If you’ve ever watched Once Upon a Time in Mexico (disclaimer: I never have), you are aware that a dish called Puerco Pibil (or Cochinita Pibil) plays a significant role in the story. And if you’ve ever seen the DVD (disclaimer: I never have), you may have found a special feature called “10-Minute Cooking School” where Robert Rodriguez, in all his bandanna-rocking glory, shows you how to cook Puerco Pibil while waxing philosophical on food and lovemaking. And if you dig slow-cooked pork (disclaimer: hell yeah I do), you’ve probably had it in your mind to make it.
If you watch the recipe, though, it seems like it could be a bit of a nuisance… finding banana leaves, grinding spices, blending things, marinating, roasting for hours… doesn’t sound like a weeknight meal! But with a little creativity and a Crock Pot, you can bring on the pork coma any night of the week without too much fuss. At least, that’s what my slow-cooker Puerco Pibil experiment seems to have demonstrated.
Puerco Pibil is a traditional Mexican dish of pork marinated and roasted in achiote paste. The recipe is fundamentally pretty simple: Marinate pork in achiote paste, wrap in banana leaves, roast nice and slow until the pork is tender and delicious. But there’s a number of important questions. First, what’s an achiote? Second, what’s an achiote paste? Third, where do you get banana leaves? Patience, child, these questions will be answered in due time.
First, the pork. As with most slow-cooked pork recipes, we want some cut of pork that’s got plenty of fat and connective tissue that will help keep things moist and delicious during the long cooking process. This dish is traditionally done with a whole suckling pig (hence “cochinita” — “little pig”), but for normal-sized portions we’ll stick with single cuts. The cuts that fit the slow-cooking profile are things like hams, shoulders, and ribs. I’ve chosen a nice Boston Butt, which is the butt-end of a pork shoulder. This is, in fact, the very same cut that we got in our first meat CSA.
Notice the nice pink color of the meat — ah, pasture-raised pork. To make sure everything cooks evenly, we’ll cube into biggish cubes — maybe 1 1/2 to 2 inches in each dimension. Incidentally, this is about 2.5 lbs of pork shoulder — so the recipe I am making here is approximately half of the Robert Rodriguez recipe, which calls for 5 lbs of shoulder.
Note that in the upper left here is a bone. That’s going to go into our recipe too — first, there’s a good bit of meat still on it; and second, cooking with the bone contributes both flavor and texture to the dish. Always keep the bone in the cooking pot for slow cooking applications, if there is any possible way to do so.
So the deal is that this stuff gets marinated for several hours in achiote paste. Here’s the first Great Mystery of Pibil: What’s achiote paste? To answer that, we need to answer the First Great Corollary Mystery of Pibil, which is: What’s achiote? Achiote is called in US American “annatto.” As a spice, it’s basically unknown around these parts, but you may be familiar with the phrase “annatto as a coloring” from yellow cheese products and other things — annatto is a bright red seed that is often powdered into a natural food coloring. But it has a distinctive aroma and flavor of its own. And it’s the star player in achiote paste, and so in Puerco Pibil.
Incidentally, whole annatto can be kind of tough to find in the usual grocery store. The secret is to find a tienda or a supermarket that caters to a Latino population — you’ll have a lot better luck finding it there. Check the spice section or, failing that, the spices part of the Hispanic foods section. You can also find another required ingredient, banana leaves, in the same kind of store — banana leaves are almost always frozen, so check the freezers.
To assemble the achiote paste, first we need to make achiote powder. For my achiote powder I used the following ingredients:
- Whole black peppercorns, 1/2 tbsp
- Whole annatto, 2 1/2 tbsp
- Cloves, 1/4 tsp
- 4 whole allspice berries
- Cumin, 1 tsp
(Why yes, I do own a huge jar of whole cumin seed. I’m half Greek and half Puerto-Rican.)
Anyway, it all goes into a spice grinder and gets milled into a fine powder, or it gets the hose again:
It’s important to use whole spices for this. The flavors will be more intense and complex–spices start expiring as soon as they’re ground, so if you want the best flavors, buy whole and grind when you need them! If you really wanted to get involved, you could toast all the spices first before you grind them, which helps to get the volatile oils and flavor compounds moving and brings out the flavors even more.
So now that we have the powder, it’s time to make the achiote paste. Here’s the ingredients:
- Vinegar, 1/4 cup
- Salt, 1 tbsp
- Achiote powder from above
- 4 cloves garlic
- A habanero pepper, yikes!
