Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lessons in cooking with Melissa Joulwan

Beef carnitas with homemade guacamole and the occasional handful of
organic corn tortillas.

(I KNOW, I KNOW... these pictures are terrible!! I could NOT make this pretty! I'm sorry... I promise it tasted much better than this looks!) 

Since going gluten-free in 2007 I eat very differently at most restaurants. At the time (late 2007), one dish I discovered to be gluten-free at our local Mexican restaurant was pork carnitas. They were savory, rich chunks of pork that had been gently cooked down with warm spices until they were super tender. When the liquids cook out of the dish, the pork then sizzles in it's own fat until its crispy and delicious on the edges. Down home Mexican comfort food.

This was my staple Mexican dish when we visited that restaurant. I would crave those pork carnitas, served with warmed corn tortillas and refried beans and sometimes a guacamole salad.

At some point last summer we visited our local Mexican restaurant again (we hadn't been in a while) and I ordered my usual pork carnitas... except... they were NOT my usual pork carnitas. Apparently they had a new chef who had changed all the recipes and now the carnitas were deep fried (and most likely cross-contaminated in a shared fryer) and they didn't seem fresh. This recipe also didn't have the rich, deep flavors that I was used too. In all honesty it seemed like they reheated leftover fried pork carnitas... and they were NOT yummy. 

I was hoping it was a fluke, so we visited the restaurant again a few weeks later. Nope. Same deep-fried pork carnitas that seemed like last week's leftovers. They were not the succulent, slow cooked morsels of delicious pork simmered in Mexican seasonings that I had enjoyed for years and I was really disappointed.

So I went without them and we didn't eat much Mexican for a while... I was bummed. When I wanted comfort food, I really wanted those old pork carnitas.

And then, a few weeks ago I got my copy of Well Fed 2 by Melissa Joulwan, the queen of paleo awesomeness. And as I was flipping through her glorious cookbook, I remembered something... HER FIRST awesome cookbook... It had a recipe for citrus pork carnitas! I had to try them. (For those who don't have the cookbook, Melissa graciously has the recipe posted on her site.)

I'd never made a recipe where you purposely allow the liquids to simmer out of the pot (key word purposefully!)... as Melissa shared in her recipe directions:
"While it's cooking, it will look like uninspired soup! As the water evaporates, the powerful citrus juice tenderizes the meat... (then) watch as the meat magically fries and caramelizes in the fat and fruit juice. It is a thing of beauty..."
(For those of you who would like to write cookbooks, I encourage you to buy Melissa's cookbooks, not only for the amazing recipes, but to see awesome examples of how truly intuitive and helpful instructions should be written!)

And Melissa's instructions were key. The pork did exactly as she described and by the end of the cooking process those juicy pieces of succulent meat had soaked in all the amazing flavors of the broth and spices. The flavors that developed in those chunks of pork were amazing, I remember standing there just picking the meat out of the pot and swooning at each bite. THESE were the pork carnitas I had been missing. (Thank you Melissa!)

So in all this talk about pork carnitas, where does that top picture of beef carnitas fit in? It fits in on a rainy fall afternoon when finances are tight, but you just happened to have a beef roast thawing in the fridge. And I was kinda tired of your "plainjane" beef, carrots, potatoes, and onions "pot roast." It's good, don't get me wrong... but it's not what I wanted.

This particular beef roast I had thawing was marbled with a good bit of fat and while I was thinking about dinner soon after lunch (oh stop, you do it too!), I started to wonder if you could use the same technique with a beef roast as you could with pork. Then I found this recipe online, which sounded similar to Melissa's recipe for pork, and I decided to try it, using some of the suggestions from the commenters. Such as adding a bit of cumin and maybe some cayenne for some additional heat and flavor... and because I loved Melissa's version, I added lime juice as well. A little extra citrus never hurt anything.

And it worked. It worked amazingly well and because I cut the beef into about 1" pieces it was nearly done in an hour, which was very helpful for a weeknight meal. I think what I love most about this recipe is not only how tasty it is, but its lesson in appearances... that "uninspired soup" when you started cooking turns into a gorgeous pan of sizzling, bold-flavored cubes of meat that literally make you smile when you taste them. What seemed like the most simple and mundane of cooking techniques produced incredibly good results.

Have you had any kitchen epiphanies lately?

The guac? It was just two overly ripe mashed avocados with chopped cherry tomatoes, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and lime juice...

The tortilla chips? Rare and organic and work occasionally in my hue of paleo.

Pin It!