Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas

There’s almost never a time when I’m NOT in the mood for Mexican food. This pork filling has become a staple of my cooking — and my freezer — I always have some on hand whenever I’m in the mood for Mexican. It works execellently as a filling for any taco, burrito, enchilada, etc. or a great topping for nachos. I’ve tried this recipe quite a few different times now, and have tweaked it to my liking.

SARAH’S PORK CARNITAS

DSC031813-4 lbs. pork sirloin or other boneless pork roast
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons cumin
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion or onion powder
1 or 2 jalapenos or green chilis, diced
1 tablespoon kosher salt or sea salt
black pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2/3 cup orange juice concentrate

Combine oil, oregano, cumin and onion to make a rub. Coat the pork roast. Marinate for up to 24 hours ahead of time and then place in large slow-cooker.

Add other ingredients on top of whole roast: jalapenos, salt, pepper, garlic and orange juice concentrate. Cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4, or until meat falls apart. Pull the pork into shreds with fork or similar utensil (I have a bamboo cooking utensil that looks like a large “spork”).

Cook the pork a hour or so longer in its juices. Store and freeze with its juices in small containers (1 or 2 servings each) for easy access and defrosting. Before serving, fry the defrosted carnitas in a non-stick skillet in order to brown/caramelize some of the meat shreds as you reheat.

Serve with favorite fixings, such as avocado, lime juice, cheese, salsa, sour cream, etc. with taco shells

Mexican Cauliflower “Rice”

A few months ago I embarked on my project to hone the preparation of cauliflower as a substitute for rice. My first effort in this project was the conversion of a favorite Mexican Rice recipe to a cauliflower version. It worked well enough, but since then I have accumulated further expertise in the endeavor, most significantly that keeping the cauliflower raw by any means necessary vastly improves the texture of the dish.

Being in the mood for Mexican food on a recent weekend, I wanted to go back and give this recipe another go with the know-how I have acquired from recent projects.

DSC02393SARAH’S MEXICAN CAULIFLOWER “RICE”

2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoons chili powder spice blend
1 (8oz) can tomato sauce
1 bouillon cube, chicken or beef, crushed
frozen small mixed vegetables (i.e. corn, peas, diced carrots, etc.), optional

2 roma tomatoes, de-seeded and diced
5 cups cauliflower rice
green onions, sliced or snipped
1/2 teaspoon salt

Rice your cauliflower. Fold into a clean kitchen towel and set aside.

In a medium skillet, heat oil. Saute onion and garlic until softened. Add chili powder, tomato sauce and bouillon cube. Heat through. Add mixed vegetables, if using. Simmer on low fire until vegetables reach desired tenderness. Allow to cool.

In the meantime, de-seed and dice tomatoes. Combine cauliflower rice with tomatoes, green onions and salt until well-combined. Once the tomato mixture has cooled a bit, stir into the rice. Serve with your favorite Mexican dishes.

Quesadilla Stuffed Peppers

There are a few foods I can’t help but miss on a low carb diet. Pizza is one of them, and the whole complement of tortilla-based Mexican dishes. Tortillas are difficult to substitute for. Rather than force some type of low-carb ingredient into tortilla form, I’ve found it’s often better just to approach the recipe from a different angle. Having had recent success taking such an approach with a pizza-inspired recipe, I decided to do the same with Quesadillas.

DSC02390SARAH’S QUESADILLA STUFFED PEPPERS

1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder spice blend
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro or cilantro chutney
1lb chicken

3 bell peppers
3/4 cups taco cheese, shredded

1 (10oz) can tomatoes with green chilis, drained
8 oz monteray jack cheese
green onions
sour cream

Combine oil, lime juice, chicken broth, garlic, chili powder, cilantro and chicken in a saucepan or crockpot. Simmer until chicken is done enough to shred with a fork; this will take several hours. Keep a saucepan on low, covered, stirring often; crockpot can be set to high. Expect 3-4 hours.

Preheat oven to 400. When chicken filling is getting close to ready, cut bell peppers in half; remove seeds and stems. Place insides up on a cookie sheet or in a large, shallow casserole dish. Distribute taco cheese evenly among pepper halves. Bake at 400 for 20-30 minutes, or until cheese gets a bit golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine shredded chicken, tomatoes with chilis, and 4 oz of shredded monteray jack. Distribute filling evenly throughout the peppers. Shred or slice the remainder of the monteray jack. Top the peppers with the cheese. Bake on 400 another 20 to 30 minutes until the cheese is melted and a bit golden brown.

Garnish with green onions and sour cream and serve.

The Conundrum of Chili Powder vs. Chili Powder

A particular terminology duplication has arisen in modern American cookery, and I’m at a bit of a loss on how to resolve it.

