When the first autumn leaves started painting the trails on my hikes with crimson, gold, and bronze a couple weeks ago, I found myself drifting away in memories of scenic drives across the Western Turnpike during Peak Season. The rolling countryside, glistening ponds, rocky rivers, and miles of gorgeous fall colors made me feel lightyears away from the exhaust fumed noise pollution of Sumner Avenue back in Springfield where we lived at the time. Those relaxing drives through Western Mass is why I insisted on finding a home in Fair Hill, after the wife decided she needed to relocate back down to DelMarva. The hills here tumble more than roll, there’s babbling creeks rather than roaring rivers, but the foliage is equally as beautiful. Predictably, I cannot indulge for very long in nostalgia without setting myself up for insatiable cravings, and this particular extrusion down memory lane had me reliving my first experience with Puerto Rican cuisine.
My first taste of Pernil was in Holyoke on my lunch break, when my coworker graciously and generously shared hers with me, as I sat obviously salivating from the aromas drifting over from her side of the office. She, to my utter delight, also shared with me tastes of Tostones, Mofongo, and Arroz con Gandules. From that moment, I must admit, I was absolutely obsessed with pigeon peas and rice, and not Pernil, although the chicharron crunch of the pork skin whipped me right back to Texas. For me though, it was that crispy rice dish that immediately became an addiction, and so I indulged in this porky arroz, with it’s snappy peas, warming sazon, herbaceous sofrito, and briny olives as often as I could. Try as I might, I could never replicate Arroz con Gandules at home, even after another coworker offered me a live demonstration of her recipe in my own kitchen in exchange for a nice glass of wine for us to share. Despite my research and live demo, I was still continuously disappointed in my results.
But, when I get a craving there’s not much else for me to do. So, I decided to try my hand at Pernil. Although, I had low expectations for my results, I figured at least with slow roasted pork, I could toss bbq sauce on it, if all else failed, so my efforts wouldn’t go completely to waste. Despite my previous failures, I bought a can of pigeon peas, medium grain rice, and Recaito cooking base, along with the pork shoulder, anyway. The pork was actually phenomenal and I was very pleased with my results! However, I totally chickened out and did not try to make the pigeon peas and rice. I just didn’t think I could bear the disappointment of it tasting subpar. I guess I’ll just have to head back to Western Mass soon and maybe trade some of this incredible roast pork for a batch or two of Arroz con Gandules.
1 pork shoulder with skin on
4 – 6 cloves garlic, trimmed and left whole
2 tbsp dried oregano
2 pkts sazon with culantro y anchiote
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp black vinegar
1 tbsp cumin powder
1 tbsp smoked paprika
generous amount of fresh cracked black pepper
couple pinches of salt
1 large sweet onion, quartered
1 bottle salsa verde
1 cup water, plus more as needed
A couple of hours before cooking, take the pork shoulder out of the fridge and allow it to reach room temp.
Set oven to the slow roast setting or 225 degrees.
Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl combine the olive oil, sazon, oregano, pepper, black vinegar, cumin, and smoked paprika. Taste and adjust seasoning, as desired. Set aside.
On a clean surface, score the pork skin in a cross-hatch pattern. Cut just deep enough through the skin to reach the fat. Next, puncture the pork flesh in several locations and shove in the whole garlic cloves. Set aside.
Layer the onions on the bottom of a large roasting pan then pour in the salsa verde and water. Place the scored pork shoulder on top of the onions. Rub the seasoned oil and vinegar all over the pork shoulder, making sure to get in between the scores of skin. Place in the oven and slow roast for about 5 hours.
After 5 hours, turn the oven up to 425 degrees, adding more water if necessary, and continue cooking the pork an additional 45 minutes until the skin is extra crispy and the internal temperature reaches at least 155 degrees for more pork loin texture or up to 195 degrees for shredded pork texture.
Allow the pork to rest a bit, then serve immediately.