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Carnitas Tacos with Mango-Avocado Salsa and A Blogger’s Confessions

January 20, 2012

I meant to say "carnitas tacos" but a second photo shoot was out of the question. The pork was all gone!

I do have a recipe to share with you today but before I get to it, I wanted an opportunity to unload a thought or two about my blogging experience these last (almost) two years.  Will I offer any useful information? Maybe…but this is a confessional.

I have always suspected that I have a mildly obsessive personality (disorder?) but I never could convince myself of this fact until I started blogging.  I have found each aspect of food blogging enjoyable–cooking, photography and writing–regardless of the amount time it demands at times to keep it going.  Selfishly, I consider it my me project, a form of expression that I have grown comfortable with considering a big part of me is shy and private by nature.  What I didn’t expect was to become so involved in the ancillary aspects of blogging.

I have mentioned a few times that blog props have become a recent obsession and I know I am not alone in this.  These days when I visit a shop I find myself spending more time in the housewares department than in any other.  In other departments, I am always on the lookout for interesting pieces that might tell a good story.  Do you spend time thinking about how you will style your next post?  I seem to be doing this more and more.  I am inspired by all the bloggers who do such a wonderful job post after post and I am motivated to do the same.  I am hooked.

Besides the props, I have been obsessed with colored backdrops for my food photos.  Though my favorite background is still the teak bench I’ve used in many of my posts, an outdoor photo shoot isn’t always practical.  Hence, in the last few months, Home Depot has captured my attention for tools I can use to make indoor shoots more interesting.  I have been playing with color, painting boards (above) to try to get a tone-on-tone look to my food shots that I haven’t quite been successful at capturing.  You might notice that I have not shared many posts using these colors but I’m determined to make them work.

You see, I have learned to use the manual setting of my camera only in the last six months.  Just as I became accustomed to taking pictures one way, these colors started to pose a bit more of a lighting/exposure challenge.  Is it bad that I will not share a recipe because I consider the photo shoot a fail?  I really should be focusing more on getting my lighting right during winter.  For example, in some of my food shots below, I forgot to turn off a nearby lamp and I didn’t notice that some of my images became over-exposed until during processing.  No amount of editing could fix them.  But I am sharing them today anyway.

I have also been experimenting with texture.  Until the last few months, I didn’t realize how easy it would be to purchase wood pieces at Home Depot.  They will cut the pieces to your specifications and sample-size paints are inexpensive enough that playing with different colors doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

The web is also a treasure trove of handy tips.  You can achieve that distressed look that is so popular by using Vaseline or candle wax when painting your wood pieces.

And did you know that laundry bleach could come in handy?  I have always liked the look of bleached wood but thought the process might be too involved.  Not so.  The redwood piece on the left has not been treated.  I brushed the one on the right with Clorox and after a day of sitting in the sun, it had faded to a nice pale shade.  The grains are still visible and while I had originally intended to paint over the bleached piece, I liked it so much that I decided to leave it as is (and used it for the photos below).

The metal department has proven to be a good source, too.  I really like the look of a gray palette in food pictures; a little darker, it conveys a nice wintry mood in pictures.  Again, I haven’t yet achieved the look I’m after–the sheet metal looked more like copper in this post–but they were still fun to use.  I will keep playing around.

I share all of this with you because 1) I would put my non-blogger friends to sleep talking of boards, props and paint and 2) because there are many talented food bloggers out there whose beautiful images entrance me with each post and motivate me to keep trying to do better.  I have a long way to go but gosh, this is fun!

If you’re a food blogger what obsessions have made their way into your life?

Now back to the food!


Regarding props, I do use a lot of items that I already have at home. The bag in this picture is an old souvenir from my husband's trip to Peru many years ago. It has faded over time but I thought it was perfect for this shoot.

This is a simple recipe for carnitas (“little meats”).  It is my meat of choice for tacos or enchiladas and it is very easy to prepare at home.  Typically, a piece of pork shoulder is braised or roasted but over the years, I have adapted to my sister’s way of preparing hers.  She doesn’t brown the meat first.  Instead, she simmers it in seasoned liquid then browns the meat after the former has evaporated.  The crunchy, caramelized bits of meat are my favorite pieces but this process leaves the insides of the pork moist and tender if that is what you prefer.

