On Becoming a Carnitas-Ninja, or Not

When a guest at my house says "Oh my God this is good. Is it hard to make?" I almost always answer "No! It's really simple." Then, I begin explaining, and by about the third component I notice their eyes glazing over. As Doc says, "Your idea of 'simple' is really different from most everyone else's, you know."

So it was on that Black, Black Sunday - you may have noted there was a debacle of a football game on TV - I had a spread that consisted of these dead-simple fixings:

  • Carnitas
  • Tortillas
  • Shredded cabbage
  • Red onions
  • Guacamole
  • Radishes
  • Salsa and chips
Sounds easy, right? And it is. But I have to admit, there are a couple of different versions of easy.
Because I want you all to try this, I'm going to first give you the really, truly simple version. Carnitas de Lia. You literally rub some spices on a pork shoulder and throw it in a low oven and forget about it.
You can buy all the other ingredients (even pre-chopped and pre-made if you like) and call it a meal. But with just a teensy bit of motivation and planning you can amp everything up so that guests are feasting on "the best carnitas ever" and truly, you can choose the level of complexity. Any one of these steps would improve upon a largely store-bought meal. I mean, it's not like I made homemade tortillas or anything. Maybe that's an idea for next time...
Okay: So let's assume you want something delicious and not too hard to throw together. I SWEAR, I can walk you through this. (Yes, of course I can. Why do you doubt me?)


Level One: Nearly Rachael Ray-easy

  1. Make Carnitas de Lia.
  2. Buy tortillas.
  3. Buy shredded cabbage. [gah- you can't use a knife? how about the food processor collecting dust over there?]
  4. Buy a red onion and slice it thin.
  5. Buy guacamole (really, can't I convince you to make your own? really?)
  6. Slice some radishes.
  7. Toss some cilantro in the salad spinner and tear off some leaves in a bowl.
  8. Slice lime wedges.
  9. Open a jar of your favorite salsa and buy some good tortilla chips, throw 'em in a nice bowl.
I know you'll put everything on pretty platters or in nice bowls, but all we've really made was the Carnitas and that cooks itself. This nearly kills me. Still, here. One shot of Tequila and I'll be okay. Hold on a minute.
Okay. We can do better, can't we? OF COURSE WE CAN.

Level Two: A few simple steps to greatly improve upon a largely store-bought meal.

Or, easy replacements that won't - I promise - take your whole weekend to do.

1. Make Carnitas de Lia.
2. Buy Tortillas.
3. Buy one head of purple cabbage, one of green. Shred them very thinly with a sharp knife (or if you want something extra to clean, use your food processor or mandoline). Mix the purple and green shredded cabbage on a nice plate.
4. Mash ripe avocados* with lime juice, garlic, onion, and a little minced jalapeño or serrano chile, to taste. Here's my friend Sandra Gutierrez' recipe.
5. Slice your red onion thinly, squeeze enough lime juice to coat the onion and give it a few tosses.
6. Make some simple salsa - Elise Bauer has a couple easy recipes at Simply Recipes. This can be done ahead.
7. Buy some good chips.

Level Three: Not quite Carnitas-ninja, but close.

1. Make Carnitas de LDGourmet. Do this in four steps. Over three days. Actual hands on time is very slight, relax.
Your first step is to get your hands on a really beautiful butt. I mean a pork butt, silly. Get organically and humanely raised, no antibiotics, etc. You will see, with good farming and husbandry, you get beautiful pork. The color is rich and the meat looks wonderful.
b. Make a spice rub. Get a nice boneless pork butt, rub it with your spice rub, let it sit in your fridge overnight.

