Monday, January 12, 2009

Pork Secrets

In our household, M. cooks the meat and I bake mean desserts and set the table. It's a set up that works just fine, most of the time. I do make dinner a couple of times a week but when I do it hardly ever involves meat. Part of the reason is that we've both agreed that we don't need to eat meat every single night. Vegetables, proteins like eggs and beans, and hearty complex grains are delicious. The other reason I don't cook meat is that M. does it so very well. He is the king of braising and roasting and other cooking techniques that take a long time but result in the most succulent, tender morsels of meat you've ever put in your mouth.

Which is why I was very concerned when he asked me if I could pick up the pork butt and cook it for him while he was at work. I tried to remain calm while asking a very specific set of questions -- how much should I buy? Should it be boneless or bone-in? Where should I go to buy it? He gave me an explicit set of directions while doling out spices from the numerous unlabeled jars hidden above the stove. A handful of black peppercorns, a bay leaf, some cumin, and lots and lots of dried red peppers.

All I had to do was locate the pork store, purchase the pork butt, bring it home, clean, de-seed, and de-stem the peppers and then put it all in a pot, cover it with water and simmer on very low for hours.

It seemed easy enough, but I was anxious. Every so often I am aware of the fact that I am being tested, that M. is giving me a small culinary challenge -- can I handle it? If I fail I know it will be ok and that he will fix my mistakes. But if I succeed it makes me much more credible in the kitchen.

Now I am one step ahead of him. After my afternoon with the pork butt I know that slow cooking pork is not difficult at all. I followed the instructions and let the pork simmer for hours. Six or seven hours to be exact while I worked, napped, read, and swept the floors. Every so often I would check on it, adjust the heat, poke and stir a bit. It all looked fine.

M. came home, lifted the lid and proclaimed it good. And this is where I let my guard down -- I shuffled off to the couch with my New Yorker and left him to do his thing in the kitchen. I think he strained the water the pork had been simmering in and saved it in the freezer -- some mean pork broth for another project. I think he put the pork in a baking dish, salted it liberally and then placed it in the oven to crisp up just a bit. I think his secret weapon is orange zest, but when does he use it and how much?

Clearly I stopped paying attention. I was setting the table and lighting the candles while the oven door opened and closed and a wooden spoon scraped the side of a pan. Our pork smelled good and tasted even better. It was a big hit with the dinner guests who have no idea how simple it was to make. Nor do they know all the secrets of the pork. But then again, neither do I.

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