Leave the Bird, Bring the Pig: A Family Recipe for Pernil

Whereas other families might have a Christmas turkey or goose, Puerto Rican families such as my own eat pork for their holiday meal.

The meal -- actually a night-long party called Nochebuena -- is held on Christmas Eve and involves music, dancing, coquito (Puerto Rican eggnog), pitorro (Puerto Rican moonshine), a Mass that seems to never end and, most important, an array of foods. Chief among the vittles enjoyed that night is roast pork.The pork is served in two ways: spit-roasted whole (lechon) or oven-roasted shoulder or butt (pernil). The former is time-consuming -- 24 hours time consuming -- making the latter more popular.

The recipe for the pernil is really just a guideline to experimentation. If you'd like to play with the recipe, perhaps by adding more garlic, feel free. The preparation and consumption of the pernil ought to be fun. To up the fun factor, drink the aforementioned alcoholic drinks, if you're fortunate enough to have obtained or made any.

Ingredients 1 seven-pound pork shoulder 8 peeled garlic cloves 7 whole black peppercorns 2 teaspoons dried oregano 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons vinegar Kosher salt, and a lot of it. Pork absorbs salt quickly and easily. Not enough salt risks a bland pig.

The Night Before Cooking the Shoulder Before mixing the seasonings in a blender (no one expects you to use a mortar and pestle anymore. But if you want to do it the hard way like I sometimes do, knock yourself out), with a sharp knife remove the skin from the pork and trim as much fat as desired. Set the fat aside. Score the skin and the pork. Set the skin aside. Place the pork into a roasting pan. Put all seasoning ingredients and seven teaspoons of salt in a blender. Go to town with it until it becomes a paste.

Here's the fun part: Make love to the pork by rubbing (my mother says, caressing) the paste all over the pork, top, bottom, into the scoring cuts, saving some for the skin. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of Kosher salt over the shoulder. Place the skin on the pork and repeat the lovemaking, this time adding only a sprinkle of salt on the skin. Place the trimmed fat along the edges of the roasting pan. Cover the pan with foil and/or plastic wrap. Place everything into the fridge. The Day of Cooking One hour before cooking, remove the pork from the fridge. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while the pork reaches room temperature. Remove and set aside foil. Place the pork into the oven. One hour later, check the shoulder and baste with drippings. Cover the pan with foil for two hours, periodically basting the pork. After two hours, remove the foil, baste the pork and let the meat cook for one more hour. The shoulder will be done in approximately four hours, or until the skin is crispy and the fat makes the pork glisten. If you're not satisfied, turn down the oven temperature to 275, tightly cover the roasting pan with foil and let the pernil cook until the skin has achieved the desired crispiness.

Remove the pernil from the oven. Place it on a cutting board and let rest for 15-20 minutes covered with foil. Carve and shred the meat. Slice the skin. Serve in a platter with skin on the side. Watch your guests ravage the pork and crunchy skin.

The pernil can be served with its traditional accompaniment, arroz con gandules , or with whatever. You're not going to care once you bite into it.

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José Ralat Maldonado