Sunday, 29 September 2013

Spicy KANKUN Cochinita Pibil

Lookin' for some hot stuff, baby, this evening?

As a fan of Mexican salsas, extremely hot chile sauces, and KANKUN in particular, I was excited to get a couple bottles of their 85% Habanero sauce in the post.

I repeat, "a couple bottles".

85% habanero is, as they say, muy picante, so this supply will last me a while.

While I'm a big fan of pouring hot chile sauces on everything I eat, I have also been trying to think of ways to use this salsa as an ingredient. And because habaneros are typical of the Yucatán, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make cochinita pibil.

I last wrote about Yucatecan pit-cooked (pibil) dishes when I made pollo pibil (pibil-style chicken). And ever since I've been looking forward to making the equally popular pork version: cochinita pibil.

To recap, the pibil dishes are meant to be cooked in a Yucatecan cooking pit called a pib (it's a Mayan word). You dig a hole, line it with hot stones and ashes, lay your food in the pit (wrapped in a protective covering like a banana leaf), and bury the lot.

Then let it slow-cook to perfection!

Well, I don't expect you to dig a hole in your back garden (if I tried this at home, Mrs MexiGeek would pit-roasting me in it).

Instead, you can compromise by slow-cooking cochinita pibil in the oven.

What you CAN'T compromise on, though, is the seasoning, which here means achiote paste.

Achiote paste or recado rojo is made with the hard red seeds of a tree native to the Americas. It is quite easy to make, lasts months in the fridge, freezes well, and is useful for other Yucatecan dishes (so don't be afraid to make a big batch).

Even better, recado rojo is made of easy-to-find ingredients, except for the achiote itself, which is available from specialist shops and on-line suppliers (it is often sold as "annatto", the Brazilian name).

Homemade achiote paste and the molcajete it was made in.
These same suppliers often sell ready-made recado rojo, so you can use that and save yourself a step.

The other thing a pibil dish requires is the juice of Seville (or bitter) orange. These are available year-round in the Yucatán but are restricted to January in Europe.

I bought a big bag last year and froze the juice, so I'm sorted, but you can also make mock bitter orange juice by combining two parts grapefruit juice with one part orange juice, then adding a dash of lime juice.

You can get the orange and grapefruit juices out of a carton but I would definitely recommend using fresh lime.

All pibil dishes, whether cooked in an actual pib or not, are traditionally wrapped in a banana leaf, which not only keeps the meat soft and moist but also imparts a characteristic flavour.

Banana leaves are available from some Asian grocers (look for ones with Thai ingredients), but if you can't find any, just wrap the pork in parchment (en papillotte, as the French would say).

If you have a good quality casserole dish, you could even do without the parchment.

Or you could make this dish in a slow-cooker (whether you use banana leaves or not).

KANKUN Cochinita Pibil


1 recipe recado rojo (about 50 g)
90 - 100 mL Seville orange juice (or bitter orange substitute)
1 - 2 teaspoons KANKUN Habanero Sauce (or to taste)

1 - 1.5 kg pork shoulder or loin
A banana leaf or cooking parchment (optional)


First I made the marinade.

In a bowl, I combined the achiote paste (recado rojo) and Kan-Kun with enough Seville orange juice to loosen it to a pourable consistency. This turned out to be about 100 mL, which covered the pork nicely.

Then I added the KANKUN Habanero sauce. I used just about two teaspoons. Normally I would taste in between to get the balance right, but I'm not sure if you should eat raw achiote paste, so I had to test it using sense of smell.

If the mainade is gritty (which is likely if you made it in a molcajete), blend it with a hand-blender until it's smooth.

The three amigos of the Yucatan: achiote, bitter orange, and habanero!.
Then I prepped the pork.

My partner in crime Wee Sadie had bought me banana leaves from a shop on Leith Walk ages ago. I started trying to unfold the leaves (they are HUGE) and cut two pieces large enough to line my casserole dish and wrap around the pork.

