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Dykes on Dates: Tender Pork Tacos That Are Too Good To Be True

Welcome to Dykes on Dates, my column all about how I’m making the time and space to still go on dates with my fiancé Kristen 4+ years into our relationship. Kristen just left for a three-week writing residency, which means there aren’t any date nights in my near future unless I decide to take myself on some solo ones. So instead of this column ending with a missive about a specific day/night out with Kristen, I’m just sticking to the basics this week and just menu planning a date for you. This is my foolproof carnitas tacos recipe that I like for date night because the slow-cooked pork is damn impressive enough to make someone fall in love with you all over again, the various customizable toppings make the meal interactive, and it’s extremely easy to pack this meal up and take it to the park. As we know, I love a good romantic picnic!


The Date: Pork Taco Night

Cost

Depending on how many ingredients you already have on hand, the specific variations to the recipe, and grocery prices where you live, this recipe can run you anywhere from $25 to closer to $75 BUT it makes enough carnitas filling for many meals. I usually freeze the bulk of my slow-cooked pork, which means future taco date nights!

Notes on Cost and Planning

This date night meal is geared toward folks who like to cook, and as I’m not a professional recipe developer and tend to have a loosey goosey approach to explaining how to make something (with very few concrete measurements), it also might require some intermediate kitchen skills so you know how to adjust the recipe to suit your desires. If you do want to follow a more precise recipe, I recommend the Instant Pot Bon Appetit recipe or, for something a little different, the Korean-inspired take from the NYT.

All that said, a cheap and easy alternative approach to this date night meal that doesn’t compromise flavor is to buy the “fully cooked carnitas” package from Trader Joe’s and just prep your own additional toppings. On a similar note, the brand Barvecue makes a frozen carnitas alternative that’s vegan, and shredded jackfruit can also be used as a vegan alt, but you’ll have to look up your own recipe as I’ve never tried it!

The Pork

So the first step is to find your cut of pork. The whole reason I did carnitas date night in the first place was because I found an incredible deal on a MASSIVE piece of pork butt at Publix. I got a giant piece for under $10. These cuts of pork often go on sale but in general are rarely expensive. What you’re looking for is any of the following (some of these are just different names for the same thing):

  • picnic roast
  • pork shoulder
  • pork butt
  • boston butt

Something in the three pound range is gonna yield enough pork for like 25+ tacos. So again, this is a date night meal plan with intentional leftovers. This taco date is the gift that keeps on giving.

The thing I do differently than most recipes out there (and perhaps a professional chef will yell at me for this idk!) is not actually cut the slab of pork before I throw it in my Instant Pot. Most recipes will have you cut it into 2-3 inch chunky cubes. You def can! But sometimes, just for practical reasons, I’m cooking these from frozen, because I usually will buy the pork butt when it’s on sale but then not necessarily use it right away.

Cooking from frozen is also why I usually use the Instant Pot. You don’t have to pressure cook your pork to follow my recipe! You can use the Instant Pot on the slow cooker setting (which is what I do when I’m cooking from a NOT frozen piece of pork) or by using a sturdy enameled dutch oven or, even better, a cast iron one.

Most carnitas recipes out there keep things extremely simple when it comes to your additional things that you slow-roast the pork with. There’s usually acid, spice, garlic, and basic seasonings. Here’s what I personally like to add to the pot with the pork:

  • the juice of an entire orange and a bit of orange zest
  • lime zest
  • a ton of whole garlic cloves that have been smashed with my mortar and pestle
  • a large onion, quartered
  • whole cloves that I also crush by hand with the mortar and pestle
  • ground cumin
  • two whole cinnamon sticks
  • whole tomatillos
  • an entire dried guajillo chili (just thrown in whole, not cut)
  • gochugaru flakes (you can use red pepper flakes, but I like the nuanced flavor of the gochugaru)
  • cured sumac
  • a stalk of lemongrass (or a dash of powdered lemongrass)
  • lemongrass
  • salt & pepper sure, but I also like to use an umami seasoning blend, like the Bon App x Burlap and Barrel one literally called “the umami blend” or the mushroom variation from Trader Joe’s
  • sometimes, if I have one, I’ll throw in a little bonus ingredient, which is a splash of Modelo Negra

Cover your concoction with water. If pressure cooking, go with about 30 minutes on high pressure (an hour if cooking from frozen). If slow-cooking, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for at least two hours. If slow-cooking, water will evaporate, so just make sure to add some to keep the meat covered at all times.

