Hello and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes, the ongoing saga of one man’s war against decency and sobriety. I’m your Culinary Commander, Jon O’Guin, and today, we’re going to talk about a dish beloved by millions, and the very concept of ingenuity and creative genius. Because that’s the kind of blog this is: I can’t just talk to you guys about Carnitas, no. We need to have a philosophical discussion ABOUT Carnitas. So grab your togas and sandals, because we’re starting in Ancient Rome!
So, like, this, but before the grim advance of time.
I’m a Genie in a Bottle
“Genius” is a funny word. And I’m not just referring to how it kind of sounds like “jeaniest”, which presumably means “the most jean-like”. No, I’m talking about the fact that, well, we really don’t know what is or is not a genius.
However, this denim tuxedo is definitely the “jeaniest”.
Now, some of you probably just said to yourselves ‘Don’t you mean, “Who is or is not a genius”, Jon? After all, geniuses are all people.” First off, hypothetical thought person I made, No, they aren’t all people. I’ve seen videos of genius cats, dogs, crows, and chairs. So clearly not. Secondly, geniuses or, technically, genii aren’t even physical beings! So HAHA!
To clarify, the original meaning of the word “genius” referred to a type of god, or spirit, or general amorphous force. While I would love to get into the intricacies of Ancient Roman and Greek myths and religion, I’ll just quickly sum up: Your genius was the god or spirit who personally looked over and inspired you, typically from within one’s self. You know that cartoon idea of your inner angel and demon? It’s a mixture of that and your own soul, and like, potentially the direct investment of a greater god. One Emperor claimed his personal tutelary god was Apollo. Which, again, is pretty complicated, but would be roughly equivalent to me saying “Hey, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln talks to me”, except instead of arresting me, people would just say “Cool, what does he say?”
He talks to me about Axes!
So people who did great things were said to have great genius, in that their spirits were being well guided and inspired. Over time, ‘genius’ just meant ‘inventive or inspired’, and eventually we referred to people who were exceptionally inventive or inspired as geniuses themselves. Man had replaced God, and how did Nietzsche get into this conversation about taco meat?
The Meat of the Matter
The answer is that my recipe for Carnitas comes from a cookbook called “Genius Recipes”, made by the website Food52. I use Food52 quite a bit when making meals for myself or friends, and I like the site. Their “Genius Recipes” are compiled from some of the big names in cooking (Julia Child, James Beard, Yotam Ottolenghi, Steven Raichlen) and from smaller names, even community members just uploading their family’s recipes. Food52 has a specific definition for what constitutes a “genius recipe”, which can basically be summed up as “it challenges your understanding of the recipe, and makes you feel smarter for using this secret”.
I’ve used several of their recipes, and they’re mostly quite interesting. Things made with astonishingly little in the way of ingredients (a chocolate mousse made of just chocolate and water) or strange cooking times (broccoli simmered in oil for 2 hours.) or unexpected ingredients (shortbread made with hard-boiled egg yolks). This recipe included, interestingly enough, all three.
The recipe for these carnitas is just Pork, Water, Salt. That’s it. And that’s moderately impressive. Most recipes use milk, or orange juice, or a variety of things to get around the ingredient we can’t use as easily in America: Lard.
Now in convenient ball form.
Yes, in Mexico, you make carnitas by simmering pork in lard, but that has never really caught on in America. For one thing, we have a much stronger “lard is unhealthy” connection in our collective consciousness. And most lard sold in American stores is actually treated in a way that does make it less healthy than the pure form.
Now, as I have mentioned before, my father grew up in Death Valley, California . My family loves tacos and other Mexican foods like enchiladas, carne asada, and Tex-Mex dishes like Nachos, Fajitas, and so on. Mostly, my father likes simple, Americana versions: A lightly fried corn tortilla with ground beef and cheddar cheese is his go-to taco. Me, I like to get fancy. Queso Fresco and pickled onion? Sure thing. Which is why it’s good to find common ground. And Carnitas hits that spot. Their crisp-fried exterior over juicy inner pork work perfectly well for both of us.
So away we went. The first step is to cut your 3 pound pork shoulder into 2” by ¾” strips. Which is immediately where my family hit a snag, because, I don’t know if you know this, but THREE DIMENSIONAL OBJECTS HAVE THREE DIMENSIONS. So we were unsure if they meant more like chunks, or what. And adding to our concern is a note in the recipe saying “You’re going to want to cut these small. Don’t.” which makes estimating if you’re cutting too big REALLY hard. In the end, we erred on the side of large chunks.
Or maybe small steaks.
Did this ruin the meal? No. But it meant that we put way too much water in, and since the first step is “simmer until water is GONE”, that added an hour of cooking time to a 2.5 hour recipe, so that was something of a pain. I figure if you cut the meat into something that looks like super-extra-thick bacon, you’ll do okay.
And from there, you really just wait. You bring the water to a boil, and then reduce it to simmer, and let it bubble away until it’s gone. This lead to an interesting discovery as we turned the pork: when exposed to air, the pork would slowly and lightly brown, in a way that it then lost when flipped back into the liquid. We weren’t certain if this was just the meat oxidizing, or if the suspended oil was lightly frying the exposed parts, that then lost its color when re-saturated.
Eventually, you get it down to the oil, and then you cook it for another hour and change, basically until you think it’s done. The meat will brown up beautifully in that time, however. And you’ll get this delicious little crispy bits. You could put this in burritos, or quesadillas, or really any Mexican dish. We made some simple street tacos. Diced onion, cilantro, hot sauce, and lime. And these things went so quick, I totally forgot to take a picture of them. I did get them in the pan just before we served.
This is equally alluring and disturbing.
And that’s something we can all agree makes for a hell of a genius dinner.
NEXT TIME: JON GETS INTO AN ELABORATE CONVERSATION ABOUT TRANSLATIONS AND WORD BORROWING, BECAUSE OF A YOUTUBE COMMENT. THIS…PROBABLY WON’T END WELL.
3 lb pork shoulder or butt. Pick one with a fair amount of fat, and if it has a bone, remove it.
2 tsp salt
- Cut the pork shoulder into strips roughly two inches wide and an inch thick. Put in a large pot, preferably a fairly shallow one.
- Barely cover with water. Add salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until water is gone. This will take at least an hour.
- Let the pork cook in its rendered fat, turning occasionally, for another hour, or until it looks and tastes done to your liking.