It might be midnight dark at 3pm and windy rainy thundering stormy in New England right now, but yesterday was paradise. It was hot, only slightly muggy, and the skies were a brilliant azure with dramatic high-blown cumulus clouds lazily shifting forms overhead. It was also my last summer Friday; the kids are back in town, and the ivy covered halls of Harvard will be teeming with life again come Monday, meaning I’m back to a 5-day work week. No matter – I love the work, and these spectacular students keep me young. Warm as it was, I didn’t really want to be trapped indoors for the cooking (nor the eating), and although I did have to get some things done on the range, Little Red stepped up again and provided the perfect cook surface for the vittles. Slow stewed, citrus punched, shredded pork shoulder – a variation on Lolita’s carnitas – packed into fresh fried corn taco shells with guacamole, pico de gallo, and jack cheese, served with pinto beans on the side. Crunchy, meaty, garden-fresh, and stick-to-your ribs delicious – a ideal deck-side dinner, which fortifes me for two impending maelstroms: Hurricane Irene and the Harvard undergrads.
Hard Corn Tacos with Carnitas and Pinto Beans
2 – 2.5 lbs boneless pork shoulder or butt
1 navel orange
4 cloves garlic
1 large red onion, diced, divided (about 2 cups)
2 cups chicken stock
1 bunch cilantro
some fresh tomatoes
2 ripe avocados
1 small jalapeno (optional)
12 10″ corn tortillas
oil for frying
sea salt, cracked black pepper, ground cumin
shredded monterey jack cheese
Pork shoulder and pork butt are two lovely, richly marbled cuts off the pig, which cook several ways into delicious, tender, easy to shred meat. My mother roasted it for Christmas, John Stage smokes it for bar-b-que, and today I braised it in chicken stock and citrus juices. I first remove the lacing and cut my meat into large cubes, which I seasoned with salt and pepper.
Into a hot pan sizzling with a glug or two of EVOO these meat wads go, and I sear them evenly, using tongs to turn them over …
… until each side of each cube is nicely browned.
Meanwhile, I get about 1 cup of my diced red onion, peel and crush my garlic cloves…
… juice my orange, and juice 1/2 of my lime. Carnitas call for the citrus flavor of orange, but you don’t want it to be too sweet, so cutting it with lime works perfectly. Using some pieces of orange work too, but someone had a little accident in the kitchen with the product of her 1st orange, and didn’t have any leftover to peel and use. No matter! It was delicious anyway — as you’ll see.
I add my onion, garlic, and a healthy handful of chopped cilantro (about a cup) to my sizzling pork pieces, and toss well. I cook this until the onion softens… about 4 minutes.
Then I add my citrus juices, which I stir in well. I bring them just to a boil…
… before I add my chicken stock, which covers about 3/4 of my meat. I set the heat to medium, and bring this to a slow simmer.
Out on the deck, the sky is lapis lazuli, sapphire, and turquoise, studded with the softest cotton clouds, and Little Red has been heating his coils in preparation of his part in tonight’s culinary adventure. The forecast promises us a whole weekend of rain, so tonight is our one chance to enjoy the outdoors before the weather sets in.
My pan, full of pork and citrus and chickeny goodness, goes – covered – out onto Little Red’s hot cook surface, where it will braise for the next three hours.
At one hour, the meat has shrunk a bit but is still tough, and about one third of the liquid has been absorbed.
At two hours, the meat has begun to slacken a bit, and is starting to shred slightly, and the liquid has half absorbed.
And at three hours, the liquid has reduced to just the pork fats, the remaining EVOO, and the citrus oils from the orange and lime. The meat shreds like Slash, and it is savory, tender, and rich. But I get ahead of myself — there’s lots that needs to be done while the meat is cooking.
