If you read this blog and aren't familiar yet with my love affair of all things pork, well, I guess you must start somewhere.
And, if you have been reading my blog and have had enough with my references to the fantastic pig, well, I guess let this recipe change your perspective.
One of my favorite things in the world is slowly cooked pork shoulder (aka pork butt). I love how such a inexpensive yet simple cut of meat can be coaxed by flavorful herbs, aromatics, and liquids into a "melt-in-your-mouth" experience. Even in the case of the most basic carnitas - braised in a simple liquid, then deep fried and chopped and piled into a simple corn tortilla with the most meager of garnishes - I still start to salivate.
My obsession with pork shoulder, or trying to "perfect" pork shoulder, started after visiting a family favorite restaurant, Taleo, in Irvine, CA. Growing up in Southern California, where I feel Mexican restaurants out number every other type of cuisine combined, I had been over-exposed to traditional carnitas all my life. On one visit to Taleo, which is known for "authentic Mexican cuisine", using spices and ingredients from all of the Mexican provinces, my Mom asked if I had tried their carnitas yet.
"No, and I am not really in the mood for basic pork carnitas right now," was about what my response was. But, my Mom insisted they were "totally different" and that I needed to try them. I read further on the menu, and this excerpt, taken from www.taleomexicangrill.com, says it all:
"Carnitas, while a staple in Mexico City, are almost never found (properly executed) stateside. In order to be done right, they require more time and labor than other restaurants are willing to invest. It’s also a cooking technique that falls somewhere between art and science. Chef Jose’s pork comes out tender and juicy on the inside, crispy and sweet caramelized on the outside. It truly is a dish unique to Taléo."
I was, in fact, in pork shoulder heaven. These carnitas were NOTHING like I had ever tasted. Caramelized to a light crisp on the outside, super moist on the inside, and the essence of citrus and spices permeated from the plate mixed with the subtle scents of cook pork and pork fat. I savored every bite, trying to figure out what exactly had been used in the marinade as it is a restaurant secret (even the owner, who is a friend, will not divulge anything to me about the process, rather he likes to leave me guessing everytime I ask). And, the entree portion is served whole, as in not shredded or chopped up, allowing you to pull the meat apart yourself by each tasty morsel.
Since then, I have been on a recipe/ingredient quest to try and emulate the carnitas from Taleo. I have tried everything from using spice rubs, different citrus juices, prepared sauces, alterations on cooking techniques, even adding a can of Coca-Cola at one point (all thanks due to BFF Lissa and her amazing pulled pork). But, alas nothing really mimicked the fantastic pork carnitas that Taleo serves up every day. Growing tired of buying pork shoulder and freezing leftovers after leftovers, I decided to throw in the towel on the perfect copy-cat version and rather focus on other proteins, knowing when I came back to cooking pork shoulder again, this time it would be on my cooking terms and uniquely my own.
This past weekend I was at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmer's Market, and I visited one of my favorite meat, pork, and poultry producers, Marin Sun Farms. Not only are their products all sustainably farm-raised, they are also fantastically delicious. I spotted some pork shoulder, and, having had about 6 months pass since I last bought any, I decided to pick some up and figure out what to do with it when I got home.
I will admit, I did open my spice cupboard, took one look at my spice blend and a can of pineapple juice and hesitantly considered one more try at Taleo's carnitas. In the next moment of sanity, I decided to keep it simple ingredient-wise, and decided to use what I had on hand, bringing out fresh and simple flavors to enhance the amazing pork. I pulled out a head of garlic, a lemon, white wine vinegar, dried oregano, salt and pepper. I had seen a recipe recently using similar ingredients, but my version was entirely different.
Here's what I did. Add the following ingredients to a food processor to form a loose paste/marinade:
* 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
* 1 1/2 tbsp salt (kosher or sea salt)
* 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
* 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
* 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
* 4-5# pork shoulder, cut into giant chunks
Here is the pork shoulder. I just cut it into 4 equal chunks (PS I was working with roughly 3# of pork shoulder. I "upped" the poundage for the recipe as I think it will work better with the level of acidity and garlic, or follow what I did).
I wanted to keep the pork in larger chunks and allow the fat to caramelize during the cooking as well.
Spread the marinade all over the pieces of pork, and place in a baking/roasting pan - you will use this pan to cook the meat. I prefer to use glass Pyrex baking pans. Marinate the pork at least two hours. Does not need to be marinated overnight.
Post-marinade being put on pork - smelled amazing!
Preheat oven to 350*F. Bring pork out to room temperature for about 20 minutes. Place a piece of parchment paper over the pork and then wrap with foil.
Ready to bake!
Place the parchment on top of the pork. The whole purpose is to contain the moisture as the pork cooks since we are not adding any liquid to the pan.
Once wrapped with foil, bake, covered, for 2 hours. After 2 hours, remove parchment and foil and add 1C chicken broth or water to the pan; bake, uncovered, for another 2 hours, flipping the pieces over every 30 minutes and basting with juices.
Meanwhile, I decided to saute up some onions since we were going to enjoy some tacos with this pork amazingness.
And, after 4 SLOW hours of cooking, I pulled my pork shoulder from the oven. Honestly, I wish I could have captured the smells coming from the pan. The fat bad melted and broken down with the garlic, creating this roasted garlic infusion; the dried oregano blended perfectly with the meatiness of the pork, and the acidity of the lemon and vinegar seemed to fold into the rest of the ingredients. And all of that was just from smelling my concoction.
I like to use 2 forks to pull apart the meat and shred it, fat and all.
One lucky piece that ended up immediately in my mouth.
Shredding up the pork goodness.
And plating an open faced taco - I just wanted to keep it simple, and I additionally made a spicy sour cream with Cholula, chipotle pepper powder, and garlic salt.
This pork was super moist, and the crust and fat was super caramelized. It may not be Taleo's creation, but finally, I was happy with MY pork shoulder/carnitas creation. I didn't overthink anything, as I had done previously trying to perfect a recipe. And, I felt complete having honored the pig and the way it was sustainably raised by the Marin Sun Farms co-op farmers by keeping the flavors simple and fresh, honoring the pork shoulder the way it should be.
** I would love to know if anyone adapts this recipe to use in a slow cooker, and, if so, let me know how it turns out!