In true Elizabeth fashion, I have managed to let one ingredient inspire a whole meal. After receiving the amazing gift of giant, ripe avocados the day before Cinco de Mayo (see A Guacamole Tree and an Avocado Table) I decided that I had to come up with some other things to make that would go with them. When I went to the grocery store – my favorite place in the world – I had no idea what I was going to come home with, but managed to become inspired by the time I left. They had some lovely pork shoulder, which the butcher kindly cut in half so that I could take home a smaller piece. I figured that if I cut it into pieces I could manage to roast it in a relatively short time frame and have it ready for a much deserved Sunday supper of Pork Carnitas.
I ended up shredding the tender, roasted pork to make tacos served with pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, and an avocado crema with roasted poblano and jalapeno peppers. They were delicious, if I do say so myself. For some reason I am always surprised about how filling tacos are – they’re a fantastic meal that sticks to your ribs. Of course, the tortillas have something to do with that. I tend to prefer flour over corn simply because they are more pliable and easier to stuff and eat. Corn tortillas, though more authentic, tend to break when bent, and then the whole thing falls apart. Sort of defeats the purpose!
I briefly looked through a couple of recipes for carnitas on my phone while I was strolling through the store and eventually settled on the simplest. Ironically, it’s probably the most authentic in terms of flavor. When I’m looking for recipes for ethnic food I tend to pay attention to the ones that are simplest. For some reason, they always tend to taste more like the “real thing” than recipes that use a laundry list of ingredients. The reality is that though certain exotic ingredients and spices that are associated with a culture’s food, it doesn’t mean that you should use them in every dish. When I was living in Northern Kentucky in high school we used to go to this incredibly delicious Mexican restaurant named Montoya’s. It was owned by this woman named Socorro who was a fantastic cook. Her food was not fussy, super spicy, and made with tons and tons of ingredients. She just made simple, traditional dishes that you might find in any Mexican home. It was at Montoya’s that I learned to love the tender pieces of pork shoulder called carnitas.
Following in the tradition of Socorro and Montoya’s, this recipe has only two ingredients – pork and salt. And the result is fantastic. Pork shoulder can have a lot a fat in it, so the trick here is to take advantage of both moist cooking (sort of braising), which tenderized the meat, and dry cooking, which renders out the fat. The result is juicy, moist meat that has yummy crispy bits on the outside. Perfect for tacos.
3 lbs pork shoulder (I used the side without the bone)
Place the pork shoulder on your cutting board and take a look at it. You’ll be able to see the lines of fat that run through it and create natural separations in the meat. Use a sharp knife and start to separate the pieces along those lines. When you have everything cut apart, cut the largest pieces in half so that almost all of the pieces are a similar size.
Place the pork in a 9 x13 inch glass pan (lightly greased with cooking spray or olive oil) and liberally season with salt on all sides. You don’t exactly want a salt crust, but you don’t want it to be bland either. Add water to the pan, about 1/3 of the way up the sides of the pan. Then take a whole of lot aluminum foil and cover the pan, sealing it as much as possible so that the evaporated liquid does not escape as it cooks.
Place in a 375 degree oven and roast for 1-1 ½ hours, then remove from the oven. Turn the heat up to 425, remove the foil from the pan, and place it back in the oven. After 20-30 minutes all of the liquid will have evaporated and what will be left is rendered pork fat. Continue to roast for another 40-50 minutes, turning the meat every 7-8 minutes so that it browns evenly on all sides. If it seems like it might be getting a bit dry, add some more liquid to the pan. When the pork is a dark caramel brown and pulls apart easily with a fork, remove it from the oven and let it rest. You’re going to shred it with your hands, so it’ll need to be sufficiently cool before then.
You could serve the carnitas as they are, but since I have a texture issue with the fattiness of most meats, I decided to go ahead and shred it so that I could discard all of the fatty bits. If the meat is cooked correctly you should be able to very easily separate the meat from the fat with your fingers and pull it apart. It takes a little time, but it’s totally worth it in my opinion. When you’ve finished shredding the meat drizzle some of the rendered pork fat on top to keep it moist. I also sprinkled just a little bit of cider vinegar as well. Serve with tortillas and garnishes.