Have you all heard of Serious Eats? Well, one of the guys who runs the site is like a mix of all the best parts of Alton Brown and America’s Test Kitchen rolled into one. His name is Kenji and he has a recurring column called The Food Lab. Kenji knows a LOT about food and is always sharing with the readers of SE, some in-depth recipe for the best version of ________. Whatever it may be, Kenji will come up with an amazing recipe for it. Like this crispy pork carnitas, for one!
Typically, carnitas (pork shoulder slow-cooked in a big pot of lard) is something I only order when I’m out at a restaurant. I didn’t think I had it in me to make it at home, until Kenji’s recipe came along and gave me hope. He really simplified the process! The goal with carnitas is to slowly break down the connective tissue in the pork shoulder, and the result is some of the most tender, tasty pork you’ll ever want to eat. Usually, the big pot of lard will freak some people out, me included. I didn’t want to have to buy lard (cause who buys lard?), and a larger cut of meat like a pork shoulder was sort of intimidating to me. With Kenji’s carnitas recipe in all it’s simplified glory, I had all the confidence in the world, and soon, I’d have the best pork I’d ever cook in my life.
Kenji made his carnitas into some great looking tacos, but I’ve always been intrigued by Mexican tortas. Think of a really great taco with all the fixings, but served on a soft sandwich roll instead of a tortilla. My love for sandwiches knows no bounds, so I knew that tortas were the way to go! I jazzed up the carnitas-stuffed sandwiches with some fresh diced pineapple, easy guacamole, seasoned smashed black beans, and crispy quick pickled red onions. You could totally make these fixings into tacos and they’d be divine too, I’m sure. Into the kitchen we go — it’s carnitas time!
tortas de carnitas with
pineapple + pickled onions
(makes 6 sandwiches; carnitas recipe modified from The Food Lab)
for the carnitas:
1/2 a medium yellow onion, cut in half
1 medium orange, quartered
3 # boneless pork shoulder
1 T kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, split in half
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 c vegetable oil
6 telera rolls or other soft white sandwich rolls
sandwich fixins’ (recipes below)
Preheat your oven to 275, and let’s begin by breaking down the pork shoulder. It should have a wide, somewhat thick piece of fat and membrane on one side, so using a sharp knife, carefully remove this and discard it. Cut the meat into 2″ cubes and throw them into a medium-sized bowl.
Toss the pork cubes with the kosher salt and red pepper flakes, and squeeze them all into one single layer in a 9″ x 13″ baking dish. Separate the onion into smaller pieces and squeeze them in between the meat. Scatter the garlic about, and squeeze the orange quarters over the meat in the dish and put them into the pan as well. Pour the vegetable oil over the whole thing and cover the pan tightly with foil. Pop it into the hot oven and set your timer for 3 1/2 hours. I know what you’re thinking — “Three and a half hours? But I want it nowwww!”. I’m sorry to tell you that there’s no way to rush this process. The connective tissue in the pork has to remain at a certain temperature for a certain length of time in order to fully break down and get all tender and awesome. You’ll be rewarded for your patience by some kickass carnitas when it’s all over, and the smells that’ll come from your oven while it cooks are almost otherworldly. You can prep the other sandwich components while it cooks! The awesome thing about this carnitas is, you can cook it a few days in advance, thereby saving you some time if you want sandwiches like right now. All the other sandwich ingredients can be prepped ahead of time, too!
Let’s move on to the sandwich fixins’!
spicy smashed black beans:
1 can black beans, drained, with half the liquid reserved / 1 clove garlic, minced / 1/2 tsp onion powder / 1/2 tsp black pepper /1 tsp lime juice
Drain the beans and save half the liquid (about 1/4 cup), adding it back to the beans in a medium-sized bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mash with a potato masher until there are still some large chunks remaining. Cook in a small sauce pan over medium heat until the beans are heated through.
1/2 c mayonnaise / 2 tsp lime juice / 1/2 tsp chili powder
Stir all ingredients together in a small bowl until well mixed.
quick pickled red onion: (recipe from Bon Appetit)
1 c water / 1/2 c cider vinegar / 1 T sugar / 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt / 1 medium red onion, sliced thin
In a small bowl, stir together water, vinegar, sugar and salt until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Cram as many onion slices as you can into a jar, and pour the pickling mixture over them until it reaches the top of the jar. If you have extra onion or extra pickling liquid, combine them in a bowl in the same way. Put a lid on the jar, shake to combine and let it sit at room temperature for a minimum of 1 hour. I found that for best color and flavor, a day or two is best. Store them in the fridge for long-term keeping. When ready to use, scoop out onions with a fork.
