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I ruined the pork butt.

I ruined the pork butt roast. I agonized over what to do… I had ignored my inner voices once; I was loathe to do it again, and yet nothing made sense to me for a moment. Nothing. It was my third annual catering for a Kentucky Derby Party: Oven ‘smoked’ pork roast, sweet potato ‘casserole’, cheesy grits souffle, bacon-cheddar spoon bread, and a few other things. I brined this beautiful pork butt for 2 days, got in to the cafe 7 hours before it was due and pulled it out, rinsed it and let it dry. I rubbed it all over with spices to create a flavorful bark. I put it in a slow oven and lovingly tended to it for a few hours. The last 2 times I checked the temperature I was slightly puzzled: it felt just about done, it was tender, and yet the thermometer read quite low. It didn’t make sense but I know to trust the thermometer and I was really busy by then getting all the other stuff done. Plus we were lucky to have a fairly busy restaurant day that day, so I was back and forth between the cooking and running out orders for our guests. I didn’t listen to that doubting inner voice that told me something was not quite right.

The next-to-last time I checked it I KNEW it was done, and yet I ignored that inner voice again and put it back in. IT DID NOT MAKE SENSE, yet I did it. They arrived to pick up the food and the pork, which should have been done an hour ago, was not. We pulled it out one more time and Mark used another thermometer which read WAY OVER DONE! Holy crap. I jumped back as if I had been bitten, my face stricken and denial-laden panic rising in my throat. I could only think of swear words and I didn’t want to cry (THERE’S NO CRYING IN THE KITCHEN!) so I tried to think fast. I grabbed the serving pan and tried to lift the pork onto it and it fell apart like beautiful pulled pork should… but I had to take most of the bark off so the parts that were the driest would come away from the center. I salvaged as much as I could, covered it and took it out to her car, trying to breathe.

I told her, in the most professional tone that I could muster, that the pork was different this year (yeah, RUINED is pretty different!) and then I showed it to her. I explained what I had done, in as light a tone as I could manage, and that I pulled out the very best parts for her party. She had my cell phone number and of course her satisfaction is 100% guaranteed, so I would do whatever I needed to make it right. She laughed, seemingly tickled at my despair. (Thank goodness she had worked with me those other times and knew I wasn’t a complete failure!) She drove away and I waited for the angry phone call, I was planning other things I could make really fast and deliver to her. She didn’t call… and that was worse because it meant she was too upset to allow me to fix it.

Added note: By the way when I went back inside the cafe I immediately ordered 3 new thermometers. 1 digital remote and 2 old fashioned regular thermometers. It didn’t fix it but I did feel a little better for having fired the stupid thermometer that I had used.

Mark and I pulled a 16 hour day that day, longer than our usual 12 or so, and I was exhausted. The Kitsap School of Art had a show that we participated in, so we had lots of the artists and their families coming through. It was an honor to be a part of such a creative crowd! Later we poured at the Body reFORM Pilates Studio’s Relay for Life Charity Wine tasting, so I was distracted with talking to people about wine and soothed a bit by meeting Frank Roth and his wife Michaela (I may not be spelling it correctly; it is pronounced: Mish-ay-la). Frank is the wine maker at Eliseo Silva/Tagaris Vineyards and I have been a fan for a few years (his wines continue to come through our place; they are fabulous!). They were so sweet and fun to talk with, and I wish we could have spent a few hours more talking to them. Those things were a nice salve on my wounded pride.

So after that excessively long day on our feet we were going home and of course we were starving. Mark said he would fix us a sandwich when we got home and I said no, I am going to bed when we get home! We decided to take a risk and stop at The Float, a tavern in Purdy that we used to love, and lately have not enjoyed as much as we used to. It was Saturday, it was going to be packed and loud and we would never get served. Let’s give it a try anyway. We got a parking spot right in front of the door… that can’t be bad since my feet hurt so much they were throbbing. We walked in and it was not so packed, just nicely attended, and lo and behold there was A TABLE available for us! We took it and were served rather quickly. The band took up and they were called ‘The Knuckleheads’. They are AWESOME! They were 3 older guys jammin with a bluesy rock and roll sound, a little Johnnie Cash, a little Georgia Satellites… and even a little disco-turned-blues that was really, really good. Even better was the Sounders game on the tv over the bar-except they tied and it shoulda been a win. We enjoyed the music, the food, a nice beer (I love me some Mac n Jacks!) and bed never felt so good…even though someone who ruined the pork roast didn’t deserve such comfort.

