The Super Bowl, to be played tonight with the Seattle Seahawks facing the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium, is for all intents and purposes a national holiday.
The roads grow quiet as kickoff approaches. Work is not a subject of discussion. We gather as friends and family in the presence of our hearthlike big-screen televisions — more than 100 million of us last year, according to the Nielsen ratings — and we eat and drink, cheer and despair against a backdrop of beauty and violence combined. Look at that play! Look at that commercial! On Super Bowl Sunday, as on Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, we celebrate America itself.
But why must the food be so bad? As a nation we have conquered other holidays with succulent turkeys and briskets moist from Grandmother’s oven, great barbecue and piles of cookies. We cook paschal lambs and New Year’s beans.
The Super Bowl has inspired no such excellence. Instead, the holiday menu generally runs to frozen pizzas, buckets of wan delivery chicken, supermarket guacamole, cans of cheese dip and stale ranch-flavored chips. Surrounded by commercials, we eat commercially, and suffer for it. (Cue the antacid ad.)
Poor us. For those interested in true celebration, far more delicious possibilities abound. The Super Bowl is many things, but perhaps it is above all a chance to serve excellent food to excellent people, to have them eat it in the living room on plates on their laps, and to gain from their expressions the understanding that good food makes all of our experiences better, even the loss of a championship game.
So if you must have nachos (for this is a football-game feast and your faith may require them), why not make good ones, with a shredded pile of Mexican-inflected pork shoulder, plenty of toppings and a snowfall of lime-scented sour cream? It takes time to prepare, but not so much that it would interfere with the ritual of watching the pregame shows or playing catch in the yard. Most of the cooking is unattended slow-roasting, allowing the low heat of an oven to collapse the cumin- and coriander-dusted pork into a soft pile of luscious meat.
Shred this or chop it up roughly with some of the barky skin from the shoulder and moisten it with lime juice and some of the fat from the roasting pan. Layer that over the best tortilla chips you can secure and dot the landscape with sour cream and flurries of grated cheese, discs of radish, sprinklings of scallion and leaves of cilantro. Add more chips, more meat, more cheese and, if you like, run the platter under the broiler to get everything melty. Serve with hot sauce, chopped jalapeos, more of the scallions and cilantro. Watch it disappear.
And those vegetable spears? Some will scoff. For them, vegetables have no part in a Super Bowl celebration. But they can have the effect of drafting a ballet dancer to be a place-kicker and watching him hit from 53 yards out. Their crispness is refreshing.
Finally, you could fry chicken in the early afternoon and serve it at room temperature at halftime, with copious amounts of hot sauce to counter the sweet-saltiness of the meat. John Currence, the chef and football fanatic from Oxford, Miss., by way of New Orleans, introduced me to the joys of brining the chicken in a thyme- and garlic-scented mixture of Coca-Cola that not only infuses the meat with moisture but also slightly tenderizes it as well.
“Just you wait, brother,” he wrote me when I first started messing around with it. “Just you wait.” I ate the first piece hot from the pan, and there was some question as to whether any would remain by the time guests arrived to sample it.
GAME DAY NACHOS
Time: 5 to 7 hours, largely unattended
Yield: 10 to 12 servings or more
For the pork:
1 bone-in pork shoulder, butt or picnic ham, 7 to 10 pounds
Juice of 1 orange
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
To assemble the nachos:
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lime
1 cup sour cream
4 to 5 cups (about 12 ounces) unsalted tortilla chips
4 radishes, thinly sliced
1 cup (about 6 ounces) shredded cheddar
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
1 cup sliced scallions
Hot sauce to taste
Place the pork in a large shallow bowl and pour the orange and lime juice over it, then turn the pork to coat. In a small bowl, mix the salt, cumin, coriander, brown sugar, black pepper and garlic.
Discard excess juice from the bowl containing the pork, then rub the pork all over with the spice mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to cook, or overnight.
Heat oven to 300. Remove pork from refrigerator, discard any juices and place in the bottom of a roasting pan. Cook for 5 to 7 hours, or until pork yields easily to the tines of a fork. Allow meat to rest for up to an hour.
When ready to serve, put pork onto a cutting board, reserving the pan juices and fat.
Using two forks, shred the meat off the bone, chopping it up if desired. Place into a large bowl and moisten with some of the reserved pan juices.
Dice as much of the skin as you desire and add it to the meat, mixing to combine. Cover and keep in a warm oven until ready to use.
To assemble the nachos, mix the lime zest and remaining juice into the sour cream in a small bowl, then refrigerate until needed. On a large platter, spread half the tortilla chips and cover with a layer of about half the meat. Sprinkle with half the sliced radishes and a third of the grated cheese. Repeat with another layer of chips, meat, radishes and cheese, then top with the sour cream, scallions, cilantro leaves and any remaining cheese. Serve with hot sauce.
COKE-BRINED FRIED CHICKEN
Time: 1 hour, plus 3 to 5 hours brining
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the brine:
5 cups Coca-Cola
1 tablespoon kosher salt
10 sprigs fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
4 teaspoons mild hot sauce like Crystal, Texas Pete or Cholula
8 to 12 chicken thighs, preferably free-range, organic
For the seasoned flour:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the frying:
3 cups peanut oil
1 cup lard, optional, or
replace with peanut oil
Hot sauce, for serving
Make the brine: Combine cola, salt, thyme, garlic and hot sauce in a large metal bowl and stir until the salt has dissolved. Add the chicken thighs, cover and refrigerate 3 to 5 hours.
Make the seasoned flour: In a wide, shallow bowl or pan, combine the flour, salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put the peanut oil into a large heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until it reaches 375 degrees on a candy thermometer. While the oil heats, remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry.
Dredge the thighs in the flour and shake to remove excess.
Working in batches of 2 or 3 at a time, carefully lower thighs into the hot oil. The oil temperature will plummet when the cold chicken goes into the pan; turn up the heat and carefully monitor the temperature.
Cook for a little more than 3 minutes on one side, a little more than 3 minutes on the other, and then a final 3 minutes on the first side. Remove to a wire rack or paper towel to drain.
The juices should run clear when the chicken is poked with a knife.
If necessary, transfer the browned chicken to a baking sheet and bake until the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Serve hot or at room temperature with hot sauce.