Carnitas Tacos – with a Trio of Dried Chilis

Carnitas

Carnitas Tacos

Years ago, a friend walked into my office at lunchtime and promised to take me to the world’s best carnitas. “The best?  Really?” (Now who could  argue with that offer?)

So, off we went, to a tired neighborhood and a sad strip of store-fronts. You couldn’t help but notice the peeling paint and tattered signs, covered with dust from the hot dry summer. Never one to be dissuaded by packaging when it comes to food, I hopped out and made my way indoors.

The scent of smoke, roasting meats and chilis immediately enveloped me like a soft tortilla.  A man slid a paper plate with carnitas across the counter as he chatted with my colleague in Spanish. Just a few bites and I knew the carnitas were as good as my friend claimed and I had hoped.  Moist, tender chunks and shreds of pork fell apart in my mouth – with the occasional crunch of caramelized flavor.  It is not surprising that this “Mexican” food memory stayed with me for decades – even though I was well north of the border near San Francisco.

Since then, I’ve had carnitas more times than I care to admit – with many return trips to the California store-front and a number of visits to Mexico. And perhaps the best I had in Mexico (in Oaxaca) were just as good, but I’m not convinced they were better. So, the store-front version is what I’ve strived for ever since – experimenting with different methods and always working toward that magical recipe.  Years and many plates of carnitas later, I’m happy to report that the keys to success are a traditional two-step cooking method (slow moist heat followed by browning) and a trio of dried chilis.

Oaxaca Mexico - Home to Tasty Carnitas and Beautiful Coastline

Oaxaca, Mexico

  • COOKING TIPS AND TOOLS:  MOIST-HEAT COOKING -WITH AND WITHOUT  BROWNING 

A slow moist-heat cooking method uses low temperatures and simmers (immersed) or braises (partial liquid) food. This means there is no browning, and, therefore, there is less flavor and color (Method #1 below).   To fix this problem, you can use a two-step process, brown first and then use slow, moist-heat (Method #2 below).  This works great for beef stew, where the meat is browned first at a high temperature and then slow-cooked with moisture for tenderness.  Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work for carnitas where you not only want flavor and color from browning but a mix of textures in the final product.   To address this problem, simply reverse the two-step process – slow-cook first and brown second (Method #3 below).  The slow moist-heat cooking tenderizes meat and saturates flavors, while the second step generates color, additional flavor and texture. 

 Method Mechanism Pros Cons
1) Slow moist-heat cooking (no browning). Slow cooking breaks down muscle and collagen for very tender meat. Liquid retains moisture. Meat is very tender. None of the  color, texture and flavor from browning.
2) Two-step cooking: brown at high temperature first and then slow moist-heat. Searing at high temperature browns meat surfaces (caramelizing and Maillard reactions). Slow cooking breaks down muscle and collagen for very tender meat. Initial browning adds flavor and color. Liquid retains moisture. Meat is very tender. No crispy texture from browning since the liquid in step two softens the meat.
3) Two-step cooking: slow-cook with moist heat and then fry/roast at  high temperature. Slow cooking in the first step breaks down muscle and collagen for very tender meat.  Subsequent frying or oven roasting browns  meat surfaces (caramelizing and Maillard reactions). Liquid and low temperatures in step one retain moisture. Meat is very tender. Browning by roasting (where meat bastes in its own fat) or frying adds a unique mix of aromatic flavors and a mix of textures. More work, but necessary for good carnitas and well worth the trouble!

Now that we have the cooking method selected (Method #3 above), we just need to finalize ingredients.  Nearly any carnitas recipe will include onion, garlic, orange (or lime) and a mix of cumin and coriander.   I also like a bit of oregano and allspice.  But most, important, is the choice of chilis.

Here is where I relied on a bit of help my Mexican-American friends – notably my friend Gloria, who could write an encyclopedia on what she knows about Mexican food.  Her expert opinion said not one, not two, but a mix of three varieties of dried chills work best.  Since I always use New Mexico to start, I took her advice and added her choices of pasilla and guajillo to the mix. Gloria was absolutely right. It was a perfect blend!  If I didn’t know better, I might have been back in that tired little California storefront…

Carnitas

Carnitas – Ready for Tacos

Carnitas Tacos
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Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC

2 chilis, dried, New Mexico, split, seeds and stem removed
2 chilis, dried, Pasillo, split, seeds and stem removed
4 chilis, dried, Guajillo, split, seeds and stem removed
4-5 lbs. pork shoulder, with bone (AKA Boston butt, pork butt)
1 quart stock, chicken or pork 
1 quart water (more if needed to cover meat)
1 onion, large, chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 orange, naval, quartered, unpeeled
1 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon allspice
corn tortillas
tomatoes, chopped
lettuce , chopped
sour cream, to serve on the side
salsa, to serve on the side

1. Cut stems off the dried chilis. Carefully split the edges of the chilis and tear open.  Tap to remove and discard the seeds.  Toss chilis into a heavy dry fry pan and heat to medium.   When you begin to smell the chili aromas, you will know they are heating.  Cook until they darken and soften, turning with tongs to avoid scorching.

