Black Plum and Basil Braised Pork Shoulder
All summer long they grew up side by side, telling stories when the sun went down about how this one was going to be an astronaut and that one was going to be a pie. Finally, one day in early September, the farmer walked by and noticed their luscious wares hanging heavily on the branch. They quivered with anticipation because today was special. Today was destiny. Today they would finally be released from their leafy purgatory and they’d venture forth to see the world!! A belligerent squirrel tittered at the thought of a bunch of plums marching along to a European odyssey, sniffing that they wouldn’t make it further than the local Longos. I told the plums, “Don’t listen to that beastly little squirrel! I’d make him into a fine pot pie if he wasn’t quite so brisk. Have faith, my friends. Where would you like to go?”
After a brief pause, the chubbiest one, whom they had nicknamed “Fluffy” , stuck out his chest and exclaimed that they had seen The Beach, and it was that or nothing. They were going to do Thailand or die trying. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d probably do both…..
I tried to entice them with stories of pillowy clafouti and comforting crisp, but they were having none of it. I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I gave them a bit of liquid courage for good luck and sent them on their journey. They didn’t make it far. The poor little lightweights only got through half a bottle of scrumpy before they were tipsily tottering back and forth on my cutting board. One of them sunk down next to a handful of Thai basil and gurgled, “Me love youwullllng timmmma”. Over on my left I saw something hump a knob of ginger shaped like a seahorse. The plums grew up fast that night, and from that kitchen sprung a bastard love child: Thai basil braised pork shoulder in a sweet and sour black plum sauce. Their life was brief, but never to be forgotten.
Black Plum and Basil Braised Pork Shoulder
- 1.75 kg pork shoulder (picnic roast) *
- 1.5 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 large red onion
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1″ fat knob ginger (1.5 tbsp chopped)
- 2-3 jalapeno peppers or your choice of chili**
- 20 black plums (about 4 cups halved plums)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- 1 cup dry hard cider***
- 1 tsp peppercorn
- small handful fresh basil (about 1/3 cup chopped)
- 2 – 3 cups + 1/4 cup chicken stock ****
- 2 limes (juice only)
- 3 tbsp soya sauce
- 1/4 cup flour
- salt and pepper to taste
* As an omnivore who does not follow Jewish dietary code and really enjoys affordable meat, I’m rather smitten with pork right now. A picnic roast that was almost 4 lbs cost just $0.20 more than the two chicken breasts that Mike kept picking up and then grudgingly putting back down in the cooler. So what is a pork picnic roast? Well, basically it’s a pork shoulder and you can also find it called “pork butt”, which has more meat than the blade shoulder which is taken from slightly further back. The picnic roast, as opposed to the blade roast, is the primal cut from the shoulder at the top of the leg. It’s one of the fattiest, juiciest and most flavorful cuts of pork which makes it perfect for a long slow roast, braise, or grinding into juicy sausages.
** A Thai bird’s eye chili would have been swell, but we’re still hampered by a glut of jalapenos from our garden.
*** Strongbow is my favorite fairly dry hard cider, but at the local LCBO up in West Guilford (you have to love small town northern Ontario) the best we could find was Growers which is a bit on the sweeter side.
**** Start with 1.5 – 2 cups and add more only if necessary to cover the pork.
Preheat your oven to 300ºF.
Season your pork shoulder with salt and pepper. If you have a large enough Dutch oven to do this, heat the oil up over high heat and brown the pork on all sides. Because we were at the cottage I didn’t have my big ol’ heavy Dutch oven to do this, so we used a cast iron pan. Remember that you’re only browning the pork and not cooking it through, so this only takes about 1 – 2 minutes per side.
Dice your onion into a rough 1/4 inch size and finely mince the garlic, peeled ginger and chili peppers. If you wanted to reduce the heat in this dish you can cut the seeds and ribs out of the chili peppers or omit them altogether and suffice with the red pepper flakes. Mike and I like the mouth to be warm, so we used the whole jalapeno seeds and all.
Chop the basil fairly finely and mix it with the rest. Add the hot pepper flakes and peppercorn.
Pit the plums and slice them in half.
In terms of a vehicle, your best choice is really a nice fairly large and heavy built Dutch oven, which is sized to fit your meat et al comfortably without being overly roomy. However, the best we could find was a midget roasting pan which wasn’t at all heavy duty, barely fit my meat, and had a lid so loose that I had to weigh it down with a dirty brick from the fire pit. Classy? No. But it worked.
Sprinkle about 1/3 of the onion and aromatics on the bottom of your Dutch oven or roasting pan and place the browned pork on top, fat side up. Nestle the plums all around the pork and spread the rest of the onion mixture on and around the meat. Nestle the bay leaves somewhere in the mix and if you wanted to you could lay the basil stems on top because they really do carry a lot of flavor.
Squeeze in the juice of both limes. Pour over the soya sauce, hard cider, and enough chicken stock to just cover the meat. If your Dutch oven is a good size for your pork this will probably be about 1.5 – 2 cups. Seal the dish with a tight fitting lid and put it in the oven to braise for about 3.5 – 4 hours. Turn the meat over for the last hour of cooking. This puts the fat on the bottom but also makes sure that the meat will have braised evenly rather than having a meltingly tender base and a tougher top.
After 3.5 hours check on the meat by poking at it a little bit with your fork. If the meat starts to separate and looks like it could fall apart, well, it’s ready. Remove the meat to a plate and cover it tightly with tin foil while you make the black plum ‘gravy’.
Mix together the flour with 1/4 cup of chicken stock until the lumps are all gone. This will be a slurry that thickens up the sauce.
Strain the contents of the Dutch oven through a wire mesh strainer into a medium pot which is off the heat. Reserve the solids but discard the bay leaves and basil stems if you left those in.
Slowly drizzle in the flour mixture, whisking quickly and constantly as you do so to avoid clumps. Put the pot on a medium high heat and bring it up to a simmer. Whisk regularly for about 5-10 minutes or until the sauce has thickened into a nice gravy like consistency.
Add the plums and aromatics back into the pot and stir them gently until everything is warmed through. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper if you feel the yen. Particularly if your sauce is a bit sweet, a good shaking of salt will help to even things out.
Now then, it’s time to begin the exciting business of tearing the meat off the bone. It will still be quite hot, so mind your fingertips. First thing to do is lift off the fat cap and discard as much as possible of the visible fat which is still clinging to the meat. Discard the bone and roughly separate the meat into chunks.
Serve the meat with a healthy guzzle of sweet and sour black plum and basil gravy on top. I served this pork on a bed of creamy mashed potato and rutabaga with roasted garlic. The creamy and garlicky starch was really quite a nice and comforting complement, but a steaming bowl of jasmine rice would likely do just as well. And on the side? Zucchini. Of course. I keep wondering when that plant is going to die…..
A slow braised pork has two merits up at the cottage. First is the lack of fuss and bother, where a minimal amount of effort fills your house with luscious and fragrant aromas for hours. The second is the sheer comfort of long, slow braised meats. As the weather starts to turn there’s just something incredibly homey about curling up on the couch with your partner and a movie while a comforting meal slowly simmers away….even if that comforting meal is less pot roast and more schizophrenic seasonal Thai.