Remember when I wrote about making delicious carnitas a little while back? Well, I'm making it again today for my parents (Measure and I flew down to Southern California for a little visit) so I realized that it is high time I share my recipe with you. It's very easy to make, I promise, and since you don't end by frying the pork in lard, as is traditional, it's a little healthier than the carnitas at your average taco joint. I promise, though, that it is every bit as delicious.
The recipe Jason and I based ours on is from the Cooks Illustrated web site. It's a subscription site, but I think it's a better deal than subscribing to the magazine because it seems to have recipes and ratings from the magazine, as well as recipes and equipment/ingredient ratings from America's Test Kitchen, the tv show, and the other magazines in their stable. If you want a reliable source for recipes for classic dishes, I don't think you can do much better than this.
Anyway, below is the recipe for carnitas. I do recommend you look for a piece of pork with a little fat running through it, not just a sheath of fat on the outside, since you want the little ribbons of fat to melt through and make the meat tender. If there's a thick layer of fat on the outside, trim it, but leave a layer about 1/2 cm thick.
3-4 lbs boneless pork shoulder (butt), sliced into 2" chunks
1 medium yellow or white onion, cut in half and peeled
1 medium orange
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
2 bay leaves
pinch of red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, smashed
salt and pepper
approx. 2 cups water
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. In a large heavy pot (I use a large cast-iron dutch oven style pot) add the pork, the juice of the orange and lime, both halves of the squeezed orange, the onion, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, garlic, salt and pepper, and about 2 cups water or enough to not quite cover the pork. On the stovetop, bring the mixture to the simmer and stir all the ingredients together for a few minutes. Then, cover the pot and place it in the oven.
While the pork is in the oven, prepare a baking sheet by covering it with a sheet of foil and a wire rack. Later you will crisp the pork by placing it on the wire rack on the pan under the broiler -- the foil will make your life easier come cleanup time.
After about an hour, check on the meat and flip it all over, giving everything a bit of a stir. Cook for another hour or two, or until the meat falls is falling-apart tender. Sorry I can't give you a more exact estimate of the time, but you know how it is with braises -- sometimes it just takes longer for a particular piece of meat to get to that falling-apart stage. The good news is that you can do all of this ahead of time anyway, which is great if you want to make this for a dinner party (or taco party!)
Remove the pot from the oven when the pork is ready, and using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a bowl or plate. Remove the onion and orange bits and discard. If your broiler takes a long time to preheat, turn it on now. If not, be sure to turn it on pretty soon anyway.
Turn the heat to medium-high under the pot and start reducing the liquid. At the same time, start shredding the pork in the bowl. (The Cook's Illustrated recipe, if you're curious, suggested only tearing each large piece of pork in two. That is just not enough, in my opinion. The best carnitas is crispy, and to get a lot of crispy bits under the broiler, you will want to shred it into pretty small bits. Not so small that it all falls through the wire rack, but fairly small chunks. I aimed for chunks which were about as thick as my pinkie finger, and that seemed to work well.) The pork will probably ooze a lot of liquid as it rests and gets shredded: add this to the liquid reducing in the pot. You don't want to waste it! Reducing the liquid will take around 10 minutes or so. Keep an eye on it, since you don't want it to over-reduce and burn.
When the liquid has reduced to about 1 cup or so and is a "glaze" kind of consistency -- thick enough that a spatula can leave a trail on the bottom of the pan -- pour it into the shredded pork and stir everything around so that the pork is coated. Season with more salt and pepper as needed.
If you aren't going to be eating the carnitas right away, stop here, and just broil the pork right before you're ready to use it. If you are, keep going.
Distribute the shredded, coated pork evenly on the wire rack, then place under the broiler. Every broiler is different, so you really need to keep an eye on it. In just a few minutes, the top of the meat should start to get browned and crisp. Toss the meat with tongs and a fork and crisp for a few more minutes. Remove and serve immediately.
If you have leftovers, I've found that a great way to re-crisp smaller amounts of the carnitas is to heat a little butter in a saucepan on the stove, then add the carnitas until heated through and crispy. A three-pound pork shoulder should make about 6 servings of about 1/2 pound each.