Made in the traditional way, as it is in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, cochinita pibil starts with large pieces of bone-in pork rubbed with a spice paste anchored by fragrant red annatto seed and sour orange. The meat is then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted on hot rocks in a deep pit (pib) until meltingly tender and infused with the earthy flavors of the spices and grassy fragrance of the banana leaf. Spicy pickled onions, called xnipec, are often served with the roasted pork to brighten the flavors. Achiote paste and banana leaves can be found at most Latin markets.
Roasted Pork with Spicy Pickled Onions
3 lb. (1.5 kg) boneless pork butt, cut into 4 equal pieces
3 1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped
6 large garlic cloves
2 Tbs. achiote paste
2 Tbs. fresh lime juice
2 Tbs. white vinegar
1 Tbs. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
2 banana leaves
1/3 cup (1/2 oz./15 g) chopped fresh cilantro
For the pickled onions:
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1 Tbs. fresh orange juice
1 Tbs. white vinegar
1/4 small habanero chile, seeded and finely minced
1/2 tsp. sea salt
Rub the pork on all sides with 2 tsp. of the salt and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
In a blender or food processor, combine the onion, garlic, achiote paste, lime juice, vinegar, cumin, oregano and remaining 1 1/2 tsp. salt and process to a smooth puree, stopping to scrape down the sides of the blender jar or work bowl as needed. Rub the pork on all sides with the spice paste. Place in a large glass or stainless-steel bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
Meanwhile, prepare the banana leaves. If using frozen banana leaves, thaw them in a large bowl or pot of warm water. If using fresh, rinse the leaves in water. Wipe the leaves clean with a damp kitchen towel. Using tongs, hold a leaf 2 inches (5 cm) above the flame of a gas burner, passing each side over the flame a few times until it turns a uniform brighter green; this softens the leaf and helps prevent cracking. Repeat with the remaining leaf. Stack the leaves on a clean work surface and set aside.
Preheat an oven to 325°F (165°C). Place a steamer basket or small wire rack in a Dutch oven or large ovenproof sauté pan with a lid. Pour water into the pan up to but not touching the bottom of the steamer basket.
Cut 2 pieces of banana leaf, each 12 inches (30 cm) long and 24 inches (60 cm) wide. Place 1 piece on a work surface and arrange the pork in the center; it’s okay if the pieces of pork overlap. Sprinkle with the cilantro. Fold up the long ends of the leaf to cover the meat, then fold the short ends over the meat, leaving the seam on top. Lay the second banana leaf on a work surface perpendicular to the first. Place the wrapped bundle on the second banana leaf and wrap again in the same way so that the second leaf covers the seams of the first. Tie the bundle twice in each direction with kitchen twine to secure tightly.
Place the bundle in the steamer rack, cover the pan and place in the oven. Roast until the meat is very tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove the packet from the oven and open a corner gently to test for doneness with a skewer; the meat is done when the skewer slips easily into the meat.
Meanwhile, to make the pickled onions, in a small bowl, combine the red onion, lime juice, orange juice, vinegar, habanero, and 1/2 tsp. salt and stir to mix well. Cover and let marinate at room temperature for at least 1 hour. Or, cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.
To serve, transfer the pork to a serving platter, snip the strings and unwrap. Pour any juices from the pan over the meat. Serve immediately with the pickled onions. Serves 6 to 8.
Recipe adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Latin Cooking