Porking All Day Long

Ruins at Cobá - I climbed these!

Ruins at Cobá – I climbed these!

I’ll bet you think this is going to be a saucy post about Valentine’s Day.  Nope! However, you’re in for a treat because I’m going to share some Mexican vacay tidbits and different way to enjoy some pulled pork: Mayan-style!  While visiting Playa del Carmen, I took the opportunity to get the heck out of the resort “fortress” and experience some real culture.  One of the excursions I took was called Cobá Sunset and was a later afternoon jaunt to the ruins that combined a bike ride (yes, we discussed that portion previously), a climb to the top of the ruins, dinner at an authentic restaurant serving traditional Mayan cuisine, a Mayan show in a cave, and a choice of either zip-lining and swimming in a cenote or visiting a school to do traditional Mayan pottery. Since I’m accident prone and artsy-fartsy, I chose the latter.

I had visions of what the school would look like based on my previous elementary school art classes.  Wrong!  The school is actually off the back of a small retail shop.  The school’s Mayan name translates to ‘Ancient Roots’ and the instructor, Augustin Villalba, came from Argentina to teach this traditional style of ancient pottery to children in several small towns surrounding Cobá.  The purpose is to provide the children with the historical perspective and craftsmanship of pottery-making from their own culture, keep them connected to their villages, and the pieces are then sold to provide necessities (food, etc.) to the villages.  I was about to drop wad in a Mexican batik place down the road but all of that changed because I’m a sucker for charity and children.  He actually had the kids helping out in the class.  We made pinch pots and I decided to leave mine (no need for broken unfired greenware all over my luggage) but purchased several of the items made by the children.  If you ever head to the Mayan Riviera, I highly recommend this excursion.

And now, let’s talk about the food.  I was staying at an all-inclusive and despite that the restaurants were very good, I wanted some authentic (non-Americanized) Mexican food.  I got my wish on this excursion.  I tried a traditional slow-roasted Mayan pork known as cochinita pibil. I also tried the chicken prepared in the same way and made a mental note to somehow replicate this dish upon my return home. The following recipe is for the pork. Feel free to substitute chicken if you wish. To make this, you will need to procure a special ingredient – achiote paste, which is made from annatto seeds and several spices.  It can be hard to find if you don’t have Latino or ethnic food markets in your area. After visiting several locations, I wound up getting mine online through Amazon. One brand looks like this:

El Yucateco Achiote Paste made from annatto seeds. Damn, that chef looks happy with his pig roast.

El Yucateco Achiote Paste made from annatto seeds. Damn, that chef looks happy with his pig roast.

You will also need some banana leaves. You can find them in the market in the frozen section, usually where the frozen Goya items reside.  And, you’ll need some patience – the meat has to marinate overnight and it will slow roast for several hours. So, if you think, “Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that,” you may want to throw some chops on the grill. However, I think you’ll find this earthy, mellow, spiced rendition of pulled pork well worth the wait.  You’ll be serving it with pickled onions (recipe also included in this post).

Lady Sensory’s At Least I Can Say I Got Porked in Mexico Mayan-Style Pulled Pork (Cochinita Pibil)

You will need:

3-4 oz. achiote paste (made from annatto seeds – I used El Yucateco)

3 – 3.5 lbs. pork, cut into chunks with some of the fat trimmed (pork shoulder is the preferred cut but I used a combination of shoulder and tenderloin)

8-9 cloves of garlic, minced

Juice of 1 grapefruit, 2 limes and 3 oranges (to mimic the bitter orange flavor – if you can get your hands on bitter oranges, by all means, use those)

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp cumin (I increased this from 1/2 tsp because my Venezuelan friend told me it needed a little more cumin)

1/4 tsp ground Saigon cinnamon plus one cinnamon stick

2 bay leaves

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

Banana leaves, thawed by running under tepid water (you will need these the next day when it is time to cook)

Remove some of the fat from the pork (not all, the fat helps with the texture and flavor!).  Cut into chunks that are around 2″ and leave some meat on the bone. You will be including that as well.  In a 9 x 13″ glass dish (or any large dish that is non-reactive), mix all of the ingredients above until the paste is fully incorporated (excluding the banana leaves).  Don’t wear anything too precious while making this – annatto stains!  Place pork in the mixture – it will be a very bright orangey-red. Allow to marinate 12-24 hours. The next day, preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and remove the pork from the mixture and place in the center of the banana leaves. I also included the cinnamon stick and bay leaves.  Wrap the banana leaves around the pork and place in a dutch oven (a.k.a. fancy pot) and cook in the oven for about 3.5 hours.  The banana leaves smell incredible while this cooks! In the meantime you will need to prepare your pickled onions, because they will pickle while the pork cooks. Once the onions are made and in the fridge you can clean up around the house or do some lazy retail therapy (online shopping) while you wait.

Lady Sensory’s Pick-a-Peck-of-Pickled-Onions

Juice of 1 lime and 3 small oranges

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 jalapeño pepper

1 large red onion

1 tsp sugar

Salt and pepper, to taste

Finished product - Todo es bueno (everything is good)! Cochinita Pibil (Mayan pulled pork)

Finished product – Todo es bueno (everything is good)! Cochinita Pibil (Mayan pulled pork)

Slice the onion in half and cut into thin slices (semi-circles). Slice the jalapeño lengthwise, remove the seeds and cut into small semicircles. Place in an airtight container. In a separate bowl, whisk together the citrus juice, vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper. Cover the onions and pepper with the mixture. Cover the container with a lid, refrigerate and allow to marinate while the pork is cooking (a few hours).

When the pork is ready, remove the pot from the oven and open the banana leaves. Use a fork to shred the pork and pull it away from the bone. Serve with pickled onions and traditional beans, rice and warm tortillas. I would say this serves anywhere from 6-8 people. I do have to confess that I enjoyed it even more in sandwich form on a crusty roll with just the pickled onions, so I definitely encourage you to try that with your leftovers for a quick lunch!  Mmm. Crusty roll. How I miss thee.

For additional info on Ancient Roots, check out some other articles that mention the school herehere, and here.

Oh, and I definitely wouldn't mess with this guy's pork. He means business!

Oh, and I definitely wouldn’t mess with this guy’s pork. He means business!


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