This year will be the first Christmas I spend with my family in the US after a long time living abroad in Chile. Ok, just four years, but it seriously felt like a long time. The holidays were always bittersweet because even though I had friends and a kind of “adopted” Chilean family, I still missed out on quality family time back home. The past few years, I lived with two Cubans who, like me, were miles away from their loved ones. Being three expats in a foreign country, the holidays were pretty hard for all of us and we had to try and recreate what Christmas felt like back home. The silver lining is that we learned about each other’s cultures and they were gracious enough to share some of their holiday traditions from Cuba.
Like most Latin-Americans, Cubans don’t celebrate Christmas on the 25th, but rather the night before on December 24th, a holiday that they call Nochebuena. Nochebuena literally means “good night” and is a time to gather with friends and extended family to feast on delicious food, share stories and jokes, and maybe even dance and sing if the mood strikes them. The menu typically consists of roast pig (called lechón asado), yuca with mojo (a citrusy-garlic marinade), black beans with rice (congrí), and fried plantains. Usually, a whole pig is marinated in mojo the night before, then left on a rotating spit to cook slowly all day. The first time I tried lechón asado, I was blown away that such simple ingredients could produce such intense flavor. Lechón asado is salty yet citrusy, crispy yet melt-in-your-mouth…. In short, it’s delicious!
So I have to admit – I cheated a little bit on this recipe. We don’t have Seville oranges here in California and I can’t possibly consume a whole pig by myself, nor do I have the time to roast a small piece of meat on a barbecue all day. Instead, I used a combination of orange and lime juice, a six pound piece of pork butt, and baked it in the oven on low. It doesn’t have the same charcoal-y taste of the barbecue grill, but it comes out just as crispy and flavorful.
This year, I’m tasked with the big responsibility of cooking Christmas dinner, and this dish is a strong contender. If you’re looking for a new recipe to add to your Christmas repertoire, lechón asado is the perfect main course.
Lechón Asado (Yield: 12 servings)
6-8 pound pork butt or shoulder
For the mojo:
1 large onion, sliced thinly
5 garlic cloves, mashed
3 lemons, juiced with seeds removed
½ orange, juiced with seeds removed
1 cup oil
1 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon oregano
2 teaspoons cumin
3 bay leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
- The night before, prepare the mojo. Combine the oil, vinegar, lemon juice, orange juice, onions, garlic, and spices in a bowl.
- With a knife, make incisions in the pork so that the mojo marinade penetrates the pork. It’s not necessary to remove the skin or the fat (it adds flavor!). Place the pork in a bowl, pour the mojo over the pork, seal with plastic wrap, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight (or for at least eight hours). Flip the pork over or pour the marinade over the uncovered parts of the pork sporadically while it’s marinating so that all sides soak in the mojo.
- The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the pork from the marinade and put in a baking pan. Baste with marinade and cook for 2 hours, basting with the leftover marinade every 30 minutes or so.
- After 2 hours, flip the pork onto the other side and cover with the remainder of the marinade. Lower the heat to 300 degrees and cook for 2 hours more, basting every 30 minutes with the mojo that’s in the pan. When the pork is crispy, remove from the oven, cut into slices, and serve.
Note: Lechon asado is usually served with congri, which is white rice cooked with black beans. The recipe is as follows.
Congrí (Yield: 10-12 servings)
1 cup of black beans
2 cups of long grain white rice
2 cups of black bean broth
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, mashed
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon salt
- The night before, soak the black beans in a bowl with water. Allow to soak overnight.
- The next day, add the beans and water to a pressure cooker. Add more water to the pot, keeping in mind that you need 2 cups of bean broth (Note: It’s important to add enough water, but not too much, because the broth will be watered down and less flavorful. I usually make sure there’s about 2 1/2 cups of water in the pot). Cook in the pressure cooker for around 40 minutes, or until the beans are soft. Once the pressure cooker is cool, drain the beans, saving the bean broth in a separate bowl, and set aside.
- Add oil to a medium-sized pot and fry the onions, garlic, and red pepper until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Wash the rice and add to the pot with the onions, garlic, and red pepper. Mix, then add the black beans.
- Add the bean broth and spices to the pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to low. Cover the pot and allow to cook until the rice is cooked through, around 15-20 minutes.