Loco for lechon
March 5th, 2013
04:00 PM ET
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The average person might associate the word "pig" with bacon, pork chops, ham, crown roasts or even Miss Piggy. To me, it's all about the lechón, which is a Spanish term for roasted suckling pig.

Cue blaring salsa music, the intoxicating smell of roasted pork and a salivating crowd ready to pounce on smoky, salty, juicy meat. In my Cuban-American family and culture, a lechón means it’s time to party. Every Cuban family has their own lechón recipe. The Italians have their marinara sauce, we have our dry rub.

I recently survived Goya Foods' Swine and Wine, a South Beach Wine and Food Festival event, where I experienced hog heaven.

Nearly two dozen chefs battled it out to be the winner of the coveted 18-karat Piggy Choice Award given to the cook with the most succulent hog.

I caught up with two of the competing chefs, Goya's Executive Chef Fernando Desa and Chef Ryan Nielsen of Bongos Cuban Café and Larios on the Beach, to get pointers on how to become a lechón master.

Nielsen says hogs have, at times, had a bad reputation as a food source because of their religious taboos and association with uncleanliness.

"Once pigs were seen as bottom feeders, but now they are better regulated,” said Nielsen, who ended up winning top honors at the event.

Nielsen says that due to pork's versatility, leanness and, not to mention, deliciousness, more high-end chefs are starting to cook with it - especially heritage breed pigs.

First, Chef Desa says you've got to find a superb swine.

“You want to look for a young pig between 34-40 pounds," he said. "The smaller pigs are better because the meat is tender. That will be enough to feed around 100 people at 6 ounces per serving.”

Another trick? If you're feeding a big crowd, it’s best to roast several pigs instead of one larger pig.

Next, Chef Desa recommends marinating the pig for 48 hours in a dry rub. The key to a great lechón is all in the marinade, and it’s best to rub the entire exterior of the pig as well as under the skin. Typical marinade ingredients include garlic, salt, cumin, oregano and naranja agria (the juice of sour oranges).

After the 48-hour period is complete, Desa recommends patting the meat dry with paper towels and re-seasoning it. The chefs also recommend injecting the meat with more marinade.

For the Swine and Wine competition, both Desa and Nielsen used a La Caja China (called “the Chinese box”) to roast the pig, which is traditionally used outdoors. The box can cut the roasting time in half and results in tender, flavorful meat.

The total cooking time should be about 4 to 5 hours. Both chefs say you know you’ve got it right when the pork skin is crisp and crunchy, not rubbery.

"Say what you want [when it comes to eating the skin], but it’s such a guilty meat - it’s like filet mignon. You know you shouldn’t [eat it] but you just can’t stop!” Nielsen said.

When it's done roasting, allow it to sit for 30 minutes before the hungry guests tear it to shreds.

Previously:
Picking the pig, flipping the hog
Eat This List: 5 slices of barbecue wisdom
Honoring the bond of barbecue

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Filed under: Events • Roasting • Techniques & Tips


soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Carol Zeller

    I just recently read up on 'Pigs' My Nephew in Mn raises them. They say the 'Berkshire Pig' is the best, they are good Mommies, nurse the babies, do not get sunburned and the meat is nice and dark, not all fat.
    My neighbors across the street.....Cuban's.....Roasted a Pig for a Party not too long ago, They did it not in a 'Caja China' but, in an big oven that you put out in the yard. It was delicious. I took the Jaws with the teeth to my dentist and he was so interested. I offered it to him and will have to find out what he did with it?
    DO NOT FORGET, I HAVE LIVED WITH A CUBAN AND IN HIS CUBAN FAMILY FOR OVER 30 YEARS NOW! I live in Miam with all of the CUBAN'S and their food. I have learned to cook Cuban Style Food too.
    Also Jackie do not forget you and I have the same Birthday!!!!!!! Carol

    March 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  2. Isa Entenza

    Great article…your description of the roasted pig made me want to go out and buy a “caja china” to roast a pig the traditional style. The staple at every Cuban Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) dinner is the lechon asado. No reason why we can’t roast a pig at any other time of the year though. As a matter of fact, after reading your article and your vivid description of the succulent lechon, I think I’m going to have a mid-year Nochebuena. The chefs tips are very helpful….Thank you for sharing your Swine and Wine experience.

    March 8, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  3. vatoloke

    The photo brings back memories of partying in La Paz, Bolivia. The party would kick up a notch after the lechon was done with.

    March 8, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  4. Jose R. Perez

    There is nothing like lechon from the flavor and texture to the "ambiente" that the cooking brings to the scene. It is just a wonderful get together tool for friends and family that is festive and tastes great. Jackie your wonderful article and excellent pictures me han hecho la boca agua aqui enel frio de Atlanta. Great Job

    March 7, 2013 at 7:40 am | Reply
  5. charo

    Lechon Asado brings to mind the Holidays a delicius meal to enjoy with family and good friends, thank you for bringing great memories.

    March 7, 2013 at 12:03 am | Reply
  6. S Munoz

    Exelente! What a delight delight delight

    March 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Reply
  7. Lulu

    Thanks for sharing tips. Best way to bring family and friends together is "ROASTING A PIG/A LECHON; the party goes on and on; the food is delicious. I AM HUNGRY NOW. Excellent article. Even toddlers enjoy the lechon asado, its meat is very tender and the flavor is ... so gooood!
    Lulu

    You say lechon asado, everyone is in!

    March 6, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  8. Silvia

    Lechon is such a delicacy, it brings families together.... whoever hasn't tried it is missing out, terribly... excellent article, made me crave for some lechon!!

    March 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  9. F.A.

    That is so true! You have made 1 million Cubans hungry. Let's roast a hog tonight!

    March 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  10. Dizzyd

    Sorry, I'm sure it's a vaunted tradition, but the thought of eating a baby animal leaves me cold.

    March 6, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
    • Dominic

      A 40 pound pig is not a baby.

      March 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  11. omnomnom

    In the Philippines, roasted suckling pig is called, although somewhat redundantly, Lechon de Leche. It is the star of every party or fiesta. It is also traditional to put an apple in its mouth. People would fight over the crispy skin but I personaly prefer the part we call 'liempo' where the meat is layered alternately with fat. There are regional varieties but one can have the best experience with lechon when paired with a well seasoned liver sauce! Yum!

    March 6, 2013 at 2:17 am | Reply

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