Mexican cuisine often has a bad rap in the diet world, but many of the food choices associated with Mexican food are actually quite healthy and fit with a slow carb diet beautifully. It is more difficult to modify Mexican food to a low carb diet, and even more difficult to modify Mexican food to a ketogenic diet. Difficult, but not impossible. One of my favorite food memories were some perfectly cooked low carb Carnitas I had at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Riverside California. The recipe below comes pretty close to replicating that food memory….crispy seared on the outside and warm and tender on the inside. The only thing missing were the fresh avocados (a hard thing to come by in Minnesota!).
How are Low Carb Carnitas Different from other Mexican meat dishes?
Carnitas, literally means “little meats”, and is often looked at as just one of the “taco or burrito meats”. Since tortillas and taco shells are not compliant with a low carb or slow carb diet, the meat itself takes on a more important role however, and you’ll never miss the tortilla if you treat yourself to carnitas cooked to perfection. In fact, the tortillas and the rice tend to mask the flavor of the carnitas. I think that’s why it was such a food memory for me. It was simple and perfectly cooked and the flavor was allowed to shine through. My dish was accompanied with fresh avocado, cilantro, sour cream and refried beans….all slow carb and all delightful.
The fact that it was a very authentic Mexican Restaurant with old seafood restaurant decor made it even more fun. The Marlin and netting theme were still there from the last restaurant!
Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender (do not fear the lard). The traditional way to cook carnitas is to simmer the meat slowly in lard in a thick-bottomed pot (I used a dutch oven), which disperses the heat evenly in a process reminiscent of confit. Mexican spices are added as it simmers, and once appropriate tenderness is achieved, the heat is turned up and the outside of the pork begins to crisp.
The crisping of the outside of the pork is one of the things that distinguish carnitas from pulled pork. At their best, carnitas are moist, juicy, and ultra porky, with the rich, tender texture of a French confit, and riddled with plenty of well-browned, crisp edges.
Pop sugar has put together this summary of the differences between carnitas and other Mexican meats, which I found really helpful:
- Carne asada: Grilled, marinated pieces of beef (typically sirloin or rib) served inside burritos and tacos.
- Carnitas: Shoulder of pork that’s been seasoned, braised until tender with lard and herbs (oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, garlic), pulled apart, and then oven-roasted until slightly crisp, then eaten alone or used as a filling for tacos, tamales, tortas, and burritos.
- Al pastor: Crisp-thin shavings of vertical spit-roasted pork, marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote, then served on tortillas. Pastor means “shepherd,” the name given to Lebanese merchants who immigrated to Mexico City in the early 1900s, bringing the concept of shawarma with them.
- Cochinita pibil: Whole suckling pig or pork shoulder that’s marinated in citrus with achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted. Historically, it’s buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom.
- Barbacoa: Traditionally, beef cheek and head that’s covered in leaves from the maguey plant, then slow cooked over a wood fire in a pit in the ground. In America today, it also refers to spicy, shredded, slow-braised beef that’s been made tender, then pulled apart.
How to use Low Carb Carnitas for a full Low Carb Dinner
A classic accompaniment to carnitas is broiled red onions (Cebollas Encurtidas). These onions are often broiled and then soaked in citrus juices and are a perfect foil with carnitas. Add some avocados or guacamole and some refried beans and you will leave your slow carb dinner ultimately satisfied. Other accompaniments might include salsa and coriander leaves.
Recipe for Low Carb Carnitas:
Makes 10 servings
- 1 orange
- 2 Tbsp lard (olive oil if you must)
- 3 lb boneless pork shoulder roast, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups water
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp chile pepper spice (choose a spice that meets your heat preference)
- 1 Tbsp lard (or oil)
Zest an orange and then squeeze the juice from the orange. Add them together in a bowl and set aside
- In a large Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), heat 2 Tbsp lard over medium-high. Add the meat, a little at a time, being careful not to crowd. Cook first layer of meat until browned, remove and cook next layer of meat until browned and then remove.
- When meat is browned and removed to a plate, add the onion and garlic to the Dutch oven. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Return meat.
- Add the reserved orange zest and juice and the next 6 ingredients to the Dutch oven (through the chile pepper). Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for 2 hours.
- Bring back up to a gentle boil and cook, uncovered 15 to 20 minutes more or until most of the liquid is evaporated, stirring occasionally. Remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaves and either go to the next step or store the meat until ready. The meat can be stored at this point in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- When ready to make the carnitas, heat 1 Tbsp lard over medium heat in a large skillet. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat from the sauce and spread it in a single layer in the skillet. Cook 5 minutes or until meat starts to crisp, turning occasionally (may need to do this in batches).
- Serve with lime wedges, jalapeno pepper, guacamole, refried beans or broiled onions.
Nutrition Analysis (per serving):
- 204 calories
- 7 g fat
- 2 g carb
- 31 g protein
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