Few realize that Cochinita Pibil is actually a Mayan dish. It’s quite common now all over Mexico, especially in the Yucatan where it originated, and I see it often at Mexican restaurants and Taquerias in New York and around the States. Traditionally, cochinita refers to a slow roasted baby pig, though pork shoulder (which is actually pork butt) is more common now. The signature spice in the seasoning is achiote, the orangish-red seeds that give off a deep, earthy flavor and are used habitually in Mayan cooking. Cochinita Pibil is the dish that Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters with (and his recipe from Mexico One Plate At A Time was very influential in this one).
Like most slow roasted meats, cochinita is rather simple to make. It’s probably more difficult to find the ingredients than actually prepare them, though with the surge of Hispanic grocers and grocery chains carrying Latin ingredients, it has become much easier. In Astoria, Queens, New York I went to Bravo International Supermarket and every ingredient in the recipe was there. I like the dish when having a backyard BBQ. It’s great on tacos with just the pickled onions and some habernero chile sauce, of which I prefer the El Yucateco brand that you can find in most grocery stores.
RECIPE: COCHINITA PIBIL
-6 tbs (about 2 ounces) achiote seeds
-2 tbs dried oregano
-2 tbs fresh ground black pepper
-1 1/2 tbs freshly ground ginger
-1 1/2 tsp cumin, preferably whole seeds
-1 tsp cloves, preferably whole
-2 tbs cinnamon, freshly ground from cinnamon sticks (you’ll need about 6 inches of 1/2-inch diameter cinnamon stick)
-1 1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
-12 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
-1 cup fresh lime juice plus 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
-1 5-6 pound bone-in pork shoulder (pork butt) roast, cut into 3-inch wide sections
-1 pound package banana leaves, defrosted
1.) Measure the achiote seeds and oregano into a spice grinder (a clean coffee grinder works fine), 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).
2.) In a blender, combine the ground mixture with 1 tbs salt, the garlic and lime/orange juice mixture. Blend until smooth. The mixture will almost be paste like, with just a little bit of grit. The smoother the better.
3.) In a large bowl or large plastic food bag combine meat and marinade, making sure that the meat is coated evenly with the marinade. Let it sit overnight. Tip: Achiote will stain your hands, so wear gloves.
4.) Heat a gas grill to medium-high, an oven to 325, or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. If your grill has a thermometer, aim to keep the temperature between 300 degrees and 350 degrees.
5.) Using scissors, cut off the stem of the banana leaves, if it hasn’t been done so already. Cut the leaves into about 2 foot long pieces and line the bottom and sides of the roasting pan, overlapping them generously and letting them hang over the edges of the pan. Lay the meat in the pan and slather on all of the marinade drizzle. Fold in the banana leaf edges over the meat. Cut 3 more sections of banana leaf slightly longer than the pan and lay them over the meat so it is completely covered. Tip: For extra moist meat, cover the top of the pan with aluminum foil for the first 2 hours of cooking.
6.) When the grill is ready, turn the center burner to medium-low and close the cover. For a 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 3.5-4 hours. To maintain an even temperature with charcoal, add more charcoal regularly.
7.) 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. Cut the largest pieces of meat into more manageable chunks. You can even remove the bones.
8.) To serve, top with pickled red onions and douse, gently, with Habanero chile sauce. The meat can also put right on a corn tortilla and eaten as a taco (my preference).
Serves 6 to 8
PICKLED RED ONIONS
-3 large (about 1 1/2 pounds total) red onions, sliced 1/8 inch thick
-1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice plus 2/3 cup fresh orange juice
1.) Scoop the onions into a non-aluminum bowl.
2.) Pour boiling water over them, wait 10 seconds, then pour the onions into a strainer.
3.) 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.
4.) Cover and set aside until serving.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.