Fiesta Mexicana: Viva Carnitas!
Jackie Stoddard, the unofficial mayor of Latino Columbia County
As a former (Los) Angeleno newly transplanted to the northeast, one of the things I (and my family) have pined for is Mexican food: authentic, great, Mexican food, which, sadly, can be hard to come by in this otherwise bountiful neck of the woods. But as I’ve settled in here, I’ve found ways to sate my appetite for the fresh guacamole, pork carnitas, soft chicken tacos and margaritas that are staples of California Mexican. Between my own cooking, aided by a lovely Mexican market in Valatie, Picante Uno, and a local restaurant, Destino, that gets it mostly right, my family’s homesickness may just have found its cure.
My husband says I’ve become a better cook since our move here eighteen months ago, and while I’m not sure I agree (I thought I was pretty good before!) I have definitely expanded my repertoire. A few weeks ago, the craving for Mexican became so intense that I decided to try my hand at making pork carnitas for the first time. Definitions of this classic recipe differ. Everyone seems to agree that the meat, usually cubes of pork shoulder, should be cooked slowly, but some call for chunks of meat to be served crisp, browned in their own fat, while others offer the meat simmered until falling apart, sauced in its aromatic braise. Either way, the dish hits some primal urge (at least in carnivores) for the combination of salty and unctuous that great pork dishes (hello, bacon?) seem to deliver best. Alongside, you want warmed corn tortillas, homemade tomatillo salsa, chopped onion and cilantro, and whatever guacamole you have leftover from serving to your guests with their cocktails. Rice and black beans are another easy addition (and good if you’re expecting vegetarians.) As a bonus, if you are lucky enough to have leftovers, carnitas can be used to make a quickie version of pozole, a spicy pork and hominy soup, not at all heavy and perfect for yet another casual fall dinner.
For those ready to experiment with Mexican at home, a local grocery, small but well-stocked, can provide authentic ingredients. Located in a brand-new storefront on Valatie’s ever-more-charming Main Street, Picante Uno offers a wide selection of Mexican ingredients (better-than-supermarket tortillas, herbs and chiles, canned goods, dried beans, Mexican cheeses and even some produce). In a few weeks, when the in-house kitchen is completed, the market will also again offer tacos and delicious homemade tamales to go, as well as catering larger orders for dishes including tamales (meat or vegetarian), enchiladas, rice and beans, guacamole and more. Picante Uno’s owner, Jackie Stoddard, runs the store along with her sister, Erica Rivera. After nearly seven years in business, Picante Uno has found a niche as both a market and an ad hoc community center for Columbia County’s Latino population. “At first,” says Jackie, remembering the shop’s early days, “I didn’t sell anything.” She was ready to give up, but her mother, who owns a business in Veracruz, where Jackie grew up, encouraged her to keep at it. “She told me I had to give it two years to turn a profit.” When she started to supplement groceries with her own take-out foods—tamales and tacos, primarily—things picked up. Soon, she found herself at the center of the area’s Central American community, providing services ranging from wiring money overseas to helping people find jobs, and employers find workers. When a Guatemalan man came into the store, looked around and said, “I feel at home here,” Jackie says she knew her business was about more than food. But both Jackie and Erica are delighted to help less-knowledgeable cooks make their way through a selection of ingredients, from staples to seasonings, that put Mexican home cooking within reach. Jackie coached me on how to improve my own version of carnitas—while making me promise I’d come back to try hers once the kitchen reopens. Prices are extremely reasonable, and Jackie is eager to help the uninitiated understand the tremendous variety within Mexican cuisine. She says first-time customers often come in looking for hard-shelled tacos with lettuce and cheese. Laughing, she explains that they can be skeptical when she offers them her version, with soft tortillas, spiced meat, chopped onions and cilantro. “Sometimes they only buy one—but then they come back.”
