Cinco de Mayo Recipe – Cochinita Pibil

During our honeymoon on the Yucatan peninsula, Jodie and I took a day off from relaxing on the beach of our resort to take a day’s tour out to Chichin Itza, the most famous of the Mayan ruins. After an amazing day climbing the stairs of the pyramid (which you can’t actually do anymore. So sad.) and getting great photographs, we got back on the bus at the appointed time to head back for more margaritas con hielo by the pool.

On the way back, our tour guide told us where we would be stopping for lunch. It was a locally owned water park (which turned out be a small pool and a waterslide) that would have a buffet set up in their restaurant. He went on to explain that while there would be American options, he recommended (raved about, might be more correct) the local dish that they were famous for preparing.

Jodie and I didn’t really catch the name, but he explained that it was pork marinated with orange peel and cooked in banana leaves. Jodie and I glanced at each other. We knew what we were having for lunch. (I’m a fan of things cooked in leaves, I’ve noticed: Greek dolmas and Hawaiian lau lau both top my list of favorite foods.)

When we entered the restaurant, we passed by the ‘American’ buffet. It was full of processed chicken nuggets, cardboard pizza, and dried out spaghetti with what appeared to be canned tomato sauce.

Jodie and I mentioned to each other that it was sad that’s what they thought American food was. Of course, there was no way anyone was going to eat from that buffet, with the beautiful oven in the corner. Two women were making fresh tortillas and serving pork straight from the banana leaves. It was amazing. One of the best meals we’ve ever had and easily the most memorable from our honeymoon.

When we were done ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing‘ over our food, we came up for air long enough to see how our bus-mates were enjoying this heavenly pork. What we saw saddened and dismayed us. Not a single American had tried the pork. In fact, only one other family on the bus had, and they were of latin descent themselves. We tried to talk the people near us into trying the local cuisine, but they all told us that it was too adventurous for them. The latin family talked to us briefly and told us they were enjoying it as much as we were, and we all went back for seconds (and thirds for some of us.)

The problem was we never caught the name of the dish. I’ve described it several times and searched for the ingredients on google, but with no success. Finally, I recently heard Chef Micheal Symon describing his favorite Mexican dish, cochinita pibil. I was amazed to hear him describe pork marinated in orange juice and cooked in banana leaves! I made sure to write down the name and searched the internet, now armed with the name of the dish, and I found several recipes!

I read through several of these recipes and then took a trip to Superior Grocers, our local Mexican grocery store to see what I could find. I was shocked to find banana leaves for just under two dollars, as well very affordable pork. I also located achiote paste, which is essential to give the pork the flavor I remember so well from the Yucatan. I combined several recipes that sounded the most affordable and the most like what I had tasted in Mexico. None of them actually called for cooking with the orange peel, but I remember that our tour guide was very clear on that, so I made sure to add actual peel into the marinade, which gave the pork a bright crisp taste I loved.

Cochinta Pibil

The pork needs takes at least 24 hours to marinate and 4 hours to cook. This is special occasion food, make sure you have the time!

2 large banana leaves

tin foil

3 to 4 pound shoulder pork roast, cut into 2” cubes

marinade: (sour orange juice is the most traditional, but it’s easily recreated by adding lime juice to the OJ.)

1 ½ cups OJ (start with the fresh squeezed from 1 orange and then supplement with a carton of OJ to save money)

½ cup lime juice

3 ounces of achiote (or annatto) paste

5 garlic cloves, minced

The peel of 1 orange, broken into several chunks

1 tsp cumin

1 cinnamon stick

salt & pepper to taste

  1. Dissolve the achiote paste into the orange juice and lime juice. Add the garlic, orange peel, cumin, cinnamon stick, salt & pepper. Add the cubed pork. Cover, and marinate in the fridge for 24 hours up to 48 hours.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
  3. Warm the banana leaves over the stove or a grill briefly to make them more pliable. Be careful to flip them repeatedly as you do not want to burn them.
  4. Place one or two banana leaves on the bottom of the casserole dish. Add the pork and marinade to the leaves.
  5. Wrap the leaves as much as you are able over the pork. You will probably need to add another leaf over the top and tuck it in around the sides of the pork. Cover the whole assembly with tin foil and roast for 4 hours at 300 degrees or until fork tender.
  6. Unwrap the pork and serve. It’s great over rice or served in a tortilla that has been lightly grilled or cooked over an open flame on your stove. Top with grated queso fresca and your favorite salsa. (Perhaps my roasted tomato salsa recipe)
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