Carnitas. One word. One mammoth task. I guess it didn’t have to be that way but that’s what happens when you can’t fit your pot into your oven. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Carnitas is Mexican pulled pork. A relatively new Mexican chain in the metro has this on the menu and I wasn’t exactly blown away when I tried it. I stumbled upon this recipe a couple days ago and decided to make it myself. Besides, I had some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce that I’ve been wanting to use. I absolutely adore chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. They pack some really nice heat and they also give depth to your dish because they’re so smoky. Thing is, I can’t seem to find them anywhere. I had to ask my friend Ferdie who was coming from the States to pick up a couple cans for me. I found them once, at one of those PX supermarkets in Subic, and never again. I had maybe used one pepper out of that can, making shrimp tacos at my boyfriend’s place, and I had stored the rest in the fridge. My boyfriend threw them away thinking it was an odd leftover serving of one thing or other that accumulates in there. I wanted to cry.
I modified the recipe just a tiny bit based on the ingredients that were available to me and the size of my appliances. Boo. And I added cumin. Lotsa cumin. Yes, it’s my favorite spice but more importantly, I just couldn’t imagine Mexican food without it.
I started with the chipotle sauce. For this, you’ll need:
10 local tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
2 T adobo sauce from chipotle peppers
1/2 t dried thyme
1/2 t ground oregano
1 t ground cumin
an enthusiastic dash ground cinnamon
salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 120 C. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Lay them on a baking tray and sprinkle generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with 1/4 cup olive oil.
2. Roast for 1 1/2 hours. When they’re done, set aside to cool.
3. Once cooled, peel off their skin and chop into small pieces. Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet and add in the chopped roasted tomatoes.
4. Chop 2 chipotle peppers and add into the skillet along with the rest of the ingredients. Stir and let simmer for a few minutes. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.
I totally wouldn’t judge you if you used canned roasted tomatoes to make this sauce. You can also make it a day before you make the carnitas. Not only will this lessen your workload, I imagine the sauce would also be a lot more flavorful by the time your carnitas are ready.
Speaking of them carnitas, you’ll need:
1 kilo pork butt (or pork shoulder. I used pork butt.)
7-8 cups chicken stock
2 cloves garlic
1 t dried thyme
1/2 t ground oregano
1 t cumin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
small whole wheat/flour tortillas
1. Trim the fat off your meat and pat dry before seasoning on all sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper. I’m reading the book The Elements of Cooking and according to Michael Ruhlman, patting your meat dry before searing it is crucial because if there’s moisture on it it will bring down the temperature of the oil too much and it won’t sear properly. And we want a really nice brown sear on our pork because it will seal in the flavor + help the meat retain its shape + the browning will add another layer of flavor to this dish. So put a large pot on the stove on high and heat the olive oil. When the oil is hot enough, carefully put the meat into the pan.
2. Get a good sear on all sides of the pork. Mine took more or less 2 minutes on each side. When all sides are seared, bring down the heat to medium and add in a chopped onion. Cook for about 5 minutes and add in 2 garlic cloves.
3. It was at this moment that I realized that my one hunk of meat was much larger than the other two and that I should probably do something about that. The meat won’t cook at the same time if I didn’t. I cut the large hunk in half, seared the “new” sides in a separate pan and brought them back into the pan by which time the aromatics were cooked and the pot was ready for stock. Add stock so it covers about 3/4 of the meat. Also add in thyme, oregano and cumin seeds.
4. At this point, you could put the pot uncovered in an oven preheated to 160 C and cook for 4 hours. I couldn’t do that because my oven is too small. I turned down the heat to low so my stock was simmering and left my pot uncovered on the stove. I checked on it once in a while to make sure that the pot wasn’t dried up and replenished the stock if it looked like it was too low considering how soft the meat was. About halfway through, I covered the pot hoping it might create an oven effect. Pffft. By the time it was cooked enough to fall apart when pushed with a pair of tongs, it had been cooking for a little over three hours. Mammoth, I tell you. I guess it would have been much simpler if I just had to pop it in the oven but there’s a mystery in that scenario for me. I used 7, maybe 8 cups of chicken broth because I had to keep replenishing the pot but in the beginning, about 3 cups were enough to cover my pork. If I could have just left it in the oven to cook for 4 hours after that, why does the recipe say I need 8 cups? I don’t get it. Do you? Do you understand what I’m obsessing about?? Tell meeeeee.
Bring the pork to the chopping board and pull with a fork. The strands should come off with no resistance whatsoever. This state is called fork tender.
5. Place the pulled pork into the skillet with the chipotle sauce and mix well. You can add some more chicken stock here if you think it’s too dry. Mine was a bit dry but it was also a tad salty so I added hot water instead. About 1/2 cup.
6. Finally, we can assemble! Heat a tortilla on a pan, not too long, just to warm through. Be careful not to toast your tortillas, they get brittle once cool. You can assemble your carnitas with any topping you like – salsa, guacamole, beans, corn, lettuce, cheese, sour cream or all of the above. Speaking of, I think it’s ridiculous how expensive bottled salsa is especially when you can so easily make it at home! Try this recipe if you’re up for a little extra work. It’s so worth it! And guacamole. I just made a really simple one with chopped avocados mixed with some salsa, lime juice, cilantro and pickled jalapeño peppers but if you want a different guac that’s absolutely un-put-downable with chips, try this recipe. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you! I also had some red cabbage on hand so that went on my carnitas with sour cream and cheddar cheese.
I was a little worried that my carnitas might be too salty (me and my fear of over-salting!) but with all the other components, it was pretty tasty. I think it could use a little more heat but hey, that’s nothing a bit of hot sauce or a side of pickled jalapeño peppers can’t fix. My Mom had a friend over, my Dad was home as well when I made this and they all loved it (the ladies asked for seconds!) so I hereby pronounce this dish un exito.
A completely random note on hot sauce: I can’t seem to find Mama Sita’s labuyo sauce on supermarket shelves anymore and I’m getting very nervous. If they discontinue the only decent hot sauce on the market that’s affordable to boot, my heart will break. Would any of you know what’s up with that?
Fun Food Fact: When jalapeño peppers are smoked, they’re called chipotle.