|photo credit: Jonathan Lovekin for The Observer|
Traditionally, this dish is made with pork loin, but I prefer it with pork shoulder because rather than toughening with hours of cooking, it relaxes and becomes tender.
6 pounds pork shoulder, cut into two-pound chunks
Zest of 2 lemons, removed in 1-inch strips (I like to use a vegetable peeler for this)
12 sage leaves
12 garlic cloves, peeled
1 gallon whole milk
Freshly ground black pepper, if desired
The night before cooking, season the pork generously with salt on all sides. If desired, season with freshly ground black pepper as well.
The day of cooking, pull the meat out a few hours before you're ready to start.
When it's time to start cooking, get out your biggest dutch oven (maybe two dutch ovens, if you've got them!). Heat it over medium heat, and when it's nice and hot, lightly coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil. Place as much meat in the pan so that it's packed in a single layer--no more--and the meat isn't touching, and brown over medium-high heat on all sides until it's nice and golden all around. You might have to do this in a couple batches.
When the meat is all brown, turn off the flame, tip out the grease and place the meat back into the pot. Now, it's ok if it touches, but it should still all be in a single layer, no more. If you have more meat than will fit in the pan in a single layer, use a second pan for the rest of the meat. Add the zest, the sage, and the garlic cloves, and then enough milk to go halfway up the sides of the meat. I usually will squeeze in the juice of half a lemon to get the curdling going faster, though the oil from the zest is actually enough to curdle the milk. So, do it or not--you can't mess it up either way. Turn the heat on, cover the pot (but leave the lid ajar), and bring the milk to a boil, then immediately reduce to a gentle simmer. The milk should be just barely active, so usually this means that the burner is on the lowest possible heat. Milk has a lot of sugar in it, and it will burn super easily, so turn it down!
It will take the pork shoulder at least three hours to become tender, so pull up a good book, or take this time to make some polenta, beans, or greens. Clean your kitchen. Sort through old family photos. Organize your spice shelf. Whatever you do, don't leave the kitchen, because you're going to have to do three things for the duration of the cooking to make sure things don't go awry:
1) turn the pork pieces--as in rotate them and move them around in the pot--every fifteen minutes or so so that they don't stick and burn,
2) scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to make sure that the milk, though it will caramelize and that is really tasty, does not burn,
3) constantly be adding more milk so that the total liquid level never is less an inch and a half up the sides of the pork.
After about 30-40 minutes, the milk will start to curdle and thicken, and though it looks really gross at first (Who am I kidding? It looks pretty gross the whole time), it will taste so so so so so good. But those curds are prone to burning, so take your stirring seriously.
When the meat falls apart to the touch--this might take 3 hours, or closer to 4, then it's done. Remove the pork from the pan, and do your best to skim off some of the insane levels of fat that have rendered out of both the pork and the milk. For something like this, the easiest way to do that (short of chilling the whole thing overnight and scraping off the cold fat) is to pour all of the curd sauce into a tall, narrow container like a measuring cup, and then use a spoon or a ladle to siphon the fat off the top. Once you've gotten the fat off (or most of it), taste the sauce and adjust the salt if necessary.
Slice the pork into portions, and serve with generous amounts of the sauce. This is traditionally served with polenta, greens, or white beans. I like it with a big pile of barely blanched green beans, so that I have something really fresh to eat alongside the super comforting, really cooked pork.
I purposely wrote the recipe for 10+ portions, so you'd have leftovers. For this much of a time investment, you should get a few meals!!!