Tuesday Dinner: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Carnitas

The addition of “carnitas” to the American food lexicon and associated menus comes in two waves. Like most things, it started out west with the taco carts and ever-present street food stands of Los Angeles. Mexican and Central American cultures started this culture in California, which has exploded into the Food Truck Revolution™ currently sweeping the nation.

Chipotle gets credit for the second wave. The chain of faux-Mexican fast casual restaurants popularized it as the pork option for its cafeteria-style burrito bars. It’s typically my go-to when ordering burrito bowls (both beans, white rice, pico de gallo and sour cream).

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Carnitas originated in Mexico’s Michoacan province (which translates loosely to “warmer than Michigan”) and, not unlike American pulled pork, spread across the country with variations on the original recipe. Think about the difference between North Carolina-style chunky pork and the stringy Memphis stuff. At its base, carnitas are a pork shoulder, slow-roasted in lard with orange, onion and herbs, then shredded. Regional variations on peppers and spices are not unlike the Memphis vs. Kansas City rib debate.

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The genius J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats broke down the process of making carnitas in your oven without all of the extra lard goodness because, let’s face it, the goal is not to die from a pork taco. His question was how to trap the fatty goodness that remains in the pork and let it self-baste, as opposed to letting the fat render into liquid and steam cooking the pork.

His answer? Pack everything in a space small space. Rather than roasting everything in a large baking dish or lipped baking sheet, cram it into a 9×13 casserole. It gives the liquid less space to stand and evaporate, resulting in non-poached pork.

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WHAT WORKED: A big fatty hunk of pork shoulder with the bone removed. This should run between $1.49 to $2.49 per pound at most grocers, meat markets, and roadside orange stands.

WHAT DIDN’T: Kenji suggested cinnamon sticks, which I could not get my hands on at the store. I’m not sure if the lengthy winter of 2014-15 depleted the supply of these, but they were nowhere to be found. Also, I skipped the salsa verde because I was lazy and just wanted pork.

EASE OF PREPARATION: Fairly easy. The only skill required is removing the blade bone that may be in your shoulder. The pork shoulder that is. Do not remove your own shoulder blade. That’s going to be painful and add another level of difficulty to prepping the pork.

BEST FOR: A make-ahead dinner or if you want a different approach to the typical pulled pork.

SERVE WITH: Tortillas, cilantro-lime rice, pico de gallo or salsa verde. And maybe some Tecate.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Carnitas
  • 1 medium white onion, quartered
  • large handful of cilantro leaves
  • 3 lbs. boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt), cut into 2-inch cubes
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 medium orange, quartered
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into three or four pieces (optional)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat your oven to 275 degrees.

Set the pork in the baking dish, crowding it together so it fits snugly. The pork should fit with no open spaces. Squeeze orange juice over the pork then wedge the oranges into the casserole. Top with the garlic cloves, bay leaves and onion quarters. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and roast 3 1/2 hours, or until the pork is fork tender.Place a large fine-mesh strainer over a 1- or 2-quart bowl. Use tongs to remove the orange, onion, garlic and bay leaves, and discard. Put pork into the strainer, then pour any accumulated liquid over the top. Let drain, pressing gently before separating the meat from the strainer. Using your fingers or large forks, shred the pork. Season to taste with salt. Serve hot.

OR, if you want to serve later, cool to room temperature then seal in a large refrigerator-safe container. When you are ready, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, then reheat in a 9x13 baking dish for 20 minutes.

Adapted from the original at Serious Eats

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