Carnitas.

July 12, 2010

So, gentle reader.  You will recall that I, at one point, possessed sixteen pounds of pork shoulder.  This was prior to the three-day power outage that ended on June the 21st, which I like to call The Great Thaw; it forced me to cook everything in my fridge.  By the time power had resumed, I had plenty of leftovers to keep cool, which was just as well.

But (you are probably slavering in desperate anticipation to know), what was it that I cooked?

Well, it’s in the title.  Carnitas.  Ay, gentle friends, it was that noble reconfiguration of pork shoulder, from raw hunks of flesh to sweet, crisp, cooked hunks of flesh – or, if you prefer, sweet, crisp, cooked stringy gnarls of flesh-fiber.

No, wait, that sounds hideous.

Let me start over.  Carnitas are delicious, dear reader.  Delicious enough that I could stand to eat them for lunch and dinner for about a week after The Great Thaw.  You know what, I’ll just shut up and show you the pretty picture, to get you to keep wanting to read:

See?  Now does it sound gross?

Now, this recipe comes from the estimable Lisa, the Homesick Texan, but she gets it from Diana Kennedy, the grande dame of Mexican cookery (she’s English.  No, I know.).  Kennedy has long been a stickler for authenticity, but Lisa does say this isn’t a particularly Michoacan recipe, because it’s not cooked in lard, or at least not in enormous, bronze kettles full of lard.  Relative merits of lard against other fats aside, I tend to perceive any lack of enormous, messy cooking vessels full of hot fat as a bonus in my kitchen, because that business is messy, and I live alone and I haven’t the patience.

I should also like to mention that this recipe is absurdly simple.  Like, leave the room-and-take-a-nap simple.  You may not believe me as of this paragraph, but this recipe is so leave-it-alone idiot-proof EASY that I could pretty much do it in my sleep.

How easy is it?  I’ll show you.

The Set-Up

you will need:

  • a dutch oven or other 6-quart cooking vessel
  • 2-3 lbs of pork shoulder, cubed (or an equivalent weight of chicken thighs, boned and skinned, though not cubed)*
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup orange juice (I prefer mine pulpy and without added calcium.  That stuff tastes faintly chalky and after cooking with several varieties, I think an unadulterated, pulpy grovestand-style orange juice fits the bill for this recipe.)
  • 3 cups of water

And that’s it.  Any other amendments that you’d like to make (say, cumin, chile powder, coriander, whatever) are yours to choose.  It’s great as it is, but you can change it.  Go ‘head.  I trust you.

Now, on to making the damn thing.

The Heist

1. Place 6-quart dutch oven on stove.  Add pork, water, orange juice, and salt.  Stir gently, and place under medium-high heat.

It is perfectly acceptable to use meat straight from the freezer

2. Bring the pot to a boil, and then simmer uncovered for the next hour and a half to two hours, depending on how big your chunks of pork are.  If you’re using chicken, you can probably cut this time to about an hour and twenty minutes.  What you’re looking for is complete collagen breakdown; when fished out of the broth, a piece of meat should be extremely soft and tender.  The fat should have no bite to it whatsoever: it should be squishy.

You shouldn’t lose more than an inch or so of water.

It should go from this to this!

And don’t stir it.  Don’t do anything to the cookpot.  Just let it bubble quietly.

3. After the meat has reached the desired consistency, it’s time to get rid of all the liquid!  The pork cooks two ways in this carnitas recipe: it is first stewed, and in this stewing, some of the fat renders out.  Then, in the second stage of cooking, the carnitas crisp up in their own fat.  It’s sort of like an inverted braise.  In braising, you sear first, and then stew, like you would for a beef bourgignon or a goulash.

So.  Crank up the heat once again under the carnitas, and boil off all the liquid.  Or at least, begin to. You’re gonna want to let it go crazy for about thirty to forty-five minutes, but check on the levels from time to time.  Once the liquid has reduced by about three-quarters, bring the heat back to medium-low.

Note how opaque the liquid is.  See the following.

Once the liquid starts getting opaque, that’s when you want to start hovering over the pot, at medium-low heat, to watch and make sure you’re not burning anything.  That opacity quickly becomes clear, rendered fat.

IMG_8010

4. Once the water’s all gone, and the liquid fat has clarified, bring the heat as low as it goes.  Brown in fat by stirring very, very gently.  Now, you could go two ways here: you could leave the carnitas in chunks (the Texan way), or stir it ‘round the pot to get it into those wondrous, stringy fibers.

Important note: the following picture is only of a small sample, set aside to be stirred and stringified.  You lose a good amount of mass in the carnitas through cooking – they lose a good amount of water – but not as much as this picture would suggest.  (Thank you to Josh, for pointing out the visual discrepancy.)

much like that.

Serve on warm corn tortillas with guacamole, sour cream, mango salsa, and tons of fresh cilantro.  (Guacamole and mango salsa recipes forthcoming.)

It’s a beautiful thing.

* a note on fat: Pork shoulder is among the fattier cuts of pork commonly available to the home cook (though it’s got nothing on belly, which I haven’t even attempted to buy or cook yet), and you will find a great thick layer of fat, most times, on the underside of the roast, which is actually the skin-facing-side.  It’s about an inch or so of subdermal fat, and, in the context of this recipe, it is your friend.  When trimming the shoulder, reserve about a handful of small pieces of fat and throw them into the pot with the leaner tissue.  You need a little bit of pork fat for this dish to be successful, and that should just about do it.  Throw out or save the remaining fat, as is your wont.

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