Cochinita Pibil Tackled – The Mai Sisters’ Take on a Yucatan Favorite

IMG_2652Cochinita Pibil – finally tackled! My sis, Monica, and I teamed up this morning to cook a hunky 7.5 lb. bone-in porky bad boy. This Yucatan slow-braised pork goodness wrapped in banana leaves has haunted me for a good 5-6 years and led to a few sleepless nights. Not just any Pibil recipe, but Rick Bayless’ original grilled Pibil from his James Beard award-winning cook book, Mexico One Plate at Time (MOPAT). I’ve read this recipe countless times with joy, eager to jump into the kitchen, ready to roll up my sleeves. Yet, my ongoing dilemmas always boils down to two sour pickles: I need a spice grinder or steal the hubby’s coffee grinder. (Really? Invest in a grinder just to make one dish; who on earth would do that? My stubborn self never allowed me to buy one, based on my foolish principle, I guess. That’s silly, right?) and I need a kick-ass grill pit or dig my own pit out back for the sake of authenticity. Mind you, neither of which my hubby would happily agree to. As such, I’d turned to other Pibil recipes found online & via a friend which yielded decent “eats” but I yearned for more superior result. My mind and fingers always return to the doggy-eared MOPAT pages on my kitchen counter. 

Recently, I discovered Rick Bayless’ slow-cooker version of Pibil. I compared the grilled and slow-cooker recipes and identified the following differences:

Grilled Pibil: 1) called for 12 lbs. of pork butt/shoulder 2) grind dried spices to make your own achiote marinade 3) marinate the meat for several hours/overnight before grilling a few hours on a grill or in the oven. 

Slow-cooker Pibil: 1) called for only 3 lbs of pork meat 2) uses a store-bought block of achiote seasoning package for the marinade 3) no marinate time, but cook directly in a slow-cooker for 6 hrs.

I had a cooking epiphany (if you will) with my newfound knowledge the other night. Why not grind my own spices, make my own paste like the grilled version but use  7-8 lbs. of pork butt (no plans to feed my local town with a 12 pounder). I’ll skip the overnight marinate time and save digging my own pit for another day by employing my barely used, kitchen relic, the slow-cooker. In a few hours, I could be stuffing my face with my own Pibil, perhaps? Dilemmas resolved! Cochinita Pibil – so ON! And yes, I was the “silly” fool who hi-jacked her hubby’s coffee grinder. A spanking new replacement awaited him the next morning.

Monica and I rarely are in the same kitchen cooking together. It was a real treat to have her down in the trenches with me this morning to overcome a nagging recipe. Here’s our take on the MOPAT recipe.

Some cooking notes: 1) Monica had a brilliant idea to poke some holes with a knife into the big hunk of meat to allow the marinade to penetrate deeply into the flesh. Good call, Mo! 2) We wanted Pibil like, TODAY. 6+ hours on low was a bit of a torture for the impatient Mai sisters so we started with 2.5 hours on HIGH in the slow-cooker to jump-start the cooking process then reduced to LOW for another 2 hours (+ maybe another 30-45 min). Five +  hours later, the results are: moist, flavorful, tender fall-off-the-bone Pibil. 3) To avoid the meat turning into mush, we kept the slow-cooker on the Keep Warm setting for a couple of hours while we ate and cleaned-up.

We decided to pair our hard-earned Pibil (Just kidding! It was super easy to make.) with thinly sliced red onions pickled in lime juice & Thai chili (my added touched), fresh avocado, chopped cilantro, and spicy tomatillo/habanero salsa. The whole thing was wrapped in warm corn and flour tortillas.

T’was a really good meal and this could seriously feed a crowd. My sis’ only complaint was we needed to up the ante and make a spicier version with a redder achiote colour on the meat on the next round. Noted!

Serves 8-10 people (or more?) 

Pibil Ingredients :

7.5 -8 lbs. bone-in pork butt/shoulder

3 tsp annato/achiote seeds

4 tsp dried Mexican oregano

4 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp cumin seeds (I ran out of cumin seeds, used 1 tsp cumin powder)

1 stick canela/ cinnamon, 2 1/2 ” long (break up into pieces with fingers to help grinder along)

1/2 tsp cloves

3/4 C (+ or -) freshly squeezed lime juice

1/2 C (+ or -) freshly squeezed orange juice

10 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

4 tsp kosher salt

2 long pieces of frozen banana leaves, thawed (roughly 2 ft each)

1/4 Cup water (to add to slow-cooker later)

Instructions

Achiote Marinade:

1. In a spice/coffee grinder, add cumin, oregano, peppercorn, cloves, canela/cinnamon stick, grind until fine & powdery (as fine as possible). Pour powdery mix into a bowl.

