01 June 2014

Jess Learns to Cook: #1 - Tomatillos, Buttermilk and Pork Butt

Welcome to my new blog series I'm calling "Jess Learns to Cook"! First, the story of what inspired the series. My friend Ally is pretty fantastic at all things domestic, and makes it seem so effortless. Enter heavenly cinnamon rolls. "The recipe is SO easy," she said. "Hmm..." I thought, "Ally's a liar. Either that or she's way too confident in my baking abilities. There's no way these are easy to make." Time passed and Ally and her husband decided to move all the way to Omaha where I can no longer relish in her baking skills.

One day when I could no longer handle the cinnamon roll famine I decided to look up the recipe, and of course I was right. The recipe was hard. During a park play date with my friend Meggan and her kids I was lamenting about the amazing cinnamon rolls and how the recipe had all these ingredients and techniques I had never ever used before. With a look of incredulity Meggan asked "Like what kind of ingredients?" I could see the wheels turning in her head as she reviewed the basics of cinnamon rolls, trying to figure out what about them could possibly have me stymied.

J: "Like...evaporated milk, and something else, and then I was supposed to burn something or something, I don't know, it was crazy!"

M: "Wait, you've never used evaporated milk?"

J: "What?! No! I don't even know what it looks like!" Meggan tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh.

J: "And "packets" of yeast! It said something about 2 packets of yeast! How much is in a packet?! That's not a standard measurement! I have a BAG of yeast!"

M: "A packet is something like 2 1/4 teaspoons I think." .....why does she know that?! Am I the only person who doesn't know that??

Anyway, from our conversation I became determined to figure out what all the fuss was about evaporated milk and whatever other apparently basic cooking things I've been unfamiliar with.

Really though, I do know how to cook, and I'm actually kind of great at it, but I cook with the same familiar ingredients and same few methods. So this is the beginning of my efforts to learn and branch out. This isn't going to be some pretentious, random, expensive ingredients kind of cooking series. I'm going to cook with "normal" things that I just don't have experience with, probably make a lot of ridiculous mistakes, and hopefully help the other secretly (or perhaps unaware) inexperienced cooks.

So for my first attempt at trying new things I decided to make sweet pork salad a la Costa Vida. The cinnamon rolls still have me pretty intimidated so maybe another time. Daniel LOVES Costa Vida. Well, he loves the OTHER Costa-Vida-like restaurant but there is some bad blood between that restaurant and I, so like the great husband he is he indulges my stubborn insistence that we not give them our way too frequent business. Anyway...

Pork Butt
I found a recipe I liked for the sweet pulled pork and the first thing it said was "1 pork butt". I chuckled to myself because sometimes I have the humor of a third grader I thought it was a joke. A pork butt? That's not a thing. She must be trying to be funny. I may have never cooked any kind of pork (aside from bacon), but surely this cut of meat had a more technical name.

Anyway, off to the store I went with my shopping list with "Pork 'Butt'" written at the top. I got to the meat section and looked for anything that would mean the back end of a pig. I thought it's got to be called a "rump" or "flank" or something like that, right? Nope, it literally is called "Pork Butt". So I picked out my 3.5lb pork butt and added it to the cart. My other new ingredients were tomatillos and buttermilk for the tomatillo dressing. 

So we get home, I get my pork butt out of the packaging, into the crock pot and I've got this...

I look back at the recipe...I look back at the butt...I look back at the recipe looking for the word "string"...."net" maybe?....nothing? Really? My pork butt is wrapped in string and there's no mention of what to do about it? Well if there's no mention of it then I should just leave it, right? I immediately remember a writing exercise from middle school where the teacher had each of us write out how to make a PB&J, then in front of the class she followed each set of instructions exactly, making no assumptions of previous sandwich making procedures. It was a hilarious mess and a great object lesson about details in writing. Anyway, no mention of what to do about the string. 

Growing up I remember the string from the roast was coveted. When the roast was done everyone loved chewing the string...okay that actually sounds pretty gross but I promise it was tasty. So after thinking it all through I freed the pork butt from it's netted prison.

I found all the other recipes (cilantro lime rice, pico, tomatillo ranch dressing) HERE. The Tomatillo Ranch Dressing is so good, so I was really excited to learn to make our own. Having never used buttermilk in anything before I thought I should give it a taste (try everything once, right?). It tastes almost exactly like it's name, but with sour cream mixed in. Butter + milk + sour cream = pretty gross. I was using this in the dressing so there wasn't any cooking or anything other than mixing a bunch of things together, not much room for error.

I came really close to using tomatillos last summer because our friend/neighbor Tess let us have a bunch from her garden. For some reason though I didn't get around to it, so this was my first time. Now we're growing them in our own garden and they're doing pretty well so far. 

I always thought tomatillos were just a green tomato that came in a husk, but they kind of seem like an apple, tomato hybrid. All I had to do was take the husk off, then chop and blend the whole thing (plus other ingredients) in a blender, easy peasey.

I make salsa pretty frequently so making the pico was a piece of cake. It's really straight-forward, just chop and combine. My one tip is to make it the night before so everything can sit and soak together. I always make our salsa and let it sit in the fridge over night, the flavor is much better than eating it right after it's made.

I don't have a picture of the end result, too preoccupied with finally eating it I guess :) It looked just like the restaurant except we didn't have the strip tortilla chips. The end result was fantastic but my final verdict is...worth it to try once, probably won't do the whole thing again. I'll probably make the dressing and pico quite a bit this summer, I'll for sure make pulled pork again, but making the whole thing takes too much time and cost to make it worth it. I'd rather just let Costa Vida keep making my sweet pork salad :)

So there it is :) My first efforts in trying brand new things went pretty well and, other than the pork, nothing had me too stressed out :)


  1. Oh, you're cracking me up with the pork butt! Can't believe you remember the PB&J lesson!! ;-)

  2. Will you be sharing the recipes that you try here?? Would love to expand my knowledge as well...way to go Jess.