Cooking for a Crowd: Carnitas and Red Chile Sauce


We recently said adieu to some friends. It wasn’t a terribly painful parting, as they’re sure to be back in two years, after Corbin’s assignment in New Jersey ends. But it was still bittersweet. Amy and I have not seen enough public gardens, yet.

There were about 15 of us who gathered for this shindig. The other two co-hosts, Adele and Lucia, made salads and desserts. Guest of Honor Amy made some seriously wonderful guacamole. I offered up Borrachos and Carnitas.

There were margaritas. Yes, there were.

I’ve never made carnitas, but I’ve eaten them many times, from Chipotle’s simple fare to the exceptional street food in Mexico. When they’re good, carnitas are silky, crispy, succulent. When bad? greasy, tasteless, stringy, dry.

I was determined to do it right. I read Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless. I searched through the Gourmet Cookbook, How to Cook Everything, and a few other books on the shelf. I trolled the internet from David Lebovitz to WilliamSonoma. I put out the question to the Twitterverse.

And this is what I came to understand. Carnitas are twice cooked. First, slow roasted with herbs, spices and – always – oranges, cinnamon stick and onions. Some recipes called for oregano (Mexican) or thyme. Some recipes use chiles and rubs to create heat in the slow cooked portion.

Carnitas start out the same way as most confits. The meat is poached slowly in fat. The fat created by the pork shoulder is not sufficient to submerge the shoulder, either whole or cut into chunks, so it’s necessary to supplement  with additional fat. Some recipes called for lard, others for olive oil. I went the traditional route and used lard – good lard, from Smith Market Farms. It smelled clean, slightly bacon-y.

But, using a technique learned in Charcuterie class, I also added quite a bit of water. By mixing the fat with water, the temperature will not rise above 212°, the boiling point of water, and the meat will not fry, but will slow-cook and poach.

Next, the meat is crisped – broiled.

Then, they are wrapped up in a tortilla with a sauce, and appropriate garnishes. It’s a red chile sauce, as a matter of fact. I recieved this sauce info on very good authority from good friend Jen at Last Night’s Dinner. And drew upon my experiences at our friends’ home in Tepoztlan, Mexico, cooking with Tere, their fantastic cook.

Here is the recipe and the technique I culled from all those sources. It made a scrumptious, silky, crispy meat with an incendiary chile sauce on the side.

Maybe you’re going to celebrate the end of summer and have some people over for Labor Day? Try this recipe. You’ll impress yourself.

Pork Carnitas
Serves 8-12, depending on menu

3.5-5# pork shoulder or pork butt – I don’t need to tell you to buy free ranging, foraging pork, do I?
1 T kosher salt
3 large yellow onions, quartered
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 oranges, quartered
2 cinnamon sticks
3 bay leaves
1 large bunch of thyme
1 pt good quality lard or good olive oil

Two days before you’re going to confit the pork, rub the salt all over the meat and refrigerate, covered.

One or two days later, whatever works with your schedule, cut up the pork into large chunks. Don’t wash the salt off – it’s all the salt you’ll be using for the entire recipe. You can skip the salting and resting part, but I think it makes for better crispy parts.

Part one – Confit
In a large heavy pot – I used a 7 qt. Staub – layer the pork chunks, onions, garlic, oranges, cinnamon, bay leaves, thyme and lard. Start this all slowly on top of the stove while the oven preheats to 225°.

As the lard melts, stir things around. Once it’s all melted, if the meat is not completely submerged, add water to raise the level. Bring all this to a slow simmer.

Put the uncovered pot in the oven to slowly cook for 4-6 hours. Check on it every 30 min. or so, stir gently and add more water if needed. It should be slowly simmering.

Once the meat is falling apart tender, remove from the oven. Part one is now done. You can either store the pork in the fat until you are ready to serve, or you can move directly on to part two.


Part two – Crispy Bits
Remove the meat from the fat. Some of the fat will be needed for the crisping, so don’t be obsessive. Whether or not you save the fat, to cook your next batch of carnitas, is between you and your freezer.
Shred into large chunks and spread out on a parchment lined baking sheet.
Broil for 6-10 minutes, depending on your broiler – so watch – until the edges are nice and crispy.

