I am embarrassed by how long it took me to discover carnitas, or “little meats” that are usually braised then roasted, and are as far I quickly became concerned, the very best thing to pile on a blistered corn tortilla. I had my first one just a couple years ago. I was pregnant at the time and protein-rich foods were ten times as delicious as they normally were so when I became obsessed with having another, and then another, I chalked it up to baby madness. But that kid is now two, and my carnita fixation has gone nowhere. (And no, people, I’m not pregnant. In fact, I’m pouring whiskey into my coffee as we speak, just like I always do after preschool drop-offs.)
The only thing greater than my love for carnitas was my wonderment as to how they were made. I imagined that getting a flavor so complex, and a texture so nuanced — somehow fork tender in the center and caramelized to a crunch at the edges — was best left to the experts, and so I continued to pay a tremendous markup in a city not known for excellence-on-a-taco because I knew I’d never pull it off as well at home. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned that one of the most famous recipes for carnitas has but three ingredients: pork, water and salt. Three! I still can’t get over it. I tell people about this all of the time — vegetarians, even, who nod politely; my husband, who thinks it’s cool, but perhaps a little less than I do; this old lady on the crosstown bus who heard me talking about them on the phone… But wait, there’s more: not only do you only need three ingredients to make carnitas, the cooking technique is kind of brilliant. The meat braises in the water and salt (this is the tenderizing part) for a few hours and then, once the water cooks off, it fries itself in its own rendered fat (thus creating those addictive crisp ends). Did you just get hungry too?
This isn’t to say that you can’t add more ingredients to the pot. In her first book, Lisa Fain who you may know from her blog Homesick Texan, cooks her carnitas in a little salt and fresh-squeezed lime and orange juices (i.e. it takes a margarita bath; I’m only a little jealous) plus some cumin and garlic, thus so do I as I defer to her on all matters Tex-Mex. The flavors are gentle enough that they don’t overwhelm the pork, but amazing enough that you’ll probably be fishing “tasters” out of the pot long before you share them with others.
The book, by the way, is fantastic. The day I got it, I stopped what I was doing (likely, chasing Jacob around the apartment with a comb in a feeble attempt to “civilize” his mop) and read the whole book, cover to cover and was overwhelmed with a desire to book a flight to Texas. If you wept when Friday Night Lights ended, this is your book. If you you were hoping to get your Tex-Mex cookery to the next level, this is your book. If you need another slaw recipe (and you know, I always do) there’s a fine one with a jalapeno buttermilk dressing within that we pretty much inhaled with our carnitas. And if you were looking for a great way to spend the afternoon of a Friday half day at work, buy some beers, make this soup, this pudding and these carnitas and invite your friends over. I can think of no finer way to usher in the weekend.
One year ago: Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese, Buckeyes and Spaghetti with Chickpeas
Two years ago: Baked Chicken Meatballs and Salted Brown Butter Crispy Treats
Three years ago: Peanut Butter Crispy Treats, Spaghetti with Swiss Chard and Garlic Chips and Pepita Brittle and Cottage Cheese Pancakes
Four years ago: Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup, Cranberry, Caramel and Almond Tart and Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic
Five years ago: Easiest Baked Mac-and-Cheese, Bretzel Rolls and Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes
Homesick Texan Carnitas
Adapted, just barely, from The Homesick Texan Cookbook
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder or pork butt, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2 to 3 limes)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
Place the pork in a large Dutch oven or heavy pot. Add the orange juice, lime juice, garlic, cumin, salt and enough water to just barely cover the meat. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer uncovered for two hours. Don’t touch the meat.
After two hours, increase the heat to medium-high and while occasionally stirring and turning the pieces, continue to cook for about 45 minutes, or until all of the liquid has evaporated, leaving only the rendered pork fat. Let it sizzle in this fat long enough to brown at the edges, turning pieces gently (they’ll be eager to fall apart), only as needed.
When pork has browned on both sides, it’s ready. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve on warmed tortillas with fixings.