03 February 2013

Carnitas

Shortly after I graduated from college, my parents sold the family home where I'd grown up in Virginia and piled all of their belongings that hadn't been put out to the curb (so long Ping Pong table!) into a moving van. The van was driven by my younger brother Brian and his friend Herman, for whom the cross-country adventure was a bit of -- "why not?" I imagine it was a chance to cross the country, expenses paid, with a bit of work at the end and a flight home. Still a bargain for my parents. 

Soon after Mom and Dad we're living in Southern Nevada in the smallest town you've ever seen. My mom grew up in this town, and at the time her own mother was an aging widow. The plan was to provide some company and care for Grandma for a year or so before moving on to explore the Pacific Northwest. There was a lot of talk of going to Alaska. 

A year somehow turned into sixteen years, and now I often find myself spending Christmas in the desert surrounded by aunts and uncles, cousins and second and third cousins. Having grown up with only my immediate family populating my Christmas memories, it has taken a long time getting used to this western, family-filled scenario. Precisely, it took nearly a decade for it to seem normal flying across the country, packing my lightweight coat, and factoring in slot machine cash into the Christmas spending. 
One new tradition that has become a welcome, if unofficial, tradition to the annual   Christmas season is an visit to Los Lupes Mexican restaurant in nearby Mesquite.  Though over a half-hour drive away, Mesquite is home to "the big grocery store" for holiday occasions when the local grocery won't cut it. No matter how much food is purchased, we will always stop for lunch at the humble Los Lupes, where my sister inevitably always orders the carnitas. And so, as the Christmas season is shortly behind us, and my Christmas visit to Nevada was skipped in lieu of adventures elsewhere, I found myself craving the authentic crispy on the outside, tender on the inside nuggets of pork-tastic decadence that has come to taste like Christmas.     

Pork Carnitas
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated

This recipe, while very simple, involves a few steps. Most of the preparation is inactive, I found the most time consuming portion of the job is cutting up with pork (which I suppose could be overcome by asking the butcher to do this for you). If you are planning on serving on the same day start  early in the day!

Serves 4 to 6

4 to 5 pound boneless pork butt, fat trimmed and cut into 2 inch cubes
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 onion, peeled and halved
4 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cups water
1 medium orange, juiced and keep the spent halves

Pre-heat oven to 300F. Combine all the ingredients in a large Dutch oven or other oven proof pan with a lid, including the spent orange halves and juice. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat on the stove, uncovered. Once it simmers, cover pot and transfer it to the oven. Cook until the meat falls apart when prodded with a fork, about 2 hours.

Remove the pot from the oven and turn on the broiler. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat from the pan and place it on a large foil-lined jelly roll pan. Remove and discard everything from the pot except for the cooking liquid. Place pot over high heat on the stove and boil until thick and syrupy, about 20-30 minutes. You should have about 1 cup of liquid remaining when it is finished.

While the liquid is reducing, use two forks to pull each cube of pork into three equal sized pieces. Once the liquid has become a syrup, gently fold in the pieces of pork into the pot. Taste for salt and pepper.

Spread the pork back onto the foil lined pan in an even, single layer. Place the pan on the lower middle rack of the oven and broil until the top of the meat is well browned and edges are slightly crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes. Using a wide spatula or tongs, carefully flip the pieces of meat and broil the other side until well browned and edges are slightly crisp, 5 to 8 minutes.  

Serve with tortillas and your favorite toppings.

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