Cochinita Pibil with Cilantro-Lime Rice: Making “Fat Little Piggy” Sexy Again

Cochinita Pibil with cilantro-lime rice in ceramic bowl on banana leaf with yellow mango salsa

As you may know, I am a man who thrives on mystery…a man who feeds on it, I guess you could say. Do disembodied spirits still walk among us? What really happens inside the event horizon of a black hole? Why the hell do they call a cut of meat from the shoulder of an animal a “Boston Butt”??? (my array of passions can be…eccentric)

But the fascinating thing about any good mystery is the force of curiosity catalyzed by the mystery itself, independent of the issue being shrouded. Once unveiled, the cold and clinical underlying facts will invariably fall short of hopes and expectations and we will be left feeling cheated and lessened. What’s behind Door #1 will never be as fascinating as what could be behind Door #1.

Need real-world proof? Let us consider the Great Boston Butt issue… For those of us not burdened with an over-abundance of knowledge, the self-created visuals are limitless. For me, genetically programmed with a lifetime of American League East superiority, I find myself envisioning a city dripping with history and tradition, and filled with all the world-class ass a man could ever imagine…

Boston Butt asses ass assholes idiot moron jonathan papelbon is a jerk

HA, gotcha…for disambiguation of the term "ass," see…………now, when's the next train back to civilization?

The more astute among you have probably already picked up on today’s theme. Today, I am piggybacking (get it?) on an earlier recipe and putting my famous recado rojo to work on braised pork shoulder. Today, we revive a truly ancient dish – originally feasted on by the Mayans of the remote Yucatán Peninsula – and give it a slight Bossian twist… Ok, maybe more of a respectful addition… There may not be many things The Boss holds reverent but mathematical genius and bloodthirsty warrior tribes make the short list.

Mayan Jaguar Warrior in war paint

"...a wise choice, soft little man."

It should come as no surprise that a culture capable of advanced astronomical theory, iconic Pre-Columbian architecture and time-tested messianic calculations could whip up a pretty stellar feast when properly motivated but we tend to gloss over this element of Mayan civilization when marveling at their epic historical awesomeness.

Mayan art warrior temple pyramid blood-letting

and these were NOT a people who embraced the concept of "bland"

So, what do you feed a proud warrior-scholar tradition on-the-go? …actually, I’m not entirely sure since this particular dish takes a few hours to get just right (relax, it’s mostly oven time) and I have yet to see a verifiable recipe for a Mayan power bar — and don’t think I haven’t looked…because I would patent the mierda out of that formula and retire to my own hacienda, populated entirely by war-painted Yucatecan beauties, before the paint even dried on my newly-commissioned jaguar headdress.

Mayan warrior jaguar headpiece headdress

"I, too, had a dream…….once…"

But I digress (which is pretty much how you know it’s really me)… Fare thee well, my gilded senoritas, for at least one more day… For as the sun rises on another glorious Mesoamerican morning, we set aside our traditional maize, squash and chile peppers in favor of a special treat.

Cochinita Pibil with cilantro-lime rice in ceramic bowl on banana leaf

Cochinita Pibil

Approximately 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, fat intact
1 1/2 cups Seville orange juice (or substitute, if necessary, with 2 parts grapefruit juice to one part orange and one part lime)
2 Tbsp Recado Rojo paste (see, I told you we’d get back to this)
Whole banana leaves (optional), for braising
Queso Oaxaca (optional), for garnish
Cilantro (optional), for garnish

Cilantro-Lime Rice

4 cups water
2 cups basmati rice
3 Tbsp lime juice
2 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil
2 Tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
1 tsp kosher or sea salt

If you’ve already prepared the recado rojo paste, linked to above (and here too, ya lazy bum), then you’re off to a good start. If not, quick, go back in time and make it fast!! Some people will suggest simply buying achiote rojo paste online or from a local ethnic specialty market but I have always found this pointless, as you will need to add back in most of the spices and seasonings the mass-produced version already includes if you want anything resembling a fresh flavor. And I can honestly say that the earthy subtlety and layering of herbally-fueled flavors are best enjoyed as fresh as possible.

