Most of us have favorite dishes from childhood that make us feel good, which is why we reach for them when feeling low or stressed, or simply nostalgic.

Unfortunately, those dishes aren’t always good for us. That’s why comfort food has a reputation for being high-fat and/or high-carb. It’s also why we tend to think of them as treats, as opposed to something we consume on an everyday basis.

As someone who grew up in San Diego, when I think comfort food, I think Mexican. While there are a multitude of Mexican dishes that could be deemed good for you, my favorite — and now my family’s favorite — are carnitas, which don’t usually fit into that category.

Carnitas are made from pork butt or shoulder that’s been braised for hours in its own fat, along with orange juice, zest, milk and a few other flavorful ingredients. When the meat is at the fall-apart stage, the liquid is reduced and it’s allowed to continue to cook in the fat until it’s browned. The result is a combination of meltingly tender and slightly crispy pieces of meat that are stuffed into a tortilla, along with sweet onions, cilantro and salsa.

For me, there’s nothing better, except I feel like I can have it only once in a blue moon. My cravings for the dish come up far more frequently, though, so I set out to create an easy and somewhat healthier version. It turned out not to be nearly as difficult as I imagined.

I start out with a piece of pork butt and trim it of as much fat as possible. I toss that in a slow cooker with some orange juice, zest, a splash of milk and a few minced garlic cloves, and let it simmer all day until completely tender. Then I carefully remove the meat and pour all the juices into a large measuring cup. I let the juices sit there until the fat all rises to the top for easy skimming. Once the fat is gone, I reduce the juices to almost a syrup consistency and toss with the meat, which I’ve pulled apart into big chunks. I then brown the meat in a little bit of olive oil until the chunks are crispy on the outside, yet still moist in the middle.

I can’t tell the difference between this lightened version and traditional carnitas, which means I can have all the comfort with none of the guilt.


Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at ­ Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.