Friday, November 20, 2009

I Love New Pork City, Part 1: Carnitas

I’ve been going on a pork rampage of sorts lately.  It all started when my dad visited a couple weeks ago.  It seems every time he visits, we end up picking up some Chinese roast pork and Chinese BBQ pork.  I hadn’t had Chinese BBQ in a few months, but it reminded me how awesome pork is.  It’s hard to deny the perfect harmony of a Chinese roast pork’s lean, fat, and crispy skin.  After rekindling my love for pork, I felt it was necessary to plan my next grocery list accordingly.  I picked up some nice pork shoulder and some nice pork belly.  My plan was to use 75% of the shoulder for carnitas and the remaining 25% and the belly for thit kho (Vietnamese caramelized braised pork).  So first up was the carnitas.

I have to admit that I’m a relative carnitas noob.  Even after living in Southern California for a long time, my family didn’t frequent many Mexican restaurants.  If we ever went out for Mexican food, 99% of the time it was strictly for menudo.  I still remember the place though: it was in Monrovia right next to the storefront they used as the pet store in the Beethoven movie.  When it came to taco stands, the only exposure I had was to Taco Treat which was right down the street from where we lived.  As a fat kid growing up, I was addicted to their chimichangas (basically a deep fried bean and cheese burrito) and taquitos.  I’m also a bit ashamed to say that I haven’t taken advantage of the many offerings of the large Hispanic community along Clark Street in Rogers Park which is just a stone’s throw away from me.  My only experience with carnitas is from Chipotle, and I don’t have any other reference to judge whether their carnitas is authentic.  All I know is that I like the general flavors and love pork.


I like my carnitas to have a nice sweetness and a hint tartness.  I’ve seen recipes call for orange juice or colas, but I like to use tamarind.  Fortunately, I can get fresh tamarind pods at my local Food 4 Less thanks to a large Hispanic community in the area rather than having to settle for tamarind paste.  The only problem with buying fresh tamarind pods is that none of the cashiers ever know what it is even when I tell them.  This time around when I told the cashier what it was and spelled it out for her, she couldn’t find it in her little code book because it’s actually listed as “tamarindo” rather than tamarind.  You’d think she’d be able to figure out that tamarindo and tamarind are the same thing and that tamarindo is simply the Spanish word for tamarind.

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I let the shelled tamarind simmer and steep in water until I get a nice, thick pulp.  The pulp is then strained so I don’t break my teeth on the seeds and get those stringy strands stuck in between my teeth.  Then, I let the pork shoulder braise in a mixture of tamarind, stock, onion, bay leaf, and Mexican oregano.  It’s a pretty sparse list of ingredients, but you don’t really need a lot to make a good pork shoulder taste good.  I usually brown the pork first before braising, but this time I was a bit lazy and didn’t brown it.  Another reason why I didn’t was because I wanted to try making more of  a crispy carnitas by putting it under the broiler right before serving, thus caramelizing it in the process.  I did worry that not browning the meat before braising would make the juices less robust and flavorful, but I didn’t really notice that much of a difference.

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As you can see by the charred tips, the pork crisped up nicely and gave the taco some nice texture.  I usually eat carnitas  in taco form with corn tortillas, queso fresco, cilantro, onion, lime and guacamole.  No pico de gallo for me since I’m not a fan of tomatoes and they’re out of season by now anyways.  And speaking of tacos, I really need to try out Paul Kahan’s (of Avec, Blackbird, and The Publican fame) new taco joint: Big Star.  I hear they have pork belly tacos there.  I also need to try out The Publican and their famous pork rinds.  So much pork, so little time.


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