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2. Add annato/achiote seeds into grinder. Grind until fine and powdery. Pour grinded annato/achiote mix into the same bowl with the other spice mix. Add salt.

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3. In a blender, add lime/orange juice, spice mix, and garlic. Blend until very smooth. Once blended, our blender yielded 1.5 cups of marinade.

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Prepare Pork Butt:

1. Place bone-in pork butt in a large bowl or container. Using a sharp knife, pierce a few cuts into deepest part of the meat.

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2. Pour marinade over meat. With clean hands (gloves helps here), evenly massage marinade into meat, ensuring all nooks and crannies are covered. Set aside.

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Prepare the Slow cooker:

1. Line banana leaves in the slow cooker. Lay first piece horizontally at the bottom of slow cooker. Lay second piece vertically. Gently pressing down the leaves to the bottom to make room for the pork butt.

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2. Add pork butt inside slow cooker with all the marinade liquid atop banana leaves. Pour 1/4 Cup of water along the sides of the meat. Like a present, fold over the banana leaves, tucking in the pieces firmly.

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3. Place lid over slow cooker. Set on HIGH for first 2.5 hours. Then reduced to LOW for 2 hours (give or take another 30-45 minutes) for added insurance. LOL.  After 5 + hours, check meat for tenderness. Tenderness is confirmed when meat has shrunken, with bone exposed, and falls apart easily with a fork. Occasionally, drizzle some of the braising liquid over the meat.

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4. Skim off excess fat from surface. Ladle about a 2-2.5 cups of the braising liquid into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce to about 1.5 Cups. When ready to serve, use two forks to shred enough of the meat intended for that meal (unless serving the entire pork butt in one sitting). Pour the reduced liquid over shredded meat and mix evenly. This ensures added moistness to the meat.

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Putting it all together:

1. On a serving tray, we had a bowl of chopped avocado sprinkled with fresh coriander/cilantro, pickled red onions marinaded with lime/orange juice and thai chiles, fresh limes (for those wanting to squeeze a little atop their pibil tacos), and more cilantro/coriander sprigs.

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2. Warm corn/flour tortillas ready to go.

3. A couple of salsas of choice: we had roasted tomatillos and spicy habanero. We bought salsas from a local mom & pop Mexican market that cranks out quality, fresh, homemade salsas daily. This spared us a step; more time to chow down.

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Pickled Red Onions Ingredients:

2 small or 1 large red onions

1/4 Cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1-2 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice (optional)

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp granulated sugar

4-5 fresh Thai chiles (optional)

Instructions:

1. Slice red onions into paper-thin rings. Rinse cut onions under running water for 10-15 seconds and drained well.

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2. Place onions into small bowl. Add lime and orange juices, kosher salt, sugar, and Thai chiles. Use a knife to poke a few holes into each chile pod to release some heat.

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3. Mix well. Set aside to marinate. Occasionally, give the onions a toss. Serve with Pibil when ready.

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Vietnamese Braised Pork Butt with Eggs – Thit Kho Trung Ga

imageDinner the other night was somewhat like an ode to my native childhood comfort food – Thit kho trung ga or Vietnamese braised pork butt and eggs with a side of jasmine rice, and steamed, long beans, harvested from our garden by my eager and helpful jr. gardener/sous chef. The beans were cooked a bit passed al dente this time as my other half prefers a less squeaky, crunchy dining experience. What a shame! I actually enjoy the crunch, crunch, crunch of those fresh green things.

