Birthdays march inexorably in life, whether we’re ready for them or not. This year, I was most certainly not ready. New city, new friends, new house, no furniture, and a milestone birthday just around the corner. But if you must turn 30 under these circumstances, the best thing to do is to grab the birthday by the collar and dare it to make you miserable.
I decided to throw a party, my first official birthday party in years with lots of beer, good food, and time spent outside. A potluck barbeque. I would provide the meat, friends would bring the sides. Nothing says welcome to my life like a great piece of meat.
Except that, as a recovering health nut and former vegetarian, I really didn’t know the first thing about how to barbeque a large hunk of meat. So I hit the books and the Cook’s Illustrated website. I decided on Jamaican jerk pork, inspired by this post and the idea of conviviality stoked by the lively, hot flavors of the Islands. Tradition has it that jerk was perfected by runaway slaves from West Africa, who hunted wild boar for sustenance, seasoned it with the wild herbs and spices from the hills of Jamaica, and roasted it in pits dug into the ground. Jerk marinades build on a foundation of Caribbean chives (usually replaced by scallions), thyme, scotch bonnet peppers and the all-important allspice berry. Jerk masters closely guard the secrets of their recipe, but common additions include garlic, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and soy sauce. For my marinade, I decided to stick with the basics, plus a healthy amount of garlic and a dash of soy sauce. I forwent the other dry spices in favor of a large dose of freshly toasted and ground all-spice. I tossed in a conservative three habanero peppers.
For the meat, I decided on a pork picnic shoulder. The shoulder meat of the pig is one of the toughest cuts, filled with muscle and connective tissue, but it’s also the most rewarding when slow-cooked for hours at a low temperature. While Boston butt seemed like it would have been a good choice, I went with the picnic. The skin, crisp and crackling is one of the best parts, according to Cook’s Illustrated. I also absolutely wanted the meat bone-in. The bone keeps the meat juicy and moist—one of the reasons why boneless chicken breast often tastes like saw dust.
Then came the challenge of procuring a locally-raised, skin-on, bone-in picnic shoulder. It’s not really the season, and every butcher I spoke to told me I could have one if I waited a month. I almost broke down and called Whole Foods when Clancy’s, makers of the best sausages I’ve ever had in my life, returned my call. “From one of our own suckling pigs: the most beautiful piece of meat you could ever ask for,” said the proud butcher.
The butcher had recommended I brine the meat. Soaking the meat in a salt water bath tenderizes the meat, ensures it remains juicy, and allows seasonings to penetrate deep into the meat. I tossed some crushed all-spice berries, a cup of sugar, and handfuls of garlic into the brine for good measure.
I was planning to cook the pork on a gas grill. Inauthentic they may be, but I didn’t want to be fiddling around with charcoal for the first time in my life with ten people coming over for dinner. Until a foodie friend mentioned that she had a smoker I could borrow. “I don’t know,” I hedged. “I’m not really that good with fire.” “Oh, it’s easy!” she responded. “Charcoal, newspaper, match. How hard could it be?”
Seduced by the promise of smoky flavor and tender, succulent meat, I borrowed the smoker. The day of the cookout dawned wet, cold, grey and miserable. Noon found me stooped over the chimney starter, poking wads of damp newspaper with matches as the 100% natural hardwood lump charcoal stubbornly refused to light. One hour later I was still at it.
Just when I was about to dissolve into tears and order out from Famous Dave’s, my friend called with wise council from her Barbeque Bible: “Roll a sheet of newspaper into a donut shape, as not to impede the flow of oxygen to the fire. If you need the newspaper to burn longer, moisten it with a little vegetable oil.” That did the trick.
Six hours later, guests arrived bearing bowls of cilantro inflected fruit salad, roasted potatoes, chana masala, rice salad, platters of chile-butter corn and the makings for mojitos. People gathered in the living room, talking, laughing, making friends, but getting hungrier all the time. Waiting for it to reach the spoon tender temperature of 190 with a house full of hungry people was just not an option. The smoky flavor of long cooked pork had been wafting all over the neighborhood for six hours, and it was driving me mad with hunger. I bunged it on a gas grill and turned up the heat. At 170 degrees, I gave up and took it off the fire.
