pulled pork carnitas photo by jonathan gayman

Pulled Pork

My kiddos have been in school a little more than a month, and the unrelenting activity schedules, homework stress and tears are in full swing. Mind you, the children are fine. It’s me who would have a meltdown – if I had the time before driving carpool. When the going gets tough, it’s tempting to cross home-cooked dinners off the to-do list. But a yummy-smelling kitchen brings everyone to the table, and when time apart is the new normal, time together is even more precious.

This is why I make kissy faces at pulled pork. It’s quite possibly the world’s easiest meal. Buy a pork shoulder (or pork butt – same cut, funnier name). Season it with salt, pepper and, if you’re feeling extravagant, a little olive oil. Place it in a slow cooker on a bed of onions and – here’s the important part – turn on the slow cooker. (You would not believe how often I forget that step.) And just like that, you have melt-in-your mouth porcine goodness in a few hours.

Do you need to sear the meat first? Nah. Add broth/wine/juice? Nope. The liquids released from the meat and onions are enough to keep the pork from drying out. Once the meat falls off the bone, shred it with two forks and a bounty of meal options awaits you. As any St. Louisan knows, the default preparation is to add a bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce. But if you skip the sauce and substitute pulled pork for bacon in your favorite comfort foods, a whole world of possibilities opens up. Pulled pork Cobb salad. Pulled pork pizza. Pulled pork omelets. Pulled pork mac and cheese.

And leftovers can be even better. Refrigerate whatever you don’t eat the first night in a sealed container, including and especially all the liquids and fat from the slow cooker. The meat will reclaim some of the broth and infuse with deep, savory flavor. The onions will become so sweet and tender they almost melt. The fat will rise to the top and congeal, which may be initially off-putting to the squeamish, but that goop is pure culinary gold – the star ingredient in your very own pork rillette (fancy foodie talk for schmear). All the second-day recipes feel more like evolutions than leftovers. That rillette. Make that one first. It’s a little luxury that will help you rise above the rawness of the day.

Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork

About 4 cups

2 lbs. onions, peeled and quartered
1 4-lb. bone-in pork shoulder
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

• Coat the insert of a 6-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Layer the bottom with the onions. Place the pork shoulder on the onions, fat side up. Top with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low 8 to 10 hours, or high 5 to 7 hours, until the pork falls off the bone.
• Shred the pork with 2 forks. Serve hot.
• Allow the leftovers to cool to room temperature and place the pork, braised onions, braising liquids and fat in a large baking dish. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight before making the following recipes.

pork rillette // photo by jonathan gayman

Pork Rillette
In a mixing bowl, combine 1 cup packed room-temperature pulled pork (without onions), 2 tablespoons congealed pork fat, ¼ teaspoon table salt, ¼ teaspoon dried thyme, ¼ teaspoon minced garlic and ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Beat with a hand mixer on low speed until the mixture is a chunky paste. Pack the rillette in an 8-ounce jar and top with 1 tablespoon pork fat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Serve cold with crusty bread, cornichons, country mustard and pickled onions.

Heat 1 tablespoon pork fat in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Cook 2 cups pulled pork (without onions) with 1 teaspoon cumin, ⅛ teaspoon chile powder and a pinch of salt until browned and crispy, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Serve in grilled corn tortillas with salsa, avocado and fresh cilantro.

Pulled Pork Pappardelle
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a covered dish, bake 2 cups pulled pork and onions with all the leftover fat and liquids until hot. Boil 1 pound pappardelle noodles in salted water until al dente according to package directions, then drain the noodles, reserving the pasta water. Pour the pork braising liquids into a measuring cup and add the reserved pasta water, if necessary, to make 1 cup liquid. Toss the cooked pasta with the liquid and 2 cups hot pulled pork with onions. Add kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve hot with freshly grated Parmesan.

Spoon the congealed braising liquids, avoiding the fat as much as possible, into a measuring cup. Add enough low-sodium chicken broth to make 6 cups. Pour the liquids into a large saucepot and add 1 cup pulled pork with braised onions, 1 29-ounce can hominy (rinsed), 1 15-ounce can pinto beans (rinsed), 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes including the liquid, 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano, ¼ teaspoon table salt, ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes and ⅛ teaspoon chile powder. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the pork is heated through, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with chopped red onion, cabbage and radishes, cilantro, tortillas and lime wedges.

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