I have taken to adding spices to up the flavor of the meat while braising in the liquid.  Typical additions are cinnamon sticks, cumin, dried bay leaves, garlic and onions.  The cinnamon sticks impart not only a lovely flavor but also a wonderful aroma while the meat cooks.  I bought dehydrated onions once a few years ago for another recipe and in an attempt to use it up, I used it in my carnitas and liked it so much I have not looked back.  Once the liquid has evaporated, I turn up the heat, sprinkle a bit of paprika on the meat and fry it until the outside is brown and slightly crisp.  All you need are some tortillas (homemade really is best and very easy to prepare) and a simple salsa and you’re set for a fiesta in your kitchen.

Carnitas Tacos with Mango-Avocado Salsa

  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-3 inch pieces (trim excess fat)
  • 1/2 – 1 tbsp kosher salt (depending on amount of water you use)
  • 1 -2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 3 tbsp dehydrated onions (not onion powder)
  • 1 tbsp no-salt seasoning
  • 1 tbsp granulated garlic (dried garlic powder, not garlic salt)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
  • water
  • paprika (optional)
  • 1 mango, peeled and diced
  • 1 avocado, diced (you can add more)
  • fresh lime juice, one or two (I had none so I had to use lemon)
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • chopped cilantro
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Corn tortillas
  1. Place the meat in a pot and add just enough water to cover.  Bring to a simmer over med-high heat and skim any scum that rises to the surface.  When the liquid is clear, add the spices from the salt to the cumin (if using).  Simmer for an hour or so, or until the meat is tender.
  2. Most of the liquid should have evaporated by this time.  If not and your meat is already fork tender, just drain the liquid and return the meat to the pot.  Add a bit of oil, turn the heat to med-high, sprinkle a bit of paprika on the meat and fry until the outside is brown and slightly crisp.
  3. Shred the meat before serving with tortillas and salsa.
For the salsa:
  1. Combine all the ingredients from the mango to the salt and pepper in a bowl.  Adjust and season to your liking.  Serve with the tacos.

56 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2012 12:47 PM

    Jean, your photos are beautiful, and your food, delectable. Although I do not style my posts [I have great admiration for those who do], I do plate my meal however, even without a post to follow. I’ve always been “maarte” [there, I confessed].

    I think you should have a show ;-).

    • January 20, 2012 12:54 PM

      Annapet, you are much too nice! Everything is still such a work in progress for me but I’m having lots of fun. Now if I could only make one of your gorgeous macarons! 🙂

  2. January 20, 2012 12:51 PM

    Carnitas is just about my favorite thing to eat in all the world – yours looks wonderful – I like the addition of cinnamon. I am a food blogger too, but I don’t spend enough time stocking up on the photo props…. my obsession is thinking of new ‘angles’ and insight into the written part of my blog…. I walk around writing my blog all day long in my head waiting for inspiration to strike! And it always does!

    • January 20, 2012 7:37 PM

      Tracy, I know what you mean. My phone has come in handy for jotting down notes, ideas or even just phrases when they strike out of the blue. It’s fun, isn’t it? 🙂

  3. January 20, 2012 12:53 PM

    My turn to confess… The cashiers at my local Goodwill know me by name, because I drop in at least twice a week to look for new props. My stash of blog dishes now outnumbers my non-blogging dishes almost 2 to 1. Packrat? Me? Never!
    Good thing The Boy doesn’t read food blogs, because I’d be barred from the Home Depot for fear that I’d start stockpiling backgrounds next. 🙂
    PS – Those carnitas look fabulous. Must try this soon… now that the weather’s gone all cold and snowy on us, I’ve been desperately craving sunny Mexican flavours.

    • January 20, 2012 7:43 PM

      Isabelle, I have visited my local Goodwill, too! I haven’t gotten lucky yet but I will keep trying. 🙂 I love that you have so many blog dishes! I am still sadly lacking in that department but it’s not from lack of trying, LOL! 🙂

  4. January 20, 2012 1:05 PM

    I’ve definitely noticed how even more amazing your photos are. I wish I could do the same…I can’t even upload any photos on my computer at the moment anyway! I love the props, so gorgeous and elegant!

    This recipe looks fabulous. Definitely a must try 🙂

    • January 20, 2012 7:45 PM

      Sommer, thanks! I still have trouble with lighting but I’m determined to get it right one of these days! Hope you’re able to upload your photos soon. 🙂

  5. January 20, 2012 1:38 PM

    This looks SO great! Your pictures are fantastic and I am VERY glad you are a food blogger. Because I get to look at all your tasty stuff!

