Yucatan Pulled Pork Tacos with Pickled Red Onions (Cochinita Pibil) for Labor Day
Peggy Lampman | Contributor
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Labor Day’s on Monday — that beloved government-sanctioned holiday acknowledging the contribution us worker bees have made to the American economy by giving us the day off. It also signals the end of summer, is greeted with celebration, and so it follows, celebratory food.
In the relaxed spirit of the holiday, I reserve my energy for balancing a libation on my belly in a hammock. Therefore, I looked for a recipe that is festive, yet can be made — for the most part — in advance.
Cochinita Pibil, a slow-cooked pork dish seasoned with acidic juices and served with pickled red onions, is often part of Yucatan family celebrations, so why not ours? In Spanish, "cochinita" translates to "baby pig" and "pibil" is the Mayan word for buried, and traditionally a pig is wrapped in banana leaves then slow cooked over burning embers buried in the sand.
Rick Bayless, of Chicago’s Frontera Grill notoriety, penned a close to authentic version that looks absurdly delicious, yet absurdly labor-intensive, defeating my lazy-girl holiday intent. I found a recipe in Better Homes and Gardens that offers a crock-pot version of this famous dish, yet would not terribly offend those of Mayan descent.
The pickled red onions (Cebollas Encurtidas), tomato sauce (Chiltomate) and Achiote seasoning may be made a couple of days in advance. I slow-simmered the pulled pork the day before serving, and let the shredded meat stew in the cooking liquid overnight for added flavor.
Shot glasses shimmering with smoky mescal are a fine idea to pass, hazing the reality of manana.
(This recipe was adapted from Better Homes & Garden’s 2012 Special Interest Publications: Mexican.)
Yield: 16 tacos (8 servings)
2 red onions
1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup grapefruit juice
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cups lime juice, plus extra wedges for garnish
1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano* or regular oregano, crushed and divided
3 tablespoons ground annatto*
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 3-pound boneless pork shoulder roast, excess fat trimmed
1 bay leaf
1 (14 ounce) can tomatoes
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 can (4 ounces) chopped green chilies, mild to hot, according to desired level of heat
16 6-inch corn tortillas
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Crumbled queso fresco
*I purchased these ingredients at Kerrytown’s Spice Merchants, but these spices, common to Mexican cuisine, are available anywhere authentic Mexican food stuffs are sold.
1. To make the Cebollas Encurtidas (pickled onions), position rack in oven 4-5 inches from heat and preheat broiler. Cut one of the onions into 1/2-inch slices, reserving the other.
2. Arrange onion slices on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil about 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until tender and just charred. When cool enough to handle, separate into rings, discarding any blackened pieces.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine 1/4 cup grapefruit juice, 2 tablespoons orange juice, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 teaspoon garlic and 1 teaspoon crushed oregano. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Place onion rings in liquid, cover, and refrigerate 4 to 48 hours.
4. To make an Achiote seasoning, in a small bowl add 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon ground black pepper. To that stir in annatto, remaining teaspoon oregano, cumin, cinnamon and allspice. Rub mixture into entire pork. Place pork in a large dish or a large resealable plastic bag. Chill, refrigerated, 4 to 24 hours.
5. Thinly slice remaining red onion, and place in a 4-to 5-quart slow cooker. Add remaining grapefruit juice, orange juice and lime juice. Stir in remaining garlic and bay leaf and place roast in mixture, on top of the onions. Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 8 to 10 hours or on high-heat setting 4 to 5 hours, or until meat may be easily pulled apart with forks.
6. Meanwhile, make the Chiltomate Sauce by placing tomatoes, vinegar and chili peppers in a blender or food processor. Cover and process until smooth. Season to taste with kosher salt. Transfer mixture to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes or until sauce is desired consistency. (This step may be done up to 48 hours in advance.)
7. Just before meat is cooked and ready to be shredded, heat an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Brush tortillas lightly with oil. Heat each tortilla, one at a time, in skillet on both sides until softened. Wrap in foil to keep warm.
8. Remove pork from slow cooker. Discard bay leaf and let pork rest until cool enough to handle. Using two forks, pull meat apart into shreds and toss with a bit of juice to moisten but not saturate. (Note: At this point, shredded pork may be returned to cooking liquid and refrigerated 24 hours. Drain and reheat when ready to serve.)
9. To assemble tacos, place shredded meat on center of warm tortilla, top with pickled onions, tomato sauce and queso fresco. Serve.
Peggy Lampman is a real-time food writer and photographer posting daily feeds on her website and in the Food & Grocery section of Annarbor.com. You may also e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.