Taco. Just hearing the staccato drumbeat of the word turns most of us into Pavlov’s dog. If we had tails, we’d be wagging them.
But when I was growing up, the word “taco” was all too often followed by the word “bell.” Or, most commonly, it was synonymous with a cheap, fast dinner that depended entirely on the existence of a special seasoning packet and a box of hard, stale shells. Tacos were not a cause for celebration until I reached my late teens, when I discovered the taquerias of San Francisco’s Mission District. The tacos were still cheap and fast, but they were made with a level craft and authenticity you could taste.
Thankfully, great tacos aren’t an exception anymore, especially in Portland, where fillings run the gamut from Stella Taco’s deep-fried avocado to Mi Mero Mole’s shrimp Veracruzana. But my favorite taco filling is the most classic: carnitas.
The most important thing to know about carnitas, which I only learned a couple years ago while on a tour with chef/Mexican cooking expert Rick Bayless, is that proper carnitas is actually pork confit — pork cooked in its own fat. The method produces chunks of meat so incredibly moist, tender and flavorful, the resulting tacos are full-on luscious.
Traditionally, the meat is fried in giant vats of lard until browned, then allowed to continue cooking in the fat, low and slow, until tender. The French, who are famous for the technique, do it the opposite way, browning at the end, which works best for home cooks, too. After all, few of us want a boiling pot of oil on the stove when we could simply pop the cooked meat in a hot oven to give it some golden crispness.
But even a slowly simmering pot of liquid fat sounds like a tall order, which is why most recipes for home cooks require braising the meat in stock or water. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not carnitas. And the result certainly won’t be as phenomenal as the real deal. Think porky shreds verses moist, rich chunks.
There’s an easy work-around, though, which I discovered after reading this excellent, food-science-y post from chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats. In a nutshell: Drench the meat in fat and braise it in the oven.
In the article, Lopez-Alt explains that packing the chunks of pork together and drizzling them with oil mimics the effect of braising in lard. The fat traps the meat’s moisture and keeps the heat even, so there’s no chance the meat will turn out dry and overcooked.
But I realized that if you have a really fatty pork shoulder, you can skip the oil and render some of the fat, or just let it render naturally during the long, slow cooking process.
And, blessedly, fatty pork shoulder is what you get when you buy your pork from a local farmer. Every year or so, we order a half a hog from Worden Hill Farm in the Willamette Valley. These are pampered, pasture-raised pigs who dine on the finest scraps from nearby restaurants, farms and dairies, and the resulting meat is incredibly flavorful.
Yes, it’s more expensive than pork on sale at the supermarket, but the more flavorful the meat, the less you need to eat to feel satisfied. Besides, it’s worth it to know the meat came from humanely and sustainably raised animals. And it’s worth it to know our money is going directly to a local farmer and the butcher who processed the meat, in this case Ethan Bisagna at Feastworks in Sellwood. And there’s the added bonus of getting to choose exactly how we want the meat processed. We had the hocks smoked, turned half the belly into bacon, and opted to have several pounds of the ground pork turned into brats.
When we’ve run out of roasts and haven’t quite cleared enough freezer space for the next hog order, we head to Tails and Trotters, where the meat comes from local farm-raised pigs fattened up on hazelnuts. The flavor of the meat is incredible.
And that’s really what it’s all about, right? If you’re going to go to the trouble of cooking, you want it to be delicious. And a dish as elemental as carnitas requires the best ingredients to get there. That means good meat, properly cooked, and homemade tortillas of course. With those in hand, taco night becomes a taco party.
Makes about 6 cups; enough for at least 2 dozen tacos
Try to get a pork shoulder topped with a thick layer of fat, which usually means you’ll have to buy it from a boutique butcher, not the supermarket. If you can’t, you can fake it by adding vegetable oil (or rendered pork fat) to the meat before cooking.
1 3- to 4-pound fatty pork shoulder
1 onion, quartered
5 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 orange, quartered
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted pork fat (optional)
Carrot-Radish slaw or salsa of choice (see note)
1/2 cup queso fresco
2 avocados, sliced
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
6 limes, quartered
Hot sauce or salsa
Preheat oven to 275°F. Cut the pork shoulder into 2-inch chunks. If you can, make sure some pieces are purely fat. (you’ll render them into melted fat. If your pork shoulder isn’t fatty enough to do this, it’s ok, use the vegetable oil or melted pork fat at that step.)
Place the pork, onion and garlic in a small (3-quart) Dutch oven or 9-by-13 baking dish. Toss with the oregano, sugar and salt. Squeeze the oranges over the pork, then toss the rinds into the pot, along with the bay leaves. Tuck everything in so it fits nice and tight.
If you have pieces of pork fat, heat them in a small saucepan set over medium heat until the fat renders. You need at least 1/4 cup.
Pour the pork fat or oil over the meat in the dish (add the rendered pieces of fat too. They still have flavor to contribute). Cover with the lid or aluminum foil and place in the oven. Cook until pork is fork tender, about 3 1/2 hours. Discard the orange pieces and bay leaves. When cool enough to handle, shred pork into large chunks. Pour the cooking liquid in a measuring cup and allow the fat to rise. Spoon out all but 1/4 cup (refrigerate the extra pork fat for another use, like sauteeing vegetables). Mix the remaining fat and cooking juices into the pork. (Carnitas can be prepared up to this point and refrigerated up to three days in advance.)
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Arrange pork on a baking sheet (or if it’s in a baking dish, just leave it in there). Roast the pork, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes until it’s browned and crisp on the edges.
To serve: Heat tortillas on a skillet or griddle, transferring to a tortilla warmer, or stacking in a clean dish towel, to keep warm as you go. Set the carnitas and bowls of toppings on the table. Allow everyone to build their own tacos: place two to three tablespoons carnitas in the center of each tortilla, top with slaw, queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, a squeeze of lime and dash of hot sauce or salsa, as desired.
Note: To make the Carrot-Radish slaw, in a bowl combine 2 cups peeled, grated carrots, 3 large radishes sliced paper thin, 1 shallot sliced paper thin, ½ cup cider vinegar, juice of ½ an orange, ½ teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper.