I would never go so far as to describe Jeff and I as vegetarians,( although for some time we did rub elbows with that disciplined crew) but we do rarely eat meat, and it is the central feature of our home cooked meals only once in a blue moon. I cant take sides in the great 'to eat or not to eat' debate, I’m far too conflicted myself to offer up any solid arguments, but I do feel strongly that eating meat should never be taken lightly. If one chooses to partake, I think it should be done with thoughtfulness and appreciation. I hate the idea of disembodied chunks of meat moved from freezer to plate with the casualness and lack of regard that one usually reserves for processed snack food. Think before you eat. Take a moment to consider your place in the food chain and maybe feel a little gratitude for what you are receiving, that’s all I ask. I came across a poem a while ago that I wrote down on a sticky note and then promptly lost, but it went a little something like this:
‘When you kill a beast, say to it: as I take your life, so too shall a far greater hand one day take mine.’ In other words, always remember that whatever you take from the world must someday be returned. Now there’s a thought for Earth day.
I might add, that the less meat you eat, the easier it becomes to be thoughtful about it, for the occasional addition to your plate gains all the special excitement of a culinary event. Weds night was one of those events. After a carb heavy meal the night before (risotto) Jeff put in a request for something a little different. What the hell, I thought, why not go all out, why not make Carnitas?
I have made Carnitas at home before on the stovetop but I found the results to be a bit dry for my taste and the process rather time consuming. Likely this is mostly due to my inexperience with braising. Semi-vegetarians aren't usually the best cookers of meat, go figure :-P. Anyway, I had been thinking for some time about trying my hand at making Carnitas in my slow cooker, an appliance that is often banished to the back shelf but always yields amazing food when used, and decided that it was about time to give it a whirl.
Carnitas, or ‘little meats’ is a type of braised pork used in Mexican cuisine. Traditionally, the heavily marbled ‘Boston Butt’ cuts of pork are used for the dish, and never having seen this portion of the pig before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Whole Foods didn’t feature Boston Butt in their meat case (oh how appropriate is that name!), but the butcher kindly brought the 2lbs that I asked for from the back. I was now the proud (and slightly squeamish) owner of a large roughly cylindrical hunk of pork, richly marbled, and covered in a thick layer of more fat.
When you make this dish, you must resist the urge to give in to lipid phobia and trim off all of the extra fat. That lovely white stuff is what will help give the dish it's wonderful moist texture. Don't be afraid, just close your eyes and think of England....
Cut the pork into 1-inch cubes and place in a bowl (or directly into the slow cooker). In another small bowl mix your seasonings. I used about 2tsp smoked paprika, 2tsp cumin, 2tsp smoked salt, 1tsp coriander, 1 1/2 tsp dried mexican oregano, and a couple pinches of dried ground chipotle pepper. You can add more to taste later if you like.
Transfer the pork to your slow cooker (if you haven't already). Quarter 1 onion, take the layers apart, and place on top of the meat.
Turn the slow cooker to low heat and forget about it for about 6hrs or until the meat is tender enough to shred.
Warm some corn tortillas in the oven, add the carnitas, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa, or whatever fixings you like, and dig in.
So how did it turn out? Oh dear god, I haven’t the words. The meat cooked down to a velvety softness and was literally drowning in its own rich liqueur of fat and spices. That, combined with the tartness of salsa, the creaminess of avocado and sour cream, and the mild roughness of the corn tortilla, created a sincornicity of flavor and texture that was beyond compare. My hands were literally shaking as I ate, no devoured, four portions one after the other. I lost all sense of self, I was no longer human, I was a gluttonous ravening beast, and I believe I made noises that were probably terribly inappropriate. I licked my fingers and then, dear readers, I gleefully and unashamedly licked the plate. If that isn’t a reason for cooking at home then I don’t know what is. Ah the joy of savoring every last morsel of a tasty dish without worrying about what the other diners might think….
If you attempt this dish at home, please make sure that you have turned the oven off and that there are no open flames in the house before you take your first bite. You may lose consciousness from sheer pleasure and I wouldn’t want your house to accidentally burn down during that blissful interval.
A side note; after Jeff and I had both gorged ourselves, there was about a cup of pork and liquid left, so I decided to use it in a makeshift soup the next night. I added about half a bag of frozen roasted corn from Trader Joe's, a 14oz can of crushed tomatoes, a 1/2 cup of water, and a couple more pinches of salt, then let it simmer for a bit. Top with some sour cream, dip in any leftover corn tortillas, and you have yourself another delicious meal. So yes, that 2lb piece of pork was well appreciated, and even if I cant feel entirely guiltless, I can at least say that I didn't take this pig for granted.....I also learned that I need to use my slow cooker more often!