Tell me there's anything more satisfying than this. Someone asks, around a mouthful of buttery shredded pork, "What did you put in this?" -- as if you might have jammed a stealth black truffle in there somewhere -- and you get to blithely tell them: "Salt." You clever dog.
"... That's it?"
"Oh! And water."
At this point, you might as well be a magician. That is, until your guests press for more details, when they will realize that you're just an informed and resourceful cook, piggybacking on the genius of Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy. And that's nearly as good.
Carnitas is -- are you with me? -- the greatest taco filling in any taqueria. It was my de facto order the 25 years I spent growing up in California and, after moving to New York and seeing my taco stand options dry up, it was imperative that I learn to make them at home.
Most traditional recipes involve simmering in lard (in their home state of Michoacán, this is done in a big copper pot), but I've also seen dry brining, broiling on a rack after an oven-braise, deglazing with brandy, simmering in milk, even rigging up a turkey fryer. Without a doubt, all of these are delicious -- there aren't many situations where fatty pork will let you down.
But that's just it: in all of these recipes, the common denominator is fatty pork -- which is all you really need. And on those days when you're not up for tracking down several pounds of respectable lard, there is Kennedy's recipe, which is essentially: pork + water + salt. This happy threesome simmers away together until the water evaporates and the pork browns in its own rendered fat (a.k.a. lard. Now why, pray tell, would you go buy the stuff?).
Yes, this recipe requires some vigilance once the water has bubbled away and you're left with a shallow pool of burbling fat. You'll need to carefully turn the hunks of pork, and now the scent of slow-developing caramelization will be prodding you, belly-first, into a state of frenzy. Calm yourself and any hungry-eyed passersby with a cold Modelo Especial (or better yet, a michelada) and chips and guacamole. Nobody complains when there's guacamole.
The only thing to watch out for is this: As Kennedy points out, you do not want your pork chunks to fall apart. You might think you do, but you don't. So don't cut them too small, or boil them too vigorously, or otherwise fuss with them too much. If you do, they will stick to the bottom of your pot and eventually disintegrate into shards of pork confetti. Confetti which you will eat, but it will only make you long for the tender hunks you were going for.
How to serve these (where do I begin?): The taqueria standard, at least in California, is with minced white onion and cilantro, a variety of salsas, and the occasional hot pickled carrot. Kennedy suggests salsa cruda or guacamole. But my favorite is bundled into a toasted corn tortilla with shredded cabbage, slivers of ripe avocado, and a shower of lime juice.
Diana Kennedy's Carnitas
3 pounds pork shoulder, butt, or country-style spare ribs, skin and bone removed
Cold water to barely cover
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
Got a genius recipe you'd like to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And check out last week's genius recipe: The River Cafe's Strawberry Sorbet (there's a whole lemon pulverized in there, pith and all).
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