THE MAGIC OF CARNITAS
In Spanish, the word carnitas means “little meats." However, in the Mexican culinary world it refers specifically to pork that, when properly prepared, embodies Emeril Lagasse’s description: “It’s a pork thing!” Applying the word magic to the dish is just as appropriate as when it is used to describe pulling a rabbit out of an apparently empty hat! In both instances something astonishing happens. In the case of carnitas, an ordinary, cheap cut of meat becomes a culinary miracle.
Traditionally, carnitas are made by simmering fatty cuts of pork in enough lard to cover them until the meat is a crisp golden brown on the outside and extremely tender and juicy on the inside. They are then often served with corn tortillas, guacamole, and a salsa. The dish is thought to have originated in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where it is found everywhere from street stalls to upscale restaurants.
Although naturally rendered lard has less saturated fat than butter, in the United States most of our lard is made with partially hydrogenated fat, something that has been found to be much more harmful to our health than other fats. (Isn’t there a clue that something is wrong when we find an animal fat on supermarket shelves that does not require refrigeration)? The good news is that there is an alternate way to make carnitas that is much easier, much healthier, and at least as good as the original. As far as I can determine, the technique was first published on page 150 of a book called Gastronomía Mexiquense. It was written by Ma. Teresa de la Rosa de Almazán and published by the Government of the State of Mexico in 1987. The recipe was then included in Diana Kennedy’s book, The Art of Mexican Cooking, but I have not seen it anywhere else, except in my book on Tex-Mex cooking. Since then, I have changed the recipe in a few ways that make the preparation even easier.
The ingredient that creates the “magic” is milk, and the recipe calls for simmering the pork in it instead of lard. An initial browning with vegetable oil, and, at the end, simmering the pork in its own rendered fat makes these carnitas as crisp and succulent as the traditional variety. Actually, I think they are better! The original recipe called for cooking the dish on the stovetop, which requires frequent attention. My version uses the oven, which leaves cooks mostly free to do other things. Not only does the process produce perfectly cooked carnitas, but when the milk evaporates it also leaves tiny cheese curds that become just as golden brown and delicious as the pork, creating a stunning twofer!
In spite of the fact that this recipe uses much less pork fat, and only that which has been rendered naturally and without artificial processing, some people will claim that just the use of a fatty cut of pork, like country-style ribs, provides too much saturated fat. Just bear in mind that more than a few nutrition scientists now believe that at least some saturated fat is beneficial, especially if it comes from grass-fed animals, and that it is less harmful than replacing it with large amounts of carbohydrates. And it’s not something I recommend eating every day—the way some people do an even fattier cut called bacon! But, for most people, enjoying this as I do a few times each year is a special treat, and its richness lends itself to being consumed in small portions! However, leaner cuts of pork, including the tenderloin, can be substituted, but the result will not be nearly as succulent.
Carnitas are perfect for entertaining. Simply time them to be ready when you want to serve the meal, place them on the table in a bowl beside hot corn tortillas, guacamole, salsa, and maybe a pitcher of Margaritas, then tell your guests to dig in. A not so traditional but equally delicious alternative is to wrap carnitas in a flour tortilla with refried beans to make tacos or burritios.
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