  6. January 20, 2012 2:00 PM

    Love the wood-distressing tips, and those tacos look to die for! Gorgeous photos – I’m ready for dinner :).

  7. January 20, 2012 2:04 PM

    Delicious tacos. I always order these when eating out at my favorite Mexican place. Thanks for the recipe.

  8. January 20, 2012 2:10 PM

    Never did a taco look so welcoming. If you can send your photo obsession to me, I would be appreciative. Your photos are so welcoming and specific – your hours in housewares are well spent!

  9. January 20, 2012 2:18 PM

    Oh Girl let me telll you.My boyfriend wont even let me go into home depot. Mr Handyman can do it himself…. and Im still waiting… >.> so now I’ve had to start sneaking trips in. How crazy ins that? Sneaking off to the home depot for props… Sad but true. I have never thought to check out the metals before. I will now!

    • January 20, 2012 7:50 PM

      Kita, I became hooked when I realized how easy (and cheap) it would be to shop for materials at Home Depot. I don’t blame you for sneaking some visits in! It’s addicting being there now.

  10. January 20, 2012 2:35 PM

    Wow, this looks beyond delicious.
    I love the advice about photography, it’s my biggest area of failure, haha. Your pictures are amazing 🙂

    • January 20, 2012 7:51 PM

      Kiri, the photography is still a HUGE challenge for me. It’s still hit and miss. Don’t give up. 🙂

  11. January 20, 2012 2:49 PM

    Carnitas is one of my favorite things, but I’ve never thought of making it at home – now you’ve inspired me!

    I think I’m just plain obssessed with my blog! LOL! I love finding others, as you mentioned, that are inspiring. There are SO many blogs out there that it’s always lovely to discover one that stands out. Even though I love to write, I really like posting large photos on my blog because I think that’s what really draws people in. If they aren’t intrigued by the photos, they aren’t going to take the time to read what we’ve written.

    I love it when I can use my Depression Glass and other antue pieces in my photo shoots. Thanks for the inspiration! And the great recipes!

    • January 22, 2012 9:15 AM

      I agree with you about the large pictures and also seeing some of your favorite pieces appear on the blog. It’s part of what makes it all fun!

      The carnitas is super easy to make–I urge you to try it!

  12. January 20, 2012 3:10 PM

    I think all of us are blog obsessed as well as food obsessed, photography obsessed and kitchenware obsessed all at the same time.

    I love the carnitas!

  13. January 20, 2012 3:11 PM

    Great photos I love the chalk board. That salsa sounds amazing!!

    • January 20, 2012 7:52 PM

      Hi Lindsey,
      My husband had leftover chalkboard paint from painting one side of our doors. I couldn’t resist using it. 🙂

  14. January 20, 2012 5:55 PM

    My dining room table is where I take my photos, last week I changed my set up to face in the opposite direction and it made me so happy because it just gave a slight change to the lighting, I guess I’m easy but now you’ve got me so intrigued with all your pieces of wood, lol! Those tacos look pretty good too, love the black board too! Keep up the good work, your enthusiasm is contagious;-)

    • January 20, 2012 7:56 PM

      Thanks, Patty! Isn’t it amazing what a small change in setup will do to your pictures? With my camera, I find myself getting stuck using the same settings and realize that a minor adjustment can make such a big difference. I wish this would occur to me more often but it doesn’t! 🙂

  15. Leonel morari permalink
    January 20, 2012 6:01 PM

    You can find in any corner of México city tacos de carnitas and theres a lot of parts of pork like trompa(nose) cuerito (skin) buche (stomach) costilla (ribs) lengua (thonge) etc salsa its the secret of each place

  16. Liren permalink
    January 20, 2012 6:36 PM

    Oh to be obsessed! I am with you! Yesterday I was driving around town and was at a stoplight behind a truck full of old wood. I was seriously tempted to flash my lights and beg for a few pieces! I really should just go to Home Depot like you.

    I am in awe of how you have gone manual with the camera…wow. So in awe!

    Ok, now let’s get this party started with the carnitas. They look perfect!

    • January 20, 2012 8:00 PM

      Oh, Liren, you made me laugh out loud! I am forever on the lookout for old wood that I can use but no luck just yet.

      I’ll have you know that you are one of those I alluded to with regard to great photography, especially all your images of late. You always inspire me to do better. 🙂

      The manual setting: I ignored it for so long. Not really sure that it has made a big impact in my work but at least the fear factor isn’t as big now. However, it really is a challenge working with these different colored backgrounds so the Auto mode still gets a lot of use! 🙂

      Have a great weekend!

