Thursday, November 13, 2008

Puerco pibil

I finally got around to digging a pit so I could do a real "Yucatan style" pit-roasted pig.

I dug a hole 3'x 4'x 2 1/2' which I lined with brick that was salvaged from a recently demolished school. The size of my pit was determined by the size of the steel cover that my friend scrounged up from his shop. Although the finished with of 30" is good, I intend to lengthen it to 5-6 ft from the 42" that it is now. The 50 lb. pig that I got had to be beheaded in order to fit in the pit.

The pit happily burning away.

The almost complete lack of good descriptions for this style of pit-roasting is sad. I was able to find some good info on how to do it "luau style". Most recipes will give a short explanation of how it used to be cooked it in a pit, but go on to describe making it in an oven or crock pot. Pit roasting is a smoke steaming process and without the smoke from burning banana leaves it will not be the same. Sure, pork slow cooked in an achiote marinade will be tasty but it wont be puerco pibil.

The marinade

8 oz. annatto seed
1.75 oz. black peppercorns
1 oz cumin seed
1/2 oz whole allspice
1 3" stick Ceylon cinnamon
1 1/2 lbs. peeled garlic
2 whole habanero chiles (from my garden)
4 cups of orange juice
1 cup of lime juice
1 healthy fistful of kosher salt
Grind the spices and puree with the balance of the ingredients.

Many sources (even Wikipedia) suggest that annatto is primarily used for color. One person even suggested substituting paprika. Annatto is one of the main flavors in the dish, paprika isn't at all appropriate. You wont have any trouble grinding the other spices but annatto seed is hard to grind to a fine powder. Grind it the best you can. The marinade will have a gritty texture but after the long cooking, the little bits will soften up and you shouldn't notice them.
I used lots of garlic, more than any recipe I read would suggest. Use your best judgment.
Traditionally, sour oranges would be the citrus of choice. Some day I will track some down and try them but I chose to use regular orange juice with some lime juice. Acidity is important and most recipes will suggest much more lime (or lemon which is similar in acidity to seville oranges) or even vinegar than I used here. I err on the less acidic side for things that are going to marinade for a long time. Years ago I made a pork shoulder in achiote that was made with vinegar and after a 24 hour rest, the vinegar had "cooked" the meat and I was unable to get an appealing texture after it was actually cooked. Be cautious with lime juice or vinegar but you could probably get away with more than I used.
The other crucial "ingredient" is banana leaf. You will be wrapping the pig completely in the leaves which will trap steam and add an important herbal flavor that is key to a proper end result. They should also be allowed to burn a little in order to get some smoke flavor. Don't use too many layers or the smoke wont penetrate.

The pig.

I bought a 50 lb. pig at the local butcher shop. As I mentioned before, even a very small pig like that was too long for my pit so we removed the head. We also removed the hocks so it would be easier to wrap in the banana leaves. From the inside, we cut some big slots into the thickest part of the rear legs and the shoulder so we could get some marinade in there and so it would cook more evenly.

Sucks to be delicious

Lay down multiple pieces of butcher twine and lay a couple of layers of banana leaves across them. Set the thoroughly rubbed down pig on top, cover completely with more leaves and tie it up.

We made a cradle out of some concrete reenforcement wire although any plain steel fencing or chicken wire would work well.

The fire.

My friend came over at 5 am Sunday morning to get the fire going. Standing around a huge fire, on a crisp fall morning, drinking a beer and watching the sun come up was extremely pleasant. It has been quite a while since I've had beer for breakfast and I forgot just how fun it is.

You will need a shit-load of fire wood to get enough hot coals to cook this thing for the nine or more hours it will spend in the ground. Most references suggest two to three times the volume of the pit and that is about right. We used a variety of scrap hardwoods from my friends shop that burned down to a nice 10" deep bed of coals in about two hours. If you are using logs, you may want to give yourself three to four hour to get it burned down enough. Shoot for a full 12" of coals. Put the pig, back down directly on the coals.

Place the cover over the pit and seal completely with damp dirt. If you see any places where steam or smoke are escaping cover with more dirt and pack it down. Now it's just a waiting game. We left ours for 10 hours and while it was done, It could have cooked a little longer. You are far more likely to under cook it than over cook it. My guess is that it would have been even better if we had left it until the next day. Once the pit is sealed the only thing cooking the meat is the residual heat stored in the brick. By a strange coincidence, my friend ran into a guy from Georgia at a bar in Pittsburgh the night before we did this. Having done many pig roasts, he gave him many pointers on how to go about it. He was correct for the most part but he did suggest that we add a bag of hardwood charcoal just before sealing the pit. This doesn't work. The coals will die down once they are deprived of oxygen and the charcoal never even lit. In fact, when we opened the pit it looked the same as when we closed it.


We ate it as tacos on home made tortillas (gotta do something with all that time while the thing roasts), shredded romaine, Pickled onions (onions, lime juice, orange juice, annatto oil and salt) and a tomatillo-panca chile salsa (roasted tomatillos, roasted garlic, aji panca, dry malt extract and salt).

That's probably how it actually looked to my Doppelbock compromised brain

The things that I need to keep in mind for my next time:

More entry points (cut more slots) for marinade and a longer marinading time- The flavor wasn't as strong as I would have liked.

Less banana leaves- They need a chance to char through in order to get some smoke flavor.

More coals- The pit didn't sustain enough heat to cook it as well as I had hoped. It fell just short actually "falling apart" tender. (We did build a fire on top of the lid toward the end to add more heat.)

If you've got some room in your yard, I suggest building your own pit. I expect to do a lamb next and maybe a goat after that. Or maybe a couple of banana leaf wrapped, mole' rubbed turkeys for thanksgiving.


OhioMom said...

I have been waiting for this post, cool pit! Where in the world did you find banana leaves ?


Every Mexican and Asian store sells them frozen in one pound bags. Many grocery stores are also beginning to stock them.

Ben said...

Thanks for a really good post. I had the same heat problem the last time I tried to smoke just a pork shoulder. I ran out of fuel and threw it in a low oven for a couple hours, and even then it wasn't quite "falling apart" tender, but company was over and ready for dinner. There were no complaints, though. I think smoking in colder temperatures extends the time as well.

Dave said...

that is awesome! been missing your posts....

lifeinrecipes said...

Man, you do not mess around - that looks awesome!

The CFT said...

Holy Shit!

pchak said...

Great job-
I wouldn't think the colder temp would be an issue, as the pit is well insulated (dirt), unlike a smoker, which is not, but you're adding more fuel to maintain a monitored temp.

I can imagine how good the lamb was as well!


Anonymous said...

I'm working on my own fire pit at this time. Mine is for cooking smaller foods like chickens or roasts, but your ideas and tips have been very helpful. Glad to know I can use all these spare bricks around here as the stone instead of having to scrounge around and look for field stones.

Cooking Asshole said...

You are a beast!

Melanie {The Tiny Tudor} said...

Well, this just makes my backyard fire pit look a little pathetic... Yours is amazing!
Saw your comment on A Piece of Cleveland. You have a little piece of history in that fire pit too with the Stanard School bricks. P