Gathering around the table with friends and family should never stress the host. At least that's the plan. I try to remember the reasons we gather: friendship, camaraderie, laughter, holiday cheer. Still, menu planning puts pressure on even the most accomplished cook.
Slow-cooked, tender and tangy pulled pork proves the answer to many of my warm-weather entertaining dilemmas: It's not expensive, little active time is required of the cook, it can go casual or more upscale, and it's easy to make. Most of all, nearly everyone embraces the flavors and the effort.
For New Year's and upcoming sports events, I'm once again relying on slow-cooked pork's crowd-pleasing and cook-friendly appeal. With a major exception: I'll employ the oven rather than an outdoor grill. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the trickiness to cooking on a grill in snow and ice. First, the oven heat will be slow and steady; second, the house will smell amazing!
To serve a dozen guests, or to have leftovers for future meals, I order a large, bone-in pork shoulder roast from the local butcher. Cut from the top portion of the front leg, the shoulder goes by different names around this country.
Most commonly, the cut from the area near the loin containing the shoulder blade bone is called a Boston butt or a shoulder butt roast. It's well-marbled with fat, which means flavor and helps keep the lean meat tender. I ask my butcher to leave a modest (1/4-inch thick) layer of fat on the top of the roast. The final texture will be tenderest when the meat is cooked slowly for a long time. You can ask for a boneless roast for easier carving, but you'll want to have it tied into a compact shape for even cooking.
Since the cooking time takes between 10 and 11 hours, I often cook the roast overnight — an option I much prefer to leaving the house with the oven on. When I'm close to home on the weekends, I season the roast the night before and refrigerate it uncovered. Early the next morning, I set it in the oven so it's ready for an evening gathering of friends. Of course, intrepid grillers can cook the roast on a gas- or charcoal-fueled grill. Be sure to employ an oven thermometer to help maintain an even temperature. If it is bitterly cold outside, you may need to allow for extra cooking time.
I add a couple of cups of water to the pan to help prevent smoke from pan drippings while the roast cooks. Then the pan drippings transform into amazing au jus when the pan is deglazed and the juices seasoned.
How to serve this meltingly tender pork? You have many options. My favorite is sliced super thin and served over buttered egg noodles or creamy mashed potatoes with a spoonful or two of the pan juices and a sprinkling of chopped fresh green onions or chives.
I'd never pass up slices of the pork served over a bowl of brown rice and baby spinach with lots of red pepper hot sauce. Bite-size pieces can be tucked inside a flour tortilla with a bit of shredded Jack cheese for a great quesadilla. Finely chopped leftover pork makes a wonderful weekday supper when piled inside a baked russet or sweet potato with a dollop of sour cream.
The pork makes great sandwiches when pulled into smallish bits for piling on toasted brioche buns with a scoop of coleslaw. To pull the pork, work while it is still hot from the oven, using a large carving knife to cut the meat away from the bones. Then use two large forks to pull the boneless meat into long attractive shreds. The shreds can be added to the pan juices, seasoned with salt and reheated. Or, pack into freezer containers and freeze up to several months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator. Serve a colorful slaw with the sandwiches for piling on top or enjoying alongside.