You’ll want to have a sauce for this pork. One that is laced with the heat and smoke and depth of great chiles. I love the chocolatey nature of the pasilla, and the heat of the guajillo and the bite of the arbol. I made the sauce one day in advance, to let the flavors develop.

Red Chile Sauce
can be made ahead
If you have a comal, blister the vegetables on that. I used my skillet.

12 plum tomatoes
4 yellow onions, quartered
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 dried guajillo chile
1 dried pasilla chile
1 dried ancho chile
2-4 dried arbol chiles

Toast the chiles, then seed, stem and rough chop.
Blister the tomatoes, onions and garlic until blackened and the skins are splitting. Core the tomatoes.
Add everything to the blender and puree.
Add back to the skillet, heat and thicken slightly.
Serve hot.

Serve the carnitas with every good thing

Flour tortillas, warmed
Guacamole
Pickled or Fresh Jalapenos
Scallions
Greens or Cabbage or Arugula
Chunks of fresh tomato
Roasted corn
Queso Fresco
Red Chile Sauce
Extra hot sauces
Borrachos
Rice

At the party we also served: a cabbage slaw, tomato salad, grilled corn
Dulce de Leche Brownies, blackberry cobbler, vanilla ice cream
Perfect.

All best wishes to Amy, Corbin, Hayden and Koda in their new home.

Have a happy, safe, end-of-summer weekend.

I’ve heard the NPR piece will air sometime next week. In the meantime, a lovely web piece has been posted on the NPR site.

12 thoughts on “Cooking for a Crowd: Carnitas and Red Chile Sauce”

  1. first off – cracking up at the idea that you're losing some friends to an assignment in … NEW JERSEY … AAAAAAGH! Hee.

    Anyway – these carnitas look fabulous and I can't wait to gather a large enough group together to inspire me to make my own batch.

  2. These look absolutely fantastic, and thanks for the shout-out! As my little brother has relocated to your neck of the woods (with his wife and baby girl soon to follow), you can bet we'll be in the area for a visit soon, and I look forward to getting together with you to raise a glass and share some fabulous food ;)

  3. Mary – yes, it's sad to lose a friend to NJ. I'd love to hear about your carnitas adventure when you do it.
    Gail – you can always ALWAYS bring dessert. And I wish you lived closer too.
    Jen, Can Not Wait to see you here in my town. I hope we can cook together. That would just make my day. And thank YOU for the help in figuring out the sauce. Most recipes don't include a sauce, but I thought it was a necessary component.

  4. LOL – I have lived in San Diego for 36 years and never have I attempted carnitas…Your recipes look superb!I love the way you throw yourself into a cooking project, Cathy.

  5. Never has a blog post left me salivating. I will have to try your carnitas. We live in North Texas and still don't run across them too often, at least not good versions.

    Heard your story on NPR and it was delightful. Reminded of the times when I get together with my dad and my two sons to make salsa. Same process as putting up tomatoes.

    Recipe:
    Roughly chop in a standard blender: 6 seeded tomatoes, 1/2 white onion, 1 serrano chile – seeded (more if you dare), 3 good pinches kosher salt and finely ground black pepper (small enough to disappear). Good for one quart jar, scale up as needed. Either eat fresh or process as your would tomatoes and you can have some later. Extremely simple but tasty.

  6. I heard the NPR piece today and that prompted me to come over and check out your blog. I have been meaning to look up a good carnitas "how-to" so thank you *so* much for this. I can't way to try it and I'm looking forward to following your blog!

  7. Thank you for all the benefit of your research! Yippee Our family loves Mexico and its authentic flavors as well. So, wow recipes to my google docs for safe keeping and future reference. Like TC, wishing is great but doesn't quite get me there. he he Wonderful post and thanks for sharing.
    AmyRuth

  8. THANK YOU for this recipe. I host a cultural thanksgiving every year and this year its Mexico (Oaxaca, to be exact). This fits is beautifully.

  9. Thanks, AmyRuth. Let me know how they come out! I hope they're essentially authentic. Having never done more than eaten a LOT of carnitas, I gave it a good try.

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