Pork shoulder. Pork butt. Boston butt. Whatever you call it, this lip-smackingly good cut of meat is one of my all-time favorites. When it’s ground it adds fatty richness to meat sauce and meatballs, and when it’s left whole and roasted low and slow it becomes melt-in-your mouth tender and shreddable—perfect for barbeque pulled pork sandwiches or on warm corn tortillas with a freshly made salsa.
While the American South may have a lockdown on barbequed pork, the good people of Mexico, specifically those folks in the Yucatan Peninsula, have their own unique method for bringing out the best in this humble cut of meat.
I first encountered cochinita pibil in my Mexican Master class at Kendall College. I had to leave class early the day we made it, so I’ve been dying to try it again at home. This fabulous pork dish starts with a flavor-packed sauce: annatto seeds or annatto paste (also called achiote), cumin, black pepper, oregano, cloves, cinnamon and lots of garlic are blended together with orange juice and lime juice to make a thick, brightly colored marinade. The pork shoulder is smothered with the sauce and left to linger in the fridge overnight for the marinade to penetrate.
The next day, the sauced-up pork shoulder is wrapped in fragrant banana leaves (they smell just like the rainforest, I tell ya!) and roasted for several hours in the oven or indirectly on the grill. When the meat is tender and you can’t bear to wait any longer, the pork can either be sliced or shredded and served with pickled red onions and—since the Yucatan Peninsula is close to the equator, and the closer you get to the equator the spicier the food—a roasted habanero salsa.
I used a recipe from Chicago-based Mexican guru Rick Bayless, but I made some changes based on the ingredients I had on hand. For instance, I couldn’t find annatto seed at the Mexican mart I was at, but I did find achiote paste, a great substitute that saves me from having to grind the seed and then clean out my spice grinder. Also, sour orange juice isn’t something readily available in Kentucky, so I used a combination of lime juice and orange juice to the same effect. And, as it’s the middle of winter, there’s no grilling for me, and cooking the pork in the oven worked just as well. Lastly, I skipped the habanero-heavy salsa included with the original cochinita pibil recipe in favor or Rick’s (somewhat) milder Roasted Tomato-Habanero salsa, which appears in his book, Fiesta at Rick’s. It was an instant hit with my heat-seeking crowd, and I know your family will love it, too.
This recipe does take some moderate prep work and includes a long stint in the oven, but that’s why it’s perfect for a leisurely weekend meal with friends—just make sure and have a big batch of margaritas ready when your guests arrive.
This recipe from the Yucatan Peninsula serves 10 to 12. Recipe adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexico: One Plate at a Time cookbook. Directions for working ahead are listed at the very bottom of this recipe. While the pork shoulder cooks, make the salsa and the simple pickled red onions. Click here to download a printable PDF copy of this recipe.
5 Tbs. (about 2 ounces) achiote seeds (also called annatto) or achiote paste
1½ Tbs. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1½ Tbs. black pepper, preferably whole peppercorns
1¼ tsp. cumin, preferably whole seeds
½ tsp. cloves, preferably whole
1½ Tbs. cinnamon, preferably Mexican canela, that’s freshly ground or still in stick form (you’ll need about 6 inches of 1/2-inch diameter cinnamon stick)
14 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 c. fresh lime juice plus ½ c. fresh orange juice
1 (6 to 8 lb) pork shoulder
A 1-pound package of banana leaves, defrosted
Pickled red onions
1½ large red onions, sliced 1/8-inch thick
¾ c. fresh lime juice plus 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
Roasted Tomato-Habanero Salsa (From Fiesta at Rick’s by Rick Bayless)
1 pound ripe (2 medium-large round or 6 to 8 plum) tomatoes
1 habanero chile, stemmed
1 small onion, sliced ¼-inch thick
About ½ c. (loosely packed) chopped cilantro
1. Prepare the achiote marinade. Measure the achiote seeds and oregano into a spice grinder, adding the black pepper, cumin, cloves and cinnamon, and run the grinder until everything’s as powdery as you can get it (you may need to work in batches). *If you’re using achiote paste instead of achiote seeds, simply add it to the blender with the rest of the ground ingredients and the juices.
