Recipe: A Christmas Eve lechón without the backyard production

What is noche buena without a good lechón?

Of course the Cuban tradition of roasting a pig on Christmas Eve has its drawbacks — and not just for the noble pig. It usually means tending to a roasting pit or outdoor Caja China roaster for hours.

Of course, a good lechón can be had without the backyard roasting production. Here’s a recipe by award-winning South Florida chef Norman Van Aken that uses a 4-pound rack of pork, instead of the entire pig.

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Van Aken draws inspiration from the Cuban tradition, but gives his “New World Cuisine” spin to the classic sour orange and garlic mojo, adding orange marmalade to create a glaze. He drapes the pork with strips of bacon, then wraps it in aluminum foil for the initial roast.

What results is a slightly sweet, smoky, juicy lechón.

A good lechón.

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This recipe is from chef Norman Van Aken’s 2012 cookbook, “My Key West Kitchen” (Kyle Books). He serves this roasted rack of pork with cornbread, yellow rice and black beans. About this robust, orange-glazed dish, he writes:

“We made this the first Christmas I worked at the Pier House (in Key West). I felt quite far away from my Midwestern home, celebrating a holiday usually marked with steady snowfall, glowing fireplaces and a great, fragrant roasted prime rib of beef on a long table at my grandmother’s house. But in our tropical kitchen at the end of Duval Street we also felt we were uniting with different cultures—and the spirit of Christmas should accomplish that every year.

“Waiter Tom Goetz brought in a bottle of rum and we made punch. By the end of service, we were singing Christmas carols as we cleaned up the kitchen. Home was near again”

Serves 4

2 sour oranges, cut in half

2 oranges, cut in half

4 limes, cut in half

1/2 cup pure olive oil, plus more for searing

8 whole black peppercorns, bruised

2 bay leaves, broken

6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced, plus 3 cloves, peeled

and cut into studs

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

One 4-bone rack of pork (about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 to 6 bacon strips

For the glaze:

1 tablespoon pure olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 sweet onion, finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 orange, cut in half

1 tablespoon freshly toasted and ground cumin seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar

1/4 cup orange marmalade

Squeeze the juice of the orange and lime halves into a large bowl then toss in the rinds as well. Add the oil, peppercorns, bay leaves, sliced garlic and red onion and stir to combine. Place the pork in the marinade, turn the rack a few times to coat evenly, and marinate in the fridge for up to 24 hours, but at least 8 hours, turning it a few times.

Remove the pork from the marinade and gently scrape off any oil and other bits. Pat dry with paper towels.

Using a sharp knife, puncture the pork all over and push the garlic studs into the holes. (The holes can be a bit bigger than the studs, so the marmalade mixture to come can seep into the pork as it cooks.)

Slash the pork with a crosshatch pattern and season all over with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Make the glaze: Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil and butter and swirl to melt. Add the garlic and onion, lower the heat to medium and cook slowly and steadily until caramelized, seasoning with salt and pepper and adding the cumin about halfway through.

Chop one of the orange halves into small pieces. Squeeze the juice of the other orange half through a fine-mesh strainer (to catch the seeds) into the saucepan. Toss in the chopped orange, rind and all. Add the vinegar and reduce by a third. Stir in the orange marmalade and heat until melted.

Transfer the glaze to a small bowl and let cool slightly.

Prepare the pork: Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Sear the pork on all sides until browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.

Spoon the glaze onto the pork, letting it seep into the punctures. Lay the bacon strips on top, overlapping slightly. Wrap the top of the pork roast securely with aluminum foil to keep the bacon from falling off. Roast the pork in the oven for 45 minutes.

Carefully remove the foil and roast for another 35 to 40 minutes, or until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 145°F on a meat thermometer.

Transfer to a cutting board and let the roast rest for at least 10 minutes before carving.

Ingredient Notes:

1. A four-bone rack of pork is like four pork chops but still attached. Ask for one at your butcher’s shop.

2. If you can’t find sour oranges, use regular ones but add 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar when squeezing the juice into the marinade bowl. 

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