I love carnitas. Nothing better than tacos or quesadillas with braised, shredded luscious pork…. drool.
As tacos are off my menu I prefer to take my carnitas on salad (á la Chipotle) or wrapped in gem lettuce leaves, topped with all the usual fajita trimmings. I also have a bit of a weakness for transforming gnarley looking, tough cuts of meat into to something delicious – as with my lamb curry. Enter – Pig Cheeks.
Like many offal cuts it benefits from slow cooking as the collagen breaks down to leave über-tender meat, but there’s no gaminess, weird texture or smell, and no “acquired taste” required. The finished texture after braising is similar to stewed shin of beef, and the flavour more rich than with pork shoulder cuts. Are you sold yet? If not, the final gem is that it only costs about £7/ kg (from Waitrose, all trimmed, zero extra effort required) and a half dozen cheeks (about 500g) will easily produce enough for 4 people so no need to spend all day cooking a cook a whole pig. DISCLAIMER: unless of course, you want to. In which case please invite me over 🙂
Back to the carnitas. This recipe doesn’t come out very spicy but it can easily be garnished with chillies or hot salsa if it takes your fancy. Always easier to add than to remove…..
Take a large, cast-iron pot and heat a couple of tablespoons of fat. Lard is traditional. Olive oil works fine. Season your 6 pigs cheeks with S+P and brown them in batches over a medium heat, setting aside to catch any resting juices. When the cheeks have all been browned (ooer… ) throw 100g cooking chorizo, chopped, into the pot and allow it to render its spicy paprika oil. When nicely browned, remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside with the cheeks. Now, sauté 1 onion and 1 fennel bulb (both finely sliced) in the paprika infused oil until softened and translucent before adding 2 cloves garlic (minced). Take care not to burn the garlic at this stage. When the raw garlic smell has gone, pour in 200ml cold water to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Then stir in 1 tsp hot, smoked paprika, 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (or ½ tsp dried thyme) 1 tsp ground cumin and half a cinnamon stick. Return the pigs cheek and chorizo to the pot, along with any resting juices, and combine well. Add enough cold water to cover the meat (approx. 400ml but will depend on size of pot) and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 2 hours.
When the time is up, turn off the heat. I like to take this opportunity to pop to the pub for a bit, but you could just crack on with dinner. Your choice. Remove the lid. It may look like meat stew with too much liquid. Be brave. Now stir enthusiastically for a few minutes until the pork breaks down, and you’ll see it soon transforms. If the finished mix is still too wet, just simmer with the lid off for a few minutes. I normally freeze half to two-thirds of the batch and prefer it to have a little extra liquid so when it’s been thawed and reheated I can let it simmer down without drying out.
Serve on lettuce cups with an assortment of guacamole, salsa, soured cream and grated cheese to garnish.