Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cochinita Pibil -- a la El Vitral's Norma Martinez


My two favorite places on earth are at the markets and in the kitchen--with a great chef. So, it was a kick to hang out last week with Chef Norma Martinez of El Vitral while she made me her version of Cochinita Pibil, a rich pork dish redolent of achiote sauce, wrapped in banana leaves, and topped with pickled red onions.

The dish is really three recipes in one because this marinade is so versatile. Martinez uses it for shrimp, ribs, and skinned chicken thighs, and adds tamarind to the marinade to break down tough meats. And the pickled onions can be used in all sorts of ways. But together, this is a sensational dish for a family meal or a party.

The 30-year-old Martinez has been with El Vitral since it's opening almost two years ago. A Tijuana native, she comes honestly by her cooking skills -- her mother and grandmother are known in Tijuana as great cooks and she brings the warmth of the home cooking she grew up with to her restaurant kitchen in San Diego's East Village. She's also formally trained, having attended the Instituto Culinario de México in Puebla and the Spermalie School in Bruges.

And, as Martinez jokes, "You're not a Baja chef if you haven't gone through the Plascencia training." That would be Chef Javier Plascencia and his family, who have owned a number of restaurants for decades. She worked for the family in Tijuana and even put in a stint at Plascencia's Romesco in Bonita, training the chefs there on a consulting basis (for lack of a green card at the time, she was unable to be one of the chefs). Ultimately, she landed at The Westgate Hotel under Chef Fabrice Hardel, where she stayed until 2008, when she opened El Vitral. She credits her time at the hotel with teaching her invaluable time management skills that she puts to use at the restaurant.

Martinez and I both have in common a love for the family-owned Northgate Gonzalez markets. Like me, she and her husband are crazy for their ceviches. And while Martinez makes her restaurant moles from scratch (she's promised to invite me back to show me how), she is a fan of the moles made at the market -- with some doctoring -- for home. She adds ketchup, cocoa powder, peanut butter, and chicken stock to the mole poblano. For the mole negro, she does almost the same but leaves out the ketchup and adds cloves and star anise.

A new favorite ingredient of hers is coriander seeds. "It's lemon, vinegar, and salt in a seed," she says. Be sure to toast the seeds lightly before using them to bring out the flavors.

Her final tip? This recipe calls for vinegar and she thinks it's silly to use "the fancy stuff" when cooking this type of Mexican dish. Regular white vinegar is just fine.

This Cochinita Pibil is a simple dish to make and you can find all the ingredients at markets like Northgate Gonzalez.


Cochinita Pibil
from Chef Norma Martinez of El Vitral
(printable recipe)
Serves 12

9 lb. clean pork butt, diced into 1-inch cubes
1.5 qt. Achiote Sauce (see below)
1 pack banana leafs
2 sliced oranges
1 cup pickled onions (see below)
1 tsp. Kosher salt

Clean the pork discarding the excess fat and dice into 1” cubes. Season the meat with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl mix the pork with the achiote sauce, cover it and let it marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour.



Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking dish with the banana leaves leaving a good edge to cover the pan. Pour in the pork and achiote sauce mix, cover with the banana leaf, and then cover with foil. Bake for about 3 hours or until meat is tender enough to shred with a fork.

While still warm shred the pork with a fork and serve in a clean piece of banana leaf and top with the pickled onions. This dish is excellent served family style and paired with rice, beans, and fresh tortillas. A good fresh salsa verde or habanero salsa is excellent with Cochinita Pibil.

Achiote Sauce

21 oz. achiote paste
1 cup white vinegar
1 oz. sugar
4 cups fresh orange juice
1 cup water
2 pieces bay leaf
2 tbs. Mexican oregano
3 cloves garlic

Toss all the ingredients in the blender and process until it’s nice and smooth. If the mixture is too thick, add some water and season with salt and pepper.


Pickled Red Onions
2 thinly sliced red onions
1 small beet, peeled
¼ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup white vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. Mexican oregano
2 qt. water

In a sauce pan bring the water to a boil and season with salt. Add the onions. As soon as the water returns to a boil strain the onions and discard the water.

Mix together the vinegar, orange juice, spices, and beet and add the hot onions. Make sure the liquid covers the onions completely.


The onions will be ready in about an hour and will keep for about five days. Make sure to check the seasoning. For a spicy version add a diced habanero pepper.


El Vitral is located at 815 J. St. in San Diego.

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