- 2.5 lemons — juiced, eventually
- Orange juice, 1/4 cup
- A little tupperware of tequila that you borrowed from your apartment when you brought all the ingredients over to Sous Chef G’s place where the slow cooker is, containing maybe an ounce of tequila
Incidentally, the vinegar-plus-orange-juice gambit is supposed to simulate the flavor of bitter Seville oranges. If you have access to Seville oranges, I’d suggest substituting the vinegar and OJ for 1/2 cup of Seville orange juice.
Anyway, on to the paste manufacture.
For the most part, everything just goes into the blender with minimal prep. Exceptions: The garlic needs to be skinned, the habanero needs to be cleaned up, and the lemons need to be squeezed. I’ll skip the garlic, but the habanero prep is worth a mention.
Habaneros are spicy. Very spicy. Like, don’t handle habaneros and then touch mucous membranes on pain of severe discomfort and maybe temporary blindness spicy. Habaneros are among the hottest of all chile peppers, ranking at a whopping 250,000 Scoville Units or so. With that in mind, you may want to wear gloves when handling them if you are particularly sensitive to capsaicin (which is what contributes the “spiciness” in all hot peppers).
In order to tone down the spiciness a bit for the recipe, we are going to remove the ribs and seeds from the habaneros–the ribs and seeds are where most of the capsaicin resides. It’s relatively easy to do–just cut open the pepper, make it lie flat on the skin side as best you can, and shave out the ribs and seedy bits. Here’s a before-and-after depiction:
On the left is half of our habanero, unaltered. On the right: at top are the removed bits, the ribs and seeds; at bottom, the remaining part of the pepper — the part we want to keep. Once the whole habanero is de-seeded and de-ribbed, we’re done! (We also ditch the stem–it was just too cool not to leave in the photo.) Incidentally, this particular habanero was a little pathetic looking… I would have preferred something much more orangey. But it was actually the best (!) of the variety at the store, and it did a decent enough job for the recipe.
Now the lemons. Sous Chef G has this awesome, medieval citrus torture device, which is I think maybe the self-same juicer they used on the set of Superman II in 1980. (Remember? Lois and Clark are making orange juice and Clark juices his thumb? Remember?)
Anyway, it juices like crazy. Those 2.5 lemons gave us nearly 3/4 cup of lemon juice! If you can find one of these things (preferably vintage and not a trashy reproduction) I would recommend getting it. In any case, I almost wonder whether we ended up using TOO much juice due to this magnificent device’s juice-extraction capabilities.
So, juice being obtained, into a blender with it all and whir until it’s a smooth, smooth paste.
Not to have too many asides about nice equipment, but this blender is an Oster Beehive, the only blender you’ll ever need outside of a smoothie stand or ice cream shop. It’s the best blender that $45 — or three times that much — can buy. It has three speeds: “off”, “on”, and “really, really on”. It has a glass carafe. It has an all-metal drive train. It makes great smoothies and blended soups. It would probably blend an iPad, but I’ll leave that to the BlendTec guys. Basically, unless you’re already planning on getting a VitaMix or a BlendTec blender, just stick with the Beehive. It won’t disappoint. (Also, check out that deco chrome styling!)
OK, at this point everything is ready to go. The only ingredient yet unaccounted for is banana leaf. Pibil is traditionally cooked wrapped in banana leaf — and it’s not just affectation. The banana leaves add a certain note to the dish–fragrant, grassy, and a bit tannic (they smell a bit like green tea, actually.) Also, they’re freaking huge.
Since we’re working with a slow cooker, I just lined the crock with leaves.
And then, in with the diced pork and the achiote paste, and leaves folded over.
The traditional recipe calls for a good several-hour marinade at this point. We are going to park this in the fridge overnight and plop it in the slow cooker in the morning, so that’ll take care of that.
So in the morning, I took the crock from the fridge and set it in the slow cooker on the “low” setting. 10 hours later, we had a delicious Puerco Pibil meal for two. Here’s what the results looked like coming out of the crock pot:
And served over some rice and with a delicious Mexican Coca Cola on the side:
Puerco Pibil has a distinctive, tangy-earthy-spicy flavor that’s pretty unique and quite delicious. You should try it out! It’s really not all that hard if you can get the ingredients and you’ve got a blender… especially if you can do all the work the night before and have it cooking all day!
Some notes: The Pibil was a bit on the tart side. Next time I’d probably use fewer lemons, especially considering the destructive potenial of that citrus juicer. In general I think the achiote paste was a little on the liquidy side, probably in part for the above reason, but overall I found that the annatto flavor was less pronounced than I would have liked it. Next time I think I will err on the side of more annatto, which I think I have done in the past unintentionally. The recipe, as prepared here, made just enough for two generous servings of Puerco Pibil when served over rice. Also, yes, Mexican Coke is better than US Coke. More on that later, maybe….