PORK PORK DUCK – My Quest for Authentic Mexican Carnitas

Juicy porky goodness

I’m not really sure what sets off a craving. For whatever reason an idea infiltrates your senses like aromas in those old cartoons. For me it settles in and sets up camp until it has been satisfied and could end up sticking around for any amount of time, from a few hours to months. Basically, however long it takes. I once craved a mint chip ice cream cone for 5 months one winter until it was finally warm enough in spring to properly enjoy the icy snack. Cravings have no sense of time in my gastronomic psyche, nor pity. I’m in a village in Indonesia and suddenly I simply must have a chocolate cream doughnut, or I find myself desperate for authentic Thai noodles while somewhere in Europe where there is nothing but sausage and sauerkraut to be found, a plump ripe tomato in the middle of winter, or pining for a good ol’ American burger in the south of Mexico surrounded by fish tacos and margaritas. Not that I don’t enjoy the tacos, and all the other local or seasonal foods – I most certainly do – but when you’re itching for something and you can’t have it…well, that just makes you want it more right? Chock it up to human nature I guess. Honestly, these yens can be cruel sometimes.

So if you were to ask me from whence the sudden need for some good, juicy and authentic carnitas arose, I honestly couldn’t tell you, but arise it did and I was at my local grocer’s quicker than Sarah Palin to a gun show poking around the pork section and carousing for fresh chilis. Tortillas? Check. Orange? (what? Yes, trust me) check. Cilantro, limes and onion? Check, check and check. Mexican beer? Checkity check.

Now, I had become captivated a while ago with trying my hand at making authentic Mexican carnitas. I remember feasting on the Best Carnitas Known To Man years ago in some remote town in western Mexico. Nothing has come close since. No restaurant nor taqueria. They haunt me, those blasted succulent nuggets of porky goodness nestled into homemade tortillas with fresh salsas and a squeeze of lime, savoured with cool Coca-Cola in a glass bottle under a huge palapa with pigs, chickens and stray dogs running around loose over yonder.

I realise it may be hard to fully recapture the taste of that time, but I’d like to at least try, so here I go. This may take a couple tries, but I’m willing to do the work. There is no doubt lard must figure into this dish which I am totally game for because, as we all know, lard makes stuff even yummier than you ever thought possible. Oh lovely lard…which, I was sure I had a container of in the back of the fridge but alas I find this day I do not have after all. Snif. But I do find – wait for it – duck fat, which also makes stuff even yummier than you ever thought possible. An apt substitute, n’est pas? Quandary quickly solved. I reward myself with a beer for being so resourceful!

I decided to base my recipe on a method from www.mexicoinmykitchen.com but added some additional flavours and aromatics as well. The orange gives a nice roundness of flavour and gentle acidity to the dish and balances the herbs and garlic without being overpowering. I’ve done the whole thing on the stove top in a cast iron braising pot so it’s super easy.

Give it a try! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Snow white duck fat

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1.5 # pork butt, cut in roughly 1.5” cubes
  • generous 1/2 c duck fat (lard or oil are fine too)
  • 1 small orange, sliced thinly
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/2 t dried oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • lime juice from 1/2 lime
  • corn or flour tortillas
  • good fresh salsa

Here’s what you do:

  • Melt the duck fat in a Dutch oven or heavy braising pot then add the (patted dry) cubed pork
  • Fill with water just to the top of the meat
  • Add the garlic, orange, oregano, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste
  • Bring to a boil uncovered
  • Give it a stir, reduce to a simmer and cover. Let simmer until pork is just starting to become tender, about 30 – 40 minutes.
  • Uncover, turn up the heat to a brisk simmer reducing the liquid until just the fat remains.
  • Stay close now, scrape the fond from the bottom, adjust the heat so it doesn’t burn. Move the meat around to brown on all sides. This takes just a few minutes, take care not to over cook or the meat will become dry.

Serve with warmed tortillas (corn or flour) fresh salsa verde or pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime and a cold beer. Que bueno!

Tip: Strain and reserve the left over duck fat drippings to use for sauteing whatever – potatoes, veggies, mushrooms – wonderful!!

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