When my wife invited her boss and his wife over for dinner recently, I wanted to serve something that wasn’t too fancy but still said “special event.” I settled on homemade tortillas with pork tinga.
This ended up being the perfect thing to make. I was tempted to go old-school for this meal and make a roast. Ultimately I chose the tacos for three reasons: The food would be better, it was more forgiving and less time sensitive, and the casual food would tell our guests to relax and have a good time.
The pork tinga takes an afternoon to make; I’m going to focus on that recipe here. Making fish tacos is my other go-to, having-people-over meal. I use this recipe from the New York Times Magazine.
A couple of notes on the recipes from the Times: Jalapeño is listed as an optional ingredient for the salsa fresca – but it isn’t. The light heat from the pepper is critical. Likewise, the chipotle pepper for the cream sauce is also listed as optional – it isn’t. The smokiness from the chipotle is a must-have component in the sauce. Finely dice one chipotle, mix it in the sauce, and try it. If you want more smoky flavor, mix in some of the adobo canning sauce that comes with the peppers.
Now, onto the tinga. I’m working with a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated (March/April 2010). This dish takes about 3 hours to make, but it can easily be made a day in advance and reheated before serving. I’ve made pork tinga twice, and I’ve learned a number of things along the way. The most important thing I’ve learned: This is an amazing recipe, with incredible depth of flavor. It’s a little bit of work, but the reward is certainly worth it. Pork tinga is essentially Mexican pulled pork. Instead of barbecued, it’s braised. This dish serves 4-6 people.
- 2 pounds boneless pork butt or picnic shoulder (The day-to-day supply of your grocery’s meat counter will likely vary. One time I used pork butt, the other time pork picnic shoulder – there was no discernible difference. If you can’t buy a boneless cut, that’s OK, too. Just taking into account the weight of the bone when purchasing, and remove it later.)
- 2 medium onions
- 5 medium garlic cloves
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 ounces fresh Mexican chorizo (optional)
- olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 14.5-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon ground chipotle powder
- 2 bay leaves
- Queso fresco or feta cheese
- lime wedges
- sour cream
- 2 avocados, diced
- green cabbage
Step 1. Trim the pork of excess fat, and dice into 1-inch chunks. Remove the fat cap first (see photo), then remove additional fat while dicing. Don’t worry about being too obsessive about removing fat.
Step 2. Put the pork into a large pot. To that pot add: 1 onion, quartered; 3 garlic cloves, smashed; 4 thyme sprigs; 1 teaspoon salt; 6 cups water. Bring water to a boil and skim foam (be patient, this will take 10-15 minutes). Reduce heat to medium-low and cover the pot, cooking for 90 minutes.
Step 3. While the pork is simmering, do your chopping. Prepare the toppings: Chop the cilantro and cabbage. Dice the avocados. Crumble the cheese. Slice the limes. You’ll likely only find queso fresco in a Mexican market – it is a fresh cheese that hasn’t aged. It’s wetter than feta, milder and less salty. Queso fresco is better, but feta is an adequate substitute.
Get ready for the next pork cooking stage: Dice one onion and two cloves of garlic. Measure out the spices, and open the can of tomato sauce.
Step 4. Once the pork is done cooking, remove it from the pot. I use a slotted spoon for this. Discard the onions, garlic and thyme sprigs. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Try a bit of the pork – it will shred easily and melt in your mouth. You will wonder how it could possibly taste any better. It will.
Optional Step 5. Cook the Mexican chorizo. I’ve made this dish once with the chorizo and once without. Both times were excellent; the chorizo made the dish better. Fresh Mexican chorizo is also hard to find – it’ll only be in a Mexican market. If you have a market close by, it’s definitely worth making the trip. If not, don’t worry about it. To cook the chorizo, remove it from its casing and crumble the sausage. Cook with a little olive oil. Drain on a plate and reserve.
Step 6. Heat the pot over medium-high heat. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. While the pot is heating, mash up the pork with a fork. Add the pork to the pot along with the onion and oregano. Cook 7-10 minutes, until the onions are turning translucent and the pork has browned. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute, until fragrant.
At this point your pork tinga is complete. Leave it in the pot to reheat a few minutes before you serve. If you’re making ahead, transfer to the refrigerator. One important note I learned the hard way: The first time I made this dish, I turned off the heat but didn’t remove the bay leaves. When I served it an hour later, the bay leaf flavor was too strong. It didn’t ruin the dish, but it was better when I made it and removed the bay leaves promptly.