Pulled Pork: Mid-Blizzard Cure-All


Photo by stevendepolo/FlickrCC

Week 8
Total Mileage: 37 miles
Weekend Meal: Pulled pork, black bean soup, and sweet potato fries

I first heard rumors of the snowpocalypse in the middle of Week 8. My father—a loyal watcher of the evening news—warned me on Wednesday that my planned trip home to New York for the weekend might be stymied by a snowstorm. I scoffed. Ever since Al Roker incorrectly predicted rain on both my birthday and the day of my birthday party the year I turned eight, I've ignored weather reports.

But when my Friday afternoon bus was canceled, I realized that this snow storm, real or not, was going to keep me in D.C. And when the flurries started falling soon after, I also made peace with cooking and training during a blizzard.

We took it out of the brine, dried it, and spooned on a mustard-based wet rub followed by a dry rub of salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, and cayenne.

Fortunately, I'd been there before. My first weekend of training brought 16 inches of snow, but I managed to run seven miles and roast a whole chicken. It snowed only a few inches during Week 7, but that was enough to complicate—though not torpedo—my 14-mile run. I could call this column Marathon Training in Siberia.

My first order of business was to stock up on food for the weekend. I couldn't expect just to waltz to the Columbia Heights Giant after my long Saturday run—the store would likely be emptied or closed for the weather. Fortunately, the week's recipe required just three ingredients I didn't already have at home: pork butt, yellow mustard (yup, I'm a condiment snob and keep only high-end honey mustard in the fridge), and liquid smoke. Cooks Illustrated claimed liquid smoke was the key to making barbecue-quality pulled pork without a barbecue pit, and although I'd been burned by Cooks Illustrated before, my favorite food blog, the Bitten Word, claimed the magazine's pulled pork recipe "tastes like it came from the best, divey-est Memphis BBQ shack."

Finding pork butt on the eve of a snowstorm wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. I checked the Safeway in the basement of my office building. I called the Giant and had to repeat my request three times as my tittering co-workers listened ("Do you have pork butt?" "What?" "Do you have pork butt?" "WHAT!?" and so on) before the woman who answered the phone said she didn't know. I stopped at another Safeway on my way home and asked the manager. He called the head of the butcher department, who led me to the pork section and wordlessly handed me 4.92 pounds of pork shoulder. Pork shoulder? Turns out I wasn't about to cook a pig's gluteus maximus—I was just going to make pork shoulder. Far more appetizing, yes, but so much less amusing.

The cooking supplies safely in my refrigerator and cupboard, I focused on the other part of my weekend that would be complicated by the snOMG: my training runs—seven miles on Saturday, 15 on Sunday. The weather reports predicted the snow wouldn't stop until late afternoon on Saturday—I was a believer by now—so I knew better than to run outside. I decided to go to the gym on Saturday and venture outside on Sunday, when conditions would be clearer.

But oh, the best laid plans. On Saturday morning, the first thing I did was call my local branch of the Washington Sports Club to make sure it was open. No answer. I checked the website. All the Washington Sports Clubs in the D.C. area were closed. I put a message up on my Gchat in the hopes of finding a friend who lived in a building with a gym. One friend bit, but he was in Dupont Circle drinking margaritas and didn't seem to want to scurry home to let me in. I admitted defeat.

So I devoted the day to cooking. My friend Hahna came over around noon and we began the long, slow process of making pulled pork. First the meat brined for two hours in water mixed with salt, sugar, and liquid smoke. Then we took it out of the brine, dried it, and spooned on a mustard-based wet rub followed by a dry rub of salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, and cayenne. We placed the shoulder in a pan, covered it with parchment and foil, and put it in a 325 F oven.

Then what? We waited. For three hours. Our friend Kelly came over and we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and leftover macaroni and cheese for lunch. We talked about the achievement gap in American public schools. Hahna put black beans, celery, onions, carrots, and a ham hock in a pot so they could simmer and eventually become soup. We drank tea and ice water and Diet Pepsi. We talked about the boys who'd broken our hearts and the men we hoped wouldn't. We drank more tea, water, and soda. My roommate Caitlin took a break from grading sixth-grade quizzes to come downstairs and join the soul-searching. We checked the timer to see if it was time to take the pork out. Not yet.

The timer finally did go off, and we took the pork out of the oven and removed the foil and parchment, then stuck it back in for another hour and a half. Hahna took the soup off the stove. By then we'd all had enough water-drinking and secret-spilling. It was time for a walk.

It was around 4:30 pm, and the storm had subsided after piling nearly 18 inches of snow on the city. We wandered the neighborhood, admiring the beer-can-holding, cigarette-smoking snowman a pack of 10-year-old boys had made and eyeing enviously the crowds sledding on the neighborhood's hills. We stopped at the corner store to buy red wine and pale ale, then headed back to the house, passing our across-the-street neighbor and his three-year-old daughter (who ignored the six-pack of Dogfish Head I was carrying) and our downstairs neighbor and his girlfriend (who noticed it and said, "Right on.").

Back at the house, we switched out of a lazy, wait-for-the-meat-to-finish mode to a frenetic, let's-get-dinner-on-the-table-in-30-minutes one. The pork came out of the oven, and I drained the pan drippings into a bowl so I could use them in the barbecue sauce. While I mixed up the sauce, Hahna and Kelly got to work chopping herbs and sweet potatoes, and Caitlin, who doesn't eat meat, prepared her dinner of mushroom risotto. We tossed the sweet potatoes in olive oil, scattered them on baking trays, and put them in the oven in the hope that they would come out 20 minutes later as fries. We removed the ham hock from the soup pot and pureed the bean mixture in the food processor, then put the beans and some shredded ham back in the pot and reheated it.

When everything was ready—the sweet potatoes, the pork, the soup, the salad, the dish of pickles, the glasses of wine—we sat down in the dining room, held hands, and said grace—an easy exercise when we had so much to be thankful for: warm homes, good friends, and, of course, terrific food.

The pulled pork lived up to The Bitten Word's endorsement. It had a deep, smoky flavor and a burnt crust that contrasted nicely with the tender interior. The sweet potatoes weren't perfect—they were softer than fries should be—but their sweet, earthy flavor complemented the tangy barbecue sauce we'd mixed with the pork. And the rich, meaty soup added much-needed warmth to the snowy day.

It wasn't the Saturday I'd expected—I'd planned to be in New York, and I'd wanted to go for my run—but it was probably the best one of my training so far. And after lots of eating and almost no exercise, I was ready for my run on Sunday morning.