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~ Justified: Carnitas w/o a Big Butt & a Vat of Lard ~

IMG_4873When it comes to cooking, if the end justifies the means, I am all for breaking the rules -- as long as no one gets hurt and the end result is not compromised.  Carnitas is the Mexican version of American pulled pork.  I love one as much as I do the other, and, while neither are hard to make, the process to do either authentically is cumbersome -- handling huge hunks of porky porcine is not my idea of hog heaven.  I also have no desire to build a Southern barbecue pit to smoke a pig, or invest in a Mexican cauldron to boil pig parts in lard.  I'll leave that to the experts.

IMG_4854A bit about carnitas (kahr-NEE-tahz):  Mexican for "little meats", in Spanish "carne" means "meat" and "ita", added to the end of a word, implies "small".  This dish is simply small shreds of rich, juicy, pork, with crispy brown bits strewn in throughout.  It's made by braising (low and slow heat) a nicely-seasoned, well-marbled, inexpensive, 8-10 pound, cut of pork known as a "Boston butt", that has been cut into manageable thirds or quarters, in a pot of lard for several hours.  When the desired tenderness is reached, after 3-4 hours, the heat is turned up so the outside begins to crisp.  At this point, the collagen in the meat has broken down enough to allow the meat to be hand-pulled or chopped and used as the meat filling in tacos, tamales and burritos.

6a0120a8551282970b01a73de6d7cf970dA bit about the butt:  "Boston butt", is a bone-in cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the "pork shoulder" from the front leg of the hog.  Smoked or barbecued, Boston butt is a southern tradition.  This cut of meat got its name in pre-Revolutionary War New England:

Butchers in Boston left the blade 6a0120a8551282970b01a511db8178970cbone in this inexpensive cut of pork shoulder then packed and stored the meat in casks called "butts". They sold the pork shoulders individually to their customers, and, when they got popular, they began shipping "the butts" Southward and throughout the Colonies.  Simply stated:  the way the hog shoulder was butchered, combined with "the butt" they arrived in, evolved into the name "Boston butt".

Sometimes, in order to satisfy a hankering for something, a new approach is necessary.

IMG_6987 6a0120a8551282970b01a73de7d10d970dWhen I decided to take a new approach to American pulled pork, I did use the pork butts. 6a0120a8551282970b01a511dc88dd970cThe change I made was to eliminate the BBQ pit and smoke 'em low & slow, 7-8 hours, in my oven.  It was easy, effective, and my barky end result has only been applauded.

Read the Related Aricle link below: ~ My Carolina-Style Pulled Pork BBQ (Oven Method) ~.

IMG_4846Mel's Mexican Carnitas -- w/o a Big Butt & a Vat of Lard

IMG_4851When I decided to take a new approach to carnitas, I switched to pork tenderloins for 3 reasons:  1) They are naturally tender. 2) Experience taught me they can easily be braised to be brown and crispy on the outside, and, moist and shreddable on the inside. 3) No matter what anyone says, leftovers reheat without much compromise, but freezing is bad. Two pork tenderloins, yields a quantity suitable for the average family.

The most famous version hails from Central Mexico.  They're flavored with an orange, onion and bay leaf, plus, aromatic dry spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and Mexican oregano.  They are popularly served taco-style, in corn tortillas.  You can top them with anything you like, but, in a taqueria, your choices will be green salsa, red salsa, or, a mix of onion, cilantro, salt and lime juice. Shredded lettuce might appear, but, never cabbage, and, you won't be offered any guacamole or crema (sour cream) either!  

Once I came up with my Mexican carnitas spice blend...

IMG_4739... I anointed myself "queen of stovetop carnitas"!

IMG_4740For Mel's Carnitas Spice Blend:

4  tablespoons Mexican-style chili powder

2  tablespoons Mexican-style oregano

1  tablespoon sea salt

2  teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2  teaspoons ground coriander

1  teaspoon ground cinnamon

1  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2  teaspoon ground cloves

~ Step 1.  Place all ingredients in a small bowl and stir together.  If you have an empty spice jar, transfer mixture to it (it will make seasoning the carnitas much easier).

