Mexican food is a staple in our house. The husband and I eat many tacos, taco salads, enchiladas, rice plates and quesadillas, filled with different savory meats, beans, rice or grains, and cheeses. Chicken, steak, fish, shrimp, it all makes for great fillings. Because a lot of our favorites come together quickly and have bright, fresh flavors, they are weeknight staples for us. The secret to Mexican cooking? It’s the spices. In order to whip up a fiesta in a flash, you need to have ground cumin, ground coriander, red chile flakes, New Mexico chile powder, chipotle powder, ground cinnamon and Mexican oregano in the cabinet and a handful of varied citrus or citrus juices (lemon, lime and orange) laying around. Fresh cilantro is also a must. Luckily, most of these spices are not expensive and can be found in the spice aisle of your grocery store. Look for the ones that come in the little pouches in the Mexican spice area, rather than your traditional spice bottles, to save some money.
For this recipe, though, you actually don’t need the spices listed above. This is a very simple recipe that only takes patience and a heavy cast iron pan to make it happen. Carnitas are one of my taqueria go-to items. Tender, succulent shreds of pork roast that have been slow roasted to perfection are the name of this game. Traditional carnitas are cooked covered in lard over very low heat in a very heavy pan until they quite literally fall apart, but for the sake of our arteries we won’t go there in this recipe.
Because of our love of all things Mexican food and in honor of Cinco de Mayo, I’ll give you some of our favorite recipes this week. This first one is still not healthy by any means, but sometimes only carnitas will do. And as part of a bigger meal, one little taco won’t hurt anyone.
Serves 8-10 hungry caballeros
1 fatty pork shoulder roast, about 4 lbs, stripped from the bone if bone-in, and cut into 3-4″ chunks
2 c. orange juice, freshly squeezed or from concentrate
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. dried Mexican oregano
3 chiles de arbol, crushed, or 1 t. of crushed red chile flakes
1 t. salt
In a large plastic zip-top bag or deep bowl, combine the orange juice, garlic, chiles or chile powder and salt. Put in pork pieces and let marinade in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, and up to 4. Remove from refrigerator about a half hour prior to cooking.
Preheat oven to 300*F. Heat a large cast iron skillet (I use a 10″ skillet) over medium high heat and pour in about a tablespoon of canola oil. Remove the pork pieces from the marinade and pat dry, reserving 3/4 cup of the marinade.
Sear the pork pieces on all sides in the skillet until they develop a nice brown crust. Pour reserved marinade over the pork pieces in the skillet and place in the oven, uncovered. Bake at 300*F for about 3 hours, or until pork shreds easily with a fork.
Remove skillet from oven, and raise oven temp to 450*F. Carefully shred the pork into bite-sized shreds and place the skillet back in the oven. Cook at 450*F until the liquid has nearly evaporated from the skillet and the pork shreds have a nice brown crispy crust on them, about 20-30 minutes.
Serve with lime wedges, cilantro, radish slices, your favorite salsa*, and warmed corn and flour tortillas.
* Pssst, about salsa: I RARELY make my own. If you have a great taqueria near you whose chips and salsa you love, swing by and ask if you can buy a quart of their salsa and a bag of chips. It will generally set you back less than $5 for the lot, and it’s fresher and tastier than anything you’re going to get at the store.