The pork was delicious: the kind of meat that will invade your cravings at inconvenient times and places, like when it’s minus twenty degrees out, and the possibility of smoking is six months away. Smoky, succulent, juicy and flavorful down to the bone. The skin came off in charred, crisp bits that three friends picked at while I carved in the kitchen. The heat of the three haberneros was just barely discernable as a mild pleasant burn that intensified the smoky flavor. The real heat was in the sauce, the best combination of salty, sweet, herby and hot, with the bass note of warmth from the allspice. And yes, it was worth the days of research, the frantic race to the butcher, and the hours spent babysitting the charcoal fire.
And when you get to spend your birthday surrounded by new friends, great food, and a damn good piece of meat? You almost don’t mind turning 30.
Jamaican Jerk Pork
Island Red Beans and Rice
Several side dishes brought by talented friends
Mango and Coconut Sorbets
Jamaican Jerk Pork
For the brine:
1 picnic pork shoulder, skin on, bone-in (mine was 4 pounds because it was from a suckling pig, but the full sized hog will give you as much as 7 pounds)
1 cup salt
1 cup sugar
1 handful allspice berries, crushed in a mortar
1 head of garlic, cloves bruised in a mortar (no need to peel)
For the jerk rub:
5 bunches scallions
5 cloves garlic
scant ½ cup whole allspice berries, toasted until fragrant and ground in a spice grinder
2 tablespoons freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons thyme
1-6 scotch bonnets or habanero chiles (I used three, but ended up wishing I had used more)
a squeeze of lime juice
a generous amount of salt (maybe 1.5 tablespoons)
soy sauce to moisten
For the sauce:
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar
1. Brine the pork: Using a sharp knife, lightly score the pork skin in a diamond pattern. Do not cut through to the meat below. Bring a few cups of water to a boil, then dissolve sugar and salt in the boiling water. Submerge pork in 3 quarts of water, using ice to bring the temperature of the water down. Add spice. Refrigerate and leave 18-24 hours.
2. Make the rub: In a blender, combine all ingredients except soy sauce in a blender. Add enough soy sauce so that the blender blades whir smoothly. If it seems like you are using too much soy sauce, add a little water, but be careful not to add too much. Process to a paste.
3. Marinade the pork: Anywhere from 1-6 hours before you start smoking, remove pork from brine, dry with paper towels. Rub as much marinade as possible in all the crevices on the pork, place in a baking dish, and return to the refrigerator. Store the remaining marinade in the fridge as well.
4. Smoke the pork: Build a charcoal fire, place coals in smoker. Remove pork from baking dish, reserving marinade in bottom of dish. Smoking time will depend on the weight of the shoulder. The butcher told me at least six hours for a 4 pound shoulder, a seven pound shoulder can take up to 12 hours. Leave lots of time for smoking! My smoker had a pan for water to help regulate the temperature, but I didn’t use this feature because I wanted to keep the skin crisp. The butcher warned me to keep the temperature around 200 degrees. There was no chance of it getting much higher than that, perhaps because of my inept ways with charcoal. Most of the time, the grill temperature hovered around 225 for me.
You can also smoke with an ordinary charcoal grill. Just pile the charcoal to one side, keep the pork on the other side, shield the pork with some aluminum foil and watch the grill temperature. (I bought a cheap grill thermeter for $10. )
5. Smoke until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees for pull-apart tender pork, or as long as you can stand it. My pork was tender at 170, though it didn’t quite fall off the bone.
6. While the pork is smoking, make the sauce. Mix leftover rub with the vinegar and brown sugar. Boil until onions and garlic are cooked, about 5 minutes.
Island Red Beans and Rice
1 ½ c. dried red beans
3 c. rice (I used jasmine)
2 c. coconut milk
1 bunch scallions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 green chile, halved lengthwise
a generous sprinkle of salt
1. The night before, cover the bean in cold water and leave to soak.
2. Boil beans until tender, 1.5-2 hours. (You should be able to smash bean on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. When in doubt, keep cooking.)
3. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Measure reserved liquid, add coconut milk, plus enough water to make 5 cups.
4. Rinse rice and drain well. Add beans, coconut mixture, and remaining spices. Bring to boil.
5. When rice comes to boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 20 minutes.
6. After 20 minutes, turn off heat, leave rice undisturbed for 5 minutes before fluffing with a fork.
Sources: The Traveler’s Lunchbox, Cook’s Illustrated Website, How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbeque Techniques by Steven Raichlen, and the generous folks at Clancy’s Meat Market, Minneapolis, USA.
Carving the porkCarving the porkCarving the pork