  17. January 20, 2012 6:44 PM

    I am now, worse than ever, a garage sale prowler. I pick up little orphaned china dishes anywhere I can find them. I always think about the ladies who treasured them at one time. Every dish has its own imaginary story. The Carnitas look wonderful. And the wood colors are great. They look like art all by themselves. I like how you can see the wood grain still.

    • January 21, 2012 11:02 AM

      Kelly, it just means you are providing those orphaned pieces a new, loving home. How’s that for enabling? 🙂

  18. January 20, 2012 7:22 PM

    The tacos look wonderful and I love your photos of them!!

  19. January 21, 2012 6:53 AM

    OMG!!!!!!!!!!!! We have the same obsessions with backgrounds!!!! I’ve been a regular at Home Depot as well! Not only that, but my local fabric store is getting a boost in sale from me lately, hahaha! So, what’s this trick with Vaseline? Gotta Google that now…

  20. January 21, 2012 7:27 AM

    Great post and comments. Relatable and inspiring to do better. Very generous of you to share. I’m off to Home Depot. 🙂

    • January 21, 2012 9:11 AM

      Thanks, Joan. I’ve learned so much from seeing other bloggers do their thing that I thought I would share some behind the scenes stuff here, too. Glad it helped! 🙂

  21. January 21, 2012 10:25 AM

    I’m obsessed with vintage mismatched plates, glasses and silverware. All of my dishware comes from a store called Junk, here in Brooklyn (as I’m not a fan of mass produced house ware for various reasons I should not get into now). I also love going to thrift shops and flea markets. When I purchase something that’s been used, I think of the history behind it and am excited to make a treasure out of someone’s garbage. I suppose I can relate to your obsession. I’m always envisioning ways to make my photos look better. Unfortunately, I don’t have an SLR and use my Canon Vixia HF20 (video camera that I use for my cooking show) to take my food photos…but it seems to do the trick (for now). And being a newbie to food photojournalism, I have lots to learn on working the settings to my camera. But I suppose that’s the fun part of it!! Living in Brooklyn, New York City has its limitations, as I live in a small apartment and lighting can be a challenge–hence why all my food photos are taken near my kitchen window, hahaha!–but that’s where the charm comes in and I make it work for me. ;o)

    Thanks for sharing your behind the scenes stuff. I’m inspired by your blog and it’s important for you to know that you’re not alone with your obsessions. There’s obviously a sub-culture of people that truly appreciate these things. Good work!

    • January 22, 2012 9:22 AM

      If I had a place similar to Junk, I think I would be there all the time. I also gravitate towards unique pieces, those with a story attached to them already. Just haven’t been lucky finding many of those pieces yet. 😦

      As for the camera, I still have so much to learn. The learning curve is still steep for me but I really believe that a point and shoot can be just as good as an SLR. It is what I started with. And lighting? It’s a constant challenge in my home (and frustration, too) but I guess it’s what’s pushing me to learn more about my camera than I would have ever been interested in learning. 🙂

      Glad I’m not alone with these blog obsessions! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  22. January 21, 2012 12:18 PM

    We had been craving Mexican here in Beirut; thanks for the inspiration and the great tips on photo propping!

  23. January 21, 2012 1:50 PM

    Jean – love that you posted the samples of your wood projects. From what you described when I saw you, you have simply amazed me with your painting prose. I have a blog prop obsession – my basket is growing ever fuller. I need to make a trip to Home Depot for wood and paint. Hubby can do the cutting. 🙂 Just got off the treadmill and quite hungry – those carnitas look simply divine!!! Hope you and hubby are enjoying the weekend. BTW – I ordered the photo book you suggested. Have a wonderful weekend!!

    • January 22, 2012 9:24 AM

      Lisa, I love all the pieces you use for your photo shoots. I spotted the bowls you used for your truffle popcorn the other day and thought of you. 🙂

      Glad you ordered the book and I hope you find it helpful. I’m still reading mine and learning so much from it. 🙂

  24. Cristina permalink
    January 21, 2012 4:38 PM

    Ok, now I’m craving carnitas on this rainy day in SD. Hubbs and I love a good serving of carnitas…squeeze some lime on it with cilantro and beautiful slices of avocado – taste bud bliss! Nicely done, Jean. Your images are making my mouth water.

