Even if Mexican food isn’t your thing, you have to love carnitas. What are carnitas, you might ask? Think something akin to a Mexican twist on pulled pork–juicy, tender, but paradoxically crispy and crunchy at the same time, all served on a tortilla, in this case, with a freshly made roasted corn salsa.
There are many approaches to carnitas out there, but I think they can pretty much be divided into two categories: semi-healthy using braised pork, or, as is the case with this recipe, a more traditional, heart-stopping approach on account of slow-cooking the pork in roughly a pound-for-pound equal amount of lard (like a confit).
Your reaction to that statement will go one of two ways: (1) holy shit awesome! (I agree 😮 ) or (2) grossed out and almost off-handedly ruled out as insanely unhealthy. If you’re in the latter group, slow down now and hear me out! After all, its not like you’re ultimately going to ingest all of that lard and we all eat deep fried things (e.g. french fries), so its not like this is something so crazy. Plus, while the braising in water or Dr. Pepper approach probably tastes nice, I really don’t think it can compete with the richness of this approach, and honestly, how often are you eating this? Not often at all, so splurge and give this a try! Trust me, you’ll get over your apprehensions very quickly. 😉
Given how amazing carnitas taste, making them is surprisingly simple. You begin with a good-sized, well marbled hunk of pork (e.g. butt or shoulder, I used butt) and you slow cook it in lard with a few other flavorings (e.g. cilantro and orange), so you get the benefits of slow-cooked, tender meat and the juicy, rich infusion of lard and citric flavors. This is then shredded (a la pulled pork) and then briefly roasted, caramelizing and crisping the exterior of the meat while keeping the inside of each shred stunningly juicy and tender, which in a word, is delicious!
I chose to pair this with a salsa which I chose to center around roasted flavors–garlic, shallot, corn, tomato, peppers, etc–all of which were individually roasted so that they would each take on individual complex flavors before coming together for something sweet, spicy, smokey, and just plain tasty. All together, this was quite a meal and is a great way to ring in Cinco de Mayo!
- 2 lbs lard (do not even think of substituting this out)
- 2.5 lbs. boneless pork butt (or shoulder)
- ground cumin
- dried oregano
- 1 navel orange (peel and wedges)
- 1/4 cup cilantro
- Roasted Corn Salsa
- olive oil
- 2 shallots
- 1 head of garlic
- 2 ears of corn
- 5 on-the-vine tomatoes
- 2 poblano peppers
- 3-5 jalapeño peppers
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1/4 cup of cilantro leaves
- salt (to taste)
Begin by melting the lard over low-medium heat in a big, sturdy pot (I used a Dutch oven). I did this outside on my grill so as not to smell up the house, and, just in case there’s a spill, the last thing I want to clean up is that much lard.
While the lard is slowly melting down, prep the pork. Cut it down into good-sized chunks (roughly 2 inch cubes) and rub this with salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano. Also peel an orange (don’t worry about finely dicing the zest–big strips are fine), saving both the peel and the wedges (but discard the pith and any seeds). Also coarsely chop up some cilantro, and feel free to include the stems.
Once the lard is totally melted down, carefully put all of the spiced pork, cilantro, orange wedges, and orange peels into the lard, ensuring that they are totally submerged (if you can’t make that happen, you need to melt down and add some more lard so that it does).
Now, let this continue to cook for about 2 hours on medium-low heat. The meat should not brown right away, and if it does, drop the temperature a bit. After about 30 minutes or so, it might start browning and the lard might start gently boiling, and that’s fine. Apparently, this is due to the moisture of the orange wedges which lowers the temperature of the lard, but once cooked out, it warms up to boiling.
While you’re waiting, now is a great time to work on the salsa. I decided to roast every component of my salsa separately because I’m not a huge fan of having raw chunks of tomato or other pico de gallo styled salsas. Plus, each of these flavors roasted becomes something really tasty. So begin by husking the corn, chopping off the upper 1/4 of a head of garlic and shallots. Rub everything with olive oil and wrap each kind of vegetable separately and tightly in tin foil (so you have all of the poblanos in one, the garlic in another, etc).
Roast everything for about 40 minutes (except for the corn, which only gets about 20 minutes). This is where using the grill was handy since it was already warm and had plenty of room to spare. Once time is up, unwrap each package just a bit so they can steam a little and let them cool for about 10 minutes. Then, clean each one up–squeezing the garlic cloves and shallots out of the papery casing, peeling the skins off of the peppers and tomatoes, removing the stems, ribs, and seeds from the peppers, and finally cut the kernels off of the corn.
With everything roasted and ready, throw the cilantro and the roasted veggies into the food processor and give it a few quick pulses to bring things down to a more manageable size (but don’t puree!). At this point, the salsa is done, so sample a taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary (e.g. salt).
By now, I’ll assume that the pork is done cooking in the lard, so carefully remove from the lard and drain well. At this point, the meat is cooked, flavorful, and incredibly juicy. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Once sufficiently drained, shred the cooked pork with two forks and spread this out in a thin layer over the bottom of a roasting pan (or some other such flat surface). Transfer this to the oven for 15 minutes. This will crisp up the outside of each little shred of pork while still keeping the inside juicy and tender.
At this point, everything is ready to go, so prepare yourself a plate of whatever you think goes with this. I enjoyed my carnitas in a briefly toasted tortilla with some of the roasted corn salsa on top with sour cream (Mexican crema is preferable), black beans, and avocado on the side. Enjoy!