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~ Justified: Carnitas w/o a Big Butt & a Vat of Lard ~

IMG_4873When it comes to cooking, if the end justifies the means, I am all for breaking the rules -- as long as no one gets hurt and the end result is not compromised.  Carnitas is the Mexican version of American pulled pork.  I love one as much as I do the other, and, while neither are hard to make, the process to do either authentically is cumbersome -- handling huge hunks of porky porcine is not my idea of hog heaven.  I also have no desire to build a Southern barbecue pit to smoke a pig, or invest in a Mexican cauldron to boil pig parts in lard.  I'll leave that to the experts.

IMG_4854A bit about carnitas (kahr-NEE-tahz):  Mexican for "little meats", in Spanish "carne" means "meat" and "ita", added to the end of a word, implies "small".  This dish is simply small shreds of rich, juicy, pork, with crispy brown bits strewn in throughout.  It's made by braising (low and slow heat) a nicely-seasoned, well-marbled, inexpensive, 8-10 pound, cut of pork known as a "Boston butt", that has been cut into manageable thirds or quarters, in a pot of lard for several hours.  When the desired tenderness is reached, after 3-4 hours, the heat is turned up so the outside begins to crisp.  At this point, the collagen in the meat has broken down enough to allow the meat to be hand-pulled or chopped and used as the meat filling in tacos, tamales and burritos.

6a0120a8551282970b01a73de6d7cf970dA bit about the butt:  "Boston butt", is a bone-in cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the "pork shoulder" from the front leg of the hog.  Smoked or barbecued, Boston butt is a southern tradition.  This cut of meat got its name in pre-Revolutionary War New England:

Butchers in Boston left the blade 6a0120a8551282970b01a511db8178970cbone in this inexpensive cut of pork shoulder then packed and stored the meat in casks called "butts". They sold the pork shoulders individually to their customers, and, when they got popular, they began shipping "the butts" Southward and throughout the Colonies.  Simply stated:  the way the hog shoulder was butchered, combined with "the butt" they arrived in, evolved into the name "Boston butt"!

Sometimes, in order to satisfy a hankering for something, a new approach is necessary.

IMG_6987 6a0120a8551282970b01a73de7d10d970dWhen I decided to take a new approach to American pulled pork, I did use the pork butts. 6a0120a8551282970b01a511dc88dd970cThe change I made was to eliminate the BBQ pit and smoke 'em low & slow, 7-8 hours, in my oven.  It was easy, effective, and my barky end result has only been applauded.

Read the Related Aricle link below: ~ My Carolina-Style Pulled Pork BBQ (Oven Method) ~.

IMG_4846Mel's Mexican Carnitas (Stovetop Method) -- w/o a Big Butt & a Vat of Lard

IMG_4851When I decided to take a new approach to carnitas, I switched to pork tenderloins for 3 reasons:  1) They are naturally tender. 2) Experience taught me they can easily be braised to be brown and crispy on the outside, and, moist and shreddable on the inside. 3) No matter what anyone says, leftovers reheat without much compromise, but freezing is bad. Two pork tenderloins, yields a quantity suitable for the average family.

The most famous version hails from Central Mexico.  They're flavored with a orange, onion and bay leaf, plus, aromatic dry spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and Mexican oregano.  They are popularly served taco-style, in corn tortillas.  You can top them with anything you like, but, in a taqueria, your choices will be green salsa, red salsa, or, a mix of onion, cilantro, salt and lime juice. Shredded lettuce might appear, but, never cabbage, and, you won't be offered any guacamole or crema (sour cream) either!  

Once I came up with my Mexican carnitas spice blend...

IMG_4739... I anointed myself "queen of stovetop carnitas"!

IMG_4740For Mel's Carnitas Spice Blend:

4  tablespoons Mexican-style chili powder

2  tablespoons Mexican-style oregano

1  tablespoon sea salt

2  teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2  teaspoons ground coriander

1  teaspoon ground cinnamon

1  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2  teaspoon ground cloves

~ Step 1.  Place all ingredients in a small bowl and stir together.  If you have an empty spice jar, transfer mixture to it (it will make seasoning the carnitas much easier).

