve with additional sauce on the side.

Find a shady spot on a warm afternoon and enjoy with good friends, cole slaw and your favorite fermented beverage.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Jul 22, 2011 @ 03:15:30

    Okay…so WHAT has kept Chris and Jimbo from hooking up? And I have to add as a skinny girl…that acid and fat are NOT a good skinny combination. If you ever want to hear the end of skinny pontification, then you might want, bro, to change your ID to something way less offensive than something (including) mayonnaise…yet..I do find it hilarious considering some of your siblings that mayonnaise has had some sort of influence on your delicate psyche…. I want to add that almost everything from the south incorporates mayonnaise and I will resound with a giant YUUUCCHHH!!!!!!

    Reply

  2. g
    Jul 22, 2011 @ 03:30:20

    Heh.

    Reply

  3. g
    Jul 22, 2011 @ 03:32:53

    Don’t forget the cole slaw.

    Reply

  4. Ben
    Jul 22, 2011 @ 03:41:52

    My friends and family constantly calling and asking for help with recipes. My advice is almost alway about increasing the acidity of a dish.

    Reply

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