Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Dinner: Crispy Taco Shell U - starring Carnitas SUPER STAR!

This is a salute to my non-bio sister Lynn's Mexican food that I've been eating happily for years. It's always delicious and I've learned a great deal from her as well. We won't be talking about the chile verde in this post... but we'll get to that on a later date.

Last Friday as we were cooking, I told her that years ago the first time I saw her making crispy taco shells I was blown away: in a room full of people, she was holding down a conversation, grooving to music, drinking a glass of wine and smoking (she no longer smokes) all the while turning out beautifully formed U-shaped shells while seemingly paying no attention to the process.

We talked about that, and she told me that a couple of decades-ish ago a house mate's chef girlfriend taught her to fry tortillas with two forks and she never looked back.

What We Ate
Ha! I had to hide the beans and rice with a
Chimichanga because I'd
already shoved a bunch in my face
Last Friday we ate crispy tacos, NFNG rellenos (see: below), Chimichangas (Mike's favorite), rice and beans and salsa. Sadly, our avocado was sub-standard and we had no guacamole (I KNOW - so sad!). I gave one of the leftover rellenos to my housemate who, when she had eaten one for dinner a couple of nights later, texted me, "That was an AMAZING relleno!!!!" Yeah, they were that good and my housemate knows her stuff.  The starring roll in this was pork carnitas. I was in charge of the first half of the carnitas, and Lynn took over the shredding, final seasoning and making them crispy - the recipe/method we used is after the jump.

Crispy Taco Shell U
Lynn cooked up the first one with commentary while I observed and I was responsible for the rest - a taco shell refresher course (I had already passed the entry level class a year or so ago but I don't do this very often).  She is a very good teacher. Oh - if you're using tongs with channels make sure the business end remains below the the level of the hinge end so that hot oil never cascades out of the hinge end onto your hand. On my eighth shell, I learned that lesson the hard way. The two little spots of burned skin on my palm say, "Holla!" to that.

Swish and Flick - Okay, Don't Flick, Just Swish and How to Avoid the V

Lynn's about to slug me after I made her move
around the kitchen about a million times
to find decent light to photograph a black pan.
Someday I'm going to film it because I'm pretty sure my description won't do it justice, but the basics are an inch of oil (something neutral with a high smoke point - we used canola) in a pan, a pair of tongs, newspaper or a deconstructed paper bag to drain them on, and a stack of corn tortillas. Having a pan - the one in the picture is a mini-paella pan - with rounded sides helps but isn't a requirement.The oil should be at/around 365F. If your heat's too low, they'll be leathery and not crisp and bubbly. The other big secrets are to keep them moving, keep the part you are cooking submerged, keep the open end open, learn to recognize (by sound) when the oil has stopped bubbling and finally, try to keep the open end facing you.

Slide the tortilla in the oil and swish it around (gently). Pick up one end with tongs so that about 60% is out of the oil and is at (about) a 90% angle. Swish back and forth gently for a seconds until the 40% in the oil kind of holds its shape.
Switch your tongs to the other side and do the same.  It's all abut the U shape.  If the open end starts to close - and, like a clam, it WANTS to close - keep the open end open with your tongs. Once it has a U shape, swish it (slowly and gently on all sides, keeping the part you're frying submerged.  When it is bubbly, and a pale golden brown, remove it and set it on the aforementioned newspaper or flattened paper shopping bag open end down to drain.

Oh - if you end up with a V shape on a couple, as long as the top is open, it's not a bad day. We reused the oil for the Chimichangas which are not deep fried but pan fried. (Mmm... fried!)

The Truth About Roasting Chiles and NFNG Rellenos

Lynn is also the the one who suggested the "No Fry, No Guilt Relleno". Don't get me wrong, fried things are a wonder but the NFNG Relleno has all the benefits and none of the guilt and you don't have buckets of oil to deal with afterwards. She taught me how to roast chiles.  If you have a gas range, you don't need to do them in the oven, broiler or put them in paper bags to steam.  Just roast those babies over the fire until the skin is completely - I mean completely - black and let them sit a few minutes.  Pick them up at the wide end and scrape them with a dinner knife until all of the skin comes off easy as pie. Oh - do not rinse them.  Do. Not. What? Do you want to rinse off all of that beautiful smoky flavor? Just make sure you scrape off all of the burned skin, take out as many of the seeds as you can manage, and you will have a delicious roasted chile

Do Not Wear Poblano Chiles as Gloves
A couple of years ago, I had the bright (read: stupid) idea to drape the poblanos over my fingers while I was scraping off the skins. Poblanos are generally mild, like any chile, there can be a range of heat.  In this case, they had more than a little heat and by the time we sat down to eat, the top side of the first three fingers of my right hand looked like a cooked lobster and felt like I was holding them over a lit match. Multiple applications of aloe and the miraculous but sadly discontinued Johnson & Johnson First Aid Cream helped but to this day the tops of those three fingers are still very heat sensitive.  Oh - now I leave the tops on and make a long slit in one side of the chile and take out the seeds - much better for stuffing.

We stuffed the poblanos with a mixture (I just eyeballed the amounts) of pork, rice and cheese and I topped them with some salsa and more cheese.  We cooked them just to warm them up and melt the cheese - 350F for about 25 minutes, +/- a few.
Ingredients for the braise.

