I love traditional Mexican delicacies like mole poblano and tacos de lengua. I love Americanized Tex-Mex, those ground beef burritos with melted cheese everywhere. Heck, let’s expand the borders and say I love pretty much any cuisine that features beans at almost every meal, avocados, cilantro and a squeeze of fresh citrus. Middle and South America, I’m into you.
(Newsflash, beans for breakfast are pretty much my favourite thing- hence the refried bean-based breakfast pizza and its trusty understudy, the breakfast burrito.)
My first boyfriend was originally from Tucson, Arizona. When his parents split up, his Dad and step-mum moved up north to Victoria, BC- my hometown. In an uncharacteristically adventurous move, he decided to follow them and started high school in Canada. We met, I was inexplicably attracted to his awkward bowl cut and rather gross brown backpack (gimme a break, we’ve all had crushes on people we look at now and go- … huh?), and the rest, they say, is history.
Of course, divided families mean divided time, so every Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer break, Finn’s First Boyfriend (henceforth referred to as ‘FFB’) would head back down south to spend time with his mum. The first summer after we started dating, he invited me to come back to Tucson with him (which is the second most uncharacteristically adventurous thing I ever witnessed him doing).
14 years old, the summer before Grade 10, flying by myself for the very first time and going to stay with my very first boyfriend and his, I’ll admit it, terrifying mother. (During the five and a half years we ended up dating she never warmed to me. Not once.) It was one of those formative moments in life where you just kind of leap and everything is new and scary but exciting and so you just go with it.
The low point of the trip was getting myself lost at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for 4 hours (ask me about that story later…). The high point, aside from the moment I emerged from the Grand Canyon (mostly) alive, was crossing the border into Mexico.
Yes, it was a border town, not the most representative slice of Mexican beauty. Yes, I only spent a day there. But on either side of that border- the food! Oh, the food! I had never experienced a taco in a freshly made corn tortilla before. Come to think, I had never experienced a taco without ground beef before. Even on the American side, traditional Mexican restaurants abounded. My first mole, my first tamales, my first horchata.
I was in heaven (well, maybe not heaven, but it did prove a handy distraction to FFB’s mother scowling a hole through my skull.*)
* 15 years later, I have a bit more perspective on why this must have been the case. Sure, I never did anything to Mrs. FFB personally, she didn’t know me. But her son had moved to another country and so more than ever before, she was facing a lot of competition for his attention. Bringing me into the fold made me the biggest attention vortex in his life. I’m not even a mother yet but I can imagine I would be more than a little stinging over that.
Every summer for the rest of high school, I went to Tucson for a few weeks. After high school, FFB and I had long outgrown each other and split, but I still look back fondly on those summers where I ate proper Mexican food.
Which brings me to our recipe today, Cochinita Pibil. Traditionally made with pork rubbed in Achiote paste, marinated in Seville orange juice and wrapped in banana leaves, I have adapted the recipe for the more Northern home kitchen. Seville oranges are in season right now, but they do not provide much juice so, unless you’re buying a bunch for marmelade-making, that’s a pretty sizable sunk cost. Using a combination of regular orange juice, lime juice and white vinegar emulates the flavour close enough for this purpose.
Ditto with the banana leaves. I am lucky to live in a place dominated by Asian culture- banana leaves and other exciting ingredients are easy to come by, but I appreciate not everyone can just stumble across them. Let’s make it easy for everyone and skip them, using the slow cooker instead to keep the moisture in the meat. It’s not the the most die-hard traditional but it sure works a treat.
So, skip the Seville, skip the banana leaves. The Achiote paste, made from ground annatto seeds is, I’m afraid, pretty essential. I found it at a specialty grocery store and stocked up. You know the drill, it’s 2015, Google “achiote paste [your city here]”. I bet you anything something will come up not too far away, you might be surprised!
The finished pork ends up melt-in-your-mouth tender with a tangy, slightly sour edge. Cochinita pibil is often served over rice in Mexico, but I really like the sweetness a corn tortilla provides, as a foil to the bold pork. Top it all with the traditional pickled red onions (you know I love those anyway- see here and here) and some fresh cilantro- YUM.
Some people like to add some queso fresco to the top as well but, for once, I have to skip the cheese myself. Perfection in simplicity! To each their own, though, give it a shot if you stumble across some crumbly, fresh Mexican cheese.
|Slow Cooker Cochinita Pibil Tacos (Yucatan Pulled Pork)|| |
- Cochinita Pibil:
- 2 kg pork butt
- 3 Tbsp achiote paste
- ⅓ cup orange juice
- ⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ⅓ cup white vinegar
- 1 habanero pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp salt
- Pickled Red Onions:
- 1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- ½ tsp whole black peppercorns
- Small corn tortillas
- Fresh cilantro
- Queso fresco (optional)
- Rub down pork butt with achiote paste. If the pork is tied up, remove all the string and massage the achiote over the unfolded piece of meat.
- In a large bowl, mix together orange juice, lemon juice, vinegar, habanero and the spices. Place pork in the orange mixture and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or ideally overnight. Turn the pork at least once in the marinade to ensure even saturation.
- In a small bowl, mix together vinegar, salt and sugar until the dry ingredients are dissolved. Place onions in a sanitized glass jar and pour vinegar over top. Add peppercorns and top up with water until all the onions are submerged. Set aside at room temperature for an hour to steep. After this, they will be ready to eat. If you're not eating them right away, pop them in the refrigerator to store.
- Place pork, marinade and 1 cup of water into a slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours. Once the pork is cooked, it should shred apart easily with a fork.
- Serve pork in corn tortillas topped with pickled red onions and fresh cilantro (and queso fresco, if you like).