I lost my caste during a class picnic in the fourth grade, when I ate a beef hot dog (and liked it) but it wasn’t till I returned to live in the US a second time, as an undergraduate, that I set out to explore a bit further. I discovered bacon. I discovered homemade hamburgers cooked medium rare. I discovered (her voice drops to a reverent half-whisper) sushi. There was no looking back.
Carnitas is one of the things that I found when I strayed from the strict edicts for being a good Brahmin girl.
Carnitas is a Mexican preparation in which pieces of pork shoulder are braised and then allowed to brown in the fat they render. Pork fried in pork fat. You can’t go wrong. There are several good recipes out there. David Lebovitz calls for searing the meat before braising it. Deb Perlman seasons the braising liquid mildly and lets the meat brown after it’s been cooked. And simplest of all is Diana Kennedy’s 3-ingredient recipe.
Me, I have a thing about following instructions in the kitchen. I don’t like to do it. I want always to make it mine. I decided to follow Deb’s basic technique, but to braise the meat in… well, in mulled wine. What?! No, seriously, it’s really good. Pork and mulled wine go nicely together. And the resulting melting hunks of meat pair beautifully with corn tortillas, avocado, minced onion, sour cream and cilantro.
Just make sure you start this well ahead of time. It’s a super-easy, fool-proof dish, but it does need 2.5 – 3 hours of cooking time.
Carnitas in Mulled Wine
Serves 6 – 8
Salt – 2t
Pork shoulder – 3.5 – 4 lb, cut into 2″ chunks
Spices: 2 sticks of cinnamon, about 10 cloves, 4 – 5 dried red chiles (or crushed red pepper flakes, 2t or more to taste), 1 – 2 T black peppercorns (lightly smashed)
Zest of one largeish orange, in large strips
1 bottle of an inexpensive red wine that you would drink happily out of a glass
Accompaniments: corn tortillas (2 – 4 per person, warmed over an open flame — use tongs), minced red or white onion (1/4 per person), minced cilantro (1/3 cup per person), diced avocado (1/2 per person).
- The night before: Salt the pieces of pork lightly. I used about 2t for just under 4 lb of pork. Place in a non-reactive, closed container and let rest in fridge overnight. If you didn’t have the time for this step, no worries. Just salt the pork and let it sit while you do the rest of the prep work.
- Set it up: Into as large a pot as possible, arrange the pork pieces in a single layer. (A bit of overlap won’t hurt, but a single layer is nice for browning.) Toss in the spices, zest and a bottle of wine. Add enough water to bring the liquid level up to barely cover the pork. (I topped the liquid up a bit more than in that first picture.)
- Braise: Bring to a boil, uncovered. (No skimming necessary.) Turn heat down to let the pot simmer, uncovered, for two hours. Don’t stir! Set a timer and go do something else. Come back to check after 90 minutes or so.
- Brown: Once the liquid has evaporated, turn the heat up to medium-low, so that the pork renders some fat and the pieces of meat brown. Turn the pieces very gently if you need to, once they start to get super-brown and crusty. Remove pieces to separate container once evenly browned. Shred coarsely with a fork into bite-size pieces.
- Deglaze (optional): At this point you can deglaze the pan with wine or stock (or hot water), so that you don’t lose the delicious brown bits (called “fond”) at the bottom of the pan. See Notes (below) for details.
- Serve: Put out bowls with sour cream, cilantro, onion, diced avocado, the pork and warmed tortillas. Let people assemble the components as they like. EAT!
I like to deglaze the pan with about a third of another bottle of wine. You can use chicken or beef stock, or even hot water in a pinch. Turn the heat up after removing the pork. Give it a minute. Pour in the wine or stock and scrape up all the brown bits with a wooden spoon. It’ll take a minute. Now lower the heat and let the liquid evaporate till you get a thicker consistency. Take the pot off the heat; strain the liquid and discard the solids. Use the resulting sauce for yummy things. You could pour it over the pork and some rice (mmm). You could make a roux and thin it with this sauce for a thicker gravy. Heck, you could just drink it as is. Kidding. Please don’t do that.
For braising, find a wine that is cheap but yummy–if you wouldn’t drink it straight, don’t cook with it. Plus you can buy two bottles, braise with one, deglaze with a third of the other, and drink the rest without worrying about whether the pairing will work. Of course it will. Tonight, I used a $9 Chilean Carmenere. It’s thinner than I generally like (I like my wines full bodied, with a distinct “weight” on the tongue) but it’s very smooth, goes down easy, and is, I think, an “easy” wine–great for non-picky drinkers, or wine novices, but good enough for more seasoned wine enthusiasts to drink happily.