- Course: Main Course
- Skill Level: Moderate
- Cost: Moderate
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Pernil Al Horno
This is my version of the classic Latin American dish of slow-roasted pork shoulder seasoned with a heady mixture of garlic, oregano, and citrus (I use a combination of limes and oranges to approximate the sour oranges of the Caribbean). It makes a festive party centerpiece, especially because it’s simple to carve—it mostly falls off the bone—and people can fight over the cracklings, or cuentos, as they are called in Cuba. For the complete experience, serve this with a dish of black beans and rice and to stones and/or sweet plantains on the side.
Be sure to season the pork in advance so the citrus and seasonings have a chance to work their way through the entire roast.
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 6 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
- 2/3 cup fresh orange juice
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 bone-in, skin-on pork picnic shoulder (about 7 pounds; see Notes)
1. Make the Spice Rub and Marinade: Place the cumin seeds in a small skillet and heat over medium-low heat until lightly toasted about 2 minutes. Let cool. Combine the cumin and peppercorns in a spice grinder or a mortar (see Notes) and grind coarsely. Add the garlic, oregano, salt, and cayenne. Grind again to form a rough paste. Set aside. In a small bowl, combine the orange juice, lime juice, and oil. Set this aside as well.
2. Score the Rind and Marinated the Pork (see Notes): Using a box cutter, utility knife, or other razor-sharp knife, firmly (but carefully) score the rind in parallel lines 1/3- to ½-inch apart. Score deep into the fat (about ½-inch deep), but avoid cutting into the meat. Turn the roast and score the rind on the bottom and sides as well. Using a sharp paring knife, poke several holes in the cut side of the pork (the side with no skin). Rub the entire surface of the roast with the spice paste, doing your best to get some of the paste into the incisions in the skin. If you have a plastic bag large enough to hold the pork, place it in one (Reynolds large oven bags work well). Otherwise, place the pork in a deep bowl just large enough to hold it. Pour the marinade over the roast and massage it to coat it evenly. Place the bag in a baking dish or large bowl in case it leaks, and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours, turning occasionally to redistribute the marinade. Remove the pork from the marinade (reserve the marinade) and let it sit at room temperature, uncovered, for 1 to 2 hours before roasting; this dries the skin to help it crisp in the oven.
3. Heat the Oven: Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 450 degrees (425 degrees convection).
4. Roast the Pork: Set the roast skin side up on a rack set in a sturdy roasting pan (14 by 12 inches works well). Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees (225 degrees convection). Combine the reserved marinade with ½ cup cool water and pour this over the meat. Continue roasting, basting every 2 to 2½ hours with the drippings until the meat is fork-tender and pulling away from the shank bone, 8 to 9 hours. If at any time the liquid evaporates, add about ½ cup of water to the pan. If after 5 hours you notice that the underside is not browning, flip the meat and let it roast skin side down for a few hours before righting it. It should finish roasting right side up.
5. Test for Doneness: The best doneness test is to insert a meat fork into the wide end of the roast and gently pull. If a chunk of meat pulls away easily, the roast is done. Be careful not to tear the meat from the roast; just tug it to get a feel. Also, check to see that the meat at the shank end of the roast has contracted, leaving the bone exposed some. If you’re unsure, check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer; you’re looking for something in the 175- to 185-degree range.
6. Rest and Carve: Let the pork rest, uncovered unless the kitchen is very cold, for about 30 minutes. Unless you have a very sharp knife, it’s easiest to begin by carving off the rind. If you notice parts of the rind that are soft and chewy, not crisp, cut them into smaller pieces and place them in a skillet or on a rimmed baking sheet. Place the skin in a 450-degree (425-degree convection) oven until crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Thinly slice the pork and chop the rind into crackling bits to put on each plate. Spoon any juices that run from the meat over it as you carve.
Method: Combination high and low heat
Plan Ahead: The roast tastes best if marinated for at least 24 hours.
Wine/Beer: fruity off-dry rose; or India Pale Ale.
