Carnitas, Cumbias & Craft Beer: Mexico by Way of Bend, Oregon
Tastes: Carnitas, Salsa Verde, Corn Tortillas & a growler of Always & Forever from Other Half
Sounds: Free Spotify playlist of required listening for this Carnitas recipe
Story: The evolution of one family’s Carnitas recipe over three generations, in three locations across 2 countries.
Note: For this post, words in teal text are of my friend M., from an email to me (altered only to fit the reading context). Thank you M & Mamacita! Provecho!
This culture capsule showcases her family’s carnitas recipe, and how that preparation has changed over time and space, across 3 generations and 3 locations (Mexico > Connecticut > Oregon). It captures the evolution/expression of the superstitions surrounding the preparation of of the dish, and also includes a playlist of the songs that would accompany both the cooking and eating, along that same timeline and trajectory (from what my friend would call “the Mexican Frank Sinatra” to the Electro Cumbia music she now has on while she cooks carnitas.
Here’s what M tells us about Carnitas, and the story surrounding the preparation:
Carnitas can get a bit time consuming, but my mom has this old Mexican superstition and tradition that all good food takes a bit of patience, love and general happiness while cooking. She says that at the start of any meal, her mother would tell her to make sure that you’ve had a nice strong cup of coffee if you’re cooking in the morning or “una tequilita” (a shot of tequila) and rid yourself of any negative feelings/anger/frustration before the start of your meal prep because that energy gets passed on into your food, leaving a bad taste or a poorly cooked meal.
The best way I know how to do this is by pouring myself a solid whiskey or a pint of beer, throwing some happy electro cumbias on my Spotify [playlist ready for you here!] and popping my headphones in while I get to work.
I would recommend you do the same, because ultimately, that’s the way my mom’s version goes. 🙂
We agree that her playlist should be loud while cooking to ensure proper deliciousness. Here’s a time lapse video from the last time we made Carnitas, capturing some of the various songs from the playlist over the 4 hours that the carnitas slowly changed from hunks of meat to flavorful, succulent pieces that fell right off the bones.
As noted above, music is an important ingredient in the preparation of M’s carnitas, as it was for her mom and grandma before her. This playlist includes sampling of sounds from all three generations. It starts off with my personal favorite song I came across as a result of this Cultures Capsules, just to get things morning, then follows the arc of music that would have played in the homes of her mom and grandma before her.
A few years ago, when we stayed with them in Bend, Oregon for a few days, they introduced us to Bomba Estereo who have since become a family favorite. It’s not too often that a new song becomes a favorite to each one of us, but “To My Love” sure does.
M also gave us a bit more info about the music her family enjoys and how they fit in.
Note that these notes below can also be found in this Pre-trip homework: Mexico.
- Cumbias – Cumbias my dear. Cumbias- we love them… salsas, merengue, bachatas, are all music we love dancing to.
- Merengue – Elvis Crespo is a popular merengue singer.
- Tejano – Selena was an incredible American born singer and was loved by all of Mexico. Her music is a mix of Tejano, Mexican cumbia, ranchera, mariachi style and contemporary R&B.
- Traditional Rancheras – Vincente Fernandez sings Rancheras… more in line of what you hear mariachis sing. He is an influential icon in Mexico, similar to Frank Sinatra in the States. Juan Gabriel, omg. My mom loves Juan Gabriel, and many of my memories of my mom come back to me when I hear songs like “El Noa Noa” or “Amor es Amor”, “No Vale la Pena.”
- Electro-Cumbia – So many but we really love the blended stuff, more of the electro-cumbia type. Listen to Bomba Estereo (they’re more Columbian) but we love them all the same, Mexican Institute of Sound and Systema Solar are also great.
Certainly, special beverages have been part of these virtual dining experiences, yet I’ve not added them as integral part until this post. The thing is, for this meal, if we are imagining dining with these friends (which we have done in NYC and in Bend, OR), good beer will be involved.
The best way to approximate having some good, fresh, west coast brew with them was to let them choose a growler from a local Brooklyn Brewery. So, I took a walk down to Other Half, texted our friends a photo of the board (below), and asked them to choose (preferably something with a star that we could take home in a growler).
The text message response was, “Always & Forever sounds tasty, Go With the Flow, Triangle Test would all be our picks.”
We went with a 64oz growler of Always & Forever, and while it was filling, I had a taste of the 10% triangle test (YUM). And just to make sure I kept the same mojo going, I also completed this post from their taproom the following week, fueled by a Cream Get the Honey and one more Always & Forever, and the above playlist on the earbuds.
