Mexican. Executed properly it’s a joyous mix of fresh flavours, top ingredients and simplicity put together into healthy, bright food. Banish the chain restaurant “Tex-Mex” rubbish and look at it with a new set of eyes. As a mental image, Mexican to me is bright and colourful; zesty and fresh. Lime brings this altogether in one-go, adding a floral, zingy quality to everything (absolutely not replaceable by lemon). Corn and beans are other pivotal ingredients, used in everything from salads to dips to the tortillas for scooping together your food.
I decided to tackle carnitas, a new dish to me and to some extent the Mexican equivalent of pulled pork, though the cooking is more like a confit duck. Using cheap fatty cuts of pork (shoulder in this case) and slow cooking in oil with some simple flavourings (orange, garlic and cinammon) creates unctuous melt-in-the-mouth tender strands. Then an additional grilling crisps some bits up for texture and contrast. Not having been to Mexico I didn’t realise it would also call for a large vat of lard or oil, not that manageable in a home kitchen. Fortunately Kenji from the SeriousEats food lab has a detailed roundup of a much simpler way to achieve the same effect, so props to them and their great site.
I initially was going to prepare some refried beans but decided given the lovely weather and the pork, something lighter to cut through would be better. I still wanted to use beans and instead made a simple salad of pinto beans, sweetcorn and raw red peppers. Topped with some superb aged Feta (to roughly simulate Mexican cotija cheese) and brightened up with lime it was a great pairing. More freshness came from a classic guacamole and added some moisture to the wraps. Unfortunately I didn’t make the tortillas (it was a hungover Sunday after all) but will be looking into those at some point.
Carnitas (feeds 8 hungry people)
- 2kg pork shoulder (I bought thick steaks), chopped into 5cm cubes.
- 2 onions, quartered
- 8 garlic gloves, smashed on the back of a knife
- 2 sticks of cinnamon, broken into 4 pieces each
- 2 oranges, quartered
- 8 bay leaves
- 150ml vegetable oil
- Tight fitting casserole dish
Preheat the oven to 140°C. Season the pork chunks with a decent helping of salt, then combine in the casserole dish with the onions, garlic, cinnamon and bay leaves. Squeeze the orange juice over and mix the orange segments in. Try and make sure everything is tight, then cover with vegetable oil (as much as you need to cover it). Tightly cover in foil and place in the oven. Cook for 4-5 hours until everything is very tender.
Take out of the oven and let it cool in its own liquid. Extract the pork, shred it with two forks and store separately until ready. Carefully remove the bay / orange / cinnamon / garlic and throw away (keeping the fatty stock). Let the stock separate into liquid and fat and carefully scoop the fat back into the reserved meat. Now the genius part is you can use the liquid pork stock for your salsa as below.
When you’re ready to serve (and have prepared the rest below) grill the pork and fat mix spread out on a tray for 5 minutes, mix it up and grill again for 5 minutes until you have a mix of delicious strands of soft and crisp bits.
- 1 onion, quartered
- 6 large tomatoes (or tomatillos if you can find them)
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 jalapeno peppers (or 1 hotter chilli)
Place everything in a pan together with the pork liquid. Top up with water to cover the veg and boil for 10 minutes. Allow to cool and then blend, its quite watery compared to what I’m used to but works really well with the pork.
Guacamole (per 2 people)
- 1-2 ripe soft medium avocados
- 1 lime
- Sea salt
- 1 handful of coriander, chopped finely
- Cholula sauce (Mexican medium hot sauce) – optional
Firstly make more of this then you think you need, everyone I know loves it and it disappears in front of your eyes. The quantities above are for 2 people so scale accordingly. Firstly cut the avocado in half, working around the stone. Carefully extract the stone (I whack a knife in it, twist and pull out) and remove the skin. I find it easiest to peel avocados as long as they are soft enough, just gently pull away from the skin and you have no waste. Roughly chop and place in a large bowl. Mash them to your desired texture, I prefer to have discernible lumps than a paste. Add the juice and zest of half a lime, plus the coriander and mix. Salt is the key here, add a decent pinch and taste. Adjust both the acidity and salt to taste. I like to add a touch of cholula (or even cayenne pepper) for a bit of bite but that’s optional. Serve straight away or cover and refrigerate, it’ll keep happily for a few hours if need be.
Quick Mexican Salad (serves 4-6 as a side)
- 1 large tin of sweetcorn drained (or 2 kernels freshly cooked if you have time)
- 1 large tin of pinto (black) beans drained
- 1 large handful of coriander, finely chopped
- 1 large red bell pepper finely diced
- 300g of feta (or more authentically, fresh Mexican cotijo cheese if you can find it)
- 2 limes, juice and zest
- A couple of tablespoons of olive oil
- Sea salt for seasoning
There’s plenty of work in the rest of this meal so I made the side salad pretty simple using mainly tinned ingredients. However the combination works really well and is a refreshing side dish. Mix all the ingredients except the cheese and adjust to taste with the lime, coriander and salt until you’re happy. Bear in mind the cheese will add quite a lot of saltiness so keep it slightly underseasoned. When ready to serve crumble the cheese on top.
Bringing it together
So, once those are all prepared you’re ready to serve. Put out the salsa, guacamole and salad. Heat the pork as per the instructions and at the same time heat some corn (or flour) tortillas in the oven wrapped in foil (or on a pan if you have time). Devour with friends and Mexican beer.