IMG_4748For the pork:

2  whole pork tenderloins, about 2 1/2-3 total pounds

2 cups water (total throughout recipe)

2  large yellow onions, cut into chunks, about 2 pounds

1  large orange, cut into quarters, about 12 ounces

4  whole bay leaves

3  tablespoons Mel's Carnitas Spice Blend (total throughout recipe), from above recipe

sea salt, only if necessary, for seasoning cooked and pulled carnitas

IMG_4749 IMG_4752 IMG_4755 IMG_4758 IMG_4762~Step 1.  Add 1 1/2 cups of water to a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides.  Add  pork tenderloins followed by bay leaves.  Add the chopped onions, dividing them equally on both sides of the tenderloins, then place the orange quarters on both sides of the tenderloins.  Generously sprinkle the spice blend over all, using about 2 tablespoons.  Cover pan and bring to a boil over high heat.

IMG_4774 IMG_4766~ Step 2. Reduce heat to a steady simmer. Partially cover the pan (just allow a crack to allow steam to escape) and continue to cook for 60 minutes.  When you uncover the pan, the bottom of the tenderloins should be browning nicely, but not overly browned, and, the pan will be getting very low on liquid.  What it looks like is more important than the time it takes.

IMG_4779Step 3.  Using a spatula, flip meat over.  Add the last 1/2 cup water to pan.  Flip orange pieces over and briefly deglaze bottom of the pan, gently scraping the browned bits loose from the bottom.

IMG_4781~ Step 4. Season the tops (second sides) of the tenderloins with 1 more tablespoon of the spice blend and partially cover the pan.  

IMG_4791~ Step 5.  Continue to simmer steadily, about 45 minutes, until tenderloins are nicely browned on the bottom, and the pan is very low on liquid.  What it looks like is more important than the time this takes.

~ Step 6.  Uncover the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and, using a spatula, turn the meat to quickly crisp the exterior on all sides, about 2-3 minutes (do not scorch).

IMG_4795 IMG_4799 IMG_4802 IMG_4806 IMG_4812~Step 7.  Remove from heat, cover and rest 30-45 minutes.  Discard orange quarters and bay leaves.  In the pan, using your fingers, pull the pork into large, long shreds.  Next, pull the large shreds into thinner, long shreds.  Now it's time to pull the long shreds into bits and pieces. Lastly, using a large spoon, give the mixture a thorough stir to combine the pork with the moist (almost pureed), flavorful onions.

Note:  After the pork has been pulled and mixed, if you still want more crispy browned bits in your carnitas, you can return the pan to stovetop and brown it up even further.  That said, placing small batches in a small skillet (with a small amount of oil), on the stovetop over medium-high heat, is also my preferred method for reheating/"crisping up" enough for 3-4 carnitas at a time.

IMG_4817 IMG_4821 IMG_4826 IMG_4832~Step 8.  Using a paper towel oil an 8" nonstick skillet with about 1/2 teaspoon of corn, peanut or vegetable oil and heat over medium high.  Place 1 corn tortilla in the pan.  Using a pair of tongs, flip it back and forth 3-4 times and allow it to cook until it just starts to bubble up in the center.  Remove it to a paper towel lined plate and fold it in half.  Repeat this process until 12-24 corn tortillas are fried until crispy but still soft (some folks prefer to use 2 tortillas per taco).

IMG_4840Carnitas:  Succulent (not wet or dry) & kissed w/orange & aromatic spice. 

IMG_4861My favorite:  onion, cilantro, squirt of lime & pinch of sea salt!

IMG_4886Justified:  Carnitas w/o a Big Butt & a Vat of Lard:  Recipe yields 4 cups carnitas filling, enough to fill 12 tacos with 1/3 cup meat each.

Special Equipment List:  small bowl; spoon; empty spice jar w/shaker top (optional); cutting board; chef's knife; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; spatula; 8" nonstick skillet; tongs; paper towels

6a0120a8551282970b0168eb977ec9970cCook's Note:  For another "almost" authentic taco recipe (meaning I've made it possible to make at home), check out my recipe for ~ Tacos al Pastor:  "Shepherd's-Style Pork Tacos ~, by clicking into Categories 2, 3, 13 or 19.  I love pineapple!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


~Cheesy Baja-Spiced Grill-Pan Chicken Quesadillas~

IMG_4691My mother made me grilled cheese -- I would eat one anytime she made me one.  I made my kids quesadillas -- they would eat them anytime I made them.  There was a span of time, 6-7 years, when my refrigerator was never without flour tortillas, Monterey Jack and salsa. Comparatively speaking, there's little difference between a classic grilled cheese sandwich and a cheese quesadilla -- except you use butter to grill the bread and oil to grill the tortilla.  

In terms of a quick-to-make & satisfying lunch or snack...

IMG_4707... my quesadillas are kid tested & mother approved!

