Sometimes I get stuck in a rut with my dinner cooking rotations. It goes like this: chicken, steak, chicken, pork chops, chicken, shrimp and scallops – repeat.
When this happens, my older son Max exclaims, "Why do we always have to eat meat?!?!"
The last time this occurred, I calmly asked what he would prefer instead of meat. Here's what he said: "Spaghetti, or grilled cheese or pulled pork!"
When I pointed out that pulled pork is meat, Max said, "Well, I mean good meat."
So I resolved to up my game and make the North Carolina Pulled Pork recipe from America's Test Kitchen Slow Cooker Revolution cookbook. Usually I make a simple recipe, like this one from Erin for Slow Cooker Pulled Pork. But ever since my sister married an eastern North Carolina native, we've received a proper education in barbecue. My brother-in-law is pretty good with a rub and a grill, and he and his parents have kindly introduced us to their long-time tradition of eating at the family-style Parker's Barbecue in Wilson.
I had the tangy flavor of Parker's pulled pork in mind. I had two nice pork butts just waiting to be turned into something. I had the time to let the meat sit for a day in the fridge to soak up the flavors of the rub. And I thought I had all the spices I needed. After a quick trip to the store for some liquid smoke, I was ready to make my rub and get things started. But I hit a snag.
Since I'm a work-from-home mom over the age of 40 with two over-scheduled boys, I can no longer remember most things unless I write them down. Let's just say I forgot to buy a few key ingredients (like smoked ham hocks, dark brown sugar and sweet paprika.) But one thing I do know is how to improvise. I used light brown sugar, a mixture of sweet and smoked paprika and several hunks of ham shank that I cut from the bone end of a leftover spiral sliced ham I was saving in the freezer to use for making soup.
The recipe I ended up with delivered pulled pork that I think came pretty darn close to the down-home Carolina specialty. Of course, my brother-in-law hasn't tried it — yet!
North Carolina Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
2 (2 1/2 pound) boneless pork butt roasts, quartered (or use a 5 pound roast)
7 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/8 cup sweet paprika
1/8 cup smoked paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground pepper
3 hunks ham shank or 3 smoked ham hocks, rinsed
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 1/4 cups ketchup
2 to 3 teaspoons liquid smoke
Trim fat from pork pieces. Use a fork to prick the pork all over. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons sugar, both kinds of paprika, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper. Rub spice mixture over pork, generously coating each piece. Wrap pork tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours.
Place ham shank or ham hocks in the bottom of a 6 quart or larger slow cooker. Unwrap pork and sit on top of ham. Pour broth over meat and cover. Cook on low for 10 hours.
Transfer pork and ham shank pieces to a large bowl. Remove any hard skin, bones and fatty pieces from shanks. Shred pork and ham into bite-sized pieces, then cover to keep warm.
Skim fat from liquid in slow cooker. Pour liquid through a strainer and into a saucepan. Simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes. Note: This is not a thick barbecue sauce like the kinds from store-bought bottles. It will remain somewhat thin.
Add vinegar, ketchup, liquid smoke and 4 tablespoons sugar to the saucepan. Whisk everything together. Add salt and pepper to taste. You may want to add more vinegar, ketchup and sugar, depending on how much liquid you have. I ended up with nearly 3 cups after the simmering process.
Simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Toss shredded pork with 1 1/2 cups sauce. Add more sauce to your liking.
Serve on buns with pickles, simple cole slaw and additional sauce.