Between my husband and me, there is exactly zero percent Hispanic heritage—yet somehow, the foods of Hispanic cultures fall squarely into the “favorites” category for both of us, and it has been this way for all of our adult lives. For me, the passion for Hispanic flavors started much earlier, during my younger childhood when I lived with my mother in southern Colorado, where at least half the kids I went to school with were of Mexican descent. Their moms made the best food.
Les, who grew up in New York, was surrounded by the foods of seemingly every culture except Mexican, though other Hispanic flavors were obviously present in the Puerto Rican-populated areas of the city. He remembers his section of Queens, famed for being among the most multicultural in the world, was the first to create “fusion” foods, but alas, he says, he never ate at “La Casa Wong.” His first experience of addictive Spanish-influenced foods didn’t come until he spent a few young adult years in southern California, but even then, he didn’t get the full effect because those restaurants were mostly chains.
Today, thanks to our collective passion for cooking and adventurous approach to food, we are enjoying more than our fair share of all the world’s flavors, including those of cultures we have yet to visit.
Over the past few months, the 2014 movie Chef, with Jon Favreau leading a tremendous all-star cast, has been in hot rotation on our streaming service. Les and I both saw this movie in the theater when it was released (a good year before we started dating), but we still can’t resist watching it every time it appears in our program lineup. We love it, not only because it’s a compelling story of a talented chef who walks away from an unfulfilling restaurant job to start a food truck, but also for the joyful Latin music, the sweet relationship that develops through teachable moments with his adorable, mop-headed son, and the fantastic food that results from his commitment to doing food right and making it from the heart. If you haven’t seen this film, we highly recommend it.
The main food that always gets us drooling when we watch Chef is the Cuban pork, and the most authentic version would be slow roasted in the oven, as sous chef Martin prepares it in the film. But this is my version of it, done the easy way in a slow cooker. The key to exceptional flavor and texture is low-and-slow cooking and (of course) the marinade. My first taste of this mouthwatering, slow-roasted meat was in Key West, and rumor has it that was most likely the origin of the dish. But let’s not go down any rabbit holes of debate about that, because there’s cooking to be done!
Start with a pork shoulder, and for the best flavor, get one with the bone in. Trim off some of the excess fat, but don’t take it all off because there’s a world of flavor in it, and it will help protect the meat from drying out during cooking; you can easily skim it off the braising liquid later if you so choose. Rinse the shoulder to rid it of any bone shards, pat it dry with paper towels and give it a dose of salt and pepper on all sides. If your shoulder is very large, cut several slits all over the meat and insert smashed cloves of garlic into them. Mine was only three and a half pounds, so the marinade was enough to flavor it all the way through.
The marinade for this pork is called mojo, not like getting your mojo back or Mr. Mojo Risin’, but Spanish “j,” pronounced as an “h.” Try it with me: “mo-ho.”. The marinade begins with the juice of oranges and limes. For truly authentic mojo marinade, you’d use only Seville oranges, which are sour compared to typical navel oranges, but they aren’t easy to come by in the States, so a combination of navel oranges and limes is a common substitute. I kept a few of the spent orange wedges after juicing, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
You need a lot of fresh garlic for a mojo marinade. Smash the cloves first, and then peel and mince them up so the flavor permeates every pore of the pork shoulder. That’s an important thing to know about garlic; the smaller the bits, the more pungent the flavor. Cumin is traditional, and I like to use whole seeds, slightly toasted in a dry skillet and then crushed to a powder in a mortar and pestle. This fragrance on its own puts me in a state of near-euphoria. Oregano adds an herbal note, and I couldn’t decide between regular and Mexican, which is earthier with a slight note of anise, so I used half of each.
A pinch of sugar is decidedly not traditional, but we put a pinch of sugar in every damn thing here in the South. I like it for balance, but don’t go overboard. Season the mixture with salt and black pepper, of course, and whisk in a few generous glugs of extra virgin olive oil to finish the marinade. Time to cook!
