Sunday, January 11, 2009

Happy birthday to me

It was my birthday on Friday and to celebrate I did what most any foodie would do: cooked a meal for about 15 people. Sounds stressful, right? Well, it wasn't. When planning my party I tried to come up with some food options that would be cheap, easy and plentiful enough to feed a crowd. Suddenly I hit upon a winning idea: slow-roasted pork shoulder, also known as pork butt (how appealing). Since I've moved to my neighborhood of south Park Slope, I've been intending to take better advantage of the many Latin American ingredients available in the supermarkets around here: things like fresh cactus, a variety of fresh and dried chiles, and, most prominently, pork--in all its shapes, sizes and cuts. I'm talking trotters, pork kidneys, pork ribs, and, yes, pork shoulder. Because I don't tend to follow recipes, though, I also tend not to purchase ingredients that are unfamiliar to me, because I don't have an instinct for how to cook them. But I decided that my birthday would be the perfect occasion to break this bad habit, so I went whole-hog (ha, ha), buying a 10-pound pork shoulder and preparing it in the Puerto Rican style called pernil.

Pork shoulder is a tough cut of meat that becomes tender and succulent after many hours of low-temperature cooking, like braising on the stovetop or roasting in the oven. Because it's not a very "desirable" piece of meat, it's also very inexpensive--I got it at my local Met supermarket for $1/lb. A dollar a pound! Do the math and you'll see that that means that I fed more than 15 people for about $10. Not bad.

To learn how to prepare the pernil I looked at a number of recipes online and eventually settled on Mark Bittman's version. A New York Jew is perhaps not the most authentic source for a Puerto Rican recipe, but his method was the most simple and, after all, I didn't want to be stressed on my own birthday. The basic preparation is as follows. A day before you intend to cook the pernil, score its layer of fat and rub the whole thing with a strongly-flavored marinade made of chopped onions, garlic, cumin and chile powder. Wrap the meat in plastic wrap and set it in the fridge. When you wake up the next morning, turn your oven to 300° and put the pork in. Then you can basically forget all about it. Other than turning the pan every hour or so and making sure that the fat isn't burning--and covering the roast with tin foil if it is--you don't have to do anything but sit back and enjoy the intoxicatingly porky aromas that will fill your apartment, and, odds are, your entire apartment building. Around dinner time, remove the pork from the oven and let it rest for about 15 minutes. Then you can simply shred the meat into long, tender strands with a fork--it falls apart completely.

Pernil would be excellent served alongside rice and beans and a salad (to cut the richness of the fatty meat), but to keep things simple I chose to serve mine with two easy salsas: a basic tomato pico de gallo and a corn and black bean salsa (special thanks to Willy for his cilantro-chopping skills). With some warm corn tortillas on the side, it was a filling, satisfying meal that was perfect for the occasion.

Adapted from
Makes at least 6 servings


1 pork shoulder, 4 to 7 pounds (or use fresh ham)
4 or more cloves garlic, peeled
1 large onion, quartered 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves or 1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ancho or other mild chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil as needed
1 tablespoon wine or cider vinegar Lime wedges for serving


1. Score meat’s skin with a sharp knife, making a cross-hatch pattern. Pulse garlic, onion, oregano, cumin, chili, salt and pepper together in a food processor, adding oil in a drizzle and scraping down sides as necessary, until mixture is pasty. (Alternatively, mash ingredients in a mortar and pestle.) Blend in the vinegar.

2. Rub this mixture well into pork, getting it into every nook and cranny. Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge. Let marinate for 12-24 hours.

3. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Remove plastic wrap from pork and place in a roasting pan, filling the bottom with about a half inch of water. Roast pork for several hours (a 4-pound shoulder may be done in 3 hours), turning every hour or so and adding more water as necessary, until meat is very tender. Finish roasting with the skin side up until crisp, raising heat at end of cooking if necessary.

4. Let meat rest for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting it up; meat should be so tender that cutting it into uniform slices is almost impossible; rather, whack it up into chunks. Serve with lime.

Pico de Gallo
Makes about 3 cups

Finely dice 6 ripe plum tomatoes and place in a large bowl. Add one large white onion, finely diced, 3 cloves of garlic, minced, one bunch of finely chopped cilantro, 1-2 jalapeños, minced, the juice of 2-3 limes, and plenty of salt. Mix well and taste to adjust seasoning.

Corn and Black Bean Salsa
Makes about 4 cups

Open a 15.5 oz. can of black beans; rinse them of their liquid and drain well. Place in a large bowl. Add half a 10 oz. bag of thawed frozen corn, half a large white onion, finely diced, one bunch of finely chopped cilantro, the juice of 2-3 limes, and plenty of salt. Mix well and taste to adjust seasoning.


Nina said...

WOW--looks amazing! My little sample was de-lish! Looks like ropa vieja, no?

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