I spent the entire of last week holed up in blissful comfort on the South Shore of Boston, having narrowly escaped the storm that devastated the entire state of Connecticut in my absence. Pure dumb luck, as I had travelled there on Friday to help prepare for my granddaughter Avery’s 5th birthday party on Sunday, blissfully unaware that a storm of epic proportions (we got 20 inches) would fall on Saturday. Thus, a week that turned into a living hell for my daughters and their families who live in Connecticut, provided lucky moi with a snug retreat, a captive audience and a venue in which to play “mad food scientist” (always a happy role for me) with abandon. While there I was finally able to put to rest my ongoing Pot Sticker experiment, the final results of which were a colossal hit with chopstick dippers of all ages.
My second and equally successful “score” for the week was Carnitas featuring (our first) homemade corn tortillas. For the filling I used a Carnitas recipe I found online, one reputedly from Cooks Illustrated. I cannot prove that this is its origin however, as it is well known that they keep a tight lid on their recipes through an online subscription service, along with what appears to be some rigorous policing. But, this recipe has all the earmarks of an ATK (America’s Test Kitchen, for the uninitiated – another name for the Cooks Illustrated gang’s operation) recipe; well-conceived, well-executed, and with predictably delectable results. So, with an appreciative nod to ATK’s competence in the kitchen, I reproduce it here for you.
After returning to Connecticut I decided to give “real” Carnitas a try, just for the heck of it. The ATK recipe is a decidedly leaner version than the traditional Mexican one, in which chunks of pork are simmered in pure rendered lard until they crisp up in the fat. Since I have read numerous accounts extolling the virtues of the “real” thing, and also had a goodly amount of my home-rendered lard in the fridge, I decided to use some to see what they would taste like, and whether the lard treatment would make a significant difference at the table. It didn’t. While it was very tasty in its own way, I think that swimming in that fat bath actually created a kind of flavor barrier between the pork and the aromatics (both recipes included the addition of a whole, unpeeled orange, along with herbs) preventing them from leaving a significant “flavor footprint” on the pork.
By the way, if you are into real food flavor, rendering your own lard is a more-than-worthwhile endeavor. It’s easy to do, it’s cheap, and best of all, it tastes just wonderful! My favorite application is a healthy (yes, healthy, stay tuned) glob applied to the bottom of a roasting pan when I’m trying desperately to squeeze at least a drop of flavor from one of today’s crummy supermarket pork roasts. Just roll a couple of onions and potatoes around in some genuine piggy fat surrounding your roast, top with some salt, pepper and fresh thyme, and you’ll get a small taste of what you’ve been missing in the pork department over the past twenty-some years. And, according to a pamphlet from none other than our own federal food police (don’t get me started!) the USDA, lard is a whole lot healthier than some fats in which we regularly indulge. Check out this quote I found in Diane Kennedy’s cookbook, From My Mexican Kitchen, quoting Joyce Goldstein in The Cooking of Southwest France:
“An interesting fact I discovered in a U.S. Department of Agriculture Publication: Handbook 8-4 revised 1979 – rendered poultry fat (goose fat and chicken) contains 9% cholesterol, and lard contains 10%, compared with butter with 22%. Since one needs less poultry fat, oil or lard than butter to sauté meat or vegetables, one will ingest less of these because butter breaks down and burns at a higher temperature, whereas others do not.”
Mine has been an enthusiastic (if regrettably late) arrival at the “true” Mexican table. For this I blame my early introduction to “Mexican food” via Tex-Mex creations (at first, largely chili), which are in fact an American bastardization of Mexican food. I was never a fan, which I chalked up to an inherent dislike for the flavors of Mexican cuisine. Boy, was I ever off-base! Once I actually ate at a Mexican restaurant featuring some of the best Mexico has to offer, I began to realize that I had been duped! From there it was a short (and infinitely rewarding) couple of steps before I was making my own versions of great, authentic Mexican food, using the wonderful cookbooks of Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy. My favorite Rick Bayless recipe to date is Jalapeño-Baked Fish With Roasted Tomatoes.
It’s only in recent years that I discovered that much of my distaste for Tex-Mex flavors lies in their common use of blended chili powders, which deliver a less-than-subtle blast of spices to one’s palate. I have since been able to revisit Southwestern dishes, having discovered Ancho Chili Powder (it is not a blend, just pure, ground dried Ancho chiles), which provides a wonderful flavor base from which to start, without the gratuitous heavy-handed addition of other spices.
