Here’s a post that just crept up on me. There was mention of carnitas at a wedding in the Mexican countryside. I read yet one more cookbook published in America describing how to make carnitas by cooking chunks of leg of pork in water until it evaporated and then frying. And I returned from a shopping trip to the booming town of León forty miles away and stopped off as usual to pick up carnitas in Carnitas El Ricas. (Aside, if the grammar of this sign bothers you, it’s a joke. . . the owner’s name is Ricardo, carnitas are delicious, rica).
So what are carnitas? They’re little chunks of meat, meat meaning pork, cooked in its own fat, with salt and often orange. Commercial establishments are signaled by happy pigs, as above, but often pigs sitting in the copper cooking pot where they’re to be cooked.
So what place do carnitas have in Mexican life. They are happy food if often slightly guilty food now that Mexicans have had the same anti-fat lectures as the rest of the world. You pick them up for a late Sunday breakfast with the accompanying tortillas and salsas. You go for lunch with your buddies and enjoy a beer or two. They cross classes. When I stopped at El Ricas, I off in the corner were these four business men and that’s their Mercedes you can see parked in the foreground–well Silao, a cow town ten years ago–is, as I said, booming.
Above all they are the celebration food for rural weddings with pigs being specially killed and cooked. This snap that I took at a wedding a few years back gives you an idea of the size of the copper pots.
And of typical Mexican ingenuity with gas tanks.
If you want a good account of the slaughtering of the pig (for commercial use this time) and how you deal with it, here’s a link to Rolly Brook’s description. Check out the rest of his site too, it’s very informative on everyday Mexican life including cooking. Bear in mind though that in this part of Mexico, carnitas are much more than just ribs and shoulder and that chicharron (another topic) is different too.
So supposing you go to El Ricas. If you are not Mexican, you will immediately be asked “macizo?” Do you want solid meat, basically meat from the leg. You can answer yes and get tender and delicious chunks of leg of pork
But you’ll be missing the best bits. What you want is surtido, the mixture. Here’s a picture of a pound of surtido from El Ricas.
And here’s that surtido separated into meats from different bits of the pig. It’s actually missing the intestines and the ribs, but what’s in the surtido depends on who gets there first. You can see I am not a master of lighting, but let’s press on.
So you have five kinds of meat in that one pound of surtido, going round from bottom in a clockwise direction and ending in the center. Here are the cueritos, the bits of skin. Meltingly soft, a bit salty, a mind opening mixtures of texture and taste.
And here’s the buche, a tad on the chewy side from my point of view. It’s the stomach lining.
And here are a couple of slices of pork belly which I ask for as adillo. I don’t have a great ear and this works even though it bears no resemblance to any word in the dictionary.
And here’s the carne jugosa (the juicy meat), or codillo, elbow, shoulder, knuckle. Try to get lots of this, the crispy edges and juicy middles are mouthwatering.
And finally, the macizo, the leg, the white meat.
All these will be piled up and chopped up roughly so that you can roll them up in soft corn tortillas, which are what tacos are in Mexico. Add a few salsas and you are in heaven.
And as I munch away, the historian in me niggles. Where else are whole pigs, even if chopped into large chunks, cooked in fat? This habit clearly comes after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico because before there were no pigs and there was no pig fat. It’s so wildly extravagant in world terms. True it makes sure an entire pig can be used and shared in one day. What’s missing though is the careful drying and salting and smoking of the pig that preserved it for the winter in Europe. A bountiful land in the colonial period was Mexico.