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Oven Braised Carnitas Tacos with Smashed Avocado and Charred Pineapple Salsa

Oven Braised Carnitas Tacos with Smashed Avocado and Charred Pineapple Salsa

My taco truck go-to has definitely always been carnitas tacos.  They’re delicate, flavorful and hold a perfect crisp texture. They’re complemented by a variety of salsas and condiments that push their flavor profile to a whole other level.

I have cooked carnitas in a number of ways over the years before attending culinary school.  The traditional technique is time intensive as you basically slow fry pig parts in lard over low heat.  This method produces an excellent product that is moist but surprisingly not greasy for having floated in fat for half a day.  I have gone this route and been pleased with the results but for me, it’s a project method and not something practical for home preparation and consumption.

On the other end of the spectrum is the old “set it and forget it” technique of making carnitas in the slow cooker.  This is sort of a fail safe method that involves dropping a seasoned pork shoulder or butt into your cooker, adding a bit of liquid like beer, soda or orange juice, and letting it go for about 6 hours on low.  After the meat is tender, you remove it from the cooker and layer on sheet trays to crisp up in the broiler or in a very hot oven. This method takes about half the time as the traditional and also produces acceptable results although I find that the pork often becomes over cooked and stringy when you pull it apart instead of chunky and hearty like with the first mentioned application.

The technique in this recipe is one I learned in culinary school and later perfected while working at a high end Mexican restaurant where I made plenty of taco specials using this method for braising the pork.  The cook time is around 2 hours and the result is a tender and juicy product that still has a bit of bite to it. It’s crisp and beautiful and delicious and will pair wonderfully in this recipe with smashed avocado and charred pineapple salsa.

Avocados are a fruit we should all include in our diets if possible.  While they are high in fat, the majority is monounsaturated fat, which is what people call “healthy fat” that helps reduce inflammation.  Avocados also help with gut health as they are high in soluble fiber which feeds the friendly bacteria in your stomach that help regulate bad bacteria and yeast or Candida levels.  Good bacteria are super important to have and are the epicenter for the popularization of probiotic products.  

The use of antibiotics can affect both the good and bad bacteria in your gut.  It happened to me and was a key reason I initially wrote about the Candida Diet years ago.  I had been prescribed antibiotics for a chronic sinus infection.  After months and months of popping pills, my gut health was destroyed and the Candida yeast in my stomach flourished, causing a number of serious health problems.  Part of rebuilding my gut health involved a diet that was both low in sugar (which feeds yeast) but also high in soluble fiber, to help regulate the good and bad bacteria.

Avocados are also a very high fiber fruit so adding them to your routine will also keep you feeling full and less likely to snack.

The pineapple salsa we’re going to make isn’t just delicious, it also serves health purposes.

Pineapples are nutrient rich.  A few of the notable players in its composition are Vitamin C which is an all-star for a healthy immune system, and maganese which can help build strong and healthy bones and also can help your metabolism.

I write a lot about antioxidants and their health benefits. Pineapples are loaded with bound antioxidants which means they produce longer lasting effects on your body.

Bromelain is a digestive enzyme in this fruit that can reduce the inflammation which can lead to cancer, diabetes and Alzheimers.

Now that we’ve covered a few of the ingredients and why we use them, it’s Taco Time!

INGREDIENTS:

Carnitas

  • 3-5 pound pork shoulder or butt
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 quart orange juice
  • 1 onion – peeled and quartered
  • 10 cloves garlic – smashed
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 Tbsp Mexican oregano 
  • 2 limes
  • 3 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1 cup micro cilantro (or chopped cilantro)
  • Kosher salt
  • Tortillas for serving

Smashed Avocado

  • 3 ripe avocados
  • 2 limes – juiced
  • Salt – to taste

Charred Pineapple Salsa

  • 1 pineapple – cleaned, cored and cut into long slices
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 1 jalapeno – stem, seeds removed – minced
  • 1 medium red onion – diced
  • 1 bunch cilantro – chopped
  • 1-2 limes – juiced
  • Salt – to taste

DIRECTIONS:

The first thing you want to do it get the pork going.  The condiments can come together rather quickly while the pork is in the oven.

Set the oven to 425 and turn on the exhaust over your stove.

Cut the pork into large chunks around 2 inches.  Season liberally with salt. Set a large rondeau or dutch oven over medium high heat.  Once hot, add the canola oil. When the oil starts to smoke, add some of the pork chunks.  Be sure not to overcrowd the pan or the pork will lower the heat of the pan causing it to steam instead of sear.  You will likely need to do this step in batches depending on how big your vessel is.  

Brown the meat on all sides.  It will take about 5 minutes for each batch. Remove the pork to a bowl saving the juices and repeat with the remaining pork.  Hit the pork with a bit more salt after searing.

Once all the pork has been seared, throw in your onions and cook for a minute or two followed up with the garlic.  Let it cook for about 30 seconds, then add the orange juice. Use a wooden spoon and scrape all the bits from the bottom of the pan.  The browned bits are called the fond and they are packed with flavor.  

Add the chicken stock, bay leaves, cinnamon and oregano.  Cut the limes in half and squeeze the juice in, then also drop in the squeezed lime halves.  

Bring this to a boil then gently drop the pork chunks back in.  It’s ok if the pork is not totally submerged but it shouldn’t be sticking out of the liquid by more than an inch.  It’s VERY important that the pot is boiling before you put it in the oven to promote quick braising. Once boiling again, carefully cover the dutch oven with 2 layers of foil and place in the oven.  Set your timer for 2 hours.

Next we’ll make the pineapple salsa which will taste even better after melding for 90 minutes.

You should have the pineapple cored and cut into around 4-5 long pieces.  Brush the pineapple on both sides with the canola oil and place on grill for about 3-4 minutes or until you notice grill marks then flip over and repeat with the other side.  If you don’t have a grill or grill pan, you could lightly sear in a cast iron.

Medium dice the grilled pineapple and add to a mixing bowl with the jalapeno, red onion and cilantro.  Add the lime juice and salt and give it a good stir. Taste the salsa and add salt or lime juice if needed.  Store in the fridge until you’re ready to build your tacos.

After 2 hours, your timer will go off and it’s time to pull the carnitas out of the oven.  Be very careful as the liquid will be boiling hot.

Line a large sheet tray with foil.  Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and place on the sheet.  Be sure to remove the bay leaves, cinnamon and lime segments.  

Pour the braising liquid through a fine mesh strainer.  The liquid has a lot of fat that will help crisp up the carnitas.  Spoon some of the fat over the pork on the sheet tray and pop it back in the oven at 425.  We are going to crisp it up for about 5 minutes, then stir it and add a bit more liquid to finish it.

While the pork is back in the oven, you can make your smashed avocado.  This is a very simple step. Cut the avocados in half and remove the pit. Using a paring knife, cut the fruit into squares and remove with a spoon to a medium bowl.  Squeeze in the lime juice and add salt to taste. Smash the avocado squares with the back of a fork until you have a nice chunky texture. Taste and add more salt or lime juice if needed.

Pull the sheet tray out of the oven and let the carnitas rest for a few minutes.

You can either microwave your tortillas or heat them briefly on your grill.  Now it’s time to assemble!

Lay out your tortillas.  Spoon about a tablespoon of the smashed avocado on the tortilla and spread it around.  Top with a few tablespoons of carnitas then mound the pineapple salsa on top of the carnitas.  Garnish with more micro cilantro or chopped cilantro and serve with a lime wedge. 

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