Still no disappointed/angry call. I slept pretty well (yay exhaustion) and the first thing I thought of Sunday morning was the ruined pork. Did I ruin their party? Were their 22 guests hating me today? Did I let down 2 of my favorite customers? I haven’t had such dramatically dark thoughts about my role in the business in quite awhile. When we first started out every time I made a mistake, no matter how small, I was certain that we were doomed to fail within moments. Mark was like that too, though less often than I was. I shuffled around the house, fighting the urge to call my customers and ask them how it went. I always want to do that, call and check in, as if I sent them with my children instead of food that I made. I have so far been successful in refraining from that level of psychosis and that day was no exception, though it was an internal battle.

Monday… will they return the serve ware and tell me of their disgust? No one showed up, they didn’t call. More torture.

Today (Tuesday) the ladies had a friend return the serve ware. Sharon called to give me the inventory so I could check off my list and “Oh by the way… the gentleman said you were worried about the pork.” I sucked in my breath and waited with dread… “Yes I was” I muttered. “Well”, said Sharon, “he said that it was perfect. They loved it and it could not have been better.” WHAT??? There is NO WAY that could be true. “Are you sure??? He wasn’t just being nice?” There was hardly any bark, it was falling apart and hadn’t even had time to rest so it must have been dry! “Seriously” she insisted “he assured me it was fine and I believe him.” Holy crap. I thought for a moment… I mean if they liked that they would have married the pork I intended to make.

What could have saved me? Epiphany: it must have been the brine. Brining adds flavor and moisture and I know that it can help any meat withstand a bit of over cooking but I am here to tell you that it was WAY over cooked. I normally would take it out at 150 degrees and my ears and eyes stopped working when Mark told me it was climbing over 190! It should have been as dry as string and it wasn’t. Or at least, they say it wasn’t, and I have to believe them. I know it tasted good, I tasted the dry-as-wood-slats bark and it WAS excellent in flavor. Ok. I have avoided disaster. I live to cook another day. I did not kill anyone and they do not want to kill me. I did not waste an animal’s life and I did not ruin a great party. I am breathing again. I must go in to the cafe and get ready for Cinco de Mayo-I am making empanadas and mole and I must convince Betuel that I can do that…He isn’t so sure that this gringa can cook a mole. I have a few tricks up my sleeve and I am hoping to get him to smile when he tastes it. I will let you know.

Obviously the recipe of the day should entail a brine. Rather I think I will give guidelines to brining different pieces of meat. Ok so here is the thing: brining must have salt to work and there is no such thing as ‘low salt’ brining. On the other hand, the salt in the brine does not necessarily add sodium to the meat. You can rinse off the meat and pat it dry to reassure yourself, but either way it will not leave a salty residue or flavor. Trust me on this. It facilitates moisture, tenderness and flavor and that is all, and yet that is everything.

You should brine any of these meats for this long:
Whole Chicken 3-8 hrs
Chicken Pieces 1-2 hrs
Whole Turkey 12 hrs-2 days
Turkey Breast 4-8 hrs
Cornish Game Hens 1-2 hrs
Pork Chops 2-6 hrs
Pork Tenderloin 2-8 hrs
Whole Pork Loin 1-3 days

Use a nonreactive container that is appropriate for the size. For smaller pieces of chicken or fish a ziplock bag will work fine. I use a 5 gallon pickle bucket for the bigger roasts and fowl… come get one from us any time, we have lots of buckets!

Use one cup of salt for every 2 quarts of water. I also match salt with equal parts sugar or brown sugar, depending on what I am making.

I found the definitive answers to all your brining questions HERE if you want to check it out.

Brine it, Baby!