My mama use to make this subtly sweet but definitely savory favorite pork dish countless times. Traditionally, it was always present at our dinner table on Chinese New Year. She prefers using fresh pork bellies with the fat and skin intact which yielded a really fatty, delicious, rich flavor. My brother and I usually battled for the braised eggs. We often split the eggs open, mash the egg yolks with our steamed white rice, and drizzle the braising liquid over our “smashed” concoction. It was yummy then and now. My mama often pairs the pork dish with a side of green vegetables of some sort, usually steamed or boiled water spinach, chinese broccoli, and certainly with long, chopstick beans. My papa was (still is), a long beans-a-holic. Like Forest Gump with shrimps, my papa can eat “them” beans, day or night, fried, boiled, steamed, fresh, etc. It’s surprising to me that I’m traveling down the same path as my old man. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, I suppose.

My version of Thit kho trung ga is slightly different than my mama’s. Okay, maybe a lot different. She’ll be 80 soon; I don’t think she cares. I use pork bellies when available but pork butt with some fat on each cut piece works great for me. I have to add my holy trinity of ginger, garlic, and sweet Vidalia. When I have time and the mood strikes, I often include some roasted shallots into the braising liquid for a slight smoky note. Unlike my mama, I prefer my thit kho way more savory than sweet so I just use half coconut juice and half water. Too much coconut juice will yield a sweet braising liquid. When it was just my hubby and me, I added a couple of whole fresh thai chilis with a few holes poked into them. This released the pleasant heat but seeds remained in the pod which spared my hubby some tears come dinnertime.

Here’s my recipe. Yields approximately 6-7 servings when paired with a side or two

Ingredients:

2.5 – 3 lbs. pork butt/shoulder with some fat (pork belly is great here; add skin/fat for more flavor), cut into large 2″ cubes

7-8 large eggs

1 1/2 C young coconut juice or (canned coconut juice, not milk)

1 1/2 – 2 C water (for braising)

1/4 C granulated sugar

1/4 C fish sauce (perhaps more later)

1 tspn dark soy sauce

1/4 C sweet yellow onions (like Vidalia or Maui) finely diced

2 Tbsp minced garlic

1/2 Tbsp minced or grated ginger

4 shallots, peeled & smashed, dry roasted on a pan or in toaster oven for 7-8 min to lightly charred (optional)

kosher salt: 1 Tbsp (to 1st blanch meat) / 1 tspn to (braise meat later)

1/2 tspn fresh ground black pepper

2 T white distilled vinegar (to blanch meat)

 

Steps:

1. In a dutch oven or 5 qt. stock pot, filled halfway with water, bring to a boil on high heat. Add meat, 1 Tbsp salt, and vinegar. Blanch on boiling for 5-6 minutes. Use a ladle, skim off impurities from the surface. Pour meat into a colander, rinse off impurities from meat, drain well. Set aside. Wash/dry stock pot for braising meat later.

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2. In a small sauce pan, add eggs, filled with water, submerge eggs in water completely. Boil on med/high heat for 5-8 minutes. Remove sauce pan from heat. Drain and cool eggs. Peel eggshells. Set peeled eggs aside.  (Tip: Add 1 tsp of baking soda to boiling water to help with eggshell removal later.)

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3. Make caramel sauce: Use the same dutch oven/stock pot (washed and dried of course), set on med heat. Add 1/4 Cup sugar and 2 Tbsp water. Allow sugar to dissolve and turn into a golden brown colour. (roughly 5-7 minutes. Don’t walk away!) Stir occasionally. To be safe, when the sugar turns a caramel colour, take the pot off heat for a second to avoid burning. It’s a fine line here between caramel sauce and burnt sugar; can easily go south instantly.

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4. Quickly add ginger, garlic, onions, roasted shallots, 1 tsp salt, ground black pepper, dark soy sauce and meat. Mix all ingredients well. Bring the pot back on the flame, at med heat. Add coconut juice, enough water to completely submerge the meat. Bring to a gentle boil for 25 min. (Note: add fish sauce later. Adding too soon will result in slightly bitter braising liquid.)

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5. Skim off impurities from the surface. Add 1/4 Cup fish sauce, boiled eggs. Ensure eggs are fully submerged in the braising liquid. Cover lid. Cook on low/med heat for another 25-30 min until meat is tender.

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6. Remove lid, taste meat for tenderness and braising liquid for seasoning. Depending upon preference, one may need a splash more fish sauce, soy sauce, or a pinch of sugar for those wanting more sweetness. A little more fish sauce never hurts in my book.

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Enjoy, with a side of steamed, jasmine rice and some boiled or steamed veggies of choice!

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