My Boston-based foray with Carnitas was our (Jenn’s and my) maiden voyage making homemade corn tortillas, and I think we were both surprised at how easy (and toothsome) they were. We used the recipe on the bag of Maseca masa harina, and they were quite good, certainly a league beyond store-bought. However, I later realized that they tasted a bit flat because, I realized, the recipe called for no salt. I use very little salt in my diet, so it came as a surprise to me that I would notice its lack in something as simple as a corn tortilla. Then I remembered what I learned when making my favorite bread, Stecca. Not only is the addition of salt atop Stecca necessary, but you need just the right coarseness of sea salt for the job, and must use just a kiss of it, or the flavor of the bread suffers immeasurably. What I took away from this experience is the firm belief that properly salting your bread is as important as knowing how to ensure a proper rise. So this week when I made tortillas again, I found a few recipes online that used a bit of salt. Several also called for warm water, not cold, which I found gave me more malleable dough. The results using these two minor changes resulted in a batch far superior to our first attempt. Following the Carnitas recipe is the tortilla recipe I used.
CARNITAS (MEXICAN PULLED PORK)
America’s Test Kitchen (Cook’s Illustrated)
This filling can be used for tacos, tamales, enchiladas, and burritos.
1 (3 ½ to 4 pound) boneless pork butt, fat cap trimmed to 1/8” thick, cut into 2” chunks
Table salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 small onion, peeled and halved
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
2 T juice from 1 lime
2 cups water
1 medium orange, halved
Tortillas and Garnishes
18 (6”) corn tortillas, preferably fresh homemade, warmed (recipe follows)
Minced white or red onion
Fresh cilantro leaves (keep the stems, they’re where the flavor lies)
Thinly sliced radishes
Salsa, homemade or a really good brand of store-bought (I highly recommend Green Mountain Gringo salsa, which I consider to be the best commercial salsa in the country)
Adjust an oven rack to lower-middle position and heat the oven to 300° F. Combine the pork, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, cumin, onion, bay leaves, oregano, lime juice, and water in large Dutch oven (liquid should just barely cover meat). Juice the orange into a medium bowl and remove any seeds (you should have about 1/3 cup juice). Add the juice and spent orange halves to the pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Cover the pot and transfer it to the oven; cook until the meat is soft and falls apart when prodded with a fork, about 2 hours, flipping the pieces of meat once during cooking.
Remove the pot from the oven and turn the oven to “broil”. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a bowl; remove the orange halves, onion, and bay leaves from the cooking liquid and discard (do not skim the fat from the liquid). Place the pot over high heat and simmer the liquid, stirring frequently, until thick and syrupy (a heat-safe spatula should leave a wide trail when dragged through the glaze), 10 to 15 minutes (or longer until it becomes thick). You should have about 1 cup of reduced liquid.
Using 2 forks pull each piece of pork in half. Fold into the reduced liquid; season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread the pork in an even layer on a wire rack set inside rimmed baking sheet, or on a broiler pan (the meat should cover almost the entire surface of the rack or broiler pan). Place the baking sheet on the lower-middle oven rack and broil until the top of the meat is well browned but not charred, and the edges are slightly crisp, 5 to 8 minutes. Using a wide metal spatula, flip the pieces of meat and continue to broil them until the top is well browned and the edges are slightly crisp, 5 to 8 minutes longer. Serve immediately with warm tortillas and garnishes.
Makes twelve 5” tortillas
HOMEMADE CORN TORTILLAS
The easiest way to make round tortillas is to purchase a tortilla press. They cost about $20, and are well worth the price. I bought my daughter’s at Sur La Table, or you can purchase one online as I did, at a site like mexicangrocer.com. I found the site to be reasonably priced and reliable, and they don’t gouge you on shipping.
2 1/2 cups masa harina
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
In medium bowl, mix masa harina and salt.
Slowly add the water until the dough becomes smooth and firm, not sticky. Turn the dough out onto board and divide it into 12 equal portions. Roll into balls.
If you have a tortilla press, follow the tool’s instructions for flattening the tortillas. I use a large freezer baggie, cut in half to line the press while I flatten them, which is a common technique, and it works. I watched the following YouTube video a number of times to get the technique and rhythm down. It was the best tortilla-making video of all the ones I watched there. You should check it out if it’s your first time. I still have a way to go to get the dramatic puff she gets on that last flip. I suspect it’s got to do with the exact texture of the masa dough, and that will probably be more a matter of practice than anything else.
By hand, place a tortilla ball between two sheets of wax paper. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a thin tortilla shape.
To cook, place one tortilla at a time in a large ungreased frying pan, preferably cast iron. Cook over moderate hot heat for about one to two minutes on each side, or until each side is lightly browned.
When finished cooking all the tortillas, wrap them together in aluminum foil and place in warm oven (about 300° F) for 5 minutes.