In ordinary USA recipe parlance, “chili powder” has come to denote a particular spice blend. Go to any grocery store, or even most dollar stores, and you will see offered among the spices “chili powder” which is not, for certain, powdered chilis. Perhaps powdered chili pepper might make up one component of the spice mixture, but those chilis are unlikely to be very hot since most mainstream American palates run to the mild side (certainly, mainstream Pittsburgh tastes do). This chili powder is, in fact, a blend of spices intended for Mexican and Tex Mex recipes, popularized and mainstreamed more than anything by recipes for the quintessential Tex Mex stew, itself called Chili.

Chili Peppers

Chili Peppers

I have nothing against spice mixes, certainly. As a hobby cook of some conscientiousness, I do like to make my own spice blends when it is practical to do so, especially when a particular blend is not easy to come by in a form offering consistent quality and/or value. Berbere, the standard spice blend for Ethiopian recipes, as an example, is not readily available in grocery stores, and those that do offer it usually do so at a high price, and purchasing a blend online incurs added expense of shipping and the ever-present risk that one’s favorite retailer will discontinue the specific brand of berbere mixed spices that the chef has come to rely upon throwing all of her tried-and-true Ethiopian-style recipes into flux and chaos… rather than tangle with all these contingencies, I make my own so that every batch of Mesir Wat will be the same as the last.

Other blends produce fewer stumbling blocks and thus fewer qualms on my part with using the pre-mixed grocery store blend. Badia makes a good line of spice mixes, including a turmeric-centered curry powder, cajun seasoning, chili powder, etc. I do have a preferred recipe for making my own chili powder (which I will share below), and my own recipes for various differing styles of curry powder, such as garam masala, which should never be confused with other types of curry powders, such as the turmeric-based powders or the Madras powders, etc. But sometimes, a gal just wants grab a jar of spice mix and measure, without going to the trouble of pre-mixing her own blend. By now, I have a pretty good sense, for the sake of my own tastes, when using my homemade blend makes the difference and when throwing myself on the mercy of a commercial spice company makes little to no difference.

And so, I have no qualms with recipes calling for spice mixes, chili powder among them, as it affords the chef a simple opportunity to choose either a homemade spice blend or a store-bought mix. The problem with “chili powder” is that there is an ingredient by the same name that shows up in recipes: namely chili peppers that are powdered.

Powdered Chili Peppers

Powdered Chili Peppers

I’ve become pretty good over the years at telling which type of “chili powder” a recipe is calling for. A recipe for Indian or Thai curry is probably calling for powdered chili peppers, whereas a Mexican, Spanish, Cajun, mainstream American cuisine recipe, quick & easy recipe, etc. are probably calling for the spice blend. This duplicative term bothers me the most as a recipe author; when I post recipes online containing the spice blend called “chili powder” I always feel that I have to clarify in some way. I more often find myself making recipes with chili powder, rather than powdered chilis, and yet I always feel that I have a responsibility to clarify as the writer of a given recipe.

This sense of responsibility, this commitment to clarity makes me wish to solve this terminology impasse in an easier, more efficient way. I suppose I could use the distinction indicated above, chili powder vs. powdered chilis. But this division would really only work for people who follow my recipes close to enough to know I had pre-established this distinction. The term “chili powder” is so well-established in both meanings out there in the world of recipe writing, that I would still feel the need to clarify every time I included “chili powder” in a recipe. What is the elegant solution here? What can I call “chili powder” to make it clear that I mean the spice mix, and not powdered chilis?

I am open to suggestions!

Component Spices for a Chili Powder Blend

Component Spices for a Chili Powder Blend

SARAH’S FAVORITE CHILI POWDER SPICE BLEND

5 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon oregano
3 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon allspice

Combine all ingredients in a container. Mix well. Use in recipes calling for the spice blend chili powder.

Spicy Tomato Soup

Looking for something easy, tasty and low-carb that I could make in a large batch to take for lunches at work, I adapted a few soup recipes into the following. I’ve been enjoying it for a few weeks now!

dsc01312SARAH’S SPICY TOMATO SOUP

1 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 green onions, chopped
4 cups broth, beef or chicken
1 (28oz) can crushed tomatoes
1 (24oz) jar prepared salsa
2 tablespoons cilantro, or cilantro chutney
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder (the spice mix for making for chili)

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan or stockpot. Simmer on medium low for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Process with an immersion blender for a puree-style tomato soup, or leave as is for a chunky-style soup. Garish with extra cilantro. For a hearty twist, top with shredded cheese and/or sour cream. Enjoy!

