Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tool Kit

I recently sent my brother a tool kit. It was a tool kit for cooking - filled with recipes, spices, pasta, tortillas, honey, and packages of Jell-O. Yes, Jell-O, the dessert of choice for single young men, elementary school children, and housewives making molds. But aside from the Jell-O, all the items I sent were key ingredients in preparing the recipes I included. I also sent money, with the caveat that it be used to purchase meat, vegetables, and other fresh ingredients difficult to mail, and not be spent on a pair of expensive headphones.

My gifts always come with apron strings attached.

I did slip an actual tool into the tool kit - a pair of kitchen shears. Kitchen shears are invaluable for cutting the skin off of chicken or cutting stew meat into smaller cubes. If you can't afford a good sharp knife, kitchen shears are a worthy investment.

Sending the recipes and the ingredients doesn't come close to capturing the joy of actually cooking for someone, especially someone like my brother who will lavish love and attention on a plate of meat. But tossing spices into the box was akin to sprinkling them into a stew and fitting tortillas and orzo into the box was like layering a lasagna. I arranged recipes and a shopping list as though preparing the mise en place. And I sealed that package like I was canning tomatoes or preserving fig jam for the long winter ahead.

I directed my brother via tool kit to make Tacos de Carnitas, a savory, slow cooked pork with highly concentrated flavor. It's great wrapped in warm corn tortillas topped with fresh tomatoes and onions, or fresh guacamole. The trick to this recipe? Follow it. Don't second guess it. For example, don't think you need to add more salt than it calls for. Just go with it.

Tacos de Carnitas
6 servings, 2 hours cooking time

2 1/2 pounds pork butt or beef stew meat
3 cups water
1 onion, diced
3 strips orange zest
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves or 1 whole clove
12 small corn tortillas
Toppings: tomatoes, onions, cilantro, salsa, guacamole

Chop thick fat from outside of pork butt. Cut meat into 1 inch cubes. Combine pork with water, onions, orange zest, garlic, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, oregano, salt and cloves in a large pot. Heat to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Skim any scum that forms on the surface. Simmer until meat is very soft and falling apart, adding more water if necessary to keep the meat submerged, about 1 1/2 hours.

Season with additional salt to taste. Heat to a gentle boil; cook until the water has evaporated, about 30 minutes. Cook a little longer to fry the meat slightly, watching carefully to prevent burning. Remove bay leaves and cinnamon sticks. Remove any excess fat. Pull meat apart with forks if necessary. Fold a few tablespoons of carnitas inside each tortilla. Add your choice of toppings and serve.


  1. I tried cutting the skin off chicken. It went poorly.

  2. You should be able to pull most of it off with your hands. Just use the scissors to detach it where it won't pull off.