I had a surprise in the kitchen recently that involved pork, profanity and deep breaths. It started because I wanted to try a new carnitas recipe. I’ve been making the same one for years. I only really make carnitas once a year, at most–we don’t really eat like that much any more. I thought I’d play it safe and go with a trusted source, the most excellent Diana Kennedy. I opened up her book, The Art of Mexican Cooking and read her recipe. Usually when I read over a recipe, I can get a general idea of how and if it would work. This recipe did not look right at all. It seemed to me to have some major flaws. I have heard that Kennedy is a meticulous recipe tester, so I didn’t want to doubt, but this just seemed…wrong. It called for milk. Wouldn’t the milk break? It called for whole orange wedges. Wouldn’t that turn to nasty mush? It seemed risky. Then again, who wants to make the very same recipe everytime? Where is the fun in that?
So there I was a few days later, making the recipe, trying to have faith. My main doubt was the milk. The recipe calls for browning the pork, then adding milk and braising it, then boiling all the liquid off so that only the fat remains and re-browning the meat. The milk was sure to curdle. I followed the first two steps-browning and adding the milk and seasonings and braising. When I opened the lid, I saw exactly what I expected to see. Separated milk, boiled orange pieces…a pan full of nasty looking bits. I should have taken a picture, but I just assumed it was going to fail so I didn’t. I was thinking “damn you Diana Kennedy, I knew this wasn’t going to work!” If I had been in a commercial restaurant kitchen instead of my own home (full of small children), much profanity would have ensued. We had people coming for dinner and I was going to serve them a pot of nasty separated looking milk bits? I made walked away from the stove. Made some cocktails. Walked around the garden. Took deep breaths.
When I came back to the stove for the last step, I wasn’t optimistic. It wasn’t looking good. I kept on, though, working through the last step, cursing (in my head)and feeling a little panicky. I had some anger issues. Wouldn’t you know? The last step brought it all together beautifully. The milk did separate, but then the milk proteins caramelized on the outside of the meat, resulting in tender, flavorful meat with a crispy, golden exterior. The oranges melted into the meat and perfumed the whole thing with a heady citrus aroma that melded perfectly with the pork. After 10 minutes it was a gorgeous pot of tender, flavorful pork that we used for little tacos topped with pickled onions.
The recipe was a success. I guess sometimes inauspicious beginnings don’t necessarily predict the final outcome, which in this case was a porky, delicious surprise.
- 3 TBLS vegetable oil
- 3-4 pounds pork shoulder butt, trimmed of fat and cut into 2″ cubes
- 1 white onion, sliced
- 4 fresh marjoram sprigs or 1/4 tsp dried
- 4 fresh thyme sprigs or 1/4 tsp dried
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tsp fresh black pepper
- 2 tsp salt (to taste)
- 1 orange, cut into eighths
- 1 cup milk
- Heat the oil in a heavy pan, add the meat and fry, stirring and turning until golden, about 8 minutes.
- Add the onion and stir well.
- Cook for 8 minutes longer or until the meat is well browned.
- Add the remaining ingredients and cover the pan.
- Cook over low heat until the meat is just tender, not falling apart, about 30 minutes.
- There should be plenty of juices.
- Don’t freak out. It is going to work out. Have a little faith. Have a drink if you need to.
- Remove the lid, increase the heat and fry, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the juices have been absorbed, about 10 minutes.
- Drain off the extra fat and serve.
- These can be prepared ahead up to the point of the final frying, but they should be kept covered so the meat does not dry out.