I had friends over on Saturday night for dinner. Originally I had planned this around my friend Jim visiting from California (so difficult to get him on a plane). But plans changed, mostly due to skyrocketing fuel prices and airplane fees, so he went on vacation locally with his family instead. But I still had my local friends over anyway.
For them I made cochinita pibil, one of my most favorite Mexican dishes. It's not the Americanized "Mexican" food we have here, and it's definitely not what you imagine when you think of Mexican. I've eaten it a few times in California (The best place to find it in the Inland Empire? The Casa Maya in Mentone) , and one buddy made it for me one time I was visiting. I've even eaten it at a diner in the historic section of Mexico City - have no idea if it's there anymore - and I'm pretty sure I had it at least once in Mérida, Yucatán - it is, after all, not a national but a Yucatecan dish.
There are many recipes for cochinita pibil on the internet and in cookbooks, and a few ways to prepare it, be it the oven, the Dutch oven or the slow cooker. The important thing is to marinade it overnight, wrap it in banana leaves and then cook it for a few hours. I wanted to break out the slow cooker, so I wouldn't have to stand there and monitor it all day. After searching for a good slow cooker version I found this version translated from the standard oven-based recipe by Rick Bayless himself (here's the most authentic version of his recipe, which requires building a pit to cook it in the ground).
This recipe is relatively simple, if you have everything you need, but it does take a little preparation. You need at least 2 to 3 lbs of pork butt/shoulder - I got a 5 lb picnic shoulder from Giant for just $7 on sale, and ended up cooking the whole thing. With that you also need a chopped up white onion, banana leaves to wrap it in, and some achiote paste. Achiote paste is quite easy to find in Southern California, but almost impossible to find here. So came the more time consuming task of making my own achiote paste from scratch. Again, there are many online, ranging from the simple to the elaborate. I chose something on the more elaborate side, and set my spice grinder to work.
The most difficult ingredient to find is the annatto seed, which you can find in any supermarket with a very well-stocked Latin American or Mexican section. And you should be able to find it in any Latino or Mexican market. The second most difficult thing to find is the bitter (or Seville) orange. In fact, it is much more difficult to find than annatto seed, but unlike annatto you can make a reasonable substitute for bitter orange by mixing orange juice with either lime or lemon juice. If you can find the real stuff, however, use it. After running all over Baltimore I found a bottle of Goya bitter orange / naranja agria marinade at Wegman's (which I later saw at the Giant just a 20 minute walk from my place).
I finally settled on this recipe from Chow.com, since it had some interesting flavors and since I had almost all the ingredients. I won't quote the recipe, but it calls for pan-seared garlic, cloves,whole cumin, whole coriander seed, kosher salt, allspice berries and black peppercorns, in addition to the annatto seeds and bitter orange juice. I had no allspice berries, but since most recipes don't call for them, I didn't sweat it.
After grinding the annatto and other seeds, blending the bitter orange juice and the garlic, and mixing it all together, you get something that looks like this:
It's difficult to describe the unique taste of this stuff, but it is definitely not what you think of when you think "Mexican" cuisine.
After that, score the pork butt and rub the achiote all over it, put it in a large ziploc bag or a sealed-up bowl to marinate overnight, and then cook the damn thing. To paraphase Rick Bayless' recipe: he suggests lining a slow cooker with the banana leaves (So far I have only been able to find them at Wegman's; not even H-Mart has them!), put in the pork, dump in the marinade and about 1/2 cup of water (since I had more pork, I just added more water), then wrap the pork in the rest of the banana leaves over it and slow cook it for at least 6 hours. Since he never says to do it on low or high, I had to search for that elsewhere. What few authorities I found suggested either low for 10 to 12 hours, or high for 6 hours. So I went for 6 hours on high.
And in the slow cooker. Make sure you have enough banana leaves to completely cover it. Okay, you technically don't need them in the slow cooker, but they make for a better presentation and do, in fact, keep the meat a little moister.
There is one final, indispensable component to cochinita pibil, and it's not tortillas, although those are helpful. You always eat it with red onions that have been pickled in bitter orange juice and a little sprinkle of salt for several hours. So simple, Bayless just spends two sentences mentioning how: just slice a red onion thin and marinate in the juice (I used a cup of bitter orange juice for one large red onion) and sprinkle some kosher salt on it.
Throw it in a plastic baggie and voila! It should be marinated much longer, but I didn't have much longer.
It's startling how the meat just falls off the bone after cooking it for this long, too. Eat it with some rice, black beans and tortillas, and fresh salsa (Bayless recommends homemade roasted habanero salsa, which they would eat in Yucatán, but I don't like my mouth to hurt). Wonderful stuff!