My friend Shane is a fine cook in her own right, especially so since she lives on a moored boat in the Skagit river and has a teeny, tiny little kitchen. The other day, she posted about ‘A splash of tequila for the puerco pibil and one for the chef,’ and a lightbulb went off. It’s been a long, long time since I’d prepared this delightful Yucatecan specialty.
The heartbeat of this recipe is the marinade and the low and slow cooking method – Things as old as the land it springs from – the word Pibil may well stem from the Mayan noun for roast, but it’s come to mean the specific marinade used for this dish. The pinnacle of the art is Cochinita Pibil, a suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked low and slow in a pit dug in the ground, with hot rocks as the heat source – Very similar to traditions from the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands, among other hot spots.
The rocket fuel here is a highly acidic marinade, Pibil, focused on bitter orange, (AKA Seville orange) – That’s pretty legendary stuff, and for good reason – It originated in Southeast Asia, but has taken root all around the world as cooks have discovered its legendary qualities and transplanted variants across the globe. Bitter orange is the go to source for British marmalade, as it has very high pectin content and sets quite firmly.
If you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.
Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As most commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own. Here’s mine –
Urban’s Faux Sour Orange
All juices fresh squeezed
1/4 Cup Orange Juice
1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)
Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to
The other vital leg to pibil is Annatto, the seed of the Achiote tree, also known as the Lipstick tree. Annatto is widely used as a food coloring – It’s what makes cheddar yellow in many iterations, but that’s selling it short. Annatto is subtle, but necessary in a whole bunch of Mexican recipes, and for good reason – I’ve heard it described as smelling like cinnamon or nutmeg, but I’ve never found those notes – What it imparts to me is a base earthiness, with hints of nuts and pepper – It’s hard to describe, but the fact is, if it’s missing from a recipe to which it’s seminal, like pibil, then you know right away, and the recipe just ain’t right.
The other musts for this recipe are a proper marinating phase, and a relatively low and slow cook, both of which are easy to do, either inside or out. Here’s our take on this classic dish. Note that we leave you wide latitude in the heat constituent – As with many things, there are plenty of recipes out there touting hefty amounts of seriously hot chiles for pibil, and frankly, that’s not how it’s typically done down south. If you want to make it nuclear, go for it, but know that the true beauty of pibil is the marriage of all the ingredients, without one swamping the rest – And for the record, I used fresh Fresno chiles and they were lovely.
One final note – Annatto is, as described, a colorant, and a pretty potent one at that – It will color your skin, your sink, your counter tops, and anything else it gets in contact with, so be cognizant and careful.
Puerco Pibil de UrbanMonique
2 Pounds Pork Roast, (Butt, Shoulder, Loin are all fine.)
1 Cup Sour Orange Juice (or Sub)
2 cloves Garlic
2+ whole Chiles (anything from Anaheim to Habañero)
2 Tablespoons Anatto seed
1 teaspoon whole Black Pepper Corns
1/2 teaspoon Cumin seed
2 Whole Cloves
3 Allspice Berries
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
As we always note, it’s best to use whole spices, and I trust that you are – If not, just roll with it.
Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.
Combine all dry ingredients in a spice grinder, or mortise, and process/grind to a fine, consistent powder.
Add all dry ingredients to the juice and blend thoroughly.
Cut pork into roughly 1/2″ chunks, and transfer those to a one gallon ziplock bag.
Pour the marinade into the bag and seal, then shake to thoroughly coat the meat.
Marinate for a minimum of four hours and as long as six – Don’t exceed that, as the degree of acidity in the pibil can and will make mush of your meat if you let if work too long.
Preheat oven to 300° F
Preferably, you want cast iron, or enameled cast iron for the cooking vessel. Choose something that will not let the meat spread out too much. Pour the meat and marinade into the dish/pan and tamp it down lightly. Cover with foil.
Bake for 90 minutes and then check temperature and texture. When your meat is 160° F and fork tender, remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes, covered.
Serve as tacos, or loose with rice, beans, quick pickled onions, fresh cotija cheese, or whatever else floats your boat.