Here I go again posting another traditional, iconic recipe. It’s a little nerve-wracking because with recipes like these, opinions run strong, traditions muster up emotions and memories, and you can look like a fool for trying. But I’m pretty obsessed with authentic, uninterpreted ethnic cuisine. I’m so utterly bored with fusion cuisine, modern interpretations of traditional dishes, and recipes simplified for the home cook. I want the real, time-honored recipe. Even if it takes me all day to cook it, that’s what I want to eat. It’s why I have been eyeing making a proper mole for like 5 years, but have yet to make it (yellow mole aside, which I have made and is much simpler by nature). And it’s why I spent a whole week sourcing and rendering enough lard to make carnitas. I’ve made slow-roasted pork before, and it’s wonderful. But it’s not carnitas and I’m not going to call it such. And don’t get me wrong, I’m a-okay with simple recipes. It’s the bulk of what I make. And on a weeknight I’ll make simple versions of complex recipes. They’re weeknight meals. I just want to eat. But I get exceedingly excited about recipes like carnitas, that are slow-cooked in a vat of lard with a host of spices and aromatics and have been perfected by countless Mexican cooks for decades and decades.
Aaaand, after saying all of this, I have to admit, I modified. I just couldn’t render enough lard by the time I absolutely needed to cook the pork shoulder I bought. So defeated. I oven cooked it. Tightly packing a casserole dish was the only way I could cover the pork with the amount of lard I had. But I still cooked it in lard! And that was my goal when making carnitas. It sounds gross, like the lard will permeate the meat and make it super greasy. This isn’t the case at all. If you’re into nerding it up, you can read this fun article on the science of cooking carnitas.
Even though you’re not going to be consuming large quantities of the lard, don’t buy that stuff in the bright blue tub from the grocery store. That is junk. Basically animal margarine. Sick. Render your own. It’s real easy and Whole Foods or a local meat market will give you as much pork fat as you want for a decently cheap price. Whole Foods was $2/lb and my meat market was $1/lb. Once you get the pork fat, trim off any meat still attached and cut it into as small of pieces as you can bother to do. Roast in the oven in baking pans for several hours at 225 degrees. At some point the fat pieces won’t give up any more rendered fat. You can then drain the fat and save the cracklin’s for later or fry them up with salt and eat them. When you drain the fat, pour it through a paper towel, fine mesh sieve, or a coffee filter into a jar. For the purposes of making carnitas, I’m not sure filtering it is necessary, but what the heck. If you have any leftovers, you’ll want it filtered. Burnt up bits of pork in your morning eggs – eh.
I’m also super obsessed with roasted pigs on a spit. I’ve possibly been watching too much No Reservations on Netflix Instawatch, but I practically dream about eating some of that crispy roasted pig skin. WHERE CAN I FIND THAT IN DENVER?! I’ve seen some special events at fancy restaurants where they’ll roast a pig and the tickets only cost you a cool $100 or something. I want to know if there’s some ethnic-y hole-in-the-wall where they roast a pig every day and you show up and get your share and when the pig’s gone, you gotta wait until the next day. I don’t know if that exists or if that’s how they’d do it, but it sounds magical to me.
I made this in my basement, as I’ve been doing a lot recently because my house is so freakin’ hot. We have a second kitchen down there (with a non-working refrigerator… ugh, thanks landlords) and the stove is this real cool 1950s dual oven thing. Love it.
3.5 lbs pork shoulder, cut into 4-inch pieces
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 lime, zested and halved
1 orange, zested and quartered
1 medium onion, quartered
6 garlic cloves, smashed
2 bay leaves
1 Mexican cinnamon stick, broken into 4 pieces (true cinnamon you can break/crumble really easily)
lard (about 2-3 cups, melted)
1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Melt your lard if it’s not a billion degrees in your house.
2. Place pork in a 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish. Sprinkle salt over pork and toss to coat. Add the zest and the juice from the lime and orange, and put in the squeezed rinds. Place onion quarters, garlic, bay leaves, and cinnamon amongst the pork as well. Pour melted lard over surface, making sure it’s in every nook.
3. Cover dish with aluminum foil and cook until pork is tender, about 3 1/2 hours.
4. Using a ladle, remove everything but the pork and some lard. Turn on the broiler and broil the pork for about 20-30 minutes, turning once or twice to make sure you’re crisping all sides of the pork.
5. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pork pieces and place on a paper towel to drain.
Serve this as a taco, eat right from the plate, or garnish it with queso añejo, cilantro, lime juice, and some sort of delicious salsa – tomatillo or smoky ancho chile would be wonderful. Hey, you can top it with your bounty of cracklin’s too!