While this should really be treated as the official “Round 1” lechon attempt, the first dry run described here yielded very decent results, so I guess this is now officially Lechon #2… All you have to do is a take a good close look at the lechon skin in the photo above to know this was an improvement on the first roasted pig. Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, we decided to engage the services of a traditional and “professional” town or barangay lechonero, Mang Fredo, and see what he did differently to ensure a delicious lechon. This was certainly a wise move. And thankfully, he was a “classic” kind of lechon guy, not many tricks or shortcuts up his sleeve, just good old common sense, a few flavoring tricks, and the patience of an ox.
We learned a lot from Mang Fredo, and now I am beginning to realize just how many possible different techniques or nuances exist when making a lechon… I will know a lot when this series is over, but I am not sure I will have perfected the process. The first thing we did differently this time around was to buy the piglet (live weight 22 kilos) a few days before roasting it. We fed it only fruits and vegetables like overripe pineapples, etc., hoping that these last few days on a fruity diet would alter the flavor of the meat. Frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference, so I would guess that one has to keep the pig on a premium all organic diet for weeks if it is to have any impact on the quality of meat and intensity of flavor. Mang Fredo also took a different approach to stuffing and sewing up the pig. He made a VERY long incision in the belly, then broke the front legs of the carcass and stuffed his concoction of green onions, garlic, salt, pepper, dried bay leaves, red peppers and a little instant guisado mix (yikes!) deep into the recesses of the cleaned pig. This was a much more intense stuffing process than the one we did in Round 1. The incision was sewn up with kitchen string/twine rather than the rattan strips we used the first time around.
The pig was allowed to “air-dry” for a couple of hours, then basted with the juice of several freshly picked coconuts, then allowed to dry again, before the fire was lit. In this case, we purchased three sacks of the highest quality (read large pieces) charcoal available, though we only used one sack for the entire cooking process. Mang Fredo spread an entire sack on the base of the lechonan and lit it until the coals were really hot. Then this was spread out and there was charcoal underneath the entire pig. This differs from our first attempt when we only had heat around the pig in a large oval… I have to say, I was worried about flare-ups from dripping oil but Mang Fredo seemed to know what he was doing. Soon after the pig was placed on the fire, it seemed like it was going to get burned, so he had to raise the pig and adjust the coals. Ultimately, I would have started with rought 2/3 or the large sack of coals first, adding coals if necessary at a later point in the cooking process. And I would place very few coals directly under the pig itself, still opting for mostly a perimiter ring of coals…
I was thrilled to see that Mang Fredo relied only on the coconut water from freshly picked coconuts sourced on the property. I was worried he might take a shortcut here and use 7up, a cheap liquor or even a sweet soy sauce to help the caramelization process. He said you must let the pig dry off after you apply the coconut water. And if you are squeamish about flies, keep the pig indoors or in a screened room, or use an electric fan on high pointed at the pig. Mang Fredo did NOT baste the lechon at all with plain water or coconut water after he started cooking it. He said this would make the skin makunat or chewy.
The revelation of round 2 wasn’t in the stuffing or the basting, it was in the roasting process itself. I always assumed that you just had to keep rotating the spit at an even pace for the entire cooking period, which lasted a whopping 3 hours last time we attempted this. But Mang Fredo did far more than that! He basically kept an eagle eye on the fire and the pig and kept adjusting the height of the pig and the pace at which he turned it. This isn’t something a little machine could replicate. It was fascinating to watch, actually. And frankly, I would have lost 5 pounds if I had to do this part of the process myself. This is where he distinguished himself as an “expert.” And having cooked hundreds of inasal (as they are referred to in Cebu), who was I to wonder if this degree of attention was really necessary to achieve a stunning lechon…
And just 90 minutes later, like magic, this stunning looking lechon was the final result. About 60-70 minutes into the process, the salty liquid that came out of the stuffed stomach was wiped off with a clean rag and the entire pig was basted with some vegetable oil to make sure it browned evenly and had a nice sheen, and to help the final crisping of the skin. Mang Fredo finished so quickly we had to eat lunch at 11am! But who was complaining? The skin was wonderfully crisp (a bit like peking duck) near the shoulders of the pig and on some 50% of the rest of the pig. The meat was flavorful and moist (though I couldn’t tell if the fruit fed to the pig made a difference at all). The ribs were succulent without being overly salty. I would axe the guisa mix next time to keep this totally natural, but that is a minor quibble.
Once the pig was devoured, I noticed that the serving platter had nearly two cups full of liquid, too much, I thought, and perhaps this was due to the volume of the stuffing and these vegetables would very likely give off a lot of moisture. I made a mental note to use significantly less stuffing the next time we attempted this on our own, as I wanted the meat juicy, but not waterlogged.
About 20 people attacked this lechon and left it almost completely clean to the bones. Obviously, it was good. And yes, a little better than the first time we tried cooking lechon. But both versions had their advantages and disadvantages and the trick was to pick out and save the aspects of prepping, stuffing and cooking that might lead to the ideal lechon recipe in the months to come… And the numerical verdict on round 2? Overall score of 7.75, with an 8.00 for the taste and 7.50 for skin crispness and color.
Oh, and don’t forget that some of the simplest things in life are the best… Fashion a little scoop from the shell of a fresh coconut and use it to scrape the young meat to eat as a snack while the lechon is on the fire… yum. I have just delayed my scheduled visit to the cardiologist for another couple of weeks. :)
P.S., If you look close enough, or the size of the photo is large enough on your computer screen, it appears as though you can discern each individual skin cell on the lechon piece photographed up top. I thought that was fascinating.