LECHON ASADO (CUBAN CHRISTMAS EVE PIG)

Pit-roasted pig is the traditional centerpiece of a Cuban Nochebuena (Cuban Christmas Eve supper)--a holiday that stirs the same sort of emotions--and digestive juices--in a Cuban heart that Thanksgiving does in ours. Come Christmas Eve Day in Miami, the sky fills with fragrant smoke, as thousands backyard barbecue buffs--everyone from brick layers to bankers--cook whole young pigs that have been marinating overnight in tangy adobo (garlic-cumin-sour orange marinade). This recipe calls for a more managable size cut of meat: a fresh (uncured) ham, which has the dual advantage of being more widely available than whole pigs and of being able to fit in your refrigerator.

Cubans don't generally go in for smoke flavor, but you could certainly add a couple of cups of soaked wood chips to the coals or the smoker pan while the pork cooks.

Serves 16 to 20

  • 1 young pig or 1 whole fresh ham

For the adobo marinade:

  • 2 heads garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon teaspoon ground bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups sour orange juice or lime juice
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 6 to 8 cups hickory chips, soaked in cold water for 1 hour and drained, or a couple of small hardwood logs

1. Have your butcher split the pig through the belly. The backbone should be partially split, so you can lay the pig open like a book. Make shallow slits in the pig or ham, skin side and meat side, using the tip of a paring knife.

2. Mash the garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, pepper, bay leaves, and olive oil to a paste in a mortar and pestle or puree in the food processor. Add 1 cup sour orange juice. Rub this mixture all over the pig, forcing it into the slits. Place the pig or ham in a plastic bag with the remaining sour orange juice, sherry, and onions. Marinate overnight, turning several times.

3. Build small fires at the opposite ends of the grill. The heat should be medium-low, about 275 degrees. Place the pig on the grill, skin side up. Cook tightly covered for about 2 hours. Place the wood chips in the smoking pan and replenish as needed. Invert the pig and baste with any excess marinade. Continue cooking until the skin is very crisp and the meat is fall-off-the-bone-tender. Baste often with leftover marinade. The pork will be safe to eat when the internal temperature reads 160 degrees on a meat thermometer. Cubans like their pork really well done, about 180 degrees. Replenish coals and wood chips as necessary.

4. To serve, pull the meat away from the bones. Discard the bones. Chop the meat with a cleaver and cut the crisp skin into shards. Serve the meat and skin with Cuban bread and mojo.

MOJO (CUBAN GARLIC CUMIN CITRUS SAUCE)

No, it's not pronounced "mo jo." Mojo ("mo ho") is Cuba's barbecue sauce, a sort of cumin and fried garlic vinaigrette that's splashed over every imaginable dish, from palomilla (Cuban steak-check out show 202's "rundown page" for a recipe) to lechon asado (see above). Cubans make their mojo with the acidic juice of the naranja agria (sour orange). Sour oranges look like bumpy greenish-orange oranges and can be found at Hispanic grocery stores. But excellent mojo can be made with fresh lime juice mixed with a little orange juice for sweetness. Serve the mojo in a bottle or jar with a tight fitting lid, so you can shake it up before pouring.

Makes 1-1/2 cups

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 8 large cloves garlic, cut into paper thin slices or finely chopped
  • 2/3 cup fresh sour orange juice OR 1/2 cup fresh lime juice and 3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground oregano
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or flatleaf parsley

1. Heat the olive oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and a pale golden brown. Do not let brown too much, or the garlic will become bitter.

2. Stir in the lime juice, water, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper. Stand back: the sauce may sputter. Bring the sauce to a rolling boil. Correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Let cool to room temperature, then stir in the cilantro.

Serve the mojo in a bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well before serving.

© 2006 Steven Raichlen | site design Benjamin Wilchfort