A Note on Pig Skin or Rind:
Whether you refer to it as skin or rind, getting a pork rost with the skin intact is a real bonus for pork lovers. The skin protects the meat as it roasts, basting it with the underlayer of fat, and best of all, it offers some of the most satisfying eating on the whole pig. But getting pork rind just right can be tricky. The goal is wonderfully crisp, almost crinkled or puffed skin that’s easy to chop into bite-sized tidbits that crunch noisily between your teeth and release just the right amount of tasty pork fat. But the rind can also turn out gummy and soft and, while tasty, difficult to enjoy, as it sticks to your teeth and pretty well locks your jaws together. And then there’s what I’ve heard Chinese chefs refer to as “scorpion skin,” when the skin forms an impenetrable sheath, too tough to chop, much less to chew.
Pork skin is basically an amalgam of protein, fat, and water, and your job as a cook is to enable the moisture and fat to release as the protein sets into a crispy, crunchy shell. If the moisture remains trapped, the skin will turn out gummy and leathery. And if the fat doesn’t release, the skin will be greasy. The technique I use to get the best cracklings is twofold. First I score the rind, cutting down through the tough skin and into the fat layer below but not cutting into the meat. This allows the fat to render during roasting and helps to crisp the rind. You can score as the British do, in horizontal stripes ¼- to ½-inch apart, or in the more American fashion of a diamond cross-hatch pattern. Both are effective, but I find the horizontal pattern slightly easier to master. Second, I presalt the entire surface of the roast-the rind and the score marks-and let it sit, uncovered, in a refrigerator for at least a day before roasting. This draws moisture from the rind, making it dry and more likely to turn crisp when heated. Rubbing a little oil on the rind can also encourage crisping. Acid and alcohol help break down the rind, too, and are used in many marinades.
Even using these techniques, I often find parts of the rind, especially any nooks or creases on irregularly shaped pork legs and shoulders, that won’t crisp no matter how well I score or salt. In these instances, I lift these off after roasting and return them to a hot oven (450 degrees or 425 degrees convection) for about 10 minutes to crisp up.
Finally, if you’re an absolute fanatic for crispy cracklings, you may want to try a technique from food writer Christopher Tan. Chinese chefs have often brushed pork skin with an alkali solution (such as baking soda dissolved in water), but I have never liked the unpleasantly soapy, chemical taste. Neither did Tan, so he devised an ingenious solution: he first scalds the pork skin with a solution of boiling water and baking soda (using 1½ tablespoons for 5 cups of water), then proceeds to score and season the pork. The baking soda and boiling water denature the skin enough so that it will break down during roasting, but the highly diluted solution doesn’t leave any unpleasant flavor residue. In the recipes in this chapter, I don’t employ Tan’s solution, as I am happy enough with my simpler scoring and salting technique, but if you’re the kind of cook who enjoys extra steps, by all means give it a try.
A Note on How Many People a Pork Shoulder Serves:
I've seen a slow-roasted picnic shoulder serve as many as 20 people and a few as 8. It all depends on how you slice (or shred) it and how you serve it. If you are carving the roast and serving slices, it won’t go as far as if you shred it; you can expect a sliced picnic shoulder to serve 8 to 10. If you shred the meat, you’ll end up with about 10 to 12 cups of chopped meat, enough for 16 to 24 sandwiches, depending on the size of the rolls and the appetites. And finally, there is the whole Jack Sprat equation to consider. Some people prefer leaner meat and others relish the fatty bits. When you’re carving a slow-roasted picnic shoulder, you’ll find plenty of both-as well as all the deliciously rich skin.
