Although I am blessed with an excess of tasty taco stands all around town, it has been a long-standing goal of mine to learn how to cook some of my favorite dishes at home. In particular, I’ve had my eye on carnitas, the spiced, slow-roasted pork dish that makes a simple yet flavorful taco when stuffed in a tortilla alongside cilantro, avocado, salsa, sour cream and a squeeze of lime. It is my absolute favorite when done right, moist and meltingly tender, rich and slightly smoky. Plus, the best cut for the low and slow cooking method is the pork shoulder, a well marbled mass of meat, perfect for feeding a crowd. What better for Super Bowl Sunday?
Usually when I decide on a dish I want to learn, I comb through multiple iterations of the same recipe from blogs I trust or a few go-to cookbooks, piecing together a version that fits my vision of the dish (or whatever ingredients I have on hand). This time I had a great guide – my mom. I tasted her carnitas for the first time about a year ago and I had been craving them since. When I visited in late November after first arriving back in the USA, I made a point to quiz her for the recipe and had been looking for the perfect occasion to dive in.
With an anticipated guest list for The Big Game numbering in the low teens, I was very lucky to grab the last two boneless pork shoulders left at my local market. Although the original recipe called for a bone-in cut of meat, there was no flavor lacking due to the missing scapula, and the increased meat content, as well as reduced cooking time were appreciated perks.
There is no recipe, per se. I first rubbed each shoulder with plenty of olive oil to thoroughly coat the meat and pool a bit around the base of the roast. Next, a liberal shake (or five) of red wine vinegar, again ensuring that the meat was coated and there was a bit in the base of the roasting pan. The most crucial ingredient was the spice rub – my mom swears by Pappy’s Choice – and even gifted her remaining stock the last time I visited (after being endlessly badgered about the recipe). Pappy is an elusive spice master, as the ingredient list is not particularly forthcoming, indicating: “Salt, Spices, Sugar, Paprika, etc”. Spices, Pappy? Not cool. I might take the time later to try and parse out the different components, but not this time. Pappy’s Choice was liberally poured onto the meat, mixed with the oil and vinegar to make a thick paste that coated the meat entirely.
The roasts were placed, uncovered into a preheated oven at 500F for 20 minutes. During that time I opened all the windows and doors in my apartment and prayed that my smoke detector did not work that well, as my efficient but old-fashioned kitchen is not equipped with the best ventilation system/strategy. After 20 minutes, I reduced the heat to 300F and let it cook, low and slow for the next five hours, rarely checking them in the process.
When removed just prior to halftime for preparation, the outer layer of the roast crackled and popped with charred spices and smokiness, while the insides fell apart easily with just the slightest tug from a fork into moist, tender strips of meat, more than ready (but NOT at all overcooked) for taco construction.
I cooked about 8 pounds (4kg) of carnitas for the party and, except for a small portion that I squirreled away at the beginning (for those who could not join us), both the roasts were utterly demolished. Initially there were multiple rounds of taco feasting, including an informal ‘best taco’ contest between these and the pollo con chipotle tacos that were masterfully concocted by new friends (look for that guest post next Tuesday!). Yet even after the groaning commenced about how full we all were, holding our bellies to underline the message, guests were still swooping in, grabbing a few strands of meat at a time. It was one of those dishes where everyone just wanted one more bite and no one ever really stopped eating until it was gone.
Clearly the carnitas were a smashing success. I lament the lack of substantial leftovers, as the few pieces that I did stash away were even tasteir crisped up in a frying pan later. And, in case you were wondering? I totally won the taco contest. Hands down. Thanks, Mom!