Project Cook: Slow Braised Pork Tacos

A few years ago my sister told me it would be nice if, in addition to number of servings, I included in my blog recipes how long the dish took to prepare. I grumbled inwardly about this, since pausing to take photos and make notations on my scribbled plans made any time span I provided an approximation, but decided it was a good idea and put it into practice. A little later, I started buying cookbooks highlighting Middle Eastern food written by an Israeli chef who works in Britain (by now you probably know who I’m talking about by now) who doesn’t typically provide an estimate of total preparation time for his recipes. More than once, I was caught by unexpected directions like “simmer 40 minutes” or even “let sit overnight” that I hadn’t noticed in my initial skim through the recipe, and suddenly dinner was off the rails. My fault for not reading carefully, but still, a little up front estimate would be helpful.

Especially in the food blog world, in which I know some people read for the reading experience, but some people Google a main ingredient they are hoping to cook in the next hour, this time estimate seems particularly important. But again, especially in this forum in which we seem to have decided a story must precede the recipe, as I tell my students, you want to use your time efficiently. Thus if I promise you a perfectly smooth custard and you think “great, that’s dessert, let’s get started” to see only after reading about how well it went over at my latest dinner party that the custard base needs to chill for two hours, well, you’re back to your search engine and starting over again.

All this to say, I think initial warning is needed, so as you can see above I’m instituting a new label: “Project Cook.” This is to designate a dish that is fairly complicated to make, or takes a long time, or uses multiple cooking methods, and thus you’ll know whether to avoid it or to launch in with a full and lazy afternoon to work your way through. As time and memory permit, I’ll go back and apply the label through the archives.

So as you might expect, to launch this label I’m offering something that takes a long time and uses multiple cooking methods. These slow braised pork tacos are a riff on a recipe by Melissa D’Arabian, and though mine take longer, they are actually a bit pared down in terms of equipment and steps, since instead of braising in the oven, I turn to my slow cooker. That means although the pork needs to simmer away in the slow cooker for 7-8 hours, and then ideally it needs to sit in the fridge overnight (unless you’re starting this thing at 8 in the morning the day you want these tacos), after an initial sear and sweating of vegetables this is mostly hands off, which is perfect if, like me, you have a lot of planning to do for a semester that suddenly, now that it’s February, feels a lot closer than it did last week…

Let’s work through what’s happening here: if possible, salt the pork a day or two before cooking. Everything I’m reading (and watching – have you seen Salt Fat Acid Heat yet??) lately about cooking meat suggests the seasoning process begins, and works best, in advance. It doesn’t get salty, but the seasoning takes a while to penetrate past the surface. The pork gets seared in bacon fat for a beautiful crust and some extra flavor. A medley of vegetables sweats down in the pork fat next, before everything tumbles into the slow cooker together with red wine, beef broth, orange juice, and some herbs. Eight hours later, you have a hunk of pork that practically dissolves at the prod of a fork.

But we aren’t done there. The thing is, a lot of fat rendered out of that meat during its slow braise. Shoving it in the fridge overnight (after straining out the spent veg and herbs) means a.) the fat can be easily scraped off once it solidifies on top, and b.) your dinner prep the day of just got about 85% easier. All that remains to be done is to shred the pork, boil off the remaining liquid to reduce, and then crumble in crisp bacon to simulate the crunchy bits a great hunk of barbecued pulled pork has but a braise loses (alternatively, you can spread the pork out on a tray and broil it for a minute or two until some of the edges get crunchy, but I was too hungry to bother with all that).

Of course you can serve this in any way you want, from the taco suggestion in the title to heaped sandwich filling to just a scoop on a plate, but we settled for mounding it into toasted corn tortillas and topping it with shredded cabbage, crumbled cotija cheese, sliced radishes, and a spoonful of guacamole. Oh, and some strings of pickled onions for that sour tang. Since there’s red wine in the sauce you can enjoy the rest of the bottle with dinner, but we opted for a lovely deep stout with orange and chocolate tones that paired perfectly.

Slow Braised Pork Tacos
Adapted from Melissa D’Arabian
Serves 6
Overnight project; time spans divided in procedure section below
To make:
2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
½ lb. bacon
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 poblano, stemmed, seeded, and diced
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 TB tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ an orange
optional: guajillo chile, lime juice
To serve:
Corn tortillas, warmed or toasted
Crumbed queso fresco or cotija cheese (I like to add some lime zest to mine)
Thinly sliced cabbage dressed with salt and lime juice
Pickled onions
Thinly sliced radishes
Reserved crumbled bacon

 

Day 0: the day you buy the pork shoulder, salt and pepper it generously, then store it in the fridge until you are ready to cook (no more than 3 days, preferably)

 

Day 1:
Active time: 60-90 minutes
Unattended cooking time: 7-8 hours
Inactive: overnight refrigeration
  • Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium or medium-low heat until it is crisp. For me this took 15-20 minutes. Drain it on a paper towel and set aside until cool before refrigerating; we won’t be using it until Day 2. Turn the heat up to medium-high and carefully place the pork shoulder fat side down in the rendered bacon grease. It will sizzle aggressively; let it sear until it is golden-brown, at least 5 minutes. Repeat for each side, then remove the browned meat to the slow cooker.
  • Lower the heat to medium and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, poblano, and the smashed garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat the vegetables until they are tender but not browned, around 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, being sure it is well integrated.
  • Transfer the cooked vegetables to the slow cooker with the pork. Add the red wine, the beef broth, the bay leaves and the oregano. Squeeze in the juice from the orange half, then add the spent orange as well. Pop on the lid and set the slow cooker to low. It will cook for 7-8 hours, until the pork is extremely tender.
  • Remove the pork from the slow cooker pot and strain what remains, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. Return pork and strained liquid to the slow cooker or to a vessel of your choice and refrigerate overnight.

 

Day 2:
Active time: about an hour
  • About an hour before you are ready to serve, remove your storage vessel from the fridge. While everything is still cold, scrape off and discard the layer of fat that should have collected on top.
  • Remove the pork from the storage vessel and place it on a board. Use two forks to shred it into ribbons (this is easiest once the pork has warmed up a little).
  • Place the liquid from the storage vessel into a medium pot on the stove (or just use your slow cooker on high heat, if it has that function). Taste and consider. Of course the flavor will be stronger when it has reduced, but if you feel like it just.. needs something, drop in a guajillo chile and/or a few squeezes of lime juice. Boil the liquid until it has reduced to a scant 1 cup; for me this took about 35 minutes. While the liquid is reducing, prep your accompaniments.
  •  When reduced, season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper, if needed, and more lime juice. Add in the shredded pork and turn the heat down to low, cooking just until the pork is heated through.
  • Just before serving, crumble in the reserved bacon.
  • If you want additional crunch, spread the warmed, sauced pork out on a tray and put it until a preheated broiler for a few minutes, until some of the edges have crisped and a few have charred here and there. Serve with accompaniments listed above, or your own favorites.