Once upon a time during my college years, when I was not yet 21, I did a stint living with my dad in Southern California. Most mornings I slept in till 11 am, then picked a grapefruit from the tree in the backyard for breakfast and laid out by the pool for a couple hours to work on the essential SoCal perma-tan. Like a college student before their first loan payment, I really didn’t know how good I had it til it was over.
By night, I worked at a fine dining restaurant, tossing salads, shucking oysters, grilling asparagus, brûléing crepe cake, burning chocolate tarts and shaving paper thin carpaccio. I got my ass kicked on the line and got some well-deserved forearm burns.
After work, I would hang out with some of the other girls from the restaurant, and sometimes we would go into bars that didn’t notice (or care?) that we recycled the same ID at the door. We drank tequila sunrises and rum & cokes with lime and somehow, we only got 86’d once.
There were Milkshake Mondays on Chef’s day off, where we would make mouth-coating gut bombs of vanilla gelato, heavy whipping cream (I know, I’m ashamed to even write this), and Captain Crunch cereal—worst decision ever, I might add, before a 10 hour shift on a 100°F line with little air flow; sort of like eating a stick of butter before starting boot camp in Death Valley.
Often, family meal at the restaurant was leftover pomme puree (almost equal parts potato and butter) and whatever we could find in the depths of the walk-in; not the most nutritious, or delicious grub. On rare occasions, the family meal would be prepared by the prep cooks and dishwashers. They would take over the back of the kitchen and make a spread for everyone of frijoles rich with lard, Oaxacan mole, watermelon scraps leftover from the brunch shift with salt and chile, and long-marinated carne asada seared on the flat top.
During one particularly delicious family meal, while devouring some fresh fried tortilla chips and salsa I even lost a tooth, a fake tooth that is, which sat in the front of my top row of teeth. I don’t think I uttered a single word for the remainder of my shift, for fear of anyone other than the dishwasher who saw it happen finding out about it (he sure did remember to make fun of me in Spanish for the rest of my time there though).
While I don’t miss the ridiculous restaurant hours or searing Palm Springs heat, I can’t help but look back at that time fondly. I learned that a good michelada cures all, how to organize my mise en place, and to let the small stuff roll off my back. Also, that family meal is the most important meal of the day, even if it’s eaten hurriedly while standing over a stainless steel prep table.
Crispy Carnitas with Blood Orange & Chile
I always keep some homemade pickled jalapenos in the fridge, but occasionally I make a mix that’s meant just for tacos: equal parts small diced jalapenos, carrots and white onions with a bay leaf and a couple garlic cloves, pickled in apple cider brine. That taco truck ain’t got nothin’ on me baby!
Obviously, pico de gallo or salsa would be welcome here, but I kind of like the simplicity (and winter/early spring friendliness) of this taco sans tomato.
4-5 pound pork shoulder roast (also called pork butt or Boston butt)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups water
4 whole chiles de arbol or 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
3 blood oranges cut in half, plus more for serving (navel oranges or limes are good too)
Optional, to serve:
Warm corn tortillas or these paleo ones
Hot sauce or salsa
Crema, sour cream or Greek yogurt
Fresh cilantro leaves
Blood orange or lime wedges
Pat the meat drywith a paper towel, then shower the salt liberally over all sides of the roast. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Sear the roast for 5 minutes on each side, or until it is well browned and crusty.
Add the water, chiles, paprika, cumin and maple syrup to the meat. Squeeze the juice from the orange halves into the pot, then throw them in too. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 3-4 hours until the meat is completely tender and falling apart.
Remove the meatto a plate, discard the oranges and chiles, and bring the remaining liquid to a boil. Reduce until you have about 1 cup of sauce, then pour into a bowl just big enough to hold it. Allow the liquid to cool and settle, then spoon off the fat from the top into a separate little bowl. While the liquid is cooling, pick over the meat to remove any gristle or fat and shred it into large chunks, and then pour the liquid back over the meat.
At this point, you can refrigerate the meat along with the bowl of fat for up to four days until you are ready to crisp it, or you can proceed with the recipe.
To crisp the carnitas, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and scoop 1-2 tablespoons of the reserved fat into the pan. Add just enough meat to cover the bottom of the skillet, as to not overcrowd the pan. Cook for 5-6 minutes undisturbed, until the meat develops a deep brown crust on the bottom. Toss the meat and redistribute, cooking until the meat is juicy and crusty all over, but not burnt. Repeat with the remaining meat, until it’s all been crisped; discard any remaining fat.
To serve, mound some carnitas in a double layer of corn tortillas and top with the shredded cabbage, pickled jalapenos, avocado, hot sauce, crema and cilantro and pass with orange or lime wedges to squeeze over the top.