Pulled pork's big flavor on a smaller scale

Melissa Clark / New York Times News Service /

The first time I made pulled pork, it involved a seven-pound bone-in pork butt and an entire day of gentle smoking on the barbecue. It fed a backyard full of guests, and there were plenty of leftovers, too.

The last time I made pulled pork, I bought a three-pound boneless shoulder roast (pork butt is another name for a piece of shoulder). The meat was ready in a few hours, and it fed exactly the number of guests I can comfortably fit around my table. There was just enough left over for a dainty sandwich the next day.

Along the way I realized that pulled pork doesn’t have to be the work of a day and a feast for a crowd. Making a small batch is not hard and fairly convenient.

The lack of bone and smaller size can even work to your advantage, flavor wise; although you lose the deep marrow richness imparted by the bone, you make up for it by gaining surface area on which to spread the spice rub. That’s because of the way the butcher removes the bone, turning a hunk of pork into a long piece of meat that is generally sold tied with twine. Once you cut off the twine and uncurl the meat, you’ll be able to reach more of the nooks than you could with a whole, bone-in roast.

And because the pork cooks until it’s practically falling apart, you don’t need to retie it. It will do fine in any shape it hits your baking pan.

In this recipe, I roast the meat in the oven instead of barbecuing it, but only for the sake of ease. If you would rather cook it outside on the grill, preferably indirectly over a smoky low fire, you certainly can.

In either case, make sure to cook the meat until fork tender (200 degrees on a meat thermometer), then let it rest only until it’s cool enough to pull apart comfortably. The warmer the meat, the easier the pulling.

Then coat the meat in barbecue sauce and arrange it next to a pile of soft buns or hamburger rolls, letting your guests put together sandwiches. Coleslaw, in this case laced with jalapeno, is the traditional accompaniment. But any cool, crisp vegetable or pickle nestled on the warm, rich shreds of meat will go nicely, too.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Spicy Jalapeno Slaw

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Time: 31⁄2 to 41⁄2 hours, plus at least 11⁄2 hours’ marinating and resting

For the pork:

11⁄2 tsp whole coriander seed

11⁄2 tsp whole cumin seed

11⁄2 tsp black peppercorns

21⁄2 tsp coarse kosher salt

11⁄2 tsp dry mustard powder

11⁄2 tsp chili powder

3 TBS dark brown sugar

31⁄2 lbs boneless pork shoulder

Hamburger or brioche buns, for serving

For the barbecue sauce:

11⁄2 C ketchup

1⁄4 C packed dark brown sugar

2 TBS molasses

2 garlic cloves, minced or grated

1⁄4 C cider vinegar

2 TBS Worcestershire sauce

2 tsp sweet or hot paprika

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dry mustard powder

Pinch of cayenne

Dash of hot sauce, more to taste

For the slaw:

1 sm head green cabbage, outer leaves removed, shredded (about 11⁄2 lbs)

1⁄2 sm red onion, thinly sliced

1 lg jalapeno, seeded if desired, thinly sliced

3⁄4 C mayonnaise

2 TBS cider vinegar

2 TBS extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp coarse kosher salt

Black pepper

Assemble the spice rub for the pork: In a dry, small skillet over medium-low heat, toast coriander, cumin and peppercorns until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, grind toasted spices into a fine powder. Transfer to a bowl and mix with salt, mustard powder, chili powder and sugar.

If your roast is tied up, untie it. Massage meat generously with spice rub. If you have time, let meat rest for an hour or two at room temperature, or refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Place pork in a baking pan and roast for 3 to 4 hours or until meat is pull-apart tender and internal temperature reads 200 degrees on a meat thermometer. Let meat cool for at least 30 minutes before pulling it apart and shredding with your hands or two forks. (This works best when the meat is warm but not hot.)

Prepare the barbecue sauce: Combine ingredients in a medium pot. Simmer over medium-low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce has deepened in color. Season with more hot sauce if you like. Add two-thirds of the sauce to meat and toss to coat, adding more sauce as needed. (Any leftover sauce will keep for at least 2 weeks in the refrigerator.)

Make the slaw: Combine cabbage, onion and jalapeno in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add dressing to cabbage and toss well.

Serve pulled pork with slaw, buns and hot sauce on the side, letting people assemble their own sandwiches.