The centerpiece to any true Puerto Rican Christmas celebration is roast pork drenched in garlic and oregano, juicy and salty inside, with molar-cracking skin — called cuerito — on the outside. We call it perníl, and we set it off with arroz con gandules (pigeon peas and rice), guineitos en escabeche or ájili-mójili (green bananas in a vinaigrette), potato salad and many more special dishes.
Perníl is easily achievable in the American home kitchen. If you can’t find a picnic cut shoulder, you can actually substitute with loin, as long as there is skin on it. All you have to so is mash up a marinating paste, season and roast. The most important thing to remember is to never, ever, ever cover the roast once it is oven-ready. Not when you roast, not when you take it out, not when you are resting it. If you do, tragedy will occur. The cuerito will turn mushy and chewy and that would be a terrible shame.
Perníl al horno (Oven-roasted pork)
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
10 black peppercorn
2 tsp dry oregano
1 tsp salt (You can go up to a tablespoon, if you like salt)
1 tbs olive oil
4-5 lb. Perníl delantero (pork shoulder Picnic cut), skin on
(You can season the perníl a couple of days ahead and refrigerate, uncooked. Some folks season and freeze it until they need it.)
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Place garlic, peppercorns, oregano, and salt in a mortar and pestle and grind to a paste. Add oil and mix well. Smear paste all over the pork, on the skin and as much under as you call get without taking it completely off. You can score the meat with 1/2″ cuts and imbed paste in the scores as well.
Place in a roasting pan and roast at 450°F for 30 minutes. Lower heat to 325°F and roast for 35 minutes per pound (an additional 2.5 hours, approximately or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 185°). Remove from oven and let rest for a half hour, uncovered. (NEVER cover as you will steam the cuerito to softness, widely regarded as a mortal sin in Puerto Rican homes. It ain’t perníl unless someone breaks a tooth on the cuerito).
Alternate rub: Take 1-1.5 tbs of Goya Adobo, mix with a tablespoon of oil and follow same procedure for rubbing and cooking.
For more ideas on making your holiday party Puerto Rican, visit Natalia’s blog Hot, Cheap & Easy.