I love a well seasoned, slow cooked pork dish. In researching different Mexican recipes I kept reading about Cochinita Pibil. I had never heard of this one before and it seems to be a Yucatan staple. Now I’m familiar with some northern Mexican pork dishes such as “carnitas” and “al pastor” for sure, I make them all the time, but not this one and the name intrigued me. Plus the fact it can be traced back to the Mayans made it all the more fun for me.
In my readings I found that traditionally, Cochinita is served in tacos or tortas for breakfast. Cochinita means “baby pig”, while the Mayan word pibil means “buried.” Generally, cochinita pibil was buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom to roast it. It’s a Yucatan Sunday morning tradition after a night of fun. Several other articles took me to the Saveur website with detailed interviews on Diana Kennedy, The Expat: Diana Kennedy and The Interview: Diana Kennedy who is “the author of nine seminal books on Mexican cooking, a teacher and scholar held in the highest esteem by chefs around the world.” It was fascinating reading and it was fun to learn she was a frequent guest cook at the Perfect Pan, which was associated with Piret’s, a now defunct French Bistro I once cooked at in La Jolla, but originated in Mission Hills here in San Diego.
In her article for the Savannah Morning News, Betty Hallock wrote,““Pibil” refers to the way the pork is cooked – traditionally in a coal-filled pit. The Mayans used not pork (domesticated pigs were introduced by the Spanish) but wild game such as rabbit, boar, venison or armadillo.” I also read turkey was and is used quite a bit as well.
Apparently this Yucatan signature dish is marinated pork using the juice of Seville oranges. The Seville orange variety is sour and is usually used in the production of marmalade. The spices are ground achiote (annatto) seeds, garlic along with clove, allspice, black pepper and oregano, all wrapped up in banana leaves and slow-roasted for several hours. In my research I found that the spice mixture varies from cook to family cook.
I wanted to make this and went to my local Latin market to shop. I purchased annatto seed paste and when the clerk said he had no Seville oranges, the butcher told me to substitute regular oranges along with lime juice instead. I started shopping there recently and found they were as interested in assisting me as I was in their food and culture. I was unable to get any banana leaves though, but figured I could use my trusty Le Creuset for the job. Now I’m sure I’d be missing out on the authentic flavor brought about by the banana leaves, but I thought I’d experiment on the dish first and then dive deeper with locating the leaves for cooking next time. If not at this market I thought I may find banana leaves at an Asian market, which is where I will look next.
I made a few twists in the recipe for my own tastes like piling it on top of rice and beans and topped with some fresh Mexican crema, which is similar to sour cream but not as tart. The nice acidic bite of the pickled red onions with Mexican oregano and chopped cilantro on top was amazing.
Preheat oven to 325°.
- 4 lbs pork shoulder
- 1 cup fresh orange juice
- ½ cup fresh lime juice
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 3.5 ounces of red (rojo) achiote paste
- 2 tsp Mexican oregano
- Pickled red onions (recipe follows)
- Mexican Crema
- Chopped cilantro
- 3-4 limes
- Pickled Red Onions:
- ½ large red onion, sliced very thin
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground Mexican oregano
- pinch red pepper flakes
- Mix the orange and lime juices with the achiote paste and salt in a blender until combined thoroughly.
- Cut the pork into chunks of about 2 inches square. Don’t trim the fat, you will need it in the low and slow braising. Put the pork and Mexican oregano in a glass, stainless steel or plastic container and pour over the red achiote citrus marinade mixture. Mix well, cover and keep in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.
- While the meat is marinating you can slice the red onion very thin and in a bowl add it to the cider vinegar, water, sugar, Mexican oregano (crushed in your hands), salt and red pepper flakes. Let marinate for at least an hour or over night as well.
- As I mentioned above this traditionally was placed in banana leaves and slow roasted in a pit. If you can't find them you can either line a large casserole with a double layer of heavy-duty foil, or use a heavy cooking dish like Le Creuset that has a heavy lid to seal this as it slowly cooks down. Pour in the pork and the marinade and close the foil tightly or lid. Put the casserole in the oven and bake for at least 3 hours. The meat should be fork tender and falling apart.
- Drain off most of the fat and braising liquid and squeeze a lime or two over all the shredded meat.
- In a bowl add steamed rice, some cooked pinto beans, the cochinita pibli meat, a healthy garnish of the pickled red onions, a drizzle of fresh Mexican Creme and chopped cilantro.