Carnitas

Carnitas

We used to live just ten minutes away from Disneyland. I could even see the fireworks if I stood in the street outside my house. It was my grandparents’ house, and had been since my mom was a young girl. A couple of my aunts and an uncle worked at Disneyland when I was young, which meant I grew up familiar with the park. In college my sister was a cast member, and I was always ready to be her Disney-date. Ten years ago I started dating a fellow Disney-phile (to whom I am now married) and we became annual passholders. I love being there, just a few hours or all day, whether we go on rides or not; it never gets old.

But nearly three years ago we moved to West LA, and eventually let our passes expire this last November. I’d been pining for another visit ever since, and when the opportunity came up last weekend, I jumped at it. It wasn’t just Disneyland I was excited about – it was a visit to the old neighborhood. Planning where to visit for lunch became just as important as deciding which rides we should take the boy on. You see, the food on the Westside is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I have yet to find an adequate replacement for a few of our old haunts. Specifically: the taquerias.

I thought that moving to LA meant we would be near a lot of great Mexican food, but it turns out there isn’t much on the Westside – you have to travel east or south, and the traffic makes it somewhat prohibitive to stray more than a mile or two. We have incredible burger joints and more Asian and Italian places than I can count within walking distance, but I have yet to find a taqueria I like here. (If you are familiar with the Westside and know a killer taqueria – or any other dynamite restaurant – PLEASE tell me about it in a comment!)

We settled on Taqueria de Anda, which is a few blocks from Disneyland, and I practically dove into my carnitas tacos. Oh how I missed good carnitas! Simple and straightforward – just meat, onion/cilantro, salsa verde, and a squeeze of lime. That juicy, mildly spicy, meaty taco was heaven… and then I remembered how long it’s been since I made carnitas tacos of my own. I decided immediately they would be on the meal plan this week (yes, I’m crazy, and put together actual meal plans most weeks).

Taqueria de Anda Carnitas Taco
Taqueria de Anda Carnitas Taco

Traditional carnitas is pork braised or simmered in lard until tender, and then fried so the edges get crispy. Now, I love fat as much as any flavor-freak, but I also still have a few pounds of baby weight I would prefer eliminate, so I make it a little differently. Conventionally raised pork is really fatty, so you can separate out quite a bit without negatively impacting flavor too much.

Leftovers

You can make just about any Mexican-style dish out of this: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, even tamales. Don’t toss out the reserved cooking liquid – just store it in with the meat, so it doesn’t dry out when you re-heat it.

Carnitas Tacos

Carnitas

Adapted from the pork my mother made for her enchilada casserole, and some personal experimentation
Serves 6-8
This carnitas is rich, and pairs best with lighter foods and bright, acidic foods that cut through or offset the fattiness. For tacos, consider serving with warm corn tortillas, an onion/cilantro mixture, and lime wedges. Your preferred crispyness and shred-level may be different depending on how you want to use your carnitas. Maybe you want it crispy for use in tacos (steps 10-12 are my methods for crispy carnitas); maybe you want it softer for use in enchiladas or a casserole (in which case – skip those steps).

Ingredients

  • coarse/kosher salt & fresh ground pepper
  • lard or leftover rendered pork fat (alternates: Canola oil, vegetable oil)
  • 2 tbsp. dried whole leaf Mexican oregano
  • optional: 1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (from a can), more for a spicier and smokier flavor
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 4-6 dried red chilies, including the seeds (New Mexico or something similar), each torn into 2 or 3 pieces, OR 4-6 tsp. dried New Mexico chili powder
  • 1 (4 oz.) can diced green chilies (mild, kid-friendly) or jalapeños (spicier) OR 4-6 whole fresh jalapeños, halved lengthwise
  • 4 to 5 lb. bone-in (or bone-out, but bone-in will be juicier) pork butt roast OR country style pork ribs (which are essentially pork butt cut into strips)
  • 1 large yellow or brown onion, quartered lengthwise through the core, then each quarter halved, again through the core)
  • optional: juice of 1 orange

