Yucatecan Slow-cooked Pork
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I didn’t exactly grow up in a world populated by fine and authentic Mexican dining establishments. Like many Canadians, I was vaguely aware of Mexican food and the fact that fast food joints with ‘taco’ in the name were not really meant to be indicative of the overall cuisine, but overall my exposure remained pretty minimal. Thankfully, there’s been a gradual but massive shift in Mexican food culture outside of Mexico, and two very big truths are starting to hit the mainstream: 1) Mexican food deserves a better ambassador than the sad, floppy fast food tortillas filled with questionable beef and pre-shredded lettuce 2) Mexico is a huge and diverse country with an astonishing variety of foods. I’m always happy when culinary and cultural diversity manages to break through in a big way, but this can be rather disjointed or cyclical. Sushi is a great example – trendy and now incredibly widespread, but only representative of a tiny aspect of Japanese food culture. A lot of good (not to mention delicious food) comes from keeping the momentum going and exploring further. Yes, tacos al pastor have risen to prominence. They stand triumphant above the crushed fragments of the hard-shell beef taco – the king is dead; long live the king. But these things tend to go in spurts, with certain dishes and regions breaking through in a big way while others remain comparatively under-represented. So while many of us are now happy to fork out extra cash for guac (ok, ‘happy’ might not be the right word), we’re still missing out on some really, REALLY good food.
Let’s talk about the Yucatan peninsula.
The Yucatan (specifically the Riviera Maya region) is a major holiday destination, drawing up to 4.5 million tourists per year from around the world to its sandy beaches and azure waters. Despite this, the cuisine of the region is rather under-represented in the growing Mexican food scene, and many of the local specialties remain poorly known. You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re talking about small regional differences here, but the truth is that the Yucatan peninsula stands apart in some pretty major ways. The influence of Mayan culture an cuisine remain strong, and local ingredients like habanero peppers, annatto, and Seville orange have a huge impact on the food. The trouble is that if you want to experience these differences, you generally have to go looking for them. I’ve visited the region three times now, and while I’d love to tell you that I recognized how special the food was on my first visit, the truth is that most resorts cater to rather inoffensive and American tastes. Sure, there’s plenty of Mexican food (and European and American food), but it tends to be the sort of pan-Mexican fare that’s already quite popular in the USA. The reasoning is fairly straightforward I suppose – all-inclusive hotels are meant to be easy, and they need to appeal to a broad range of diners in order to keep things simple and enjoyable. While there are plenty of travelers looking for adventure, they’re probably thinking zip-lines and parasailing rather than chowing down on recado negro made from charred-black hot peppers and spices. Thankfully more and more restaurants and boutique hotels in the region are trying to champion the local cuisine, but the all-inclusive mega-resorts will probably continue to aim for safe and relatively familiar culinary territory. When I visited an all-inclusive in the region (long before I even entertained the idea of writing about food), the food fit this characterization perfectly; apparently diverse, yet inoffensive and largely forgettable. Fortunately, I was saved by a chicken. A chicken, and some tortillas.
