What to do in Houston (Carnitas)

When I was in Mexico, we’d lazily wend out of class each day, through the verdant courtyard that anchored La Escuela de Idiomas and sneak out a back door, ready to traipse down an alleyway made up of uneven steps, brightly painted house walls, cacti perched high above us on third story windowsills and, occasionally, amazingly large dogs hanging out on the roof, just in case. We’d flip past the cathedral, always under renovation and wander through the beautifully manicured jardin at the center of town. Following one of the main roads, we’d pass expensive boutiques, travel agencies, silversmiths and textile merchants, pretty little shops doing brisk business from the gringos that flocked to our pretty, central Mexican village. Some would be enjoying chocolate on a patio, others would be well into their cervezas so early en la tarde. 

Escuela de Idiomas

Slowly, shops gave way to banks, which gave way to funny little drugstores and odd clothing stores that only sold jeans with holes in them. As we continued on our way to our autobus, fifteen minutes away, the shops would fade to stalls which would fade to the tourist market, full of ceramics and blankets and somberos and delicious street food that most touristas avoided on the advice of Lonely Planet. Past the tourist’s market was the actual market, where stacks of corn were interspersed with piles of plastic dolls, next to which a burro would be tied, hauling that day’s coffee beans from somewhere. The road grew more frenetic and you generally wouldn’t cross it if you could help it, sticking to whatever side you ended up on.

Just across from the bus stop were a series of shacks that sold tacos for unbelievably low prices. Of course, they wouldn’t tell you what meat they were putting into your tortilla, but with a good squeeze of lime and maybe a slice of avocado, it didn’t matter; it was perfect and greasy and tasted exactly like it should.

Since my month there, I’ve taken to putting lime on everything – I don’t know if it’s habit, an unconscious desire to ward off scurvy, or just the fact that lime makes everything taste better. I also decided, since I am in Houston for this rotation, that it was high time I learn to make my own Mexican street food, but I used meat I could identify.

Carnitas served with lime
My thoughts: Carnitas are more of a technique than a recipe. Essentially, take a fatty piece of pork, cut it up, let it braise for a bit then render in its own fat. It’s simple, delicious and unbelievably satisfying. The only downside is it does take several hours to cook, so it’s best saved for an afternoon when you’re home or a weekend that’s low-key. Carnitas. Do it. 
Notes: You should use pork shoulder or pork butt for carnitas. They should be well marbled with fat. Of course, add some seasonings when the carnitas start braising in their own fat. I used straight lime here, but you could try lime and chile powder, or a little cumin and orange juice, or some bitter cocoa power and green chile sauce. 
Carnitas
Serves 6. Allow 3 hours. 

3 lbs pork shoulder or pork butt
4 cups water
Salt
4 limes

Cut the meat into chunks, about 2″x1″. Discard any large chunks of fat, but leave the fat marbled throughout the meat. Add the meat to a saucepan or duch oven and add just enough of the water to cover the meat. Salt lightly and leave uncovered. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until all the liquid has simmered off – about an hour. The meat should just be cooked through.

Squeeze the limes into the pan with the meat and the rendered fat and stir well to combine the flavors. Begin to watch the meat, turning it as necessary to keep it from burning and continue to cook over medium heat until all the fat has rendered out of the meat. Cook a few minutes longer, until the meat has caramelized around the edges. Serve with tortillas, over a salad or with rice and beans.

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