Flurries of snowflakes pepper the crowns of our heads but melt at our feet. Standing out on the porch of our log cabin, we face staggering crisp white-capped peaks. The mountains of the Madison Valley appear almost desaturated against the alpine meadow in the foreground, studded with wild elk, and we just barely hear the river babbling its way around bunches of slender birch trees that line the edge of Sun West Ranch in Cameron, Montana. This is Big Sky country, about an hour and a half out of Bozeman and an easy 40 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park.
Late April’s crisp air enlivens us for the days ahead. Our agenda? Get a fire going, break out the bourbon, and whip out the deck of cards. Today, we’re not going anywhere. But tomorrow calls for a hike. And slow-cooked carnitas.
Before this trip, I might often equate the notion of ‘cabin cooking’ with a college dorm: I am doubtful of a quality, local food supply and fear that I’ll be stranded in a kitchen with tools of little to no actual practical application. Maybe a few oversized silicon spoons and pantry full of a fusty Mrs. Dash collection. Fortunately, Sun West Ranch keeps a well-appointed cabin kitchen, which makes dreaming up the meals for our stay more than feasible.
When we decided that one of our days would include hike, my inherent Italian worry-wort kicked in (“Will I have enough time to prep a real dinner when we get back?“), but then I turned to the stove. All I needed was a giant pot and a couple of beers; I recognized the ideal braising opportunity. I could easily marinate some pork shoulder based on average small-town grocery finds, shove it in the oven and forget about it while we hike in the afternoon. Our plan was to disappear into the trees for a couple of hours, and when we returned we would have a fall-apart-tender meal ready to share.
And thankfully, the hope for ease remained true, and the warmth from the braise in the oven wrapped around our chilled bones when we stumbled back inside. After more than four hours of wandering-turned-trekking along the steep Montana mountainside, prancing via high-knee agility drills over fallen tree trunks, crossing slippery logs over the cold creek (thank god for wool socks) and talking to the thawed-out grizzlies every few minutes (“Helloooo, bears!“), the last thing I felt like taking on was an elaborate meal.
The pork cooked hands-off for over four hours (noting that most recipes suggest two or three), and it was more than tender with plenty of juices to spare. The biggest perk may be the leftovers that helped nurse our whisky hangovers during breakfast the next morning.
Here is my recipe of a foolproof, don’t-overthink-it braised pork that stretches across meals all weekend long.
serves 6-8, or a cabin of hungry bears
Pick up 2.5 – 3 pounds of boneless pork shoulder from a local grocery store or butcher shop (we loved stumbling upon Deemo’s Meats in Ennis). Open one small can of chipotles in adobo, fish out the chiles and chop into a coarse paste. Scoop up the chilis and all of its sauce into a small mixing bowl, and add in two cloves of minced garlic, the zest and juice of one lime, and a few generous three-finger pinches of brown sugar – stir to combine. Transfer pork shoulder to a deep baking dish (or whatever can hold the pork and some liquid in the fridge) season it with salt and pepper, and smother with chili mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate overnight.
Take pork out at least an hour before you’re ready to cook. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a large, deep pot or dutch oven, heat a couple counts of oil over medium-high heat. Slice an onion and add to pot; season with salt and pepper. Add spices of your choosing – a couple tablespoons each of cumin and groud coriander are ideal. Allow to toast for a minute. Drop in a hefty tablespoonful of tomato paste and cook until slightly caramelized, 1-2 minutes. Crack open a couple of Mexican lager cervezas, like Negra Modelo, Dos Equis, or even Tecate is fine and squeeze in the juice of an orange. This helps deglaze the pan of all those browned bits, so scrape the bottom with a spoon and bring to a boil. Gently lay in pork and its juices, and tightly cover with the pan’s lid or get crafty with heavy-duty foil. Slide into the oven and braise at least three hours and up to four.
When ready to eat, take pot out of oven and transfer pork to a cutting board. Give someone else two forks and tell them to get shredding (and to mind the fatty bits). Meanwhile, strain the juices into a bowl, discard solids, and return juices to the pot. Bring to a steady simmer over medium-low heat. You want to reduce the juices into a thicker glaze, about 15 minutes or as long as it takes to shred the pork.
Add shredded pork back into the pan and stir to reheat and soak up all the juices. Serve hot.
Cabin Carnitas are great for a help-yourself taco bar, and the fixings are easy to assemble. Spoon pork atop warm corn tortillas with local fresh salsa like pico de gallo (no jarred stuff, please), or diced onion with fresh cilantro, and slice up a ripe avocado and wedges of lime.
Porky Brekkie Hash
because pork shoulder and bacon are friends
Boil some baby potatoes or diced up yukons until fork tender. Meanwhile, cook as much thick cut bacon as a large skillet can fit until crisp. Remove and keep warm on a sheet tray in a low oven (say 200 degrees). Reserve all bacon fat – you’ll want to use it.
Add in a couple of spoonfuls of bacon fat back into pan. Chop half an onion and mince a garlic clove, add to the pan and cook until slightly tender over medium heat. Transfer in the drained, cooked potatoes and begin smashing with a wooden spoon or spatula. Turn up heat to medium-high and keep smashing and turning potato mixture as it begins to brown and crisp up. Stir in a handful of chopped fresh rosemary, parsley, thyme or whatever fresh herbs are on hand. Once potatoes are mostly there, push them over into a pile on one side to make room for the pork.
Add more bacon grease to empty side of pan and layer on leftover shredded pork; cook until slightly crispy on the edges and warmed through. I like to keep the pork separated from the potatoes so it’s not a pile of mush.
Right before you want to eat, heat up a non-stick pan and scramble some eggs. Carry bacon, eggs, and pan of potatoes + pork to the table to share.
Breakfast taco upgrade
Add a slice of Tillamook cheddar cheese to corn tortillas and bake until melted. Top with carnitas, scrambled egg, slice of bacon, and any accessories like salsa or avocado. A good cup of coffee a must.