I love pork so much I will confess that when I read Charlotte’s Web in the 4th grade I didn’t have any remorse or feelings for Wilbur. I wanted him dead, spiked, stuffed and roasted. When Miss Cauley asked me to spell Wilbur (the pig), I said, P-O-R-K. She was stunned. Then she asked the class who our favorite characters were in Charlotte’s Web and why and I shouted out, “Wilbur because of his butt and ribs.” I was sent to the Media Center to sit alone to go over my weekly spelling words. At 10 years old I wanted Wilbur to be slaughtered and slathered in B-a-r-b-e-q-u-e sauce and I still do.
This past Sunday, in celebration of the first night of day light savings, my sister Amy invited me to her home to cook with her and my brother-in-law Robbie who a few months ago bought a green ceramic egg smoker. I suggested we make Pernil because they both never had it before and I decided it was about time they did. They first asked me if my nephew Robbie Jr. and niece Jacqueline would like it and I said “Are you kidding? They’ll love it!” I further explained that no one in their right mind, adult or child refuses Pernil, it’s essential to good living and so they agreed. Rob and I were off to the market to buy a pig’s butt.
The first time I had Pernil was in 1988 in Brighton, Ma. It was when my friend Manuel invited me to his mother’s house for dinner. His mother was from Cuba and came to the US in the late 1960’s. When I first walked into Manuel’s mother’s house the day I was going to lose my Pernil virginity I smelt roasting pork emanate from the kitchen. I knew I had majorly scored. We all sat at the dining room table, Manuel’s siblings and I, and there it was, that perfectly browned, crispy pork butt on a platter oozing with juices and waiting for us to pull apart and devour. It was garlicky, peppery, salty, and herb infused. I fell in love instantly. There were spicy beans, rice, golden fried yuca finished off with olive oil and chopped garlic. It was a feast to remember. During the meal, his mother, who spoke no English, placed in the center of the table the broiled skin of the pork butt, she did this until it puffed and was light and crispy, I did as Manuel and his sibling did, I leaped toward this extra delectable indulgence (when in Rome… ) I am not shy when it comes to food, if I want it I’ll ask for it, and I just might snatch it out of your hand too! I am a shameless foodie.
I ran into Pernil again in Miami in the winter and spring of 1996 when I was doing an internship while in graduate student at Carnegie Mellon. No matter where I walked in South Beach loud and invigorating Spanish music played in all its horn and bongo drum glory and I couldn’t help but walk with a little beat in my step. I was tanned and fit and thought I was super chic and ultra cool. The beaches were always covered in gorgeous tanned people and the nightclubs thumped and pumped with house music.
Two other students and I were writing for a TV show. We were converting a South American Soap Opera into an American TV show and towards the end of my internship it was apparent the TV show was never going to amount to anything. It was an exhausting-grueling-out-of-control-ego-producer driven experience and the only sadness I felt about the end of this job was leaving Miami and its exciting Cuban flare and my tri-weekly comforting indulgence of Pernil, fried yuca and beans & rice. I could not get enough Cuban food inside of me. I was fully aware I was in the Pernil Mecca and I was no dummy, I wanted to get my full before I left Miami, and indeed I did.
I was reunited with Pernil, Black Beans and yellow rice when I lived on the Upper West Side of New York from 1996 to 1999. I lived at West 110th and Broadway in a large building amongst Columbia Students who had no interest in graduating, most seemed to be just hanging out and hoping the thesis God would come and slide their thesis under their door. I was so poor back then that I would have run through traffic naked wearing dried pigs ears for a dollar and a piece of pork. My room was tiny and grubby and the window sills were covered in endless soot. The carpet was torn and it flapped up when I opened the door and I was endlessly tacking it down. The woods planks underneath were grimy and spotted with old gum that were in people’s mouths decades ago and when I thought about this I would become flesh with a cold panic and had to leave my room. When Amy came to visit me, she thought I was playing a very bad joke on her. The concept of sharing a gritty kitchen and bathroom with four other strangers in a spooky, dirty building with metal trash can by the elevators horrified her. I told her it was “sorta” interesting. She told me I needed a mop and a bottle of bleach. The building I lived in was a former housing facility for the mentally ill who were released from psychiatric hospitals in the 1940’s. Amy said I was insane for living there. But the upside to this assumed former house of horrors was that a few blocks from where I lived was a Cuban Diner that I went to twice weekly to get my foil pan of yellow rice and plastic container of black beans that I coated in Tabasco. I was regular there and it got to the point that when I walked into the diner the man behind the counter would simply say, “Un momento por favor” and within moments he was packing my food. On occasion I would get the Pernil, but it was on very rare occasions (like when I could make my rent on time and that was only the three times in the three years I lived there.) I must admit that even if I were a Trillionaire, I still would’ve eaten beans and rice from that Cuba place on the corner that even then I referred to as “that Cuban Place on the Corner”. Let’s be clear here, rice and beans is not a poor man’s food, although certainly cheap to make, I refer it as everyman’s food, it’s a superb, wholesome food that gets into your soul and gives you rich character and abounding substance and readiness to dance all night to Salsa Music. When I moved back to Boston, I started making my own Pernil, for me it’s a must and a requirement in order to live a magnificent life.
