[one_half][I]t’s been a long time since I’ve regularly read The Onion. But when thinking about this post, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the numerous Coca-Cola-related articles I’ve read over the years. Particularly considering that the beverage happens only to be available at my local grocery store in an unwieldy size. Given my directive to avoid feeding the family junk, was I really doing anyone a favor by acquiring multiple liters of high-fructose-corn-syrup-water? Believe it or not, I actually grew up in a household where sugared soda of all kinds was, in all practical terms, in infinite abundance. My father was once a minister of a Korean church, which (if you lived in LA) meant that as a family we received odd gifts from the congregation in astoundingly vast excess. Around the holidays, it wasn’t uncommon for our family (of four) to take physical delivery of several crates of apples, mackerel, funeral flower arrangements, or whatever a religious small business owner might have on hand. There were several deacons who owned convenience stores, so we regularly had cases of soda stacked about ten high in our basement. And not just the regular stuff. My favorites were Cactus Cooler, Mexicola, and a long since decommissioned apple soda called Aspen. To top things off, my mother (who is, shockingly, somewhat of a bargain enthusiast) always bought soda. Give her a double-coupon and a $0.05 net price on two liters of 7 UP, and it was against her principles not to buy it. We were, of course, discouraged from drinking it. To this day, my non-soda-drinking mother always has cans of 7 UP and Diet Hansen’s in her second refrigerator, along with her kimchee, bulk greens, and the occasional entire pumpkin pie from Costco.
So when my sister mentioned the existence of a coke-braised pork, it sounded … magical. I’m uncertain on the origins of this dish, but we first learned of it from a recipe that appeared in Bon Appetit in 2004. What struck me about the Bon Appetit recipe was that it differed quite a bit from my expectations. For some reason, when I heard, “coke-braised pork,” I instantly thought shoulder, and not the country-style ribs called for in the recipe. Also, when I read ginger and green onions, I immediately assumed that the dish would be spicy, since that’s the type of food I tend to associate with those flavors. But there wasn’t the least bit of heat, despite the fresh ginger. Nonetheless, the dish as is compels me to pour it over rice and drink whatever broth remains. But ultimately, I still wanted to make a dream coke pork. My coke pork. So I put together what I’ve learned about braising and took a stab at it. The results may be habit-forming.
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Coke-braised pork shoulder
- Inspired by a recipe by Juli Tsuchiya-Waldron
- Some cues also taken from a recipe by John Kessler
- In what can only be described as a “suspicious coincidence,” my friend Angi posts a similar recipe over at rice and wheat
4 lbs pork shoulder (I used a boneless Boston butt, but I think a picnic shoulder would also be great)
kosher or sea salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper (buy 2 or 3 to make sure you get a spicy one), trimmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 T vegetable oil
2 C of non-diet cola (Caffeine-free Coke may have less bitterness, but I used Classic)
1/4 C soy sauce
about 1 ounce of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
about 2 lbs daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 bunch of green onions, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
freshly cracked black pepper
Preparing the pork Could I, in good conscience, advise you to braise a piece of meat without salting it down first? Of course not. When it comes to things like this, my experience tells me that Judy Rodgers knows what the heck she’s talking about. The pre-treatment of the pork shoulder that I prescribe here is similar to what she calls for in her “mock porchetta.” First, trim any obviously thick chunks of fat from the pork. This may sound counterintuitive coming from me, but trust me that there is plenty of fat in this dish. What you want is to prevent too much melted fat from accumulating in the pan in the subsequent browning step. As it turns out, there were actually very few chunks of fat in the cut of meat I bought, so it may be worth watching your butcher to ensure that you’re not paying for a lot of weight in solid fat.
Next, unfurl the meat into a continuous, branched strip. This is done by carefully separating the muscles along their natural seams with the tip of a knife and your hands. The goal here is to generate more surface area for your seasoning, but you don’t want to cut the meat into separate pieces. Rub the unfolded meat evenly with 1/2 tsp of salt per pound. Spread the garlic and jalapeno pepper on all surfaces of the pork, as well. You may wish to use more of either. If you know me very well, you can see that I really checked myself on the garlic (“The ketchup of intellectuals”). The amount of jalapeno is also your call. I always taste a small piece before using it. It should deliver a distinct kick of heat in the back of your throat, but sometimes it tastes like nothing. So it’s good to have backup—you could also use a (hotter) serrano chile, if you prefer. When I made this, I used 1/2 of a spicy jalapeno. I ended up with meat that definitely tasted of jalapeno, but wasn’t very spicy. I’ll add more in the future.
Finally, reassemble the meat into its original shape. Tie it tightly and uniformly with 5 – 6 pieces of 16-ply cotton string, with at least one long piece tied around the length of the pork. Cover loosely and refrigerate for 1 – 3 days.
Browning the meat This step takes approximately 15 minutes. Add oil to a skillet or dutch oven and gently brown the pork over medium heat, evenly and on all sides and ends. I use large, slotted spoons or turners to rotate the meat. I don’t like using tongs because they tend to tear things. I also don’t use forks for this, because they pierce the meat and cause fluid loss. It’s important to avoid scorching the meat. Trim any pieces that are overly browned.
Assembling the braise Preheat the oven to 325. Remove meat from the pan and discard all but about 2 T of drippings. Add coke and soy sauce to the pan and deglaze. If you used a dutch oven to brown, put the meat right back in. Otherwise, you could transfer everything to a large, earthenware baking dish. Add the ginger and surround the meat with daikon radish, crowding the vessel. If you’ve used a dutch oven or sauce pan, bring to a simmer on the range. Otherwise, add 30 minutes to total cooking time below.
On the daikon radish: I’ve found that radishes of this variety can truly transform both themselves and the braise. I actually prefer to use Korean radishes (mu), but suggest daikon since they are generally more available. Particularly, fresh daikon radishes are much easier to find than fresh mu. When selecting the daikon, choose firm, unsprouted radishes, and generally take the smaller ones. Incidentally, other vegetables would also do quite well in this braise—for example, carrots, onions and parsnips. But I would definitely include asian radishes in the mix.
Braising the meat Transfer vessel to the oven and cover tightly (with foil, then the lid). After about 2 hours, turn and check for doneness. Check again about every 1/2 hour until the meat is fork tender. In my case, it took a total of 3 hours, starting from a simmer.
Finishing the sauce and serving Remove the pan/dish from the oven and raise the heat to 450. Remove the meat and set aside. Remove vegetables and set aside. Thoroughly skim fat from the remaining liquid, and strain. Bring braising liquid to a low boil. Taste and reduce, if desired. Correct seasoning with salt and black pepper. Add green onions, cooking until tender but still bright green. Return the meat to the oven and brown for 10 minutes, until nicely glazed. Recombine meat, braising liquids and vegetables. Serve with rice.
Note that this dish, as most braises, tastes even better when it has been cooled and reheated at 300 (which happens faster if you bring to a low simmer while you are preheating the oven).
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And one more picture taken by my talented wife. Nicely shows off the effect of the final glaze. See you next week!