Directions

  1. Rub the entire pork butt with salt and pepper.
  2. Add half the oregano, onion, garlic, dried red chilies (or powder) and fresh jalapeños (if using) to the bottom of the crock pot.
  3. In a large (preferably cast iron) pan or Dutch oven, heat ¼ inch fat or oil until it shimmers. Brown the pork on all sides, then transfer to crock pot.
  4. Nestle the remaining onion, garlic dried red chilies (or powder) and jalapeños, as well as the chipotle peppers (if using) around the edges and on top of the pork. Sprinkle with the remaining oregano.
  5. Pour the canned green chilies or jalapeños, including the liquid, over the top.
  6. Cover and cook on Low for 8 hours.
  7. Remove pork from the crock pot, and strain all the chunky stuff out of the remaining liquid; toss the chunks and set aside the liquid. Allow the liquid to settle and separate from the fat. Reserve liquid and fat separately.
  8. Shred the pork with two forks (should just fall right apart), separate and toss out the solid bits of fat.
  9. Mix shredded pork with ½ to 1 cup of reserved liquid to distribute the flavor throughout the meat.
  10. Toss the shredded pork with 1-2 tbsp. of the liquid fat.
  11. Line a half sheet or jelly roll pan (rimmed cookie sheet) with foil, spread the shredded pork evenly on the pan.
  12. Broil the pork on high for 5-7 minutes until crispy.

Serving Suggestions

Starchy Sides: Warm Corn or Flour Tortillas (heat over an open flame or on a cast iron surface), Mexican-Style Rice

Veggie Sides: Mexican Caesar Salad, Guacamole Salad, Mexican-Style Vegetables (drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and microwave until tender and hot: 3 minutes, stir, 3 minutes, stir, 2 minutes)

Spicy Beans / Spicy Citrus Beans

Spicy Beans

I remember sitting at my Gma’s dining table once, when I was living with her during college, reading M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating (one of her autobiographical books). Fisher’s husband had recently died, and she describes floating through life in a state of numbness. Normally a woman who relishes and treasures her food, she can hardly stand to eat. She goes on a cruise to Mexico, alone, and the crew seems to see the pain she’s in, and pays special attention to her.

She’s in the dining room one evening, and all the food seems drab and pretentious, and the waiter leans over to her and says, “There is an American kitchen and there is a country kitchen, side by side out there…”

He disappears, and then returns with a bowl of what the staff is eating, “light-tan beans cooked with some tomato and onion and many herbs.” She devours three or four servings, and relishes every bite, describing the “feeling of that hot strong food going down into [her] stomach [as] one of the finest [she] has ever known.”

I remember finishing that chapter… and then immediately making myself a pot of beans, and eating them with a warm flour tortilla and diced avocado while I dug in to the next chapter.

spicy beans and mexican rice on a plate

I have lived in Southern California all my life, which means that even though I’m a white girl, I have some decent experience with Mexican food. My mother makes great Mexican and Mexican inspired foods: tacos, enchilada casseroles… we even made big batches of (delicious) tamales together on occasion.

I’m comfortable with the onion-garlic-chilies trinity, and can usually whip up some Mexican-style foods without a recipe. Sometimes I just need a little inspiration, in the form of a meal at someone’s home or in a restaurant, and I’ll be off on a mission to replicate, simplify or build upon a recipe. (Do you ever obsess about food like this?)

This recipe developed over time, watching both my mother and mother-in-law make their beans, and seeking out the flavors I loved. I tend to used canned chilies for Spicy Beans, and fresh chilies for Spicy Citrus Beans, but either will work.

Leftovers

These are great wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla with some diced avocado, or mixed with some Mexican-Style Rice, leftover taco meat, and Mexican-Style Vegetables.
chicken taco leftovers medley

Spicy Beans / Spicy Citrus Beans

While I like black beans and pinto beans on their own, the addition of the onion-garlic-chilies trinity really makes them pop. The addition of the optional citrus changes the flavor profile significantly, so try them both. Using rendered chicken fat instead of oil really ups that richly satisfying quality of the beans.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp. rendered chicken fat or pork fat ( alternate: Canola oil or vegetable oil)
  • ½ poblano or whole Anaheim chili, diced OR ½ (4 oz.) can diced green chilies
  • ⅓ medium yellow or brown onion, diced
  • kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 (15 oz.) can pinto (or black) beans, including liquid
  • optional: juice of ½ a large orange

Directions

  1. Heat the fat in a medium pot over medium heat, and once the fat begins to shimmer, add the onions, chilies, and a pinch of salt.
  2. Sweat the chili and onion until softened, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.
  4. Add the beans and their liquid as well as the orange juice (if using).
  5. Stir to combine, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook 5 minutes until beans are the desired tenderness.
  6. Season with salt to taste.

