On Sunday evenings, I truely enjoy the wind-down ritual of cooking something hearty and delicious, and feeling just *so* happy and content as my house fills with those homey and mouth-watering smells. After a slightly traumatic experience (whereupon I nearly morphed into a character straight out of “Snapped: Women Who Kill”), by Sunday night I was ready to partake in a much less stressful and morally un-intensive dining experience.
Something along the lines of those old “Just Set it…and Forget it!” commercials, where I would be free to watch the Oscar Red Carpet preshow while dinner made itself. Instead of being trapped in the kitchen straining to hear Tim Gunn’s commentary echoing thunderously down the staircase, my pj-clad self could lounge on the couch and criticize the fashion faux pas of the young and fabulous in comfort.
In anticipation of being in that passive mood, I had picked up a small piece of pork shoulder at the greenmarket. Normally braising a big piece of tough meat into sweet and melting submission takes the better part of your afternoon, but this was just a wee little guy, tipping the scales at 2 1/2 pounds, and I knew that I could count on him to be tender just in enough time for the awards to start.
Recently I’ve been in the habit of cooking my pork shoulder a la David Changs Bo Ssam (which honestly is quite possibly one of the most delicious things I think to ever come out of my kitchen….recipe and pictures soon to come!) but instead I wanted something a bit more wintery, spiced, and hearty.
I worked a rub of brown sugar, cumin, cinnamon, and salt into the pork and let it sit for a few hours to absorb the flavors. Quickly searing it creates a crust that will help to hold in some of the juices and carmelizes the fatty layer to a perfect golden brown. Braising it in dark beer with tomatoes, onions, and some extremely sweet jewel-toned carrots* makes a deliciously thick gravy accompaniment that ties the meat & polenta together seamlessly. Wrapping up my weekend this way always sends me blissfully happy into the night hours, and sets up my Monday morning to be the best that it possibly can.
For a Monday….that is.
Beer Braised Spiced Pork Shoulder served with Creamy White Cheddar & Scallion Polenta
Serves 2 with Leftovers
Most of the time when I make a pork shoulder, I’ll cook a big one – anywhere from 7-10 lbs. Getting a smaller piece not only takes significantly less time to cook, but also is the perfect size for 2 people (with leftovers, of course). The cinnamon in the rub adds a really nice unexpected flavor to the pork, and the slighly sweet spice works really well with the cumin and garlic.
I love serving polenta under anything that is tender, drippy, or has lots of pan juices. I think cheddar and scallion always taste so good together, and this is no exception. Use plenty of salt & pepper to bring out the deep savory flavor in the sharp cheddar.
I decided to slice this into thick rounds, but you could easily pull the meat apart into shreds with tongs or two forks as well.
1 Small piece of Boneless Pork Shoulder**, about 2.5lbs
1 Large onion, peeled and cut into wedges (I cut mine into eighths)
3 Garlic Cloves, minced
4-5 Carrots, peeled & sliced into 3 inch lengths
1 Bottle Dark Beer
2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
2 Bay Leaves
2 Tbsp Brown Sugar
1 Tbsp Cumin
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp Salt
1 Tbsp Corn Starch
1 Tbsp Cold water
Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper to taste
1/2 Cup Polenta
2 Cups Water
1 Tbsp Butter
3/4 Cup Good Quality Grated sharp white cheddar cheese
1/2 Cup scallions, chopped
2 Tbsp Cream
Salt & Fresh Black Pepper
The night before you plan to cook it, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, cumin, salt in a bowl. Rub the spice and sugar mixture into the meat, making sure to get inside all of the little nooks and crannies. Let it sit, covered and in the fridge, at least 12 hours (and up to 24).
When you are ready to cook, remove the shoulder from the fridge to let it come to room temperature, about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 300F. Heat a small dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot (that has a lid) over medium heat. Add the pork shoulder and brown on all sides until carmelized and brown (taking care not to burn the sugar rub), about 10 minutes total. Once browned, remove from the pan and reserve to the side. Add the onions and carrots into the rendered pork fat, and stir to combine, being sure to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Season with salt & fresh cracked pepper and cook until the vegetables are slightly softened and lightly carmelized, 7-8 minutes. Add in the minced garlic and bay leaves, and stir until garlic is fragrant and golden brown.
Add the balsamic vinegar and bottle of beer, and turn the heat to high. When it just comes to a boil, turn off the heat and add the pork back into the liquid, fat side up (this will help to self-baste it). The liquid should rise up to cover the pork at least halfway. Cover, place into the oven, and braise for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
After 2 1/2 hours, check the pork. It should yield easily when pried with a fork but still feel slightly solid inside. If it feels a bit tough, cover and let it braise for an additional 30 minutes. When the pork is tender, remove from the oven and let it rest in the braise for 5 minutes. Then remove and reserve on a plate to a side, under a foil tent. Remove the bay leaves from the braise and discard. Using a slotted spoon, remove the carrots and onions & reserve in a bowl to the side. In a small bowl, whisk together the corn starch and cold water.
Try to skim any visible fat off the surface with a ladle. Heat the braising liquid over medium high heat until it just comes to a boil. While whisking, add in the corn starch & water mixture. Continuously stir as the sauce thickens until it’s thick enough to coat the back of the spoon well. Turn off heat.
Make the polenta. Bring the 2 cups of water to a boil, and while whisking continuously and in the same direction, add the polenta in a thin stream. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue to whisk constantly – the polenta will start to thicken almost immediately. Continue to cook until the polenta is thick and creamy, about 6 minutes. Add in the butter, grated cheese, cream, and scallions while stirring. Add in a healthy dose of salt & fresh pepper (about 1.5 tsp of each), and remove the polenta from the heat. It should be thick and creamy in consistancy.
When ready to serve, slice the pork into thick rounds. It should be soft and yield easily to your knife. Spoon the polenta onto a plate and top with slices of the pork. Top with a large scoop of the onions and carrots, and a ladle-full of the thickened sauce. Hunker down with a glass of wine, and remember that sometimes, the end of a weekend can be a good thing.
*I found these fun carrots at our local grocery store – you can often find them at farmers markets or a specialty grocer. They tend to be sweeter than just the orange variety, and I just can’t get enough of the interesting colors they come in.
**Pork shoulder is also called Pork Butt, or Boston Butt – Don’t worry….it’s all the same cut- the shoulder – and can be used interchangeably.