IMG_4574Quesadilla (keh-sah-DEE-yah):  A round, flat, cooked-until-soft corn or flour tortilla, folded in half to form a half-moon with a savory filling sandwiched in the center.  It is fried on a well-seasoned cast-iron comal (a flat, round griddle), using no or very little oil, although in many modern kitchens, mine included, a grill pan is a great substitution.  

Almost any cooked and chopped or shredded meats and/or vegetables can be used as a filling for a quesadilla (fish and seafood are not typically used) -- the meats and vegetables must always be cooked first because a quesadilla cooks in a few short minutes.  That said, since "queso (KAY-soh)" is the Spanish word for "cheese", the obvious should be obvious:  a quesadilla is a container for ooey, gooey melted cheese.  Quesadillas require cheese.

Pg-oaxacaIn Mexico, Oaxaca cheese (wuh-HAH-kuh), a white, semi-hard cheese similar to mozzarella string cheese, is used.  It's available in braids, bricks and rounds.  In brick form it is called "asadero" (ah-sah-DEH-roh), which means "roaster", and refers to its melting quality.  It's flavor is mild and buttery and does not intrude on the foods it is served with, making it a favorite for nachos, tacos, tostadas and quesadillas.  It's said to "taste like Monterey Jack with the texture of mozzarella."

A bit about Mel's Cheesy Baja-Spiced Chicken Quesadillas:

IMG_4497The spice blend I make for these chicken quesadillas is resemblant of the spices used to make  deep-fried or grilled fresh fish tacos. Because of the abundance of fish in the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean around the Baja, Mexico region, it was the inhabitants of the region who invented fresh, catch-of-the-day Baja fish tacos.  That said, a US college student named Ralph Rubio, who was visiting San Felipe on Spring break back in 1974, fell in love with a particular fish taco made by a vendor named Carlos.  

Rubio asked Carlos to open a taco stand in San Diego, but he declined because he didn't want to leave Mexico.  Carlos did give Rubio a list of ingredients, which resulted in Rubio opening a stand in San Diego in 1983.  I love fish tacos, deep-fried or grilled, with all the traditional trimmings:  slaw, crema and pico de gallo.  My recipe, ~ Beer-Batter-Dipped Deep-Fried Cod-Fish Tacos ~ is in Categories 2, 3, 13, 14, 17 or 19.  I love quesadillas too.   It was a "no-brainer" to transition Baja-style and spice from a fish taco to a chicken quesadilla starting with these:

Baja Spice Rub, Southwestern Slaw, Pico de Gallo & Sriracha-Crema!  

IMG_4581For my dry Baja spice rub/blend:

4  tablespoons chili powder

1  tablespoon sea salt

2  teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2  teaspoons ground coriander

1  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon cayenne pepper

~ Step 1.  In a small bowl, stir together all of the spices, and, if you have one on hand, transfer to an empty shaker-type spice container.

Every bit will fit!  Tip:  Always keep a few clean, empty spice jars on hand!


IMG_4350For the Southwestern slaw:

4  cups store-bought coleslaw mix, a mixture of green cabbage and matchstick carrots

3/4  cup each: thinly-sliced green onions, white and light green part only, and, minced cilantro

2  tablespoons finely-diced jalapeno pepper, 2 tablespoons after removing seeds and ribs

2  tablespoons each: fresh lime juice and honey

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_4355 IMG_4359 IMG_4360 IMG_4365~Step 1.  In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, honey and salt.  Using a rubber spatula, stir in the onions, cilantro and jalapenos.  Fold in the slaw mix.  When mixture is thoroughly combined, refrigerate 4-6 hours, or overnight, stopping to stir every now and then, until serving chilled.

IMG_4292For the pico de gallo:

2  cups 1/2" diced plum or cherry tomatoes, or a combination

3/4  cup each: diced yellow onion and minced, fresh cilantro

2  garlic cloves, pressed

2  tablespoons finely-diced jalapeno pepper, 2 tablespoons after removing all seeds and ribs

1 1/2-2  tablespoons lime juice

1/2-3/4  teaspoon sea salt, to taste

IMG_4300 IMG_4304 IMG_4309 IMG_4311~Step 1.  Place the diced onion and the pressed garlic in a medium bowl.  Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon of the sea salt.  Stir and set aside 10 minutes. 

