Luscious, crispy-edged, flavorful carnitas are (guess what!) super-easy to make

I have one word for you: carnitas. Think about it: those super-flavorful, crispy-edged morsels of tender pork would be absolutely heavenly wrapped in a warm, handmade corn tortilla with a good dose of salsa verde. 

Here's the easy way to make those tortillas. And you have the recipe for zippy, deep-flavored roasted salsa verde. Just one thing missing. Where's the meat?

It probably seems as though great carnitas would be tricky or complicated to make, but it's actually a snap: You can make killer carnitas with very little effort – or expense. 

For years I was married to Diana Kennedy's recipe, the one in her classic cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico. It's easy, and I love the technique: Cut up a fatty piece of pork (I use pork shoulder) into smallish strips, cover it with salted cold water, simmer it till the water evaporates and the pork starts to brown in its own fat, brown the pieces all over, and that's it. Beautifully simple: just three ingredients, about an hour and ten minutes and very little work.

The thing is, done that way, the carnitas are very good – I've made them a million times. And they're definitely easy. 

Carnitas from Diana Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico

But they're not crazy-good. The smallish morsels do have that nice crispness, but last time I made them I found myself wanting more lushness, more tenderness.

What to do? Lots of carnitas recipes, especially cheffy ones, call for one large cut of pork that you roast for hours in a Dutch oven, then pull apart with forks to serve. Nice, but a giant commitment, and you don't get so many crispy edges. Also, I'd rather not turn on the oven for three or four hours on a hot summer day. 

I wondered if maybe I could split the difference. If we started with medium-sized pieces of pork rather than smallish strips, we should get more textural contrast – caramelized crispness on the outside, and the kind of tender meat you can pull apart with a fork on the inside.

So that's what I did. I cut a pork shoulder into three-inch chunks, covered them in water and simmered them on the stove, then fried them in their own fat. 

Carnitas heaven!

The compromise works brilliantly. The carnitas, which cook about 15 or 20 minutes longer than the Kennedy way, get lots of crispy edges and caramelized flavor, but they're tender and luscious inside. Adding a few sprigs of thyme, bay leaves and pieces of orange zest to the water doesn't add much work, but it definitely add complexity.

Here's the recipe:

And of course you'll want to make some corn tortillas.

And some roasted salsa verde:

I know what you're thinking: guacamole would be great in those tacos, too. You're right. It's not necessary, but it does send them over the top.

OK! Definitely let us know how this one goes. 




Taco party! Quick and snazzy ways to dress up freshly made corn tortillas

Now that you know how to make wonderful hand-made corn tortillas (just mix masa harina with water, and you're nearly there!), you'll want to wrap them around everything in sight. 

If you feel like really stretching out and cooking, you might prepare a special taco centerpiece, like lamb barbacoa or carnitas.

But maybe you want to go super-easy. Have a stress-free taco party! Here are some ideas for fillings:

•Pick up a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket 

•Stop by your favorite barbecue joint and buy some sliced brisket or pulled pork 

•Use that leftover steak in the fridge: Toss it in a hot skillet or grill pan, then slice it in medium-rare strips, for bifstek tacos. They're great dressed with chopped onion, cilantro and any kind of salsa.

•Boil up some pinto beans for vegetarian tacos. Just soak beans overnight, drain, cover with water, toss in half a peeled onion (or a whole one), a couple cloves of unpeeled garlic, fresh thyme or oregano (optional), dried or fresh bay leaves (optional). Bring to a boil, lower heat then simmer till they're tender. Add salt to taste when they're done.

•Pick up some shelled and deveined shrimp from the supermarket and toss them on the grill or grill-pan. Or grill fish fillets.

•Have some leftover confit duck legs burning a hole in your fridge? (Ha!) They make great tacos. I haven't tried them with salsa verde, but I'm thinking it would be great. Or you could go sweet and add a dab of chutney and some chopped cilantro.

•When Thanksgiving rolls around, consider leftover turkey tacos

•Leftover braised short ribs make great tacos,, too. So do leftover stews (beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken), pot roast, chops, leg of lamb


Really, your imagination is the limit. In their book Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman have recipes for smoked salmon tacos (with cucumbers, cream cheese and lime) and pastrami tacos (with pickled mustard seeds and pickled cabbage).

