I know what it’s like to throw your own book party. Last May, Cara and I spent a week making hundreds of Rice Krispie balls and Mini PB&J cake-witches, and stressing about whether or not people would show up. Throwing a book party is not that glamorous, it’s certainly not that cheap, and unless you drink upwards of 5 vodka sodas, as I surely did, it’s usually pretty stressful. So when Meredith Zeitlin approached me to do the food for the launch of her new young adult novel, High School & Other Unnatural Disasters, I recognized a fellow first time author in need, and said: let’s do this.
The menu we decided on was a mix of high school favorites – creamy spinach dip, mini meatballs – and more adult-friendly bites, like little polenta cakes with ricotta and truffle honey. But my favorite item, which falls somewhere in the middle of those two vibes, was Pulled Pork Sliders. It’s unclear whether or not the book’s protagonist, Kelsey Finklestein, would have been able to eat pork. But since the young heroine is “loosely” based on Meredith herself, we decided that she definitely would be down with trafe.
Forgive me while I nerd-out on the recipe for a sec…
Usually when I make pulled pork, I’ll brine a big 6-pound butt, maybe apply a minimal spice rub, and then slowly cook it in the oven, at a low temp, for up to 5 hours. At a prior event, where I served these black bean arepas, I tried David Lebovitz’s recipe for carnitas for the first time and was blown away by the results. It’s a few more steps than my usual pulled pork, but totally worth every spatter of pork fat on my stove-top.
Naturally, I decided to go this route for Meredith’s pulled pork sandwiches. And as predicted, whether stuffed inside a mini brioche or a corn tortilla, topped with pickled red onions or salsa verde, these carnitas rock my world every time.
As far as the party was concerned, I was grateful that the only unnatural disaster occurred long before I even arrived, when Meredith was served a $250 dollar traffic ticket en route from the liquor store to Steve’s house. The rest went surprisingly smoothly, especially for Steve’s dog (we’ll just call Blue-in-training), who may or may not have eaten several brioche rolls out of my bag as I was unloading. It might also be worth mentioning that this dog has a sweet sweet life, as he lives in the sickest doghouse I’ve ever seen.
If you happen to be a fellow first time author, or a tween, or just someone who’s looking for a very witty, hilarious book, full of epic high school moments and cringe-worthy nostalgia, then consider picking up a copy of Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters. If you’re in the second camp, hang in there, and nicely ask your mom to make you some carnitas STAT.
Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
4 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 5-inch chunks, trimmed of excess fat
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons canola or neutral vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons ancho chile powder
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
1. Rub the pieces of pork shoulder all over with salt. Place in a ziplock bag and refrigerate for 1- to 3-days. (You can skip this step if you want. Just be sure to salt the pork before searing the meat in the next step.)
2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven. Cook the pieces of pork shoulder in a single layer until very well-browned, turning them as little as possible so they get nice and dark before flipping them around. If your cooking vessel is too small to cook them in a single-layer, cook them in two batches.
3. Once all the pork is browned, remove them from the pot, then pour in about a cup of water, scraping the bottom of the pan to release all the tasty brown bits.
4. Heat the oven to 350F degrees.
5. Add the pork back to the pan and add enough water so the pork pieces are 2/3rd’s submerged in liquid. Add the cinnamon stick and stir in the chile powders, bay leaves, cumin and garlic.
7. Braise in the oven uncovered for 3½ hours, turning the pork a few times during cooking, until much of the liquid is evaporated and the pork is falling apart. Remove the pan from the oven and lift the pork pieces out of the liquid and set them on a platter.
8. Once the pork pieces are cool enough to handle, shred them into bite-sized pieces, discarding any obvious big chunks of fat, as well as the bay leaves and cinnamon stick.
9. Return the pork pieces back to the roasting pan and cook in the oven, turning occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the pork is crispy and caramelized. It will depend on how much liquid the pork gave off, and how crackly you want them.
10. If making these into sliders, toss the pork with your favorite BBQ sauce and top with pickled red onions.