Sometimes, you just get really lucky. If you are a fan of lechon, and you have been following the Marketman Chronicles here, here and here, and read the last recent entry “Lechon, Round 2,” then savor this post on Lechon, Round 3 when you have a few minutes of calm, and possibly slight hunger pangs. Do not breeze through this post. Few “experiments” of mine turn out this delicious on the “first try.” The photo up top features a few square inches of the most incredible pork crackling I have ever had. It was crisp, salty, flavorful and rich all in one bite. Blistered, airy, light, yet clearly from a beloved pig. Utterly gourmet chicharon might be another way to describe it. A bit “tortured” to look at, but I would put this piece of skin up against almost any other food on a line-up of the things one might crave at their last meal on this planet…
It was my intention to veer a little bit away from a more traditional “pinoy style” lechon during Round 3. I was inspired by a episode of a television program called River Cottage, where Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (one of my favorite food programs of the moment) roasts a HUGE pig over charcoal. He did something unusual to the skin and it is that aspect of the preparation that I wanted to experiment with most… But first, the ingredients. We decided to “size-up” from earlier pigs at 20-22 kilos that didn’t have much fat yet. This time around, we purchased a 33 kilo pig (perhaps roughly 3 months old) and I think it was the perfect size for a hungry party of say 16-18 guests. For flavor, I concocted my own mix of aromatics and spices. Lots of lemongrass picked minutes before use from our garden. About 30-40 cloves of garlic, peeled; small red onions, siling labuyo (I used only 10-12 pieces, not everything in the photo) and lemons. Dried rosemary and thyme (I really wanted fresh, but Cebu groceries didn’t carry any), kosher salt and lots of black peppercorns. A small bottle of olive oil.
In a beautiful hand carved mortar made from a discarded piece of langka wood (more glimpses of the mortar in photos below), I first crushed several stalks of incredibly fragrant lemongrass. If you just picked the lemongrass, it is actually quite juicy, a huge difference from market or grocery bought stalks which tend to be rather dry…
..I added the garlic, onions, some salt, peppercorns, chillis and smashed them up into a very chunky paste…
…spread the paste all around the rib cage or cavity of the lechon. And sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. And I mean liberally. You could need as much as 1/4 cup of kosher salt!
Note that the meat and skin of the pig is separated from the bones in the butchering and preparation process, so you can stuff more of the aromatic paste outside the ribs, and likewise remember to season well with salt and pepper. Add 3-4 bundles of lemongrass (I tried not to overstuff)…
…and squeeze in the juice of 2 lemons and add a few tablespoons of olive oil as well. Now dance around the pig and chant “you will be brilliant, you will be brilliant…” in low monotone…
…then sew up the stomach with a nice tight stitch.
Next is the unusual step of scoring the skin of the lechon. With a fresh blade or the tip of a very sharp knife, make shallow slits on the skin that only go as deep as the fat, not the meat below. I did this at a diagonal, leaving a large solid piece at the “top” of the back. Then I rubbed lots of dried thyme and rosemary into the slits to make sure that the skin would be well-flavored. The herbs naturally “burned” during the roasting process, hence the black specks on the skin, but the meat/skin tasted wonderful as a result.
Add more kosher salt and then massage with generous amounts of olive oil, coating all skin surface areas until it has a nice slick sheen.
We roasted this pig over hot coals for roughly 160 minutes and used 1.5 sacks of charcoal.
Towards the end of the cooking process, I threw in a couple of yellow and red peppers directly onto the coals to roast them.
The resulting “lechon” or Roast Pig a la Marketman looked a bit beastly, but I knew about an hour and half into the cooking process that this was a definite winner. The slits on the skin served to release the fats in the layer just below, effectively producing a flavorful basting liquid as the pig turned on the spit. We never got flare-ups as the coals were to the side of the pig, not directly underneath. And the strips of skin turned marvelously crisp, a bit blistered and incredibly well-flavored. Once off the fire, the skin remained very crisp for a good 15 minutes, and we noted that roughly 60-70% of the entire skin surface was uniformly crisp, unlike so many lechons that have a larger percentage of chewy skin than not. And there were no sugary based tricks here.
The crisp and delicious skin (easy to peel off for individual servings, too) defintiely rated a solid 9. It wasn’t pretty in the classic Pinoy lechon sense, but it was sublime on the taste buds.
The meat was delicious but lacked salt, and thus this lechon would rate a 7.75 or 8 for taste in my book, for a total score of roughly 8.5 overall, the best of the three we have made so far. Hmmm, we may not need 10 trials to get a pretty darned good version of lechon!
We ate the cracklings without sauce, though I did put a side of freshly roasted capsicum that was a nice foil to the crisp skin. With about 15 hungry diners nearby, the skin of this lechon disappeared in under 10 minutes flat and when all was said and done, only the head remained for paksiw na lechon the following day. And even the cheeks of the lechon were roasted to a crisp. Yum. :)