IMG_4748For the pork:

2  whole pork tenderloins, about 2 1/2-3 total pounds

2 cups water (total throughout recipe)

2  large yellow onions, cut into chunks, about 2 pounds

1  large orange, cut into quarters, about 12 ounces

4  whole bay leaves

3  tablespoons Mel's Carnitas Spice Blend (total throughout recipe), from above recipe

sea salt, only if necessary, for seasoning cooked and pulled carnitas

IMG_4749 IMG_4752 IMG_4755 IMG_4758 IMG_4762~Step 1.  Add 1 1/2 cups of water to a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides.  Add  pork tenderloins followed by bay leaves.  Add the chopped onions, dividing them equally on both sides of the tenderloins, then place the orange quarters on both sides of the tenderloins.  Generously sprinkle the spice blend over all, using about 2 tablespoons.  Cover pan and bring to a boil over high heat.

IMG_4774 IMG_4766~ Step 2. Reduce heat to a steady simmer. Partially cover the pan (just allow a crack to allow steam to escape) and continue to cook for 60 minutes.  When you uncover the pan, the bottom of the tenderloins should be browning nicely, but not overly browned, and, the pan will be getting very low on liquid.  What it looks like is more important than the time it takes.

IMG_4779Step 3.  Using a spatula, flip meat over.  Add the last 1/2 cup water to pan.  Flip orange pieces over and briefly deglaze bottom of the pan, gently scraping the browned bits loose from the bottom.

IMG_4781~ Step 4. Season the tops (second sides) of the tenderloins with 1 more tablespoon of the spice blend and partially cover the pan.  

IMG_4791~ Step 5.  Continue to simmer steadily, about 45 minutes, until tenderloins are nicely browned on the bottom, and the pan is very low on liquid.  What it looks like is more important than the time this takes.

~ Step 6.  Uncover the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and, using a spatula, turn the meat to quickly crisp the exterior on all sides, about 2-3 minutes (do not scorch).

IMG_4795 IMG_4799 IMG_4802 IMG_4806 IMG_4812~Step 7.  Remove from heat, cover and rest 30-45 minutes.  Discard orange quarters and bay leaves.  In the pan, using your fingers, pull the pork into large, long shreds.  Next, pull the large shreds into thinner, long shreds.  Now it's time to pull the long shreds into bits and pieces. Lastly, using a large spoon, give the mixture a thorough stir to combine the pork with the moist (almost pureed), flavorful onions.

Note:  After the pork has been pulled and mixed, if you still want more crispy browned bits in your carnitas, you can return the pan to stovetop and brown it up even further.  That said, placing small batches in a small skillet (with a small amount of oil), on the stovetop over medium-high heat, is also my preferred method for reheating/"crisping up" enough for 3-4 carnitas at a time.

IMG_4817 IMG_4821 IMG_4826 IMG_4832~Step 8.  Using a paper towel oil an 8" nonstick skillet with about 1/2 teaspoon of corn, peanut or vegetable oil and heat over medium high.  Place 1 corn tortilla in the pan.  Using a pair of tongs, flip it back and forth 3-4 times and allow it to cook until it just starts to bubble up in the center.  Remove it to a paper towel lined plate and fold it in half.  Repeat this process until 12-24 corn tortillas are fried until crispy but still soft (some folks prefer to use 2 tortillas per taco).

IMG_4840Carnitas:  Succulent & kissed w/orange & aromatic spice. 

IMG_4861My favorite:  onion, cilantro, squirt of lime & pinch of sea salt!

IMG_4886Justified:  Carnitas w/o a Big Butt & a Vat of Lard:  Recipe yields 4 cups carnitas filling, enough to fill 12 tacos with 1/3 cup meat each.

Special Equipment List:  small bowl; spoon; empty spice jar w/shaker top (optional); cutting board; chef's knife; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; spatula; 8" nonstick skillet; tongs; paper towels

6a0120a8551282970b0168eb977ec9970cCook's Note:  For another "almost" authentic taco recipe (meaning I've made it possible to make at home), check out my recipe for ~ Tacos al Pastor:  "Shepherd's-Style Pork Tacos ~, by clicking into Categories 2, 3, 13 or 19.  I love pineapple!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


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