For my family, Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena is the night we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the blessings of family and friends. It is a night filled with talk, laughter, music, gifts and of course, food. Lots of food, both Cuban and Italian.
Our main meal consists of bacalao, shrimp cocktails, linguini with stuffed calamari, black beans, rice, avocado salad, ripe and green plantains, yuca (a kind of root), Virginia-style ham and roast pork. While all of these are delicious, it’s the roast pork that reigns supreme and of course, takes the most prep time.
My mom and abuelita showed me how to make the roast pork, but it was my dad who helped perfect the recipe by insisting that the citrus marinade had to have grapefruits! It made all the difference in the world. There’s something about the brightness of the grapefruit flavor that totally changes the citrus marinade.
As for the marinade, we make it fresh the night before. It’s a combination of the juice from oranges, sour oranges (also known as Seville oranges), limes, lemons and of course, grapefruits. My daughter, nephew Jon and I spend at least an hour or more juicing all the fresh fruits. It’s a lot of work because we need enough juice to cover a pork leg that is about 20-25 pounds. If you’re going to make this at home for yourself, a pork leg (also known as pernil or picnic ham) of about 6 or 7 pounds is enough for a family of 4 or 5.
The key to the citrus juices is that you want to make a combination of juices that is sweet, but also tart. Sweet/sour might be a better term to use. You don’t want anything that goes too far either way because that will really change the taste of the final roast pork.
Once we have the juice, we add a ton of crushed garlic, some cumin (not too much) and a few bay leaves. The bay leaves are also essential to have the right taste. Also flavor with a little pepper and even less salt. With the citrus and all the other spices, this dish doesn’t need much salt.
Once that marinade is ready, I take the pork leg and skewer it a few times with a large knife from one end to the next (with a smaller pork leg, use a smaller knife). I know this defies all the chef recommendations because normally creating such cuts in a roast will let the juices leave the meat and make it dry. But in this case, the marinating and basting will keep it moist and the cuts will let the marinade seep into the meat and flavor it.
As I mentioned before, the pork leg will rest in the marinade overnight until I rise at six, drag all 25 pounds of it out and into a roasting pan. A few ladles of the marinade should go over the pork at this time. The pork will go into a 425 degree oven for a good hour or more. The high heat at this stage helps seal the outside to keep the pork moist. (I do not baste during this initial hour.)
If you are making a smaller roast pork leg, go ahead and bake it at 425 for about an hour as well. After, reduce the heat to 350 and bake for about another 2 or 3 hours for the smaller pork leg.
Since our Noche Buena pork leg is so large, it will need to cook almost all day. The house is redolent with the smell of the citrus and spices and those smells always remind me of Christmas Eve with my family.
After that first hour or so of high heat, turn the oven down to 350. The pork will cook until about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Baste every half an hour or so from the juice in the pan and from the original marinade (DO NOT put the original marinade on the pork once it is out of the oven to avoid contamination!).
The juices will caramelize and the pork will have a wonderful glaze and dark brown color. When the pork is ready, you will see that it is just about to fall off the bone. Yummy.
My family will often gather around and pick at the roast pork as I ease it off the bone and slice it for dinner because they can’t wait to eat it. If you’re familiar with pork legs like this, you know that there is always some skin on the leg and that becomes an extra-special Cook’s treat.
Traditionally, roast pork is served beside black beans over white rice, tostones (green plantains), platanos maduros (ripe plantains) and an avocado salad.
I will be sure to post a picture of this year’s Christmas Eve table and roast pork later!