cuban pork shoulder

When you’re a grad student who loves to feed others almost as much as she loves to feed herself, you run into a couple of obstacles. One – money. Oh, you haven’t heard? We law students are broke from forking over our savings and borrowed funds for tuition, and we’re going to be broke later, what with the lack of jobs and forever-looming student debt. Two – a tiny little kitchen. It has produced truly delicious food, but cooking in my apartment kitchen requires some truly creative space management and motivated spurts of cleaning throughout. 

Behold the solution: a pork shoulder. This inexpensive, behemoth hunk of meat has gained me some undeserved fame since I rely on it often to feed a crowd. It doesn't take up counter or stove space - it sits quietly in the oven while it performs its magic and is a hell of a showstopper when it comes out. I’ve done it with Italian spices and topped with a parsley pesto, used it for pulled pork sandwiches with homemade barbecue sauce and spicy mayo, and served it nestled in corn tortillas with pico de gallo and avocado tomatillo sauce. This time, I smeared it with a citrus garlic paste and served alongside rice, beans and fried plantains. It fed my five-person dinner party and yielded three more amazing meals that week (posts to follow). And honestly, no, I didn’t get sick of it.

As if huge mounds of meltingly-tender meat weren’t enough, the skin of a pork shoulder gets beautifully lacquered and crunchy (it’s my favorite part, unsurprisingly). Taking a sharp knife and scoring the skin in a cross-hatch pattern ensures that the fat between the skin and meat renders, basting the rest of the shoulder while it cooks.

After making the garlic citrus paste in the food processor, I took out a very sharp paring knife and thought about Boston drivers and Securities Regulation while stabbing the shoulder repeatedly, making 1-inch long incisions. The paste gets pushed into these slits and massaged on the meaty parts not covered by the skin.

Into my cast-iron dutch oven it went (it was a tight fit, but we made it work). It goes in the oven without the cover for the first hour to brown the skin, and with the cover for the rest. Your house will be permeated with the intoxicating smell of pork for hours, which in itself is an accomplishment to be proud of.

I can’t give you an exact estimate as to when your pork shoulder will be done since they are of varying size and weight, but believe me, you’ll know. Somewhere between four and five hours, the meat becomes so tender that it has completely separated from the bone. There is never any shame in sampling to determine doneness, so go ahead and pick off a chunk. It's one of the many privileges of cooking.

After taking the pork out of the oven, I cut off the skin, which comes off easily and is conveniently portioned from the scoring, and send those glorious little squares back into the oven in a cast-iron skillet to finish crisping. 

A side of golden, starchy, and slightly sweet plantains.

And the rice and beans...from a package. If the packaging says it's authentic, it usually is, right? Listen, sometimes you have to give yourself a break, especially when you've made something that looks and tastes like this meal. I will not hang my foodie head in shame over this one.

cuban pork shoulder - adapted from Epicurious

serves up to 10 people

an 8-10 pound bone-in fresh picnic shoulder with skin
5 limes
1 orange
8 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
3 cups water
6 tablespoons vinegar

Wash pork and pat very dry. Using a very sharp knife, score the skin of the pork in a cross-hatch pattern to make 1½ inch squares of skin. Make sure not to cut into the actual meat; the incision should just pierce the skin and fat beneath the skin. With a sharp paring knife, make 1-inch incisions all over the skin and meaty parts of the shoulder, about every 2-inches. Leave the pork shoulder out at room temperature for an hour and a half before cooking.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In the food processor, pulse 1 cup of lime juice, the juice of the orange, garlic cloves, salt, oregano, cumin, chili powder, and onion powder until it makes a loose paste. Using your fingers, push bits of the paste into the slits you made, and rub the remainder on the meaty ends not covered by the skin. (If you get the skin too wet, it will steam rather than crisp, which is massively disappointing).

Put into a dutch oven pot or roasting pan just large enough to hold the shoulder, and pour the remaining juice from the limes around it. Roast uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the skin puffs up and starts browning.

Pour water and vinegar around the pork. Lower the oven to 350°, put a cover on the pot/cover the roasting pan tightly with foil, and roast for another 4 or more hours. Check on it periodically to see if there is enough liquid in the pot – if it is too dry, add more water. When the bone has separated from the meat, the shoulder is done.

Carefully cut off the skin from the meat, and lay it out on a cast-iron skillet. Turn oven back to 400°F, and put back in the oven to crisp up. Watch it carefully – the skin can very quickly turn from perfectly crisp to burnt and too crunchy.

Pick meat off in chunks with tongs or a fork and serve with rice and plantains.


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