I was rummaging through the deep freezer the other day and came across a package of thick-cut, pre-sliced pork shoulder (or pork butt) labeled “carnitas”. I have eaten pork carnitas a number of times and the Southern girl in me always awakes to pig heaven. There is just something about rich, fatty pork that enlivens my memories of home, although carnitas is different from the pork cooking on which I was raised. Can you say South Carolina low country barbecue? But that’s a subject for a different post sometime this fall.
In my mind, Mexican food is often associated with a happy, festive feeling. Maybe it’s the colors I associate with Mexican food; certainly every Mexican cookbook that I have is filled with bright colors and warm, happy food. Or maybe it’s that the food is so filling with solid, earth bound ingredients.
“Real” pork carnitas is literally boiled in oil or, in truth, lard. The flavor is so rich because the outside of the meat gets beautifully crispy while the inside is moist and tender. Juices and fats come together in rich, deep flavors that make carnitas unique, yet generally out of reach to the average home cook because of the way authentic carnitas is cooked. And to the average person who might want to take a second look at their fat intake.
By way of an FYI, you know I love FYI asides, fats do serve a purpose in our diets and in cooking. We actually do need to ingest some fat in our diets just to keep our bodies functioning well. About 20%-35% of our daily caloric intake, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, will provide us with the needed amounts of fat (this equals 44-78 grams total fat—and yes, you want most of this to be ‘good’ fats). Vitamins A, K, D, and E are fat soluble vitamins, meaning that fat is needed in order for our bodies to be able to absorb them. Cell membranes require fats to maintain their structure and function. Believe it or not, fat even helps to support the immune system. Plus, and this is a definite plus, fat is a vehicle for flavor. It is the fat in foods in that allows our taste buds to perceive certain flavors. In other words, if it were not for fats, we would be missing much of the full flavor picture. It would be akin to going to the Louvre and not going inside to look at the art.
The FYI is now over. Moving on.
The great thing about this carnitas recipe is that it can be made in the slow cooker or in the oven. Whew! No boiling in oil. It is full of za-zingy flavor, too, because of the aromatics and spices and some time spent under the broiler at the end. I have made carnitas both in the slow cooker and in the oven and I can’t say that I prefer one method over the other. Both delivered a very flavorful product.
John got all weepy-eyed again when he tasted this carnitas for the first time. He’s so emotionally vulnerable at dinner time; bless his soul.
It is great if you can find pork cut and ready to go for carnitas, but if your grocery store is like most of the grocery stores in my area, you will have to cut the meat yourself. This is an extra step, but it is not difficult. Seriously. Take a boneless pork shoulder, or pork butt (no, I’m not talking about your backside, so quit thinking about it and move on) and cut it into thick pieces, about 2-inch square-ish cubes. Eventually the meat will be shredded, so don’t waist time trying to make things all pretty with the perfect cut.
The essential part of the whole process is creating deep flavor, which begins with browning the meat. While I understand that some slow cooker fans object to taking time to brown anything, I would like to encourage taking the time to brown the meat for carnitas. Save the typical slow cooker “dump-‘n-go” recipes for a day when dump-n-go is really all for which you have time. After the browning, comes the slow cooking–either in a slow cooker or in the oven. Like I said, I’ve done it both ways.
Please note: Despite the fact that I have just stated to brown the meat first, the pictures in the step-by-step will clearly show that I did not follow my own advice this time. I am going to forgive myself because I was under some fair amount of stress while preparing this particular meal and I was also experimenting in your behalf. I wanted to see if browning actually made a taste difference. If you are a carnitas aficionado, then definitely, definitely brown the meat prior to baking or slow cooking. I can officially tell you that there is a taste difference, but to many of us, the end product is still tastily acceptable. Additionally, because I was cooking this batch of carnitas in the oven, I reasoned that it would develop some richer flavors in the oven that it would not have gotten in a slow cooker.
I’m blathering, by the way. Bottom line: browning = extra flavor whether cooking in the oven or the slow cooker. The world, however, will not come to an end if you do not brown the meat. It’s simply a matter of good, better, best.
Carnitas can be served, unadorned, along with black beans and Mexican-style rice with some pico de gallo, or it can be wrapped in a tortilla and dressed with pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, and a little cheese. It will also make a delicious addition to a ‘taco’ salad.
Big Piece of Advice
Don’t cheat on the ingredients. They are all important. This includes ALL of the spices and herbs and even the orange. Does the orange surprise you? It is a part of carnitas.