I decided to dust off the keyboard for this tasty and traditional Yucatecan-Myan dish. Scouring my walk-in meat cooler, I was dismayed to find that I was fresh out of lechón, cochinita, or suckling pig as needed, and in even more of a dire need of a fire pit. Never fear though, I decided to improvise, as I am sure any clever Mayan would have in a pinch. I was, however, lucky enough to chance upon banana leaves-nature’s tinfoil, used by man for a millenia, to swaddle various meats, tamales, and many other delicacies while cooking. The flavors used while cooking cochinita are similar to al Pastor. They are heavy on the achiote (annatto) and the acid. The acid tenderizes the meat, and the fattiness of the pork mellows the acid with time and slow cooking.
Traditionally, in the Yucatan, Seville Oranges are used. They are very bitter acidic. I was not bitter at all when I discovered they were not to be found. Instead, I decided to substitute oranges, limes and a little apple cider vinegar for my cause. I also minced some garlic, toasted and ground pepper, cloves, and cumin, and added some Mexican oregano to the mix. The other key ingredient was achiote or annatto paste. El Yucateco makes a lovely little brick in various sizes, with a happy little chef and a happy little cochinita on it. I broke that up into smaller pieces, and then I added all of the ingredients to my blender cup. BuZzZzzzzZZ! Then that is it! On to the meats, the delicious meats….
The first time around, I did not choose the right meat, rather, my store didn’t have the meat I wanted available. I think that I got mostly loin or something really lean. Since traditionally, it is made with the whole pig, you have to consider that there would be a fair deal of fat with it, even if it is just delicious and tender baby piglet fat. The next time, I vowed to set things right with a fatty cut like pork butt, and kept my promise with much better results.
I doused the pork in the marinade and let it chill out for a while.
I tore the banana leaves,which I found in the freezer section of my Mexican Grocery Store, into pieces that fit the baking dish that I used. I alternated directions between layers.
I added the pork, and tossed in a dozen or so bay leaves into the banana leaf bundle.
I tucked the cochinita into bed by folding each layer into the other.
I finished using the left over scraps to tuck underneath the whole bundle. It looked so beautiful, I wanted to cradle it in my arms like a new-born babe.
Instead, I placed it in a 300° F oven and baked it for about 4 hours (or more, if you can bare it). At one point, I was concerned about the leaves getting too dry, so I poured some warm water over the leaves. In the end, I dont think it really mattered.
While the pork was cooking away, I pickled some red onion cut in a very fine Julienne. I just squeezed a lime, added a dash of apple cider vinegar, and a heavy pinch of salt. Normally, I would have also made an Habanero salsa for the cochinita, but I had just made Chile de Arból salsa, and I wanted to be thrifty.
I have since made an Habanero salsa with a happy result. I toasted about 4-5 Habanero and 5-6 big garlic cloves still in their papers in a hot skillet until charred. I deveined and seeded the Habaneros with gloves since I had some lying around. I also peeled and rough chopped the garlic. I added about 3/4 of a cup of the same mix of lime, orange and vinegar-mix to taste with a little bit of salt. I blended it just enough to break up the big chunks. It is totally worth it, if you are debating whether or not to spring for it, and so simple.
When I was sure that the meat was fally-aparty-good, I took my little bundle of joy out of the oven. Then I unwrapped it and took a horrible picture of it….
This was the point that I realized the meat was way too lean. It had a similar texture to shredded chicken breast. If that is what you are into, by all means go for it, but I wanted something a little more flavorful and fatty. I’m not here to judge.
I finished the whole thing toasting off some delicious corn tortillas on a hot dry skillet, filling them with the cochinita, the salsa, the onions and a few cilantro leaves. Perfection.