Carnitas: unless you are having a big dinner party, you will thankfully, and wonderfully, eat for several meals from this recipe. Our family, (including 2 kids) at it for 5 meals, over 4 days, without complaint: 4 taco dinners, and one Huevos Rancheros twist for brunch. I wanted to try it in a ricebowl or quesadilla but after making our own corn tortillas, we couldn’t break away from that deliciousness.
The Salsa Verde recipe is just our adaptation of what we found online. Our friend M has said she’d consider sharing her mom’s salsa verde recipe, but first I have to find a coveted, secret family recipe that she’s interested in so that we can trade! 😉
We will never buy Corn Tortillas again. Fresh is TOO good, and very easy. The hardest part is finding the correct flour (Masa is corn flour treated with lime!). The below recipe is basically the directions right off the bag, only I added salt, and I found a novel, resourceful and foolproof, way to shape them without a tortilla press (and you, can, too!).
"A few years ago I searched the web for a solid carnitas recipe and found David Lebovitz's recipe was strikingly similar to the one my mom verbally told me. The ingredients are mostly similar with my mom's addition of broth, and orange. And since I feel I'm still learning, I appreciate when there are specific measurements instead of my mom's "create a cup with your hand..." or "a pinch of this..." when her pinches are more like tablespoons. So here's my adapted version with my mom's small additions." - Marisabel
- 5 lbs boneless pork shoulder, cut into 4" chunks trimmed of excess fat (but not all of it, you want it to stay a bit moist)
- 1-1 1/2 tbsp coarse sea salt
- 2 tbsp neutral vegetable oil
- 1 cup broth (chicken is fine, I've used vegetable broth in a pinch)
- 1 cinnamon stick (3-4 inches)
- 3 tsp cumin (we love cumin so we tend to up this flavor)
- 1 1/2 tsp chile powder (some chile powders can be spicy, mine tends to be so I use less when it's just the kids and I)
- 1 1/2 tsp ancho chile powder
- 1 large bay leaf (or 2 smaller ones)
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly sliced
- 1/4 of an orange (or 1/4 cup orange juice)
- Tortillas (preferably fresh)
- Salsa Verde (preferably fresh)
- finely sliced iceberg lettuce
- shredded cotija cheese
Prepare the chef!
- Press play on our "Carnitas, Cumbias & Craft Beer" Spotify playlist! A noted in the full post, music is an important ingredient and also aids in getting the chef in the correct emotional state, less any negative energies spoil the taste of the food.
- Pick your poison. Perhaps a “una tequilita,” (a shot of tequilla), some strong coffee, or craft beer, like Marisabel would have?
Prepare the Carnitas
- Chop to size, trim excess fat (if needed) and generously salt pork pieces.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
- Heat oil in a roasting pan or deep dish oven proof cast iron skillet (with lid). Brown the pieces of pork in a single layer, on medium/high turning them as little as possible. You want them to be nicely browned on each side. Cook in batches if needed, don't crowd them.
- Remove pork from the pot once nicely browned. Blot away any excess oil/fat and pour in a cup of broth, scraping down the pan to release the brown bits.
- Turn off heat. Add the cinnamon stick, chile powder, cumin, ancho, bay leaf, garlic and squeeze the orange quarter or add the orange juice into the pan, place the pork back into the pot in one single layer if possible, add enough water to submerge them about 2/3 of the way.
- Braise in the oven for 3 hours. (You can also leave it on the stovetop and simmer for 3 hours if needed with the lid on). Turn the pork a few times during coking until there's less than 1/2 cup of liquid. After about 3 hours, check your pork for tenderness/meat is falling apart (may be less depending on how small you cut your pork pieces) remove the pork from the pot onto a dish to cool.
- Don't discard the liquid in the pan- set aside.
- After pork has cooled, shred them into bite size pieces, discarding any big pieces of fat. I've used a couple forks before but my mom says your clean hands are the best and quickest tools in the kitchen for this job.
- Return the pork pieces back into the roasting pan and cook in the oven for a bit longer until the remaining liquid has evaporated. 30min-1hr. This is by preference. Some recipes will say to evaporate until the pork is crispy and caramelized...but we like our carnitas partially caramelized- we leave just a trace of liquid.
- I find that if you turn the shredded pork minimally (maybe twice) then some of the top pieces become caramelized while the inside stays moist.
- If you're making tacos that night, I'd prep all the things you need for this while the shredded pork is finishing off. We love our tacos simple and flavorful (stovetop heated corn tortillas, freshly made salsa verde, finely sliced iceberg lettuce, and shredded cotija cheese...sometimes finely diced radish).