My understanding is that hard tacos are a strictly American, Old El Paso sort of convention, and that they are not culinarily indigenous to Mexico at all. I’ve never been south of the border, so I have yet to validate that for myself. Regardless, the husbandman *loves* him some hard tacos. But I just can’t bring myself to buy a kit from the supermarket, no offence to those who do. I thought – how hard can it be to make my own hard taco shells? The answer - not very hard at all! With a dozen to work with, it took me the first four to figure out the following technique: I added a few inches of vegetable oil to a deep fry pan and set it to high heat. When sizzling, using tongs, I floated 1/2 of a 10″ corn tortilla on the surface of the blistering oil – about 5 seconds did the trick, or until it set.
Moving quickly but carefully, I flipped the tortilla over, rolling it in the oil, releasing the tongs from one edge and immediately catching the other edge in their grip.
Holding the other edge under the hot oil, I fried it until crunchy, then dipped the center fold into the pot to crisp it up last. Like I wrote, it took me four tries to get this right, but once I caught the rhythm, it totally worked.
I noticed that when I lifted these from the hot oil, their folds acted like reservoirs, and held a good deal of grease; be careful to pour all that out when lifting them from the fry oil. I sprinkled them immediately, while still hot and glistening, with sea salt – and they were like the best freaking taco shells I ever ate. Now that I’ve perfected the technique, next time I’ll make 6 shells, and cut the rest of the tortillas into quarters and fry them into chips. Oh, and there will be a next time… very very soon.
Now that my meat is almost ready, it’s time to start my beans – also out on Little Red. I put my small deep pan, with a few glugs of EVOO, over the heat for about 10 minutes to get nice and sizzling.
About 1/2 a cup of my diced onion and some minced garlic gets added, and stirred into, that hot oil. I cook this until just softened and fragrant. Then I add about a teaspoon of black pepper, a healthy sprinkling of cumin, and a dash of sea salt.
Finally, I add my can of pinto beans, liquid and all. Some folks say drain it, some folks don’t. Tonight – I didn’t. I lower the lid and let Little Red bring this to a simmer, heating all the beans through.
In a large bowl, I add my peeled and pitted avocados, which I mash, and to which I add fresh cilantro, a dash of minced garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice, sea salt, cracked black pepper, 1/2 of the rest of my diced red onion, and ground cumin.
It becomes part of my taco fixin’s.
My guac I dress with a broken taco shell and some of the monterey jack cheese I shredded, right before service.
In another bowl, I’ve mixed my diced tomatoes, some diced red onion, minced garlic, fresh cilantro, the juice of 1/2 a lime, a glug of EVOO, and a dash of white vinegar together (along with some diced jalapeno, if you want heat), to make a quick fresh delicious pico de gallo.
My carnitas are perfect: their edges are caramelized and crunchy, their interiors tender and falling apart at the tiniest touch of a fork. I scoop about 4 tablespoons of that uber-rich pork/citrus/chicken/EVOOfat up and dump it into my beans for flavor.
After about 15 minutes, and some squishing of beans with my fork, they are thick and syrupy and ready for another shot of pepper and some fresh cilantro. If you like things hot, some jalapeno could be added to this mix, or a dash or two of hot pepper oil.
Finally, as the sun sets in the west, my tacos are ready to be eaten. We each make our own: mine has an underlayer of soft shredded cheese, a heaping helping of tender, citrus-spiced pork, some pico, some guacamole, some sour cream and a sprinkling of cilantro on top, along with some cheese and cream on my beans, too.
Each delightful bite is a mouthful of fresh, heady flavors, bright with herbs and orange/lime, deep with cumin and pepper spice. The cooling avocado and tangy tomatoes compliment the richness of the stewed meat, and the crispy, salty corn shells hold their shape, perfectly encasing each fantastic nibble. Clayton and I relinquish all our civilized notions as we dive head first into our steaming plates, tearing into our tacos with much satisfied beating of chests, grunting with pleasure, and slopping of drinks. I wish for anyone braving the onslaught of Irene the same happy hunger-fulfillment we enjoyed on Friday; warm insides make light work of wet weather. Good luck, fellow New Englanders, as you batten down your hatches as we have ours. See you on the other side of the storm!