After being pleasantly surprised that my Thanksgiving turkeys weren’t so difficult to make, I decided to take on the next challenge of the holiday season: roast pork. Cubans love pork as much as the people of China, the country of my heritage. Cubans eat it for the two most important holidays of the Cuban calendar — Christmas Eve, called La Noche Buena, and New Year’s Eve, known as El Fin de Ano. There are many different ways to roast carne asada. Some like to bake it in the oven, while others prefer to roast it over coals on a barbecue or on a rotisserie. On New Year’s Eve in my neighborhood, you’ll see families constructing makeshift spits in their front yard and roasting a leg or a whole pig for the whole entire street to view.
My friend T makes the best version of carne asada that I’ve had. An added bonus is that it’s easy to make on my stovetop, saving me the trouble of going out to try to find coals and sticks and constructing a barbecue pit in my backyard. (I hope to do that, too, someday, but just not for the holidays.) T is the housekeeper of a local friend, and one afternoon after I sampled T’s super tender, flavorful carne asada, I asked her for the recipe. She told me that she would show me how to make it if I brought over a pork shoulder. Not long after, I brought over a giant eight-pound hunk of pork that cost me $11. It had that gelatinous, quivery texture that tells you it’s just been slaughtered. T nodded approvingly and set about assembling the ingredients for the marinade. As she squeezed the juice of several sour oranges over the meat, she instructed me to let it sit in my fridge for a night and told me, mas o menos, how to cook it the next day.
After the meat had marinated in my fridge for a good 24 hours, I followed her instructions in my kitchen and came out with a delicious-looking hunk of pork. But it didn’t quite resemble hers, because the pork had absorbed too much of the liquid and was much drier than hers. (Still, my husband complimented me on it.)
Not having gotten it quite right, I decided to attempt it de nuevo but asked T it if I could watch the entire process from start to finish. It turned out that her method was so second nature to her that should she couldn’t verbally tell me all the instructions. When I asked her for measurements during the second session, she exclaimed, “I don’t cook by measuring!”
There were many tricks to the process, I learned. First, you need to stab the pork shoulder with a cooking fork a few times while you marinate it, in order to get a flavorful result. Also, you need to brown the pork in a very hot pot to seal in the juices. And during the cooking process, check the pork to make sure it’s not absorbing all the marinade — add cooking wine from time to time before it looks like it’s going to dry out.
The recipe calls for two special Cuban ingredients. The first is vino seco. It’s a golden-hued cooking wine that is popular across Cuba called “Vino Seco del Mundo.” (The comedian Conan O’Brien did a spoof about it when he visited Cuba a couple of years back.) Though its name translates as “Dry Wine of the World,” there really isn’t an equivalent outside of Cuba, aside from a brand called Eduardo that you can sometimes buy in Cuban specialty markets or online. But the easiest substitute is sherry cooking wine, which you can buy at Target or Wall-Mart for around $2. The other ingredient is sour oranges, which are nearly impossible to find outside of Cuba. For the oranges, you can substitute a mix of navel oranges and lime, or buy a Goya marinade at a Latin American supermarket.
The pork goes with all kinds of Christmas sides and is a nice alternative to ham, which I’ve always found to be rather uninspiring. Serve this recipe with rice and black beans, and you’ll be eating what the rest of Cuba eats for Christmas and New Year’s. Bon appetite, or buen provecho, as they say in Cuba.
Roast Pork (Carne Asada)
5 lb boneless pork shoulder
20 cloves of garlic
1 large yellow onion
1 medium green bell pepper
6 cups vino seco or sherry cooking wine
2 teaspoons salt
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried cumin
6 sour oranges/Seville oranges (or 3 limes and 3 navel oranges) or 2 cups of Goya naranja agria marinade
1 cup of vegetable or canola oil
Rinse and pat dry the pork shoulder. Trim off any large pieces of fat and save them for other use (or discard). Place the pork shoulder in a large bowl or container that’s just big enough to fit the pork and several cups worth of marinade.
In a food processor, combine the garlic, onion, and bell pepper and blend into a paste. Using your hands, coat the pork shoulder with the paste. Pour two cups of cooking wine over the pork, then sprinkle it with the salt, oregano, and cumin. Squeeze the juice of the sour oranges (or the limes and oranges, or pour the Goya naranja agria marinade) over the meat. Poke the meat in several places with a meat fork or a knife and baste the meat with the marinade. Cover the meat and refrigerate overnight. (If possible, turn over the meat once, about halfway through the marinade process.)
The next day, take the meat out of the fridge and leave it on the counter for an hour. Pour the 1 cup of oil in into a big pot over high heat. Allow the oil to heat for 3-4 minutes. Then carefully add the meat (avoiding any splashes). After the meat browns sufficiently to seal in the juices (about 3 minutes), turn over the meat and let it cook for 3 minutes. Add the marinade and the rest of the cooking wine and bring the pot to a boil. Cover the pot, leaving the cover slightly cocked to allow steam to escape. Turn down the flame to medium-low, and allow it to cook for three more hours, turning the meat over every hour. Check on the meat every half hour or so and add 1/2 cup of vino seco from time to time so that the meat doesn’t dry out. The meat should be tender and shred easily and the pot should still hold a couple cups worth of liquid after three hours of cooking. Serve immediately, or cook up to a day in advance (storing it in the fridge after it cools) and heat it on the stove before serving. Slice the meat and serve with some of the juice left in the pot.