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Carnitas: bring that porky magic to your own kitchen

Even though we’ve only been out of Mexico for three months now, we’re already starting to get the DTs for some good tacos. (or perhaps the more appropriate term is TTs– taqueria tremens??) We’ve not done an exhaustive taqueria inventory in the DMV area, but we are starting to get skeptical enough that I’ve begun researching recipes for replicating my favorite tacos at home. But with the zillions of taco options available in DF, where does one start?

Well, if I were forced to rank-order the taco offerings of Mexico City (which, as others before me have probably analogized, is really like being asked to choose between your own children), tacos al pastor would almost certainly take the number one slot. But most professional tacos al pastor recipes are a closely held secret, plus I have mental hang-ups over trying to make tacos al pastor without the iconic vertical spit. John hasn’t shown any signs of willingness to install said vertical spit in our kitchen, despite my assurances that putting it right where the window is would surely allow for sufficient ventilation.

Can you say, "Ways to Increase your Home's Resale Value 101"?? I'm sure I saw a rotisserie-spit installation on an episode of "Flip This House".

So while investigating a pastor recipe is still high on my list, I shelved that temporarily while looking into the city of Arlington’s feelings regarding spits installed on townhouse porches. This brings me to taco-child #2: carnitas. Carnitas is another pork-based taco offering (so you’re sensing a theme here…). I think some people get freaked out by the tendency of carnitas to arrive with not only meat but fatty/skin bits, but FYI– you can specify white meat only to your taco vendor. Word on the street was that carnitas get their rich, amazing flavor by cooking in fat, so I had kind of assumed carnitas would be either overly complex or overly horrifying to make at home. BUT then I came across this well-researched post from Homesick Texan.

She outlines a carnitas strategy based on a Diana Kennedy recipe that seemed so easy, it would be rude *not* to try it. I also liked that there was no ingredient of “x kilos of pork fat”, as I saw in other recipes online. To be clear– there’s still plenty of fat that renders from the pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt), but my arteries took some solace in knowing that at least we weren’t adding any more to it.

We used a ~5 pound pork butt & increased the liquids accordingly; took about 3 hours for cooking, as the recipe indicates. I foolishly neglected to take any photos before we set our Le Creuset pot filled with shredded carnitas goodness out on the table for our small gathering Saturday night, along with the traditional fixings of cilantro, raw onions, salsa verde & salsa roja. So you’ll just have to trust me when I say they were a wild success, and frankly some of the better carnitas I recall eating! I felt obligated to pass the recipe along to you, in the event you’ve not had the chance to try them anywhere like fan-favorite Carnitas Paty in Mexico City’s Mercado Jamaica.

Carnitas  (courtesy Homesick Texan)

adapted from Diana Kennedy

3 pounds of pork butt
1 cup of orange juice
3 cups of water
2 teaspoons of salt

1. Cut pork into strips (three inches by one inch), add to a large pot with the liquids and salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer uncovered on low for 2 hours. Do not touch the meat.
2. After two hours, turn heat up to medium high, and continue to cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the pork fat has rendered (about 45 minutes). Stir a few times, to keep pork from sticking to bottom of pan.
3. When pork has browned on both sides, it’s ready (there will be liquid fat in the pan). Serve either cubed or shredded (pork will be tender enough that just touching it will cause it to fall apart).
Goes very well with a green salsas such as Ninfa’s green sauce or this tomatillo salsa or this salsa verde with avocados and tomatillos.
Serves 4-6


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  1. Lesley says:

    Yum! I’ve had no desire to make my own carnitas since I can get fantastic ones a few blocks away. But it’s heartening to know there are some good recipes out there. Also, if you’re searching for a pastor recipe, I’ve been wanting to try this one: http://grantourismotravels.com/2010/09/07/the-dish-tacos-al-pastor/

    1. Julie says:

      Ha- I know, we were laughing about how half of the Mexican dishes we made Saturday were things we’d never made before because you could get everything sooo good & sooo cheap anywhere in DF! Now we are forced to be more creative… 😉

  2. Hey Lesley, I don’t blame you for not trying them yet. If I was living in DF I wouldn’t either. I feel like Julie does.
    Damn, I miss them so much. Between pastor and shawarma (from our dozen years in the Middle East), I feel a vertical spit is going to be mandatory in the kitchen when we eventually settle down.

    1. Julie says:

      Terence– keep me posted; perhaps we can investigate buying-in-bulk discounts from spit vendors in a couple years?? 😉 I’d forgotten about your pastor recipe; will definitely give it a shot in the near future!

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephanie Diehl, Julie Carmann. Julie Carmann said: How to make amazing Mexican carnitas tacos at home http://wp.me/pBLxT-IR courtesy @homesicktexan!! #mexmonday […]

  4. laurencancun says:

    Hahaha – would you believe that I am not so much a taco fan?? I know, I’m crazy!!! I think it has to do with the look and texture of the meat!!! Also, hubby assures me that Cancun tacos are nothing like DF tacos. He says I’ll agree if I give the DF ones a chance when we go there, which I will :) Nonetheless, can definitely appreciate this post!!!

    LOOOOOOVE the picture – you could start a trend :)

    1. Julie says:

      Lauren– I have to assume you have been faced with some concerning, lesser, cancun-style tacos… We need to get you to DF asap!! 😉 Give my friend Lesley a holler @ http://www.eatmexico.com and she will direct you to the optimal street taco offerings! I know, I really feel like the in-kitchen spit is a trend coming soon to the DC area…

  5. Maryluna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this recipe. I tried the carnita recipe on Saturday. Let me say they were delicious!! I can get carnitas at the carniceria that is about 10 minutes away, but it costs about $6 or $7 a lb. I bought some pork at the supermarket that was labeled “for carnitas” at $1.79 a lb. Big difference! And the taste? Practically the same. After mine were done- brown and no liquid left, they still didn’t look as crisp as I like them so I shredded the pork and added a bit of oil to fry them up a bit.

    I made my own tomatillo salsa too. Very easy and did taste a lot like the taco vendor’s green salsa I like (I like the one with fresh onion and cilantro in it). I just boiled 5 tomatillos and 3 jalapeños (not spicy at all), I blended them really well without the liquid. Then I got 1 tbsp of oil and put it in a small sauce pan and added a minced garlic clove. I then added the blended tomatillos and jalapeños and added knorr suiza (chicken buillon) to taste and a bit of salt. I let it boil, then removed it and put it in the blender again. I added some fresh cilantro and onion and blended it until the cilantro and onion were chopped, but not completely blended, and I added a couple squeezes of lime juice. My mom and I have been putting green salsa on everything. So good!

    Thanks again for sharing!!


    1. Julie says:

      Hi Mar! Great to hear you enjoyed the porky treats, and your salsa sounds great as well! Yeah, I was surprised at how cheap the pork shoulder was… this may get added to the “regular appearance” list in our kitchen… 😉

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