The Yucatan, Ziplines, & a Chicken
There is literally only a single meal that I remember from that vacation over a decade ago, but it had a strangely profound impact on my feelings about Mexican food – and food in general. Not wanting to spend every waking moment on the beach, we’d embarked on an excursion to a local village, ostensibly to explore Mayan culture and to adventure through the jungle. The adventure element was pretty typical stuff – zip-lines, short treks, and more zip-lines. To be fair, I don’t really ‘get’ zip-lines – it’s probably my nature-geek mindset, but I’m a lot happier walking through a forest verrrrrry slowly, rather than whipping through it on a wire in 8 seconds. But the food was truly surprising. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t really expecting much – anyone who’s ever taken a packaged ‘excursion’ can tell you that the food is at best a gamble, and is frequently just a sandwich and a bottle of water. But while we trekked and zipped, a few of the women in the village whipped up something far more substantial and delicious. I can’t tell you much about what it was – a simple spiced chicken recipe served with vegetables and fresh tortillas. But it was great. Not just great, but personally revelatory. The freshly butchered chicken itself had been chosen from the population of lean, wiry pullets that roamed the village, and it had incredible depth of flavour that I had frankly never really stopped to consider. It tasted… well, like chicken. I don’t mean that in the generic ‘everything tastes like chicken’ sort of way; the meat had depth and an intensity that practically screamed ‘this is what chicken should taste like.’ I had never experienced anything like it. And the tortillas… oh, those tortillas. If you’ve never had a freshly made corn tortilla right out of a the pan (or comal), it’s an experience I would strongly encourage you to seek out. It’s akin to tasting fresh bread, hand-made and hot from the oven – you bite into it and suddenly realize what you’ve been missing. Over the years, many different meals have left a lasting impression on me for various reasons, but that one might have had the biggest impact on my concept of local food. The people preparing it had an intimate familiarity with and connection to the ingredients and recipes, and it showed in every way. That chicken lunch had a profound role in shaping my current appreciation for ingredients. There is a great deal of value to understanding, embracing, and championing the many different components that go into making a meal – any meal – special. If we lack this appreciation, we are frequently forced to resort to shortcuts, substitutions, and simplifications, and our food suffers as a result.
This is NOT meant to be representative of the entirety of Yucatecan cooking – in fact, I’ve really only scratched the surface here. Puerco/Cochinita Pibil is a slow-cooked pork dish redolent with spices and marinated in bitter/sour citrus, and it’s probably the most famous of Yucatecan dishes. It’s an incredible gateway to the region’s cuisine, not to mention a wonderful the role that Seville oranges play in the region (they’re good for so much more than just marmalade). In addition to the pork, the pickled onions AND the dried chili salsa you see in the photos are made with Seville orange juice (or the fantastically simple orange/lime/grapefruit substitute outlined below). Both of those wonderfully simple recipes will be coming to the site very soon. They onions alone are so good that I could eat them straight out of the jar, and the salsa is fiery and phenomenally versatile. I hope that you’ll be as fascinated by this recipe and these ingredients as I have been, and that you’ll be tempted to explore it (and regional Mexican cooking in general) further.
This recipe uses banana leaves, annatto, and Seville oranges – three ingredients that many readers are likely inexperienced with. I realize that these may be hard to find, and that sometimes substitutions are inevitable, but they are here because they are worth knowing and using (see the Specialty Ingredients heading below for details). They’re not here because they’re weird, or because I’m trying to achieve some kind of ‘authentic credibility,’ but rather because they create different, unique, and wonderful flavours that are truly worth exploring. These flavours connect to people and places, and by exploring them even a little we grow and deepen our connections to our fellow humans. While I try my best to do the recipe justice, my puerco pibil will never be the exactly the same as one made in the Yucatan (for starters, the ‘pibil’ aspcect means that it should be cooked in an underground oven). But it connects me to a place, a time in my life, friends and strangers, and to cultures beyond my own. There is an unpleasant cultural tendency to view ‘ethnic’ foods as badges to be collected, or boxes to be checked off. But food is and always will be inextricably linked to people, land, and culture. If you concern yourself with collecting experiences, you deprive yourself of participating in them. Food is a door to people, places, conversations, and understandings. Every time you choose to explore the world of food, you choose to open another door. What you do from there is up to you.
No Pib? No Problem.
The Yucatecan pib is a simple and highly effective oven made by digging a hole in the ground and filling it with hot rocks. Food is wrapped in banana leaves and placed over the rocks, then the whole thing is covered (buried), allowing the contents to slowly cook. This type of highly mobile cooking meant that meat could be cooked wherever it was obtained before being transported back to a community, reducing the risk of spoilage inherent to the hot, humid Yucatan. Now I love culinary experiments, but I wasn’t exactly in a position to dig a hole in my backyard in order to make this. Fortunately, there are all kinds of ways to cook this kind of pork dish, meaning that you can do a bang-up job of this at home. I’m going to go over a few of these, including some links to related recipes that use the relevant techniques. I’ve tried two methods – slow cooker, and pressure cooker (Instant Pot), and both work, but I LOVE the pressure cooker method. I’ll also explain my little non-traditional technique for adding some smoky flavour to the dish when you don’t have an actual smoker.
