I’ve been getting quite the education on Mexican food and culture at work, since many of the kitchen staff and runners are from Mexico. Every Sunday, during their break between brunch and dinner, one of the runners picks up tacos and tortas from a nearby Mexican joint for the staff. My favorite is carnitas, or slow roasted pork, with a simple traditional garnish of lettuce, onions, cilantro, lime, and a choice of red or green salsa.
At home, I like to make soft tacos with braised pork belly. Yes, pork belly has become almost a culinary cliche and it seems every day another restaurant in the city jumps on the bandwagon. But it is a wonderfully forgiving and flavorful cut of meat and slow braising pork belly makes it ultra tender and moist. It is the cut of pork that bacon is made from, so there is a lot of fat, but slow braising renders out a good deal of it anyway. The acidity of salsa verde, pickled onion, and lime juice, and the bright citrusy flavor of cilantro balance out the rest. This recipe is adapted from a demonstration given by Aaron Sanchez at the French Culinary Institute while I was a student there.
You will note that the recipe calls for annatto paste. Derived from the seed pods of the achiote tree, it is commonly used in Central and South American cooking to add color and flavor. I find it adds more color than flavor so you can omit it if you don’t have any on hand. Incidentally, annatto is also the pigment that gives Cheddar cheese it’s orange glow.
Ingredients, for 4-6 servings
For the pork:
2-½ lbs. boneless skinless pork belly, cut into large chunks approx. 4 oz. each
1 c. fresh squeezed orange juice
1 c. white distilled vinegar
4-6 cloves garlic, crushed
1-2 Tbsp. annatto paste
crushed red pepper (optional)
salt & pepper
For the garnishes:
thinly sliced lettuce
fresh cilantro leaves
2 dozen soft corn tortillas
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position the rack in the center of the oven.
2. Lightly score the pork belly on the fat side by making a few 1/8″ deep cuts. Generously season the pork belly with salt and pepper. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large skillet or flame-proof roasting dish over medium high heat until it shimmers. Lightly sear the pieces of pork belly on each side.
3. Drain the excess fat from the pan and position the pieces of belly with the fat side down. Add the orange juice, vinegar, garlic, annatto paste, and a pinch of crushed red pepper so that the liquid comes halfway up the pieces of meat. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake in the oven 1-1/2 to 2 hours until the meat pulls apart easily with a fork.
4. While the pork is cooking, prepare the garnishes.
5. When the pork is cooked, let it rest covered in the cooking liquid for 5-10 minutes before pulling apart. Once it has rested, shred the meat with a pair of forks, or your fingers and mix it with just enough of the braising liquid to coat each morsel. Add salt to taste.
6. Heat the tortillas one at a time in a dry skillet (cast iron works best) over medium-low heat until they are soft and keep them warm, wrapped in aluminum foil or a clean towel.
7. To serve, place a little lettuce in a tortilla and top with pork. Squeeze a little lime juice on the pork, and garnish with some pickled onion, salsa, and fresh cilantro leaves.