    I’m with you about prop obsession. Sometimes I think it’s become a sickness with me. I crave props! Home Depot and the like have tons of options. Another nice trick for achieving some weathered texture on wood is to spray water on it to really get it wet, then let it dry in the sun (do this on a warm day). The grains of the wood become slightly raised and sometimes pattern colored, giving it a nice texture when you’re doing tight, close-up shots. Also, wood staining and combining the colors make for gorgeous surfaces.

    See…it’s a sickness! 😉

    • January 22, 2012 9:26 AM

      Cristina, I love your tip about getting the grains to rise with water. I will have to experiment with that. 🙂 I love the look of stained wood pieces, too. Hmmm, so many things to try… 🙂

  25. January 21, 2012 8:14 PM

    Your photos are gorgeous. I keep wanting to get wood planks but I have no idea what to buy or if there are sizes. I need more props big time. I have lots of plates and glassware but am sadly lacking backdrops and fabrics and planks. I am also in need of a new camera. I am still using my easyshare, lol.
    Your carnitas are incredible. I would have gobbled them up so fast I would not have even had time to write on the board.

    • January 22, 2012 9:28 AM

      Kim, Home Depot has various sizes to choose from. I got planks of two different widths, both were 6 ft long and I had them cut to size. They will do this for you for free.

      I have also been eyeing the picket pence pieces. They are a bit shorter and thinner and I imagine they would work well, too. So many options!

  26. January 21, 2012 8:48 PM

    OCD much 😉 Thanks for sharing these tips, Jean – I’ve always shopped more for housewares than other stuff but haven’t started painting boards different colors, yet. Your photos and styling have always inspired me and I can’t believe you just started shooting in Manual! Carnitas are my absolute fave – must make them now.

    • January 22, 2012 9:32 AM

      Priscilla, I’m OCD very much, LOL! I should probably curb the wood painting a bit but I’m having fun experimenting. It’s funny, until the blog, I haven’t shopped much for kitchen items because I didn’t think I needed any more but I guess I justify the prop purchases now by saying that I have found myself using them even away from the blog. It’s just that everything is mismatched!

      The manual setting is still a huge challenge so Auto still gets A LOT of use! 🙂

  27. January 22, 2012 1:36 AM

    Great photos and the Carnitas look amazing! I’m hungry now!

  28. January 22, 2012 7:46 AM

    i love buying food props too. I have so many of them i wish I was a little better of food styling. Some of them have never made into the photos 😦
    Your photos are and have been stunning!

    • January 22, 2012 9:35 AM

      Roxana, I love your style of presenting your baked goods. They are showcased very well and use of color is wonderful–don’t sell yourself short. 🙂

      I am horrible at plating food so I need to work on that…a lot!

  29. January 22, 2012 1:13 PM

    The tacos look amazing. I always order carnitas at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I think your suggestions of a hardware store is fantastic. I never thought of making my own like that…I am not that crafty.

  30. January 22, 2012 9:39 PM

    Hi Sweet Jean, thanks for your kind thoughts. Your photos are always amazing and I need to think of these things more, they really do make a difference. I’ve never thought of getting props at the hardware store, but I will see that stuff in a new way. I’m still trying to break the manual habit and I haven’t had any good light in a while, but I think it’s the hope that we will get that stunning shot the next time, that keeps up coming back. Or maybe it’s just because we are ready to eat something yummy again and again. Hope you had a great weekend. Looking forward to seeing you again soon.

  31. January 24, 2012 1:40 PM

    Since becoming a food blogger, I too have developed quite the housewares obsession. My husband shakes his head, but I always remind him that it could be worse.

    I think my new obsession may becomes these carnitas tacos. They look insanely delicious.

  32. January 25, 2012 7:28 PM

    Wow, Jean! You have had a big project there. I love the wood textures here

  33. January 26, 2012 10:49 PM

    Thanks for the great tip on the colored boards. I especially love the colors you pick (I like your taste!!). My husband made the boards before but I’m searching different kinds (hoping that I can “busy” somewhere, but so far no luck…maybe I need to do it on my own or ask him again). Your carnitas look delicious. I realized I haven’t had Mexican food for a while. Definitely this weekend! I love your food photography Jean!

  34. January 29, 2012 5:45 PM

    This is great information. I have not played around much with backdrops, etc. yet but it’s on my “to do” list. A trip to Home Depot is definitely in order. I know what you mean about shopping in the Housewares dept. Cost Plus is great too. They have lots of really nice, inexpensive plates, bowls, etc.


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