IMG_4315 IMG_4317 IMG_4321Step 2.  Add and stir in the finely-diced serrano chiles or jalapeno peppers, followed by the cilantro and the tomatoes. Set aside at room temperature for 10 minutes, then, stir and taste.  Add the additional salt and/or lime juice if you feel the mixture needs it -- I added no salt and additional lime juice today.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 6 hours, to allow flavors to marry, prior to serving chilled or at room temperature.  While the pico de gallo is marinating, stir it occasionally throughout this time, whenever it's convenient.

IMG_4369For the Sriracha-infused crema:

1/2  cup Mexican crema, or American sour cream

1/4  cup Sriracha hot sauce, more or less to taste

IMG_4368Step 1.  In a small bowl combine crema and Sriracha.  If you have a squirt bottle, the kind used to dispense salad dressings, transfer the mixture to it.  This type of bottle will make topping the quesadillas easy & mess free.

The condiments & crema are made.  It's time to make some quesadillas!

IMG_4603For the chicken, cheese & slaw filling:

6  boneless, skinless, chicken thighs,  trimmed of fat, about 1 1/2 pounds, 3 cups grilled & chopped chicken, 1/3 cup per quesadilla

2  tablespoons Baja Seasoning Rub/Blend, from above recipe

4  cups grated Monterey Jack cheese, about 1 pound, 3/4 cup per quesadilla

IMG_46071 1/2-2  cups Southwestern slaw, from above recipe, a generous 1/4 cup per quesadilla

For the quesadillas and condiments:

6, 8" round flour tortillas

Sriracha-Infused Crema, from above recipe

Pico de Gallo, from above recipe

IMG_4611 IMG_4613~ Step 1. Use a pair of kitchen shears to trim thighs of excess fat -- leaving small bits on the chicken is ok. Place thighs on a cutting board or baking pan that has been lined with a sheet of plastic wrap and liberally season tops with Baja seasoning. Set aside 15 minutes.  The plastic wrap makes cleaning up easy.

IMG_4618 IMG_4616~ Step 2. After the 15 minute rest is over, use a paper towel to oil the bottom of a 12-inch grill pan, or, a cast-iron comal, or, nonstick skillet with 1 tablespoon of corn, canola, peanut or vegetable oil.  

Note:  While you can use butter or olive oil, that is so NOT Tex-Mex. Adjust heat in pan to medium-high.

IMG_4620 IMG_4623 IMG_4626 IMG_4630~Step 3.  Place the chicken thighs, seasoned sides down in the hot grill pan.  Liberally season the seconds sides with the Baja seasoning.  Continue to grill until thighs are cooked through on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes per side, about 12 minutes total.

Note:  Even when liberally seasoned, you will only use about 1 tablespoon of seasoning, per side, for seasoning 6 chicken thighs (2 tablespoons total).  This will leave you with about 4 tablespoons to keep on hand on your spice rack or in your pantry for future use!

IMG_4650 IMG_4638~ Step 4. Using a spatula, transfer the chicken thighs from the grill pan to a cutting board and allow to rest at least 15 minutes, and up to 30 minutes (they must rest at least 15 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute themselves throughout the meat), prior to chopping them in small bite-sized bits and pieces.  

You will have 3 cups of perfectly grilled, chopped, moist and very-flavorful chicken.

IMG_4652 IMG_4656 IMG_4658 IMG_4661 IMG_4666~Step 5.  Clean  pan, oil it with 1 tablespoon of oil, and heat pan over medium.  Place one flour tortilla in pan and sprinkle 3/4 cup of cheese over the top to within 1/2" of the edge all the way around.  Place 1/3 cup of chicken over one-half, then, top the chicken with 1/4 cup of slaw.  By the time you put the slaw on top, the cheese will be melted.  Using a spatula, lift and fold the unfilled half up and over the filled half and transfer to a cutting board.  Repeat with remaining tortillas.

Wait 1 minute prior to slicing each quesadilla into 3 triangles...

IMG_4683... drizzle each piece w/crema & a dollop of pico de gallo...

IMG_4728... plate, serve & enjoy each & every bite!

IMG_4718Cheesy Baja-Spiced Grill-Pan Chicken Quesadillas:  Recipe yields 6, 8" half-moon-shaped quesadillas/18 pieces after cutting them all into thirds/4-6 servings allowing for 3-4 pieces per serving.  Recipe also yields 6 (almost 7) tablespoons Baja seasoning, 3 cups Southwestern slaw, 2 cups pico de gallo, 3/4 cup Sriracha crema, and, 3 cups grilled, chopped chicken.

