In February, though it’s sunny here in northern California, the wind blows down from Alaska and it’s deceptively cold. The dim sun is still low on the horizon and hazy, not the true sun punch that we’ll get in a few months. We wimpy west-coasters need hot food as well as anyone else in the winter. It’s taken me decades, but I have finally learned how to coax magic out of the crock pot, and this seems a good time to share a recipe or two, maybe to brag a little about my carnitas.
Lest I get too full of my own self, I will point out that we have had a lot crock pot failures in this house, so expertise has been hard won. I have made a lot of dried out pork loin and undercooked stew. So I will share what I have learned about equipment and the perils of misunderstanding collagen.
The Context of the Carnitas
The local mice also seem to know that it’s cold. We’ve had a decades-long battle with them, fiddling with traps and bait to figure out how to make them go away without having to cope with hairy details. They’re a reminder that the lovely suburban woods stretching outside our backyard, with the impudent turkeys and sneaky deer, only seem bucolic. Once critters invade the garage and nest in your car– chewing through brake cables to cause damage that was breathtakingly expensive but fortunately covered by insurance–well, it takes a shine off the bucolous, that’s for sure.
The key to this particular recipe, then, was to set it up into the slow cooker before noon, before donning old clothes and rubber gloves to spend five hours in the windswept garage taking Every Single Bin off the shelves to be dusted and bleached. (Mon Dieu, we have a lot of crap!) We found the nest of those pesky beasts and there was more spraying, wiping, painting, hammering, duct-taping and covering up holes chewed in the pressboard garage shelves. This required many trips in and out of the house which smelled first of sauteed onions, then of onions and vegetables and stew meat, then of onions and vegetables and stew meat and orange and cinnamon and cumin so thick that you could almost see the cloud wafting around the kitchen and up the stairs.
It’s possible it was the best pork I’ve ever made in my life. And it’s possible that grungy, cranky, and tired makes food taste a lot better, like a hot breakfast when you’re camping. Here is the specific recipe:
1-2 T canola or olive oil
1 coarsely chopped onion
2-4 cloves of garlic
1 T salt
1 t. Pepper
5 lb pork shoulder
1 T cumin
1 T cinnamon
1 T oregano
1 bay leaf
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup broth, beef, chicken, or vegetable
Optional: 2-3 carrots, 2 small yams
Saute the onion and garlic in the oil for 3-5 minutes, “sweat the onion.” Brown the pork shoulder on high heat to seal in the juices. Move to a slow cooker, set on low. Add the spices, orange juice, and broth. If desired, add peeled sliced carrots and quartered yams. Cook 6-8 hours on low. Done means the meat falls away from the bone.
Add 1-2 fresh green chiles, seeded, cored, and finely chopped, if you prefer a spicy kick. Serve with salsa, warmed tortillas, fresh cilantro, lime wedges.
Crock Pot Smackdown
A word about the specific equipment and ingredients. First of all, the recipe is a hybrid of one that came out of our Insta-Pot and one designed to roast in a Dutch oven. The crock pot notion was mine, but it uses some fundamental slow cook ideas that I’ll talk about in a moment.
Also, Crock pot is a brand name, like Kleenex and Jell-O. We happen to own a 20-year old Rival Crock Pot, so I reserve the right to call of them crock pots, even though the Breville is “technically” a slow cooker. Our green ceramic Rival pot has served a lot of keilbasa in BBQ sauce, beef stew, and macaroni and cheese*. But the Crock Pot hasn’t been as good with pork, so over the years we added the gigantor Breville, a long rectangular vessel whose removable base can also sit on a burner.
The particular genius of that design is that you can saute the onions and sear the meat first, add the liquid in while it’s still on the burner to deglaze (i.e. scrape off the tasty stuck bits in the heating broth), then put it on the slow heat. You can’t do that with the ceramic Crock Pot design, and browning the meat definitely improves the flavor.
The Crock Pot was a little grumpy about its new “rival” but took it in stride until this past winter, when Santa also brought in the Insta-Pot. This latest piece of equipment, a hybrid pressure cooker and stew pot, is all the rage. We’re learning its tricks, and the Crock Pot does not appreciate being upstaged. The Insta-Pot also lets you saute then stew, and the stewing takes far less time. Its drawback: not big enough to handle a huge five pound shoulder plus accoutrements. Technically, the Crock Pot’s not quite big enough either, as I have started adding recipe ingredients to it many a time only to find that I run out of space.
So the Insta-Pot can not do EVERYTHING. The Crock Pot also has three drawbacks. (1) It can’t saute the food in advance. (2) It works best if there is several inches of room left without liquid, so overfilling is a no-no. (3) It won’t cook faster if you decide that you can’t wait.
