Sunday, March 9, 2014

Carnitas!

I love carnitas.  They are one of my favorite things to order in a Mexican restaurant.  I love the juicy, tender chunks of pork flavored just right with the wonderful crispy edges where the flavor intensifies.  Carnitas always seemed a mystery to me.  How do they make it so tender and yet crispy & crunchy at the edges in just the right balance?  Frankly, I didn't think too deeply about it since I was too busy savoring every delicious bite.  I never thought I'd be able to make carnitas at home.

Turns out, I was wrong.  I made carnitas last Saturday, and they were amazing.  They might not be the best carnitas I've ever eaten, but they hold their own against good carnitas at various places I've eaten.  They were even better than a couple of places I ate at in the past.  And I think I can make them even better next time.

I am reading David Lebovitz's book The Sweet Life in Paris, which is fully of funny vignettes about living in Paris, cooking, and life.  It's one of those books you don't have to read cover to cover.  I pick it up here and there and read a short chapter or section culminating in a (generally) delicious looking recipe. The other day the section I was reading ended with a short anecdote about visiting a Mexican restaurant in Paris and how disappointing it was.  He finished with a recipe for carnitas, which he likes to make for French friends to introduce them to Mexican food.  He says:

"Since Mexican food isn't especially well represented in Paris, I like to show friends how good it can be, and carnitas are the perfect introduction, since it doesn't matter whether you're from here or there: who doesn't love caramelized pork?" (pg. 62)
Carnitas--photo by David Lebovitz

This recipe takes a long time.  Not even counting the prep, we're talking 4 1/2 to 5 hours of cooking time.  This is a multi-step process--but that process yields fantastic results.  After cutting the pork into large chunks, you sear them in oil in batches, allowing the pieces to get really brown on all sides--this takes a while.  Then you remove the pork, deglaze the pan with some water, add spices, and then plop the pork back into the pot and stick it in the oven to braise for 3 1/2 hours.

At 2 1/2 hours I was a little nervous about how the pork was going to turn out, because it still felt rubbery like it was undercooked or tough when I poked at with a spoon.  One hour later, and magic had happened.  The pork had become super tender and easy to shred into large, bite-sized pieces.  It was tender and juice, but it still had those crispy edges that are so yummy.  Frankly, I couldn't help myself from eat several bites right then, even before the last stage of cooking: caramelizing.

This last stage involves putting the shredded pork back into what's left of the cooking liquid and placing it back in the oven to allow the rest of the liquid to evaporate and caramelize on the pork.  I did start this step, putting the pork back into the oven, but I stopped about an hour later before it quite got all of the way to the caramelizing because it was 11 at night, and I needed to go to bed.  This doesn't seem to have hurt it any, because it was just as delicious today when I had some for lunch.  I heated it in the microwave at work, but it's even better reheated in a frying pan with just a little oil.

A slightly different version of the recipe appears on David Lebovitz's blog.  That recipe doubles the chili powder.  I think that would be even better.  The recipe in the book only calls for 1 teaspoon of chili powder.  I think a second teaspoon would add a little kick.  I have another piece of pork shoulder in the freezer, so I can make this again and try adding the extra chili powder.  I admit that (as usual) I did not follow the recipe exactly.  I think it's nearly impossible for me to do that.  As it is, I only tweaked this recipe a little bit.

Carnitas
by David Lebovitz
with some revisions by Alex--the majority of this recipe (and all the credit for its greatness) goes to David Lebovitz

4-5-pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 5-inch chunks, trimmed of excessive fat
1/2 to 1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons oil
water
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
2 small bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

Rub the pieces of pork shoulder all over with salt. (I sprinkled; rubbing the salt in may be better)

Heat the oil in a roasting pan set on the stove top. Cook the pieces of pork shoulder in a single layer until very well-browned, turning them as little as possible so they get nice and dark before flipping them around. If your cooking vessel is too small to cook them in a single-layer, cook them in two (or more) batches.

Once all the pork is browned, remove them from the pot.  Pour in about a cup of water, scraping the bottom of the pan with a flat-edged utensil to release all the tasty brown bits.

Add the cinnamon stick and stir in the chile powder, bay leaves, cumin and garlic.  Put the pork pieces back in the pan and add enough additional water to cover the pork by about 2/3.

Braise uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 3½ hours, turning the pork a few times during cooking, until much of the liquid is evaporated and the pork is falling apart. Remove the pan from the oven and lift the pork pieces out of the liquid and set them on a platter.

Once the pork pieces are cool enough to handle, shred them into bite-sized pieces, about 2-inches, discarding any obvious big chunks of fat if you wish.

Return the pork pieces back to the roasting pan and cook in the oven, turning occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the pork is crispy and caramelized. The time this takes will depend on how much liquid the pork gave off, and how crackly you want them.

Even though this dish took ages, it wasn't really difficult to make.  Next time, I start it early, mid-morning maybe, to give myself plenty of time to finish the caramelization process fully.

Sorry for the lack of photos; I had to borrow one from David Lebovitz website.  My carnitas did look pretty much like that photo.  However, it belongs totally to him and not me, but I hope I'm forgiven for using it this once.  And check out his blog and his book, The Sweet Life in Paris.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, man, I had to stop reading it because it sounds so good. Maybe we can make together when you come in May.

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