Adventures in Cauliflower: Mexican Red “Rice”

I came out of my summer’s week-long vacation with a renewed dedication to low-carb eating. Calorie-counting has become unbearable, and ineffective, since my patiently-awaited weekend splurges turn into overkill, effectively cancelling out the weekday deprivation and counteracting any ground gained. Also, in the effort to avoid unnecessary calories, I found myself avoiding protein-rich foods like meat and fish because of how heavily they weighed on the calorie scale.

Turning again to low-carb living seems the only solution, as it is a diet I can stick to, even over the weekends, where I can “splurge” on richer low-carb foods (or low-carb recipes I don’t have time to make during the week) without actually violating the diet. Weekdays are dedicated to eating comparatively lean meals and many, many vegetables. I’ve discovered, to my surprise, that there are even many vegetables I prefer raw, or almost raw, like diced tomatoes or shredded cabbage, either fresh or slightly warmed.

CauliflowerIn my low-carb experiments, I’ve discovered a number of pretty reasonable substitutes for the usual carb suspects. Cauliflower makes an excellent mashed “potato,” zucchini and other squash and even cabbage put through the spiralizer make great bed of spaghetti, leafy greens are a surprisingly good stand-in for tortillas. Of course, many of these substitutes aren’t meant to taste the same (actually, I find I like the mashed cauliflower better), but to be functional substitutions that taste good in their own right while mimicking the properties of the erstwhile carb.

One carb substitution that has thus far eluded me, however, is finding a good twin for rice. The high glycemic properties of rice can be pretty effectively mitigated by my diabetic friends by cooking it in high fat recipes, such as coconut milk rice or risotto with plenty of butter and cream and cheese. But my motives are fueled by vanity rather than health, and so I’m aiming to give my metabolism some tough love by avoiding anything more carb-rich than your average vegetable in the hopes that it will target the 7-10 pounds causing my vain self to nit-pick.

The most common low-carb suggestion for rice substitution is, once again, cauliflower. While I am extremely happy with its ability to stand in for mashed potatoes, I found my first attempt at cauliflower “rice” a mite disappointing. I endeavored to make a coconut rice on the stovetop. It was tasty enough, but I had texture qualms with the end product. For one, the consistency of the “grain” of the cauliflower rice is… well, inconsistent. I put my cauliflower through the shredder blade of my food processor, and the florets broke up into small pieces, while the stalks were transformed into long shreds, like thickly shredded cheese that never melts. This may just be the perils of using the whole cauliflower, though I will attempt a correction below. Also, the cauliflower, when cooked stovetop in the coconut milk became somewhat limp and somewhat slimy, like cooked cabbage, mushrooms or spinach. I realize, of course, that cauliflower does not have the same liquid-absorbing properties as rice (on the contrary, it has much inherent liquid to shed), but I generally feel that the appeal of many rice dishes (soup and risotto notwithstanding) is the certain dry-ness it provides in contrast to other foods on the plate. Delicate basmati or jasmine rice balances a gravy-like curry, Mexican rice balances creamy re-fried beans and drenched enchiladas, sticky white or fried rice balances a saucy General Tso’s.

Likewise, I would ideally like my cauliflower rice to have the versatility to assume these functions, and so this time, I will attempt a few fixes.

SARAH’S CAULIFLOWER “RICE” MEXICAN-STYLE

1 medium-large head of cauliflower, stems divided from florets
2-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 large onion, chopped
1 or 2 tablespoons chili powder (the Mexican spice mix)
salt to taste
1 (15oz) can of diced tomatoes with juice
1 (6oz) can of tomato paste
1 bouillon cube, chicken or beef, crushed
frozen small mixed vegetables (i.e. corn, peas, diced carrots, etc.), optional

Preheat oven to 400. Rice your cauliflower.

Cauliflower "riced"

Cauliflower “riced”

Okay, at this stage, I’m going to try a different approach than last time. I separated the florets from the stems and I’m going to process the stems first using the regular food processor blade until they are a bit more “riced” than the “cheese shred” cauliflower I got last time. Before putting them in the processor, I additionally cut them into smaller chunks so there wouldn’t be pieces of dramatically different size. I don’t want smaller pieces getting pulverized into cauliflower dust while I wait for the larger pieces to break up. This process worked well to get the cauliflower divided up more evenly. To be honest, the end result really is more like couscous than rice, but at this stage, I say same difference if it turns out well. I also put the cauliflower in a large kitchen towel to absorb extra moisture right after I riced it.

Process the cauliflower stems first in a large food processor, then the florets. Depending on the size of the cauliflower you may need to process in batches. Spread the cauliflower “rice” across a large, shallow backing dish. Toss with oil, garlic, onions and spices. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes, stir, and then return for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining ingredients in a medium sized bowl.

