As a carefree and youthful recent college graduate, I packed a suitcase and lived in Mexico for two months. It was a wonderful experience and the memories I have of that time are vivd and intense. I chose to live in Merida in the Yucatan. Merida is not at all like Mexico City, nor is it anything like its 4 hour-by-bus neighbor Cancun or Playa Del Carmen. It is a thriving city of about one million. It is a wonderful mixture or European, Mexican, Mayan and Arab influences. Part of my soul resides in Merida and with its people.
You can go to the most fabulous restaurants, but sometimes the best food is found on the street carts. Mexican cuisine is so much more than the tex-mex you find at your local strip mall. Yucatecan food is earthy and complex, with a host of spices, possibly one of the most beautiful and interesting cuisines in the world. There was a cart near the central plaza that sold carnitas. Carnitas is braised pork that is served with its confit. Usually it is served in a bowl with an accompaniment of corn tortillas, cabbage, avocado or salsa. Avocado trees grow in every back yard, so they are cheap and plentiful. The next time you feel like having Mexican, skip the overly sauced and cheesy food they serve around the corner and make a big batch of Carnitas. $15 will feed you for over 8 meals. This recipe should be made when you have the time, as it usually takes 3 hours start to finish.
Carnitas (adapted from Cook Illustrated)
- 1(3 1/2-to 4-pound) boneless pork butt , fat cap trimmed to 1/8 inch thick, cut into 2-inch chunks
- salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 small onion , peeled and halved
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons juice from 1 lime
- 2 cups water (or enough water to cover the pork
- 2 hatch chiles, seeded and peeled (this is optional, I bought roasted chiles at the farmers market and they give another dimension)
- 1/2 tsp sugar (a must)
- 1 medium orange , halved
Tortillas and Garnishes
- 18(6-inch) corn tortillas , warmed (if you are going to use tortillas…look at the ingredients and choose the ones with the least amount of additives, or if you have a mexican market go get fresh ones)
- Lime wedges
- Minced white or red onion
- Fresh cilantro leaves
- Thinly sliced cabbage
- Sour cream
- Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine pork, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, cumin, onion, bay leaves, oregano, lime juice, and water in large Dutch oven (liquid should just barely cover meat). Juice orange into medium bowl and remove any seeds (you should have about 1/3 cup juice). Add juice and spent orange halves to pot. Bring mixture to simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Cover pot and transfer to oven; cook until meat is soft and falls apart when prodded with fork, about 2 hours, flipping pieces of meat once during cooking.
- Remove pot from oven and turn oven to broil. Using slotted spoon, transfer pork to bowl; remove orange halves, onion, and bay leaves from cooking liquid and discard (do not skim fat from liquid). Place pot over high heat (use caution, as handles will be very hot) and simmer liquid, stirring frequently, until thick and syrupy (heatsafe spatula should leave wide trail when dragged through glaze), 8 to 12 minutes. You should have about 1 cup reduced liquid. Add sugar.
- Using 2 forks, pull each piece of pork in half. Fold in reduced liquid; season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread pork in even layer on wire rack set inside rimmed baking sheet or on broiler pan (meat should cover almost entire surface of rack or broiler pan). Place baking sheet on lower-middle rack and broil until top of meat is well browned (but not charred) and edges are slightly crisp, 5 to 8 minutes. Using wide metal spatula, flip pieces of meat and continue to broil until top is well browned and edges are slightly crisp, 5 to 8 minutes longer. Serve immediately with warm tortillas and garnishes.