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It's a long way from beggars' purses, salmon mousse and mini-quiches to barbecue pulled pork, but Drew Dolan, chef and proprietor of North Fork Catering has the skill to make that culinary leap. For several years, Dolan has been preparing food for weddings, showers and other celebrations out of his well-equipped catering facility at South Third and Orange streets in Missoula. But in the past few months he's shifted gears to a true American food, barbecue.

Born in Minnesota, Dolan grew up in a family that loved food and cooking. He started trying his hand in the kitchen during high school and found it satisfying on many levels, but he didn't think then of pursuing cooking as a career. In 1997, he moved to Missoula to attend the University of Montana, graduating with a degree in business. With his diploma in hand, he decided he really did want to find a career in cooking and enrolled in the College of Technology for a few semesters.

Dolan's sister, a chef in San Francisco, convinced him to come out for more training, and over a two-year period, Dolan worked as a caterer in Emeryville, right next-door to Berkeley, and as a cook at La Folie, a San Francisco restaurant. Three years ago, when Dolan returned to Missoula, he set up his catering business.

Catering is a complex affair for many reasons. The food must be prepared in a kitchen approved by the health department, and it must be transported in containers that can maintain safe temperatures for each food. The caterer often provides serving dishes and utensils and is usually responsible for cleaning up after the event.

Barbecue is a lot simpler and less stressful than catering. There's one kind of food, in Dolan's case it's pork shoulder; one major piece of equipment, the smoker; and one continuous method of cooking, shredding and cooling the meat. Dolan uses his catering facility to be in compliance with the local health department regulations.

True barbecue means cooking meat for a long time over low heat. Dolan uses a classic cut, pork shoulder. This part of the pig is fatty, and after 12 hours or so at a temperature between 225 and 250 degrees in the smoker, it becomes succulent and begins falling apart. The temperature of the cooked pork should ideally be 195 degrees. A key step in barbecuing is flavoring the meat with a dry rub - a mixture of spices - the night before and refrigerating it. Dolan does this on Wednesday so the pork will be ready for the smoker the next morning.

Dolan's smoker is a dandy - a commercial rig made from a 500-gallon propane tank with doors on both sides. Up to 250 pounds of meat sits on a shelf in the tank, and heavy-duty foil below collects the flavorful drippings and fat. Two temperature gauges let him monitor the heat, which he controls with fuel (apple wood and/or cherry wood) and by manipulating various dampers and flues.

When Dolan first fires up the smoker, named Porky's Peril from a contest he held, he gets the temperature to around 500 degrees to clean the inside of the tank. After an hour or so, he opens the tank doors to get the temperature down to around 300 degrees. At this point, he loads the cold hunks of rubbed pork shoulder onto the shelf, closes the tank doors, and keeps a close watch over the next 12 hours to see that the temperature stays within the 225- to 250-degree range.

When fully cooked, Dolan sheathes his hands with a triple layer of latex gloves and transfers the hot pork to hotel pans, large rectangular stainless steel tubs. Along with three or four helpers, they pull off all the fat and shred the meat by hand as fast as they can into clean hotel pans set into ice baths. The object is to cool the pulled pork as soon as possible to refrigerator temperature. The juices and some of the fat rendered during barbecuing are added back to the pork for moistness and flavor. The cooled pans of meat are covered tightly and placed into a large commercial refrigerator to chill overnight.

The next day, Friday, Dolan bags the shredded pork into portions of various weights and prepares three different sauces for his barbecue: North Carolina Cider Vinegar Sauce, South Carolina Mustard Sauce, and a tomato-based Kansas City Sweet and Smoky Sauce. He sells the pork for $10 a pound and these sauces for $3 a pint at his Orange Street catering facility on Friday afternoons. On Saturdays, he sets up shop at the Clark Fork River Market.

Barbecue pork makes great sandwiches. Simply reheat the pork in a skillet with a little barbecue sauce of your choosing, grill or toast split hamburger buns, and fill the buns with barbecue. One pound of barbecue will make four to six servings. Cole slaw is the perfect side dish.

When I ask Dolan why, not being a Southerner, he has such a deep understanding and love of barbecue, he reflects for a moment and then says, "Barbecue is a food from the people, by the people and for the people. It's almost a constitutional right." "Besides," he adds, "It's just plain fun!"

Buying Drew Dolan's barbecue pork and sauces

On Fridays, Drew sells his pork and sauces from 2 to 6 p.m. from his catering kitchen in the basement at the northwest corner of South Third and Orange streets. There's a parking lot, and you can enter the kitchen by walking down the ramp at the side of the building. On Saturdays, you'll find Drew and his pork at the Clark Fork River Market between 8 a.m. and noon. The fully cooked pork sells for $10 a pound and the sauces are $3 a pint.

About this series

On the first Wednesday of each month, Greg Patent profiles western Montana chefs in the Missoulian Foods section. What motivates chefs as they create their signature dishes? And how is local food incorporated into their menus? We'll take you into the kitchen for answers.

Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and missoula.com magazine. He also co-hosts a weekly show about food with Jon Jackson on KUFM Sundays at 11:10 a.m. His new cookbook, "A Baker's Odyssey," has been nominated for a 2008 James Beard Award. Visit Greg's Web site at www.gregpatent.com. You can write him at chefguymt@gregpatent.com.

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