It’s a brand new year! Astute as I know you to be, dear readers, I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now, and I hope that you forgive my recent absence from the blogisphere, but for the holidays I gave myself the last few weeks off from cooking, more or less. One of the drawbacks to being the house cook is that if I don’t make it, nobody does — and sometimes even Lolita lacks inspiration and motivation. Hence, we became quite good friends with a troupe of delivery drivers, ate many large lunches out, and other than my spectacular Christmas dinner (which I may post for next year’s Noel), I didn’t do diddly squat. But now that I’m back to work, I’m back to cooking, and last night’s dinner was the perfect home-cooked meal for a first time back behind the stove. Braised pork butt, stewed to tender and seared to crispness, served over some rich, nutty grits and wilted garlicky spinach, all topped with a cooling zesty crema. As the temperature outside my windows dropped to the ‘teens, the warmth inside my belly grew with every hearty bite.
Crispy Braised Pork, Manchego Grits, and Garlicky Greens with Lime Cream
2lb pork butt
1 qt chicken stock
cumin, black pepper, sea salt, oregano
1/2 cup grits
1 bunch fresh spinach
1 head garlic
The dish I am essentially making here is carnitas, that savory shredded citrusy pork often found in Mexican cooking. It is, quite simply, my favorite filling for tacos, quesadillas, and well, my mouth. But traditionally, preparing this perfection out of pork butt takes hours and hours and hours of slow braising, and I just couldn’t wait that long. And I didn’t have to! Because these little meat morsels can be relatively quickly prepared in smaller quantities with more rigorous heat, with just as succulent a product to enjoy afterwards. I start with a nicely marbled 2lb pork butt, which I cut into largish chunks. I also chopped my shallots, the only aromatic I’m going to add at the onset. The citrus and garlic will come towards the end of the cooking process.
A glug or two of EVOO goes into my largest, heaviest pan, which I heat to sizzling.
In goes those perfect pink pork chunks and my shallots. Almost immediately, the kitchen fills with the aroma of searing meat and melting shallot – and it is out of this world.
I also add about 2 tbs of ground cumin, 2 tbs cracked black pepper, 1 tbs dried oregano, and a dash of salt, which kicks the already amazing smell past the cosmos and straight to heaven.
I move everything around every once in a while, aiming for browned edges on all the sides of each meatwad, while trying not to burn the shallots.
When all my meat has been kissed by the heat, I add enough chicken stock to cover — which leaves me about a cup leftover to use in my grits later. I lower the heat to simmer, cover my pan, and walk away for about 90 minutes. The liquid will permeate the meat, melt the fat, and breakdown the connective tissues between the muscle, yet it takes patience. Go drink a couple beers and watch some Bones reruns on TBS; that’s what I did.
An hour and a half later, the liquid has reduced to less than half, and two forks easily shred the meat. Awesome, but still not quite ready. At this point, the meat has a bit of a grainy texture; to remediate that, I remove the cover so the rest of the liquid can start to boil off, and the circulation of air through the now browned meat will tenderize it even more.
It’s the perfect time to start my grits on the back burner. 1/2 cup of ground corn, 1 cup stock + 1 cup water, all set to simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed.
The major flavors on the plate will be garlic and lime, and it’s time to get them in the pan. I first chop about 5-6 large cloves of garlic, then zest both of my limes.
Half the garlic and half the lime zest goes into the meat and stirred around well to incorporate all those snappy flavors. Adding the zest – instead of juice – really kicks up the deliciousness; the oils released from the citrus will blend with the oils left in the pan once the rest of the remaining stock boils off, which will permeate the pork as it crisps during the final stage of cooking. Adding fresh garlic at this point, instead of having added it when I started the braise, will ensure its flavor and pungency while still allowing it to mellow by virtue of a few minutes sautee.
After said few minutes, I raise the heat to high to finally boil off the last of the stock, leaving nothing but the EVOO and pork fat in the pan. This starts to sizzle, and the meat against the surface of my stainless steel starts to sear and crisp. I scrape the pan a few times, trying not to break my largest chunks of meat any smaller while trying to add that perfect crunchy richness which offsets the fork-tender; it is the synthesis of these two textures that make carnitas so delectable.
The last cooked component is my greens, so I add the rest of my garlic to another few glugs of EVOO in my large non-stick sauté pan, and sweat this until just translucent.
In goes my washed and dried spinach. This particular foliage shrinks up madly when cooked, so I just overload my pan and toss gently until it wilts enough to fit.
This marvelous manchego cheese was a Christmas gift (included in a basket full of awesome vittles) from the other two men in my life, bosses TT and WA – thanks boys! After noshing on it on New Year’s day, this leftover lump of lactic loveliness was exactly the cheese my grits needed.
El Claytonious shreds about half of it for me, which I add to my now thick and rich grits, along with some salt and pepper to taste. Beautiful!
The final component is my crema – a simple blend of sour cream, the juice from both my limes, and the rest of my lime zest. I mix all this together well right before plating.
A molten bed of silky grits enriched by nutty Spanish cheese; a nest of garlic-riddled, wilted spinach; a pile of perfectly tender, crisp-edged, citrus scented, and super-savory pork; and a dollop of lime crema to add coolness and contrast to this rich repast. “Pork and grits,” Clayton queried, “where’d you get that idea?” After snidely reminding him that bacon is pork, and we eat bacon and grits for breakfast, like, all the time, I finally sheepishly admitted that I had been somewhat inspired by a similar dish offered at the new Firebrand Saints in Kendall Square, where their porchetta plate with polenta and wilted kale set my imagination in motion. Theirs was delicious, of course (as are their burgers and cocktails!), but my interpretation really fit tonight’s bill of fare. Hearty and wholesome – all in about 2 hours. If this first real meal of the year foreshadows what’s yet to come, Lolita and her lover will be eating REALLY well in 2012. I hope, dear readers, you too enjoy as much digestible deliciousness as possible this year. If you find yourself falling short – drop me a line and I’ll make you dinner myself!