Grilled pork roast with mustard and fresh herbs

Marinating boneless pork shoulder with Dijon mustard, garlic and a fresh herb mix adds extra depth to the smoky flavor of this grilled roast.

Blue Kitchen
Grilled pork roast with mustard and fresh herbs.

Meat Week is a great time to know a butcher. Yes, it’s a real holiday, as the official website’s URL somewhat defensively states: Started in January 2005 by two bored guys in Florida, Meat Week is now observed in 18 cities across the US and, randomly enough, in London. Meat Week is a celebration of all things BBQ. Its primary focus is restaurants that serve BBQ (I’m guessing the two bored founders also aren’t much on cooking). Revelers are encouraged to enjoy eight straight nights of eating BBQ in a specific list of restaurants in each city, in order.

For me, though, learning about Meat Week gave me an excuse to haul my charcoal grill out into the snow and fire it up. Grilling in the dead of winter always brings back fond memories of living in St. Louis. Cooking outdoors was more or less a year-round activity in our Tower Grove neighborhood. A bitter cold snap or major snowstorm might put a damper on things for a while, but the first Saturday that temperatures even flirted with 30 degrees again, grillers would be out in force, up and down our block. By mid-morning, a haze of charcoal/hickory/mesquite smoke would hang in the air.

Which brings me back to knowing a butcher. To celebrate Meat Week properly, I wanted a really nice piece of meat. So I talked to Rob Levitt, former locavore chef and now proprietor of The Butcher & Larder, Chicago’s first locally sourced, whole animal butcher shop. We were fans of Rob’s nose-to-tail cooking at mado from the beginning and were not surprised to see him take the same approach in his shop.

And he hasn’t let us down. The Butcher & Larder has been open less than a month, and already we’ve enjoyed smoked beef tongue, country-style pork ribs, burgers made from beautifully, scarily fatty ground beef and filets of beef heart (quickly pan seared in butter and oil like steaks – delicious).

For my winter grilling adventures, I was looking for something simple and readily available – a pork shoulder roast, sometimes called a Boston butt roast. Even for this cut, Rob had something special. He deals strictly with local small farms; as he has said, he has shaken the hand of everyone who sells him an animal. He also knows that they raise their animals humanely. The pig from which my roast came had spent much of its life pastured in an organic orchard. Not only did it feed on the grasses growing there, it enjoyed any fruit that fell from the trees.

The roast also came with the skin still on, something you won’t find in the supermarket – or even in many butcher shops. Following Rob’s advice, I scored the skin and the underlying layer of fat, knowing the skin would cook up nice and crisp with indirect grilling.

My plan for flavoring this beautiful roast was to make a rub of Dijon mustard, fresh herbs and garlic. Rob also urged me to add salt to the rub. He called it early salting and referred me to The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, by San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers. Rodgers has long been a proponent of early salting. In fact, she devotes a whole section of the book to the subject. The conventional wisdom is that salt draws moisture out of meat if you salt it before cooking. And at first, it does. But over time, the moisture is drawn back into the meat, bringing the flavor of the salt – and any herbs and spices – along with it. As a bonus, early salting slightly breaks down proteins in the meat, tenderizing it. I use a quicker variation of this method to tenderize flavorful but tough lamb shoulder chops.

The rub I used has some big flavors in it – mustard, garlic and three assertive herbs. But in the slow cooking process, they meld into the most subtle enhancement of the meat’s natural flavor. I would challenge you to identify any of the individual rub ingredients just by taste. Regarding the final product, it was outstanding. Tender, moist and incredibly flavorful. I attribute that more to the pig, I think, than my cooking skills. It helps to know a butcher.

(See next page for the recipe)

Grilled Pork Roast with Mustard and Fresh Herbs
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt (I used fine sea salt – see Kitchen Notes)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4-pound boneless pork shoulder

Combine the herbs, garlic, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Pat roast dry with paper towels. Score fat and any skin on pork in a crosshatch pattern. Rub the mustard herb mixture all over the roast, taking care to work it into the crosshatched slits. Wrap the roast tightly in plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.

About 1/2 hour before you’re ready to grill, remove the roast from the fridge to let it come to room temperature. Prepare your grill for indirect grilling. For a charcoal grill, divide hot coals evenly on two sides of the grill and place an aluminum foil drip pan in the middle. Place the roast fat/skin side up over the drip pan and cover the grill. For a two-burner gas grill, light one side and place the food on the other. On a three- or four-burner grill, light the outside or front and rear burners; cook the food in the center. If your grill doesn’t have a built-in drip pan, place a foil pan under the grate. (I’ve only cooked on charcoal grills, so if you’re using a gas grill, you undoubtedly know more than I do about regulating heat and such.)

Check the roast every 20 minutes or so to see how it’s doing. With a charcoal grill, you may need to add extra coals about 45 minutes to an hour into the cooking. Grill the roast until a quick-read thermometer inserted into the center of the roast registers 150 degrees F., about 1 to 1-1/4 hours (or longer – see Kitchen Notes). You an also roast the pork shoulder in the oven at 350 degrees F. Transfer roast to a platter, tent with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes or so. Slice and serve.

Kitchen Notes

The finer points of salt. For early salting, fine salt will soak into the meat better. I used fine sea salt. Table salt will also work, but avoid coarse kosher salt. (Interestingly, though, for the quick variation I mentioned above for lamb shoulder chops, you do want coarse salt. That’s because you apply a lot, but then rinse it off before cooking; you don’t want too much salt to work its way into the meat.)

Cooking time variations. Normally, with a 3 to 4-pound roast, 1 to 1-1/4 hours should do the trick. But when grilling in cold weather (in the middle of Chicago winter, for instance), the grill can lose a lot of heat, making cooking times longer. Your quick-read thermometer is your friend. Use it.

Terry Boyd blogs at Blue Kitchen.

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