Like many other decadent dish, this one is well worth planning ahead for…which is fortunate, because you will – in fact – have to plan ahead for it. It is best to start the marination process the day before you plan to serve this dish. To do so, add your two tablespoons of recado rojo paste to the Seville orange juice and thoroughly whisk, until fully incorporated.

Cube your pork shoulder (Boston Butt – god, I just LOVE saying that) into chunks between 1 1/2 and 2 inches each. Don’t be tempted to trim the fat because you’re going to want it to render during the extended braising process.

I find it easiest to marinate just about any type of meat in a large ziploc-type bag (SEALED – for our more remedial friends). This allows me to flip the bag as necessary to ensure everything stays evenly coated. I then rest the bag in a glass or non-reactive metal pan in the fridge. Whatever marination process you prefer, you want to give the marinade at least several hours to allow the citrus base to do its thing and properly break down the connective tissue.

[PHOTO OMITTED HERE BC, LET’S FACE IT, A BAG OF MEAT JUST ISN’T THAT SEXY]

Double-layer a sizable casserole dish or roasting pan with aluminum foil of sufficient length to fold back over and seal. If you can get your hands on some banana leaves, they really do make a difference but they are not in any way crucial. If you do have them, create a bit of an overlapped nest of leaves within the foil-lined pan…

Cochinita Pibil in banana leaves and recado rojo marinade bitter orange seville

I prefer the nutty flavor and underlying notes of a floral bouquet imparted by the lower leaves of the dwarf cavendish sub-species over the more acrid bitterness of the gran nain or plantain……..HA, I'm totally screwing with you. Any banana leaves will do.

Basically, we are doing our best to replicate the ancient methods invoked in this dish and, until I gain a readership with sufficient culinary commitment to taking a back-hoe to the lawn and installing a subterranean Central American char-pit, the least I can do is advocate for the damn banana leaves.

Fold the banana leaves and/or foil layer over to create a seal and cook in a 325°F oven for at least 3 hours. At this point, it is a good idea to begin checking internal temperature for doneness. You want the meat practically flaking apart and this generally means aiming for a temperature of 160° to 170°.

Cochinita Pibil in banana leaves with recado rojo marinade seville bitter orange annatto achiote paste

Pictured: about 170°...how you doin'?

Once you hit your target temperature, remove the cochinita from the oven and let it rest about 10 minutes. Ladle with a slot spoon into a large bowl and shred the cubes, just as you would shred pulled pork. Once shredded, I like to pour in a bit of the residual marinade from the pan – but I do my best to siphon off what I can of the oils and fat.

Cilantro-Lime Rice in green bowl basmati

About two hours into the braising process (i.e., an hour or so before it’s finished), you want to think about beginning your cilantro-lime rice.

Sauté your rice in the canola or vegetable oil until translucent and then add the water. Bring it all to a boil and cook for about 17 minutes for basmati (or 20 minutes for white long-grain). Remove from heat and DO NOT UNCOVER for thirty minutes, giving the steam time to naturally “fluff” the rice. Just prior to serving, dissolve the salt into the lime juice and mix in, along with cilantro.

I generally prefer to keep the finished dish as simple and rustic as possible but a sprinkling of cilantro or queso oaxaca (a semi-soft Mexican cheese, analogous to mozzarella) would not be inappropriate. Some will splash a bit more lime juice over the dish at the table but I personally prefer to not overwhelm the surprisingly sophisticated layering of balanced flavors.

And, if you’re not really a rice person (…weirdo…), the cochinita meat lends itself equally well to contemporary tacos (alongside micro-greens, queso oaxaca and a splash of salsa verde), flautas or what I just decided will be my next batch of tamales…………damn, this blog is going to make me fat.

Cochinita Pibil and Yellow Spring Mango Salsa with banana leaf and ceramic bowl and burlap tablecloth

…or, of course, served with a side of my stupidly-hot Yellow Spring Salsa (with mango and Andean manzano chiles).

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