So yestarday I decided to once again to go super nuts in the kitchen and whip up another batch of Puerco Pibil (aka Cochinita Pibil), the amazing (I think) pork dish that Robert Rodriguez educated the world with on the DVD for Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Where ever you stand on the film itself (some love it, some hate it) the dish that Agent Sands eats in every dive he goes to in Mexico is one that I have completely fallen for.  I think one of the main draws for me is that it’s a new Mexican flavor to me.  I’m so used to the more normal fare, salsas, verde salsas, creamy cheeses, corn tortillas, enchiladas, guacamoles, even moles, that I just want something new.  This dish from the Yucatan delivers in spades.  It’s citrus-y, spicy, and earthy (the annatto is all of the above), not to mention tender (much much more tender than even the best pulled pork.) 

Best of all it’s a very “from scratch” sort of recipe, so preparing it is very satisfying in terms of cooking something a little more difficult, but at the same time once you’ve done it, it becomes very simple.  This is the sixth time I’ve made it and by far this was the best batch.  I’m getting very comfortable with modifying recipes to make them turn out how I think they should be, something that I refused to do when I first started really cooking.

Anyway, here is the recipe as Robert Rodriguez give it on the DVD (which I’ve also added to the Cochinita Pibil wiki page):

Hardware: Blender, 8″x12″ baking pan (at least), coffee grinder (dedicated to spice grinding), decent sized cutting board (we’re dealing with 5lbs of pork here), Knife, tin foil for baking, large ziploc bag (for marinating), hand citrus juicer, rubber gloves (optional.)

Software: 5lbs of Pork Butt (bone out is easier to handle), 1/2 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup orange juice, the juice of five lemons, 8 cloves of garlic, 2 habanero peppers seeded and roughly chopped, 2 TBS salt, 5 TBS annatto seeds (typically found in mexican spice section), 8 whole allspice berries, 1 TBS black peppercorns, 2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp whole cloves, 1 shot of tequilla, and about 1/2-1 lb of banana leaves (probably the hardest ingredient to find.)

When cutting the habaneros you should probably use rubber gloves.  The juice and oils from the peppers will stay on your exposed skin for up to three days if you’re not careful and it will tingle and burn the entire time.  Also if you don;t use gloves and then touch your face you will be sorry, as the oils, even the smallest amount will stay for days, so be careful not to touch your eyes or pick your nose or anything.

Cut the pork butt into 2 inch squares, doing best to cut away the heavier veins of fat and sinew.

In the coffee grinder combine the annatto, black pepper, cumin, allspice, and cloves and grind to a medium powder.

In a blender add the lemon juice, orange juice, vinegar, garlic, habanero peppers, ground spices, salt and one shot of tequilla.  Blend until garlic and peppers break down.

Stick the meat into the ziploc bag and pour over the marinade.  Let sit in fridge for at least one hour, turning once.  You can marinate the meat overnight (the citrus will have begun to cook the meat and it will have changed to white, this is normal.)

Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees (fahrenheit).  Line the baking pan with banana leaves and then pour the meat and marinade ontop.  Cover the mixture with remaining banana leaves and then cover the pan tightly with tin foil so that no steam can escape during cooking.  Bake the meat for 4 hours.  Serve over white rice.  Makes 6-8 servings.

Now I’ve found that there are a few modifications that can make this dish turn out better on a regular basis.  The first couple times I made it, the dish varied, ususally in the tenderness department.  When I made it for my parents in Florida it burnt.  Basically I’ve found that if you drop the temperature down to between 300 and 325 (it will rise and fall during cooking, but will always be at least 300) and only cook the meat for 3-3 1/2 hours it always comes out tender and perfectly done.  Because different ovens very in temperature and then all ovens fluctuate while cooking, I’ve found that if you set the oven to 325 it’ll often go as high as 350 during cooking.  Mix that with a 4 hour cook time and the probabbility of drying out the meat doubles. 

I’ve also found the the citrus flavor to be a little richer if you substitute two of the lemons worth of juice for the juice of three limes.

I’ll be honest the first time you make this dish it’ll seem excessive, the long cook time, the list of ingredients, etc.  But after you’ve made it a couple times it really is easy to prepare and if you start early enough you can do other things while it’s cooking.  Also the more you make it the more you get out of the spices you bought to make it since you probably won’t be using them for much else.

I’m also experimenting with using this marinade on fish.  We tried doing it with catfish fillets for Carrie (who’s a lacto-ovo and fish vegetarian).  It didn’t turn out that great, mostly because I had to improvise on the cooking time.  We wrapped the meat in banana leaves and used a good bit of the marinade, and the fish (at 400 degrees for 15 minutes) just wasn’t done enough.  Typically 10 minutes at 400 would cook any fish, but because of teh extra layers of banana leaves and extra liquid I think it might need to cook a lot longer.  Next time we’re going to try it for 25 minutes and see how it goes.