Saturday, March 23, 2013

Carnitas with Charred Tomatillo Salsa and Avocado

Carnitas have always been my favorite Mexican dish, and one I've sorely missed. I found a way around the sweetened condensed milk often used in its preparation, and by modifying a recipe I found on Epicurious, and finishing it Rick Bayless style, it's as good as any I've had in a restaurant.

Do use leaf lard if you can find it (one of my own little twists: it's just another animal fat, like butter but allowed, and it has a luxurious mouth feel) and pay close attention to the amount of salt called for.

The avocado is essential as is the tomatillo salsa, which was easy and fun to make. Speaking of, did you know tomatillos are closest to gooseberries? Prehistoric sized gooseberries, LOL.

This recipe makes a lot of carnitas, and total cooking time is about 3 hrs, definitely a weekend project. But it freezes and reheats very well because of the fat content. Think how lovely it will be to come home after a hard day at work, reach in the fridge for a thawed out ziploc of carnitas, and assemble a quick meal that tastes like a million bucks!  Generously serves 4-5.

2.5 lb pasture raised pork shoulder (or pork butt, same thing), cut into 1.5" pieces
1/2 white onion, sliced paper thin
1/2 orange, cut in two
Leaf lard (rendered solely from kidney fat), or pork lard, or bacon fat. Leaf lard is by far the best choice. Bacon fat will brown but also burn quickly, so be careful with that one.
6 medium cloves garlic, peeled
3 bay leaves
1 TB whole coconut milk
1 rounded tsp raw honey
1 tsp dried oregano: if you double the amount of meat, increase the oregano to 2 tsp
Kosher salt

Charred Tomatillo Salsa
1 lb tomatillos, husks removed, sticky coating rinsed off and dried with paper towels
1 large garlic clove, still in the skin
1 serrano or jalapeno pepper
Optional: 1 dried ancho chile
1/3 c cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tsp raw honey
Kosher salt
1/3 c white onion, finely chopped

Avocado, sliced and coated with lime juice to prevent browning
1 lime, cut in 6 wedges
Large iceberg, green or red lettuce leaves, for using like "faux tortillas", allow 3 per person

Normally, pork shoulder is pretty fatty, sometimes as much as 25% fat. If that's the case, you will want about 1/4 c leaf lard. As you can see, my pork shoulder is extraordinarily lean. It's obvious that it was allowed to roam free in a pasture, got a lot of exercise, and wasn't fattened up in a feedlot. Because it's so lean, I used 1/2 c leaf lard, which was the perfect amount.

Put all the carnitas ingredients in a dutch oven and add just enough water to barely cover the meat. Add 1/2 tsp salt per pound of pork, no more. If you are using any salt other than kosher, cut the amount in half. Remember, the water is going to completely cook down, so the salt will be extremely concentrated by the time it's ready. If you're increasing the recipe meat-wise, the only other ingredient that needs to be adjusted is the oregano.

Bring to a boil on the stove, reduce to a fast simmer, and cook uncovered about 1.5 hrs, until the pork is just fork tender.

While the pork is simmering, make the salsa:
Heat a dry cast iron skillet over medium-high heat on the stove. Get it really hot. If you're using the dried ancho chile, which I highly recommend, toast it first, using a spatula to press it flat on the skillet, charring both sides. Remove to a shallow dish, cover with hot water and soak for 30 minutes to rehydrate.

To the hot skillet, add the tomatillos, garlic and serrano or jalapeno pepper. Use tongs to turn and let the skins blister. You'll be leaving the skins on, so charring about 25-30% of the skin is fine. Be sure to leave the skin on the garlic clove: the skin will blacken, but the garlic won't burn and get bitter, just soft and browned. Remove and let cool enough to handle.

Use a paring knife to core the tomatillos, cutting out the hard little cone where it attached to the plant stem. Remove the seeds from the serrano if you want it milder, chop the pepper in small pieces, and peel the skin off the garlic. Put them all in a blender and pulse on "chop" just enough to break everything down but still leaving chunks intact. Tomatillos are fairly bitter, so taste now to see if you need to add the honey. Drain the ancho chile, use a paring knife to scrape out the seeds, cut into pieces and add to the blender along with a couple of spare pinches of salt and the chopped cilantro. Pulse/chop just enough to blend everything together, leaving it a little chunky.
Pour into a serving bowl and stir in the diced white onion.

Back to the pork:
Now that it's just fork-tender, remove the orange and bay leaves and continue at a fast simmer, stirring occasionally, for another 30 minutes as the water continues to evaporate, eventually leaving only the rendered fat and lard in the bottom of the pot.

Now the pork is ready to brown. Raise the heat to medium, and use a metal spatula to carefully move the pieces around ~ it will be falling apart, it's so tender, making lots of lovely crispy bits ~ so all the meat has a chance to get brown and crispy. Using a slotted spoon, remove the browned pieces to a serving dish so the other pieces will have room to brown as well.

Serve the carnitas on large lettuce leaves topped with salsa and avocado slices with a wedge of lime. Perfection!

* * * * * * * * * *
Now for the after party: the bottom of your pot will look like this:

No need to fret! Fill it with hot water to soak while you eat dinner. Use a plastic pot brush to help loosen up the crud, wash with hot water and dish soap and rinse out. It will probably come completely clean, as mine did. But if it needs a little help, or any time you want to get rid of discoloration, just fill the pot to the top with hot water and add 1 TB bleach. Let it sit for 24 hrs and then rinse and re-wash with dish soap. It'll be good as new. :-)

The same pot after cleaning:

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