Tacos de Carnitas

This is one of those recipes that works for some reason. My editor at the Chronicle, Miriam Morgan, deemed it one of the best recipes she had published in 10 years. Miriam does not mess around, so this is a compliment I will take to my grave. But really this homey Mexican dish is so simple — you just braise the meat in a few spices until the water evaporates, then let it fry in its own fat until crispy. The cooking time can vary quite a bit, so be patient, and spend the time making it crisp on the outside, yet still juicy. It makes enough for a party, and it holds really well in a crock pot or just a warmed, covered ceramic pot.

4 1/2 pounds pork butt
6 cups water
7 strips orange zest
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 onions, diced
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cinnamon sticks, preferably Mexican (see Note)
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano leaves, crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt + salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
24 small corn tortillas, warmed
Chopped cilantro
Finely chopped onion
Fresh salsa verde or hot sauce

INSTRUCTIONS: Trim any thick fat from the outside of the pork butt. Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Discard any cubes that are pure fat, but don’t try to trim all of the fat out of the meat.

Put the pork in a large pot. Add the water, orange zest, garlic, onion, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, bay leaves, oregano, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and cloves. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Skim off any scum that forms on the surface. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours, until the pork is very soft, adding more water if necessary to keep the meat submerged. Season with salt. Bring to a gentle boil and cook until the water has evaporated about 30 minutes. Cook a little longer to fry the meat slightly. (Note: if you want extra-crispy carnitas, fry approximately 25 minutes.) Watch carefully to prevent burning.

Remove the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks.

Fold a few tablespoons of carnitas inside each tortilla and top each taco with cilantro, onion and salsa.

Note: Mexican cinnamon (canela) is found at Latin American markets.

Serves 12

Per serving: 390 calories, 37 g protein, 30 g carbohydrate, 14 g fat (4 g saturated), 114 mg cholesterol, 481 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.

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