Smoked “Pulled Pork” Meatballs
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall, a.k.a. The Bacon Maven
Weeks of seeming un-ending sub-zero temps, the “Polar Vortex,” and a February that is still light years from spring, you get a little cabin crazy. Not only does that mean I’m darn tired of pulling on 82 articles of clothing to walk the dogs, I’m craving anything that reminds me of sunshine and warmer months. Most recently, that craving involved pulled pork.
I thought hard about hitting up the butcher for a Boston butt, but one glance at the temp forecasted for the weekend told me it was probably never going to cook correctly. Heck, my butts take 12 to 15 hours during good weather; I figured with daytime highs running around 12 degrees, a butt would be cooking for a week. Still, I didn’t want to give up something porky and barbecue, so here’s what I came up with instead:
The Bacon Maven’s Smoked “Pulled Pork” Meatballs
2½ pounds ground pork
1 cup finely diced onions
1 cup finely diced celery hearts
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
2 cups garlic seasoned breadcrumbs (homemade, if possible, described below)
Generous sprinkling of salt
Your favorite barbecue sauce
Disposable aluminum cooking pan, about 6×9
Since my pulled pork isn’t an ingredient-intensive endeavor, beyond a brining and a good dry rub and/or sauce, I decided to go the same route with the meatballs. What I really wanted was a succulent, flavorful meatball that let the sauce shine through, without any herbiness I’d normally put in a meatball for, say, spaghetti or a soup.
Take your ground pork and let it come to room temperature in a large mixing bowl. While that’s happening, take any leftover half-loaves of hearty bread you may have, break them into pieces, and scatter them on a large jellyroll tray or cookie sheet. I used a half-loaf of sourdough bread tucked in the back of my fridge and a half-loaf of soft Italian bread I had hanging around after another dish, but you can use whatever you like (I think a rye loaf with caraway would be good, since caraway goes so well with pork, but I didn’t have one on hand). Sprinkle the bread chunks with a little garlic salt. Pop the tray in a 350-degree oven until the bread goldens up, about 25 minutes or so. You can hit the tray briefly with a broiler if you really want to get it crunchy.
Once your bread pieces have become cool enough to handle—setting the tray on a counter trivet for a few minutes will do—dump them into a food processor and pulse until you have a uniform crumb. You can also add in a little more garlic powder if you like, while you’re pulsing.
Add your newly made breadcrumbs (or store-bought), the crushed garlic, chopped onions and celery hearts, and a good sprinkling of sugar to the room-temperature pork, mixing by hand until combined. Sure, I guess you could use a spatula or a wooden spoon, but I think you’ll get a better mix if you do this by hand.
Form your meatballs. I made mine fairly large, about half again as big as a golf ball. As I formed the meatballs, I laid them in the aluminum cooking tray, each touching the next to the side, but with a bit of a gap between one row and the next. I wanted the smoke to get to more than just the top surface of the meatballs and, if you pack them together too tightly, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Once my tray was filled, I turned to make my barbecue sauce. Now, I didn’t grow up in one of this country’s barbecue meccas—Nashville, Carolina, Kansas City—but I did spend some 25 years living in Virginia. It was there I learned about pulled pork as only the South can do it, and I fell in love. It was also there that I discovered that the reason I’d never even really cared for sauced barbecue (and I’m being specific here about sauced meats, as opposed to dry-rubbed smoked or grilled meats, which I love no matter what corner of the planet it comes from), because I’d never had Southern barbecue. It was those vinegary, red-pepper, and mustardy sauces of Virginia and the Carolinas my tongue yearned for, ever so much more than the sweet molasses, brown sugar and catsup sauces from Nashville and K.C., and that’s what I made that day.
I don’t really have a specific recipe for the sauce, because this is a kind of a dump-and-adjust thing for me. If I had to guess, I used about two cups of apple cider vinegar, a cup of catsup, a quarter-cup of brown sugar, little bit of salt, a heaping tablespoon of crushed garlic, and a generous tablespoon of red chili flakes. I bring the whole thing together in a small saucepan to bubbling, then run it in a blender until smooth.
I love my sauce and use it often, but barbecue sauces are like trucks—you either like your sauce sweet and sassy or vinegary and biting, and you’ll take your truck either Ford or Chevy, but you’ll rarely cross the line from one side to the other in either. So use whatever you prefer. Make it from scratch, buy it in a bottle, make it hot, make it mild, make it sweet, make it tangy. Whatever you decide to use, pour some of your sauce over the meatballs—do not drown your meatballs in the sauce.
Into the smoker my pan went. I used apple wood as the tinder, and set the smoker to 235 degrees, hotter than I’d normally run this, but with the outside temp closer to zero than even 32, I figured the smoker was going to have its work cut out for it. It did. I doused a second batch of smoke after the first 90 minutes, and the smoker was holding between 220 and 225 degrees. Because of the extreme cold, and because the smoker was struggling a bit, I let the meatballs go five hours. I figured that given the high fat content of the pork and the small saucing they meatballs had been bathed in, they weren’t going to dry out.
Smoking goes like that. You get a feel for your ingredients, your smoker, and how they work together. You have to also know that it’s perfectly acceptable to check your food for doneness. No, you don’t want to open your smoker door every 30 minutes, but, when you’re running something you know is going to be several hours—even something as chicken thighs and breasts take three hours; only fish generally takes a short time in a smoker—start checking every hour beginning at the last hour of your anticipated run. Take the meat out, shut the door to the smoker to keep the heat in, check your meat, and either bring it in the house or put it back in the smoker for another hour or three. Experiment and be patient (but don’t forget you’ve got something in your smoker!)
It was all I could do to resist scalding my tongue on a hot meatball, when I got the pan back in the kitchen. After five minutes I stuck a fork in one and cut it in half, finding the inside to be just a half-shade of pink, perfect. The outside of the meatballs had a beautiful, delicate smoky crust. That first bite was a delight, the smoke flavor subtle but all the way through. Same with the second bite. And the third, and fourth, and fifth, and sixth. In all, I polished off four large meatballs leaning over the pan, dipping the halves occasionally in a little extra barbecue sauce warming in a saucepan on the stove—and my cravings for summer Southern pulled pork were (almost) satisfied.