¡Carnitas!

Mexican food is going through a bit of a renaissance in Tampa Bay right now, with Taco Trucks and restaurants popping up left and right. Historically, Mexican food and culture has had nowhere near the influence of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, or South American culture on Tampa. But there is a growing Mexican immigrant community and as of late the food seems to have caught on.  Long story short at this point there is a great variety of cheap, convenient local spots I frequent when I get a craving for a torta or a couple tamales.  Which means I don’t really have the motivation to try my hand at Mexican cooking too often, with the exception of a few semi-successful chicken tortas and one horribly failed attempt at mole.

One comfort-food standby and guilty pleasure of mine is crock-pot chicken tacos – nothing to brag about but so damn easy and quite delicious: throw a few chicken breasts in a crock-pot with some taco seasoning and a jar of your favorite salsa and voila. Eight hours later you have shredded, delicious chicken in red sauce to spoon over rice and stuff in a burrito or pile onto a tostada. Like I said – nothing to brag about but cheap, easy and satisfying enough to be a monthly tradition in our house.

I wanted to try something different this weekend and I stumbled upon a recipe for carnitas. Apparently carnitas are a popular taco filling on the west coast – around here pork tacos are usually made with either grilled or slow cooked pork like cochinita pibil – suffice to say I had never heard of, let alone tasted, carnitas; but it looked delicious and I liked the idea of slow simmering meat and then braising/frying it in the reduction. In fact this is similar to how I cook chicken breasts – sear the outside, cover and steam until water collects in the pan, then remove the lid and cook on medium-high until all the juices have reduced into a thick sauce and coated the outside of the chicken pieces.

My original plan was to buy some chicken thighs and make a sort of carnitas de pollo, and save the real deal for another time. But when I got to the grocery store the chicken was a bit pricey and they were selling 3lb half-pernils for about $6.00 – so that was that.  Despite not having any experience with this or any idea of what the final result should taste like I pretty much just winged it, borrowing the general ingredients and cooking times from a few online recipes. But the results were amazing. I don’t usually publish a post based on a first-time effort like this but I feel the need to share this with the world.

For seasoning I used a blend of homemade chili powder (made from ground ancho, chipotle, and cascabel chilis), cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano and salt. I didn’t measure the ingredients but had a total of about 1/4 cup seasoning. It was way too much. The meat has a ton of flavor, and the citrus flavor is going to be strong, so just a bit of seasoning will go a long way. I ended up draining some of the braising liquid towards the end and replacing with water to cut the seasoning. After which it was just right – but regardless use a light touch with the seasoning. Use a few tablespoons of your favorite homemade or store-bought taco seasoning.

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Juice an orange and a few limes, then add a bottle of beer. The acid is important to tenderize the pork. Set the liquid aside. Meanwhile, cut the pernil into 2 inch chunks, discarding the bones and skin (ok, ok, don’t discard the skin – fry it or broil it and make some chicharones. And I guess you could make stock with the bones if your into that). Season the pork with the taco seasoning. Heat a dutch oven or stock pot on high. Add the pork and sear for a couple minutes on both sides.

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When the pork is seared, add the beer, orange juice, and lime juice, and the rest of the seasoning (if you are worried about over-seasoning, hold back some of it and wait until the end of the process when you can taste the meat and adjust as necessary). Add enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Simmer for two hours.

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After two hours, crank up the heat to a high-simmer/low boil. The sauce will reduce over the course of about a half hour, Once the sauce has almost completely reduced, turn the pork to sear each side and coat with the reduction. Once completely reduced, turn down the heat and shred the pork with a fork or some tongs.

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Remove the meat from the pan and saute half an onion in whatever fat is left. Add oil if necessary. Once the onions are cooked, and the meat back to the pan and mix it around. Kill the heat.

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I am not going to tell you what to do with the meat – make a taco, stuff some tamales, make an empanada, throw it on some cuban bread, serve it over rice. Eat it with a fork straight out of the pan. I don’t think you can go wrong with this stuff. It is spicy, citrusy, fatty, meaty goodness. If I had to describe the flavor I would say it is like mojo-flavored, Mexican-style pulled pork.

I whipped up a batch of my Mexican-style yellow rice – saute half an onion, add garlic and sofrito; add two cups of rice with some sazon and adobo, then a can of Rotel tomatoes with green chilis, and some frozen peas and carrots, three cups of water – this is my standby anytime I make Mexican food. Also great stuffed in peppers and covered with cheese.

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We like to make tacos by layering a soft flour taco, a tostado, a bit of the Mexican rice, and the meat, and then topping with avocado/tomatoes/cabbage/salsa/etc.

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There you have it. I can guarantee I will be looking for any excuse I can find to make this again. My only complaint was that I only used a 3lb piece of pernil. I would have liked to have had more leftovers. But I guess that just gives me a reason to make it again…

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