Sometimes I conflate things in my kitchen and on my plate and they work well. For example, last week’s conversation about western ways to use Asian foods and ingredients and the heartbreaking disaster in Japan resulted in my making Mexican carnitas with Japanese dashi. I had Japan on my mind and lots of dashi stock leftover from recipe developing. Additionally, I hankered for pork carnitas tacos — the fatty, rich, savory kind that I recently had in downtown Los Angeles at Carnitas Michoacan in the Grand Central Market. Those two preoccupation melded into this recipe.
Carnitas is traditionally cooked in large copper kettles of fat like confit. But I wanted something that wasn’t too lean but didn’t require huge amounts of lard either. I also wanted a deep flavor. The key was finding pork shoulder with a nice balance of fat and lean. At our local Whole Foods, I found it handily in the form of a 1-inch-thick pork shoulder steak that sported a nice layer of fat.
For the flavor, I rummaged through the fridge for stock and the solution was a container of dashi. The Japanese stock, which I brew from dried kelp, shaved bonito flakes, and water, is a stealth ingredient for adding umami goodness to food. I seasoned it with soy sauce and mirin for a salty-sweetness.
Then I braised the pork in the dashi until it was tender and finished the meat in a skillet to allow it to fry and brown. The fat that rendered from the meat did the trick to inject a lovely amount of richness. The dashi helped to amplify the pork’s natural flavors. What started out as hybrid cooking turned into one of the best carnitas that I’d ever made.
Dashi Carnitas Tacos
Below is a dashi carnitas recipe for you to try. Do get fatty pork and good corn tortillas. I used to make my own but the Abuelita Bonita brand that’s available now at supermarkets and stores like Whole Foods is chewy and full of corny goodness. It refrigerates and reheats like a dream.
Serves 3 or 4
1 1/2 pounds very fatty pork shoulder
2 to 3 cups dashi stock
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 tablespoons Japanese or Korean soy sauce
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 tablespoons mirin
Canola oil, if needed
1/2 medium yellow onion, thickly sliced
1 large clove garlic, smashed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 large Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion, rinsed to remove the harshness
2 to 3 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro, leafy tops only
1 Thai or Serrano chile, finely chopped
8 to 10 corn tortillas
1 lime, quartered
1. If there’s a little piece of pork fat on the cut you have, cut it off and set aside for a moment. Cut the remaining pork up into 2-inch chunks. Salt and pepper the chunks. Set aside.
Season the dashi with soy sauce and mirin for savory, slightly sweet depth.
2. Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the reserved piece of pork fat. Let it cook, lowering the heat as needed , to render about 2 teaspoons of fat. If there’s little fat on your cut, then heat 2 teaspoons of canola oil.
Add the onion, cooking it for about 3 minutes until it has softened a bit. Push the onions to the side and add the pork. Let the pork brown for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Then add the seasoned dashi, garlic, and oregano. The pork should be covered by about 3/4 inch of liquid. Add water, if needed.
Bring things to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer; the liquid will continue to bubble away. Cover, and cook, for about 1 1/4 hours, until the pork is tender. Test with a fork.
3. While the pork cooks, combine the tomato, onion, cilantro, and chile in a bowl. Season with salt and set aside for the flavors to develop.
4. When the pork is done, remove it from the heat. Transfer the pork to a medium nonstick skillet. Add enough of the cooking liquid, leaving the onion in the pan, to come halfway up the pork. Heat the mixture over medium-high heat and let it bubble vigorously to further infuse the pork with flavor. Turn the pork occasionally to ensure even cooking.
When the liquid has nearly cooked away, lower the heat to medium, then mash the pork with a potato masher to shred the meat. Keep cooking to let the fat in the pork fry the meat and deliver it to a dark brown, savory ending. Taste the pork and if it needs more flavor, add some of the cooking liquid or salt. I like the carnitas on the slightly salty side to contrast with the other ingredients.
5. While the pork finishes cooking reheat the tortillas in a skillet, microwave oven, or atop a gas burner. To serve, transfer the pork to a serving bowl. Present it with the tortillas and salsa for guests to fashion their own tacos. (Or do it for them and serve on individual plates.) Offer lime wedges on the side for a bright, tart edge.