More tips:

•Have a couple of good salsas on hand, like a roasted salsa verde (easy to make), a store-bought salsa roja or homemade pico de gallo (diced onion and tomato, chopped cilantro, minced serrano or jalapeño chile, a little salt, a big squeeze or three of lime). If you're feeling more ambitious, try Stupak's amazing salsa borracha


•Set out bowls of any or all of the following: lime wedges, guacamole, crumbled queso fresco, sliced avocado, cilantro leaves, sliced radishes, chopped olives, chopped white onion, sliced scallions, sliced or diced cucumber

Oh, one more thing: Do yourself a favor and hand your hands on one of these inexpensive ($8 to $12) insulated fabric taco warmers. Stupak and Rothman tested every type out there, and concluded these work the best. I have to agree: Mine kept our tortillas warm for at least an hour. Maybe they would have stayed warm longer; I don't know – we ate them all too fast. They're easy to find online; I lucked out when my generous friends Keven and Georges gave me one as a gift last weekend.


OK, then – let's invite some friends and get that tortilla press going! 


Crash course in Mexican cooking: lamb barbacoa tacos

Here's a project to attempt if you're in the mood for a major cooking endeavor. It involves some advance planning – scouting ingredients, a day or so of advance prep, a long, slow roast (three hours) and an hour letting the meat rest. You'll make a serious salsa, for which you'll roast dried chiles, spiked with mezcal, and create adobo, the brilliant paste that serves as a marinade for the lamb. You'll learn how to simulate pit-roasting in your oven. You'll make handmade corn tortillas. 

A lot of work – and time – to be sure. But it's really fun (if you're the type of person who loves to spend quality time in the kitchen), and when you're done, if you're not already adept at Mexican cooking techniques, when the project is done, you will be. 

And you will have something incredibly delicious to show for it. Invite your more gastronomically inclined friends, people who will truly appreciate it. It's the moment to break out that bottle of great mezcal you're been hoarding.

Lamb barbacoa – pit-roasted lamb – is a specialty of Oaxaca. I had a wonderful rendition recently in Mexico City, at El Cardenal in the historic district. So when I found a version in Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman's new cookbook Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, I had to try it. Even if it meant chasing down ingredients in no less than four stores, two of them huge Mexican supermarkets. 

The most challenging was probably dried avocado leaves, which I found at one of the Mexican supermarkets (La Michoacana Meat Market in Richardson, Texas). I'm glad I bought three times the amount I needed, so I won't go through that next time. 

The two other challenges were fresh banana leaves, which I found easily at a Fiesta supermarket, and a boneless lamb shoulder. My local Whole Foods didn't have any kind of lamb shoulder; so I called Central Market (another well-stocked Dallas area supermarket) and the butcher was happy to bone one for me. I couldn't help but wonder, after making the dish, why it called for boneless. Maybe because it only called for two pounds? Still, my Dutch oven could have accommodated a larger piece of meat, and I would have been thrilled to have more barbacoa, so I think next time I'll try using a bone-in shoulder – or a piece of one.

So here's how the thing goes. The day before you're going to serve the tacos, make adobo. It's included in the main recipe. Five and a half hours or so before you want to make the tacos, take the lamb shoulder out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature. Coat the roast in the adobo (very messy!).

Line a Dutch oven with banana leaves (this is explained more precisely in the recipe), then add a layer of avocado leaves:

Place the adobo-coated lamb shoulder on top . . . 

Cover it with more avocado leaves, then fold the ends of the banana leaves over it all and tuck them in.

Pour in a cup of water, cover the Dutch oven, and roast it slowly for three hours. After letting it rest at room temperature for an hour, unwrap the lamb, discard the banana and avocado leaves, skim the fat off the sauce and strain it, clean the Dutch oven, shred the meat and add it to the sauce. 

This is the moment when you know it was all worth it! The complex flavors go very deep. It's delicious.

Up for it? Here's the recipe:

You can eat the lamb barbacoa wrapped in freshly made corn tortillas, maybe dressed with guacamole (that's how I had it in Mexico City). Or you can go all the way and make Alex Stupak's lamb barbaco tacos. If you do that, you'll want to make salsa borracha sometime during the roasting process, or the day before. This is the part where you get to toast dried chiles and reconstitute them, grinding them up with other ingredients.

Aquí lo tiene:

You'll also need to prep the other stuff that goes in the tacos with the lamb: mince some white onion, chop green olives, slice some limes and cucumbers. 

Here's what you have to look forward to:

Awesome, right? Here's the recipe:

Let us know, in a comment, how it all goes! 








How I learned to stop worrying about nixtamal and make fresh tortillas from masa harina

You can wrap just about anything in a freshly made corn tortilla, hot off the comal or griddle, and it'll be wonderful.

Well, that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. 

In another lifetime, a hundred years ago when I was in my twenties and living in L.A., I made fresh tortillas all the time. I had a cheap aluminum tortilla press and a cheap aluminum comal (tortilla griddle); I'd picked up both in a Mexican grocery. You could buy a bag of masa harina (dried powdered masa) just about anywhere. I was in a serious carnitas phase: I'd fallen in love with Diana Kennedy's version in The Cuisines of Mexico, and I'd make that with salsa verde cruda and guacamole and a big pot of pinto beans to serve on the side. 