Serving Suggestions

The standard variation pairs incredibly well with Mexican-Style Rice and Mexican-Style Vegetables (drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and microwave until tender and hot – 3 minutes, stir, 3 minutes, stir, 2 minutes) as perfect sides for Chicken Tacos.

The citrus variation pairs delightfully with The Smitten Kitchen’s Huevos Rancheros (which are delicious, although entirely unlike any Huevos Rancheros I’ve ever seen).

Chicken Tacos

My step-daughter is at times a picky eater. She’s much better now than when we first met (she was 6), when mealtimes sometimes involved sitting at the table long after everyone had finished, bargaining with her to finish just a small amount of whatever we were eating that night. “Eat these four bites of chicken and you can have ice cream with the rest of us.” “I don’t need ice cream.” Hmm…. Bargaining works much better when you have something on them. She wasn’t fazed by dangling-carrots. But there were two family meals that never involved a battle of wills: spaghetti and tacos.
chicken tacos

While she now, at 16, makes an active effort to eat what we’re eating for dinner (and will occasionally be adventurous and try something crazy, like beet juice or salmon sashimi), tacos are definitely still one of her favorite foods. A normally sparse eater, she will devour between three and five tacos on her own. Sometimes six.

I can’t blame her. I have a hard time controlling myself too. Tacos are one of those comfort foods that take me back to dinners around the family table of my youth, the way Remy’s Ratatouille transports Anton Ego. Everyone is happy because they get tacos the way they like them, whether that’s with just meat and cheese, or so packed with toppings they are spilling out in every direction.

These are flavorful but mild tacos, so they are very kid-friendly. If it’s just me and my husband I’m more likely to use jalapeños instead of green chilies to kick it up a notch. My favorite toppings are jack cheese, shredded iceberg, diced avocado, and a medium salsa fresca. What are yours?

Leftovers

Mix the leftover chicken, rice, and beans (and the Mexican-Style Vegetables too!) together for a perfect lunch dish, or pile them all together for a nice taco salad.

chicken taco leftovers medley

Chicken Tacos

Serves 3-4, with leftovers

If you are pressed for time, you could certainly try to fry the tortillas while you are preparing the filling. However, I find that the flavor is better if the meat has a little time to meld with the other flavors, and I’m more likely to over-fry the tortillas if I don’t pay strict attention to that task.

Note: Be careful not to fry your tortillas too long. They shouldn’t be like chips; they should have a crispness but still be pliant enough to fold around their fillings. I like to look for when the tortilla just starts to show signs of browning in spots. And remember, it will firm up a bit on the cooling rack as well. If you over-fry, break them in half and assemble a tostada instead of a taco; or just eat them like chips.

frying taco shells

Ingredients

  • 1-2 tbsp. rendered chicken fat or olive oil
  • ⅓ medium yellow or brown onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ a (4 oz.) can of diced green chilies (mild) or jalapeños (spicier)
  • 3-4 cups leftover chicken, diced or shredded (from your Crispy Roast Chicken)
  • 2-3 tbsp. chicken stock
  • kosher salt
  • Taco fixings: shredded iceberg, grated jack cheese, salsa fresca, diced avocado, sour cream
  • lard (alternate: vegetable or Canola oil)
  • 12 corn tortillas

Directions

  1. In a large pan or skillet, heat the fat or oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
  2. Add the onion and saute until translucent. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.
  3. Add the chiles, diced chicken, and a good pinch of salt and cook until warm through.
  4. Season to taste with salt. Reduce heat to low to keep warm while you fry the tortillas.
  5. In a large (preferably cast iron) skillet, heat ¼ inch of lard or oil over medium-high heat.
  6. When oil is shimmering, test by dipping the edge of a tortilla into the oil – if it begins to sizzle, lower the remainder of the tortilla into the oil; if it doesn’t sizzle, remove and wait a minute or two more before testing again.
  7. Fry the tortilla for one minute to soften, then flip the tortilla over and fold in half; fry 1-2 minutes, flip to the other side of the folded tortilla, and fry 1-2 minutes more to desired crispness. (In a 12 inch skillet, you should be able to work on three tortillas at a time – one in each stage: flat, folded first side, and folded second side.
  8. Move to a cooling rack or a half sheet pan lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt if desired.

Serving Suggestions

Starchy Sides: Mexican-Style Rice & Spicy Beans

Veggie Sides: Mexican-Style Vegetables (drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and microwave until tender and hot – 3 minutes, stir, 3 minutes, stir, 2 minutes), Mexican Caesar Salad