Asian “Carnitas” with Sesame-Shiitake Slaw

 Tony writes: What would “carnitas” be like if reimagined with an Asian pantry? Kogi has kinda already  answered this question, but  the technique is relatively intuitive, so you can trail-blaze your way through the method even without a trip to the West Cost (though  do, if it’s an option; I included a visit to Kogi on a recent L.A. tour and it was well worth the wait!!). Slow-cook a tough cut (pork shoulder is the thing for carnitas, but any hardy cut will do – even boneless chicken thighs) until falling-apart tender. Then shred, pair with an intense sauce and other interesting textures and flavors, and tuck into some sort of wrap. The whole thing, though slow cooking, is easy and hands-free and the best part is you get plenty of leftovers which keep in the fridge for 4 or 5 days and go well in rice, pastas, salads, or even vegetable-heavy re-braises. Here’s the basic set-up:

-Pork butt actually has nothing to do with the animal’s posterior; rather, it’s the front shoulder, a marbled, tough cut that’s traditional to braising (and shredding) in Southern pulled pork or Mexican carnitas. A full boneless butt weighs about 9 lb. (and feeds 12 to 14); for this method, a half butt suffices.

Balanced flavors: As tender as pork butt becomes with slow cooking, it’s got a slightly gamey flavor which you’ll want to match through a two-pronged effort. The first is a spice rub, a relatively simple one at that: a sprinling of salt, pepper, sugar, and 5-spice powder. The longer you let this mixture marinate the meat, the better (it will almost cure the pork the way you would with bacon). The second step is to create an aromatic – ie: really intense – braising broth: here, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns (if you have), fermented black beans, and a good splash of vinegar become the Asian heavies, mimicking what chiles and spices do with Mexican carnitas.

Season, sear, simmer, shred: Alliteration makes me happy; that and pun-y names for hairdressing salon’s.  Though the actual cooking in this recipe takes about 3 hours, each step in this process is relatively simple and hands-free. The further ahead you can season the meat, the better (shoot for 1 day). Sear the meat in a heavy pot (I use my Le Crueset) to get good color which, in turn, creates a rich, caramelized base for the broth. After adding some liquid (water, sherry, soy, and vinegar), cover and simmer gently until the meat becomes completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – tender. Let the meat rest for a bit and then shred using forks or tongs or whatever.

Recipe (Serves 8)

1. Season: Unfurl a boneless half pork butt (about 4 lb; Boston butt). In a small bowl, mix 5 tsp. kosher salt, 2 tsp. granulated sugar, 1 tsp. black pepper, and 1 tsp. 5-spice powder. Sprinkle all over the pork and let sit at room temp for 15 minutes or up to 2 days in the refrigerator; the longer it “marinates”, the more uniform its spiced flavor.



2. Sear and simmer:  Set a heavy-based Dutch oven over medium-high heat until a droplet of water instantly evaporates on its surface, about 1 1/2 minutes. Pat the pork dry (to remove any excess moisture that the salt rub might have pulled out), add 2 Tbs. canola oil to the pot, carefully set the pork in the pot, and cook without touching until an edge easily releases when lifted with tongs and the underside is nicely browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip, reduce the heat to medium, and brown the other side in the same manner. Transfer the pork to a large plate. Add 1 Tbs. canola oil, 3 dried chiles (broken up), 3 garlic cloves (smashed), a 1-inch knob ginger (thinly sliced), 1 Tbs. fermented black beans (chopped), and 1/2 tsp. Szechuan peppercorns (if you have, or are interested in making a trip to the Asian market). Cook, stirring, until the garlic browns lightly and all the aromatics become fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 3/4 cup  dry sherry (or Shaoxing wine) and cook, stirring to incorporate any browned bits on the bottom of the pot, until it almost completely cooks off, 1 minute. Add 1 cup water (or chicken broth if you have), 2 Tbs. white vinegar, 1 Tbs. light brown sugar, and 1 Tbs. sesame oil. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer (about medium low). Add the pork, cover, and cook, flipping the meat every 30 minutes or so, until it’s completely tender (you should be able to easily break apart and shred off pieces of the meat), about 2 1/2 hours.


3. Shred and slaw: Transfer the braised pork to a large platter and let cool for 10 minutes. Spoon off and discard the top layer of fat from the braising liquid. Then strain the braising liquid (through a fine-mesh sieve) and return to the pot; season to taste with salt, pepper, soy, vinegar, etc…. Using tongs or a fork, shred the meat and transfer to its braising liquid in the pot to keep warm. Meanwhile, make the slaw: Heat 1 Tbs. canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add  1/2 green cabbage (cored and thinly sliced, about 5 cups), 1 pack shiitakes (3 1/2 oz, stemmed and thinly sliced) and 1 tsp. each kosher salt, granulated sugarsesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds. Cook, tossing, until the mixture wilts and browns in places, 2 to 3 minutes.



4. Serve: Heat 8-inch flour tortillas in foil in the oven. Serve by topping the tortillas with a drizzle of hoisin sauce and sriracha and then the shredded meat and slaw. Have plenty of napkins on hand at the dinner table.


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