Shooting the Cook
And now for a bit of movie trivia.
There’s a scene in Robert Rodriquez’s pulpy Once Upon a Time in Mexico where Sands (Johnny Depp) calmly explains to “El”–“as in ‘the’ ”—(Antonio Banderas) that the cochinita pibil he’s eating is the best he’s tasted in Mexico and, as a result, he will have to “shoot the cook.” He will do this, he says “to restore the balance to this country.” So, when he’s finished, he pays his check, pulls out his glock and, yep, shoots the cook.
Long intrigued by this scene and the Harrison Bergeron-like idea of someone making something so good that they have to pay (in this case, die) for it, I decided to try my hand at what Sands calls a “simple pork dish, nothing fancy.”
“Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t ?”
Five grocery stores later, I almost give up my quest. It’s true the ingredients in chochinita pibil (which translates to buried suckling pig) are few: pork shoulder, cumin seed , whole clove, cinnamon stick, Mexican oregano, garlic, orange and lime juice, achiote seed, and banana leaf. But it is the last two requirements that give me grief. I can’t believe I can’t source such seemingly simple components in a foodie town like Boulder, CO. Neither the flagship Whole Foods that takes up practically a whole block, nor the neighborhood Fruteria, where my non-existent Spanish is put to no good use, can help.
|Achiote seed, in situ|
Happily, the city-dwelling boyfriend is a Mexi-can and he finds a bigger market in Denver that not only has what I need, but also has banana leaves fresh or frozen (we take fresh) and achiote in powder, paste, or seed form (we take seeds on the advice of the owner who says they’re best).
|and in my food processor|
Back at home, I begin following the Rick Bayless Recipe which asks me to grind my spices into a powder with a spice grinder. I don’t have a dedicated coffee grinder for this purpose (which frankly seems like one kitchen tool too many), so I place the herbs in my Kitchen Aid food processor until they break apart. That is, all but the achiote seeds, which not only look like, but behave, as Greg says, like red grape nuts. Undaunted, I put the spice mix in a plastic bag and go at it with, first, a French baton, then a heavy gauge aluminum sauce pan. Nothing. As in Nada. The achiote is so hard, it makes dents in the plastic.
|Greg, my spice grinder|
Even the back of Greg’s axe handle doesn’t do much at first, but after some amount of pounding, we are able to get the seeds to crumble. A bit.
I proceed with the recipe, anyway, making a coarse ground marinade for the meat and letting it rest in the fridge overnight.
|Banana leaves for cochinita pibil|
The next day, I wrap the lovely ochre-colored puerco in banana leaves and put it on a medium grill for about three hours.
Once the shoulder is tender, I cut it into chunks and serve it with steamed corn tortillas, pickled red onions, a slaw made with mango and more pickled onions, and garnishes of cilantro, lime, and sour cream. Greg and I sample the results with my (happily) pacifist Midwestern summer neighbors and unofficial Colorado residents, Sandi and Randy, both of whom suggest as they help themselves to seconds that if they owned a gun….
|Cochinita pibil with pickled onions and mango slaw|
Instead, Greg says point blank that I should definitely get a spice grinder: “You will be making this a lot.” The meat has a rustic flavor that’s one part smoky and acid and two parts mysterious blend made from the combination of annatto with cloves, cinnamon, and cumin. The coarse achiote adds texture and now crumbles like cocoa nibs on the tongue.
We can’t get enough and eat until the platter of meat disappears.
Was it shoot- the- cook good? I think so. Greg is still talking about it and just today, friend Giulia pitched a fit when I told her there wasn’t any left to taste.
Happily, though, I will live to do it all again another day.