Even the most die-hard vegan has to admit, you drive by a rib shack and the place just smells good. Might not be your cup of tea to actually eat, but the smell is like a slap of Vitalis, a cup of coffee, a good nap, and a favorite book all wrapped up in one. It’s something familiar yet not boring, a little bit of everything but not too much of anything.
But smoking ribs is a lot of work. The really good joints, they start working 6-8 hours before the first meal is to be served. You have to get the right wood and charcoal mix, get the smokers up and running, prep your meat with a mop, rub, or sauce, and then let the smoke and time do their thing.
So it’s always cool when you find a simpler way to do something that gets the job done almost as well. And I’ve had a ton of luck with this recipe from the folks at Spilled Milk, the foodie version of Car Talk.
Braising seems like a winter way to cook. Slow cooking, aromatic, fills the house with warmth. But I’m not going to cut it out of the schedule just because the Weber is topped off and the sun is raining down its UVAs and Vitamin D on us. Because the Spilled Milk recipe for carnitas keeps turning out shredded pork as good as the places that pass out handi-wipes by the bucket.
We’ve made this three times now, with very slight changes to their recipe each time, and it’s fool-proof, bomb-proof, and oh so versatile each time.
And while it’s not exactly the same thing as good ol’ barbecue, you do get a pile of tender pork that rivals the pulled pork from the most traditional of smokehouses.
The basic recipe is easy. Three pounds of pig (pork shoulder or country style ribs) and an onion go into the pot, all chopped. Then you pour in a mixture of one cup of chicken broth, 1/4 cup of tequila, and a few tablespoons of lime juice. Turn up to high until the liquid boils, then turn down to simmer, uncovered, for 2-3 hours. Right before you’re ready to serve it, you can turn up the heat to evaporate the rest of the liquid.
The only thing I’d suggest is to do the whole thing in a Dutch oven. They called for braising the pig in a sauce pan, then moving everything to a skillet to slightly brown the meat before serving. If you use a Dutch oven, you can do the whole thing in one pot. Plus, let’s say you’ve cooked the pig for two hours, but everyone is going to bet late for dinner. You don’t want the carnitas to dry out yet, and you don’t want to scoop it up and put it in the fridge. With the Dutch oven, you an turn the stove down to as low as it will go, cover it, and let it self-baste until you’re ready to brown it up. Yet another example of how the Dutch oven rocks.
The Spilled Milk recipe is for a carnitas salad, which I highly recommend. Your pork meat goes over chopped cabbage, and gets a dressing of hot sauce and lime juice.
Unless you’re feeding the entire high school football team, you’re going to have leftovers, and the carnitas is great in a quick burrito, taco, or sandwich. Here we mixed mayo with homemade salsa on a roll, with the carnitas, cabbage, and lettuce.
Like I said, we’ve made this three times now, as such:
1. No change to their recipe. The meat is tender and succulent, and the tequila gives it a brightness that goes well with the cabbage in the salad.
2. Left out the tequila and used either a Vidalia or Texas Sweet onion instead of a plain yellow. This produced a mellower carnitas, still very tender, with a stronger pork flavor.
3. The third time, I’m embarrassed to admit, we had failed to replace our vanquished bottle of tequila, so I intended to make it just like #2. But for whatever reason, at the last minute I poured a splash (2-3 Tbs) of triple sec over the pig. No idea why. Just did it. And then, because we were going straight to the burrito/taco phase and skipping the cabbage salad phase, I added the hot sauce to the liquid as it braised. Maybe 2-3 tablespoons of Texas Pete. I have no idea what the chemical formula for the reaction between triple sec and Texas Pete is, but the resulting carnitas had a tangy, slightly sweet BBQ flavor.
For the burritos or soft tacos, we warmed the tortillas in the oven, added the carnitas, some chopped cabbage, guac and salsa. Served it up with a side salad with a home-made version of a Mexican dressing (or, at least, what this haole druid thinks a Mexican salad dressing would taste).
Around 3 pounds of pork shoulder or country style ribs
1 onion, diced
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup tequila (blanco)
Lime juice, from one lime or 2 Tbs
Carnitas Salad Dressing
Hot sauce (Frank’s or Texas Pete) + lime juice (about a 3:1 mix works for me, but you’ll need to play with that.)
Mexican Salad Dressing
1:1 ratio of mayonnaise to sour cream
splash of milk
splash of lime juice
dash of cumin, ancho chile powder (or other chile powder), Mexican oregano
(optional: finely chopped fresh cilantro)
Only make enough for the number of servings that you need, pour over a mixed green salad.