Lechón asado, don't you know!
Y como se dice Cranberries?
Well, flan, of course.*
In honor of those adventurous souls who want to translate their boring Yuma Thanksgiving to reflect a bit of the color and spirit of the traditional Cuban holiday celebrating the always popular San Guivi (syncrotized with the orisha known as Chanchó Ayé in Santeria - patron saint of pork lovers around the world!), I have decided to post my not-so-secret recipe for the Cuban national dish, Lechón Asado. (I'm plagiarizing this recipe from my own book, Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook).
(roasted pork/roast suckling pig)
For Cubans in South Florida lechón asado is typically prepared as the family meal (that means extended family, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, nephews, children, grandchildren, and a few brave or curious Yuma friends) on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). In Cuba, this tradition has waned because of the de-emphasis of Christmas and the lack of access to entire piglets. Still, the cooking of a roast suckling pig is often at the center of all traditional fiestas in Cuba. In fact, despite the scarcity of meat, Cubans continue to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Cuba today by getting ahold of at least a small piece of lechón with which to ring in the new year. Also, given the Cuban penchant for hospitality, the preparation of lechón asado frequently accompanies the Cuban tradition of throwing extravagant welcome (bienvenida) or going-away (despedida) parties.
Typically, the pig (the recipe calls for a piglet, thus the name lechón) is roasted over a long period (5 to 11 hours) on a grill over a hole in the ground in which are placed leaves and branches from a guava tree. While being roasted, the pig itself is covered with plantain leaves to retain the flavor and juices. Of course, this tradition was well established long before Cubans on the island had access to the modern conveniences of indoor ovens or stoves.
However, given the communal, family nature of the entire process, the tradition of preparing the lechón outside, over many hours, with every able-bodied Cuban male pitching in, continues (both on the island and in exile). The men typically spend all day with the pig, doing the killing and roasting/grilling, while the women prepare other side dishes, including yuca con mojo, black beans and rice, or desserts such as flan or tres leches. In short, cooking lechón is much like the American tradition of barbecuing, with the same combination of family lore, secret recipes, macho posturing, and grill pride and envy. There is a variant of this tradition in certain regions of Cuba that calls for a smaller piglet, which is not roasted but fried in a vat of lard. Thus, instead of a lechón asado, now we have a lechón ahogado (“drowned” or deep-fried suckling pig).
1 suckling pig (10–15 pounds, calculate 1 pound per person) - The pig can be purchased already gutted by a butcher or done at home for full effect.
8–10 cloves garlic, or to taste.
2 teaspoons dried oregano.
3–4 teaspoons salt.
Freshly ground black pepper to taste.
2 cups bitter orange juice (or 1 cup sweet orange juice) mixed with ½ cup each fresh lime juice and lemon juice.
2 bay leaves, crumbled.
Olive oil for basting.
1 apple, 1 orange, 1 lemon or lime for garnish.
Since the recipe uses a whole pig, make sure you have a pan large enough to hold the pig sturdily, without the fat splattering. Also, check to see if the pan will fit in your oven and in your refrigerator for overnight marinating. A day or two before cooking, wash the pig inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. In a mortar, combine the garlic, oregano, and salt, and mash to a paste. Place the pig in a large pan, rub it inside and out with the garlic paste, season it liberally with salt and pepper and pour the soured juices over it. Sprinkle with the crumbled bay leaves. Cover the pig with aluminum foil and refrigerate for 24 hours.
If you plan to go all out, follow these directions next: At 10:00 A.M. on the day of the party, lay the pig on its back on a grill over a pit (you can also use what’s called a China Box, since it’s much faster than a pit grill). The roasting process takes anywhere from 5 to 11 hours. Save the leftover juices from the marinade and continue basting the pig while it cooks. When the festivities begin, the pork should be kept on the grill for full effect. To eat, party goers simply get a plate and a fork and begin to dig in, eating the meat directly from the body. For the faint of heart, the pig can be carved up and served as with a Thanksgiving turkey.
If you prefer to do this the “civilized” (boring, Yuma) way, 5 to 7 hours before serving preheat the oven to 375º F, remove the pig from the marinade, and preserve the marinade. Put the pig in a shallow aluminum foil-lined roasting pan, insert a wad of foil in the pig’s mouth to keep it open, cover the ears with foil, and brush the skin with oil. Insert a meat thermometer in the hind leg, making sure it does not touch bone. Roast the pig for one hour. Lower the oven to 350º F and roast for another 2 to 5 hours (depending upon the size of the pig). Be sure to baste the pig frequently with oil, juices, and the marinade. Finally, when the pig is done to an internal temperature of between 185º F and 190º F, the skin is a cordovan brown, and the juices run out when pierced with a fork, transfer the pig to a large platter and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Garnish as you like with fruit and serve.
Preparation: 1–2 days.
Cooking time: 5–11 hours.
*My recipe for flan, that succulent Caribbean custard dessert, will be the topic of my next post!