Sunday, December 26, 2010

Carnitas: The Perfect Way to Start off the New Year

If you're looking for an easy, inexpensive festive way to kick off the new year, you can't go wrong with carnitas. Although it cooks for a few hours, it takes minutes to prep and takes care of itself on your stove top, leaving you free to do whatever it is that you do to kick off the year right. If you're hosting the day after party it's great for the hangover crowd, and it is hearty enough to please the sports fans gathered around your large screen TV for the bowls of the non-food type.

Carnitas means "little meats," usually braised until the liquid evaporates and then browned in the fat that has remained on the meat. It is usually made from the pork butt (shoulder), which can be cooked whole and then shredded, or cut before cooking and served in cubes.

Which is the way I prepared it here. The most basic recipe I found calls for just salt, pepper, and water. Many add orange juice and coca cola, but the possibilities are endless - cumin, oregano, chili powder if you want to keep the Mexican theme, or curry powder, paprika, and ginger for a more exotic twist. For my first attempt, I decided to keep it simple and just used salt, pepper, orange juice and water.

The original method calls for the meat to be cooked in melted lard, and then the mixture of orange juice and coca cola is added and either cooked over a higher flame on the stove, or roasted in the oven. The idea is that the sugars help the meat caramelize. Much as I love the idea of this and the fact that I actually do have lard on hand, and as delicious as I am sure it would be, that is just too much fat and sugar for one meal, especially since there is already plenty of fat on the pork butt. This method is healthier (ok, maybe only a little healthier), and is plenty delicious as is. The orange juice adds a bright sweetness that takes it over the top.

Carnitas make for a great serve-yourself taco buffet. They go especially well with a savory cabbage slaw, creme fraiche and tomato-jalapeno salsa. Round off the meal with guacamole and chips and refried beans and you have yourself a winning combination.

5-6 lb pork butt, chopped into 1-inch cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

Arrange the pork on the bottom of a large heavy pan (cast iron is preferable). Season heavily with the salt and pepper. Pour the orange juice into the pan, and then add water until the meat is just barely covered.

Bring the pan to a boil, the reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid has evaporated. This can take up to two hours (or more, depending on how much liquid there is).

Once the liquid has evaporated, raise the heat to medium and let the pork brown in the fat that has remained. When all of the pieces are dark and crispy, remove from the heat.

Can be served immediately, or refrigerated and then reheated for later use.

Makes 15-20 tacos

Adapted from Homesick Texan's adaptation of a Diana Kennedy recipe.

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