Most of my fondest memories growing up involve food. I have little pictures in my mind of barely being able to reach the counter and "helping" mom roll out tortillas. I see our family sitting around the kitchen table assembling tamales. There's the picnics at the beach with grilled burgers, grilled corn and homemade treats; my best girlfriend and I combing over my childhood cookbook trying to decide what to make next –that is, of course, after we graduated from using our Easy Bake ovens. There's also mom getting up at an insane hour to make bean and Mexican rice burritos for our 2 hour annual road trip to Disneyland; Dad coming home in the middle of the night from his carpet laying job, waking us up with the smell of banana pancakes to entice us into the kitchen to eat with him. There's the birthday cakes of all shapes and sizes that mom made for us: from Mickey Mouse to Cinderella, and because we got to choose our birthday dinner, from lasagna to beef stew, the food was always special.
There's also the days of preparation for holidays, family get-togethers, and just because. And in this latter group - the "just because" - lies a picture in my head of my dad, chair pulled up to the stove, two giant - no, ginormous - thick bottomed pots with the sounds of crackling and bubbling escaping from them and, there's dad, holding a huge wooden spoon - no, paddle is a better word - with a handle at least two feet long that he hand made for this special application: the ritual known as homemade carnitas.
Carnitas are super easy to make. Some folks like to add spice but traditionally, it's just pork butt, salt and water. I believe Dad brines his meat in milk sometimes and his ALWAYS come out the best. I think the secret to his success is his watchful eye and his intent: everything is made with so much love, how could it not be anything other than delicious?
Simple Traditional Carnita Tacos with Salsa Cruda
- 2 - 3 lbs of pork butt
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 dozen corn tortillas, for the tacos
Cut the pork butt into approximately 2" cubes. You don't want them too small or they'll disintegrate during the rendering process. Place them into a heavy bottomed pot in as close to a single layer as possible (my dutch oven is big enough for "mostly" one layer). Sprinkle the salt over the meat and add water to just cover the meat. Bring pot to a rapid boil then drop the heat down to medium-low and slowly simmer the meat until the water has evaporated, about hour to hour and a half depending on the size pot, amount of meat, etc. While it's simmering, stir the meat to turn it every 15-20 minutes.
Once the water has evaporated, the fat on the meat will begin to render out. Continue cooking and stirring every 20 minutes or so on medium-low, about an additional hour to hour and a half. Once the most of the fat is rendered out, remove the meat onto paper towel lined baking sheet. Set aside.
For the Salsa:
- 1 medium tomato, rough chopped
- 1/2 small to medium Spanish onion, finely chopped (approx. 1/3 cup)
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro, leaves only
- juice of one lime
- salt and pepper to taste
- optional: 1 small jalepeño, seeded and finely chopped
Chop the meat into bite-sized pieces. Use a griddle or large skillet to warm the tortillas. Place some meat on the tortilla and top with the salsa cruda. Serve immediately.
Some tips for success:
- When it comes to carnitas, fat is your friend. While shopping for your meat, if you have a choice between lean and one with more visible fat, get the visible fat cut. I usually pick the one with the most fat in the bunch. And when you bring it home, don't trim it off. The fat will keep the carnitas moist on the inside, flavors the meat and provides the "lard" that will render off during the final cooking stage to give that awesome crunchy exterior that good carnitas always have.
- If you dread stovetop braising because you're having to constantly adjust the heat on your burners, it's not your technique that needs to change, it's your cookware. Your cookware has probably also trained you to move the food around because this part of the pan burns browns the food too quickly. So, use a heavy bottomed pot that conducts heat really well and very evenly. A heavy cast iron, a good quality dutch oven, a heavy copper bottom pot is what you need as opposed to a thinner stainless steel or aluminum pot for this recipe. And you don't have to spend a lot of money. I bought my Lodge enamel dutch oven from Walmart for under $50 and it's paid for itself several times over since I'm no longer burning food due to a thin pot.
- Do cook on the stovetop. Don't cheat and put it in the oven. This isn't brisket. You want the meat to slowly simmer UNCOVERED on the stovetop.