We looked at this first attempt as the porcine equivalent of a dry run. “Practice lang,” we all agreed. Marketman was in a rush to test the lechonan before going away on a summer holiday. Expectations were quite tempered, and this was not to be counted as lechon experiment #1. But the results were quite decent, so I thought I should include this lechon as experiment zero, or the “fat run.” The first step to attempting a lechon at home is to have friends, family or brilliant or eager crew on hand. This was a MAJOR production, and frankly, I only did about 1% of the work! So the first essential ingredient is the manpower!
What I love about this early effort is the amount of existing equipment/plants/materials we managed to use. Once the piglet was slaughtered, it was scalded in hot water in this enormous old kawa or frying pan, something from my grandmother’s basement that hadn’t been used in some 20-30 years and probably came from her bakery in the 1960’s. We had to brush off a lot of rust, but once cleaned, it was the perfect vessel for scalding to facilitate the removal of the piglet’s hair. We also crafted the spit or main stick that would carry the lechon out of a bamboo pole that we collected from an old stand of bamboo at the edge of the property. We cut the bamboo pole the day before, and the end cut until pointed, like a giant sharpened pencil, and the other end fitted with another piece of bamboo, making a “steering wheel” to help turn the spit easily. We used lots of lemongrass or tanglad that I had planted on the property about 8 months ago. The plants are thriving and happy, and we cut the tanglad just minutes before we stuffed it into the pig. We also happened to have a sampaloc or tamarind tree that had lots of fresh young leaves, also a stuffing ingredient.
The crew also crafted a large basting brush with a section of a bamboo pole, the bristles were made from banana leaves, also found growing on the property. I was amazed because so much of this paraphernailia and ingredients were available in our immediate surroundings… it was so natural, so unlike Marketman’s crazed shopping trips through Manila groceries to pull together one meal. Also by chance, one of our crew from Manila was headed to her hometown in Western Cebu for her annual vacation, and her siblings came to pick her up in Cebu City, bringing with them some spectacular homemade coconut vinegar (a white version, and the red version) as a gift for Marketman. The vinegars were used in the dinuguan made from the pig’s blood and entrails.
To tie the lechon to the bamboo pole, we used all natural strips of rattan. Rattan does not burn easily. Make sure that you secure the carcass to the pole tightly so it doesn’t spin around the pole loosely… For the fire, get at least 2-3 sacks of ood charcoal. This was our first big error on the first attempt. We only got one sack of charcoal and they were all crumbled pieces, so we basically ran out of charcoal and had to resort to some leftover wood from the nearby construction project to finish off the lechon!
The lechon was stuffed with lots of tanglad or lemongrass, lots of green onions, young leaves of sampaloc or tamarind, and several cups of salt. We thought it would take just 2 hours to cook the barely 15 kilo piglet, but a lack of heat turned this into a 3 hour cooking process. During the early stages of the roasting, the pig was basted with water to keep the skin from burning too early…
Marketman, did, in fact, take his turn at rotating the spit, but for a brief fraction of the total cooking time. When the smoke gets in your eyes, it is wicked painful…
…after two hours, it was clear the pig wasn’t cooking fast enough, and we were running low on charcoal, so the crew resorted to wood from the construction site. I think this was necessary given the situation, but I wouldn’t do this again. Instead, I would have enough charcoal on hand to ensure a higher cooking temperature.
It was raining cats and dogs for about 40% of the time we cooked the pig and I don’t think this helped our cause. The really humid weather and spray of rainwater had to have affected the final outcome… When it looked like we only had about 40-45 minutes left of cooking, we started to baste the pig with coconut water, from coconuts harvested on the propery just minutes earlier. The coconut water contains some natural sugars that I guess caramelize and help to provide the wonderful color to lechon skin… And during the last 10-15 minutes, the pig was basted with some vegetable oil to help get that last crisping of the skin before serving…
I must say the resulting pig looked pretty darned good. A nice medium brown, achieved with no tricks of the trade like a slathering of sweet soy sauce, or condensed milk, or other sweeter ingredients. AFter taking the pig off the fire, let it rest for 10-15 minutes before carving it up. The skin crisps up a bit more during this cooling period.
Some of the skin from the near the “shoulders” of the pig was nice and crisp; but most of the skin was disappointingly makunat or a bit chewy still. The meat of the lechon, however, tasted very good indeed. And it came off the carcass with ease, having been slow cooked and infused with so much flavor! Succulent is really the best word to describe the meat, particularly the meat near the ribs of the lechon. Some of the meat was a bit too salty, but otherwise, thumbs up!
Overall, I thought this trial lechon rated about a 6.5 to 7.0 out of 10.0. And we are definitely aiming for at least a solid 9.0/10.0 in December! The skin and consistent color got a low 5.5 on this version. But the taste rated a 7.5-8.0, for an average of roughly 6.5.
Lessons learned from this trial run?
1. Have more than enough charcoal on hand before you start roasting the lechon.
2. Allow the cleaned pig to “dry off” on the spit for at least an hour.
3. Rub the inside cavity with salt and lightly crushed pepper, before stuffing with copious amounts of lemongrass, green onions and tamarind or whatever mixture you prefer to use.
4. Carefully sew up the cavity so that the lechon doesn’t “leak” too much. And wipe away any leaks as the liquid tends to discolor the skin of the lechon.
5. Start with more heat than we did… not sure yet how much more.
6. Pick a DRY day to do this if possible, not when near storm gales are blowing.
7. Experiment with other ingredients to baste the lechon with to ensure a crunchier skin.
8. Buy a whole lot of Lipitor or Crestor to survive the rest of these experiments! :)
A post on the meal that accompanied this lechon up in the next few days…