Monday, September 20, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021

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How a Seattle line cook found community during COVID-19 by creating a restaurant industry cookbook

The Columbian
Published:

SEATTLE — When Sarah Monson got laid off from her job as a cook at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she went home and kept on cooking. She and pretty much everyone she knows didn’t know what else to do — the Seattle restaurant industry is a tight-knit one, and her roommates were working in the kitchens of Westward, Salare and Ray’s Cafe. With six years’ experience locally, Monson herself had just started a new job at Maple Leaf butcher shop/restaurant The Shambles when the government-mandated dining-in shutdown was announced on March 16, 2020. No one saw it coming; the place was fully stocked, which was how Monson ended up suddenly unemployed with 10 pounds of pork shoulder.

Pork and cheap beer are two of Monson’s favorite things. When she got home, she decided to cook the former in the latter with limes, onions, lots of garlic and strong spices in plentiful quantity. The preparation involves a high-heat sear that might put fear into nonprofessional cooks’ hearts, sizzling like crazy and smelling like a limey-bright, porky, rich dream; then the meat braises for hours, the scent just getting better and better. One imagines Monson and her three housemates drinking a lot of Rainier in disbelief, then finally descending on their family-meal feast. The next day, feeling leftover, at least there were leftovers.

Monson wrote down her pork-braised-in-Rainier method in the little notebook she always carried at work, a practice she says pretty much every cook she knows follows. To keep it up during her downtime seemed important; she continued jotting down recipes as she and her housemates kept making each other food. “We were cooking a lot,” she says, “pretty much just to pass the time and kind of take our minds off of how uncertain and awful everything in the world was.”

As her Moleskine became a sort of COVID-times journal for her, Monson recalls, “It just kind of dawned on me to see if other cooks … were still cooking at home, and what kinds of things they were concocting during quarantine while we were all stuck.” She thought about the isolation of the situation, especially strange for those used to working in close quarters, in rushes and heat. It was beyond strange, she says, “to have all of your friends — who really feel like your family — lose their jobs at the same time, and feel like we’re going through this together, but we aren’t together.” She decided to reach out to some industry friends with the idea of making a zine-style pamphlet of recipes as “a way to bring the community together and make it feel as if we’re cooking together — even if we aren’t cooking together at the time.”

The response came quickly and in high volume as word spread, with handwritten recipes arriving in Monson’s inbox from more behind-the-scenes heroes of Seattle kitchens like her, from bartenders, from GMs and from a name or two that everybody knows. “The Cook Book: Seattle Restaurant Industry’s Guide to Quarantine Cooking” got put together so fast, DIY-style, that some of the dishes didn’t even have the creators’ names on them.

It sold out fast, too, so Monson decided to put together “The Cook Book: Vol. 2.” Some highlights from its pages: a tuna tartare from chef Liz Kenyon, for whom Monson now cooks in the kitchen of Ballard’s acclaimed Rupee Bar; Kayla von Michalofski’s potato salad from her Sandwich Sandwich pop-up (she’s also sous chef at Salare and Monson’s housemate); maritozzi two ways by Ben Campbell of Ben’s Bread; a soufflé from a place called Canlis; lime and hazelnut conchinitos by the pop-up Pancita; and “lots of fun others,” pop-up-wise, from the likes of Boot Scootin Bread, Mixtape Pasta, Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen and Fancy Screams. (Monson calls Seattle’s pop-up renaissance a bright spot in a dark year, noting, “With so many line cooks out of work, it was inspiring to watch my peers keep hustling and cooking and doing their thing.”)

Monson’s making a donation to Covid-19 Mutual Aid — Seattle, a grassroots volunteer collective running the COVID-19 Survival Fund for the People GoFundMe, for every copy of “The Cook Book: Vol. 2” sold. Copies may be ordered via Monson’s Instagram.

Sarah Monson’s Braised Pork Shoulder With Rainier and Charred Limes

(Editor’s note: Seattle line cook Sarah Monson included this recipe in her own tidy all-caps handwriting in the first volume of “The Cook Book: Seattle Restaurant Industry’s Guide to Quarantine Cooking.” We’ve halved it — the original called for 10 pounds of pork shoulder, “YIELD: A LOT” — and added some notes for the less professional cook.)

I’ve got an unequivocal love for two things: pork + cheap beer. This is the best of both worlds.

Yield: Plenty for 6-8 people

5 pounds pork shoulder

3 limes, cut in half

1 yellow onion, peeled and halved

2 garlic bulbs, papery outer layers discarded, ¼-inch cut off tops

1 tablespoon black peppercorn

1 tablespoon fennel seed

2 teaspoons whole allspice

1 bunch fresh thyme

Rainiers to cover (5-6 cans, plus more for drinking)

Kosher salt and black pepper

Canola, grapeseed or another high-heat oil

Cheesecloth and cotton twine to make a spice sachet

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

You’re going to want a big, heavy-bottomed pot for this. Use enough oil to cover the bottom and get your pot over high heat.

While you’re heating up, season your pork aggressively with salt and pepper.

Once your pot is ripping hot, sear your pork shoulder on all sides. Get it all golden-brown delicious and remove it from the pot.

Drop your heat to medium-high and place onions, limes and garlic bulbs cut-side-down in all the fat and porky goodness. Take your time with this, you’re looking for char.

When the onions, limes and garlic have gained enough color, put the pork back in the pot and cover with Rainier.

Make a sachet for your herbs and spices, toss it in the pot and cover with a lid.

Transfer the pot to your preheated oven and let it hang out for about 4 hours. It’s ready when you can shred it easily with a fork.

Serving suggestion: This makes for a killer pulled pork sandwich or tacos.

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