Remove from fry pan to a heat-proof bowl and cover chilis with boiling water.  Soak for at least 45 minutes while you begin the pork preparation.

New Mexico, Pasilla and Guajilla Dried Peppers

New Mexico, Pasilla and Guajilla Dried Chilis Toasting in a Hot, Dry Frying Pan

2. Trim excess fat off the pork exterior and cut meat into 2-inch chunks (they do not need to be perfect shapes).  Reserve the bone.

Add pork chunks and bone to a stock pot containing 1 quart each stock and water.  Add additional water if needed to cover the surface of the pork.

Bring to a boil.  Skim and discard any of the foam that forms on the surface.

Add onion, garlic, orange quarters, salt and spices.   Return to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.

Trimmed and Cubed Pork Shoulder

Trimmed and Cubed (2″ Pieces) Pork Shoulder

Pork with Seasonings Simmering on Stovetop

Pork and Seasonings Slow-Cooking on the Stovetop

3. Remove your chili peppers from the soaking liquid with a slotted spoon (reserve liquid).  Add chili’s to a blender with enough soaking liquid to get a smooth puree.  Add to pork stockpot.

Taste the remaining chili soaking liquid.  If it is not bitter/burnt (meaning you took your chili’s off the stove in plenty of time), add to the stockpot.

Now that your pork mixture is complete, cook at a simmer for about 1 and 1/2 hours while you enjoy the scent of the spices/orange.

4. Preheat oven to 350 deg F.

Remove pork from heat.   Transfer to a large baking or roasting pan (such as a deep lasagna pan or shallow roasting pan).    I transfer the large chunks of pork first with a slotted spoon and then pour the remaining liquid and ingredients over to avoid splattering. Pork chunks should be about 1/2 to 1/3 exposed above the liquid.  If not, remove some liquid and set aside should you need it later.

Roast UNCOVERED for about 1 and 1/2 hours.  Check every half hour to see if the pork above the surface of the liquid has started to brown.  When it does, turn the meat.  Do not let the pan evaporate to dryness.   Add reserved liquid or water if sauce in the roasting pan is getting too thick and dry (I did not find this necessary).

After 1 and 1/2 hours, test pork for doneness by removing a chunk and pressing with a fork.  The meat should collapse under the fork pressure.  If not, return to the oven for another 1/2 hour (or more if necessary).

Pork and Simmering Liquid Ready for Oven Roasting

Pork and Simmering Liquid Ready for Oven Roasting

Browned Pork after Oven Roasting

Browned and Crisped Pork after Oven Roasting

Pork Tender Enough to Collapse under Gentle Pressure

Finished Pork – Tender Enough to Collapse under Gentle Pressure

5. Remove pan from oven and let cool until the pork can be handled safely.  Either tear pork with your fingers or mash with a fork.  You may find it easier to remove pork to a cutting board for this task and then return to the sauce.

Once pork is shredded, your caritas are ready to serve.

6. Toast corn tortillas on a grill or low gas burner.  Using tongs, flip the tortillas as they soften and begin to char slightly. (A microwave will do, but, for full flavor, they are best heated over a low flame.)

Fill tortillas with warm carnitas.  Garnish with chopped tomatoes and lettuce.  Serve with sides of sour cream and salsa.

Warming Tortillas on a Gas Burner

Warming  Corn Tortillas on a Gas Burner

7. DO-AHEAD INSTRUCTIONS:   Carnitas make a great do-ahead meal.  Prepare carnitas through step #5.   Refrigerate or freeze.  

At service time, reheat, covered, in a conventional oven.

For an easy DO-AHEAD main course for a casual party, prepare and refrigerate bowls of toppings (salsa, sour cream, lettuce, pickled red onions, etc.).  Before guests arrive, reheat carnitas and set out toppings.  Then watch your guests have fun grilling/toasting the tortillas and creating their own carnitas tacos. Round the meal out with rice and beans.

