Last Friday night we went out to dinner with some friends at a postage stamp sized little pop-up restaurant called Whisk, just around the corner from our house. We had an absolute blast, which was mostly due to being in the best of company, but the seven course tasting menu offered at the restaurant, aka the dining experience, was quite fun too. The food was legitimately good, fancy and conceptual, though it was not flawless.
Usually I sneer a little at deconstructed this, foamed that, or anything made into a gel version of itself. It can seem so pretentious. So if it is going to be done, it either needs to be executed near perfectly or be done tongue in cheek. At Whisk, it was neither, but they were so incredibly endearing and effusive about their project, so adorably bumbling as they mispronounced Camembert and granita in their excitement, that any apparent pretention was immediately forgiven. It felt like we were all playing house together, and we got to eat a very delicious meal during the course of it.
And I must say, their plating was truly beautiful and creative. I love carefully, stunningly plated food. It has some of the interesting aesthetic elements of abstract art and sculpture, except then you get to devour it! It is not something I have ever given a try myself though, except for carefully placed mounds and dollops (I do have this idea for a crazy project loitering in the back of my mind that, if enacted, could thoroughly change this, but that is something for the future). And, when I looked at the meal I created for us the very next day, it provided a pretty amusing contrast to Friday’s edible art. On Saturday, we ate piles.
But, my dears, these were no sloppy piles haphazardly thrown together. Heavens no! Take a look! These were towering, magnificent structures, each a teetering Jenga of deliciousness.
The composition of each tower was this: tender crumbed cornbread piled to the sky with shreds of carnitas, plump kernels of chili-flecked corn, slices of avocado, fresh salsa, a dappling of cilantro, and a white crown of sour cream. It is hard to imagine a more enticing construction, in my opinion.
If you’re vegetarian, you could use black beans instead of carnitas, but Oh! Carnitas! These little bits of succulent pork are one of meat’s highest callings. Slowly cooked until crackling brown on the outside and meltingly tender within, carnitas is the salty pig version of a perfectly toasted marshmallow, but infinitely more achievable. We have started receiving pork country style ribs frequently in our meat share this winter, and as soon as I discovered that this is the cut of meat used for carnitas, I hugged myself and jigged around the kitchen with glee.
This is already the fourth time I have made them, for the process is remarkably easy for such magnificent results. Quite amazingly, all you need is the pork, some salt, water, and wait-time to achieve pure slow-cooked bliss. It defies reason. But, in the end, it isn’t actually reason that runs the show anyway, is it?
So, we have eaten our fair share of carnitas tacos this winter. But, now it is confession time. Out with it! I don’t like corn tortillas very much. No matter how much more authentic they are than the floury version. I find them dry and bland and starchy – unless they are homemade, but Joel has a long history of breaking tortilla presses (even those of the indestructible sort), so we’re not going to go there any time soon.
Still, I do really love the idea of a nubbly, corn-flavored platform for taco fixings. And that is where the plan to heap our toppings upon slices of cornbread came from. I’ve recently been nurturing a sourdough starter named Frances, and she makes a mean cornbread. So no sooner was the plan conceived than it was enacted. Given that you need to leave the carnitas happily sputtering and cooking on the stovetop for a couple of hours, you may as well have some cornbread baking in the oven in the meantime. All in all, it is just the work or a laid back weekend afternoon, most of the time of which you can be tending to other things as well.
In addition to the pork and my standard taco trimmings, I extracted some corn kernels, frozen back in August, from the morass of our freezer. I had intended to add it to the cornbread, but a moment of inspiration led me instead to sautee it with some onions and chili powder until it was golden and caramelized, sticky and smokey. A last minute squeeze of lime juice lightens it up with acidity.
When all the pieces are done (there are quite a few pieces, but not a one of them is challenging) and arrayed in a rainbow of bowls and plates on the table, then it is time to pile. I mean, you could instead attempt to plate it all in a hypnotic spiral or as a replica of St. Peter’s (and if you do, please send me a photo!), but I say the fundamentals are good enough and lovely enough as they are. So, just pile.
Cornbread Piled with Carnitas, Caramelized Chile Corn, and Avocado (serves 4)
- carnitas (see below)
- cornbread (see below)
- about 1 Tbs. butter
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen, depending on the season)
- 1/2 tsp. chili powder
- salt and pepper
- 2-3 limes
- fresh salsa
- one avocado, cut into slices
- sour cream
- chopped cilantro
- In a medium skillet, heat the butter over medium-high heat until foaming, then stir in the onion and cook until softened and starting to brown, about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the corn kernels, sprinkle with the chili powder and some salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until soft and starting to brown on the outside, about 5 minutes. Then, stir in the juice of one lime. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to your taste.
- To serve, put a generous square of cornbread on a plate, then put a couple of avocado slices on top of it. Place a little pile of carnitas on top of this, followed by a lare spoonful of the caramelized corn. Top with salsa, sour cream, and sprinkle with cilantro. Squeeze a lime wedge over it and enjoy!
Carnitas (adapted from The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy)
- 2- 2.5 lbs. country style pork ribs, cut into 2-inch cubes
- Put the pork pieces in a large Dutch oven or deep frying pan. Sprinkle with about 1 tsp. salt and add water just to cover. Bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until all of the water has evaporated, about an hour and a half.
- Turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking the meat, turning every so often to brown keep browning on all sides. Cook until all of the fat is rendered out of the meat, and the meat is brown and crispy on the outside and insanely tender and succulent on the inside, about another hour to an hour and ten minutes. Taste and add a little salt if desired. Ta-da! You’ve made carnitas.
- For sourdough cornbread, use this recipe, but replace the milk with buttermilk and add an extra tsp. of baking powder.
- For regular cornbread (adapted from The Best Recipes):
- 2 Tbs. melted butter
- 1 cup stoneground yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2/3 cup buttermilk
- 2/3 cup milk
- Preheat your oven to 425F and grease a 9-inch square baking pan
- Whisk the dry ingredients together, then make a well in the center of them. Add the eggs, milk, buttermilk, and stir until almost combined, then add the butter and stir quickly until everything is just combined.
- Pour the batter into the greased pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until nicely brown and slightly cracked on top and the edges are pulling away from the pan. Remove from the oven to a wire rack and allow to cool for about ten minutes before cutting into generous slices and serving.