Staying warm in the kitchen

What better way to while away the hours in these cold months than by cooking up (and eating) hearty meals? Whether, like me, you use cooking as a way to avoid the outside or you want something tasty and warm you up after you have played in the snow, this is a great season for stews, soups and the like.

Last fall, a long-time friend — who is also one of the best cooks I know – prepared pork chops using the sous vide cooking method. This involves sealing whatever you want to cook – meat, fish, vegetables, eggs – in a plastic bag and then cooking it submerged in water that is held at a steady, low temperature with an immersion circulator.

I’d heard about sous vide for a few years, but always shied away from it because the notion of cooking food in a plastic bag reminded me of the little plastic bags of corned beef my mother used to buy, drop into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes, then serve on not very good rye bread with hot dog mustard.

The pork chop experience completely changed my mind. I’ve never been able to cook pork chops without a dried out, chewy and tasteless result. The sous vide chops were delicious: moist, tender and flavourful. I was instantly sold on this cooking technique.

So, after consulting my friend as well as some cooking magazines, and in a pandemic-induced spending splurge, I bought myself an immersion circulator. I opted for mid-range, buying one that cost just under $200, figuring I didn’t need the bells and whistles offered by the $700 version. Once I gave it a preliminary look, it sat, in its box, for about four months before I had the nerve to try it out.

Two weeks ago, I decided it was time to take the plunge. What to try first? I settled on pulled pork: we had a pork shoulder from one of my son’s pigs in our freezer and, despite making pulled pork many times, I had never been fully satisfied with the texture I achieved. Perhaps, I thought, using the sous vide method would finally give me the pull-apart, juicy consistency I was looking for.

It did.

Pulled pork pleasure

I coated the four-pound pork shoulder with my standard barbecue rub (see recipe below), placed it in a large Ziplock bag, added a few drops of liquid smoke, and sealed it up tightly, pressing to remove as much air as possible.

I then filled a large cooking pot with water and placed the submersible circulator in it, setting it to 165 degrees F. When the water reached that temperature, in went the bag of pork shoulder.

This makes it sound a little bit easier than it was. Had I filled the pot with warm water, it would have heated up more quickly. I had forgotten to calculate for water displacement caused by the meat, so had to remove quite a bit of water when I put in the pork. I also could not keep the bag o’ pork under water, and eventually weighted it down with a brick.

For the next 18 hours, I was like a nervous mother hen watching her chicks. I checked the operation frequently, including one middle of the night foray into the kitchen, just in case the magic machine turned itself off or the water level dropped or it all caught fire. There was no need; everything unfolded absolutely smoothly, and I had a tender, moist pork shoulder when I removed it from the bag.

I poured the liquid into the sauce I was making (recipe below), and re-coated the pork with more rub, then roasted it in the oven at 300 degrees F for about an hour.

By the time I took it out of the oven, it was fall apart tender.  I tore it up, mixed it with the sauce and served it over fresh corn polenta, with a cabbage salad on the side.

Bonus: clean-up was a snap, because all the messy cooking was done inside the plastic bag. The immersion circulator itself just needed to be wiped off and is small enough to store easily in a kitchen drawer.

The recipes

My standard BBQ rub consists of brown sugar, cumin, smoked paprika, kosher salt, dried oregano and a bit of freshly ground pepper. For a 4 lb. pork shoulder, I used about 3/4 cup brown sugar, 4 Tbsp each cumin, smoked paprika and salt and 2 Tbsp. oregano. There’s no science to these proportions, so you should play around till you come up with the flavour combination that works for you.

The ingredients for my go-to BBQ sauce recipe, which made just the right amount for this dish, are: ½ cup each orange juice, ketchup and bourbon; ¼ cup butter; 4 Tbsp. each cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce; 6 – 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped; 1 small onion, minced; a dash (or more, to taste) each hot pepper sauce and liquid smoke. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then simmer until slightly thickened and flavours have blended well. This sauce will keep in  the fridge for a few weeks or can be frozen.

My first effort with sous-vide cooking gave us one delicious dinner, a few lunches and enough to freeze for another supper; all of which have served well to chase the winter cold away. I’ll be pulling my immersion circulator out of the drawer again soon to try something different.

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