Here’s where I used the spent orange pieces, along with some onion wedges; they were a bed for the pork shoulder in my slow cooker, allowing the mojo marinade full access to the meat’s surface. I poured about a third of the marinade over the shoulder, then turned it over and poured another third, reserving the last portion of marinade mixture to pour over the roast at serving time. Set the cooker on high for 45 minutes to bring it up to cruising speed, and then knock it down to low and walk away for five hours.
Low and slow makes it a winner!
Did you get that? You don’t want to cook it on high setting for five hours, or you’ll end up with tough, overcooked shoulder. The high setting is just to bring the temperature up more quickly, and then the cooking should all happen on low setting. Very important.
I had a busy afternoon, so I wrapped up my work emails, did a load of laundry and went out for a pedicure during this time, and having the freedom to tackle my to-do list reminded me how much I still love using a slow cooker on occasion. When I came home, the house already smelled amazing. I flipped the pork shoulder over for a final hour of cooking, and went about the business of making some jalapeno-simmered black beans.
I cut half of a sweet onion into crescent slivers, and diced up a fresh jalapeno from our post-summer garden, leaving most of the seeds behind. I sautéed those in olive oil, along with a touch of ground cumin, then added two cans of rinsed black beans. Salt and pepper, and a splash or two of the Cuban-style pork braising liquid and we had a perfect, if not authentic, side dish for our delectable pork.
Test doneness of the pork by inserting a fork and twisting lightly. If it shreds easily, it’s ready! We enjoyed the meat on its own that first night, and tried our best a couple of nights later to make Cubano sandwiches, just like Chef Carl Casper and his crew. The bread wasn’t quite right, but it was still pretty darn delicious. 🙂
Slow Cooker Cuban-style Pork
My version of this Cuban classic has all the right flavors, and it was super easy to make in my slow cooker.
- 4 lb. bone-in pork shoulder (sometimes called Boston Butt)
- 2 navel oranges, wedged and juiced (reserve a few of the spent wedges)
- Juice of 4 limes
- About 2 Tbsp. crushed and minced garlic
- 2 tsp. cumin seed, toasted and ground
- 1 tsp. sugar (not authentic, but a touch helps balance the citrus)
- 2 tsp. black pepper (mine was half smoked)
- 1 Tbsp. dried oregano (I used half regular, half Mexican)
- About 1/4 cup EVOO, whisked in
- About 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 large onion, cut into wedges (used as base in slow cooker)
- Rinse shoulder and wipe dry with paper towels. Salt and pepper both sides and let rest at room temp while you prep the marinade.
- Combine the citrus juices, garlic, cumin, sugar, pepper and oregano in a glass measuring cup. Whisk in olive oil and season with salt according to your taste (somewhere between 2 and 3 teaspoons is good).
- Place onion chunks and spent orange peels in the bottom of the slow cooker and place the shoulder on top. Pour in about 1/3 of the mojo, then turn the shoulder over and pour in another 1/3, reserving the rest for serving over the tender, shredded pork.
- Use the cooker’s high setting for about 45 minutes to get the heat going, then reduce to low setting and cook for 5 hours.
- Use tongs to turn shoulder over and continue to cook on low setting for another hour. Transfer shoulder to a glass dish and use forks to shred the meat. Stir the braising liquid and ladle some of it onto the shredded pork. Pour the reserved marinade mixture onto the pork as well. The freshness of the uncooked marinade brightens up the flavors of the tender pork.
- Strain the solids from the slow cooker, and keep the remaining liquid for packing the leftover meat. It will retain moisture better in the fridge this way.
- 1/2 medium onion, sliced into crescent shapes
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced
- A few pinches kosher salt and several twists ground black pepper
- 2 15 oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1/4 cup vegetable broth or Cuban-style pork braising liquid
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Toss onions and cumin until fragrant, then add jalapeno and season with salt and pepper.
- When onions begin to caramelize, reduce heat and add black beans. Add broth or braising liquid and cover to simmer until heated through.