About a year and a half ago, my wife was a bridesmaid for one of her best friends. The bachelorette party was in Chicago, and the beginning and end of the party were stationed at our apartment. Mind you, at the time, I was living in a one-bedroom spot with my wife and our young son. Reasonable questions for me to ask would have been the following: Where is the boy going to be? Where am I going to sleep? How are all these people going to fit? But my mind didn’t go in that direction.

True to form, my head was on the most important thing: the food! “What are you going to serve?” I asked. The reply…I don’t remember. What I remember is that the suggestion was unacceptable. Why I had any say, whatsoever, is unknown to me at this time. All I know is if you come to my house (even if it’s not my party), you’re going to have a solid spread. So, I thought about it, and came up with a great idea: tacos! What if I could recreate a great taco that rivaled Chipotle?

When I think about that moment, I contemplate why I went in this direction, and then I realize a few things. First, tacos are great. I went with a staple that most people like. When throwing a party, I like to keep my guests in mind and deliver fan favorites. Tacos qualify. Kids like ‘em, adults like ‘em, meat eaters like ‘em, vegetarians like ‘em, vegans like ‘em. I think it’s because the flavors are generally pleasant and they’re easily customizable. Can’t eat meat, don’t include it. Can’t eat dairy, don’t use cheese or sour cream. Don’t like cilantro (in my best Newman-from-”Seinfeld” voice: “vile weed!”), don’t put in on your taco. Second, people love Chipotle. The freshness, the aforementioned ability to customize, and the flavor (those sumptuous salty flavors) keep people coming back for more. Third, people love the ability to graze over the course of a long party. Imagine throwing a party that starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. (or later). People are going to need to eat. What stays nice and warm for 12 hours? Food in a Crock Pot. Like meat you’d use in tacos!

On that fateful day, I had a choice for what to make: chicken, steak, sofritas, carnitas, or barbacoa. I wanted to rival Chipotle and recreate the “that’s-freaking-good” feeling you get when biting into one of their burritos. Right now, you might be thinking, “Does this guy know Chipotle caters?” I do. But I was working within the bachelorette party budget, so catering wasn’t an option. Additionally, it’s kind of boss when you can make a dish that rivals something name-brand delicious. Anyway, I went bold: pulled chicken, with a Chipotle-style-carnitas prep. I found a great recipe here, and with some small modifications (no juniper berries, chicken instead of pork, dried thyme instead of sprigs), pulled it off. Major success!

Culinary Hill

Since that day, I’ve used chicken breast and pork loin with this Chipotle-style-carnitas prep. It’s perfect for parties, or a beginning-of-the-week dinner with ample leftovers for lunch. It’s cost-effective, easy, and crave-worthy, which means low-stress. Additionally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a few more thoughts. First, carnitas is traditionally pork simmered in oil. Because I find slow cooking so convenient (i.e. stress-free), I don’t cook the pork in oil. As a result, a purist might argue that I’m not making real-deal carnitas. While I’d submit the point, I still maintain that these “carnitas” rival the carnitas of Chipotle. Second, my personal pork preference varies from the recipe in that I would go with a center loin (less fat) or a shoulder (more fat). Finally, this recipe calls for broiling the pulled pork to create crispy edges, and the use of juniper berries in slow cooking in order to achieve that Chipotle-esque flavor. Because I like to keep things simple and low-stress, though, I don’t find the crispy edges or juniper berries (they’re tough to find) necessary to the carnitas preparation. And do you want to know something? I still think they rival Chipotle.

As I have written before, taste is personal. So, if you don’t care for thyme, use less. If you like pepper, throw some extra in there. If you want a hint of rosemary (I’ve done this), toss it in! If you can’t find juniper berries, forget ‘em! Cooking is a subjective experience, and part of the fun is in unearthing flavors you crave through experimentation. That’s what I did with the recipe shared above. I modified it using ingredient types and quantities that suited me. This is merely a template from which you can experiment. That being said, it’s a heck of a template that’s sure to win the approval of many.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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