Every December I host what I call “dinner with a Christmas tree” – a dinner party for about a dozen guests. While the Christmas lights twinkle in the corner and the fire burns in the wood stove, we enjoy festive appetizers, good wine, and a special dinner. I give a great deal of thought to what will be served, and try to come up with dishes that might not be familiar to many Americans. Over the years I have made cassoulet with sausages and duck, choucroute with fresh sauerkraut and ham hocks, Jewish-style brisket of beef with latkes, cioppino, and sometimes less exotic mains like beef roasts, Cornish game hens, and whatever else seemed appealing.
For the party in December 2011, I was planning nochebuena. Nochebuena – the Good Night – is what Latin Americans call Christmas Eve; according to chef Norman Van Aken, the traditional Cuban Christmas Eve dish is a marinated pork roast.
Two pork roasts had been purchased and were cooling their heels in my refrigerator when, one week before the dinner, I was struck with cluster headaches. If you’ve never had one, I hope you never get one. It is by far the most painful thing I have ever experienced and it completely incapacitated me. The headaches waned now and then; not yet fully aware of how disabled I was or how long this would go on, I forged ahead during my lucid moments and put together the marinade, poured it over the pork in a giant plastic bag, and optimistically planned for the dinner.
I was also planning a Julia Child cake, made with layers of baked meringue and a gooey, boozy apricot filling. The layers got made but the cake was never assembled.
Crippled with pain, the day before the dinner I called my most trusted, bestest gay boyfriend and asked him to please call the other guests and tell them the dinner was cancelled. I stuck the pork, marinade, plastic bag and all, in the freezer. Time passed just because it always does. There was a trip to the emergency room and a cat scan and a lot of morphine. Christmas came and went. Eventually I got better.
Fast forward to last night, February 7. It was high time to deal with that frozen pig, for better or worse, so I separated the two roasts, put one back in the freezer, and cooked the other. It was divine. The two months of marinating in a winter wonderland had not hurt it at all. My husband pronounced it the best roast pork I had ever made, especially the cracklings.
So here is the somewhat amended recipe from New World Kitchen by Norman Van Aken, plus a few notes about what I did with it.
- 1 5-6 pound boneless pork roast
- 3/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 fresh orange juice
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan, then ground
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 5-6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Put the pork in a large and sturdy plastic bag. Whisk all other ingredients together, pour into the bag, and kind of smoosh the marinade all over the pork. Refrigerate for at least 2 days and up to 4 days, turning the bag occasionally.
Put the roast in a large roasting pan; discard the marinade. Roast at 350 for 25-30 minutes per pound, until pork is practically falling apart. Remove from oven and cover with foil for 20 minutes. Carve and serve.
Now, then: I had about two cups homemade chicken stock which I poured into the pan around the meat along with 4 bay leaves. After 2 hours, I sliced about six unpeeled Russet potatoes and pushed those into the stock. After another hour, I drained two cans of cannelini (white kidney beans) and poured those in too, along with several spoonfuls of minced garlic from a jar, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and a good hefty sprinkle of dried basil.
After another hour I took the pork out of the pan and let it sit on a plate, covered. If I had been thinking, I would have removed the fat cap – the cracklings – and returned that to the oven for another ten minutes or so, but I didn’t.
When we were ready to eat, I tore up some fresh basil and sprinkled that over the beans & potatoes in the pan. The pork didn’t carve so much as just fell apart. We had that along with steamed broccoli and sweet & sour red cabbage with cloves and aniseed. It was wonderful. The cracklings were like crack.