For several years I have avoided roasting the youngest of piglets, true or just days after “suckling pigs” at 5-6 weeks old or less. I thought about it seriously here, when I spotted these little munchkins in large baskets, for sale at a livestock market in Mantalongon, Barili, Cebu. They were still grouped as a litter and I suspect just separated from their mother hours before… A part of me believed (and still does) that the skin of older piglets with some crunch and substance was preferable to the paper thin variety. However, the meat of the lechon de leche is probably or theoretically paler, sweeter and juicier. Our recent meal at Sobrino de Botin, and tasting their cochinillo asado, convinced me to have a go at cooking my own…
The piglet we purchased was a week or two older than I would have wanted, with a live weight of 6-7 kilos. It resulted in a cleaned weight of roughly 4-4.5 kilos. We still don’t have that wood fired brick oven that I have wishing for for years so we were going to roast the little pig over a charcoal fire. That is the first huge difference. The Spanish cochinillos are done in ovens, sitting on clay or steel pans, and unstuffed but seasoned inside and basted every so often with the natural fat and juices, along with olive oil and in some cases, butter. Experimenting on an open fire could mean potentially drying out the meat, but it was a risk I was willing to take. If the experiment failed, I would just have to start building that darned brick oven… :)
In this attempt, the stomach and rib cavity was left open rather than sewn up. I seasoned the cavity of the pig with salt and pepper, thyme and rosemary, olive oil. The skin was massaged with olive oil and sprinkled with salt (do NOT use iodized salt). It looked a bit bizarre in our makeshift roasting contraption, almost like a flying pig actually.
I was a bit concerned that the turning radius of the spit was quite large and the pig had to sit a little further away from the charcoal than usual. We covered the ears with foil to prevent premature burning, and roasted away for half an hour or so…
After half an hour, we took the pig off the coals, and I slathered the entire animal with unsalted butter. I did this in the belly as well. It was already smelling rather scrumptious at this point.
Back onto the charcoal flames for say another half hour, during which the skin started to turn a naturally caramelized color. This was perfect for us. If you prefer those deep brown or burgundy lechons popular from commercial sources, you should know they are probably not totally natural (sometimes painted with soy sauce, or sugared water, or liquor and sugar, etc.).
While roasting, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be too much liquid dripping from the lechon. In fact, we never once had a flare up in the coals, a sign of minimal fat in the young piglet. However, as I watched the rib cavity, it did seem as though it was drying up just a bit, but the proof would be at the table…
After 30 minutes (or 1 hour total cooking time so far), we removed the pig from the flames again, and slathered it with more unsalted butter all over its body, then returned it to the flames for another 20-25 minutes or so.
A quick check of the meat in the thighs and near the neck with pin pricks yielded no blood or pinkish liquid, so we took this off the flames at roughly 85 minutes and brought it to the kitchen. After about 10 minutes of resting time it was ready for the table. It looked terrific and smelled even better.
The first test would be the “can you cut it with a plate” challenge. The answer? Absolutely YES. Starting at the butt, a small salad plate with blunt edges was rolled up the spine of the lechon and the skin yielded readily and cracked all the way up the lechon. Bits of skin shattered along the way, and our excitement was palpable.
We had several square inches of the skin, the lechonero who cooked it getting first dibs, and everyone’s eyes rolled upward as we munched on superb skin, thin and light, and just nicely salted. It definitely did not have the substance of the larger lechons, but this was special in its own way.
But the real surprise was the meat, still incredibly succulent, juicy and yes, almost sweet tasting. Not quite as juicy as the cochinillo in Spain, done in an oven, but not a far cry either. Older pork has a bit of an aftertaste, possibly due to the feed it consumes, but this lechon de leche was just wonderful. The tiny ribs were amongst the finest I have ever eaten. I saved some of this lechon de leche and brought it back to Manila so Mrs. MM and the Teen could taste it, refried, and it was still noticeably different than our standard lechons. You could say we are all huge fans of it at this point. I still want to experiment with an oven-cooked version, but overall I would consider this experiment a resounding success!!!