A little taste of Pilsen in a slow cooker: Puerco en Salsa Verde

Big chunks of pork shoulder are braised in a slow cooker in a tangy, slightly spicy tomatillo-based salsa verde until fork tender.

Blue Kitchen
Slow-cooker pork shoulder braised in a tangy, slightly spicy tomatillo-based salsa verde.

Every day, we get delicious reminders of the cultural richness immigrants bring to America. Our new old house is in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican working class Chicago neighborhood. Walking to our el station in the morning on the way to work, we pass two or three street corner vendors selling homemade tamales and steaming bowls of pozole. Standing on the el platform, we are greeted by the fragrance of fresh tortillas being made in one of many neighborhood tortillerias.

The neighborhood also offers a wealth of Mexican restaurant choices – some of them new, like the gourmet taco place we wrote about last fall, and some that seem to have been around forever. One of our favorites, El Milagro (the miracle), has been here in one form or another since 1950. It’s very much a working class place, a steam table cafeteria with generous servings of food heaped on disposable plates. Marion’s go-to dish there is Lengua de Res, beef tongue in a special tomato sauce. For me, it’s Puerco en Salsa Verde, big, fork-tender chunks of pork shoulder in a slightly spicy green tomatillo chile sauce. So when I came across a recipe for chicken chile verde, synapses fired and I started figuring out the recipe you find here this week.

This recipe isn’t the same as El Milagro’s, but as we like to say, it’s different. It does share some of the same DNA, though. The tomatillo-based salsa verde has a lively tanginess to it and packs a little heat. The chunks of pork, while not absolutely falling apart like the restaurant’s version, are still fork tender. And when you’re eating it, you’re really happy that you are.

One more little taste of Pilsen. This neighborhood of immigrants is visually rich too, with murals, brightly colored storefronts and a surprising number of devotional doorways.

Puerco en Salsa Verde
Serves 4

6 tomatillos, about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds
2 jalapeño peppers (see Kitchen Notes)
1 Serrano pepper (or substitute another jalapeño pepper)
2 cloves garlic, one roughly chopped, one minced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 cups water
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
flour for dredging (optional—see Kitchen Notes)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional—see Kitchen Notes)
1 teaspoon sugar

cooked white rice

1. Make the salsa verde. Husk the tomatillos and put them in a saucepan along with the peppers, the chopped clove of garlic, half of the chopped onion and the three cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a lively simmer. Cook uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain vegetables, reserving cooking liquid.

2. When vegetables have cooled slightly, stem the peppers and seed them based on your heat preferences. I included all the seeds from one of the jalapeño peppers and half the seeds from the Serrano; the result was an admirable kick. Transfer everything to a food processor. Add the rest of the chopped onion, 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro and 1/4 to 1/2 cup reserved cooking liquid (start conservative – you can add more as needed). Process until smooth. Set aside.

3. Cook the pork. Season pork with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour (if you’re using flour), shaking off excess. I usually put some flour in a plastic bag, add the meat, twist the bag closed and shake it. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet or sauté pan over medium-high flame. Working in batches, brown meat a bit on all sides, about 8 minutes per batch.

4. Reduce heat, return all meat to the pan and clear a space in the middle. Drizzle in a little more oil, if needed, and add minced garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Sprinkle oregano over meat and stir to combine everything.

5. Pour salsa verde into pan. Sprinkle cumin, cinnamon (if using) and sugar over everything and stir to combine. Cook for about 5 minutes.

6. Transfer meat/salsa mixture to slow cooker, cover and cook on high setting for about 30 minutes. Reduce to low setting and cook for 2-1/2 hours. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup chopped cilantro and cook for an additional 1/2 hour. If during the cooking process, the sauce seems a little too thick, add a little more of the reserved tomatillo cooking liquid—I didn’t need to do this. Pork should be fork tender. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt, as needed.

7. Spoon over cooked rice. Top with additional chopped cilantro and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Peppers, heat and flavor. This recipe calls for two jalapeño peppers and one Serrano, but also says you can just use three jalapeños. Serranos are hotter, but also smaller. If you seed or partially seed your peppers, you can control the heat. Some recipes call for four Serranos – even if you seed, say, three of them, you’ll get plenty of heat. What including jalapeños does is increase the amount of actual pepper flesh – and therefore flavor – in the salsa.

Flour or no? As a rule, I like a little flour when I’m browning meats for a braise. It gives the skillet something to give a good brown to, and the residual flour in the pan helps thicken the sauce. I used it when I cooked this recipe, but I almost wonder if the slight crust it created on the meat chunks kept them from being as fall-apart tender as I was hoping with the long cooking time. Next time, I may give it a skip.

Cinnamon or no? Some recipes call for it, more don’t. When I first added it to the pan of pork and salsa, the fragrance really blossomed, and I was afraid it would take over. But it calmed down during the slow cook and simply added a nice complexity. If you’re not sure, try 1/4 teaspoon instead of 1/2 – or skip it altogether.

Related post on Blue Kitchen: Mexican Fruit Salad with Chili Powder

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