For the third installment of my “Top Five” series, I wanted to highlight my favorite pork dishes. Usually, my wife and I stick to shoulder roasts and sausage when we cook pork, although occasionally we foray into different cuts, such as ribs. By primarily eating these two types of pork, we promote more of a “eat the whole hog” philosophy than turning only to cutlets, chops or ham. Moreover, these options are much less expensive, and although using pork shoulder takes longer to cook, the results are more flavorful and succulent. So, I encourage you to peruse the recipes below and chow down on some deliciously porky meals of your own.
6 servings – $25 total – $4.17 per serving
Carnitas – slow-roasted pork tacos – are a staple dish throughout Mexico and the American Southwest. What makes carnitas unique among most roasted meat dishes – in particular Hispanic asadas – is the high moisture content and the extremely tender texture of the meat. Because the pork is braised in a pot with fat, lemon juice and oil, the meat stays succulent and dripping with flavor.
Traditionally, carnitas are first lightly fried in lard, but I prefer a healthier alternative and one that’s easier to do at home. To begin, I cut a two to two and a half pound pork shoulder – preferably bone-in – into large chunks and place them in a Dutch oven. I lightly coat the pork in olive oil and then season them generously with salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, oregano, red pepper flakes and dried cilantro, along with a pinch or two of cinnamon. Once they are well seasoned, I cover the pot and let the pork slow-roast over medium-low heat for about two hours, or until the meat begins separating.
As the meat cooks, I prep for the rest of meal. Usually, my wife and I serve carnitas with a side of guacamole salad, although occasionally we’ll serve refried beans if we’re in the mood for something a bit more rich. For the salad, I dice a few heirloom tomatoes and finely dice a red onion, and I toss them with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped fresh cilantro. I wait to cut the avocado until the tacos are ready to serve, saving the rest for the other meals.
Next, I prepare the other ingredients for the tacos. First, I slice an onion into half rings and set it aside in a bowl. I then dice a poblano pepper and open a can of green chilies, adding them to the onion. Finally, I slice a couple of red bell peppers – with which I’ll top the tacos – setting them aside in a separate container.
Once the pork begins to fall off the bone and separate, I discard the bone and pull the meat apart using two forks. It takes some time to shred the pork, so be patient – I promise it’s worth the wait. When the meat is sufficiently shredded, I add the onion, poblano and chilies to the pot. Depending on the taste and moisture level of the meat, you may want to add more seasoning – especially some fresh cilantro – as well as more lemon juice or even some water. It’s important that the pork be packed with flavor and remain succulent.
To finish the carnitas, I cook the pork for another half hour over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then, I simply warm some corn tortillas, cut the avocado, plate the tacos and salad and enjoy!
2) Pulled Pork Barbeque
6 servings – $20 total – $3.33 per serving
Pulled pork BBQ is typically slow-roasted over coals for six plus hours allowing salt and smoke to permeate every inch of the meat. Then, the succulent pork is chopped or shredded by hand and doused in sauce before being served. At home, this method of cooking is far from practical, even if you have the will or grill to do so. However, it’s still important to cook your pork so that it retains a similar amount of moisture and develops that classic pulled pork texture.
Cue the Dutch oven. For easy at-home pulled pork, I always turn to a cast iron Dutch oven – as it holds in heat extremely well – and I use a similar cooking method as carnitas. I start by cutting two to two and a half pounds of bone-in pork shoulder into small chunks, and I add them to the pot along with some olive oil. Next, I season the meat heavily with salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and red pepper. Since I can’t develop a smoke-filled flavor profile on the range, I make the meat as spiced and delicious as possible.
I also opt for cooking the pork with all of the ingredients found in a great barbeque sauce rather than topping the meat with additional sauce after cooking. When I start cooking the pork, therefore, I add about 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of apple cider vinegar, a teaspoon and a half of Worcestershire sauce and a tablespoon of garlic. Then, I cook the pork on medium-low heat until the meat begins to separate – about two to two and a half hours.
As the pork cooks, I prepare my side. My wife and I typically have pulled pork BBQ with greens – often two bunches of collards or kale. For either, I start by washing them thoroughly. I then roll a few leaves at a time lengthwise and cut them into narrow strips. This allows for each piece to include plenty of leaf as well as a small amount of stalk to balance out the texture. I put the cut greens into a pot on the stove with olive oil, 1/4 of a cup of chicken stock and 1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar, along with red pepper flakes, black pepper and garlic to taste. I wilt the greens over medium heat for a few minutes, and then I cover the pot, turn off the heat and let them rest until serving.
When the meat begins to fall off the bone, I shred the pork thoroughly. Next, I add ketchup or store-bought barbeque sauce to taste, along with additional seasoning if necessary. Once the pork tastes just right, I cook it on medium heat for 30 minutes to make sure the flavors completely permeate the meat. I then toast a couple of brioche buns and serve up the pulled pork barbeque sandwiches with the greens on the side.
