Pulling Pork

Unlike their fellow southerners, New Orleanians have never been known for barbecue. Even the art of cochon de lait, a Cajun-style pig barbecue, isn’t practiced much in the metropolitan area – for obvious reasons: You have to dig a hole in the ground for the fire and build a rack to hold the pig. Most backyards in the city are small and owners would rather not sacrifice their landscaping for a pig roast.

However, there are more and more barbecue joints popping up around town, even a James Beard award-winning restaurant named for its tastiest ingredient, cochon, (French for “pig”). Although casual in ambiance, Cochon is the hottest spot in town, evidenced by the rush of outsiders to get into the place and chow down on some cochon with cracklin’s, hot sausage with grits and other marvels from the boucherie.

We noticed that during the recent convention of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, everybody who was anybody made sure to go there.

I was born in Tennessee, so to me barbecue means pork. How many times have I argued with a Texan, who (mistakenly) thinks barbecue is beef? In New Orleans, just grilling a burger might be called barbecuing. Beer-can chicken, aka “drunken chicken,” took off here a few years back. A Cajun Country and Texas creation, a whole chicken is positioned on top of a beer can containing beer and seasonings over a charcoal fire, delivering wonderful flavors.

My experience goes back to when barbecuing meant spending a day sitting in the yard by a covered, slow-smoking charcoal grill. My father-in-law made whole pork shoulders – meaning the butt and shoulder joined, with pork ribs on the side. You could feed a dozen folks with that and still have leftovers. Today, the slow-smoked pork shoulder is called pulled pork because it’s cooked until its almost falling off the bones and is pulled off rather than cut. There can be some minor chopping involved but for the most part the meat is pulled and shredded by hand, spread thickly onto hamburger buns and topped with a thin vinegary sauce and cole slaw. After 40 years in New Orleans, it’s still my husband’s signature dish and we cook it every few months. Our close friends, who now live in New York, cook it there and other barbecue ambassadors from Tennessee and the Carolinas take it wherever they go.

That’s because it’s so good.

So, in honor of July – the great barbecue month – I depart from my regular Creole and Cajun recipes to introduce more locals to the best ol’ barbecue you’ll ever find anywhere.

We find that in New Orleans, it’s next to impossible to buy a whole pork shoulder. We used to order them from Dorignac’s, three to a box, but eventually started using multiple pork Boston butts instead. The technique is indirect smoking of the meat for eight to 10 hours in an enclosed and vented grill. Once the pork is smoking, you have only to open the grill every 45 minutes, add a few coals and wet hickory chips, turn the meat over and baste it with a vinegar and water mixture. The grill should be large enough to burn the coals on one side of the grill and place the meat on the other. Then, vents should be adjusted to allow the smoke to cross over the meat.

If you’re preparing for a party, it’s easy enough to put the pork on at 6 or 7 a.m. and have it ready for a late afternoon get-together. While it cooks, you’re free to do other preparations. The smells will have your neighbors salivating. We have trained our friends to put cole slaw on the sandwich but you don’t have to. When serving, we also offer a thin, vinegary, Tennessee-style sauce as well as a thicker one, more like the bottled sauces. The crispy outside meat should be mixed with the inside tender meat for a perfect barbecue sandwich. In Memphis, we called the sandwich itself a barbecue.

For a July barbecue, cook about one 10- to 12-pound pork butt per half dozen guests and serve with cole slaw and barbecued beans. Before you know it, your friends will be seeking you out for a repeat performance.

BARBECUED PULLED PORK
1 large bag charcoal briquettes
1 bag hickory chips, preferably
      chunks
2 10- to 12-pound pork Boston
      butts
Creole seasoning or pork rub,
      about 1/4 cup*
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water

In a large charcoal-burning smoker grill with cover, light a fire using about 20 charcoal briquettes, preferably in a charcoal chimney starter. When the coals are hot, spread them on the bottom of one side of the grill. Soak a bowl of hickory chips or chunks in water. Place a handful on top of the coals.

While the coals are heating, trim the pork butts of any tough skin or excess, but not all, fat. This may be unnecessary as most is removed by the butcher. Rub the pork generously with the seasoning and when coals are white-hot, place meat on the upper rack of the grill on the opposite side of the fire. Adjust lower and upper vents so that the smoke flows over the meat. Open vents under the fire or at the outer side of the fire and on the far or opposite side of the meat. Close the grill cover.

Every 30 to 45 minutes, open the grill and add 8 to 10 charcoal briquettes to the fire or enough to maintain a 300-degree fire. Top with a few hickory chunks. Mix cider vinegar and water in a spray bottle and spray all sides of meat. Turn meat over.

Close the grill. Repeat every 45 minutes or so, making sure that the fire never goes out. Smoke for 8 to 10 hours or until the meat is tender and loose on the bone.

When the meat comes off the grill, let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes before pulling off the bone. Pull and shred the meat and serve hot on a platter or chopping board. You may need to chop the large pieces. If the pork is ready before you’re ready to serve, wrap it tightly in heavy foil and place in the oven on 250 degrees until ready to serve. Do not chop ahead of time or the meat will dry out.

Serve with heated hamburger buns, cole slaw and sauces of choice. A barbecue sandwich is made by filling the bun with meat and topping the meat with a moderate amount of sauce. Spread a moderate amount of cole slaw on the top part of bun and close sandwich. You want the meat to provide the main flavor, not the sauce. Serves 8 to 10.

* To make a rub, mix 2 tablespoons salt with 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon garlic powder and 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning.

THIN BARBECUE SAUCE
1 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon molasses

Mix all ingredients. Serve on the side for individuals to drizzle over their meat. Makes 1 1/4 cup.

SWEET BARBECUE SAUCE
2 cups Heinz chili sauce
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Tabasco
1 onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
1 lemon, quartered
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses

Mix all ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer, covered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

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