Yucatan Pork in Banana Leaves
You can start the pork two days before serving since it needs an overnight seasoning before cooking, and once cooked is even better the day after.
Banana leaves are one of the most sensual things to have in your kitchen. They are glossy and tender, redolent with the smell of the jungle, and impressively enormous with a beautiful rich green color. Can you tell we're in love?
This dish quickly became first-class party food at Sally's house. It's a classic dish from Mexico's Yucatan but a bit on the unusual side for non-Hispanic palates as it mixes the earthy red annatto seed with the unctuousness of the fresh banana leaves enfolding the pork as it roasts. Sally has never had anyone not swoon with their first bite, including two eighty-year-old Germans. It's incredibly simple to pull off once you've gathered the ingredients.
Please note, this is a gringo's take. There are as many recipes for this dish as there are salsas. For a more in-depth interpretation, take a look at the work of the Mexican scholars.
Cook to Cook: You can usually find banana leaves where Latino ingredients are sold. They're usually sold frozen, folded into flat, square packages. To use the leaves, defrost, gently unfold them (they're as long as a big beach towel), and begin wrapping the pork. Sally spreads the leaves out as her tablecloth when she serves the pork; I threaten to wear them as a matching caftan and hat.
Wine: Look for a relatively light, fruity red, such as Pinot Noir from California, Garnacha from Spain, or Dolcetto from Italy.
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon cumin seed
- 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
- 3 tablespoons whole annatto (also called achiote) seed
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 1 teaspoon dry oregano (Mexican if possible)
- 2-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3 tablespoons Seville orange juice (bitter orange juice), or a blend of equal parts of orange, lime and grapefruit juices
- 6-pound boneless pork shoulder, well marbled
- 5 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup Seville orange juice or the blend described above
- Zest of 1 orange, sliced into thin strips
- 1 large white onion, halved and then sliced into half moons
- 3 to 5 banana leaves, thawed
Accompaniments for serving:
- 30 corn tortillas, warmed
- Garlic-Oregano Pickled Onions (recipe follows)
- 3 limes, cut into wedges
1. Make the seasoning paste: In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the peppercorns, cumin seed, and allspice until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Cool then transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and pestle along with the annatto seed and grind into a powder. Annatto seed is hard and takes a bit of scraping down and repeated grindings to break up. Add the garlic, oregano, salt, and 3 tablespoons of the orange juice and process into a paste.
2. Make the pork: In a large bowl, rub the pork with the seasoning paste, another 5 tablespoons of the juice, the orange zest and onion, taking care to rub the mixture into the folds of the meat.
3. Use a Dutch oven large enough to hold the pork; a 5- to 6-quart one should work. Line the pot with overlapping banana leaves, leaving 8 to 10 inches overhanging the edges of the pot. You will be wrapping the leaves around the pork. Place the pork in the pot with all of its marinade. Swaddle the pork with the banana leaves to completely enclose it. Cover the pot with foil and refrigerate overnight.
4. About an hour before cooking, pull the pork out of the refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350ºF.
5. Pour 1/2 cup water around the meat, cover tightly and roast in the oven until fall-apart tender, 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Check the liquid levels occasionally, adding more water as needed.
6. When the pork is fork-tender and falling apart, remove it to a cutting board and pour the pot juices into a medium saucepan. Put the meat back into the pot and let it rest while you work with the pot liquid.
7. Spoon off the fat that rises to the top of the pot juices. Depending on how much liquid is left, boil down the pot juices until there is 1/2 to 3/4 cup remaining. Taste for seasoning, and add the last 1/2 cup of orange juice at the end of cooking.
8. With 2 forks, pull apart the pork into shreds and bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle the reduced sauce over the meat. Serve with the corn tortillas, Garlic-Oregano Pickled Onions and fresh squeezes of lime.
Garlic-Oregano Pickled Onions
Makes about 3 cups; 15 minutes prep time; 2 to 3 hours marinating time
The onions keep in the refrigerator for several days.
- 2 medium to large red onions, sliced into thin rings
- 1 cup white vinegar
- 1 generous teaspoon dry oregano (Mexican if possible)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1. Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl with enough water to cover the onions, and marinate for a couple of hours.
2. Serve at room temperature with the Yucatan pork, with refried beans, or on sandwiches.
Work Night Encores
Spring Rolls of Yucatan Pork and Pickled Onions: Vietnamese purists will balk, but these are so good, so easy and you'll be amazed how these rolls stretch small amounts of food, like leftover Yucatan pork on the pickled onions. The idea is everyone makes up their own rolls to their own taste.
Set out a plate of rice paper rounds, a soup dish of warm water (for moistening the rice paper), a platter with branches of coriander and spearmint, torn lettuce leaves, lime wedges, and a bottle of sriracha or other hot sauce. You could also include some thin rice noodles soaked in hot water until tender and then drained. Along with these condiments, set out the leftover pork and pickled onions.
To eat, dip a round of rice paper in warm water, let it soften on your plate, make a small pile of rice noodles in the center of it with herb leaves, lettuce, pickled onion, the pork, lime juice, and hot sauce. Then roll it up and take a bite.