Sometimes I forget about my slow cooker. It sits in all it’s glory and shiny redness in a cabinet under my counter, and when I’m working in my kitchen on a daily basis and wondering what to cook for the day or week I typically completely neglect good ole Crock Pot. That’s really a shame. Especially considering that some of the tastiest (and, uh, easiest) dishes I have made involved the help of my slow cooker. Spicy chili, super moist chicken, lentil stew, pork chops and apples, slow cooked beef, Moroccan lamb…apparently people even bake bread in Crock Pots! They’re so impressively multi-functional.
The Crock Pot is an ally particularly when cooking for many people, but even in my apartment of one I love making big batches of stews or chicken or veggies and having food for the whole week (or weekend in the case of these tacos). The fact that it cooks itself while I’m at work or out of the house pretending to be productive is certainly a plus.
Now, I also must admit that I’m somewhat of a taco snob. Luckily the whole ‘street taco’ thing has caught on in the US in some parts, but unfortunately here in New Mexico I still have to remember that a beef taco on a menu is, 9 times out of 10, a crunchy corn shell filled with ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese and unripe, diced tomatoes. They are not Mexican tacos. They are not the tacos that I have enjoyed in the streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas or in Oaxaca or in Puerto Escondido or in Baja.
Those tacos are some of my favorite things ever.
Fresh pork al pastor sliced straight off the rotisserie, slapped into soft, hand-made corn tortillas, topped with pickled onions, roasted tomato salsa, chopped cilantro, lime and radish slices…dios mio. They are damn good.
So when I had a hankering for real tacos the other day, I decided I couldn’t rely on the restaurants in town to satiate me, and I had to make my own. What I love most about traditional Mexican tacos is all the condiments, which makes the prep work the only slightly labor-intensive piece of this meal.
I really think an important component of the flavor in the pork is searing the butt (or shoulder) before putting it in the slow cooker. After rubbing the spice blend into the meat and seasoning it with salt and pepper I seared it in bacon fat (searing pork in bacon fat – what could be more intuitive than?!) until it was nice and brown on all sides, then threw it in the Crock Pot with water, a chopped chipotle pepper and a bay leaf and headed out the door for work.
Actually, the day I made the pork I had to be at work at 6:30am so I got my ass out of bed to sear the pork at 5:30am while simultaneously brushing my teeth and trying to get dressed. Standing at my stove in my underwear with a toothbrush hanging out of my mouth and searing a large piece of pig at the butt crack of dawn is probably an image that will stick with me for a while, and I’ll admit I felt pretty damn efficient that morning. That being said, I do not recommend searing meat while wearing little to no clothing. Burns are not fun anywhere. At least wear an apron.
Slow Cooker Pork Tacos
3 lb boneless pork butt
2 Tbsp cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp chile powder
2 Tbsp smoked paprika (pimenton)
2 Tbsp oregano
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 bay leaf
1 chipotle pepper, finely chopped
Bacon fat or oil for searing
Pickled Red Onions (from Dave Lebovitz)
3/4 C. white vinegar (or apple cider, both will work)
3 Tbsp sugar or honey
Pinch of salt
1 bay leaf
5 allspice berries
5 whole cloves
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
1 bunch cilantro, rinsed well, dried thoroughly and chopped
2-3 ripe avocados, diced or sliced
1/2 C queso fresco, crumbled
Corn tortillas (try and get them from a Mexican restaurant – they’re always the best…and I realize the tortilla in the photo is a flour tortilla, but that particular taco wasn’t for me 🙂 )
Heat a Dutch oven or large, heavy skillet over medium high heat.
Put the pork butt on a cutting board and season with kosher salt all over. Mix the spices, except for the bay leaf and chipotle pepper, in a small bowl and rub into all sides of the pork. There will likely be a bit of the seasoning left over, which I added to the crock pot when I threw the pork in. When the Dutch oven is hot, add a few tablespoons of bacon fat or oil, let it heat until it’s shimmering, and then add the pork. Make sure to get a good, dark brown color on all sides of the butt. The pork should be hissing loudly in the pot; if it’s not, your pot isn’t hot enough!
When the pork has been browned on all sides, put it into the crock pot with 3-4 cups of liquid (I like half water, half low-sodium chicken broth), the chipotle pepper (and some of that delicious adobo sauce they’re packed in…) and the bay leaf. Cover and put on low heat for 8 hours.
After 8 hours of cooking the pork should shred very easily using tongs and a fork. Shred the pork in the crock pot and adjust the seasonings if necessary. I like to keep the pork in the liquid right until I serve it, and then use tongs to drain the meat and serve into tortillas.
Heat vinegar, sugar/honey, salt and seasonings in a small, non-reactive saucepan until boiling.
Add onion slices and lower heat, simmering gently for 30 seconds.
Remove from heat and let cool completely before transferring onions and liquid to a bowl and refrigerating until ready to use (I needed them sooner so I dumped a bunch of ice into the pot and let them chill that way. This isn’t ideal however, since the delicious pickling liquid is diluted!)
Build a Taco!
On the tortilla, layer the pork, pickled onions, avocado, cilantro and queso fresco. Squeeze fresh lime over the top and devour! Lovely paired with a cold beer.