When I moved to New York to go to graduate school a few years later, I brought my comal and tortilla press and even my molcajete – though masa harina was not so easy to find.

The tortilla press I've had forever

A few years after that, some time in the early 90's, I lucked into an opportunity to meet Kennedy, and even spent a long weekend cooking with her and the late, wonderful Peter Kump, founder of Peter Kump's Cooking School in New York. My friend Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch (I wrote about her in my post about pissaladière) had invited Kennedy and Kump to her 500 year-old stone farmhouse in Dordogne to spend some days cooking and soaking up the delicious and gorgeous region. Danièle knew I was a huge Kennedy fan, and was wonderfully generous to invite me along.

At some point during a weekend spent making pommes sarladaise in a big pot suspended from the hearth in the center of Danièle's living room, and confit de carnard and chou farci and I can't remember what all else, Diana and I got into a discussion about corn tortillas. I'll never forget her expression when I told her I was in the habit of using masa harina to make mine: I might as well have told her I was a regular at Taco Bell. She was positively scandalized.  She insisted that masa made from nixtamal – corn kernels cooked in a solution of lime (calcium oxide) and water – was the only legitimate masa. I knew all about it from her book, but when I'd gotten to the part of the two-page process that said, "Meantime, crush the lime if it is in a lump, taking care that the dust does not get into your eyes," I stopped reading. 

With Diana, I tried to defend my position, arguing that tortillas freshly made from masa harina are way better than anything you can buy at the store. "Better to buy masa at a tortilleria in your neighborhood," she countered. But there were no tortillerias anywhere near my hood – the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It wasn't even easy to find masa harina there.  The conversation seriously deflated me (this was my Mexican cooking hero!) and I think I lost some of my joy for tortilla-making.

That's why last summer when a review copy of Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman's cookbook Tacos: Recipes and Provocations landed on my desk at work, I was delighted when the book fell open to the following: "In Defense of Masa Harina." "A warm tortilla prepared with harina may not hit the same celestial notes as one made with fresh masa," it said, "but it is still an absolute revelation if all you've ever tasted is reheated, store-bought tortillas. There's irrefutable value in that, so I stand by it." 

Well, of course I've tasted many a fabulous tortilla made from fresh masa, but I still think the ones you make from masa harina (all you need to add is water!) are pretty darn good. And once you get the hang of it, making them is easy – easier than making pancakes, in fact, because the dough is just harina and water.


Though I'd already made tortillas a hundred times, I followed Stupak's instructions and found they worked perfectly, though I prefer the proportions of water to masa found on harina packages (1 1/8 cup warm water to 1 cup harina). You knead the water into the flour, roll it into a ball, and keep it moist under a damp towel while you work. "You want the texture to be as soft and moist as possible without sticking to your hands," is the way Stupak describes the right texture. 

 Set up a double griddle or two cast-iron pans and heat them so you have one side or pan hotter than the other. Line your tortilla press with plastic (so the dough doesn't stick). Roll some dough into a golf-ball-size ball. Open the press, plop in the ball, push down on the lever. Open the press, flip the tortilla onto your palm, peel off the plastic. (The thinner the plastic, the easier it is to peel off. I cut up thin, crinkly plastic bags like the ones you get at CVS if you forget to bring your own.) Drop the tortilla onto the cooler side of the griddle, cook for 15 seconds, then flip it over onto the hotter side and cook for 30 seconds. Flip it again (still on the hotter side) and leave it for 10 seconds, then flip a final time and cook 10 more seconds. At that point it may puff up a bit. Transfer it to an tortilla basket – or an insulated tortilla container (Stupak has a good section about which type is best – a "thick fabric tortilla warmer covered with culturally insensitive dancing chili peppers" was his favorite. He also explains why it doesn't work to reheat corn tortillas that have cooled completely.)

So, what shall we wrap these tender warm beauties around? That's a subject for my next post. Meanwhile, I can tell you what I put on the ones I whipped up tonight: Shredded store-bought roast chicken, diced avocado, white onion, cilantro, some leftover pinto beans, a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of leftover salsa borracha, also from Stupak's book. The salsa borracha – spiked with mezcal – was a revelation. That recipe's coming soon, too.

Meanwhile, in case you want to get some practice – or just have a fabulous vehicle in which to wrap leftovers (barbecue brisket is dreamy!) or do some creative taco improvisation – here's the corn tortilla recipe. Same thing I just gave you, but in a little more detail.