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The Art of Setting the Table

Cochinita Pibil (Roasted Pork with Achiote sauce)

Recently, I received sad news about an old friend, someone roughly my age, who I had spent much of my college years with, having fun and getting bounced around with on the ropes of life. He was diagnosed with a disease that has left him somewhat incapacitated. I want to respect his privacy, so I’m leaving out the details, but the one thing to know, and this always sounds cliché until it is too late, is that every moment matters.

I little before I learned this news, we had been invited by our friends Rob and Olga to a party celebrating Mexican Independence Day. Olga is from Mexico, and she did the cooking. They served many things, including roasted pork tacos, and those were so delicious (and my kids loved them), so I asked Olga for the recipe. She agreed to share it, and after hearing about my friend, and hearing from Olga about how important it was to record the recipe, I realized that the smallest thing can have the biggest impact.

“I am grateful you asked for the recipe,” Olga said, “because, believe it or not, this is the first time it's ever been written. I learned to make it from my mom and she in turn from her mother. I don't think anybody in the family has it on a piece of paper anywhere. That's how most of our family dishes are - from memory. Thus, the measurements are approximate but I felt funny writing ‘about 1/4 cup of this and about 1/2 cup of that.’ I just kind of eye it when I cook.” She continued:

Food is such an important part of Mexican culture and I am always trying to ‘feed people,’ as Rob would say. Everything that is important always happens at the dinner table. We serve this dish on special occasions like baptisms, anniversaries, holidays etc. It is from the Yucatan peninsula, with Mayan origins and there are many variations to it but this is the one we have been cooking for as long as I remember.

It is called Cochinita Pibil. Cochinita means baby pork or suckling pig and Pibil is the Mayan word for buried. The original dish was wrapped in banana leaves buried in a pit.  Here’s a version you can make in an oven  (or a slow cooker). It is served with warm tortillas, pickled onions, and habanero sauce.

Cochinita Pibil (Roasted Pork with Achiote sauce)

Makes 8-10 servings

  • 6 pounds of pork shoulder, bone in
  • 1 package of achiote paste*
  • ½ -¾  cup of orange juice (freshly squeezed, about two oranges worth)**
  • the juice of 1 lime
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, peeled

Season the meat with salt and pepper to taste. Not too much salt because of the marinade. Just a bit. You can always add more salt once the pork is cooked. Mix the olive oil, orange juice and lime juice. Add the achiote paste and dissolve it in the liquid mixture. Put the pork in a large class or ceramic bowl and pour the achiote mixture over it and rub it in. Cover it and marinate overnight in the fridge.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line either a Dutch oven or baking dish with banana leaves. You can find frozen ones from Goya in most supermarkets in the frozen foods aisle. The banana leaves are not essential but they add a bit to the taste. The dish you had last week did not cook with the leaves and I thought it was still pretty good! Put the pork in the baking dish with the marinade and cover it. Toss in the garlic. Cook in the oven about 3-4 hours. Check it for tenderness and decide how it looks. It doesn’t have to be falling off the bone but you do want it completely cooked. Remove from oven and let stand and cool. Pull the meat off the bone and shred it. I always use disposable gloves because the achiote will stain and you might have red bloody looking fingers for a day or two.

Notes: I like to cook it a day in advance, shred it and let it sit in the fridge for that extra night. It makes it taste so much better but you don’t always have the time or fridge space to do so. If you want to use the slow cooker,  I guess about 8-10hours in low or medium setting.

*Regarding the achiote paste: You can get it in Mexican stores or online. I prefer this brand which I buy on Amazon and I get a dozen packs (they last a long time).

**About the orange juice: in Mexico you can buy what are called “bitter or Seville oranges” and we just use that juice. I have never found them here so I use juice oranges and add lime to make it sour.


Pickled Onions

  • 2 red onions thinly sliced
  • ¾ cup Red wine vinegar
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Dried Oregano leaves
  • Water as needed
  • Olive oil

Sautee the onions in the olive oil until soft, add the red wine vinegar, salt and a bit of pepper and let the vinegar begin to boil. Add the oregano leaves and let it cook for a couple of minutes. Taste the onions and if it’s too sour add some water (use your judgment; it depends on how sweet the onions are and how bitter the vinegar tastes). Adjust your seasoning, water, vinegar as needed. It really is up to your taste and let it cook a few minutes. You don’t want to cook it too much so that the onions are still a bit crunchy.

Habanero sauce

  • ½ cup white onions diced
  • 1 or 2 habanero peppers (depending on how spicy you want it)
  • Lime juice about 2 limes worth but you might need more depending on the spiciness of the habaneros
  • Salt to taste

Char the habanero chilies on the stove’s flame and put them in a plastic bag. Wait for them to “sweat” it out and then peel them. You most definitely want gloves for this or your fingers, face, eyes etc will burn for days (and everything you touch for that matter). Puree them in the blender or if you want to be true to form use a molcajete and mush them up there. In a separate bowl, mix the onions with the lime juice and add the habanero and salt to taste. Add a bit of chile at a time and taste it. They are very very spicy chiles and you want to be careful.

To eat it, make tacos with the pork and the pickled onions. The habanero sauce is a up to each person. My mom used to make just the onions with the lime and salt without chiles for the kids and we loved adding it to our own tacos. You drink beer with this dish (or tequila or margaritas). I don't think wine would work but I could be wrong.

Also, if you are mildly interested in the Mexican Independence day celebration here is a link to what we call “El Grito” which is traditionally done on September 15th around 11pm when the Mexican independence war from Spain began. Every year, the sitting President recreates the ceremony. 

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