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Since Nationals fans have some time on their hands waiting for the team to play their first game – and they’ve eaten all the hot dogs and snacks they had planned to use last Thursday – here’s a chance to go big while trying to create some ballpark food at home.
The last time I was at a game in person was the 2019 World Series, and while that first home World Series game – as well as the other two – were all losses, a dish my wife brought back from the concession stand was a win. As you see to the right, it was a basket of tater tots covered in pulled pork barbecue. The pic is of my wife’s meal, where she even added Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Being a purist, I just had the BBQ and tots.
I realize pairing meat and potatoes has been around since the beginning of civilization, but it never occurred to me to put these two together and it was outstanding. I’ve made it a few times at home, and I’ve discovered you can change the personality of the dish easily by just changing the sauce. One time I’ve done a sweet barbecue sauce, another time I’ve used buffalo wing sauce or Old Bay hot sauce, and there was a time I just ate it without sauce. Same texture, much different taste.
So since we can’t be at Nats Park to pay the concession stand $20 for this dish, here’s how to spend $10 and recreate the dish for yourself and about a dozen friends. I tried to take a picture of every step of the way, and it’s in the slide show below. What I’m explaining should match up to a slide, so if you’re a visual person who must see me stabbing the pork shoulder with my steely knife, the slideshow is for you.
First you need to make the barbecue, so you need to get what is called a pork shoulder or a Boston Butt. I usually try to buy something close to 8 pounds so it will fit in my pan, and whenever it’s on sale for 99 cents, I buy two so I always have a spare in the freezer.
I at first gather all the ingredients I will need, which include the pork shoulder, two onions, a dozen cloves of garlic, and pretty much every spice I have to make the dry rub. I then slice up the onions and put them on the bottom of the pan for two reasons: it adds flavor and it keeps the pork from sticking or burning on the bottom of the pan.
The garlic comes next. I’ve heard from many when first doing this that peeling the garlic is a pain, but it shouldn’t be. I just hit the clove with the smooth side of a meat tenderizing hammer, and while it flattens the clove, it easily pops out of the skin. This is not a garlic beauty contest, so you don’t need to worry about what it looks like. I also then snip the ends off because they can sometimes be bitter. But don’t slice it any further, as the bigger the clove, the better for the barbecue.
Now is the time you go all Hotel California on the pork shoulder. You DO stab it with your steely knife, but you’re not trying to kill the beast. Instead, you want to give the knife a twist to leave a hole big enough that you could get most of your index finger into. You then take those cloves you just peeled and insert them into these holes. If they’re too big to get in there, either cut them in half, or twist the knife a bit more.
Now it’s time for the dry rub. A lot depends on your individual taste, but I like barbecue to have a touch of sweetness, saltiness and a little zesty-ness going on (yeah I know, I sound like a Zaxby’s commercial) in the background. So my dry rub has brown sugar, chili powder, dry mustard, cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, salt, pepper, adobo seasoning, turmeric and a tiny amount of red chili flake. It’s pretty much everything in the spice cabinet that is not green.
I rinse the shoulder with water at first, then pat it dry with paper towels. The dampness helps the shoulder hold on to the dry rub, and I make sure no part of the pork is uncovered. Then I sit it on the bed of onions and cover it in aluminum foil before tucking it in the fridge for a nice 24-hour nap. You don’t HAVE to give it a day, but the longer you let it rest, the better it will be. I’d at least wait 8 hours after applying the rub before cooking. I usually do this one morning, then first thing the next day pop it in the oven.
Pulled pork is best when cooked in a liquid so the steam inside the pan helps with it falling apart off the bone. And when I say “best” I mean unless the fridge is empty and the water pipes are broken, you need to add liquid. I use apple sauce, as that seems to add another flavor note, but you can use anything from water to soda. I’ve used Dr. Pepper before and it came out good, although I didn’t taste any specific DP flavor.
So pull the foil back, add the liquid, then recover and put in the oven. For an 8-pounder, I cook it between 9 and 10 hours at 215 degrees. Low and slow is the key as it melts the fat and connective tissue, and if you’ve done it right, it should just surrender to your tongs when you see if it’s done. You can see in one of the slides that the last one I cooked was already falling apart, and the real test is pulling out the shoulder bone. If it gives you any resistance, it needs to cook a little more. Ideally, it slides out with minimal effort.
I let it cool about 30 minutes, then start pulling it off the bone. If you have an assistant chef like I do, it’s a good temperature to show your appreciation to said assistant chef. I then pull the meat out as best I can, and leave the large rolls of fat in the pan with the drippings. I then take the pan with the meat in it and take two forks to pull everything apart.
If you don’t have 24 people ready to eat, I always make a little cole slaw since barbecue sandwiches are a real treat too. I shred a little cabbage and add a mixture of mayo, sugar and apple cider vinegar to the shredded cabbage while the barbecue is cooling and it's done.
I don’t immediately add a sauce to the barbecue, for a number of reasons. The first is when it’s warm right out of the oven, it doesn’t need a sauce, and with a little slaw on a soft hamburger bun, it’s delightful. The other is when it’s time to warm up a portion the next day or two, it makes cooking it easier. I warm it up by putting a little butter in a pan to return some moisture to the barbecue, then work in a sauce depending on what everyone wants.
Your barbecue is now done. Only decision left is which kind of tots, and for this dish, extra crispy works better. While the pork is cooling, open a bag, pour them on a tray, pop it in the oven, and 20 minutes later they’re done. Remember to salt them, put them in a bowl, layer the fresh pork on top, and pick any toppings you might want. I add a bit of Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Chipotle sauce, some Old Bay hot sauce, and some of those onions that have caramelized in the pan after 9 hours of low and slow cooking.
It’s not the same as being at the ball park, but it’s VERY close. And for you young bucks who claim you don’t know how to cook, try this. I’ve done everything but come to your house and turn on the oven for you. You can do this.
It may even change your life 😊