The first time I had carnitas was my freshman year of high school. I’m pretty sure, but it’s only a hazy memory. My friend Courtney and I walked over to the hole-in-the-wall Mexican place a few blocks from school. I remember it being in the afternoon, so it was probably before leaving for a water polo game. She ordered two carnitas tacos and I followed her lead. I remember the salsa was really spicy. I probably started sweating a little, as I tend to with food that’s out of my comfort zone. After that, I knew to ask for the thin, chile-flecked sauce on the side at that particular establishment. But I got to work trying plenty of others, too.
Carnitas remain my go-to taco order. I like the simplest version — with onions, cilantro, and salsa — but a little guacamole is more than welcome. I’ve tried a few fancified renditions in D.C., which I enjoyed, but they weren’t really what I wanted. I don’t need to say too much about it, but as any Californian would tell you, a good taco can be hard to find over here.
Luckily, I found this version on Serious Eats that convinced me to finally try to recreate my crispy, porky true love. I was skeptical of most of the recipes I’d seen online. Real carnitas are simmered in huge pots of lard, until the meat is incredibly tender. A little deep frying gets the outside crisp and they’re on their way to
my mouth a taco near you. The most common adaptation for the home cook, who isn’t ready to invest in a cauldron of lard, is to brown the outside of a big hunk of pork shoulder and braise it until all the liquid evaporates. Full disclosure: I never tried to make them that way. But I was plagued with doubt.
Then I discovered that beautiful bit of test-kitchen tinkering, which convinced me that that maybe I could have good carnitas whenever I wanted. A year ago, I put it to the test and was so absolutely thrilled with the results that…I waited a year to make them again. I just can’t finish a party-size pile of carnitas in any reasonable amount of time on my own, no matter how delicious. So a party is what I threw them. Both times. I think we can call it a tradition.
I wasn’t sure about the orange and cinnamon the first time around, but those particular doubts were unnecessary. The delicate, warm flavors only highlight the richness of the pork. After braising for a few hours in a puddle of its own rendered fat – pork confit! – the meat falls apart in chunks at the lightest prodding. A quick bronzing under the broiler is all it needs to get the requisite crispy edges.
Adapted from Serious Eats.
[easyrecipe id=”299″ n=”0″]