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October 2013

September 2013

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. 

Grilled Whole Porgies

As a parent, I often feel like the French in 1940—that is well prepared for the last war and losing the current one. Not that parenting is a battle, but, unlike the Maginot Line, the analogy still holds. I’m good at fixing the things of the past, yet I tend to lose track of what is coming next. For example, I spend money on their shoes while failing to sock some away for their college expenses.

The same mentality, apparently, holds with blogging. A few weeks ago, when the weather was warm, I meant to write about my latest grilling feat—whole porgies. But I got distracted, and now it is fall. Still, there are going to be a few nice weekends coming up (I personally guarantee it!) and you may yet have time to enjoy this quick (and fairly easy) outdoor treat.

Whole porgies have a few big advantages: they’re cheap and incredibly delicious (when they are fresh, at least) and they cook quickly. One disadvantage is that they are bony fish, but if you can get past that, you’ll be fine.

If you can, have your fishmonger clean them for you. If that’s not an option, you can scale them without making a mess by using the side of the fork or bread knife, while holding the fish inside a brown-paper bag. Then you’ll need to slice up the belly, pull out the guts and gills, and give it a good rinse.

Rub the sides of the fish with olive oil, and slice the fish about three times on each side. Stuff the slits with fresh thyme, and throw some more of the herb in the belly for good measure.

Get a good fire going (or turn on your gas grill and heat the rack) and grill the fish about three minutes on each side. That’s all there is to it. Really, they’re easier to grill than to find the time to write about. Enjoy!

Surprise Dinner: Pasta all’Amatriciana

And on the subject of pasta sauces, I want to reflect on how aging has changed me. There are downsides to getting older—those aches in strange places, for example, from reaching under the couch for an errant toy or trying to grab that loose ball before it rolls into the street—but there are upsides, too. Never mind experience and all that. For me, getting older has had one major benefit: I don’t have to eat as much.

My metabolism has slowed, and that has meant freedom—freedom from having to obsess about meals, freedom from having to eat before going out, and freedom from always being hungry. An immediate upshot is that I can almost be satisfied from a simple bowl of pasta. And the other night, Santa Maria surprised me with a dish that she had first tasted, twenty-odd years ago, while eating in Rome with an Italian friend. She made all’Amatriciana sauce.

Santa Maria made a homespun, American version, substituting bacon for the guanciale (cured pork cheek) that is central to the sauce. She used a thick-sliced bacon from D’Artagnan, which we almost always have around the house, and the sauce was rich and delicious.

She found the recipe in a New York Times article that was published a few years ago. The article goes into great detail about the importance of the guanciale, and if that kind of allegiance to essential ingredients is meaningful to you, it lists places to buy it, too. I didn’t miss it myself. I was very happy to come home from work to a bowl of pure flavor, made with love. That’s the other thing about growing older: it’s easier to know what matters. 

Pasta all’Amatriciana 

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thin
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1/4 pound guanciale, in 1-inch slivers 1/4 -inch thick (or three slices of bacon, chopped)
  • One 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes, or to taste
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup grated aged pecorino cheese, more for serving (or Parmigiano-Reggiano) 
  • Pasta of choice

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet. Add onion and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until transparent. Add guanciale (or bacon) and sauté until barely beginning to brown.

Break up tomatoes and add. Cook about 15 minutes, crushing tomatoes with a spoon, until sauce has become somewhat concentrated and homogenized. Season with chili and salt and stir in 1 tablespoon cheese. Remove from heat.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add pasta and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes.

Serve the sauce over the pasta and enjoy.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

(Adapted from Michael Tucker)

Almost-Empty-Pantry Pasta Sauce

Around our house, we have a shorthand expression for a lazy-night dinner of pasta with red sauce. We call it a “jar sauce” night, because it comes out of jar from a store, and isn’t something that is made by hand. We serve the sauce over pasta, and top it with chunks of mozzarella and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a passable meal. It is certainly not one of my favorites in terms of taste, but for those post-work weeknights and days that a play-date has gone awry, it is perfect. Sometimes, the prospect of cooking is just too off putting.

The jar sauce that we prefer is Colavita marinara sauce, and we like it for one simple reason: it doesn’t have added sugar. I’m astounded by how hard it is to find a pasta sauce without sugar in it. The reason, it seems, there is so much sugar in pasta sauces can be traced back to the work of one man: Howard Moskowitz, a food scientist with a wicked winning streak.

He was first brought to public attention when the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell heralded his research. According to Gladwell, Moskowitz’s insight was in tracking how American’s prefer chunky tomato sauces. Moskowitz told Prego to make chunky sauces, and a grand success was born.

However, according to the investigative journalist Michael Moss, Prego didn’t just make its sauces chunky. The company made them sweet. “Many of the Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar,” Moss wrote recently. “A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies.” When I was growing up, my mother used to buy Aunt Millie’s, but once I she picked up Prego for some reason. I can still remember being stunned by how sweet it was.

So, we look for sauces without sugar, and “Jar-Sauce” night is a usually reliable meal. There is only one catch to the “Jar-Sauce” night: You have to have the jar sauce in the cupboard.

The other night, I came home to make dinner, and there wasn’t any sauce in the house. I had some pesto for the children (they prefer that, anyway), but I still needed dinner for myself. Santa Maria was headed out to dinner that night, so I turned to an old recipe for red sauce that I really love.

The trick to this recipe is not adding sugar, but to add butter. I don’t know how the idea came to me, but I thought of it a long time ago. Apparently, it’s a much older idea than I realized, for in researching this post I found a link to Marcella Hazan’s “Amazing 4-ingredient” sauce, and that one is amazing, I’m sure, because it is nearly all butter.

My recipe is a bit more healthy than Hazan’s—I use about equal parts butter and olive oil—and it is extremely delicious. The other secret—besides the butter—is to carefully sweat the onions. You don’t want them to brown, but you do want them to be completely soft and clear. They become quite sweet that way. This doesn’t take long. I made the sauce in the time it took to boil water and cook the pasta, wash the lettuce for the salad, and set the table. It’s almost as easy as opening a jar.

(Mostly)- Empty-Pantry Pasta Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 can peeled-plum tomatoes (28 ounces), chopped (or hit with a hand blender)

Heat the oil and the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan.

Sauté the onion gently until it is completely translucent, being careful not to brown it.

Add the tomatoes and reduce.

Serve over pasta of choice.