In a blender, combine the ground mixture with 1 tablespoon salt, the garlic and lime juice plus orange juice. Blend until smooth—there should be very little grittiness when a little is rubbed between your fingers.
If you’re working ahead, pour the mixture into a non-aluminum container, cover, refrigerate 6 hours or longer. Before using, blend the mixture again to give it an even smoother texture. (The long steeping and second blending isn’t absolutely essential, though without it the marinade may be a little gritty.)
2. Marinate the meat. In a large bowl or large plastic food bag combine meat and marinade, turning the meat to coat it evenly. (Though achiote has tenacious coloring properties, I suggest you do this quickly with your hands.) For the greatest penetration of flavor, let the meat marinate refrigerated (covered if in a bowl) for several hours, or even overnight.
3. Wrap the pork. Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Using scissors, cut off the hard edge you’ll find on most banana leaves (where the leaf attached to the central rib). Cut 3 sections of banana leaf, each about 1 foot longer than the length of a large roasting pan. Line the bottom and sides of the roasting pan with the leaves, overlapping them generously and letting them hang over the edges of the pan. Lay the meat in the pan, drizzle with all the marinade. Fold in the banana leaf edges over the meat. Cut 3 more sections of banana leaf slightly longer than the pan. Lay them over the top of the meat, again generously overlapping; tuck them in around the sides.
4. Bake the banana-leaf wrapped pork shoulder in the center of the preheated oven for 3½ to 4 hours. While the meat cooks, prepare the pickled red onions and the habanero salsa recipes below. Let the meat rest for a half hour before serving.
5. Serving. Remove the top banana leaves. Tip the pan to accumulate the juices in one end and spoon off the fat. Season with more salt if necessary.
You may want to remove the bones and cut the large pieces of meat into manageable serving sizes, but Rick suggests leaving everything right in the roasting pan for serving. Set out your cochinita pibil with a large fork and spoon (for spooning up all those juices).
I, on the other hand, like to shred my cochinita pibil with two forks or my hands, throw it back into a large sauce pan and coat it with any sauce leftover in the baking pan, and then serve it with warm corn tortillas, queso fresco, pickled red onions, fresh guacamole, cilantro, and Rick’s Roasted Tomato-Habanero Salsa.
Drain the red onions and set out in a serving bowl to top each portion, along with the salsa to cautiously dab on each portion.
6. Make the simple pickled onions. While the meat is cooking, prepare the onions. Scoop the onions into a non-aluminum bowl. Pour boiling water over them, wait 10 seconds, then pour the onions into a strainer. Return the drained onions to the bowl, pour on the sour orange juice (or the lime-orange combo) and stir in 1½ teaspoons salt. Cover and set aside until serving time.
7. Make the Roasted Tomato-Habanero Salsa. On a rimmed baking sheet, lay out the tomatoes and habanero. Break the onion into rings or pieces and scatter on the sheet. Roast everything about 4 inches below a hot broiler until the tomatoes are soft and blackened on one side, about 6 minutes. Flip the tomatoes and chile, and stir the onion, turning the pieces as much as possible. Slide back under the broiler and roast until the tomatoes are soft and blackened on the other side, about 5 minutes more. Cool, then pull the blackened peels off the tomatoes.
Transfer the tomatoes (along with the juice on the baking sheet) and chile to a food processor or molcajete. Pulse until thoroughly chopped, then run until the mixture is a course puree. Scrape into a salsa dish and stir in enough water to give the salsa an easily spoonable consistency, typically about 2 tablespoons. Chop the roasted onion into small pieces and scrap into the salsa along with the cilantro. Taste and season with salt, usually about a scant teaspoon. Salsa’s ready.
Working Ahead: If you’re the plan-ahead type, make the marinade on Day 1, reblend it and marinate the meat on Day 2 and then slow-roast the meat for serving on Day 3. The marinade will hold for a week or more in the refrigerator. Once the pork is marinated, cook it within 24 hours. The finished dish will keep for a couple of days, covered and refrigerated (meat and juice only—no banana leaves), though the texture of the meat won’t be quite as nice as fresh-from-the-oven. Warm refrigerated cooked meat slowly (a 300 degree oven) in the juice, covered. Pickled onions will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator, well covered.