Please resist the temptation to steal banana leaves from the Royal Botanic Gardens.
You will have to wipe the leaves clean and cut off any edges that are starting to go brown or curly. Some people also recommend you pass the leaves briefly though a flame so they soften a bit, but I found the ones I used were malleable enough without this step.

Handle them carefully, though, because they do like to rip at the seams!

I lined a casserole dish with one of the leaves, laid the pork in the dish, and poured over the marinade. 

But don't just pour the marinade. Massage it in with your hands. Work that flavour!

After I washed my hands (do this frequently: achiote is also a powerful dye!), I covered the pork with the other leaf and tucked it down on all sides so the pork was wrapped fairly tightly.

Snug as a bug!
I put the lid on and left it to marinate in the fridge overnight. If you're not into waiting 24 hours to cook something, at least give it an hour or two. But the more time, the better.

When you're ready to cook (which is hopefully the next day), preheat the oven to 180° C (160° fan) and cook for 3 to 4 hours.

I had to leave this to the ever-capable Mrs MexiGeek, because I was at work. The pork went in at 17.30, as per my instructions.

I checked it at 20.00 (after 2 and a half hours). I was looking for the pork to be soft, moist, and tender, so I even peaked under the banana leave and gave it a bit of a "test shred". I deemed it should go back in until at least 21.00.
Now it's ready.

You'll need to use your judgement here, but your pork may need as much as five hours, depending on your oven and the size of your cut of pork. If you're doing the slow-cooker method, my estimate would be 10 hours on low or 2 hours on high followed by 3 hours on low. (This is based on successfully doing carnitas in a slow-cooker.)

When the pork is done, remove it and shred it like pulled pork or carnitas: it should fall apart easily. 

I then poured the remaining marinade and cooking juices from the dish over the shredded pork and gave it a good mix.

Like the greatest ever carnitas. The serving dish is hecho en Mexico too!
You can serve the shredded pork with warm tortillas and make tacos, or serve with a traditional Mexican rice dish.

I chose Mexican red rice, but I didn't use enough tomato, so it didn't come out very red. Also, I used diced chiles poblanos instead of peas. 

Still, it looked and tasted awesome:

And of course I added some extra KANKUN. Because some like it hot!
Another classic way to serve cochinita pibil is shredded on top of panuchos, which are Yucatecan tortillas stuffed with refried beans.

But whatever you choose, make sure you top the pork with Yucatecan pink picked onions (cebollas en escabeche) and serve some more Kan-Kun Habanero sauce for those who really want to crank up the heat!

The thing I love about the pibil dishes, and really all Yucatecan food, is that it's a million miles away from the stodgy Tex-Mex cuisine that people sometimes assume is real Mexican food. 

These flavours are vibrant, fresh, and yet deep and complex. 

In particular, the pibil pork (as opposed to the chicken dish) is rich, but the citrus of the bitter orange (and the cebollas en escabeche) cuts through it nicely, which the achiote paste adds deep, complex undertones. 

And of course, the KANKUN. I used just about two teaspoons in my marinade, and the flavour (and heat) of the habanero sauce was present throughout the whole dish. It was not too spicy, though. I'd say I hit upon just the right amount. 

(Mrs MexiGeek found it scrumptious as well.)

And again, habaneros, with their characteristic fruity flavour, are the perfect chile to complement this dish. 

And this is a serious habanero sauce. KANKUN use true habaneros for this sauce, not Scotch bonnets (which are related to habaneros, but not really the same thing). This commitment to using the authentic chile is important, because you need that true habanero flavour in a dish like this.
Of course, habaneros are one of the hottest chiles; some of them can reach 350,000 Scoville Heat Units, I think. They're certainly over 100,000. So for readers who think they might not be able to cope with that, I have some final advice. 

I added KANKUN's new habanero salsa to the marinade, but many cooks make the marinade without any chile, instead serving some chile salsa on the side.

This approach works well if you or the people you're serving people don't like too much chile heat, as each diner can take as much or little extra salsa as they choose.

So if you or any of your guests are a bit wary of the fiery habaneros, feel free to halve the quantity of KANKUN, or even leave it out of the marinade and just have a bottle of KANKUN on the table, for the hardcore chileheads.