Why It Works
- Searing meat on only one side prior to simmering creates flavor, but allows the pork to retain its moisture.
- Chile flavor infuses the entire dish by toasting dried chiles, simmering in liquid, then blending into a sauce.
- While there's no single way to make New Mexican carne adovada, most recipes are a riff on pork simmered in a chile sauce with a few spices and aromatics. Here, the flavor is amped up with a few untraditional ingredients: raisins, fish sauce, and orange juice concentrate.
Does anyone else get goosebumps thinking about the last bowl of really good chili they had? Chili season is something I look forward to every year. That time when even as a supposed-to-love-vegetables-and-really-does-but-sometimes-wants-huge-bowls-of-meat coastal-dweller you're finally allowed to hunker down in front of what's essentially a big bowl of spoon-tender meat and dig right in without anyone giving you a second glance, a reproachful look at your gluttony.
And while Texas-style chile con carne—chili with big hunks of tender beef simmered in a tomato and bean-free sauce—may be more well-known, carne adovada—its New Mexican pork-based cousin—is equally delicious.
I've never understood why it doesn't get as much recognition as chili con carne. Perhaps its because beef is so in-your-face brash and bold, while pork requires a little more subtlety, a little more patience to get it right, to understand it. When you finally crack it; when you finally have a taste that makes you go oh... I get it, it can be every bit as soul-satisfying and delicious.
Here's how it's done.
A Brief Word on Nomenclature
I know some folks are already champing at the bit, ready to jump on me for spelling the dish "adovada" instead of "adobada." Well, allow myself to explain myself.
The New Mexican dish carne adovada is based off of a Mexican cooking process called adobada (or sometimes enchilada) which is a general term that means to cook something in an adobo sauce—a sauce made with chiles, flavored with a few aromatics and vinegar. Mexican carne adobada can come in all shapes in sizes from simmered chunks to shreds.
New Mexican-style carne adovada, on the other hand, is a defined dish consisting of chunks of pork simmered in a chile-based stew. Got it? Good. Let's get into the kitchen.
How to Brown Meat and Retain Moisture
The first step on our path to flavor country is the meat. I braised a few big pots of pork using a simple working recipe of pork stewed with powdered dried chili (I used a mix of ancho and pasilla), onions, garlic, and chicken stock, treating the meat in a number of different ways to determine what worked best.
Now, traditional wisdom will tell you that you ought to brown your meat as deeply as possible. Browning, also known as the Maillard reaction, is a complex series of chemical reactions that occur when meat (or other protein-containing foods such as bread) is subjected to high heat. As meat browns, molecules rapidly break down and recombine in a cascade of reactions that produce hundreds of end products, adding complexity and depth of flavor.
But here's the thing: browning doesn't occur at any appreciable rate until well above the 300°F mark. Meanwhile, it's not possible to raise your meat past 212°F (the boiling point of water) until most of its surface moisture has been evaporated. Water is like a built-in temperature regulator that prevents browning.
How do you solve this problem?
The first step is to get rid of the surface moisture—the liquid clinging to the outside of the meat. This is easy enough, and is something you should do any time you sear meat:
But this doesn't solve the problem of the moisture that resides just under the surface, which is only released once the meat hits the pan and its muscle fibers start contracting, expelling liquid.
Some recipes will have you brown the meat in batches, reheating the pot well in between each one. The idea is that this leaves plenty of space for liquid to evaporate, and without too much meat in the pan, it's able to retain and regain heat faster, leading to a deeper sear.
This is all true. What those recipes don't tell you is that there's an inverse relationship between quality of sear (that is, how brown a given surface on a piece of meat gets), and quality of texture (that is, how moist and tender the meat is after cooking). The browner it gets, the tougher and dryer it becomes.