I did not use the small mixed vegetables this time around. I also decided to puree the tomato mixture with my immersion blender because the diced tomato pieces were so large.

DSC01983Stir the tomato mixture into the roasted cauliflower rice until well-combined. Return to the oven. Bake uncovered at 400, stirring every 10 minutes, until much of the liquid has evaporated and cauliflower is lightly browned on top. Serve with your favorite Mexican main dish.

This time around, the rice turned out pretty well. My efforts to reduce the liquid in this recipe, and the strategy to bake uncovered eliminated the sliminess of my last attempt. The cauliflower still is not overall as “dry” as rice, but it was a worthy substitute. This recipe gives me hope for future cauliflower “rice” recipes.

Some online recipes for cauliflower rice suggest that it also works well raw, which I imagine is another good strategy for eliminating the sliminess of too much liquid. Perhaps my next attempt will be a raw recipe.

Fresh Salsa

My dad suggested a few weeks ago that we try to make salsa from the vegetables in his garden. I easily got on board with this idea, but had to break it to him that we would need more than his garden offers. Luckily, though, his plentiful tomatoes offered an excellent base for a fundamental salsa recipe.

SalsaI had never made fresh salsa, per se, but I did have some starting expertise from two sources. First, I’ve made a good bit of guacamole in my day, and the ingredients are similar (sans avocado, of course). Second, my friend and chef mentor of yesteryear, Lisa, used to make salsa and advised me on the key to her approach–namely, that vegetables should be diced small in a careful and deliberate way, not pulverized in a food processor. I never attempted salsa back in my college days, but I remembered her advice and remembered the very particular and positive effect it had on her salsa recipe.

SARAH’S FRESH SALSA

2-3 lbs. medium tomatoes, just ripe (flesh should be firm, not grainy)
1 large onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 jalapenos, or other hot pepper to taste
juice of 1 lime
cilantro, several sprigs, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

Quarter the tomatoes, seed them, rinse clean and then place on a paper towels to dry a bit.

Meanwhile, dice the vegetables. All vegetables should be chopped into small pieces, but not so small that they lose their shape (as would happen in pulverized in a food processor). This process isn’t as labor intensive as you might think. Onions can be sliced first to create rings, and the cut into tiny cubes against the grain of its natural layers. Slice peppers in half length-wise, seed them, and then cut long, slender strips. Make slender cuts in the other direction, now, to make small pieces. Once tomatoes have dried a bit, do the same.

Combine diced onion, minced garlic, chopped jalapenos, and chopped tomatoes in a medium bowl. Juice the lime over the bowl. Snip the cilantro into the mix, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand in the refrigerator at least a half hour. I usually try to make it a day ahead of time to let the flavors meld together. Serve with chips or tacos or any dish to which salsa is a good compliment.

Cilantro Coleslaw for Tacos

While this coleslaw recipe needn’t be exclusively for tacos, I did originally find it as part of a fish taco recipe, and after bringing it to Taco Night at Sabrina’s house, I have proven that it works just as well with Sabrina’s slow-cooked pork carnitas filling as it does with fish. I imagine the same is true of shredded beef or chicken. What’s great about this slaw is that it contains such a variety of traditional Mexican taco flavors, it makes for an easy and complete way to garnish any sort of taco meat, fish or other protein-rich filling. Put it this way… when I add this slaw to a taco, I don’t even need to add cheese. Ingredients below are given in recommended amounts, but proportions for this recipe are hard to mess up, so if you want more of one flavor or another, feel free to exercise your creative freedom.

coleslawSARAH’S CILANTRO SLAW

1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, or 1/4 cup cilantro chutney
2 green onions, snipped or sliced thin
2 green chilis or jalapenos, minced (optional)
juice and zest of one lime
1/3 cup sour cream (or more, if needed to coat; see below)
dusting of ground cumin, or a sprinkling of cumin seeds
one small cabbage, shredded, or one bag (10 to 16oz) or coleslaw mix

Chop up all of the fresh greens (i.e. cilantro, green onions, jalapenos) and put in a small bowl or container. Squeeze lime juice over them. Stir in mayonnaise and cumin. At this point, the dressing mixture can be stored in the refrigerator until closer to serving time. Dressing the slaw closer to eating time keeps it from getting soggy.

Shortly before serving, place dressing in a larger bowl and add coleslaw mixture a bit at a time until slaw is evenly coated and dressing is used up (i.e. no dressing pooling in the bottom of the bowl). If, at this point, you still have a small portion dry slaw, then you can add additional mayo in order to stretch the dressing to cover the remaining slaw. Serve fresh as a side dish, or as a taco filling with meat or fish.