Huatulco Native

Oaxaca, Mexico – A local resident, probably on the lookout for some carnitas…

Rural England at its Best – Including a Shepherd’s Pie

Worcestershire from The Malverns (AKA The Shire)

Worcestershire (AKA The Shire) from the Malvern Hills

When I lived in England, my American friends often inquired about our home across the pond.  My response was that “I live in the Shire” – J.R.R. Tolkien’s magical green land, bordered by rivers and fertile valleys.  The statement, inspired by my mental image of the land of the Hobbits, was in fact remarkably close to the truth.  I later discovered that Tolkien modeled his Shire after rural Worcestershire, where he spent his childhood and where I lived more than a century later.

Mr. Tolkien, you were so right – it was and still is a lovely green land. Continue reading

Live Well, Live Like a Dog

Splash and I, Skiddaw Summit, Peak District, England

Splash and Me – Skiddaw Summit – Peak District, Cumbria, England

Life lessons from a dog, you wonder??  Yes, absolutely.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Take satisfaction in a job well done, and make work fun.

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Easy Outdoor Party with Seasonal Produce (Part 3 of 3)

Summer Berries

Summer Berries

What could be a better finish to our seasonal party than a shortcake with peak-of-season local berries?   Since our party was in June, strawberries were just the ticket. It is August now and, at least here in Michigan, local strawberries have moved over to make room for our luscious blueberries and blackberries.  No worries.  You can use any seasonal berry or mix of berries in this easy dessert.

There are a number of reasons why this dessert is so easy for a party menu: Continue reading

Easy Outdoor Party with Seasonal Produce (Part 2 of 3)

Sangrias at the Drinks Table

Sangrias at the Drinks Table

This summer party was a group effort – a beautiful backyard provided by our hosts, menu by A Global Garnish and food/drink contributions from all attendees.  Don’t confuse this group effort with a potluck, which has the emphasis on luck.  If you’re lucky, a potluck party will have a good distribution of appetizers, main dishes and desserts as well as a mix of ingredients/flavors.  But why leave all this to chance??  If you give out menu assignments, you KNOW the final meal will all come together.  Further, you save your guests the trouble of wondering:  “what should I make?”. Continue reading

Easy Outdoor Party With Seasonal Produce (Part 1 of 3)

Israeli Couscous with Sweet Red Peppers and Asparagus

Israeli Couscous with Sweet Red Peppers and Asparagus

Summer solstice – time to enjoy the glorious evening daylight, the early summer climate, lush gardens and early seasonal produce. Could there be a better time for an outdoor party?  My clever friends thought not. Continue reading

Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons, Olives and Artichokes

Chicken with Preserved Lemons, Olives and Artichokes

Chicken with Preserved Lemons, Olives and Artichokes

Memories can be tricky.   My sister and I recently compared childhood memories only to find that, while some matched, many did not and a few were completely contradictory.  So, when I returned to Morocco after a 40-year hiatus, I feared the food would not live up to my seemingly indelible memories of magical scents and flavors. I was wrong.  It was better. Continue reading

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Mojito Ingredients

Mojito Ingredients

My Mojito in La Bodeguita, My Daiquiri in El Floridita.” … Ernest Hemingway.

La Bodeguita and El Floridita were favorite Ernest Hemingway haunts in Havana.  If you’ve read anything by or about Hemingway, you won’t be surprised that he lingered as regularly as possible in the proximity of his favorite drinks. La Bodeguita was his place for Mojitos. Continue reading

Cuban-Style Citrus – Mojo and Mojito (Part 1 of 2)

Historic Ybor City

Ybor City – Historic Cuban-American Neighborhood

Perhaps because it is so difficult for Americans to go there, I am fascinated by Cuba –with its rich history and culture.  To gain access, Americans must get a license from the U.S. Treasury Department, and that license requires a specific purpose (e.g., journalism, charitable work, government business, etc).   I haven’t applied for a license since I don’t think writing a food blog would qualify :-) Continue reading

30 Years of Ukrainian Egg Parties – Painted Eggs, Party Menu and Paskha

Pysanky -  Artwork by Nanci Yermakoff

Pysanky – Watercolor by My Sister, Nanci Yermakoff, 2000.

Countries steeped in Eastern Orthodoxy celebrate Easter with glorious painted eggs and a traditional Easter buffet feast.

The eggs (pysanky) are quite an art form.  The style of egg-painting is different in each country (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus et. al.), but perhaps the most beautiful are the Ukrainian batik (wax-resist dyed) eggs. Continue reading