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Flavors compound in party-perfect tacos

  • CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    Ground ancho and chipotle chilies go into a rub for a pork roast that is braised to make a filling for tacos.

I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like tacos. They’re simple yet rich, casual yet special, and the perfect party food.

I reserve speedy ground beef tacos for weekday suppers. For entertaining, I turn to the grill for tender beef steak or fish tacos. For do-ahead cooking, there’s nothing better than long-simmered meat cuts, seasoned highly with chilies and vegetables, from the Dutch oven or slow cooker.

Pork shoulder proves economical for a crowd; I just need to invest time to dry rub the pork a day or so in advance and then give it a few hours in the oven. For super-tender taco meat, I chose a large, bone-in pork shoulder roast. Lean pork loin and tenderloin will not yield the moist meat shreds so perfect in tacos.

A combination of pure ground Mexican chilies, salt, a hint of cumin and oregano makes a deep red rub that pairs perfectly with succulent slow-cooking meat. Coat the roast heavily with the rub, then it can sit in the fridge for a day or more.

Look for pure ancho chili and chipotle powders at supermarkets with good Mexican ingredient sections. Or order online.

If you can’t find ancho powder, substitute regular chili powder (a blend of ground chilies plus spices, including cumin and oregano) and eliminate the chipotle powder, salt, oregano and cumin. The dish will have a more Southwestern flavor profile with a bit less dark chili flavor, but will still be delicious.

To give even more flavor to the braising pork, I add sliced onions, fresh orange wedges and some beer. As the pork slowly renders into tenderness, the pan juices get better and better. Of course, you can simply slice this roast and serve it as an entree with some rice and a salad. For tacos, shred the meat, but use the pan juices to moisten the shreds.

For stress-free entertaining, cook the meat fully up to three days in advance. Then refrigerate it (unshredded) in the pan juices. Up to several hours before serving, rewarm the meat in the juices, so it is soft enough to shred.

To assemble the tacos for guests, I sandwich two corn tortillas with cheese while they crisp on the griddle. My son calls these double- decker tacos and has been known to make them with flour tortillas too.

Myself, I like the flavor and textural combination of corn tortillas, tangy cheese and luscious pork filling. Once filled, arrange the tacos on a warm platter to serve guests.

Enlist some help during the taco cooking — I put two griddles on the stove, so I can get the tacos out fast and hot. Serve the onions and the salsa at the table.

I usuallly also offer white rice — cooked with garlic and spritzed with lime — and a green salad alongside the tacos. And don’t forget the salsa — I’m including a recipe here for a version made from canned tomatoes and some of the same chili powders that season the pork.

Beer-and Red Chili-Braised Pork With Orange and Onions

  • 1/4 cup pure ancho chili powder, about 1 ounce
  • 2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder (or smoked paprika for a milder dish)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 4- to 5-pound bone-in pork shoulder roast
  • 4 large garlic cloves, slivered
  • 1 large (10 ounce) white onion, quartered, thinly sliced
  • 2 small navel oranges, ends trimmed, each cut into 8 wedges
  • 1 bottle light-tasting Mexican beer
  • Cilantro sprigs, for garnish

In small dish, mix chili powders, salt, oregano, cumin and allspice.

Pat pork dry and place in large Dutch oven. Use a paring knife to make a dozen slits all over roast; insert garlic slivers into slits. Rub pork all over with chili mixture; use all of it. Refrigerate, loosely covered, up to 2 days. Or let rest on counter while oven heats.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange onions and oranges around pork. Pour beer and 1/2 cup water around (but not over) pork. Cover and place in oven. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees. Cook 90 minutes.

Check liquid level, adding more water if needed. Continue cooking, checking liquid occasionally, until the pork is fall-apart tender, about another 90 minutes.

Let sit in pan until cool enough to handle. Remove to cutting board and use a knife and fork to roughly shred meat.

Remove and discard orange pieces. Skim fat from the pan juices. Return pork shreds to pan juices. Season to taste with salt. Serve warm, garnished with cilantro, or use to make tacos. Serves 8.

For the slow cooker: Reduce beer to 1/2 cup and cook on low 6 to 8 hours.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 182 calories, 7 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrate, 2 g sugar, 23 g protein, 868 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Double-Decker Pork Tacos

  • 1 large red onion, halved, very thinly sliced
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Salt, to taste
  • About 5 cups shredded braised pork (previous recipe)
  • 32 corn tortillas
  • 1 to 1-1/4 pounds Monterey jack cheese, shredded
  • Canola, sunflower or safflower oil, for griddle
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • Speedy Red Chile Salsa (recipe follows)
  • Lime wedges

Combine onion and lime juice in small bowl. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt; let stand at room temperature about 20 minutes.

If shredded pork is not warm, heat in microwave 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and add salt if needed.

Set tortillas and cheese near the cooking surface.

Heat large nonstick griddle (or 2 large nonstick skillets) over medium until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Drizzle a little oil onto griddle. Place tortillas onto griddle in a single uncrowded layer. Top each with 2 heaping tablespoons cheese, then a second tortilla. Leave on griddle until bottoms are lightly crisped. Flip each stack, then top with about 1/4 cup pork arranged on one half of the tortilla round. Add a sprinkle of cilantro. Fold each tortilla stack in half to make a double-shelled taco, remove from griddle to warm platter. Repeat with remaining tacos.

Serve right away with red onions in lime juice, salsa and limes. Makes 16 tacos.

Approximate nutritional information, per taco: 408 calories, 23 g total fat, 10 g saturated fat, 94 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrate, no sugar, 27 g protein, 217 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Speedy Red Chili Salsa With Orange and Chipotle

  • 2 (14.5-ounces) cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion, well rinsed
  • 2 teaspoons pure ancho chili powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pure chipotle chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

Put tomatoes with their juices into a food processor or blender. Pulse about 4 times to roughly chop; do not puree tomatoes. Transfer to a bowl; stir in remaining ingredients. Let stand 20 minutes before serving. Makes 3 generous cups.

Approximate nutritional information, per tablespoon: 5 calories, no fat or cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrate, no sugar or protein, 81 mg sodium, no fiber

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