  • 3-4 lb boneless pork shoulder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (regular if that's not available)
  • 1 tablespoon of ground, toasted cumin seeds
  • 4  garlic cloves - mashed + 2 tablespoons olive oil (combined into a paste)
  • 2 cups of chicken stock (or water's fine)
  • 1 medium onion, large dice (I had just 1/2 a red onion so that's what I used)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 limes (I used lemon because that's what I had)
  • 1 orange
  • 2 tablespoons reserved pork fat, or 2 tablespoons oil with a high smoke point 
  • 1 small onion, small dice
  • 3 small to medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons toasted, ground cumin
  • salt/pepper (season to taste)
Preheat the oven to 300F / Rack on the lowest  level or 2nd from the bottom - I used a 7 qt dutch oven so I put one rack on the bottom and the dutch oven on the 2nd rack to make sure I had enough space.

  1. Trim the fat cap (if it exists) from the pork shoulder. Cut it into 2" x 3" (ish) inch pieces and trim any big fat globs on the outside.  There is a lot of connective tissue and interior fat - don't mess with that too much.  The connective tissue will melt, as will most of the fat (and then be skimmed off) but even after it has cooked, you want a little left.
  2. Combine the salt, pepper, Mexican oregano and ground, toasted cumin seed in a small bowl. Season each piece on all sides and rub it in.  Slather the pork chunks with the mashed garlic/olive oil mixture. I let my pork sit on the counter for an hour - you could put in the refrigerator for a few hours if you wish.
  3. In a large, heavy dutch oven, nestle the pork chunks in the bottom. Add the onions, bay leaves, chicken stock and both the juice and spent halves of one of the limes and the orange.  Pull the pork chunks around to allow the other ingredients to get in-between the chunks.  
  4. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove and then place the covered dutch oven on the rack and let it cook for at least two hours at 300F.
  5. After two hours, pull the dutch oven out and test the pork chunks.  You don't want the meat to be completely broken down. Stick a dinner fork in one of the chunks and slowly turn it. The meat fibers should easily turn and break apart when it is done. Pick a little piece off and taste it - there's no better way to make sure the texture is right. If it's not done, stick the covered dutch oven back in the oven for a 30-60 minutes, checking it at 30 minutes.
  6. When it is done, take the dutch oven out and leave it on the stove top to cool a little. Remove the pork chunks with a slotted spoon or spider and place them in covered bowl - they can go into the refrigerator. Strain the solids out of the liquid and skim to remove as much of the fat as possible.  Reserve the pork fat - don't throw it away. Depending on how closely you trimmed your pork shoulder, you may need it. I had about a quarter cup and refrigerated it in a small, covered bowl.
  7. Add the strained, de-fatted liquid to a clean sauce pan and reduce until you have the consistency of a glaze. Store the glaze in a covered container.  I had about 1 cup of glaze.
It's crispy time!! When you're ready to use the carnitas... 
  1.  If the cooked pork has been in the refrigerator, remove it and let it come up in temperature a little so it's easier to handle.
  2. Remove a few of the pork chunks to a board and shred them with two forks. II don't shred them completely - I leave a few little chunks. If there are still big fat globs, you can remove them at this time - just don't take it all. Return the shredded pork to the bowl in which it was stored and continue to shred.
  3. You will need to do this in batches. Add 1 tablespoon of the reserved pork fat or oil to a very large skillet (12") .Heat on medium high until the oil shimmers. Add the diced onion ;and season with a pinch of black pepper. Turn the heat to medium and saute until they are translucent. Add the garlic and saute for about a minute. Add the ground cumin and saute for another minute. Remove this mixture to a bowl and wipe out the skillet.
  4. Turn the heat up to high. Add a little (1 teaspoon) of pork fat or oil to the pan and when the fat shimmers, add your first batch of shredded pork. Fill, but don't stuff the pan.  Let it sizzle and turn it down a little if necessary. Check the underside of the shredded pork. It shouldn't be uniformly brown (like hash browns) but about 1/2 the pork on the cooking surface should be browned and crispy. You're looking for a combination of tender shredded pork with some crispy bits. Toss or turn the content over with a large spatula and brown for few minutes more. I turn out each batch on a stack of newspaper but if you're a more delicate flower, you can use a giant stack of paper towels on top of a platter or baking sheet.
  5. Keep crisping up the pork in batches.  Turn down the heat to low, add back the onions, garlic and cumin when you've cooked the last batch and then add back the previously crisped shredded pork.  Pour the glaze from the reserved braising liquid over everything and use tongs to gently toss and combine all of the ingredients.  You can leave this on low to warm or put in the oven on a very low heat to keep it warm.
In the crisping section you can add all sorts of things as desired - diced, roasted hot chiles, chopped tomato - whatever you wish.


dashcat said...

The pics are great Nan! You did such a great job on the shells and the pork. I have been eating the leftovers all week :)

The Saveur said...

It's 8am on Easter morning, and I am craving carnitas tacos now. This recipe looks amazing. When I get pork next time, it's on the "to make" list for sure. :D

Molly said...

I want to make this so bad! That last picture with the meat, onions, and lemons all in the pot is beautiful! The colors are amazing and I'm pretty much drooling on my keyboard!

Ms. Divina Loca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ms. Divina Loca said...

My mentor, Obi-Wan Guacamole taught me well in the ways of carnitas and taco shells.

@Molly - My kitchen has a big skylight and a lot of white matte surfaces and if make sure I don't throw a shadow, I can get some pretty good shots.