Last summer my parents rented a house in Tennessee for our first big family vacation with all eight grandkids. We convened at a canary yellow house overlooking a lake with our little ones in tow (sadly leaving James behind, who was deep in Hobbit-madness at that time) for a week of eating, drinking and toddler chasing. Since the kids ranged in age from one to four (five of whom were under two at the time—twins and triplets), dining out wasn’t exactly an option. Instead, each couple (or single, in my case) took charge of planning and cooking different meals. Before heading to TN, I did a bit of research and stumbled across a farm near our house that sold pasture-raised meats—a lucky find since there ended up being a scarcity of grocery stores in the area (barring a giant Walmart). We made an appointment to visit the farm and loaded up on steaks, Cornish hens, ground beef and a gigantic pork shoulder. I called dibs on the pork shoulder, which I dry-rubbed, slow-roasted and shredded for tacos. We stuffed the slightly spicy, sweet and smoky pork inside corn tortillas along with avocado slices, homemade pickled red onions, cotija cheese, cilantro sprigs and generous glugs of hot sauce. The sun was setting over the lake as we sat to eat dinner on the deck, and with nary a cry from our children, who were all magically fast asleep, it was summer at its finest.Fast forward to today. We’re in the midst of a polar vortex. I’ve been wearing long underwear to bed, and summer breezes feel as foreign as Uzbekistan. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a beautiful pork shoulder at a market upstate and was immediately reminded of that night in TN. I took the roast home and braised it with plenty of spices and some fresh orange juice, just as I had done on vacation. The flavors brought me right back to that warm evening on the lake. Nothing tastes more like summer, while being hardy and warming enough for winter, than pork-filled tacos. I’ve since streamlined the recipe, cooking the pork shoulder in my slow cooker instead of the oven to minimize the hands-on time. The result is a meal that’s easy enough to pull together any night of the week. While it’s admittedly not exactly in the category of “meals and recipes from scratch in under an hour,” it is definitely slow food at its fastest (and simplest), requiring only thirty minutes of actual hands-on time.A bit of planning is required, however. You’ll need to start the day before by smothering a pork shoulder (or butt) with a simple spice rub (doing this the day before allows the flavors to better infuse into the meat). The next day, it goes into a slow cooker with some orange juice, and is then left to its own devices for 8-10 hours while you go to work, or play with your kids, or hit the ski slopes, or whatever. By the time you’re ready for dinner, the meat is tender and succulent. The final step before serving is to boil down the pan juices, creating a slightly sweet and smoky sauce for the shredded pork. Serve the tacos with quick pickled onions (recipe below), buttery avocado slices, salty cotija or feta cheese and fresh cilantro. Pass the hot sauce (Chalupa, if you’ve got it), and welcome to summer.
This past Tuesday we hosted a last-minute “taco Tuesday” with some of our friends. It was a casual get together of pork tacos, plenty of wine and a movie for the kids. Even though a big snowstorm was on its way (we’d wake up to another foot of snow on Wednesday), that evening we felt warm and cheerful, fueled with enough Tennessee sunshine to face yet another storm.
Slow Cooker “Carnitas”
With less than 30 minutes of hands-on time, these succulent pulled pork tacos are slow food at its fastest. You’ll need to start the day before by rubbing a pork shoulder (also known as butt) with a spice rub, to let the flavors infuse. The next day the roast goes into a slow cooker with some orange juice, and it gently braises until the meat is falling apart and tender. Stuff the pork into tacos with the toppings of your choice for a fantastic Mexican-inspired feast.
- 1 3-4-pound bone-in pork shoulder or butt roast, trimmed of excess fat, tied with butcher’s twine
- 2 tablespoons chili powder (blend)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 3 garlic cloves, grated on microplane
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¾-1 cup fresh orange juice (from 2 large navel oranges)
- ½ lime (or more to taste)
- For serving: warm corn tortillas, pickled red onions, avocado slices, cotija or feta cheese, hot sauce, cilantro sprigs
- Start the day before. Trim the pork shoulder of any excess fat (a thin layer on top is fine). Tie the roast with butcher’s twine 3 or 4 times crosswise (this will help to keep it together as it cooks). In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, cinnamon, brown sugar, garlic, salt and olive oil. Stir to make a paste. Rub the paste all over the pork shoulder. Put the pork in a covered dish or in a ziptop bag and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, place the roast in a slow cooker and pour the orange juice around it (not over the top). Cook on high 8-10 hours, or until the meat is tender and beginning to fall apart. (You can also braise the pork in a 325˚F oven. Place the roast in a Dutch oven or heavy pot with a lid. Pour the orange juice around the roast, and add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the meat. Cover and cook in the oven for 3-4 hours, or until the meat is tender.) Do Ahead: At this point, the roast can be refrigerated right in its juices for up to 2 days. Reheat over low before proceeding. You may want to remove the fat while it’s still cold.
- Transfer the roast to a cutting board or platter. Pour the pan juices into a medium pot, and allow the fat to settle to the top (or pour the juices into a fat separator). Ladle off and discard the fat (there might be quite a lot). Bring the remaining juices to a boil. Cook until slightly syrupy—if you run a spatula along the bottom of the pot, you should be able to see a line—about 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Using 2 forks, shred the pork into bite-sized (or slightly larger) pieces. Discard any large chunks of fat. Scrape the shredded meat into the pot with the reduced juices, and toss to coat (you can also scrape everything back into the slow cooker and put it on simmer to keep warm). Squeeze in the juice from ½ lime and season well with salt and pepper. Serve the pork in warm corn tortillas with pickled red onions, crumbled cotija or feta cheese, avocado slices, cilantro sprigs, and a drizzle of hot sauce. Do Ahead: The pork carnitas can be made up to 24 hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat gently before serving, adding a few splashes of water as needed to moisten.
Pickled Red Onions
These zippy onions provide a crunchy and refreshing contrast to taco fillings, especially pork carnitas. The longer they sit, the more flavorful they become!
- 1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 5 allspice berries
- Rinse the onion slices well under hot water. Shake them dry and put them in a heatproof bowl.
- In a small saucepan, combine the apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt, cinnamon stick, peppercorns and allspice berries. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the onion slices and toss. Let sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for 30-60 minutes. Do Ahead: The pickled onions can be refrigerated (in their liquid) for up to 2 weeks.