Once the pork is ultra tender, use a slotted spoon to move it to a bowl. Discard any ingredients you don’t want in your final product, like any whole peppers, large pieces of onion, tomatillo skins, cinnamon sticks, etc. I usually leave in the garlic, because by now it’s almost a smushy paste. Wait for it to cool and then shred with your hands. It should pull apart nice n easy.

This is when I usually pop the majority of the pork into freezer-safe containers and label them with the date, to be used later, reserving just enough for date night.

Right before serving dinner, I spread the shredded pork onto a foil-lined small baking sheet and put it under the broiler on high heat. This makes some parts crispy. Once it’s crisped to my desired level, I use tongs to move the meat into a nice large serving bowl.

The Toppings

There’s probably a joke in here about being a bottom, but genuinely a lot of my favorite date night dinners involve, well, toppings. This is why I’ve also delved into the joys of at-home pizza-making in this column! I think tacos function in a similar way, where there’s almost an activity built into the meal. It also makes it easier for when you and your date have different flavor preferences, spice thresholds, dietary restrictions, etc. I like to use small colorful bowls to present toppings and have recently been obsessed with the tiny golden shovel scoops I was gifted that have proven to be a great little touch to meals that hinge on toppings or condiments.

When it comes to carnitas, a lot of people like to keep things very simple, because the pork is so flavorful on its own that you want it to the star. You’ll want to use small corn tortillas for these, which you can make if you have a tortilla press or buy from the grocery store. Common toppings include chopped cilantro, chopped white onion, and a squeeze of lime juice. Maybe a pico de gallo. I, however, do like to offer an array of toppings so I can play around with a bunch of different combinations (though the first and last tacos I tend to eat are usually just the most simplest).

And here’s where I really show off: I make my own cheese. Cheese isn’t super traditional for carnitas, and regular shredded cheese doesn’t really go with them (but also, You Do You, toppings can be whatever you want em to be!). But homemade cheese is a date nigh showstopper. While the pork is taking its sweet ol’ time, I make a soft, crumbly white cheese. I’ve been doing this for years, so I don’t really use a recipe, but I first learned to make cheese by learning to make paneer, using this Aarti Sequeira recipe that I find super approachable. But when it comes to making the sort of soft white cheese that I use for tacos, I basically just stop after step four in that recipe. Sometimes, I’ll let it drain a little longer or even pop it in the fridge if I want it to firm up slightly, but I don’t turn it all the way into cubes of paneer, leaving it looser.

Here are the toppings I usually have in little bowls for most taco nights in general, whether I’m doing pork or a different style:

  • my homemade cheese
  • lime wedges
  • finely chopped white onion
  • a spicy pico (I make it myself if I have time or just buy a fresh version from the deli section of a grocery store)
  • hand torn cilantro
  • quick pickled red onion slices
  • avocado
  • chopped serrano peppers (preferred) or jalapeños (if that’s what I have on hand)
  • El Yucateco habanero (just because it’s my fav hot sauce and I tend to put it on everything)

If you’re planning on doing this date on a picnic, just load all your component into sealable tupperware containers and make sure you have plenty of napkins!

Drink Pairing

The thing about a date night meal that requires this much prep is that it should also come with a drink pairing. Honestly, a crisp light beer goes great with this, but a dry cider or a tart sour would also do the trick. If you do want to do a cocktail moment, I think a bee’s knees but sub spicy honey for regular honey is fun. And for a nonalcoholic pairing, the lemon & ginger juice seltzer from Trader Joe’s is the move.


Dykes on Dates is a series by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya chronicling dates with her fiancé Kristen and offering ideas, tips, and tricks for stoking the flames of romance.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 813 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. i love carnitas! i usually put some kind of cheap lager in the crockpot and then when it’s done, i sear the pieces with butter after breaking it up

    also leftovers make ideal breakfast tacos, just sayin’

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