pulled pork for 80

George got married yesterday–hooray! My contribution to the wedding was bringing pulled pork for the dinner. I’ve made pulled pork about half a dozen times now, but this was only the second time I was using my sweet new Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker (aka “Weber Bullet“). As you’ll see, though, I couldn’t fit all the pork (about 75 pounds all told) into it, and there’s no way in hell I was going to do two batches, so Nelson (my pork shoulder mentor/idol) lent me his bullet as well for dual smoking action!

I started with 3 pounds of molasses and 4.5 pounds of salt mixed with three gallons of water for the brine.

Our biggest cooler was just capacious enough to contain the 9 boneless pork shoulders as they brined overnight:

On Friday evening after work, I pulled them out of the brine. They were visibly plumped and brown from the molasses. Then I started in on making my secret rub, which is not actually a secret. In fact, here’s a picture with all the ingredients. OK, I’ll just admit that this is the Cook’s Illustrated basic barbecue rub. Are you happy? Didn’t you find it more intriguing when it was a secret?

I rubbed the shoulders and tied them to get them ready for the grill. Check out the awesome leather apron that Leslie got me for the occasion!

Next, I prepped the two smokers, filling the water pans and adding cold charcoal to the fire rings. I started a chimney worth of coals and added just about 10 hot coals to each ring. These 10 would light the others and slowly spread the fire over the next 8-10 hours before the first time I had to add fuel–this amazing technique for no-maintenance fires is called the “Minion Method,” and I can’t say enough good things about it. It almost sort of lets you sleep through the night.

With the fires lit, I stacked the pork two stories high in both smokers, and we were off.

(Not pictured: the next 15 hours of maintaining the smokers’ temperatures within 10 degrees of 225 with the help of just one remote thermometer, a headlamp, and a light touch on the air vents surrounding the fire rings. Let’s just say I was pretty tired by the time we got to the wedding.)

And just like that, we’ve got barbecue!

Leslie and I were forced to do a quick taste test before serving it the the wedding guests–just looking out for their well being!

bay area food #26: the french laundry

You heard that right, folks: Leslie and I finally made it out to that ultimate west-coast food Mecca: The French Laundry. The trip was sort of a combination long-delayed graduation celebration combined with an anniversary dinner. That’s enough justification, right?

It would take quite a while to describe the whole meal (officially nine courses, but also two bonus amuse bouche and an extra dessert course). If you really wanna know every detail, here’s the menu with our notes:

We arrived about half an hour before our 9pm reservations, figuring there would be stuff to see. And sure enough, there was! Right across the street from the restaurant is the incredibly well manicured restaurant garden, where they get a lot of their produce. Representative pic:

The garden was right off the road, in the middle of town, almost like a public park. It had no gates or entry control at all, so we just walked around through it. Very fun. So I guess what it takes to support sustainable urban agriculture is… to use it to supply a super-high end restaurant across the street.

The food itself was… well, just plain outstanding. It was course after course of expertly combined ingredients (LOTS of them, and never one repeated!), always in harmony, always with high-art-grade presentation. The second amuse bouche was a “coronet” of salmon, but obviously it’s supposed to look like a tiny ice-cream cone. So fun!

I got pictures of several more of the courses, but not all of them, and posted them on gallery. I’ll put one more in here for fun, though, check out this crazy-ass dessert (too many ingredients for a succint name… maybe just “anglaise?”):

The interior of the restaurant itself was pretty interesting… it was in an old house, and it felt pretty cramped (the staff and diners were constantly impeding each other up and down the narrow stairs, for example). I overheard one of the servers say it had 16 tables, which sounds about right. Most were 2 and 4 tops but there were a few bigger, and a private dining room with a table for 10 (every table was constantly occupied, of course!).

We sat down promptly at 9, after I was fitted with a borrowed jacket. Such an anachronism, requiring jackets for men, at a modern restaurant on the west coast! My shirt, tie, and slacks made me better dressed than many of the other male diners I saw, but there’s still something magical about a ratty sport coat that makes you acceptable I guess.

As for drinks, they initially brought out their wine list, on an iPad I shit you not. There we were, in this elegant restaurant, with the blue glow of a frickin’ iPad blinding us. I guess in someone’s demented mind (Thomas Keller? Yep, I’m sure this was his idea) this was trendy and a cool solution. Luckily, we didn’t really have to interact with it: we just gave our server a budget ($150/person, wince) and she brought all the pairings, which were great on the whole. They even included a champagne made exclusively for the French Laundry! They’re mostly written in our notes on the menu.

After working our way through every last course, we speculated as to the time and were pretty shocked to discover it was 12:45am–we’d been eating for almost 4 hours! I guess that’s the kind of marathon meal of relentlessly excellent food you’d want to have experienced before being handed this:

Yeowch! At least the tip was included.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. There wasn’t anything about any individual dish that was unlike what we’ve eaten before–we’ve had courses at several places (most recently Commis in Oakland) that could go head-to-head with anything served at the French Laundry. The difference was the scale of the meal, the ambitiousness and variety of the ingredients, and the complete consistency of the flavor and presentation.

Will we go again? I doubt it… when we eat we’re more interested in exploring new things than seeking out extremes. It was a fun adventure, but I think there’s more to learn by eating everyday examples of regional food from all around the world (plus, that’s the stuff we could actually cook!).

Still, I’ve got to say: The French Laundry is a shining example of what complete, single-minded obsession with great food can yield. Wow.