Pressure Cooker – This recipe is part of a series I’ve been working on that focuses on Mexican food made with small pre-prepared recipes and/or my Instant Pot pressure cooker. I’m head over heels in love with the Instant Pot, in large part because it’s versatile and ridiculously easy to use. Put aside any fears you have about manual pressure cookers or questionable safety, because it’s pretty tough to go wrong with this thing. Puerco pibil in the Instant Pot is every bit as straight-forward as doing it in a slow-cooker, only it’s faster. I personally think it turns out a bit moister too, so there’s that.
The instructions below detail how to put everything into an Instant Pot, but I will point out here that yes, you totally can use banana leaves in the pressure cooker. It works great, seals in more juice and flavour, and won’t scorch or burn. Simple make sure you’ve got a bit of water in the pressure cooker, as indicated in the instructions.
If you’re using a different brand of electric pressure cooker, you should be able to follow roughly the same steps (refer to the manual if you have questions). I haven’t personally made this in a manual pressure cooker, but if you are comfortable using one, I would imagine that you should be able to make this recipe work there too. If you do go that route and you have any tips or tricks, let me know!
Shout-out to Dad Cooks Dinner who’s puerco pibil recipe was quite helpful to me when I was trying to figure out the logistics of using a pressure cooker with banana leaves.
Slow Cooker – An earlier attempt at this recipe went into the slow cooker and worked quite well, though I do think that the pressure cooker method is preferable. You can line a slow cooker with banana leaves quite easily, and I strongly recommend that you do, as the long, slow cooking period really emphasizes their role in shaping the meal’s final flavour.
Smoker – An amazing option, and certainly the best choice if you’re trying to impart the natural smoky element that you’d typically encounter when eating this dish in the Yucatan. Refer to this Serious Eats article for more on that option.
Grill – Even if you don’t own a smoker, there’s a good chance you have an outdoor grill. Smoker boxes can be set up for use in outdoor gas or charcoal grills, and when used correctly, they can do a pretty decent job of approximating a smoker. This isn’t the space to get into the ins and outs of this smoker boxes, but if you’re interested in trying it out, this recipe isn’t a bad place to start. Do remember that the goal is to go with low, slow heat. A ridiculously hot barbecue isn’t going to do what you want here, and it’s definitely not going to work as a smoker.
Oven – I haven’t tried it myself, but my instinct is that it wouldn’t be too difficult to adapt this recipe to a lower-heat oven (around 250°F/120°C) without much trouble. Wrap the pork in banana leaves as you would for any other cooking method and place the whole thing in a large dutch oven or other dish with a lid. I would check for doneness with a temperature probe, but anticipate at least 5 hours in the oven. If you’ve got time to spare, shoot for an even lower temperature (around 200°F/95°C) for a longer time to yield and a more tender, juicy piece of pork.
There are two components to traditionally prepared puerco pibil that are often left out in modern preparations: banana leaves, and smoke. Both contribute to the character of the final dish and are (in my opinion) worth incorporating regardless of the method. I’ll talk a bit more about banana leaves in the ingredient notes below, but they’re actually not that tough to find or use. Smoke is a bit tougher, however. Obviously if you have a smoker you can go that route, problem solved. You could also buy liquid smoke, but it’s a pretty niche ingredient, and one that’s easy to misuse. I wanted to get some smoky flavour into this recipe without too much hassle, so I looked to a Mexican ingredient that’s not commonly used in the Yucatan: chipotle peppers. Chipotles are smoked, ripe jalapeños, and the leathery brown ones (chipotle meco peppers) are especially smoky. You can buy them whole and grind a few, or even buy fresh pre-ground chipotle powder to use in this recipe. It adds a bit of pungent smoky chili flavour that, while not the same as using a smoker, goes a long way toward rounding out the flavours. Don’t go crazy if you can’t find chipotles though – the recipe’s still wonderful without them – I just love that little bit of smoky flavour. If you’re using a smoker you can leave out the chipotle entirely.
