Taco Kisses...

Since I was a mean girlfriend this weekend and sent Justin to his parents' house to clean out his old room, I felt like I owed him a special mean when he finally came this evening. I knew exactly what I wanted to make: I had seen a recipe in the latest issue of Food and Wine for carnitas, the Mexican taco filling comprised of a careful balance of moist and succulent and crispy bits of roasted pork.

Carnitas are my favorite meat option at Chipotle, and Justin often gets them as well, though he is more adventurous than I am in his selections there. Still, when we saw Rick Bayless make them at home on an old episode of Mexico: One Plate at a Time, Justin looked at me with big puppy dog eyes and asked if we could try it sometime ourselves. This week, I had been perusing the special holiday sale supplement in my local grocery store and saw that pork shoulder was going to be on sale, so now seemed like as good a time as any.

It would be the perfect cooking project for a Sunday, since they were supposed to spend the better part of five hours roasting in the oven. Definitely a special occasion meal, and what better occasion is there than welcoming your love back home after a job well done?

Though the recipe was intensive in terms of time, it actually required relatively little active involvement in the process. After patting down the meat with spices, I could more or less forget about it for the first three hours, though it quickly became apparent that the recipe's suggestion to dice the jalapeños that got added to the pan was a mistake. Within the span of an hour, they were reduced to charred bits in the bottom of the roasting pan, and I had to scrape them out with a spatula and toss them.

Though the flavor of the meat proved to be excellent -- slightly sweet from the addition of orange juice at the end, with pungent roasted garlic and a hint of earthiness from the ancho chile powder, they really could have benefited from less time in the oven. The idea behind the technique was to chop the meat into ever smaller bits throughout the roasting process, exposing more surface area to the pan and the oven to become crispy. Unfortunately, by the time the meat reached the end of its tenure in the oven, it was reduced to all dry, crispy bits, with no soft, juicy morsels for balance. The carnitas wore out our jaws, though they tasted good enough to make us continue eating tacos.

All in all, it wasn't quite the rousing success I was hoping for, given that I wanted to make something special for Justin, but he did get super excited when I told him we were having carnitas, so I'm going to consider it a partial victory. Next time, however, I'm going to pull the meat from the oven at least thirty minutes earlier, or whenever I reach the ratio of crisp to tender pork fragments that I'm looking for.

If you're looking for a Chipotle clone, this is not your recipe. The meat here is richer and more assertively flavored, which is a good thing in my book. Just be careful to keep an eye on the meat in the last hour or so of cooking; otherwise, the recipe is fairly easy and hands-off. If you don't live near a Chipotle, or a decent Mexican restaurant in general, I'd seriously suggest giving these carnitas a chance.

Pork Carnitas with Garlic and Orange
adapted from Food and Wine

3 1/2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Vegetable oil, for drizzling
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
20 unpeeled garlic cloves
3 jalapeños, seeded, deveined, and roughly chopped
1/2 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
Warm tortillas for serving

Preheat the oven to 325°. 
1. In a roasting pan, rub the pork all over with oil and season with salt and pepper. Turn the pork meaty side up and sprinkle with the ancho. Add 1/2 cup of water, cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. 
2. Remove foil and continue to bake 1 hour. Sprinkle garlic and jalapeños around the pork and roast 1 hour more. Transfer the garlic cloves and jalapeños to a plate. 
3. Increase the oven temperature to 375°. Cut the pork into 4 thick slices. Using 2 forks, pull the pork into medium-size chunks. Arrange the chunks in the pan, browned sides up. Peel the garlic and add the cloves to the pan. Roast the pork for 30 minutes, until well-browned and crisp. 
4. Transfer the pork and garlic to a large platter and scatter the jalapeños on top. 
5. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the roasting pan. Set the pan over moderate heat, add the orange juice and boil, scraping up the browned bits; pour over the pork and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and serve with tortillas.  

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