Puerto Rican Pernil with Crispy Skin

The traditional centerpiece of the Puerto Rican Christmas Eve (or "Noche Buena") table, is Pernil--a marinated pork shoulder that's roasted slowly in the oven until the meat is tender and the skin on top is crackling and crisp.

All families have their own perfect pernil recipe--the simplest seasoning the pork only with garlic, salt, and oregano. Others use popular storebought spice mixes (like "adobo Goya") or slightly more complicated marinades, but at the heart of it is a simple roast that requires little effort on your part while the oven does all the work.

The word "pernil" derives from the Spanish word "pierna" or leg. It's also the Catalan word for ham, since the dish was originally prepared using a fresh ham. Pork shoulder, however, is more readily available and affordable, and has since became the more popular cut to use for the dish. The fattiness of the pork shoulder also lends itself well to the long slow roasting, and turns out a better end product than the ham.  There will always be purists who will argue that a true pernil can't be made with pork shoulder, but I've never seen them turn down a plate of this deliciousness.

When it comes to flavor, I like it bold. I'm not into subtle on my plate (or really in any part of my life), and tend to skip over the ones that just taste like plain roasted pork. I want a good hit of garlic. I want the brightness of cilantro. I want a touch of acid from the citrus. And damn it...I want there to be enough salt to bring all of those things out.

Growing up, I actually never really liked pernil. It tasted dry and boring to me, and I never understood the rabid enthusiasm other guests felt for it. I always turned it down in favor of the other Puerto Rican dishes on the table--the pasteles and tostones...or maybe just the rum cake.

And then a few years ago, I decided to give it a shot, experimenting with my own versions of the classic recipes. The process is similar to what I do with my Thanksgiving turkey or roast chickens. It's a technique I learned from my mom, and one of the best ways to infuse meat with maximum flavor while preserving moisture.

Here's what I do: I skip the roasting rack and put the pork right down on the pan where the bottom can braise in the flavorful juices. I make a thick, wet paste of spices and citrus juice with massive amounts of garlic--8 or 10 big cloves. I add a full bunch of cilantro. I pass the stale store-bought "adobo" spice mixes in favor of fresh individual spices--ground toasted cumin, smokey paprika, dried oregano. And salt. A teaspoon of kosher salt per pound seems to work about right. 

I also think patience is key. Some pernil recipes only call for 3 or so hours in the oven, but low and slow is best, letting it go 5, 6, even 7 hours. You end up with skin that crackles and meat that is tender, moist, and dripping with dressing. Impressive results that belie the amount of effort it takes.

I serve mine on rice, doused with hot sauce and topped with a pile of quick pickled red onions. The perfect winter meal.

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Puerto Rican Pernil Recipe
Serves 7 - 10 people when accompanied with sides

Ingredients
1 5-8lb pork shoulder, bone-in
1 cup sour orange juice (from seville oranges) OR 1 cup tart grapefruit juice OR 1/2 cup each orange and lemon juice
2 tablespoons vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
8-10 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro
1 large red bell pepper, seeds and center ribs removed
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons paprika (sweet or smoked spanish)
5-8 teaspoons kosher salt (1 teaspoon per pound of pork)
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1-2 cups water

Directions
Rinse pork shoulder under cold water and then pat very dry. Place skin-side up in a large roasting pan, right on the pan (not on roasting rack). Use a knife to cut slits into the skin and fat.

Combine the orange juice, vinegar, olive oil, onion, garlic, cilantro, red bell pepper, cumin, oregano, paprika, salt, and pepper in a blender or food processor and puree into a smooth paste.

Use your hands to rub the pork shoulder with the paste on all sides, pouring into any crevices and into the slits cut in the skin. Use all of the marinade. Cover pan with plastic wrap and let marinate a minimum of 2 hours and up to 2 days.

When ready to cook, remove from refrigerator and let sit at room temperature 30 minutes to take off some of the chill. Wipe off excess marinade from the skin of pork and pour water into bottom of pan so that it goes up about 2 inches on the side of the pork. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cover roasting pan tightly with foil or pan cover and place in oven on lowest rack to bake for 4 to 7 hours or until very tender. (Smaller roasts cook less when larger roasts take more time. It's very difficult to "overcook" as long as you keep the heat low, the roast covered, and the liquid in the pan--you can even go down to 300 degrees if you want to be safe.)

Once meat is tender, remove foil from pan and let broil about 5 to 10 minutes, or until skin is crisp and crackling.

Transfer pernil to a serving platter.  Serve pernil along with reduced pan juices, and a rice dish such as arroz con gandules, boiled yuca, or plantains

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