When I was growing up, you could pretty much tell the day of the week by what was being served for dinner and from what I gather, many of my friends can totally relate to that. There was very little variety and a serious lack of creativity and imagination when it came to meals, unless it was some new casserole that had canned soup as it's base. (Those dishes we use to refer to as Tuna, Chicken or Beef Surprise....probably because the only truly identiifiable ingredient was the meat with the rest comprising the 'surprise' component!). While grateful to actually have food on the table, the surprises were't necessarily good ones! While my food choices, I hope, are much healthier, I do like the idea of surprising my family with something they have mused about, only giving it my healthied-up twist!
A couple of weeks ago we were at a local family food restaurant and my husband was torn between a spicy sirloin burger and the pulled pork sandwich, commenting that it had been ages since he had pulled pork. A few days later, while I was strolling through the meat department of my local grocery store, wondering what I was going to make for that night's dinner, I saw that pork hocks were on sale. On closer inspection, I was amazed to see trays of thick, meaty pork hocks for well under $5.
Pork hocks, also known as pork knuckles and ham hocks, are the joints between the tibia/fibula and the metatarsals of the foot. They are a very inexpensive but tough piece of meat that's loaded with connective tissue, ligaments and muscle fibers. But when they are cooked low and slow, they yield fork-tender meat which makes them perfect for Soulful Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Sandwiches! I snatched up a package with three thick, meaty hocks priced at $3.61 and then picked up my other ingredients: white onion, leeks, green bell pepper, a can of tomato sauce and a package of freshly made subrolls from the bakery, for a grand total of $14.21! Everything else I would need, chicken broth, ketchup, brown sugar, cider vinegar, yellow mustard, Worcestershire sauce, chilli powder, provolone cheese, salt and pepper, I had on hand at home.
Just about every restaurant you go to these days has some kind of pulled pork dish on the menu. In the United States, the preparation of pulled pork varies from region to region but generally, it's a delicacy of the Southeast, where it was born. In areas such as Tennessee, pulled pork is typically made from a mixture of the blade shoulder and arm shoulder meat and served with a tomato-based barbecue sauce. North Carolina is pretty much famous for pulled pork where either a whole pig/hog, mixed cuts or the shoulder cut alone are commonly used and the pork is served with or without a vinegar-based sauce. South Carolina pulled pork usually comes with a mustard sauce and Georgia barbecue is served with a tomato-based sauce. The sauce I was going to make for my pulled pork sandwiches was going to be the same sauce I use for making Slopping Joes and it's pretty much a combination of all the US variations, containing tomato sauce, vinegar and mustard.
When I got home, I removed the hocks from the packaging, gave them a quick rinse and patted them dry before seasoning them on both sides with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. I cut my white onion in half and thinly sliced one half, reserving the other half for when I was ready to serve my sandwiches. I then cleaned and chopped one leek and diced my green bell pepper. After heating a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat, I added a drizzle of olive oil and quickly sauteed my green pepper,onion and leek, just until they were soft. I then added them to my slow cooker. Next, I browned my hocks on all sides as well as the meaty tops and bottoms and added them to the slow cooker too. In a large bowl, I combined one 8 ounce can of unsalted tomato sauce, 1/2 c. low sodium chicken broth, 1/2 c. ketchup, 1/4 c. firmly packed brown sugar, 2 Tbsp cider vinegar, 2 Tbsp yellow mustard, 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce and 1/2 Tbsp chilli powder and mixed it all together and then poured it over the pork hocks in my slow cooker. I then added a few sprigs of fresh thyme for a little extra flavour, but that's completely optional! I then placed the cover on my slow cooker and I set the temperature on high and walked away, letting the hocks cook low and slow for 8 hours.
I've said it before, but it warrants repeating: using a slow cooker to prepare meals is the easiest and perhaps best way to cook a foolproof flavourful meal particularly in this fast pace world of two income families. Not everyone has the time to spend an hour preparing dinner for their family but beyond that, all the flavours in the dish intermingle and infuse one another, no matter what meat you use, it'll be tender, the aroma that welcomes you home when you walk through the door is incredible and clean-up is a snap! After my pork hocks had been cooking for 8 hours, I removed just the hocks from the slow cooker and placed them in a serving dish. They were so tender, I easily could remove the skin around each hock using only the tines of a fork and once that was removed, the meat just fell away from the bone. After I discarded the bones and skin, I pulled the meat apart using two forks. (NOTE: I wouldn't advise giving the bones to your dog or pets because the cooking process significantly softens them making them prone to chipping and cracking and a sharp shard of bone could very easily cause serious injury to your pet!). After the meat was all pulled apart, I removed the thyme sprigs from the sauce and poured it over the pulled pork, mixing to make sure all of the meat was coated.
As an alternative to pulled pork sandwiches, the pork and sauce could be spooned over cooked rice and served that way, but the only thing I could see at the end of the meal tunnel were pulled pork sandwiches! I opened my subrolls and spread some olive oil margarine on both sides of the buns, rubbed them with a garlic and then sprinkled on a little bit of grated parmesan cheese. I placed the rolls on a baking sheet and heated them under the broiler for a few minutes just to toast the buns. After removing the buns from the oven, I added a few slices of raw white onion, spooned on a generous amount of the pulled pork mixture, topped the pulled pork with a slice of provoline cheese and served my Soulful Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Sandwiches.
The crispiness of the toasted subrolls and the crunch of the sliced raw white onions added perfect textural balance to the juciness of the pulled pork and the creaminess of the melted provolone. The sauce itself was a wonderful blend of sweet and sour with a little bit of heat and smokiness from the chilli powder. Given that we are still newlyweds, this was the first time that I made my Soulful Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Sandwiches for my husband but it definitely won't be the last. He's a bit of a connoisseur of pulled pork and he claims that my pulled pork was the best he's had!
I had enough pulled pork to make 6 sandwiches. Being cooked in the slow cooker, with me having complete control over the ingredients, at a cost of under $3 per sandwich, while illiciting the high praise that they did from my husband, Soulful Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Sandwiches were indeed easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!