I would never begin a post on Mexican food thus:
“I love Mexican food so much, I must have been Mexican in another life”.
If you think about it for two seconds, it’s a pretty lame thing to say. An utterance from the sort of person who refers to the 5th of May aka Cinco de Mayo (the origin of which was a decisive Mexican victory over the French on said date in 1862) as ‘Cinco de Drinko’.
I love Mexican food because it’s great cuisine and having grown up in the west side of West Covina, California, good Mexican food is tightly woven into the fabric of my childhood/nostalgia food palette. Many of the kids I grew up with were second generation Hispanic. I ate great home-cooked Mexican food at their houses (and picked up an impeccable Mexican-Spanish accent) and there were several Mexican restaurants dotted about the city. One of the best was a cheap, good little Mexican restaurant called The Super-Mexicatessen. I think the first time I went there was with my older sister when I was about 7 or 8. It was originally a take out taco stand on Arrow Highway, about 3 miles from my house. When I got old enough to ride my bike off of my block, I used to ride out there and my favourite thing on the menu was carnitas soft tacos. My parents were from the South, I grew up eating a lot of pork and carnitas was my #1 choice. The Mexicatessen moved to Baldwin Park when I was a teenager and I continued to frequent it when I learned how to drive until I moved away from the area.
About three years ago I braised a pork shoulder for a cassoulet. When I removed it from the oven and had a taste, it took me straight back to the days of great Mexican food following an adventure by bicycle. Carnitas was the first meal I cooked to introduce Steve to Mexican food. We bought a tortilla press and have masa harina as a staple in our larder. There hangs a wicker fishing creel in our kitchen which we keep filled with Mexican spices and dried chiles, so we can produce Mexican feasts at the drop of a sombrero.
This isn’t what it looks like:
We had a Mexican dinner party a couple of weeks ago. The first thing I did when I got up on Saturday morning was put several bottles of Corona and Sol into the fridge to chill and then made up a batch of margaritas to steep from a great recipe from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen.
Frontera’s Gold Margaritas
- 1 2/3 cups Cuervo Especial gold tequila
- 1/4 cup Triple Sec or Grand Marnier
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- Finely grated zest of 1 1/2 limes, about 1 teaspoon
- 5 tablespoons caster sugar
- Lime wedges
- Coarse salt
Mix the tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice, lime zest, sugar and 1 cup water in a glass or plastic pitcher until the sugar dissolves. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours (but no more than 24 hours). Strain into another pitcher.
Meanwhile, rub the rims of 8 martini or other 6- to 8-ounce glasses with a lime wedge, then dip the rims in a dish of coarse salt. I use a porcelain ginger grater for my salt. Refrigerate the glasses if desired. Serve the margaritas either straight up or on the rocks in the prepared glasses. These are pretty strong for the uninitiated, so I offer my guests the option to mix it with some sparkling lemonade.
We then spent the rest of the afternoon making carnitas, frijoles refritos, salsa cruda and corn tortillas. I also thawed out some red mole sauce we had in the freezer and added some poached, shredded chicken breasts to it. But today, we’re focussing on carnitas. Carnitas, literally “little meats,” are a type of braised or roasted (often after first being fried) pork originating in Michoacán, Mexico. We’ve made this dish a few times now and in this fourth version, we’ve produced the sublime, superlative incarnation.
Sweet Melinda’s Kick-ass Carnitas
- 4-5 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 5-inch chunks, trimmed of excess fat and crackling*
- 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
- Sunflower oil, enough to brown the pork chunks
- 6 cups of water, or enough to cover the pork
- Strips of zest from 1 orange
- 1-2 onions, diced
- 1 Mexican cinnamon stick (canela)
- 1 ½ teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, or 1 teaspoon cayenne + 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 ½ teaspoons Mexican oregano
- ¼ teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C
Rub the pieces of pork all over with salt. Either refrigerate for 1 to 3 days or do this just before searing it.
Heat the oil over moderately high heat in a pan on top of the stove. Cook the pieces of pork until very well browned, in two batches if necessary. Remove the pork from the pan and deglaze it with 1 cup of water, scraping the bottom of the pan to release all of the tasty brown bits. This time we used our huge Le Creuset covered casserole. We normally don’t cover the meat whilst it’s in the oven, but we did this time and it made a huge difference in the tenderness of the carnitas. If you’re using a roasting pan, you could use foil to cover it. If you want to. You might like the meat chewier.
*At some point, you can find your favourite crackling recipe and cook the reserved skin. Probably after you’ve made the carnitas, as cracking requires a very hot oven.
Add the pork back to the pan and cover it with enough water so the pork pieces are 2/3’s submerged in liquid. Add all of the remaining ingredients and give it a good stir.
Braise in the oven for about 3½ hours until the meat is falling apart. You will definitely want to turn the pork a few times during cooking, especially if it is uncovered. Remove the pan from the oven and lift the pieces of pork out of the liquid and set them on a platter. Reserve the liquid!
Once the meat is cool enough to handle, shred it into bite-sized pieces, discarding any obvious big chunks of fat, if you wish.
Return the shredded pork and cooking liquid back to a flat, shallow pan and cook in the oven, turning occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the pork is crispy-ish and carmelised. Again, this is up to your preference and judgment. I like my carnitas chewy, but still juicy.
To serve, make tacos from home-made corn tortillas and fresh salsa cruda. Just add a margarita or a bottle of Mexican beer.
One of our friends brought an amazing Pavlova, studded with summer fruits for dessert.
Carnitas make great leftovers, if they are any after you’ve fossicked in the pan once the guests have departed.