Anthony Bourdain often discusses the big what if. What would you eat as your last meal on Earth? Now I have lots of favorites, so narrowing it down to just one is damn near impossible. That being said, these carnitas would be on the table
I think my affection for authentic Mexican food comes from my childhood. As just a wee lad, my next door neighbor was Bea Avila. Picture the quintessential Mexican grandmother, that was Bea. I have these amazing memories of her homemade tortillas with PB&J. She would heat them up directly on the flame of her gas stove for me and her grandson. Now that I cook, I so wish that I could quiz her on all of her recipes.
Now my friend Kitty might not be a Mexican grandmother, but she sure as hell can cook like one. Way back in the day she blogged her carnita recipe here. I have used the first portion in taquitos/flautas before, but never finished the process to a little crispy pork taco until now.
I started with a whole pork shoulder/butt. Most will suggest a boneless shoulder but I don’t. In my opinion the bone adds lots of flavor to the stock. This was seasoned with a spice rub made from toasted New Mexico red chiles, ancho chiles, pepper, salt, cumin, and oregano. It is so important to first toast, and then grind your own chile powder. The flavor from store blends just will not ever be as good.
Now generously apply the spice rub. You could definitely do this in advance if you are thinking that far ahead.
Now get your pot ready. I just use a heavy stainless pot but a dutch oven would be even better. Cut some bacon into lardons and render out the fat on medium/low heat. Pull out the crispy bacon and reserve for later. Sear the pork shoulder in the bacon fat. Sear on all sides and don’t worry if it gets a little black in areas. A little char here is not a bad thing.
Remove the meat and then toss in a chopped sweet onion. Use the onion and a wooden spoon to knock loose the blackened bits on your pot. When the onion has lost much of it’s water and is taking on color, add in some chopped garlic. Then deglaze with about 3 cups of orange juice. I also added 2 cups of homemade chicken stock, some bay leaves, a stick of cinnamon, the bacon bits, lime peel, cumin, salt, and pepper. Because of the size of the pork shoulder and the size of my pot, that much liquid covered about 2/3 of the pork. Put this in a preheated oven at 225F and forget about it. Kitty does hers overnight, I let this go for almost 12 hours. About 8 hours I had a lid halfway covering the pot. Then I just took the lid off for the last few hours.
When you can reach in with your tongs and the thing just falls apart, it is done with the first stage.
Pull out the meat and let cool. Strain the braising liquid and put in the fridge. Do not defat the stock. We are going to save that bright orange layer of rendered pork fat for later.
During the 12-18 hours of slow braising, I decided to make a few salsas. First was a grilled tomatillo salsa verde that you can find here. Tacos Al Pastor
Next was a tomato salsa that I found at Homesick Texan. It is super easy and tastes amazing. Basically it is a can of whole plum tomatoes, sweet onion, serrano peppers, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, sugar, salt, and pepper. Oh and also some chile powder like we used on the pork shoulder. Don’t forget the chile powder. Buzz it up in the food processor until it looks something like this.
Are we there yet? Almost.
After all this hard work, I wasn’t going to just use any tortilla. So I made a batch from scratch using my brand new $15 tortilla press. The recipe is something like 2 cups masa harina (corn flour), 1 1/4 cups hot water, and some salt. Kneed into a ball and then divide into 16 equal parts. Roll the little pieces into balls and then press out between plastic in your press.
These are then cooked in a dry cast iron skillet for between 45-60 seconds per side. Just heat through until each side starts to feel dry. I would press one while cooking another and you can get through things fairly fast. Store your hot tortillas under a towel to keep them warm.
Now for the big finish. In a cast iron skillet, heat up some of that fat from the top of your reserved braising liquid. I spooned in some of the stock as well. Toss in some of the braised pork in chunks. The water will quickly cook out and then the fat will start to fry the pork. You want a mix of juicy moist meat and fried crunchy bits.
Spoon out some of this onto a hot tortilla. Top with some sweet onion and cilantro.
I made some with the salsa verde and some with the tomato salsa.
Wow is the first word that comes to mind after tasting. The addition of cinnamon was my idea and it comes through in the final product. Pork responds well to that mix of savory and sweet. You haven’t had a good taco until you have tried something like this.