When we looked through The Boy’s school planner a few weeks ago, one particular Friday looked like hell. He had two tests, that project he’d been working on for two weeks rather lackadaisically was due, plus he had the regular math sheet, reading and language arts assignments to complete. Thursday homework night was going to be a nightmare. Oh, and on Thursdays, Chef J doesn’t get home until 6:30. And The Boy has Kung Fu lessons at 7:00. How in the heck were we going to eat?
The Boy doesn’t like to eat a big meal before Kung Fu because jumping around and kicking on a full stomach doesn’t exactly make him feel great. So we typically “snack him” before he leaves and then eat a late dinner. For a while, we fell into the habit of getting take-out. Sometimes that meant picking up pho or pizza or barbecue, but usually, it meant a trip through the trusty old drive through for burgers and fries. Again, The Boy spoke up. After working out for an hour, the last thing he wanted was a greasy fast food burger. So we’ve learned to break out the slow cooker.
Now, just because I’m using the slow cooker, doesn’t mean that this has to be a boring old pot roast or the like. Most slow cooker nights, I make Mexican food, because that’s just what we love. Seriously, I could eat Mexican food every day. And it can be super easy and flavorful. I picked up a fabulous book for a friend several years ago for Christmas. . . and then kept it for myself. The Mexican Slow Cooker (Schneider, Deborah, Ten Speed Press, 2012) has become a major inspiration for dinners in our house. A lot of the things we order at Mexican restaurants (beef barbacoa, cochinita pibil, carnitas) can all be made at home without too much trouble if you have the right ingredients on hand.
I make a point of buying pork butt whenever it goes on sale. You can cut it into chunks when you get home from the supermarket and freeze it in a zipper freezer bag to pull out for a hectic day. You don’t want to discard all of the fat as it will render while it cooks and that’s where a lot of the flavor lives. I don’t leave in a lot of big chunks of fat but a few are fine and if the meat is nice and marbled, that’s great. If I know we are going to have a busy day, I pull out a bag of pork chunks a day or two before I need it so it can thaw in the fridge. Then on the hectic day, I spend about 15-20 minutes in the morning setting up the slow cooker so it’ll be ready for dinner when we are.
One of our very favorite and most simple slow cooker meals is carnitas. The recipe in The Mexican Slow Cooker is even simpler than mine. It has only pork, water and salt. I started with that but then mixed it up a little over time. I add some fresh aromatic vegetables and a little black pepper and cinnamon (just a little!) to give it some complex flavors. Still incredibly easy.
Served with some rice and beans (and tortillas if you want tacos), this makes a fabulous and satisfying busy day meal.
Slow Cooker Carnitas
- 3-4 lbs boneless pork butt, cut into 1-2 inch chunks (honestly, if it’s bone in, that’s fine as you are going to be cutting it up anyway)
- 2 t coarse kosher salt
- 1 t ground black pepper
- 1/8 t (or just a pinch) ground cinnamon
- 1/2 large onion, rough chopped
- 1 jalapeno pepper, stem and most seeds removed, then rough chopped
- 1 clove garlic, rough chopped
- 1 C water or stock (I used beef in this demonstration because it’s what I had, chicken or veggie stock is fine as well)
Place chunks of pork into large bowl. Combine salt, pepper and cinnamon and mix evenly through meat. Add onion, peppers and garlic and combine with meat mixture. Transfer meat mixture to slow cooker and mix in your liquid. Cook for 7-8 hours on low, or until very tender.
Turn off your slow cooker and take off the lid. Allow to rest for about 30 minutes (set your table, make your rice and beans). You can remove with a slotted spoon if it’s too juicy (I don’t think that’s such a bad thing!) and serve with rice and beans or in flour or corn tortillas.
Garnish with chopped cilantro and onions if desired.
A note about slow cookers: The technology with slow cookers is SO much better than it was when we were kids. My slow cooker actually allows me to tell it in how many hours I wish to eat (anywhere from 4-11 hours) and adjusts the heat automatically. Since we got this particular slow cooker, we’ve not had one overcooked meal. There are others that actually come with a built in meat thermometer so that it stops cooking when your meat reaches your desired temp. If you are in the market for a slow cooker, do your research and experiment. You can get a great slow cooker for not a lot of money. And you will be surprised how far they have come.