fig. a: can you locate the pork shoulder?
The first time I ever heard about lechón asado was back in the early '90s when I was living in London. One of my closest friends at the time was a fellow US expat from Miami, and while her father was a Rhode Islander of Irish stock, many of his best friends down in Hialeah were Cuban and over the years he'd been initiated in the ritual of lechón asado. Evidently, he'd been well taught, because the former pupil had eventually managed to become the recognized master within his particular community. Come Christmas and New Year's--the two traditional dates for Cuban lechón asado--he was in high demand. Hire him and you'd get the full treatment--from the pig farm to the table.
Go to Miami over the holidays, make your way to Little Havana or any of the other neighborhoods in the region were Cubans are prevalent, and you'll smell the the distinctive smell of lechón asado being slow-cooked on Christmas Eve (a.k.a. Nochebuena) and New Year's Eve: the fires, the roasted banana leaves, the pork, the pungent marinade. By now I'm sure there are countless variations when it comes to preparing lechón asado (including ones involving the so-called China Box, that secret weapon in the Cuban barbecue arsenal), but the basic method is a pit barbecue method involving marinating a suckling pig (hence the name lechón, which is derived from leche, the Spanish for milk) for 24 hours in a Cuban adobo sauce (in this case, a sour orange and garlic-based marinade), digging a pit in your backyard, layering the pit with banana leaves, placing the pig in the pit, covering the pit with a sheet of steel, building a fire on top of the steel sheet, and then roasting the pig in the pit for the better part of a day. Gather your friends, drink your choice of beer and rum-based drinks liberally, listen to good music, perhaps do a little dance, and generally have yourself a swell time. Sound like fun? It is. The pig turns out great, too. Tender, juicy, and impossibly flavorful on the inside, crispy on the outside, it’s absolutely irresistible when dressed with Cuban mojo (which, it must be noted, is pronounced “mo ho” not “mo jo” outside of the blues idiom).
Now, 2006 had been somewhat of a Year of the BBQ around here, as those of you who've been following this year's activities are probably aware of. Sometime in November I started fixating on lechón asado, planning the event that would bring Year of the BBQ to a close. And while I was sure that "Grandpa," our landlord, would never in a million years let us dig a pit in his beautiful garden downstairs, I had visions of picking up an actual suckling pig and developing some kind of alternate roasting method that would remain as true to the original as possible. I eventually scrapped the idea of buying an actual suckling pig altogether primarily because of the cost. What I did instead was go back to our old friend the pork shoulder and try a variation on lechón asado, one that could more rightly be called puerco asado a la Cubana (or something to that effect). Sure, it wasn't going to turn out nearly as dramatically as a suckling pig and I was going to have to do without the pleasures of that crispy skin, but I was positive that the marinade + that pork shoulder was going to make for some awfully fine pulled pork, and I was excited about working with banana leaves, too, to lend some traditional lechón asado-like fragrance.
fig. b: Thai frozen banana leaves
Together with that traditional adobo and the distinctive notes imparted by the Mexican oregano (not to mention the traditional pit barbecue technique), it’s the banana leaves which help distinguish Cuban lechón asado from other forms of pork barbecue, Caribbean or otherwise. Here, the type of wood that’s burned plays a relatively insignificant part (unlike Jamaican and most American styles of barbecue). And that’s one of the reasons I felt comfortable working on an oven version.
Once I’d gotten myself some Mexican oregano and some banana leaves—you'll find them both at Jean-Talon Market, the former at Olives et Épices, the latter at La Dépense—I looked around for sour oranges (a.k.a. naranja agria). Clearly, sour oranges must be readily available somewhere to the south of us, but I struck out here in Montreal. Apparently, you can find Caribbean-style sour oranges in some of the city’s Latino grocery stores from time to time, but I opted to use lime juice and a combination of lime juice and orange juice instead for my adobo and mojo. Not quite the same thing, but perfectly acceptable in a pinch.
The only other thing I needed to attend to was the pork shoulder. Here, I went to Vito and special-ordered my cut, opting for a half a pork shoulder because I wasn’t planning on feeding the multitudes on this occasion. The next day I was good to go.
Puerco Asado a la Cubana
1/2 bone-in pork shoulder, roughly 5kg (or 1 whole fresh ham of a similar weight)
1/2 package frozen banana leaves
2 heads garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground bay leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cups sour orange juice or lime juice
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 large onions, sliced thin
fresh coriander (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Put the garlic, the salt, the oregano, the cumin, the pepper, the bay leaves, and the olive oil in a food processor or blender and puree. Add 1 cup sour orange or lime juice and mix. Rub this mixture all over the pork shoulder. Place the pork in a large, sturdy plastic bag with the remaining sour orange juice or lime juice, the sherry, and the onions. Marinate the pork overnight, turning it on several occasions to marinate the meat evenly.
The next day, preheat your oven to 300º F. If you’ve bought frozen banana leaves, thaw them out gently (and if you’ve left the thawing to the last minute, you can speed up the process a little bit by placing them in the oven for a few minutes, like I did). Once the banana leaves are thawed, carefully pull them apart, keeping them in one piece if you can. Line an oversized roasting pan with a healthy length of aluminum foil. Line the aluminum foil with a couple of large banana leaves. Take the pork out of the marinade-filled plastic bag, and gently place it on the banana leaves. Wrap the pork shoulder entirely with the banana leaves then wrap the banana leaf-enveloped pork shoulder with the aluminum foil, making sure to make a tightly sealed package. Fill the roasting pan with a couple of inches of water, making sure to keep the water line below the point where your aluminum foil envelope is sealed. Place the roasting pan in the oven and roast the pork for 8 hours, checking on the water level from time to time and replenishing if necessary.
The pork should have an internal temperature of well over 160º F when fully cooked. Cubans like their pork well done, about 180º F. The pork should be somewhere in between after your 8-hour cooking time.
Shred your pork and season it lightly with salt and pepper, keeping in mind that you’ll be finishing the pulled pork with the mojo momentarily.
Serve with Portuguese buns, black beans and rice, some kind of salad, like a simple carrot/lime juice/scallions/cilantro salad (our personal favorite with this meal), and plenty of mojo.
1/2 cup olive oil
8 large garlic cloves, finely minced
2/3 cup fresh sour orange juice or 1/2 cup fresh lime juice + 3 tbsp fresh orange juice
1/2 cup water
salt to taste
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground Mexican oregano
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
Heat the olive oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and a pale golden brown, being careful not to let it become brown, at which point it will begin to turn bitter.
Stir in the lime juice, water, cumin, Mexican oregano, salt, and pepper, and be prepared for the sauce to sputter a bit. Bring the sauce to a rolling boil. Turn the heat off and correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Let the sauce cool to room temperature, then stir in the cilantro.
Serve the mojo in a jar, a bottle, or out of a bowl with a serving spoon. Shake or mix well before serving.
[both recipes adapted from the work of Steve Raichlen]
We didn’t actually make this meal for Christmas Eve, we made it for Boxing Day instead, further breaking with tradition, but it makes for a fantastic holiday meal (even from this home version you can understand why Cubans are as passionate about lechón asado as Americans are about Thanksgiving turkey), and it would make for a fantastic New Year’s Eve feast. It also made for a pretty amazing breakfast the following morning with some eggs over-easy, some more black beans, some hot sauce, and some good strong coffee.