3) Barbeque Ribs
8 servings – $43 total – $5.38 per serving
Continuing with the BBQ theme, ribs are another favorite pork dish for my wife and I, although we only get them occasionally. When we do, though, they are always a delightful, decadent and sinfully delicious indulgence. I begin by placing the ribs – usually two racks – in a steel sheet pan. Next, I give them a generous coating of dry rub, which includes salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme and rosemary. When they are well seasoned, I cover the pan with aluminum foil and cook them in the oven at 350 degrees for two to two and a half hours.
While the ribs roast away, I prepare my two classic Southern side dishes: cheddar grits and collard greens. I fix the greens exactly the same way as above, so see the pulled pork BBQ recipe for the directions. For the grits, I start by boiling twice the amount of water as grits in a large pot on the stove. I add to it a spoonful of chicken base, but half stock, half water works just as well. You can also add milk for a creamier result, although we rarely have dairy on-hand. When the water boils, I add the grits and whisk vigorously until it becomes nice and creamy. Then, I turn the heat down to low and cover the pot. Next, I grate a wedge of extra sharp cheddar cheese and add half of it to the grits along with two to three tablespoons of butter, mixing thoroughly. I sprinkle the rest of the cheese on the grits when serving to ensure a pronounced cheddar taste.
When the meat starts to soften and break apart, separating from the bone, I uncover the foil and smother the ribs in BBQ sauce. For the photos above, we used a store-bought peach barbeque sauce, but your favorite sauce will just as perfectly. Once the ribs are coated, I put them back in the oven and broil them on low until the sauce caramelizes.
4) Penne alla Puttanesca
8 servings – $27 total or $31 with capers – $3.38 per serving
In addition to pork shoulder and barbeque, my wife and I love cooking with pork sausage, especially house-made bulk sausage from our neighborhood Whole Foods Market. Before I start cooking the meat for this dish, however, I first put a large pot of salted water on the stove over medium-high heat. You want a pot that is big enough to hold all of the pasta and sauce together, so I usually use a 10-quart stockpot.
As the water slowly comes to a boil, I brown an onion in olive oil using a sauté pan, seasoning with salt, pepper, oregano, sage, thyme and basil as it cooks. I also add some red pepper flakes for a bit of a kick. Once the onion caramelizes, I add in one and a half pounds of bulk mild Italian sausage, making sure to pinch it off into small pieces. This ensures that the sausage keeps its flavor and doesn’t disappear into the sauce. Once the meat is browned, I turn the heat off and focus on the pasta.
By now, the water should be boiling, so I add in the penne. It’s important to stir the pasta occasionally with a fork to prevent sticking. When the noodles are almost done, I scoop one or two ladlefuls of pasta water over the sausage and onion. This adds a nice earthy and salty depth to the sauce, and it helps stretch the sauce and ensure that it coats the pasta evenly. Next, I strain the al dente penne and leave them in the colander to rest, tossing occasionally to prevent sticking.
With the noodles and water out of the pot, I add in the pasta sauce. Although it’s perfectly fine to use store-bought Puttanesca, I prefer to use a jar of my favorite marinara and add in a tablespoon each of capers and garlic. The astringency of the capers coupled with the heat of the red pepper and the pungency of garlic gives the sauce its namesake “whorish” taste. When the sauce boils, I add in the contents of the sauté pan and turn off the heat. Then, I combine the sauce with the penne noodles, making sure the pasta is evenly coated in sauce.
I recommend using two bags or boxes of pasta because you want the sauce to complement the noodles, not drown or overpower them. After everything is well mixed, I serve the pasta in bowls with a generous topping of Parmesan cheese.
5) German Sausage With Cabbage, Fennel and Apple
6 servings – $22 total – $3.67 per serving
The final addition to my list is a favorite Autumnal dish for my wife and I, and it’s a great way to honor Cincinnati’s German heritage. I start by browning an onion in a tablespoon of olive oil using a large pot on the stove, seasoning heartily with salt, pepper, thyme and sage. When the onion caramelizes, I add in the sausage and cook until browned. I usually opt for a German sausage like bierwurst or an apple and fennel sausage, but I always remove the casing and add it in pinches to the pot.
Next, I finely dice a large fennel bulb along with two hearty apples and add them to the pot along with the sausage and onion. I let these cook down and marry with the flavors of the meat and seasoning before adding the cabbage, which usually takes about 10 minutes. While this cooks, I dice a head of purple cabbage and then add it to the pot when the fennel and apple are cooked down. I also add in a spoonful of chicken base – adding stock makes the dish a bit too watery – garlic to taste and 1/3 of a cup of apple cider vinegar.
Finally, I turn the heat down to medium-low, cover the pot and let the cabbage braise in all the delicious flavors from the sausage, apple, fennel, vinegar and herbs. Once the cabbage is tender, I serve it in bowls and dig in!