TACOS DE COCHINITA PIBIL
On a recent trip down to Cabo San Lucas, Lauren and I had dinner at a restaurant serving the largest margaritas I’d ever seen and some pretty decent Mexican food, as well. We were told this is where we would find the most authentic cuisine in town. After paying off the Mariachi band to stop harassing us and shrugging off the guy selling roses, “authentic” is not the word that came to mind. Still, the food was good. That night I ordered Tacos de Cochinita Pibil for the first time, and while I’m sure they’re better in the Yucatan, I thought this was a great alternative to your run-of-the-mill taco plate.
Not your crispy, sometimes greasy carnitas or dried out carne asada, this meat was juicy beyond belief and delicately flavored with achiote and garlic. Served on handmade tortillas and topped with housemade salsa and tart pickled red onions, this might have been the best food I had on the entire trip.
When I got back home, I set out to recreate the dish and picked up a copy of Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen for $6.00 at a used bookstore. The tacos were met with rave reviews from friends, even without the influence of ginormous maragaritas.
TACOS DE COCHINITA PIBIL
While you can buy achiote seasoning from most Mexican markets, the paste will offer a more pronounced flavor. When making the paste, keep in mind that achiote seeds will dye your hands and cutting board red. If you don’t want to make a huge mess, do what I did and make your paste in a mortar and pestle if you have one. I couldn’t find banana leaves on short notice and decided to omit them; the dish still tasted spectacular.
For the Achiote Seasoning Paste:
- 2 tablespoons achiote (annato) seeds
- 2 teaspoons allspice preferably fresh ground
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 generous teaspoon table salt
For the Tacos:
- 2-pound piece lean boneless pork shoulder
- 6 tablespoons sour orange juice or 1/4 cup fresh lime juice plus 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- 2 12-by-18-inch pieces of banana leaf (optional)
- 16 to 18 fresh corn tortillas
- 1 1/2 cups pickled red onions (recipe follows)
- cilantro sprigs for garnish
- Makes the achiote paste: Very finely grind the achiote seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. In a small bowl mix in the allspice, pepper, oregano and vinegar. Roughly chop the garlic, sprinkle with the salt and work into a fine paste on your cutting board. Add the achiote mixture to the garlic and work the two together until well mixed. If necessary, dribble on and work in up to two tablespoons of water to give it the consistency of a thick but spreadable paste.
- Marinate the pork: In a large bowl, mix together the juice and the achiote paste. Add the pork along with the achiote marinade to a large resealable zip-top bag and smear the mixture into every crevice of the meat. Refrigerate overnight.
- Roast the Pork: Preheat the oven to 325°. If using banana leaves, line them along the inside of a large dutch oven, draping the excess over the sides of the pot. Set the meat in the pot and scrape all the remaining marinade over the top before enclosing it in the banana leaves. If you’re not using the leaves, just throw everything in the pot. Drizzle one cup of water around the meat and put the lid on the pot and roast until very tender, about 3 hours. Be sure to check the liquid level in the pot occasionally and replenish with water if it looks to be drying up too quickly. After roasting, use two spatulas to remove the meat to a cutting board and pour the juices into a large measuring cup or gravy separator.
- Prepare the meat for tacos: Once the meat has cooled a bit, roughly chop or shred the meat and sprinkle it with a little salt before returning it to the pot it was roasted in. Spoon the fat off of the juices, then pour a little into the shredded pork to to keep it moist. Cover and keep warm over low heat. Transfer remaining juices to a small sauce pan to keep warm.
- Serve the tacos: Steam or griddle the tortillas and set aside wrapped in tin foil or a large, thick kitchen towel. Serve the tacos by placing 2-3 tablespoons of the cochinita pibil into each tortilla and ladling on a portion of the warm juices. Top with pickled red onions and a few sprigs of cilantro.
This recipe can be made 2 to 3 days ahead through step three. Cover and refrigerate the meat separate from its juices.
PICKLED RED ONIONS:
- 1 small red onion, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
- 1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoons dried mexican oregano
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 1/3 cup cider vinegar
- Blanch the onion slices in salted boiling water for 45 seconds. Drain and place in a bowl.
- Coarsely grind the peppercorns and cumin in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and add to the onions. Add the remaining ingredients plus enough water to barely cover. Let stand for several hours at room temperature until the onions turn pink and the flavors marry. Onions can be stored for two weeks in the refrigerator.
Makes 1 cup