Weekend cooking: Carnitas with chipotle-lime sauce
As fond as I am of dishes that can be thrown together at lightning speed, sometimes it’s nice to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon cooking, especially when it’s the sort of cooking that lends itself to watching a movie and knitting while it mostly takes care of itself.
Yesterday I defrosted a boneless pork shoulder roast I’d bought from Wood Family Farms. I wasn’t in the mood to leave the house, so I figured I’d see what I could do with ingredients I have on hand; thanks to a summer of shopping locally and putting things aside for winter, there’s lots of good stuff in my larder and the big freezer downstairs – including a supply of dried chiles of assorted varieties.
Pork shoulder takes a little more effort than, say, tenderloin. They tend to have a good deal of fat layered with the muscle, and the meat is on the tough side; a moist cooking method such as braising or stewing gives much better results than just throwing the whole thing in a hot oven.
Years ago, a friend from Mexico taught me her mother’s method of making carnitas, those bite-sized mouthfuls of pork that are so tasty wrapped in tortillas or served over rice. It involves simmering the cut-up meat in liquid for a couple of hours, a process which renders out most of the fat – and then, when all the liquid has evaporated, briefly frying the meat in that rendered fat. The resulting morsels are tender, flavorful and succulent, with crispy edges.
This is not a fast dish; it’s a simmer-all-afternoon dish. But the prep is minimal, and that gives you lots of time to concoct a spicy sauce and a couple of simple side dishes to serve with the carnitas. The result is a hearty, warming, exceedingly satisfying cold-weather meal, and the leftovers are great wrapped in a warm tortilla.
Carnitas with Chipotle-Lime Sauce
- 2-3 lb. boneless pork shoulder*
- 6 cups water
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled*
- A few black peppercorns
- 1 tsp cumin seed
Slice the raw pork into 1-2″ thick slabs, and cut those into cubes. Do not trim away the fat!
In a wide, heavy pot – a cast iron Dutch oven, for instance, or an enameled cast-iron casserole – combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until all the water is evaporated (1 1/2 to 2 hours). When nothing is left but the pork and the simmering melted fat, increase heat to medium and allow the pork to fry in its own fat, turning occasionally, until browned (5-10 minutes). Remove from heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the pork to a large bowl, draining off the fat as you do so.
Make sauce while pork simmers:
- 2 small or 1 large dried chipotle chiles*
- 2 large, mild dried peppers (I used an ancho chile and a dried paprika).*
- 1 small yellow onion, coarsely chopped*
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 Tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa (or, if you’re lucky enough to have cacao nibs on hand, substitute those)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Juice of two limes
Remove the stems from the dried chiles; split open and remove seeds (unless you want a very hot sauce)
In a small, non-reactive saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add chiles, onion and garlic. Bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until peppers are soft.
Meanwhile, toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet; cool and grind with cocoa or cacao nibs (I keep an old coffee grinder just for grinding spice; you can also use a mortar and pestle).
When chiles are done, transfer them along with the onions and garlic to a food processor with a slotted spoon; reserve cooking liquid. Squeeze two limes into a measuring cup and add enough cooking liquid to make one cup. Add to food processor and process until pureed. Taste, and add salt if needed (the resulting sauce should be smokey/tangy/spicy and a little salty). If sauce is too watery, return to cooking pot (after discarding remaining cooking liquid) and return to burner to simmer and reduce.
To serve, toss pork pieces with a few spoonsful of the sauce to coat, and spoon a little more onto the plate.
I had this tonight on brown basmati rice with a combination of black beans and dry-toasted sweet corn (Just spread frozen corn in a pan and toast over a medium heat, stirring now and then, until it begins to brown, then add black beans and stir till heated. It was tender, delicious – and not at all fatty, thanks to the long slow cooking.
Depending on what you serve it with and how carnivorous the diners are feeling, this should feed 4-6 people nicely.
(* Indicates locally grown ingredients)