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 chiles 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 naturally raised, 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 chiles, 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 chile powder and chipotle chile powder at supermarkets with a good Mexican ingredient section. Or order the chile powders online.
If you can’t find ancho chile powder, you can substitute regular chile powder (usually spelled chili powder, it’s a blend of ground chiles 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 chile flavor but will still be delicious.
To add even more flavor to the braising pork, I put in sliced onions, fresh orange wedges and some beer to the pan. 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, let the meat cool in the pan juices, then remove it to a cutting board. Two large forks will gently pull the meat away from the bones into large shreds. The pan juices are used to moisten the meat shreds before they get tucked into tacos.
Beef chuck and bone-in chicken thighs work with the recipe that follows; cooking time for the beef will be about the same. For chicken thighs, reduce cooking time to 1 hour.
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. Then follow the directions for shredding and seasoning the meat.
The best tacos are made from the best tortillas. There’s nothing better than a corn tortilla fresh from the griddle. They’re not difficult to make — simply rehydrate dried corn masa harina, and follow the instructions on the bag (or follow Prep School columnist James P. DeWan’s method) for pressing and griddle-cooking perfect round disks of steaming corn flatbreads.
Truth be told, I just stop at my local Mexican market for the fresh corn tortillas that get delivered daily. Read the packages, and avoid any containing preservatives — corn tortillas with preservatives taste sour and nasty. Flour tortillas with preservatives likewise taste oddly soft and bitter.
Refresh store-bought corn and flour tortillas with heat — either the steamy heat of the microwave oven, or the direct heat of a hot griddle. For these red chile pork tacos, I like to employ the Mexican taqueria technique of an oily griddle to add moisture and crispness to the tortilla.
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. Pass the onions and the salsa. I 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 chile powders that season the pork.
BEER- AND RED CHILE-BRAISED PORK WITH ORANGE AND ONIONS
Prep: 30 minutes
Marinate: 30 minutes or up to 2 days
Cooks: 3 hours
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
If you choose to cook this in a slow-cooker, reduce the beer to 1/2 cup and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours. Shred your own cheese to avoid the added cellulose in pre-shredded cheese.
1/4 cup pure ancho chile powder, about 1 ounce
2 teaspoons chipotle chile powder (or smoked paprika for a milder dish)
2 teaspoons each: salt, 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, cut into slivers
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
1. Mix chile powders, salt, oregano, cumin and allspice in small dish. Pat pork dry and place in a large Dutch oven. Insert the tip of a small paring knife into the pork making a slit; insert a garlic sliver into the slit. Repeat to insert garlic slivers in a dozen or so places all around the pork roast. Rub the pork all over with the chile mixture; use all of it to coat well. Refrigerate, loosely covered up to 2 days. Or, let rest on the counter while the oven heats.
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put onion slices and orange pieces around the pork. Pour beer and 1/2 cup water around (but not over) the pork. Set the lid in place and slide pot into the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Cook, 1 1/2 hours. Check the liquid in the pan, adding more water if needed. Continue cooking, checking liquid occasionally, until the pork is fall-apart tender, about another 1 1/2 hours.
3. Let the pork cool in the pan until you can handle it. (The pork can be refrigerated covered for several days. Reheat gently.) Transfer pork to a cutting board and use a knife and fork to pull the meat into rough shreds. Remove and discard the orange pieces from the pan juices. Skim any excess fat from the pan juices. Return the pork shreds to the pan juices. Season to taste with salt. Serve warm, garnished with cilantro.
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 182 calories, 7 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 23 g protein, 868 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
DOUBLE-DECKER PORK TACOS
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Makes: 16 tacos, serving 6 to 8
1 large red onion, halved, very thinly sliced
Juice of 2 limes
About 5 cups shredded beer- and red chile-braised pork, see recipe
Expeller pressed canola oil, sunflower or safflower oil
32 corn tortillas
1 to 1 1/4 pounds Monterey jack, shredded
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Speedy red chile salsa, see recipe
1. Mix onion and lime juice in a small bowl. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, and let stand at room temperature about 20 minutes.
2. When you are ready to start making tacos, put shredded pork into a bowl and microwave covered on high, stirring often, until warmed, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste for salt. Set tortillas and cheese near the cooking surface. Set out bowls of the onions, cilantro, salsa and lime wedges.
3. Heat a large nonstick griddle (or 2 large nonstick skillets) over medium heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Drizzle a little oil onto the griddle. Place tortillas onto griddle in a single uncrowded layer. Top each tortilla with 2 heaping tablespoons cheese. Top with a second tortilla. Let the tortilla piles stay on the griddle until the bottom is lightly crisped. Flip each pile, and then top with about 1/4 cup of the pork arranged on one half of the tortilla round. Add a sprinkle of cilantro. Fold the tortillas in half to make a taco, remove from the griddle to a warm platter. Repeat to make remaining tacos. Serve right away with the red onions, salsa and limes.
Nutrition information per taco: 408 calories, 23 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 94 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 27 g protein, 217 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
SPEEDY RED CHILE SALSA WITH ORANGE AND CHIPOTLE
Prep: 10 minutes
Rest: 20 minutes
Makes: 3 generous cups
2 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion, well rinsed
2 teaspoons pure ancho chile powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pure chipotle chile 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 the tomatoes; do not puree tomatoes. Transfer tomatoes to a bowl; stir in remaining ingredients. Let stand 20 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 5 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 81 mg sodium, 0 g fiber