Making Garlic Paste Without a Mortar and Pestle:
A mortar and pestle sits pretty high on my list of essential kitchen tools. And I frequently use it to quickly turn out a smooth garlic puree. There are times, however, when I’m traveling and in someone else’s kitchen, that I have to do without. Happily, a decent chef’s knife does a fine job of making a quick garlic paste, although it does take just a bit longer than using a mortar. Start by chopping the garlic on a sturdy cutting board. Sprinkle a measure of salt over the chopped garlic (the salt will act as an abrasive and help break down the garlic). Now drag the flat side of your knife back and forth across the chopped garlic, pressing down on the top of the blade to crush the garlic. As you work, you will spread the garlic into a thin paste. As the smear of garlic gets too thin, gather it back up with the knife and continue. After a minute or two of this smearing and gathering, the garlic will turn into a creamy paste. Transfer to a small bowl and continue with the recipe.
Shopping for Pork Shoulder Roasts:
A whole pork shoulder is a formidable chunk of meat, weighing in at around 15 pounds, and unless you buy directly from a small, independent producer or meat packer, you aren’t likely to find a whole pork shoulder roast. Instead, almost every pork shoulder is divided into two similar but distinct roasts. The top half of the shoulder, including the blade bone, is widely known as Boston butt or blade roast. The bottom half, including a portion of the arm and shank bone, is called picnic shoulder. Both parts of the shoulder roast wonderfully, but I approach them a little differently.
Boston Butt/Blade Roast:
The Boston butt is the more popular, smaller, and more expensive of the two shoulder roasts. This square-cut hunk of meat offers plenty of rich-tasting lean meat laced with fat and connective tissue that melts to succulence when roasted at a moderate temperature. Many chefs praise the Boston butt for having the perfect fat-to-muscle ratio for slow-cooked barbecue, and I agree, but I also find that it makes a wonderful sliced roast when roasted in a moderate oven for about 2½ hours.
Bone-in versions of Boston butt contain a portion of the shoulder blade and the upper arm, which makes them difficult to carve. For this reason, I prefer the boneless version. Just be sure the roast is well tied, so all the various muscles that make up this part of the shoulder stay intact.
Over the years I’ve heard a number of far-fetched stories as to how this cut got its odd name, but the explanation that seems the most reasonable comes from the National Pork Board. The story relates to the casks or barrels, referred to as butts, that were used centuries ago to store and ship everything from hog parts to beer. The particular way the shoulder was butchered in New England (the source for pork in the years before the Midwest became the nation’s pork supplier) became known as “Boston butt.” Other names include “Boston-style butt,” “Boston shoulder,” “pork butt,” and “shoulder blade Boston-style.” Also, just to add to the confusion, when a recipe calls for “pork shoulder” but indicates something under 12 pounds, you are safe to assume that it refers to Boston butt. Expect a Boston butt to weigh 6 to 9 pounds if it contains the bone and 4 to 6 pounds when boneless. Once the bone has been removed, Boston butt is quite often broken down into several smaller roasts. I recommend picking up a 2½- to 3-pound roast the next time you’re thinking of serving pork to 4 to 6 lucky people around the table. A whole butt will serve 10 to 12.
Before I started working on this book, I’ll admit, I didn’t have much use for the picnic shoulder. When braising and stewing, I found that this lower part of the whole shoulder was too fatty, leaving a thick layer of grease to skim off the resulting braise or stew. When it comes to roasting, however, I love the way this generous layer of subcutaneous fat bastes the meat as it roasts, so in the end, much of the fat sits in the bottom of the roasting pan and you are left with a succulent, juicy, fall-apart-tender pork roast. In addition, a bone-in picnic shoulder contains the easy-to-navigate round bones of the upper and lower arm, making it rather easy to work around when it comes to carving. And finally, picnic shoulders often come with the skin, or rind, intact, which translates into plenty of crispy cracklings and an impressively handsome roast.
Picnic shoulders run slightly larger than Boston butts, weighing in at 8 to 10 pounds bone-in and 6 to 8 pounds when boneless, but they actually yield less meat than the Boston butt (because there’s a bigger bone). The picnic shoulder does, however, give you the most amount of delectable skin for cracklings. Some cooks like to remove the skin and roast it separately to ensure consistent cracklings, but I like the way you get some crunchy hard bits and some rich, gooey bits when you roast it with the skin on.
© 2011 Molly Stevens
Nutritional information is based on 10 servings.