Special Equipment List:  small spoon; empty spice jar (optional); cutting board; chef's knife; small whisk; large rubber spatula; garlic press;  hand-held cheese grater; plastic wrap; kitchen shears; 12" grill pan or nonstick skillet; paper towel; wide spatula

IMG_2662Cook's Note:  For another Tex-Mex all-American favorite, "queso dip" ("cheese dip"), try my recipe for ~ Tex-Mex Soul-Consoling Food: Chile con Queso ~.  You can find it by clicking into Categories 1, 2, 13, 17, 23 or 24. This ooey-gooey family-friendly, snack-appetizer is one you definitely want to have in your Tex-Mex tailgate recipe box. 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


~ Southwestern-Style Honey, Lime & Jalapeno Slaw~

IMG_4562Coleslaw, one word, or, cole slaw, two words.  It's a humble side-dish.  It doesn't pretend to be flashy.  It just sits in its bowl, patiently waiting for someone to take a scoop.  What's sad is the quotes and jokes that get made about coleslaw, which, in my opinion are 100% unwarranted. When it's properly prepared, and correctly paired with the right entree, it is the master of crunchy cabbage goodness.  It amps up the volume, of many meals, from ordinary to extraordinary.

54797471A bit about coleslaw:  The words "cole" "slaw" come from the Dutch word "koolsla", meaning: "cold" "salad".  Coleslaw is a salad of shredded green or red cabbage that gets mixed with other vegetables (onion, carrot and bell pepper being most common) then seasoned and tossed with a tangy mayonnaise-, buttermilk-, sour cream-based dressing, or a vinaigrette.  All versions contain some sort of acid, usually vinegar or citrus juice, and salt, which wilts the cabbage as it marinates.

Coleslaw is neither bland nor soggy, it is bright and crisp!

6a0120a8551282970b01bb087838bf970dThe key to great coleslaw is to make sure the vegetables are "dry", meaning: dry of as much moisture as possible before adding the dressing.  My grandmother taught me to shred my cabbage, chop my vegetables, then, wrap them individually in a kitchen towel and refrigerate them overnight prior to mixing the slaw.  The day I started using the store-bought, pre-washed, dried and shredded slaw mix, instead of shredding a head of cabbage, I never looked back.  If my grandmother had this available she would have used it too!

Many popular versions amp up the flavor with pickles or pickle relish, prepared or dry mustard, Tobasco-type pepper sauces and/or seasonal, fresh herbs.  It is safe to say there are as many versions as there are cooks and cuisines.  One of my local favorites, a Pennsylvania Deutsch version, features shredded fennel, apples and bacon tossed with a sweet and sour dressing.

This super-easy, sweet, savory & slightly-spicy Southwestern-style slaw... 

IMG_4497... made with honey, lime juice and jalapenos, complements all sorts of Tex-Mex fare.  For example:  My recipe for ~ Beer-Batter-Dipped, Deep-Fried, Cod-Fish tacos ~ (pictured above), and, my ~ Mexican-Style Baha Grill-Pan Chicken Quesadillas ~ (pictured at the end of this post).  It makes a sassy side-dish for many barbecued, smoked or grilled beef or pork dishes too.

Super easy:  7 ingredients, 5 minutes of prep, 1 bowl & 1 step!

IMG_4350For the Southwestern slaw:

8  cups store-bought coleslaw mix, green cabbage w/matchstick carrots (14 ounces)

1 1/2 cups each: thinly-sliced green onions, white and light green part, and, minced cilantro

4  tablespoons finely-diced jalapeno pepper, 2 tablespoons after removing seeds and ribs

4  tablespoons each: fresh lime juice and honey

1 teaspoon sea salt

IMG_4355 IMG_4359 IMG_4360 IMG_4365~Step 1.  In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, honey and salt.  Using a rubber spatula, stir in the onions, cilantro and jalapenos.  Fold in the slaw mix.  When mixture is thoroughly combined, refrigerate 4-6 hours, or overnight, stopping to stir every now and then, until serving chilled.

Great slaw isn't flashy -- just a jazzy way to amp up an entree!

IMG_4563Southwestern-Style Honey, Lime & Jalapeno Slaw:  Recipe yields 6 cups.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; large rubber spatula

IMG_4327Cook's Note: My recipe for ~ Mexican Pico de Gallo (Salsa Freesca/Fresh Salsa) ~ is another one of my super-easy, all-time favorite Tex-Mex condiment/side-dishes, and, more often than not, I serve it alongside this slaw.  You can find the recipe in Categories 4, 8, 10, 13, 14, 17 or 20.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)