This Yucatan style pulled pork has a completely unique and, quite frankly, addictive flavor. You will need to go to a Latin American market to find the achiote seeds which are crucial to this recipe, there is no substitute for them. At the same market look for sour oranges to use in the marinade but don’t worry if you can’t find them, the orange/lime substitution works just fine. The ingredients list for the spices will seem strange and excessive, trust me and do it exactly as written because it is DELICIOUS! This recipe is by Rick Bayless with a couple of adaptations made by me for the average home kitchen. One change I routinely make to this recipe is to cut the whole thing in half, because 12 pounds of pork is a lot to work with. When I make a half recipe there is plenty for a big dinner, a nice lunch of leftovers and then a good sized portion for the freezer. I have never made it on the grill, I use my oven instead but I always use the banana leaves as they give the finished dish a certain scent that I find delightful. Also, I often skip the pickled red onions and habanero salsa, instead I just use very thinly sliced fresh red onions and whatever salsa I have on hand. Don’t let the recipe intimidate you, it is worth every bit of effort you put into it!
Cochinita Pibil - Yucatan Style Pulled Pork
- 5 tablespoons(about 2 ounces) achiote seeds
- 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
- 1 1/2 tablespoons black pepper, preferably whole peppercorns
- 1 1/4 teaspoons cumin, preferably whole seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves, preferably whole
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon, preferably Mexican canela, that’s freshly ground or still in stick form (you’ll need about 6 inches of 1/2-inch diameter cinnamon stick)
- 14 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 cups fresh sour orange juice
- OR 1 cup fresh lime juice plus 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
- 2 bone-in pork shoulder (Boston butt) roasts (about 12 pounds), cut into 3-inch wide cross sections (unless you have a meat saw, you’ll need to get a butcher to do this for you) OR get boneless roasts and cut them into big 2 inch cubes yourself.
- A 1-pound package banana leaves, defrosted OR 2 - 3 fresh banana leaves from your backyard, washed in hot water to clean and also wilt them
Pickled red onions
- 3 large (about 1 1/2 pounds total) red onions, sliced 1/8 inch thick
- 2 cups fresh sour orange juice
- OR 1 1/3 cups fresh lime juice plus 2/3 cup fresh orange juice
Roasted Habanero Salsa
- 8 medium (about 3 ounces total) fresh habanero chiles
- 2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- The achiote marinade. Measure the achiote seeds and oregano into a spice grinder, adding the black pepper, cumin, cloves and cinnamon, and run the grinder until everything’s as powdery as you can get it (you may need to work in batches).
- In a blender, combine the ground mixture with 1 tablespoon salt, the garlic and sour orange juice (or lime juice plus orange juice). Blend until smooth—there should be very little grittiness when a little is rubbed between your fingers.
- If you’re working ahead, pour the mixture into a non-aluminum container, cover, refrigerate 6 hours or longer. Before using, blend the mixture again to give it an even smoother texture. (The long steeping and second blending isn’t absolutely essential, though without it the marinade may be a little gritty.)
- Marinating the meat. In a large bowl or large plastic food bag combine meat and marinade, turning the meat to coat it evenly. (Though achiote has tenacious coloring properties, I suggest you do this quickly with your hands.) For the greatest penetration of flavor, let the meat marinate refrigerated (covered if in a bowl) for several hours, or even overnight.
- Slow-grilling the pork. Heat a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. Using scissors, cut off the hard edge you’ll find on most banana leaves (where the leaf attached to the central rib). Cut 3 sections of banana leaf, each about 1 foot longer than the length of a large roasting pan. Line the bottom and sides of the roasting pan with the leaves, overlapping them generously and letting them hang over the edges of the pan. Lay the meat in the pan, drizzle with all the marinade. Fold in the banana leaf edges over the meat. Cut 3 more sections of banana leaf slightly longer than the pan. Lay them over the top of the meat, again generously overlapping; tuck them in around the sides.
- When the grill is ready, either turn the burner(s) in the center to medium-low or bank the coals of the grill for indirect cooking. For the charcoal grill, set the grill grate in place. Set the pan on the grill grate and close the grill cover. Grill until the meat is thoroughly tender (work a fork in near the bone—the meat should easily come free), usually about 4 hours. If your grill has a thermometer, aim to keep the temperature between 300 degrees and 350 degees. To maintain an even temperature with charcoal, add more charcoal regularly (usually a few pieces every half hour or so).
Simple pickled onions
- While the meat is cooking, prepare the onions. Scoop the onions into a non-aluminum bowl. Pour boiling water over them, wait 10 seconds, then pour the onions into a strainer. Return the drained onions to the bowl, pour on the sour orange juice (or the lime-orange combo) and stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cover and set aside until serving time.
- In an ungreased skillet over medium heat, roast the chiles and garlic, turning regularly, until they’re soft and darkened in spots, 5 to 10 minutes for the chiles, 15 minutes for the garlic. When cool, slip the skins off the garlic.
- In a blender or small food processor, add the garlic and roasted chiles plus the lime juice and enough water to give it a spoonable consistency, usually 2 to 4 tablespoons. Blend until smooth. Taste (gingerly) and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. This salsa will last several days.
- Remove the top banana leaves. Tip the pan to accumulate the juices in one end and spoon off the fat. Season with more salt if necessary.
- You may want to remove the bones and cut the large pieces of meat into manageable serving sizes, but I suggest you leave everything right in the roasting pan for serving. Set out your cochinita pibil with a large fork and spoon (for spooning up all those juices). Drain the red onions and set out in a serving bowl to top each portion, along with the salsa to cautiously dab on each portion.
- Working Ahead: If you’re the plan-ahead type, make the marinade on Day 1, reblend it and marinate the meat on Day 2 and then slow-roast the meat for serving on Day 3. The marinade will hold for a week or more in the refrigerator. Once the pork is marinated, cook it within 24 hours. The finished dish will keep for a couple of days, covered and refrigerated (meat and juice only—no banana leaves), though the texture of the meat won’t be quite as nice as fresh-from-the-oven. Warm refrigerated cooked meat slowly (a 300 degree oven) in the juice, covered. Pickled onions will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator, well covered.
- Variation: The pork can be baked in a 325 degree oven instead of on the grill; cover the meat rather loosely with foil before baking OR prepare your roasting pan with the banana leaves exactly as for grilling and then bake at 325 for about 4 hours or until the meat falls apart with a fork.
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