Citizens, we are now in the final throes of the week of the “Divine Swine” in honor of Chinese New Year – the year of the Earth Pig! As such, there is no more apropos recipe to include than this King of recipes from the Yucatán in Mexico, where a whole pig is – wait for it – cooked in an earthen pit! 🙂
I have previously posted a recipe for this, but one that was adapted to using only a pork shoulder and cooked in the oven – this is for its Big Daddy – the whole pig itself – as was originally made by the Mayans!
Cochinita pibil (also puerco pibil or cochinita con achiote) is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish. Preparation of traditional cochinita involves marinating the meat in strongly acidic citrus juice, seasoning it with annatto seed which imparts a vivid burnt orange color, and roasting the meat while it is wrapped in banana leaf.
Cochinita means baby pig, so true cochinita pibil involves roasting a whole suckling pig. The high acid content of the marinade and the slow cooking time tenderizes the meat, allowing otherwise tough pieces of meat to be used.
The Yucatecan recipes always employ the juice of Seville or bitter oranges for marinating. In areas where bitter oranges are not common, juice of sweet oranges combined with lemons, limes, or vinegar are employed to approximate the effect of the bitter orange on the meat.
Another important ingredient in all pibil recipes is achiote (annatto), which gives the dish its characteristic color and adds to flavor. It is usually eaten with side dishes such as: corn tortillas, red pickled onion, refried black beans and habanero chilies. Traditionally, cochinita pibil was buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom to roast it.
The origin of the word pibil is unclear as to whether it comes from the Mayan noun for roasting or the verb ‘to roast’ as these are the same word pib.
Cochinita pibil finds its origin in the fusion between the Mayan culture that lived in that region and the European customs and ingredients introduced by the Spaniards in 1521. Some condiments, such as the achiote, have a Pre-hispanic origin, while the tradition of eating pork meat was a European tradition.
When you visit the buffets of Yucatán, you’ll recognize cochinita pibil thanks to the dark orange broth that bathes the meat and the banana leaves that cover it together with some red onion slices.
The puerco pibil is a recurring element of the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico directed by Robert Rodriguez, where it is the favorite food of a CIA agent played by Johnny Depp, who orders this dish every time he enters a Mexican restaurant and urges every person he has lunch with to taste it. He will go as far as killing a cook because his puerco pibil is “too good”.
Rodriguez also includes a recipe for puerco pibil and demonstrates how to prepare it in the special features section of the DVD.
I am truly indebted to Chef Rick Bayless, whose TV cooking show set in the Yucatán first turned me on to this fantastic recipe. The cooking method and pit creation instructions are all his, but I use my own recado rojo (red seasoning paste) recipe, based on one I found at los-dos.com.
My changes to that recipe are noted, as always. The sides are mine as well. To make this recipe, you MUST use Mexican oregano, NOT Mediterranean! If it doesn’t say Mexican oregano, it’s not. I like fresh in this recipe – you can buy Mexican oregano plants here.
This recipe is a trip back to an ancient time, one where hard work was rewarded with a legendary meal truly fit for the Gods! As such, I wish you (and many friends, this recipe easily serves 30+) Godspeed and good eating! As always for the recipes in this week of whole pig, please read the master recipe on how to cook a whole hog here.
Battle on – The GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon Yucatecan Roast Pig – Cochinita Pibil
- Total Time: 0 hours
- For the pit:
- Tape measure, stakes and string for mapping out the pit area
- Shovel (and lots of energy)
- A steel or corrugated metal sheet to cover the pit
- 35 lbs whole pig, cleaned and prepared per the BBQ God post
- 20 ounces Recado Rojo (recipe below)
- 3 1–pound packages banana leaves, defrosted
- Pickled red onions, for serving (recipe below)
- Habanero salsa, for serving (recipe below)
- Achiote Paste – Recado Rojo:
- 2 cups achiote seeds
- 2 cups juice of naranja agria (Also known as Seville or sour orange. Substitute: 2 parts lime juice, 1 part each orange juice and grapefruit juice)
- 24 whole allspice berries
- 8 Tbsp whole, fresh Mexican oregano leaves or 4 Tbs. ground dried Mexican oregano
- 2 tsp cumin seed
- 2 tsp coriander seed
- 2 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
- 40 cloves garlic, 1/2 peeled and roasted over an open flame, the rest left as is (TFD change – original recipe was all roasted) (TFD Note: Asian supermarkets frequently sell already peeled garlic cloves in bulk – these will make your life much easier)
- 4 Tbsp Maggi Seasoning (TFD change – original recipe used coarse sea salt)
- 1 tsp freshly-grated nutmeg (TFD addition)
- 1/2 tsp freshly-ground cloves (TFD addition)
- 1 cup juice of naranja agria
- Pickled red onions:
- 2 medium to large red onions, sliced into thin rings
- 1 cup pineapple vinegar (if unavailable, use white vinegar)
- 1 generous teaspoon dry oregano (Mexican if possible)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- Roasted habanero salsa:
- 8 medium (about 3 ounces total) fresh habanero chiles
- 2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- Corn tortillas
- Prepare the pit:
- The day before, find a flat area in your backyard that’s not too near your neighbors with no low hanging tree branches.