Another critical point is about the cut of meat. This has sparked years of arguments which, I think, have finally been resolved. A pork tenderloin is just the wrong thing. A lean cut of meat like a tenderloin or a beef eye round doesn’t have much collagen, and collagen is your key. (There’s a great explanation of that by Daniel Gritzer here.) You need a marbled piece of meat–meaning it has fat on it–to release the fat and collagen which makes the meat tender. Tenderloin is great roasted in the oven, needing only an hour or so to be perfect, but the meat will be intact. Stew meat–pork shoulder, pork butt, beef chuck–will have the collagen you need to get it to flake after that long slow cook.
The Grits Party
My additional genius was the addition of the carrots and sweet potatoes, which added the overall sweetness, but also provided vitamin A and checked the See? Vegetables! box. My wife’s genius was to serve the mix on top of grits.
We used these packets of Quaker instant grits, because that’s what we had. Apparently, this was the Convenient Party Pack, as you can clearly see specified on the back of the box.*** At your next party, you would pull off that cardboard section and allow your surprised and pleased guests to help themselves to make their own instant grits. Can’t you just see them standing around with their beer or martinis, eating your canapes, when you bring out the box? Wow! exclaims your friend, who was just finishing a long story about travails in the grocery check-out line, I didn’t know we were going to have grits!
Or, maybe the party is a Grits party. No surprise, but with the grits as the star. Grits with cheese; grits with cinnamon; grits with … well…carnitas. Maybe your next Grits party will be The One that they’re all talking about.
At any rate, putting grits at the bottom of the bowl before topping with carnitas and vegetables was inspired. Making them with 1/2 cup of the broth instead of water was just doggone brilliant.
Carnitas Redux … and Redux
Of course, now you have a lot of leftover deliciously cooked pork. What to do with it? If you mix it with barbecue sauce and lay it on some cole slaw, the sandwich will be another winner. We also created two other dinner recipes–an enchilada torte and a bean soup.
I say torte because I have been told they are clearly not enchiladas because we don’t roll the tortillas. OK, sue me. Corn tortillas have less fat but tend to rip when you roll them, unless you cook them in oil, which–fat. Corn tortillas are perfectly good used this way, ripped rather than rolled.
Pork Enchilada Torte for Two
1.5-2 cups cooked, flaked pork shoulder
3-4 corn tortillas
2 cups frozen corn, like Trader Joe’s Roasted variety or 2 cups Trader Joe’s corn, queso mix
1 cup grated cheese mix, or 2 cups if you’re not constantly counting calories like we are
1 can 15 oz Green Enchilada Sauce
Spray the bottom of 8×8 square pan. Defrost the corn by leaving it out for a few hours or giving it a minute or so in the microwave. Basically, the colder your corn, pork, tortillas are to start, the longer it will take to heat. Mix the pork and vegetables together. Pour some green sauce on the pan bottom, then layer pork mixture and tortillas, torn to fit the shape of the square pan. Cover with sauce and repeat, probably twice. Add a little cheese between layers, but reserve at least a half cup to the side.
Cover with foil and bake at 350 for about a 30-40 minutes. A thermometer should say the internal temperature is in the 150-160 range; you’re creating a goo factor, not cooking, since all the ingredients are cooked. Remove the foil and add a last good helping of cheese. Pop back in the oven for 10 minutes to let the cheese melt, then let it rest for a few minutes while you assemble a salad on the side, if you feel it necessary.
Last, but not least, we did get the Insta-Pot in on the deal, to make one more dinner with a bean soup perfect for the pressure cooker design. Use the technique for making any kind of bean soup with the recipe below. Without the special equipment, you could still make a soup as you normally would, either by soaking the beans over night and par-cooking them, or by using pre-cooked canned beans. For that method, just throw the ingredients together and let them sit on the stove in a stock or soup pot on Low for a few hours.
In this particular case, we were planning to add more of the frozen roasted corn, but there was a mishap. Karin was sawing off the end of a new door sweep bought to close off the gap under the garage door so that YouKnowWhat’s stop coming into our garage, and the shelf she was bracing against jerked and a can of creamed corn fell off and immediately dented. This recipe now requires creamed corn.
Carnitas and Bean Soup
1-2 cups pre-cooked pork shoulder
1 chopped onion
1-2 cloves garlic
1 can creamed corn***
1-1.5 cups of beans–pinto, kidney, white or a mix
6 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
For a kick–add a teaspoon or tablespoon of tabasco sauce
***The dent is not required.
**After publishing the post, I was cleaning up the media and noticed the box clearly says “Pantry” not “Party.” Wife and I both read it as Party, and it’s much funnier that way, so I’m not changing it. I can just channel Emily Latella and say, “Never mind…”
*My mother-in-law has the best recipe for crock pot mac ‘n’ cheese on the planet; if anyone wants it, just ask, and I will put in the Comments.