Vacation Cooking: Elk Carnitas Tacos in the Colorado Rockies

On a recent vacation to Colorado, I decided to head to my imaginary cooking lab and try something new, cooking game meats, using one my favorite recipes, Carnitas. When I was out grocery shopping for my trip, I spotted a case of farm raised Elk meat and decided to go for it.

Elk is a much leaner alternative to beef and less ‘gamey’ in flavor than venison. It is also a great protein to experiment with if you are interested in “testing the waters” of cooking game. Game meats, like wild boar, venison, antelope, and buffalo/bison, especially, are having a bit of a renaissance as a healthy alternative to more commercially produced meats such as beef and pork. Game tends to be quite lean, while still maintaining a wonderful depth of flavor that can often be absent from the regular cuts of meat you find at your big-name grocery store. Between specialty grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and online purveyors, game is becoming much more accessible. So if you see some wild boar sausages or elk kebabs in the butcher’s case, pick some up and get cooking!

Elk Tacos

Ingredients:

  • 2lb Elk meat, trimmed of fat, if there is any, and cut into 1” cubes (if you
    IMG_3974
    This the elk meat I bought, straight out of the package and untrimmed. It looks like very dark beef, but there is literally zero fat.

    can’t get Elk, you can easily replace it with beef, bison, or other game like venison or wild boar. The results should be roughly the same).

  • 4 Tablespoons grape seed oil or light olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves crushed
  • 1/2 orange, cut in half to form two large wedges
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • Optional: 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Corn tortillas for serving

Tools:

  • Dutch Oven or large stew pot with a lid
  • Garlic Press
  • Wooden spoon

The Process:

1) Take your meat out of the refrigerator for 20 minutes before cooking to take the chill off of the meat and to ensure better browning.

2) Turn your burner to medium-high. If using a dutch oven, pre-heat your pot for 1-2 minutes or until you can no longer touch the bottom of the pot without IMMEDIATELY taking your fingers away (this is a very scientific method for testing temperature. Also, I have no fingerprints left).

IMG_3976
See! Look at all those crusty brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Those are magical nuggets of flavor!

3) Add 3 tablespoons of oil to the pot and let it heat up for about a minute (you want the oil hot, not smoking). In batches, add the meat in a single layer making sure not to over crowd it in the pot (if you overcrowd the meat, it won’t caramelize. It will just steam and turn grayish…yum). After each batch of meat has browned and formed a nice brown crust, set the meat aside in a bowl. Gently sop up any excess oil or fat, if there is any, making sure not to wipe off all the crusty brown bits that browning the meat has left on the bottom of your pan.

4) Turn your burner to medium. Add 1 tablespoon more of oil to the pan and let it heat up for about a minute. Add the chopped onion to the pan and sauté until translucent and slightly golden (about 3-4 minutes). While the onion is sautéing, use your wooden spoon to scrape off some of the brown crusty bits left off the bottom of the pan.

5) Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds stirring constantly to prevent the garlic from burning.

6) Add the beef broth to pan, scraping the bottom of the pan until all of the crusty brown bits have been scraped clean off the bottom of your pan and have now incorporated into your broth and veggies. This is called deglazing your pan. Fancy!

7) Add the meat back into the pot along with the sugar, the salt, and the red pepper flakes. Turn the burner up to medium-high bringing the liquid to a boil. Turn down the burner to low to let the meat simmer. Add the orange wedges making sure they are nicely settled into the meat and cover the pot with a lid. Let the meat and onions cook covered for about an hour and half on low heat or until the meat is tender.

IMG_3981
The liquid should reduce into thick gravy coating the meat.

8) Take the lid off the pot. Take the orange wedges out and throw them away. Let the taco mixture continue to cook over medium low-heat or until much of the liquid has reduced and thickened.

9) When the meat is done and the liquid has been reduced, taste the taco meat and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. Turn off the heat and add the cilantro. Serve on corn tortillas with sliced avocado, a sprinkling of cilantro, and a spritz of lime.

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Note: I cooked this dish on vacation in Colorado at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. Altitude decreases the boiling temperature, which means braising, poaching, or boiling anything becomes very tricky. I’ve written this recipe the way I make it back home in Houston, which has an elevation of none. If you are making this at altitude, here are some adjustments that will need to be made.

  • You will need to increase the cooking time from 1 ½ hours to 3 hours.
  • You will need to add more liquid to your tacos. I had to add about a cup to a cup and half of water about half way through the cook time.

*I received neither meat or any other type of payment for this post; though I did get to eat some tacos and that was pretty awesome.

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