Carnitas Tacos with Green Salsa and Pico de Gallo

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To understand my Mexican food expertise, consider this: when I was younger, I took several cruises with my family that brought us to Mexico. Cozumel, mostly. Upon arriving in Mexico, my family would immediately trek to the center of town where my mom would shop for jewelry and my brother, dad and I would stand around impatiently. Then it was time for lunch and, without fail, we’d almost always go to the same authentic Mexican restaurant, The Hard Rock Cafe. I even had the Hard Rock Cozumel t-shirt to prove our devotion. Which is why, when it comes to Mexican food, I’m as gringo as they come.

Which is a shame, because after a year of living in L.A. I’m really falling in love with everything Mexican. I think the weather is an important component. When I was back in New York, I kept hearing talk of must-visit Mexican restaurants like Empellon Cucina and Fonda in Brooklyn (more on that one in a second), but as it got colder and colder, I grew less and less interested. Meanwhile, the first thing I did when I got back to L.A. was to head over to Loteria at The Grove for a shrimp burrito smothered in tomatillo salsa. Sitting outside and eating that, the breeze barely rustling the palms, is how Mexican food needs to be enjoyed.

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And I’d be happy being just a Mexican food fan, a spectator who imbibes but doesn’t attempt it on his own, except recently my friend J.J. Goode handed me a copy of a cookbook he co-authored with Roberto Santibañez the chef/owner of the previously mentioned Fonda in Brooklyn, a book called Tacos, Tortas and Tamales. Because J.J. co-authored my favorite cookbook from last year, April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Pig,” I knew that this book was to be trusted. And the recipe that intrigued me the most was a recipe for Carnitas, slow-cooked pork that’s braised in a hot oven with a puree of garlic, onion, oregano and thyme, plus a surprising ingredient: Coke.

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While the meat’s braising in the oven, you can make the recommended condiments: green salsa and pico de gallo with lemon zest. The green salsa is a piquant mixture of raw, husked-and-washed tomatillos that you roughly chop before throwing into a blender with jalapenos (seeds included), cilantro, garlic, white onion and salt. The results will put hair on your chest, even if you’re a woman…so you may want to have a beautician close by for after you taste it.

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As for the pico de gallo, it’s really just a matter of chopping and stirring. The recipe calls for regular tomatoes, but I used cherry tomatoes which I prefer to use in winter since they’re consistently tart and fresh-tasting. Those get tossed with red onion, cilantro, lemon zest, lemon juice, chopped jalapenos and kosher salt.

The resulting pico de gallo is surprisingly bright; the addition of the lemon zest and juice takes it in a different direction, one that makes a solid case for swapping lemon for lime. (Though lime wedges are served with the finished carnitas, so don’t you worry, lime-fans.)

Two hours after going into the oven, those carnitas will fill your kitchen with the most intoxicating meaty, garlicky, herbal smell. The Coke works a special kind of magic, infusing the meat with just the right amount of sugar and–in the final step, when you take the lid off and cook for an additional 30 minutes–allowing for a sweet, succulent crust to form. Some call that the Maillard reaction, I just call it good.

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For my final trick, I was going to make corn tortillas from scratch using the tortilla press that Craig’s parents got me for Christmas. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find masa harina at Gelson’s, so instead bought these refrigerated corn tortillas which you cook in a hot skillet just before serving. They worked great, though I did catch a kitchen towel on fire in the process. Don’t ask.

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The best part of serving Mexican food at home is how social it is. You set up a little taco bar with your meat, your fixings–the salsa verde, the pico de gallo, but also chopped white onion, cilantro, and sour cream (which Craig insisted upon because he likes all things lactic)–and everyone’s hanging out in the kitchen making tacos, drinking beer and having a good time.

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Actually, on this particular night people were drinking Palomas, a drink that Craig made with Mezcal, lime juice and grapefruit soda using Ruhlman’s recipe. If you’ve never had a Paloma before, it’s smoky, slightly bitter but just sweet enough with the soda. And it’s a great pairing on taco night.

I’m a long way from becoming a Mexican food authority (don’t worry, Rick Bayless), but I’m certainly further along than I was when I’d eat burgers in Mexico with my parents, next to Elton John’s platform shoes from the movie “Tommy.” If I remember correctly, mom didn’t let us drink the water; we were forced to drink Coke. Which ties things together nicely.

Recipe: Carnitas Tacos

Summary: A winning recipe from Roberto Santibañez’s Tacos, Tortas and Tamales.

Ingredients

  • 8 medium garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 medium white onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano (I used regular oregano, which worked fine)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 5 teaspoons kosher salt (it’s a lot of salt but it’s also a lot of meat)
  • 5 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 3 dried bay leaves
  • 1 cup Coca-Cola

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
  2. Blend the garlic, onion, oregano, thyme, salt, and 1/2 cup of water in a blender until fairly smooth.
  3. Combine the pork and bay leaves in a 6-quart Dutch oven or deep baking dish that can hold the pork in no more than 2 layers. Pour the blended mixture and the Coca-Cola over the pork and stir and toss well.
  4. Cover the pot and cook in the oven until the pork is very tender, about 2 hours. The sides of the pot might look dark (mine were totally black!). That’s just fine.
  5. Uncover the pot and return it to the oven. Continue cooking, tossing well and scraping the bottom of the pot every 10 minutes, until the pork is slightly crispy on the outside and deep golden brown, about 30 minutes. Coarsely shred the pork.
  6. Serve with warm corn tortillas, lime wedges, chopped white onion, chopped cilantro, fresh green salsa (see following recipe) and pico de gallo with lemon zest (see following recipe).

Quick notes

You can make this a day ahead and heat it up just before your guests arrive.

Preparation time: 20 minute(s)

Cooking time: 2 hour(s) 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 8

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

Recipe: Fresh Green Salsa

Summary: A piquant, spicy sauce to serve with your carnitas.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound tomatillos (5 or 6), husked, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
  • 2 fresh jalapeno or serrano chiles, coarsely chipped (including seeds) or more to taste
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons chopped white onion
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Put the tomatillos in a blender fist, then add the remaining ingredients. Pulse a few times, then blend until the salsa is very smooth, at least 1 minute.
  2. Season to taste with additional chile and salt, and blend again.

Quick notes

This is definitely a spicy salsa. If you don’t like your salsas spicy, don’t include the seeds. You could even use one less jalapeño.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time: 5 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 8

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

Recipe: Pico de Gallo with Lemon Zest

Summary: A surprising twist on an old classic.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups diced seeded tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes, which work great in winter)
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
  • Heaping 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles (including seeds), or more to taste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir thoroughly. Season to taste with more chile, lemon juice, and salt. Santibañez suggests letting the salsa sit for at least 30 minutes before serving it.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time:

Number of servings (yield): 8

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

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