Carnitas tacos with avocado salsa and pickled red onions

Here in the U.S. when we say pickle we almost always mean a cucumber pickle. The idea of pickling other stuff might seem weird, but it’s a very popular way to preserve food throughout the world. Traditionally pickling was used to extend the life of the harvest, to enjoy summer vegetables in winter… But the side-effect of pickling is changing the flavor and texture of the pickled food, often for the better! At the very least you get something that is completely different than the fresh version.

Pickled red onions is a traditional Mexican accompaniment to dishes ranging from carnitas (roast fried pork), cochinita pibil (suckling pig slow-steamed in banana leaves underground), tacos, antojitos (snacks); and they are delicious on their own. Again, the idea of pickling anything that is not a cucumber might seem strange to us gringos, but it’s really a delicious preparation. You get a nice crunch of onion, the tang of vinegar, and the flavors of whatever you added to the pickling liquid.

The first time I ever heard of pickling onions was from Rick Bayless’ book “Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen” (a great read, full of awesome recipes). I made them, and was incredibly shocked- pickling the onions actually improved on fresh onions, and was the perfect addition for cutting through fatty or greasy foods. I’ve put these on tacos and tostadas, but they also work great on BBQ pork sandwiches, chili, even a bowl of straight up beans.

Rick calls for par-blanching the onions before they are pickled, but I don’t usually do that.  Some people also simmer the pickling liquid to “wake up” the spices. You could also toast the spices in a dry pan. The recipe is so easy and quick, adding a few short minutes to the process is too much for me. Here is my simplified, super fast recipe.

Red onion (you could use other onions, but these turn a beautiful shade of pink)
Vinegar (apple cider vinegar is traditional, but probably any vinegar would do the trick)
Something to keep the onions in (like an old pickle jar)
Mmm how do you improve on this? Pickle it!
Whole black peppercorns
Dried red chiles
Fresh green chiles
Mexican oregano
Whole cumin seed
Any combination of spices you like (allspice, cloves, paprika, mustard seed, etc)
1) Slice the onions – sometimes I do rings, sometimes strips, sometimes I just roughly dice them. They will taste the same either way.
2) Put the onions in your container (like a pickle jar). Don’t pack them too tight, they need to have some space to move and absorb the liquid.
3) Add a tablespoon or so of salt, and any other flavorings you desire. I usually stick with whole black peppercorns, whole cumin seeds, lightly crushed garlic cloves, and mexican oregano.
The “dry” ingredients
4) Fill up about 1/3 of the jar with vinegar, and fill the other 2/3 with water. If they turn out too sour, next time add less vinegar and more water. Too watery, next time more vinegar and less water. Not salty enough? Add more salt. I’m not big on exact recipes, because everybody likes things their own way. Experiment!
5) Stir/shake/invert so the pickle-y goodness gets in all the nooks and crannies
The onions and the pickling liquid, freshly shaken
6) Leave at room temperature for a couple hours, until the onions turn pink
8 hours later…. check out that awesome pink color!
7) Taste some, and adjust seasonings if necessary. Once they’re good’n’tasty, kept covered in the fridge, they’ll last a couple of weeks. Vinegar, cumin, pepper, chiles, mustard seed: these are all anti-microbial ingredients, which will keep the bad bacteria at bay. I’m no botulism expert, but I wouldn’t recommend keeping these pickles (in the fridge) for more than a week or two.

This pickling process works equally well for – believe it or not – cucumbers, and a whole range of other fruits and vegetables, like green tomatoes, jalapeños, etc. I’ve made cucumber dill pickles by using white vinegar instead of cider, omitting the cumin and oregano, upping the amount of garlic, and adding dill. I make pickled jalapeños using pretty much the same recipe as the onions. The sky is the limit! In general, when doing a quick-pickle like this, you want the freshest ingredients possible. Don’t use past-their-prime veggies, because they will just taste like past-their-prime pickles. Get the good stuff.

0 responses

  1. I’ve been doing some experimenting with pickling myself and am loving it! I love making my own pickles, beets and pickled peppers.

    This Carnitas tacos looks awesome!

  2. Thanks Cory! Yeah man, pickling is pretty awesome. I’ll have to post the carnitas recipe soon. Basically just slow cooked pork that is broiled for a while- soft and melty inside, crispy outside.

  3. I’m working on a few homemade salsa projects right now! I love salsa and have always wanted to experiment and make my own. They are getting better each time I try a new batch.

  4. Awesome! It’s a great way to get your fruits and veggies. My go to salsa is the arbol chile salsa I posted a couple weeks ago.

    Why use ketchup when salsa is an option!?

    Good luck on our salsas!

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