Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Carnitas: The intersection of
pork, science, and sloth

My friend Herb is so funny. He is a brilliant scientist, great friend, and wonderful cook. He does almost all the cooking in his household (I cannot begin to imagine) and particularly excels in roasting. And not only meats—vegetables too. You should taste what this man can do to brussel sprouts.

There had been a bone-in pork shoulder staring me in the eye every time I opened my freezer, and I decided it was time to let it out. Food blogger extraordinaire Jen, had a recipe for carne adovada that looked good, but I was frightened by her admonishment that "Carne adovada is a spicy dish." The chiles that she puréed up were lovely to look at but I'm sure they would have made me cry. I wanted a traditional carnitas, so I zipped off an email to Mr. Roast. One of his signature menus is what we have come to call taco narf. It's an amazing menu that includes often carne asada, grilled shrimp, carnita, and an amazing array of condiments. What, I wanted to know, was Herb's recommendation for carnitas.
Hi Cindy,

I'm not actually a very frequent Carnitas-maker. I seem to recall that long
ago I did make something of that nature at Steve&Diana's, but I must say
that I don't recall exactly what I used for that. If you were to ask me what
I would do if I were making such a thing today, I would probably steep my
pork shoulder at least all day in a light brine made with 1:1 dry
sake:pineapple juice, maybe 2% salt and brown sugar by weight. This I would
season with a bit of cumin, ground cinnamon, marjoram,white pepper, bay
leaf, a bit of garlic, and perhaps some ground allspice. You could also
prepare this as more of a paste rub by cutting out all or nearly all of the
liquid, and just letting the shoulder sit in the fridge inside a tight
gallon Ziploc bag covered in it. The high osmotic pressure of the sugar/salt
will pull some juice out of the meat and turn it into a highly concentrated
brine/marinade over a few hours. This will result in more of a spicy crust
on the outside.

As to the endless low-roasting protocol, I am not a big fan, but perhaps
I've never done it right. In my experience, pork shoulder comes out pretty
tender no matter what you do, and roasting it overnight would just introduce
the risk of making it all dried out. Brining should be helpful in mitigating
against that in any case, as it will increase the ability of the meat to
retain fluid during that long air drying. My general preference, FWIW, is to
employ some kind of moist heat method for the initial ~2hr. cooking time,
e.g. a foil-covered braise in an inch or so of liquid in a roasting pan,
followed by a brief exposure to dry heat at much higher temps (~450F) in
order to generate the outer crust. That's what I do with oven-braised cuts
of tough meat like Osso Bucco or pot roast. But I should stress that unlike
these cuts of meat, pork shoulder does not require a lot of tenderization in
my experience. My recollection when I tried to use this moist-dry approach
last time was that after a couple of hours in the oven at like 250F, the
pork was pretty much falling apart already, and I had some difficulty
searing it on the grill subsequently because of that.

Anyway, I'm holding forth at much greater length than I had initially
intended to, so I'll stop now and hope that in all this discursive rambling
I have hit upon something that you may find of use. By all means do let me
know what you end up doing and how it turns out, because I could use some
guidance in this Carnitas area myself....

Did I mention that Herb is a scientist? Whereas I realize that many of his signature dishes are as amazing as they are because they are informed by principles of science and that there is much good information here, I wanted to make carnitas with as little effort and in as little time as possible. This was Friday; we were leaving for the mountains Saturday afternoon, and I needed the carnitas ready to go by then. So here's what I did (the "sloth" part of the post):

I liked Herb's suggestion of citrus, so I mashed up some achiote paste (made from slightly bitter, earthy flavored red annatto seeds) with fresh orange juice to make a sort of glop.

I coated the pork shoulder with this, sprinkled on a liberal amount of salt, placed it in a roasting pan, and put it in the oven at the lowest temperature overnight. And then went to bed. But I did awake several times in the middle of the night in a panic, wondering who was cooking in my house in the middle of the night before remembering that . . . I was. I took it out late the next morning.

I shredded the meat with a fork, saving the pan drippings

 I discarded the bone, mopped up some of the fat that had cooked off, and combined the shredded pork with the pan drippings, which I scrapped up to mix with the meat.  It all went back into the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes—just long enough to crisp up the meat. 

Can you smell it? After swatting away family members who wanted to pick, I let it cool and packed it up for the mountains. 

The next night for dinner, all I had to do was warm it in a pan (on a camp stove, but that's another post) and assemble the condiments. I did go back to Jen for her guacamole recipe, which is more or less the way I usually make it, except I use lime instead of lemon. What was new for me was the garlic/salt paste she makes. It gives just the right amount of flavor without letting the garlic overwhelm. Condiments included roasted tomatillo salsa, some (not too bad) early California tomatoes, cabbage slaw, fresh cilantro, and cheese (cheddar and ricotta salada).

The skiers I know will eat just about anything when really hungry at the end of the day, but the enthusiastic thumbs up was nice. Especially since most of the preparation for this dish occurred when I was asleep.


Jen Yu said...

wow, you did all that prep before going swooshing? i'm impressed. sometimes i just think, "i'll pay $10 for the damn burger" it looks much better than those stupid burgers though. the spicy is tough to gauge because the peppers vary in spiciness so much. but i love spicy food, so the spicier the better. jeremy not so much.

i too have niggling nightmares when i run the oven or crock pot overnight. makes me batty. i hope you guys had a blast!

Anonymous said...

I do have to admit that I am a little bit afraid of fennel. The reason being is that I only like iceburg lettuce and every other type of lettuce freaks me out. And celery. Fennel, to me, looks like a cross between freaky lettuce and celery and I just can't do it...yet.

Anonymous said...

It looks amazing. I'll have to try it sometime. I think I'd have a hard time leaving something in the oven all night and just falling off to sleep. I'm kind of a freak about that stuff.

I also didn't know that you could roast meat at such a low temp. But I tell ya, I'm tempted by this to give it a go. Thanks for the idea!