The cuisine of Yucatan, Mexico, sometimes comes under fire from the uninitiated for being too subtle in flavor, too basic, and ultimately, not “Mexican” enough. And while it can sometimes lack the pizazz (“Pizazz?” What am I, 60?) of the infant-sized burritos wrapped in a bedsheet of a tortilla, as you might find in the Northern region of the country, the pared-down, quality ingredients used in Yucatecan cooking often stand just fine on their own. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that Yucatecans like to sprinkle habanero on almost everything, which brings the fire to more subtly seasoned-slow cooked meats.
This dish represents my favorite combination of the flavors of Yucatan working in perfect harmony: The saltiness of the achiote, the sweetness of the pickled onions, and the burning heat of the habanero.
Cochinita Pibil, or literally, “Baby pit pig,” is one of our favorite examples of cooking from this part of Mexico. Cochinita can be found being sold from a cart in almost every small town on the weekends, either in tacos or in tortas, or sandwiches, and topped with pickled red onions and diced habanero.
For our version, we are going to assume a few things. First, that you don’t have access to Sour Oranges, the main component in the pork’s marinade. We are going to assume, though, that you have access to either a Mexican grocery store, or even a mainstream grocery store with a healthy import section. Though our recipe for Cochinita Pibil doesn’t contain any truly crazy ingredients, you may have to poke around your favorite grocery store for a little while. Finally, we are going to assume that you don’t want to dig a hole in your backyard for roasting a whole pig, and will be tackling this dish from the comfort of your kitchen.
- 1 package of El Yucateco Achiote Red Paste
- 20 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 cup of freshly-squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice
- 1 boneless pork shoulder (about 6 pounds)
- 1 package of banana leaves, defrosted if frozen
- Combine first four ingredients in blender or food processor, and blend until smooth. Cut pork into 3-inch square portions, cover with mixture, and marinate in refrigerator overnight, 12-24 hours.
- Line a roasting pan with three banana leaves, allowing the edges to overlap on the bottom of the pan, and hang out over the edges. Place marinated pork on top, and cover with remaining marinade. Fold the edges of the banana leaves over the top of the pork, and place three more overlapping leaves on top. Tuck these leaves in along the edges of the pan, forming a tight seal around the pork. Finally, cover the whole tray in aluminum foil, for good measure. The goal is to have no steam escape.
- Cook at 300 degrees for 3 1/2 to four hours. Carefully unwrap pork, being careful of escaping steam, and shred meat using two forks.
- This dish is best when served in tacos with pickled red onions and topped with habaneros. The combination of salty, sweet, and spicy is amazing!
Pickled Red Onions
- 2 red onions, cut in half lengthwise, with the ends removed
- 1 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
- 1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 jalapeno, seeds removed, thinly sliced (optional, but recommended)
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, and blanch onions for 15 seconds. Drain thoroughly, and combine with remaining ingredients, stirring to coat onions thoroughly. Marinate for at least an hour before serving, though preferably overnight.
These two flavors compliment each other beautifully, but if you want to eat your Cochinita Pibil the way they do in the Yucatan, you’ll want to add some heat from habanero peppers. We’ll dial down the heat just a bit, but be warned…these peppers are spicy. And don’t forget to wear gloves when working with habanero peppers…the oils can stay on your skin for a long time.
“Mellowed” Habanero Peppers
- 5-6 habanero peppers, de-seeded and de-veined, diced
Place chopped habaneros in a small bowl. Add enough water to cover, and a splash of white vinegar. Marinate for at least 1 hour before serving on top of cochinita and onions.