Football season brings chance to run cochinita pibil game plan
I'm happy to say my football season is off to a better start than the Bears.
I don't play on the field, of course. I keep my action in the kitchen, or more recently in the backyard when I drafted a team to execute my cochinita pibil game plan.
Several years ago I enjoyed a cochinita pibil at an old hemp hacienda on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Cooks marinate a suckling pig -- the cochinita -- in recado rojo (a blood red achiote-seed blend), wrap it in banana leaves and cook it in a pit -- the pibil.
Over the years I've thought about recreating that dish and last month, inspired by a promotion by the National Pork Board, I got my chance to cross that off my pork bucket list.
My first goal was to find directions, not just for the pork, but for the pit. Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago came to the rescue. On his PBS series "Mexico -- One Plate at a Time," he made this recipe and his step-by-step directions are online.
The pit preparation was pretty easy. Of course, I can say that because I watched my husband and sons dig the 16-inch deep hole. The key here is to know what size pan you're going to put the pig in -- instead of a full pig, I opted for three pork shoulders, which fit snugly into a large roasting pan. If the pit is too big, there's too much space for the heat to fill. So the hole should be 8 inches larger all around than the pan you are planning to use, and about 8 inches deeper. Chef Bayless' pit was 37-by-33-inches, and mine was roughly that.
Then we lined the pit with bricks -- the 8-inch kind you'd use to build a house or pave a patio -- and then we set a fire. I was worried about this part. We needed to "season" the pit, like you season a cast iron pan or pizza stone, and that happens by burning a fire in the pit for about seven hours. I thought it would mean seven hours of constant monitoring, but it didn't. I don't recommend leaving the house or going to bed with the fire unattended, but because the fire burns below ground it isn't as susceptible to wind gusts that might blow embers around. I could check on the fire from my family room window and add wood when needed to get it nice and hot.
I enlisted a pork-passionate friend to join the team. His position was to wake up at 5 a.m. on the day of our feast and get the cooking fire going. Wood needs to burn for five hours or so in order to build up a nice bed of coals on which the pork will cook. We overthought the means for lowering the heavy pan into the scorching pit (kitchen twine wrapped around the pan with long handles was one option) but it ended up that wearing oven mitts worked just fine for putting the pan in place. Immediately, we could hear the water in the bottom of the pan begin to bubble, reassuring us that the coals were indeed hot enough.
As we covered the pit with a piece of sheet metal and shoveled the dirt from the pit around the edges and on top we watched worms and other bugs crawl about wondering what had happened to their once damp, cool soil.
Then we waited while the pit did its work.
And this down time is why this recipe is a perfect fit for football days, especially Sundays when the Bears play at night. Put the meat in the marinade Saturday and start the coal-building fire not too terribly early Sunday morning. Once the cochinita is in the pibil (noonish) you have time to make the other dishes for your pigskin party (pickled onions and habanero salsa are traditional partners), put Negra Modelo and Jarritos on ice and check the batteries in the TV remotes.
After five hours, the pork was back in my house and I anxiously unwrapped the banana leaves in front of a kitchen full of friends. To our delight the aroma of savory spices filled the room and the pork was not burned to a crisp. The meat registered 165 degrees and was juicy and tender. Next time I'll leave it in the pit a full 6 hours to achieve even more fall-off-the bone tenderness.
My starting line got busy shredding the pork into big bowls while those on special teams set out the tortillas, black beans, rice and mixed up a pitcher of Bohemia Limeade. Guests rushed the table like we can only hope the Bears defensive line will this season.
Maybe they just need to picture the opposing QB as a plate of cochinita pibil.
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Preparing the backyard pibilThe day before, find a flat area in your backyard that's not too near your neighbors with no low-hanging tree branches. Measure and stake out an area that is about 8 inches larger all around than the pan you are planning to use, and about 8 inches deeper.
For this recipe, the roasting pan I use is a heavy-gauge aluminum roaster that measures about 21-by-17½-by-7 inches; it's made by Vollrath and can be purchased at most restaurant supply companies. If your pan matches mine, you'll be measuring and staking out a rectangular pit that's 37-by-33 inches. Dig the pit to an even depth of 16 inches, working to keep the sides straight and even all the way down. Keep the excavated dirt in a pile beside the pit. Line the bottom of the pit with bricks, fitting them tightly together, then line the sides up to the top, packing the bricks tightly against the earthen sides.
Build the fire(s): To warm up the bricks and ground around them (and also to "season" a newly dug pit), build a bonfire in the pit for seven hours or so the day before you cook the cochinita pibil. Early on the day of cooking, build another huge fire in the pit and let it burn for about five hours, adding logs regularly to keep the temperature up at around 700 or 800 degrees. (If you put your hand near the edge of the fire, it should be so hot that you'll have to withdraw it instantly.) About two hours before you'll be putting in the pig, stop adding wood; let the fire burn down to ash-covered embers.
Add the pan of meat, cover the pit with a steel or corrugated metal sheet, and immediately begin piling the excavated dirt around the edges of the sheet to prevent any oxygen from entering the pit. (You have to do this carefully and completely, since any oxygen leaks will cause the fire to continue burning -- which typically leads to a burned pig. It's the intense amount of residual heat in the brick-lined pit that cooks the pig.) Once the edges are sealed, spread all leftover dirt evenly over the pit-covering sheet. Typically, a 35-pound pig needs four to six hours to cook to fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
Rick Bayless, Season 5, "Mexico-One Plate at a Time"