- Measure and stake out an area that is about 8 inches larger all around than the pan you are planning to use, and about 8 inches deeper. For this recipe, the roasting pan I use is a heavy gauge aluminum roaster that measures about 21 x 17 1/2 x 7 inches; it’s made by Vollrath and can be purchased at most restaurant supply companies.
- If your pan matches mine, you’ll be measuring and staking out a rectangular pit that’s 37 x 33 inches. Dig the pit to an even depth of 16 inches, working to keep the sides straight and even all the way down. Keep the excavated dirt in a pile beside the pit.
- Next, line the bottom of the pit with bricks, fitting them tightly together, then line the sides up to the top, packing the bricks tightly against the earthen sides.
- Build the fire(s): To warm up the bricks and ground around them (and also to “season” a newly-dug pit), build a bonfire in the pit for 7 hours or so the day before you cook the cochinita pibil.
- Early on the day of cooking, build another huge fire in the pit and let it burn for about 5 hours, adding logs regularly to keep the temperature up at around 700 or 800 degrees. (If you put your hand near the edge of the fire, it should be so hot that you’ll have to withdraw it instantly.)
- About 2 hours before you’ll be putting in the pig, stop adding wood; let the fire burn down to ash-covered embers. Set the steel or corrugated metal sheet beside the pit.
- For the pickled onions:
- Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl with enough water to cover the onions, and marinate for 5 hours.
- Serve at room temperature with the Yucatan pork.
- For the salsa:
- 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 ½ teaspoon. This salsa will last several days.
- For the Achiote paste:
- In a spice mill or coffee grinder dedicated to the purpose, grind the achiote seeds in batches until fine. Transfer to a fine sieve held over a plate or bowl; tap and shake the sieve until all that remains at the bottom is coarse residue that looks like sand.
- Return the residue to the grinder and repeat the process one more time. Continue until all of the achiote has been ground. Discard any residue that will not pass through the sieve.
- Cover the ground achiote seeds with the 2 cups of sour orange juice, and stir to mix thoroughly. Allow to stand at room temperature as you continue with the remaining steps.
- In a cast iron skillet over high heat, quickly and lightly toast the allspice, whole oregano (if using ground oregano, add in the next step) coriander seeds and cumin until fragrant and just beginning to smoke. Immediately remove them from the skillet and allow to cool 2-3 minutes.
- Place peppercorns and the toasted spices in the spice grinder, and process until it becomes a fine powder. Strain powder through a sieve held over a plate as you did for the achiote seeds; repeat and discard any residue that remains.
- In a blender, process garlic, Maggi seasoning or salt and 1 cup juice until puréed. Add the achiote paste and the ground spices and all remaining ingredients – process until you achieve the consistency of a very smooth thick paste, about 3-4 minutes. You will probably need to do this in a few batches.
- Divide paste into eighths, wrap each portion well with plastic wrap or place in resealable plastic bags. Refrigerate until ready to use, up to 3 weeks. Recado Rojo may also be frozen indefinitely.
- Marinate the pig. Line your roasting pan with 2 packages of banana leaves leaving a 6-inch overhang on all the edges.
- Fit the pieces of pork into the bottom of the pan. Prepare the marinade by breaking the achiote bricks into pieces, dropping them into a blender jar, adding the lime juice and 1 tablespoon salt; blend until the mixture is a smooth thickish marinade.
- Pour the achiote mixture over the pork, spreading it evenly to coat all surfaces (I recommend you wear latex gloves, since achiote will strain your hands red).
- Cook the pig. Fold the overhanging banana leaves in over the pork, then use the last package of banana leaves to cover the pork completely.
- Pour about 3 quarts of water over the leaves – it will collect in the bottom of the pan and should be about 1 inch deep.Wearing heavy oven mitts, lower the pan into the very hot pit (this will take two people); the water should immediately begin boiling in the bottom of the pan.
- Cover the pit with the steel or corrugated metal sheet, and immediately begin piling the excavated dirt around the edges of the sheet to prevent any oxygen from entering the pit. (You have to do this carefully and completely, since any oxygen leaks will cause the fire to continue burning – which typically leads to a burnt pig. It’s the intense amount of residual heat in the brick-lined pit that cooks the pig.)
- Once the edges are sealed, spread all leftover dirt evenly over the pit-covering sheet.Typically, a 35-pound pig needs 4 to 6 hours to cook to fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
- Serve the pig. When you’ve decided to take the plunge and unearth the pig, clean the dirt off the steel or corrugated sheet, then, wearing heavy oven mitts, remove it. Lift out the roasting pan full of pig and stop for a moment to savor the aroma.
- When you peel back the banana leaves, and press in a thermometer, the fork-tender meat should be between 150 and 165 degrees if your pit was at the right (scorching-hot) temperature. I like to carry the pan to the kitchen, remove the meat, pull meat from bone, coarsely shredding it into baking pans, and then slide all the meat, covered with foil, into a low oven, until I’m ready to serve (it will hold for an hour or two).
- I set the huge roasting pan on the stove over high heat (on all burners) and boil the juices until they’re as rich as I like (usually I reduce them by ½ their original quantity). Taste and season with salt.
- Serve with meat on a big, deep, beautiful platter with plenty of steaming hot corn tortillas, cilantro, pickled red onions and habanero salsa.
- Prep Time: 0 hours
- Cook Time: 0 hours
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