Yucatecan Clasico: Homemade Cochinita Pibil

Categories: Cooking!
I've had a continual craving for pibil--the classic southern Mexican pork (cochinita) or chicken (pollo) dish of braised meat wrapped in banana leaf--ever since I was introduced to the chicken variety in a town outside of Chichen Itza, Yucatán, two Novembers ago.

There's a satisfactory version on the menu at Taco Mesa, and Gustavo says Conde Cakes in SanTana carries Yucatecan cuisine, but I've been cooking a variety of Mexican dishes at home lately and wanted to end the run on a high note. It's a 27-hour wait from start to finish, and you'll be left with orange, achiote-stained hands, but making the dish yourself leaves you with a happy belly and a true appreciation for this classic Mexican dish.

Pibil revolves around three essential ingredients: achiote (annatto seed), bitter orange juice and banana leaves. If you want to be hardcore about it, you'd bury a whole suckling pig and cook it in the pit. Yeah, pass. I'm not digging a hole or burying an animal in the yard. The HOA would likely frown upon that.

Sub in a pork butt (shoulder) and use a Dutch oven in lieu of said pit. The majority of the recipes for cochinita pibil online are more simple than intricate, but if you're going to take the time to make the dish, you should aim for the most developed flavor possible. Gustavo and Dave will undoubtedly have some profanity-laced resistance to what's coming next, but the most complete marinade I could find was from Rick Bayless' cochinita pibil recipe

Only, his recipe serves 12 to 15 people, which is a bit frustrating because nobody cooks for that many people on a daily basis. Minor criticism and calculations aside, the only bonus of having the recipe for such a large quantity is you'll have enough seasoning (and possibly banana leaf) leftover to make pollo pibil sometime in the future. 

For the home cook, the best technique is to adapt Bayless' spice rub and some cooking techniques with the smaller-scale quantities on this cochinita pibil recipe from Simply Recipes.

Here's how it's done: 
Toast the spices (1 1/2 T of black peppercorn, 1 1/4 t of cumin seeds, 1/2 t of cloves and 6 inches of 1/2-inch diameter cinnamon stick) until they are fragrant, about 2 minutes on medium-high heat. You'll combine the spices with 2 oz. of achiote and 1 1/2 T of dried Mexican oregano. Process the mixture in batches to ensure the finest rub you can produce. The less you grind up the ingredients, the grainier the final product will be.

That mix gets combined with 3/4 cup of bitter orange juice, 7 garlic cloves and salt in a blender to create the final marinade. You can make the bitter orange juice yourself with fresh bitter oranges, or by mixing fresh orange and lime juices together. You can also purchase a bottle of Goya bitter orange at most local Mexican markets.
Pour the marinade on about 3 lbs. of pork butt and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably 24 hours if you have the time.
When it's time to cook, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. While the oven is heating up, line a Dutch oven with banana leaf. I was able to find a 1-lb. package at Tula Market in Lake Forest. They also make fresh tortillas, so it's a win-win if you're on the hunt for pibil and plan to make tacos.

Bayless wraps his in banana leaf and cooks it on a smoky grill for several hours, but just like I ain't diggin' a pit, I'm also not smoking this thing on the patio. You can replicate some of that flavor by using smoked salt, which you can buy or make at home

Just make sure you salt the pork at this point before you continue, smoked salt or plain ol' kosher.

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