It's always seemed like one of those great divides of meat cookery—by definition, you can’t cook the most delicious, inexpensive cuts quickly. The ones that have all the flavor and fat marbled through are the ones you need to braise or roast or crock-pot slowly, till their connective tissue melts and gives way. If you want quicker cooking, see the nice, lean pork tenderloin, and don’t expect carnitas.
Though connective tissue in surlier cuts like pork shoulder and loin does signal big flavor and a slight roadblock, that doesn’t mean slow cooking is the only way to bridge it. Mechanical tenderizing (like pounding or grinding) is one more way; marinating, to a certain extent, is another, but there’s a recipe in Melissa Clark’s newest book Dinner: Changing the Game that attacks largely through sleight of hand, to give us crispy, delicious pork shoulder in minutes. (Bon Appétit has recently been seen doing quick cooks on pork shoulder steaks and boneless short ribs, too—this might be the beginnings of a no-braise movement.)
“The thing is to manage expectations,” Clark wrote to me. “With pork butt, you think soft, spoonable meat that's been roasted or braised for hours until it practically collapses. This is different. It's a celebration of crisp and chewy textures.“
But shifting expectations isn’t the only thing that makes this recipe such a success. With inspiration sparked by a recipe from Nigel Slater, Clark packs a lot of smart moves in here, to play up the best sides this wily cut of meat didn’t know it had.
To start, she cuts the meat in 1-inch pieces, small enough to get the benefits of manually breaking through tougher bits with a sharp knife (à la grinding), but big enough to still leave enough surface area to sear attractively on the cut faces of each cube, without crowding the pan (or overcooking the meat).
She then lets her just right-sized pork sit for 20 minutes in a thick coat of three kinds of coarsely ground pepper (as much a breading as it is a seasoning) and fine sea salt, which absorbs quickly to dry-brine the meat, seasoning it and helping it stay juicy.
Then she stir-fries it in an ultra-hot pan, browning it without giving it a chance to dry out, and shaking on flaky salt to add still more crunch to the crust. To serve, she piles it up with a mess of crunchy vegetables—chiles and torn lettuce, fistfuls of cooling herbs and a jolt of lime juice. (There’s no need for oil in the dressing—the pork’s got that part covered.)
All of this will make you feel very smart, and will happen within about 30 minutes—with the pork shoulder you thought you'd have to wait 3 hours to eat. Melissa Clark, you've saved dinner. Again.
- 1 pound boneless pork shoulder (butt), cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns (or more black pepper if you can't find them—it just won't be as tongue-tingling)
- Pinch of red chile flakes
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil (make sure it's refined for high heat), or grapeseed or safflower oil
- 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt, like Maldon
- 1/2 cup soft herbs, such as cilantro, mint, chives, and/or basil
- 1 small jalapeño or other chile, seeded and sliced or chopped
- Crisp lettuce leaves, torn and/or sliced cucumbers, for serving
- Lime wedges, for serving
Photos by James Ransom
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thanks to our Books Editor & Stylist Ali Slagle for this one!