Pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and chocolate cake—sound good to you?
It ought to. But it’s not just good food—it’s visionary.
Don’t scoff. Every few months, I embark on a new project to improve my life, to move me toward the vision of the person I really want to be. And things like pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and chocolate cake are part of that vision.
See, a lot of these projects have to do with my management of our home. Actively working to improve my cooking and baking skills is just the latest project. One year ago, I started making monthly menus, because I was tired of standing in my kitchen after work every night, staring blankly around a kitchen full of food and coming up with no ideas on what to make for supper. And two years ago, I started keeping a budget, tracking all my spending, paying down debt, and living more frugally.
Oh, and then there’s the hospitality project. I guess it’s not exactly a project, but “hospitality” is part of my vision. I want to be someone who entertains regularly. I want friends to come over looking forward to tasty, home-cooked meals. Which I will have made from good, affordable ingredients purchased within a budget, planned carefully as part of an organized menu that makes everyone happy and is easy to follow.
All these projects—these efforts to fulfill my vision—have become ongoing habits, and they naturally intersect. So when I read through the weekly grocery sale papers I get by email (frugality), I look for sale items I can build into my pre-planned menu (menu organization) that will challenge or strengthen my cooking skills (kitchen savvy) and enable me to entertain guests properly (hospitality).
Several weeks ago, I decided it was time to invite to dinner some friends we haven’t had over in more than a year. I contacted the wife and settled on a date. Then I started to plan a menu, even though the date was a few weeks ahead.
Here were some of my considerations:
- Our friends have five people in their family. We have four. What could I make to serve nine people easily?
- What was on sale that I could buy ahead in order to make an affordable meal?
- What menu would both challenge and strengthen my cooking skills?
I made a list of a number of possible main dishes. Then I checked that week’s sale ad and found that SuperSaver had pork butt roasts on sale. I would have to buy two roasts to get the advertised special, but if it turned out to be too much food for our guests, cooked pork freezes and reheats easily. I settled on pulled pork sandwiches, and because I knew my friend makes most of her own bread, I asked if she could bring homemade sandwich rolls.
Next, flipping through my Joy of Cooking, I found a simple recipe for hot apple slaw. I had a surplus of apples in my basement, so I wouldn’t have to buy any apples—just cabbage, which is inexpensive. The recipe called for cider vinegar, and I had only rice vinegar on hand, but I did some research on substitutions for cider vinegar and decided I could use the rice vinegar and add a splash of apple juice.
Next, I made a short list of simple desserts for which I had ingredients on hand and asked Chris to pick from the list. He picked chocolate cake, so I planned to make a sour cream fudge cake with homemade chocolate icing.
Here was the final menu:
- Pulled pork sandwiches served with BBQ sauce
- Homemade sandwich rolls (brought by my friend)
- Hot apple slaw
- Scalloped potatoes (brought by my friend)
- Sour cream fudge cake with chocolate icing (all made from scratch)
And here’s what I had to do for the meal:
I did not have experience slow cooking two large pork roasts, although I’ve done one before. I had to borrow my mother-in-law’s oblong roasting oven and stack the roasts side by side.
First, I had to finish defrosting the roasts and used my microwave’s Defrost setting to do so. Then I rubbed each roast with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and stood them in the roasting oven. I did not add any water. I cooked the roasts at 350 degrees for two hours, then turned the oven down to 250 and cooked them seven hours long. At 5:45 I moved the roast to a large serving bowl and shredded it with a fork. Dish done!
Hot Apple Slaw
This was a brand-new dish for me, and I have never cooked with cabbage—or used caraway seeds, which I had in my cabinet although I’d never used them. The recipe called for frying bacon in a skillet and then using the hot fat for the rest of the slaw. Instead, I melted bacon fat I keep on hand, but you could skip the bacon fat altogether and use oil. Anyway, I melted the bacon fat and then added three tablespoons of rice vinegar, a splash of apple juice, two tablespoons of water, one tablespoon of brown sugar, and one teaspoon of lightly crushed caraway seeds. (I put the seeds in a plastic bag and used a meat tenderizer mallet to beat them, a process that didn’t pulverize them but did release their aroma.) When this mixture came to a boil, I added three cups of finely chopped red cabbage (turned out to be easy to chop) and one finely chopped peeled apple. I combined all ingredients and then cooked the mixture for two more minutes. Next I transferred the slaw to a serving dish and garnished it with real bacon pieces. Dish done!
Sour Cream Fudge Cake with Chocolate Icing (all made from scratch)
This cake was easy to make, but to make it really work I had to sift all the dry ingredients using the old sifter my mother-in-law gave me, and I had to save one fourth a cup of coffee from my breakfast that morning to add as a liquid ingredient. The cake took only 25 minutes to bake perfectly—good height, good texture, nice and moist. Dish done!
The biggest challenge I had with this cake was selecting an icing. I don’t much enjoy thick frostings. I wanted something chocolate. I didn’t want anything super sweet. I wanted something easy. I wanted an icing that would keep frozen so I could make a large batch and reuse it later for another dessert. And I wanted something that didn’t call for any ingredients or tools I didn’t have, which ruled out, among others, recipes requiring a double boiler or milk chocolate.
After evaluating all the frostings and icings in my Joy of Cooking, I selected a Chocolate Glaze that turned out to be a nice, dark chocolate icing: not too thick, not too thin, not too sweet, and easy to make. Plus, any unused glaze can be frozen for up to six months. I’m telling you, I am never going to buy store-bought frosting again.
So my family and our friends ate all this food, and we had multiple bags of pork left over.
But does it really matter? Am I crazy for putting so much thought into a single meal?
I used to think that spending a lot of time planning a meal was pointless. I mean, you eat it, and then it’s gone. And you still have the dirty dishes to do. But here’s the truth: I enjoyed every minute of the planning process, I enjoyed cooking, I enjoyed serving our friends, I enjoyed eating my own food, and right now I am enjoying thinking back on the whole thing.
I tested and improved my cooking and baking skills. I had food left over for later. I didn’t waste money on expensive convenience foods I could make myself. I served fresh food instead of processed junk. I gave people I love a good meal.
There was nothing pointless about it.
Pulled pork sandwiches, slaw and chocolate cake really are visionary. You think I’m crazy, you come over and we’ll talk about it over some cake.