While Robbie lit the wood coals in the green egg that stands off to the side in their new outdoor kitchen that I describe as “chef-dreamy” a grill, a giant fireplace, stone counter tops and a table that flames in the center. Amy and I were in the indoor kitchen getting ready to prepare our Latin themed feast. Their indoor kitchen also “chef-dreamy” like the outdoor kitchen, has dramatic views of the Atlantic (it was a stunning deep blue on Sunday) black granite counter tops, a six burner restaurant stove and an espresso machine built into the wall.
Amy is a stickler on keeping her kitchen clean and I am her worse nightmare come true. Even as children back in the 1970’s when I was experimenting with foods in my mother’s kitchen, Amy was my Sous Chef, chopping what I instructed, cleaning up after me and tasting and usually liking what I created. It was Amy who at 12 cleaned my mother’s kitchen floor the night I spilled bubbling hot oil from a hot pan causing third degree burns on both my 14 year old hands. I dare make donuts that night despite my parent’s usual warning for me not to use the oven when they were out for the evening. My hands were wrapped in gauze for one month and changed daily by a nurse. Amy is a perfect match for me in the kitchen, according to me.
I am a sloppy, passionate cook. I like food and wrappers all around me. I like to roll in the mess and immerse myself into my creations and be part of the food as much as I can. I toss, flip and hurl things around, dig through cabinets, drawers and refrigerators. I like ripping open newly bought packages from my markets like some wild excited kid unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. Amy knows this about me and when I came back from the store with Robbie earlier that day, Amy said to me, “Please don’t make a major mess.” She held in her hand a sponge and spray bottle ready to follow me. Within minutes I had grocery bags open, packages torn, tomatillos and limes rolling across the counter, parsley and cilantro spread out, bags of rice half spilling, garlic peels at my feet, all this while the fragrances of these good things took over Amy’s kitchen. Reentering the kitchen after being away for a few minutes (probably looking for paper towels) Amy looked over at me, “Oh, God.” She whispered, followed by, “How do you mange to make such a mess?” She said this while lifting up discarded parsley’s stems from the floor. I shrugged, “Help me peel garlic I ordered and she obeyed. Rob came in, “Egg is hot and ready.” He said. Both of them stood over me as I prepared the pork butt.
First, I made small slits all over it and stuffed them with plenty of whole garlic cloves and made little dime size bundles of fresh parsley and oregano (my fingers tips were a mossy green). I then doused it with vinegar. Next I coated it with cracked black pepper and a good amount of kosher salt. I added a touch of water to the bottom of the pan and before I covered it, I told the pork butt, “I love you” then tightly covered it with foil. Rob took it from me, marched out to the green egg and carefully placed the pork butt inside and covered the egg. We roasted it for the first hour skin side down, after that, Rob turned it fat side up and covered it loosely. The last hour, at my exact instructions, Rob uncovered it and let the layer of fat get crispy and sizzling good while the meat got brown and fork-pull-apart-excellent.
Most Pernil recipes call for a 24 hour or longer marinating period and some use cumin. (sometimes I use Goya Adobo Seasoning on this) I have done it both ways and of course there is a difference in taste when you marinate it, but not so much that it would stop me from making it on the fly if one morning I woke and craved a pig butt for dinner that evening. Please be aware, Pernil has a four to five hour cooking period, but worth every second of the waiting.
Five hours later, right before dinner, I stated the black beans and yellow rice. I minced one jalapeño, half an onion, garlic and then sautéed them for a few minutes. I then added the black beans, hot sauce and vinegar and I let it become bubbly hot. You’ll know when the beans are done when a blissful aroma makes you dizzy with delight. Remove them from the heat and throw in chopped cilantro to make it even better and stir. Then stick your face over the pan and inhale deeply, smile and say thank you to your pot of utterly savory beans. At dinner I spooned this heavenly piquant treat over plan yellow Spanish rice.
Next I made green Salsa. Into a Cusinart I place eight quartered tomatillos, one shallot, one garlic clove, one green Chile and one Jalapeno pepper (I took the seeds out of both) fresh cilantro and lime juice. I gave it a few pulses on the Cusinart and it was perfection. This green salsa was bursting with acerbic, fresh, spicy flavors and was extraordinarily good with the salty blue corn chips I served with it. We ate the Salsa a half hour before dinner, the tartness of this salsa prepped our taste buds for what was coming next.
Rob proudly marched into the indoor kitchen holding the now ready Pernil, our epicurean masterpiece. It was succulent, flavorful, peppery and the cooked parsley, oregano and soft garlic were extra treats when we found them throughout the mass of shredded luscious pork.
Amy and Rob raved on, ate with utter elation and “praised the pig” and my nephew Robbie Jr. a senior in High School who was just back from lacrosse practice demolish two full plates and Jacqueline, a sophomore in High School, who seems to forever doing homework, said, “Wow, this is good, what do you call it?” Before I could speak, Rob and Amy said, “Pernil” in unison and on that note, I loaded my plate up with seconds because I’m not shy.