  • Take out a Dutch oven, place your rubbed pork in the Dutch oven at 275 and let it cook for hours.
  • Check on it in two hours, add the juice of an organic orange, and throw in the orange halves. You can also add some sliced yellow onion.
  • Depending on the size of your roast and the pan, your oven, etc. it should take another two hours or more. When you poke it with a fork and the meat starts to shred easily - it's done.

c. Make a red chile, sun-dried tomato sauce, I call it salsa roja. I sort of made it up, but you can approximate it easily and adjust it to your taste. The ingredients do not require a specialty grocery run. Essentially, you're toasting dried chiles in a hot, dry pan. When they're burnished remove them to a plate to cool. You'll be able to snap off their stems and shake out the seeds easily. Then break them in pieces and soak in hot water. Drain. Reserve water for use later in this meal or for soup if you like. Place sun-dried tomatoes in heat proof bowl and cover with very hot water and cover bowl. When the tomatoes are soft and the chiles, too, mix with garlic, onion Sauteed in achiote oil, chipotle in adobe. Taste as you go.

d. On day three, toss shredded pork with salsa roja. Don't add salt (remember, your spice rub has salt.)

2. Buy Tortillas.
3. Buy one head of purple cabbage, one of green. Shred them very thinly with a sharp knife (or if you want something extra to clean, use your food processor or mandoline). Mix the purple and green shredded cabbage on a nice plate.
4. Make your marinated red onion as above. I add lime zest and a little chipotle chile powder.
5.Make guacamole:
a. Amped up guacamole - I add a couple ingredients - and yes it requires a step or two. But they're easy and this guacamole is great for a party because it has tomatillos which help keep the avocados from browning.
b. Roast poblano chiles and tomatillos under the broiler on a foil-lined, rimmed cookie sheet. Broil until the poblanos are blackened and the tomatillos are browned. You will probably want to put them on two separate pans, but I wanted to minimize dishes and steps. You could scooch the tomatillos to one side and cover them with some foil to let the poblanos really blister.
c. Leave browned tomatillos on foil and gently wrap the foil around them, gathering their juice. Place the blackened poblanos in a small paper bag or even on a plate with a bowl inverted over them. The idea is you want to let them steam from their retained heat. Then you simply scrape or peel the blistered skin off them.
d. Mix salsa verde with avocados, garlic, lime juice and aji amarillo if you have some on hand. Citrus and the acid in tomatillos will help the guac stay bright.
6. Take your Corn-Tomato salsa you canned over the summer, and add fresh hot chiles, chipotle in adobe to taste. You will have a tantalizing sweet-hot-need-one-more-bite bowl of goodness for dipping tortilla chips, for adding to the carnitas tacos, or eating with your eggs in the morning.
Read, Confessions of a Canning Virgin -  the story behind these beauties.

* How to tell if an avocado is really ripe:

  1. Is it from California or Mexico? Yes? Good, proceed to #2. If no. Don't bother. It's not worth eating.
  2. Are YOU in California or Mexico? Yes? Good. Proceed to step 7.
  3. No? Forget about really good guac coming out of any avocados near you, unless your loving CA or Mexico family sent you some in time for your feast.
  4. Unless you are in walking distance to an actual avocado tree - okay, driving distance I'll give you - you are simply not going to have really good guacamole.
  5. If you have a giant pile of avocados at your favorite Whole Foods, and they are sporting "I'm ripe!" stickers, you may be lulled into a false sense of guacamole delusion. The vast majority of avocados that are picked early enough to ship across the continent, will be blackened and bruised or have no flavor at all, having been picked too late or far too soon.
  6. Evisioning that luscious bowl of guac today? Remember to buy your avos with timing in mind. If you're shopping on Thursday and your team is playing/getting spanked on Sunday, you cannot buy the ones that feel really ready now.
  7. The ones that ARE ready - whatever day you're shopping - are heavy, not too soft, not green but not black.
  8. The stem should fall out with a gentle nudge - and, Bob's your uncle as they say. In Ireland they say it. I know it's got nothing at all to do with avos. I just think it's a silly thing to say and it cracks me up.

So now you're a carnitas-ninja, or close!