Adventures in Braising II (Carnitas)


The other night we were having dinner with friends, talking about their old dog Fred, our old dog Zoë, and the 16 year old dog of a fellow food blogger who wandered through a door left accidentally opened and never came home. We exchanged sorrowful exclamations and some rueful grins over the bittersweet aging process which is afflicting us all.

Our friends left the room to get dinner on the table and I was lost in melancholy thoughts until my husband, lost in his own, heaved a sigh and said “So much loss!” Now he is not a sentimental guy and I was pleased to find us on the same wave-length for once. “What are you thinking about in particular?” I asked gently.

“The Ryder Cup and the football game, all in one day!” he expostulated, having abandoned Venus for Mars in a single bound.

I laughed myself silly. No wonder I love this guy. His inability to recognize the emotional currents that swirl through my life keeps me grounded and sane. In gratitude I decided to make him pork carnitas for dinner, something I had been promising, intending that I would do as soon as all the emotional currents subsided. The heck with waiting for that! The time was now.

Carnitas, of course, are nuggets of pork, simmered long and slow in bubbling lard til they are rich and browned and crispy and succulent. They are really delicious and very high on the heart-attack scale. I have actually been obsessed with carnitas recently ever since fellow food blogger Lisa aka the Homesick Texan responded to my post about braising pork in milk by mentioning a recipe for simmering carnitas in milk instead of fat. Boy that sounded good.

Unfortunately, Lisa couldn’t place the recipe she’d read and my meat guru, Dr. Biggles over at
 MeatHenge couldn’t oblige either. The best I could come up with were recipes that still cooked the pork in fat for a couple of hours and then finished the process with milk.

I don’t really have anything against fat, per se, but my meat-cooking interest these days is mostly in the marvelous effect of braising, and the milk–pork combo had really caught my imagination (mostly because, as I mentioned when I wrote about this before, it creates a curdled milk gravy that is beyond wonderful.) So I stayed on the hunt and found a recipe in The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly that looked close to what I wanted.

Aidells and Kelly start their carnitas by braising cubes of seasoned pork shoulder or Boston butt in broth, rather than fat, and then, when they are tender and flavorful, finishing them in milk for an hour or two until the milk has “curdled and caramelized” and formed “a golden brown coating on the meat.” Bingo! That was the recipe for me.

So Sunday evening my husband finally got lucky (carnitas-wise, that is.)

I thawed a pork roast that had had been sitting in the freezer since I bought it from Rebekah Fiedler this summer, and cut it into roughly 1 inch cubes (about 4 pounds worth). As per the recipe, I rubbed them all over with a mixture of cumin (1 tsp.), ground coriander (1/2 tsp.), oregano (1 tsp, dried), salt (1 Tbs – a lot, but use it all) and pepper (1 tsp., freshly ground.) Threw
them in a dutch oven with a tablespoon (just one!) of sizzling oil and let them get brown and a bit crusty. Added chopped onions (2 cups), whole cloves of garlic (6), 2 bay leaves and 2 cups of water. Simmered for about 1 ½ hours, until the pork was fragrant and starting to break down (there is a lot of fat in those cuts that needs to cook out) and the sauce was rich and delicious.

Then, though it broke my heart to do it, I drained off the sauce and set it aside (the authors suggest adding it to beans, so I did. Plain old canned pinto beans, nearly 2 cups of pork gravy and some Adobo seasoning from Penzeys — pretty much just echoing the ingredients in the pork — garlic, onion, oregano, cumin, pepper and cayenne. Wow, is all I can say. A gravy addict’s heaven.) I added a quart of whole milk to cover the pork, put the lid back on (but ajar so the milk could cook down) and let it go for a couple of hours more, stirring it up now and then so it didn’t burn. Waited until it was all cooked down and got rid of the bay leaves.

As advertised, the carnitas were caramelly and golden and perfect. The house smelled incredible. The last of the season’s tomatoes had been chopped up into salsa with some onions and chilies and cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice and some salt. The tortillas were warm, the beans were perfect. And my Martian husband was a happy man.

(Note to non meat-eaters: I made a veggie version of carnitas – oxymoron, I know – with diced eggplant seared in a pan, with the Adobo seasonings, salt and lime juice. Wrapped in a corn tortilla with salsa — amazingly good.)

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Dr. Biggles says:

    Wowsers! YOU GO !!! Congratulations again and you deserve it on this one. Sounds like a lot of fun. I mean, first off you get the browning pork smell, then you get the simmering pork smell and then you get the milk pork smell. And then? And then? You get to eat! After all that even considering attempting this using eggplant makes me sad.


  2. Oh. My. God! Thanks for catching my thought and running with it all the way to the recipe endzone. Score! (I’m not usually given to sport metaphors, but you inspired me with that laugh-out-loud comment about your husband and loss). I was going to make a pot of chili this weekend, but I think I have a big dutch oven of milk-braised carnitas in my future instead. Yum!


  3. Kalyn says:

    “having abandoned Venus for Mars in a single bound.” I don’t know if the Martians will get it, but I did.
    Recipe sounds great. This is my favorite thing to order at a Mexican restaurant. Saved to!


  4. Christine says:

    Well, Dr. B and Lisa, thanks for your help with this. I never would have thought of milk and carnitas but in retrospect it makes perfect, delicious sense.
    You never know, Kalyn. My Martian got it, but you may be right. 🙂


  5. Kevin says:

    Ed and I have a ritual Thursday night out for Mexican food with a couple of other friends. I LOVE carnitas and order it frequently. Your recipe sounds so amazing that I am going to try this at home (will be a first.) I think that you must have absolutely turned around the loss-drenched day your husband was experiencing. High five to ya!


  6. Mae says:

    WOW. That looks like a mean grub! I want. I want. I want to take a bite! Looks absolutely stunning. The photography is awesome. I wish i could frame it and put it next to my computer as an inspiration! I love that passion in you to create the perfect braised meat. Pure foodnerd in a very nice way!
    I love fork-tender braised meat like this.


  7. Charmaine says:

    Oooooh. That sounds yummy! I might have to try that recipe out.
    And that’s so sad about the dog wandering away from home. I worry about that sometimes with our Winnie.


  8. Christine says:

    What a great Thursday night ritual, Kevin. Let me know if you try this recipe — I’m interested to hear what you think. You too, Charmaine.
    Mae, “pure foodnerd” is exactly right! I love it.


  9. jared says:

    I’ll have to try your carnitas recipe – the one that we’ve been using requires a can of coke or dr. pepper and only a little bit of the dairy. A tablespoon of oil sounds a lot healthier, too. Makes the house smell glorious for days, doesn’t it?


  10. Christine says:

    Weirdly, Jared, I just read your carnitas post last night. What does the soda do – help it caramelize? I have a recipe for coca cola pot roast, but I’ve never gotten up the nerve to try it.


  11. Matt says:

    Thanks for this…how great. Try marinating the pork cubes overnight in coca-cola. It helps to start the process of breaking down the fat and gives the meat a beautiful golden brown color.


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