There's a misconception that moist cooking techniques—braising, simmering, etc.—will lead to moist end results when in fact, a simmered or braised piece of meat will lose nearly as much moisture as one that is roasted in the dry heat of an oven. That's because as muscle fibers heat up—whether that heat is transmitted through the air or a liquid—they contract, squeezing out moisture. And, just like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube, once that liquid is squeezed out, it's not easy to get it back in.
So my two conflicting goals: develop flavor via browning and retain moisture by not browning.
I tried a number of solutions—browning meat less, not browning at all, adding browned vegetables instead of meat, browning via roasting rather than searing—but the best turned out to be the simplest: just don't brown every surface.
Instead, get some oil ripping hot in a Dutch oven (until it's lightly smoking), dump in all the meat, and let it sit there until just the bottom side is deeply seared.
The temptation to move it around is great. Those little pieces of pork sizzle as they hit the pot, begging to be moved around, to expose them equally to the hot surface. Do not give in. Stirring will lead to excessive cooling, which leads to steamed meat instead of browned meat.
Once one side is well-browned, that's all it takes—those water-soluble products of the Maillard reaction will dissolve in the cooking liquid, spreading flavor throughout the stew. Meanwhile, the pork will stay nice and moist as it cooks. Win-win-win.
What Size Meat is Best for Chili and Stew?
Next question: How big should I cut my meat?
You'd think using smaller cuts of meat would help stew cook faster, just like a thinner steak will cook faster than a thicker one.
After braising meat cut in different sizes, from one-pound hunks to 1/2-inch square pieces, I found the difference in cooking time was marginal. Even the smallest piece still took 1 hour 45 minutes to fully tenderize, while big chunks were soft in a little over 2 hours.
Why's that? It's because braising is a slow-cooking process; It's all about converting tough connective tissue (mainly collagen) into smooth, unctuous gelatin. This is a process that's temperature and time dependent. Whether you've got a ton of collagen or just a few ounces, they'll convert to gelatin at the same basic rate at the right temperature.
Essentially, once both sizes of meat have achieved the same internal temperature, they take the same amount of time to cook. In a simmering stew, that temperature is about 180°F. A small piece of meat will be there within a matter of moments—collagen starts transforming nearly instantly—a larger hunk takes a little longer, hence the 20-minute increase in cooking time.
To get the best texture and flavor, I found pieces in the middle range—cut to about 2-inches per side—had the best contrast between juicy tender center and sauce-coated exterior.
Before we go on, I'd like to make an important note: DO NOT OVERCOOK YOUR PORK. There's a certain romance associated with saying "I cooked this for 12 hours!" and of course, low and slow is good, but there's a limit to how much meat should stew. You want to cook it until it's just done so that it retains maximum juiciness. Longer is NOT always better.
How to Use Dried Chiles
Now we get to the real meat of the dish, which, ironically, is not the meat at all. It's the chiles.
To start with, I knew from my previous adventures in chili that the best way to incorporate dried chiles into a dish is to toast, simmer in liquid, then puree in a blender or with an immersion blender.
The most traditional New Mexican recipes for the dish are simple: Get yourself some freshly dried New Mexican chiles, toast and grind (or in this case simmer) them, brown some pork, then brown some onions and garlic...
...season with a few spices if desired (some cumin and Mexican oregano are nice) before adding your chile liquid...
...return pork to the pot and add a couple bay leaves...
...simmer, simmer, simmer...
...and simmer some more, until...
...your pork is fall-apart tender a couple hours later.
And that's precisely what I did. The results were... fine. The meat was tender and moist, but the sauce lacked real brightness and depth.
A good deal of that has to do with the fact that frankly, sometimes the dried chiles you find aren't always spectacular. A great dried chile should not be too dry. It should have supple, bendable skin. Most of the chiles I find are dried to the point of being crisp, snapping when bent.
A great dried chile should have a depth of flavor that doesn't just encompass heat, but also has other complex notes. Depending on the type of chile, there may be a touch of acidity or a raisin-like richness. Many of the chiles I find in my local supermarket taste a little dry and dusty.
