Something supernatural occurs when cooking a large, whole, primal cut of flesh outdoors. My Weber kettle grill becomes a glistening domed cadmium red porcelain encrusted time machine taking me back to ancient times of invading Visigoth and Barbarian hordes. My backyard becomes a late evening Roman Legion encampment with warm, flavorful smoke swirling around a large fresh killed beast which would eventually become a soothing evening repast after a long bloody day of dismemberment, death and plunder.
During the summer I enjoy waking up early to prepare the grill for a BBQ of large pork butt roasts slowly and indirectly smoking to perfection from dawn 'till dusk in the classic Weber kettle. Ash white coals and hardwood morsels of smoky lust smother the roast in a warm blanket of flavor.
I have been known to slow-cook these rewards of life on dark, cold winter evenings in the dimly lit beams of light cast from the winterized screen porch. With the winter sleet dancing off the domed red lid of my Weber I can easily be warmed by closely tending the fire wearing my country brown farmer Carhartt coverall over my flannel while sipping a freshly mixed, well garnished and chewy homemade Bloody Mary. The aroma of hickory is intoxicating as I become impervious to the sleet as it changes to large, white and fluffy lake effect showflakes accumulating on the weather worn cedar planks of my deck while I watch with gleeful anticipation.
As a result of my labor the succulent tender meat will be used for delicious pulled pork sandwiches and the tender smoky shredded leftovers make a fine filling for tasty grilled gourmet quesadillas and tostadas smothered in vegetables, cilantro and melted cheese. The humble and inexpensive pork butt becomes a mouthwatering specimen of porcine delight in the hands of a seasoned and skilled grill master like myself.
Peering out at the pastel country sunset I realize that any evening could be one in which victory can be celebrated. A victory of man over beast.
OK, enough of that, I better stop myself. Maybe I’ve been reading too much of this stuff.
Just thought I would paint a colorful picture with words to prove anyone can do it. But that’s not my style. Besides, you wouldn't want to see a photo of me from behind in a strapless clingy cocktail gown, would you? Nor do I have photos of my hairy well sculpted pectoral cleavage either. Lucky you!
Now, back to my regularly scheduled blogging.
Let's see, oh yeah, a primal cut that was last weekend's BBQ highlight.
There is nothing at all wrong with grilling little steaks or chops and even domestic or legally shot wildfowl on the grill. Shish K’babs are colorful and fun with the appearance of an entire charred meal on a stick. I love them all as long as it involves hardwood coals with large chunks of hickory, applewood or my favorite, sassafras wood added for smoky flavor.
When a large chunk of meat has a bone still in it and the skin still on it becomes a primal experience for me.
The best would be roasting an entire pig carcass but when cooking for two or three roasting a whole hog makes no sense. Greeks cook whole lamb, which is outrageously good but the closest I come to that is slow roasting a whole leg of lamb skewered with a motorized spit on my Weber gas grill.
When each of my offspring graduated high school we hosted a pig roast open house for over 100 people. Each time I bought a whole 100+lb pig (head and all) and rented a motorized charcoal fired rotisserie cooker on a trailer from a local slaughterhouse. The results were gratifying, satisfying and visually impressive.
Before roasting my first whole hog I did not know that in the end, it all tastes the same. Yep, the bacon and ham tasted like the ribs and chops. We took the pig off the spit and shredded the meat then placed the pulled pork into warming trays with BBQ sauce. Many attendees comment on those feasts to this day when we meet.
What was missing at our whole hog roasts was the extra flavor I try to infuse into my BBQ pork. There was no smoky hickory edge (skin kept that from happening) and spicy cayenne afterbite. Absent was the Mexican carnitas citrus notes or a Jamaican jerk effect. It was hog heaven so don’t get me wrong. The primal experience was there but flavor was missing.
A recipe in Cook’s Illustrated caught my eye a while back. It was for BBQ Cuban pork.
Last week while visiting the local grocer I noticed fresh whole pork shoulders on sale for 89¢ per pound. This cut is also referred to as a picnic ham. It is not to be confused with the pork butt, which is the upper section of the pig’s foreleg we use to make pulled pork, this is the lower section. It’s primal to me because the leg bone is still in it along with the skin surrounding it, similar to a ham. I guess what makes it different from a ham is the moderately thick upper portion tapering down to the knee joint and large bone sticking out. It has the appearance of a serious hunk of beast.
Cooking the Cuban pork shoulder is close to roasting a whole hog, just a lot smaller. And I believe the flavor will be what I have been looking for. Not only that, but there will be charred pig skin to eat. Hhaawwww!
Anything good is worth waiting for and this recipe will be no exception. It calls for brining this hunk-o-pork in a mixture of salt, sugar, orange juice and two whole bulbs of crushed garlic (BAM!) for eighteen hours. The total cook time will be about six hours, three in the kettle and three in the oven for finishing.
This isn’t a just a recipe it’s a weekend activity.
There is a citrus-garlic paste in the recipe containing a lot of garlic, orange juice, vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano and cumin that is packed on to the roast and stuffed into the cross cuts made in the skin and fat.
A heat shield made of foil protects the skin near the heat from becoming burnt. One chimney’s worth of charcoal is added to the indirect side. The lid is closed and the roast is ignored for 2-3 hours.
Once 2-3 hours have passed the roast goes into the oven on a wire rack over a rimmed baling sheet and roasted at 325 degrees for another 2-3 hours until the meat reaches a (my Wolf oven has a temperature probe) 190 degree internal temperature.
The results cannot be described other than to say the citrus-y garlic along with subtle oregano and cumin came through. The skin was very crunchy and the attached fat was sweeter than sugar.
The meat had a citrus-garlic overtone especially after ladling the slices with the optional scratch-made Mojo sauce.
This is one recipe that has earned a place on the menu schedule and it will be made again. Next time I will invite guests, fire up both Weber kettles and cook two whole shoulders.
This is something that must shared with other Roman Legionaries. Or Conquistadores.