- I ended up with 6 lbs of bone-in (accidental order), but it turned out so well I'd do this again. I also left a fair amount of fat on the pork and yet never had to remove any later in the process. To accommodate the extra meat, I upped the other ingredients a tad. It was so good, and we were so happy to have that quantity, that I will always get that much from now on!
- Spices: Our chili powder is from India and is extra potent so i decreased that and added more of the others.
- Clementines worked great in place of orange juice.
- I started in a dutch oven, where I had browned the pieces in batches. Partly this was to get the flavor off the pan, and partly its cuz 6 lbs of meat plus everything else didn't fit in my largest roasting pan! I do think that things moved faster in the roasting pan due to the increased surface area, so maybe it's time to ask Santa for a large roasting pan.
- Never had to do step 8! Just when I was expecting to take it out due to the amount of liquid left, i noticed that it was already breaking up small. Not sure what letting it cool, breaking up and then recooking does except make it it a more manageable temperature for breaking up by fingers. It certainly didn't taste like we missed anything by skipping the cooling part, but...
Spicy Salsa Verde
- 1 lb tomatillos, husked and chunked
- 3/4 cup chopped onion
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 2 serrano chile peppers, chopped (optional! One time I forgot and it was flavorful too)
- 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 cups of water
- Wash & chop ingredients but don’t go to crazy dicing things because you’ll pulverize it later.
- Put everything in a pot and turn the burner to high, stirring occasionally. When it boils, reduce it to medium-low and simmer about 10 minutes until tomatillos are soft.
- Turn off the heat, and then using a immersion blender (or blender if you have one), puree the deliciousness until smooth.
- Cook for one additional minute on medium heat, to ensure flavors are blended.
- It makes a lot, so be prepared to freeze some in small containers to enjoy later, too.
- 1 large, heavy book
- 2 1 gallon Ziploc bags
- 2 cups Masa (special lime-treated cornflower; there is no substitute)
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 tsp salt (more/less to taste)
First, make your MacGyver-ed "tortilla press."
- Get a large book that weighs a couple pounds and cover it with one of the Ziploc bags, taping it across the top to keep it closed. It doesn’t need to be hermetically sealed, but you will be holding it with floured hands, so def cover it.
- Cut the other Ziploc bag along its 2 sides, down to the bottom but NOT across the bottom. The bag will now sort of open like a book.
- Place the cut bag on a flat surface, and dust with Masa, ready to start pressing.
Then make the tortillas.
- In a bowl, mix masa and water 1:1, along with salt to taste. Mixture should make a solid dough that holds its shape and is soft, but isn’t too sticky. If it’s too sticky, add more masa. If crumbling, add more water. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes.
- With masa-floured hands, roll the dough into golf-ball sized balls. Keeping them on the side of the bowl, or another plate, continuing to roll until dough is gone.
- Heat a non-stick pan, preferably a double-burner.
- Heat your toaster oven to 200 degrees and put an empty baking dish in it to get ready to keep tortillas warm (with cover or foil). Or just microwave a clean, dampened dishtowel for a minute and keep the tortillas there.
- In batches, place one ball inside the masa-dusted, cut Ziploc bag, and use the book to flatten it simply by lowering the large book down onto the ball evenly and pressing down. As is would be great, but if you prefer a thinner tortilla, while it’s still inside the cut bag, carefully use the edge of the large book to sort of pull the dough out further flattening it.
- Place it on an ungreased, hot pan and cook about a minute each side. If you like yours more browned, you may want to do 2 minutes each side.
- Repeat for all the dough and swear never to buy corn tortillas again.
Here’s some additional fun facts to add to the dinner convo:
- “Provecho!” – M. told us “Provecho” as we began our meal. It basically means “bon appetit,” but if you want to know more, there is a handy, detailed guide of when to say it (and when not to), here.
- Tell your diners just how you put yourself in a good state of mind before you got to work on the Carnitas. Did you you have una tequilita? A strong cup of coffee? Don’t let those bad or stressed out feelings make their way into your food! (see intro above, and/or this earlier post if you are totally confused.)
- And refer back to the Tunes! M gives us such a great range of music to accompany this slice of Mexico by way of Bend: from her mom’s old favs to what moves her in the kitchen (and on the living room dance floor afterwards), and a so much in between.
Wow that’s a lot. I hope if you’ve made it this far, you are also eating some delicious carnitas! Tell us about it, if so!