Slow-Braised Carnitas

I used to have a bunch of recipes up online. But writing recipes is no fun; it is difficult to capture the beauty of a dish with a bunch of steps. Moreover, using recipes isn't how I cook. I want to understand the flavors of a dish and then execute it in my own way, in my own hands. So the recipes went away.

But one of the most popular—and one of my personal favorites—was a recipe for the Mexican pork dish carnitas. It was a fun, relatively easy recipe, not traditional in approach but fairly traditional (and really delicious) in output. Folks keep asking for it. So here it is, in hopes I can eat it at your next house party.

Carnitas is a wonderful Mexican dish, pork shoulder cooked until tender and then given a great crisp. In Mexico, carnitas is eaten on its own, in tacos, or in tortas. The traditional recipe is simple: several pounds of pork shoulder, a pound or two of lard, orange peel, and some water (or coca-cola), slow roasted and then "boiled" to a crisp. That is…a bit much. What follows is not an authentic approach.


Photo by flickr user mccun934 licensed CC BY 2.0

Never ones to eschew taste for health, the French have nonetheless taught us nothing if not that we can make a succulent, flavorful dish without boiling a tough cut of meat in lard. In that vein, my recipe is more of a braiser de porc than a confit de porc—pork shoulder, aromatics, citrus juice, and a little Grand Marnier, slow cooked on the stove. Healthier for the heart, but also—more importantly—tastier to the tongue. To obtain that classic carnitas crisp, we braise the meat uncovered until the liquid evaporates and then move the pot to the oven and caramelize.

Makes about 6 servings.

Ingredients:

3 lbs boneless pork shoulder, preferably Boston butt (the upper shoulder)
4 tablespoons grape seed oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly-sliced
2 oranges, juiced, plus the zest of 1/2
2 limes, juiced and zested
several cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground ancho chile
1 tablespoon ground chipotle pepper
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
herb sachet with 8 sprigs Mexican oregano, 6 sprigs thyme, 2 sticks cinnamon, and 2 bay leaves, wrapped in a cheese cloth and tied shut with cooking twine
1 cup Grand Marnier
coarse sea salt, to coat meat, plus more to taste

Cut the pork shoulder into 5" chunks. Remove any gratuitously-excessive fat, but leave at least a thin layer. Sprinkle the chunks with sea salt. Let sit at room temperature at least 30 minutes. Pat dry.

Heat the grape seed oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sauté the pork shoulder until well browned on each side. If needed, sauté across multiple batches.

Add the garlic and sauté for one more minute.

Add the orange zest, lime zest, ground cayenne pepper, ground ancho chile, ground chipotle chile, cumin, ground cinnamon, black pepper, and herb sachet. Mix.

Add the Grand Marnier, orange juice, and lime juice. Stir, scrapping the bottom of the pot.

Add chicken stock as needed such that the pork is two-thirds submerged in liquid.

Stirring, raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower heat until the liquid is at a simmer and braise, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the pork is cooked and tender but not disintegrating and the liquid is reduced by at least two-thirds, about three hours. If the liquid gets perilously-low while cooking, add a little chicken stock.

Remove pork from pot. Once cool enough to handle, use a fork to shred the pork into bite-sized, but fairly large, chunks, removing any fatty pieces as desired.

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Return pork chunks to pot. Place uncovered pot in oven. Continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated and the pork is crispy and starting to caramelize, about 20 minutes.

Taste and adjust salt. Serve with warm corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, diced white onion, chopped cilantro, lime wedges, margaritas, and college football.