1 ripe avocado / 1 clove garlic, minced / 1/4 tsp onion powder / 1/4 tsp cumin / 1/4 tsp kosher salt / 1/4 tsp black pepper / 1/2 tsp hot sauce / 1 tsp lime juice / 2 Tbs sour cream
Halve the avocado and pull out the pit. Scoop out the flesh into a medium-sized bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Mash it all very well with the back of a large spoon. If you’re keeping it longer than a few hours, cover the surface of the guac with plastic wrap and store it in the fridge.
This isn’t so much a recipe, as a method of peeling and coring the fruit. Using a large knife, cut off the green top and a portion of the bottom of a ripe pineapple (you’ll know it’s ripe when the color of the rind is brown and yellow, not green, and the base of the pineapple should smell like sweet, ripe fruit). Lay the pineapple longways on a cutting board and cut 1/2 inch round slices from the fruit. You’ll only need about half the pineapple for these 6 sandwiches. Once the slices are cut, core them with the large end of a piping tip. Press down with the piping tip in the center of each slice to remove the core. Cut each round slice into quarters and using the tip of a paring knife, go around the edges of each piece and remove the rind. Chop the pineapple into a small dice and keep it in a bowl in the fridge until you’re ready for it!
Okay! Hopefully the 3 1/2 hours is up, and your kitchen is filled with the awesome smell of roasted pork. Take the pan from the oven and remove the foil. With a large strainer set over a large bowl (a colander set into a large bowl works just fine, too) dump the pan’s contents into the strainer/colander to drain the liquid. Put the meat back into the pan, and pick out the onion and orange pieces. Squeeze the orange pieces over the meat again to get out all the good juices, and discard them along with the onion chunks. Break up the cooked pork into smaller chunks.
The liquid you’ve drained off is a combination of fat and cooking juices. Kenji has a great recipe for salsa verde that uses all that pork liquid, but we’re really only interested in the fat. Using a large spoon, carefully skim off the top layer of fat and add it back to the pan of pork chunks. Stir well to combine. If you’re prepping the carnitas ahead of time, go ahead and stop right there. Transfer the cooked pork to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed, but not more than 3 days.
If you’re ready to continue with the rest of the process, let’s do it! Put the deliciously fat-covered pork onto a foil-lined sheet pan and place it a few inches under a preheated broiler for 10-12 minutes, stirring the meat halfway through. You can do this step when the meat is chilled, as well. It’ll take more like 12 minutes total for the chilled meat, a little less for the just-cooked meat. What you’re looking for is a bunch of crispy, browned, heavenly pieces of meat mixed throughout the rest of the tender chunks of carnitas. Go ahead and sneak a piece of the crispy meat. It’s the best ever, right?
If you’re finally ready to make some tortas, grab your sandwich rolls and slice them in half. Brush them with a little olive oil and place them cut-side up under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, until they’re golden brown and crispy.
Make sort of an assembly line with all your sandwich ingredients. Grab two halves of a sandwich roll and on the bottom side, smear some of the lime mayo. On top of that, scatter a little pineapple, followed by a slathering of the smashed black beans. Top the beans with a good-sized pile of the crispy carnitas and a little heap of the pickled onions. On the top side of the roll, spread some of the guac. Top the bottom half with the top half and cut the torta in half for easier eating. Make as many sandwiches as you desire! Served with a pile of crunchy tortilla chips and a tall, cool drink, this is one outstanding meal. The creamy guac, sweet and juicy pineapple, spicy and tart red onions and crispy roasted pork are just about the best thing you’ll eat for lunch or dinner!
When I tasted this carnitas, I was almost astounded at how good it was, and a little surprised that it came from my kitchen. I don’t cook a whole lot of meat, but this has me wanting to make an even BIGGER batch and freeze it for when the random carnitas craving hits. You know it’ll happen, once you try one taste of these awesome tortas! Add this carnitas to your tacos, your chili, your eggs in the morning, or just eat it plain. It’s that good, it doesn’t really need anything else! Kenji, I can’t thank you enough!