Well friends, we’re almost there! The new year is upon us, and we will soon be saying goodbye to 2016. I for one am not entirely sad that this hectic year is over. I mean really—look at all the stuff that happened in the past 12 months. Of course, I did see a lot of personal changes in 2016 as well. I graduated with my Master’s degree, I moved to Long Island from Pennsylvania for an amazing job, and this blog turned 2! Kind of exhausting…
This in-between time where Christmas has passed but New Year’s is still to come always feels like limbo to me. And I find myself planning meals and recipes for the days and nights at the start of January and beyond. As a food-centric person, the meals I make and the time I spend in the kitchen is often a reflection of my disposition. As such, I like to think that I’m setting the pace for my new year with the food I prepare in January. It’s the one time of year that the slate is wiped clean so-to-speak.
Currently, my list is filled with a variety of different dishes and baking projects, but this recipe is just the thing for a meal that is full of comfort and warmth while adding a punch with sweet and spicy flavors. Exactly what the doctor ordered for a cold, but hopeful, month of January. Because that’s what the New Year is all about, right? Hope for the year to come. And if we can start with nourishing meals, why not?
I would recommend you follow my lead and slate this recipe for the first week of January to ensure that 2017 is a fabulous, spicy year.
But first, the science!
Most delectable, fall-apart pork dishes, including this one, use pork shoulder or butt roast as the cut of choice. If you’re not a meat junkie, you’re probably wondering “Yo, what’s the deal?”
Pork shoulder and butt roast (it’s called the butt, but it’s from the shoulder region) are hard-working muscles in the pig. They’re one of the main muscle groups that get a serious workout when the animal walks around. That workout makes the meat primarily lean muscle with relatively low amounts of fat. There are obviously many delicious cuts of meat in a pig. This magical animal gives us bacon, pork chops, pork tenderloin, etc. (Cue this video) But the lean shoulder meat is perfect for low and slow braising methods such as what is used here.
When we cook meat, an amalgam of things happen which is generally the case whenever we dig into something. Applying heat to a cut of meat influences the proteins and the fat. The fat begins to melt which lubricates the surrounding tissue. The heat also begins to denature proteins within the muscle causing them to coagulate together. That coagulation leads to the squeezing of water out of the muscle matrix. Melted fat + release of water = juicy! Think about a rare or medium-rare filet here. However, remember that coagulation of muscle proteins? Well those complexes that form thus are rather strong which lend a tough texture in the meat when the cut has a high percentage of muscle and a low percentage of fat. Not enough fat + too much muscle tissue = chewy.
If we keep heating up the meat, the game entirely changes. As the temperature in the meat continues to increase, more and more protein denatures and clusters together which leads to more water being released. That water evaporates which leaves you with tough, dried out meat. Something like a very well done steak should come to mind here. Ick. But in cuts of meat where a lot of muscle is present, such as our lean pork shoulder, one particular connective tissue in the meat will save the day. Collagen! It’s easiest to think of collagen as a braided rope of fibers that connect muscle tissue together. At high temperatures, collagen breaks down to form gelatin. Once the collagen breaks down, the proteins within the muscle fall apart creating that tender texture we all know well from slow-cooked meats and stews.
So there we have it! High-fat, precious cuts of meat have their place. But lean cuts are just the ticket for slow-cooked, fall-apart dishes. Are you hungry yet? Yes. So without further ado, here is the recipe! And Happy New Year dear readers
Slow Cooker Pork Bowls with Sesame Ginger Cucumbers
Slightly adapted from How Sweet Eats (Jessica made it for New Year’s last year—what a coincidence, huh?!)
1 (3 to 4-pound) pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup apple cider (or use ½ cup soy sauce total and omit the cider)
⅓ cup loosely packed brown sugar
¼ cup chili garlic sauce/paste
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
Toasted sesame oil
Sesame Ginger Cucumbers
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce/paste
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Assembly of Bowls
Rice (I used white, sushi rice, but brown rice would be lovely)
Diced pineapple pieces
Green onions, chopped
Cashews, roughly chopped
Chili garlic sauce/paste
Toasted sesame oil
- Make the pork. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Season the pork shoulder with salt and pepper all over. Place it in the heated skillet. Sear on all sides, about 1-2 minutes, until a light golden brown. Turn off the heat.
- In the bottom of your slow cooker, whisk together the soy sauce, apple cider (if using), brown sugar, chili garlic sauce, and hoisin sauce. Add the pork shoulder from the skillet and cover. Try to place the fattiest part on top. That way the pork should bastes itself while heating.
- Cook for 8-10 hours on low. When finished, check with a fork—it should shred very easily.
- Remove the pork shoulder from the slow cooker. Shred well, removing any large pieces of fat, and toss in the cooking liquid if it seems a little dry. (It shouldn’t be, but this can save you if you’ve had to reheat or something else has gone wrong)
- Make the cucumbers. Place the cucumber slices in a bowl. Whisk together the vinegar, sesame oil, chili garlic sauce, and minced fresh ginger. Pour over cucumbers and toss well to coat. Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle on sesame seeds.
- Assemble the bowls. Put ¼ cup-⅓ cup of rice in the bottom of the bowl. Around the outside, arrange some of the pork, a handful of pineapple slices, about 8-10 cucumber slices, a couple tablespoons of chopped cashews, and a tablespoon each of cilantro and green onions. Put a dab of chili garlic sauce in the middle and drizzle the top with extra toasted sesame oil. Enjoy!