I’ve found myself coming back to a restaurant I initially resisted, mainly for fear of disappointment. After trying just about every other Mexican joint in the area, I’ve settled on one that, while not perfect, meets not only my needs but those of my equally-Mex-starved kids. To say that Chatham’s Destino received mixed reviews when it opened last year would be kind, and as a result, I waited, and waited, and waited to try it. I couldn’t bear to again experience the disappointment I’ve felt at both Hudson’s Mexican Radio and Great Barrington’s Xicohtencatl,. At both, sadly, I find the food inauthentic, occasionally over-ambitious, and overpriced. (Though on a positive note, both do a fine job with their margaritas. You can have a happy time at either restaurant with chips and salsa and a drink, and I love the exuberant decor at both, especially in the gray depths of winter.) This summer, desperate for a family-friendly, close-to-home margarita, my husband and I decided to brave the unknown, and we’ve since returned to Destino multiple times. I won’t pretend to review the restaurant, because we never venture far from our favorites on the menu: The margarita de la casa, rocks, salt. (Our kids love virgin versions of the strawberry, mango and blueberry margaritas.) Soft chicken tacos. (Although I prefer a taco where the the meat is dry rather than sauced, Destino’s tomato-ey version is delicious.) Savory chicken enchiladas (go for the tomatillo sauce, not the too-sweet and under-seasoned mole.) And if they are on the menu, try the pork carnitas—whether in a tostada or taco, they are very satisfying. Everything is served with nicely seasoned rice that is never gummy, and perfectly cooked black beans, which we like to doctor with some of the house-made hot sauce (you have to ask for it, and unless you’re really brave or crazy, start with the mild version and work up). The guacamole is also usually very good, just the right texture, with chunks of avocado throughout, and served with homemade chips that when fresh, are great. And desserts shine—the key lime pie, in particular, is fantastic. On a busy night (say, Saturday) at Destino, the food and service can suffer, but at quieter times (like Sunday night, when we often go), it’s delicious, reasonably priced, and has conscientious, friendly service.
After eighteen months in the region, it’s a comfort to finally find familiar comida that just might get me through our second winter. Margarita, anyone?
Pork Carnitas with Homemade Tomatillo Salsa (adapted from Rey Villalobos in Bon Appetit, Sept. 2008)
2 Tbsps achiote paste (available at Picante Uno)
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 jalapeno chile, seeded, chopped coarsely
1/2 cup cider vinegar
3/4 cup orange juice
3/4 cup lime juice
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro (with stems)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
5 pounds boneless pork shoulder or fresh ham, cut into 2 inch cubes
20 corn tortillas (try the ones at Picante Uno)
Grilled salsa verde
Chopped white onion
Puree first nine ingredients in the blender. Toss puree with chunks of pork and mix to coat.
Place pork in a dutch oven with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and then turn heat down to a slow simmer.
Cover and cook for about 2 hours, until the pork is falling-apart tender. (Add water during the cooking process if the meat threatens to get dry.)
Remove pork from liquid if necessary to coarsely shred. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and add cooking liquid to moisten.
To make ahead, cool the cooked pork in its juice and refrigerate, covered. Before serving, rewarm on the stove over low to medium heat.
Warm the tortillas on a flat griddle, heated very hot then turned to low. Warm each tortilla on each side for a couple of minutes, until soft, then reserve wrapped in a cloth napkin (adding each new tortilla as it comes off the grill) and serve in a bowl, still wrapped in the napkin to preserve the heat. You can butter each tortilla a bit, if you like, as you griddle them, but it’s not necessary.
Serve tortillas, a platter of the meat, and bowls of onion and cilantro and tomatillo salsa (recipe follows) to sprinkle on top as guests form their own tacos.
Homemade Tomatillo Salsa
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
2 pounds tomatillos, husked and rinsed (availabe at Picanto Uno or Guido’s)
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
juice of 2 limes
1 jalapeno chile, halved and seeded
Spray grill racks (a stovetop grill works fine) with nonstick spray. Heat to medium high, and grill tomatilos until softened and charred in spots. Transfer to food processor, and add remaining ingredients. Process to desired thickness and taste for salt.
Quick and Dirty Posole
Posole actually refers to the dried corn (like hominy) used in this pork stew in Mexico. This simple version uses canned hominy, to great result.
2 Tbsps. canola oil
1 white onion, chopped
leftover pork carnitas—at least 1-1/2 cups
2 15 oz. cans white hominy, drained
4 - 6 cups vegetable broth, chicken broth, water or a combination
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
salt to taste
Heat the canola oil in a large dutch oven and add the onion. Saute until soft. Add the pork, the cumin and the chiles and stir to combine. Saute two minutes more over low-medium heat, and then add the hominy and the broth to cover. Simmer for 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Salt to taste, and serve with chopped cilantro on top. —Paige Orloff