Despite having never yet visited America, I feel a lot of my food (or at least a lot of my tastes) are very much rooted in the cuisine of our cousin-across-the-pond, particularly in the food of the deep South. Given a choice I would probably eat hot wings, pulled pork and ‘slaw every day, but in deference to the fact that it’s not necessarily the healthiest cuisine around I limit myself to occasional forays, usually at weekends when I can really go to town and create a feast (which I think is what most people of the American South would agree it’s all about – generosity, hospitality, great big flavours – an ethos that has always been at the heart of my love for food).
This delicious dish takes a cheap core ingredient (pork shanks are still nice and cheap, compared to now-expensive pork shoulder which is traditionally used in pulled pork), and transforms it into something magical. Braising pork in cola is something Nigella Lawson introduced me to, and it really does infuse the meat with what she calls ‘the spirit of BBQ’ – perfect for when the weather isn’t quite up to al fresco cooking but you still want that kind of experience. The deep-fried pickles came about because the pork needs something a bit sharp and sour to cut its inherent richness, and when you’re cooking Southern you simply have to have fried SOMETHING. I should say that they’re not my own invention though, I follow dozens of American food blogs and almost all of them have mentioned fried pickles in concert with pulled pork at some point, so this is where I took my inspiration from.
Cola-braised shredded pulled pork sandwiches with crunchy fried pickles
For the pork braise:
4 pork shanks/hocks, skinned but with the skin kept (or 4 skinless hocks and a small sheet of pork rind – your friendly local butcher should be happy to oblige)
1 white onion, peeled and halved
Small bay leaf
For the pork glaze:
3 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp English mustard powder
For the fried pickles:
8 large gherkins
50g matzo meal (or other dried breadcrumbs)
1 egg, lightly beaten
Oil for frying
4-6 good quality bread rolls
Chilli sauce, mayonnaise and/or sour cream (very much optional)
Place the pork shanks in a casserole dish into which they fit quite snugly. Stud the onion halves with the cloves and tuck those and the bay leaf in around the shanks. Score the pork skin deeply and lay it on top (this helps keep the shanks submerged and you get yummy crackling later), then pour over the coke. Cover with a lid, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat right down and cook gently for 1-2 hours (depending on the thickness of the shanks) until the meat is so tender it almost falls from the bones.
Whilst the shanks are cooking, make the fried pickles. Cut the gherkins into two or three pieces to give thickish spears and pat dry with kitchen paper. Dip into the beaten egg and then into the matzo meal or breadcrumbs. Heat a centimetre of vegetable oil in a deep-sided frying pan or wide saucepan and when it’s good and hot fry the crumbed pickles a few at a time. As soon as they’re nice and brown remove with a slotted spoon, drain on kitchen paper and keep warm in a low oven until ready to serve.
Remove the cooked shanks and pork rind and drain on a rack whilst you preheat a grill and make the glaze. Stir all the glaze ingredients together in a small saucepan with a generous pinch of salt, bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium and simmer for around 10 minutes until dark and syrupy. Whilst that’s bubbling, get your grill good and hot.
Brush the shanks and the braised pork rind generously with the glaze, sprinkle with a little more salt and place on a rack over a foil-lined baking sheet. Pop under the hot grill until bubbling and charring at the edges – you’ll need to turn the shanks a couple of times, brushing with extra glaze as you do so. The pork rind won’t go as airily crunchy as with crackling on a roast, but it gets much crisper as it cools a little, plus that juicy chewiness is all part of the textures in this sandwich.
Shred the pork from the shanks and discard the bones. Split each bread roll and stuff full of the shredded meat, drizzling with any spare glaze as you go. Add a few pieces of ‘crackling’ and a couple of pickle spears to each sandwich. Depending on your preferences you may wish to add a smear of chilli sauce, mayo, or sour cream to the roll as well. Tuck in and taste the Deep South in every bite!