There are a trio of ingredients that are a little beyond the purview of the average Canadian (or American) grocery store in this recipe. Fortunately, they’re probably easier to find or substitute than you might think.
Let’s start with the trickiest one first. Seville oranges (aka bitter or sour oranges) are something I love using whenever I get the chance, but I still struggle to find them even when they are in season. For the record, that season is winter – specifically somewhere in the November-February range in North America. If you do happen to find (or order) a lot of Seville oranges, they freeze surprisingly well. It sounds odd, but it works.
For everything you could ever want to know about Seville oranges, I encourage you to check out this ingredient page here on Diversivore. For a quick overview, you can find them at specialty and Latin American grocery stores. They usually make a brief (albeit pricey) appearance at Whole Foods around here. If you can’t find Seville oranges, fret not – you can make a fantastic substitute for the juice by using 1/4 cup each of orange, lime, and grapefruit juice (a ratio promoted by David Sterling in his book Yucatán). DO NOT substitute straight sweet orange juice. It’s far too sugary and lacks the bitter/herbal characteristics that make Seville orange so special.
Annatto is a funny ingredient. The small, bright red seed of a tree, it gets used all the time as a yellow/orange colouring agent in foods – and indeed, it does contribute to the distinctive colour of puerco pibil. Despite this, it can be rather hard to find on its own. Whole and ground annatto can often be found at Mexican grocery stores, but take a bit of precaution with labels. Annatto in Spanish is achiote entero (whole achiote/annatto) or achiote molido (ground achiote/annatto). These are easily confused with achiote paste, which is called recado rojo in Spanish. Achiote paste is NOT the same thing as ground annatto. Rather, it’s a spice paste that includes lots of annatto along with a bunch of other ingredients. In fact, for this recipe you’re basically making your own achiote paste when you blend the spices (minus the cinnamon).
Annatto is a bit of a non-negotiable ingredient in this dish (and in a lot Yucatecan cooking for that matter). Omitting changes the colour and flavour of the recipe quite a bit. If you can’t find annatto at a store, look for it from a good online spice store.
One last note: whole annatto seeds are rather hard, so if you don’t have a spice grinder or a hefty mortar and pestle, I recommend buying pre-ground stuff.
This ones actually a lot easier to find than you might think, in large part because banana leaves are an incredibly popular cooking ‘wrapper’ around much of the tropical and sub-tropical world. You can try any number of grocery stores catering to a tropical diaspora, but I’ve found the most luck any place that sells Filipino groceries. Large, folded banana leaf sheets are usually found in flat packages in the freezer section. Defrost them enough to cut off the sections you need for the recipe and freeze the rest. They’ll keep in the freezer for at least 6 months.
If you can’t get banana leaves, you can substitute aluminum foil or parchment paper. Banana leaves contribute a subtle, slightly grassy/earthy note to the dish, but the flavours in the marinade are bold and bright enough to stand alone even without this.
A Note on Serving
The pork can be served any way that you like, really. The way I served it does feature a fantastic little condiments (recipes to come soon!), but don’t feel that they’re absolute must-haves. Puerco pibil makes for wonderful tacos, and you could easily add in any salsa or other side that you’re fond of. If you are interested in making even one side/condiment to serve with this, I would strongly recommend that quick-pickled onions. For an even faster, simpler fix, just toss thinly sliced red onions with some vinegar (apple cider vinegar, while non-traditional, is very nice) and a bit of salt and sugar. Leave it in the fridge for a while, and serve.
If you don’t want to do tacos, puerco pibil is lovely with rice, beans, and other Central American staples.
Nutritional Information reflects the serving style used in the photos, i.e. two tacos with corn tortillas and with onions, dry chili salsa, and a little guacamole.
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