Warning: today’s recipe is not for the faint of heart. Nor for those trying to eliminate—or even slightly reduce—fat from their diet. Nor for anyone who prefers to buy lean pork instead of the full-fat, skin-on variety. Today’s recipe is, rather, for a cook looking to go old-school; someone who wants to make a classic Mexican dish the way it was done when abuela was at the stove. It is for an unapologetic, unashamed consumer of—dare I say the bad word?—lard.
Yes, lard (or rendered pork fat) is the secret here. The fact is carnitas wouldn’t be carnitas without it. Skip it and you might as well roast a pork tenderloin. Or sauté a pork chop. Carnitas is far more succulent than these, slow-cooked until it reaches the height of tenderness then fried until crunchy outside.
The technique for making this is as basic as it gets. Indeed, you’ll find some recipes that call only for the pork, water and salt. The pork is cooked for several hours in slowly simmering water. Then, as the liquid evaporates, all that’s left is the rendered fat in which the pork continues to cook. For today, I’ve added a few ingredients to amp up the flavor and give it some tangy, smokey sweetness—orange juice, guajillo chile powder, Mexican oregano and cinnamon. You can adjust or eliminate ingredients as you wish because the main flavor agent, no matter what you add or remove, will be the pork fat.
Once cooked, you can pull the pork into shreds, cut it into chunks or leave it in strips. Serve it over corn tortillas with some refreshing tomatillo salsa and you’ll have a meal that will channel abuela, where ever she may be.
3 lb boneless pork shoulder, pork butt or picnic (pick one that has plenty of fat on it.)
1 cup orange juice
2 cups water
1 teaspoon guajillo chile powder (or chile powder of your preference)
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 stick Mexican cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
2 bay leaves
1. Slice the pork into 3-inch strips and place them in a large caldero or dutch oven over high heat. Add the orange juice, water and 2 teaspoons of salt plus the remaining spices. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered on low for about 90 minutes to two hours.
2. Turn heat up slightly to medium. Continue cooking until liquids are evaporated and the pork fat has rendered, about another hour. Make sure heat isn’t too high. You want this to cook low and slow. Stir the pork to keep it from sticking to the pan.
3. Taste to make sure the pork is tender enough. If it’s not, add a little more water and keep cooking until it’s evaporated.
4. Serve either shredded, cut into chunks or in strips over warned corn tortillas and topped with a fresh tomatillo sauce. (Recipe below.) Makes 6 servings.
4 tomatillos, husks removed
1/2 small white onion, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 serrano pepper, stem removed, seeded and diced
1/2 Haas avocado, peeled, seed removed and diced
Juice of 1/2 of a lime
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a small sauce pan bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add the tomatillos to the water and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the tomatillos from the water and allow to cool.
2. Once cooled, place the tomatillos in a blender with the remaining ingredients and puree. Serve immediately. Makes about 1 cup.