Mixing and matching various types of chiles adds depth—I usually go for a mix of two or more, mixing rich deep chiles like ancho with brighter chiles like pasilla—and this flavor may be good enough for a really hearty beef-based chili like my Texas Chile Con Carne, but fatty pork meat demands a brighter, sweeter flavor to bring out its best, something that can't be accomplished with my crummy New York supermarket chiles alone.
A Few Ways to Add Flavor to Carne Adovada
So if a rich fruitiness and a hint of raisin-like sweetness is what I'm after, I figured, why not take the logical step? Just add some raisins.
I added raisins to the simmering chiles along with a couple of canned chipotle peppers (another good source of rich chile flavor, along with a hint of smoke) before blending them together. It worked like a charm, creating a sauce that tasted only of extra-flavorful chiles; the raisins added depth, but not even the super-est of supertasters would be able to say that they were in there. I wish more of life's problems could be solved with raisins.
I had the rich depth I was looking for; Now I needed to add acidity and sweetness. Oranges are a natural pair with chiles—they contain many of the same flavor compounds—so I tried adding in a variety of forms: orange juice (both fresh squeezed and bottled), and whole orange halves simmered with the stew (both regular navel oranges and sour Valencia oranges). They all improved the dish, but the real winner was a shocker:
Frozen orange juice concentrate. Yes, really. Even when I added an equivalent amount of real orange juice, the versions made with concentrate simply had better flavor. Perhaps because the fresh orange juice version tasted too much like orange, whereas a spoonful of concentrate gave the final sauce a hint of sweet brightness, but no overtly orange-y flavor.
This may be the one time you don't want your orange juice to have a strong orange flavor.
With my flavor nearly there, all it took was a dash of vinegar and a couple tablespoons of Vietnamese fish sauce to tie the whole dish together.
Fish sauce may seem like an odd pairing for New Mexican-based flavors, but it's not as odd as you might think. Fish sauce is a powerful source of both glutamates and inosinates, two classes of natural chemical compounds that greatly enhance our perception of savoriness. A dash of it in pretty much any meat-based stew will make your stew taste more meaty, without adding any fishiness.
And there you've got it. Rich, bright, flavorful, hot, and meaty, with perfectly juicy, spoon-tender hunks of pork just waiting to fall apart under your teeth.
4 whole dried ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
4 whole dried pasilla chiles, seeds and stems removed
1 quart (32 ounces) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup frozen orange juice concentrate
3 whole chipotle chiles canned in adobo
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 2-inch thick cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
6 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 bay leaves
Corn tortillas, cilantro, diced onions, lime wedges, and queso fresco for serving (optional)
Add dried chiles to large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or stock pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until slightly darkened with intense, roasted aroma, 2 to 5 minutes. Do not allow to smoke. Add chicken stock, raisins, orange juice concentrate, chipotles in adobo, white vinegar, and fish sauce. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a bare simmer, and let cook until chilies are totally softened, about 15 minutes. Blend into a smooth puree using an immersion blender or by transferring to a countertop blender. Set aside.
Carefully pat pork dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. Cut into 2 inch cubes. Heat vegetable oil in a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over high heat until smoking. Add pork all at once and spread evenly over bottom surface (it's ok if not all the pork is touching the bottom or if the pan is crowded. Cook without moving until bottom surface is well browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer pork to a cutting board and set aside. Add onions and garlic to Dutch oven and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add oregano and cumin and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add chile mixture to Dutch oven and stir to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom. Add bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce to a bare simmer. Cover, leaving lid slightly ajar, and cook, stirring occasionally until pork chunks break apart when you apply pressure with a spoon, about 2 hours.
Sauce should be thick, with an almost ketchup-like consistency. If too thin, increase heat to a light simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced to the desired consistency. Season to taste with salt.
Serve pork with corn tortillas, cilantro, diced onions, lime wedges, and queso fresco. Pork can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 5 days.