The average person might associate the word "pig" with bacon, pork chops, ham, crown roasts or even Miss Piggy. To me, it's all about the lechón, which is a Spanish term for roasted suckling pig.
Cue blaring salsa music, the intoxicating smell of roasted pork and a salivating crowd ready to pounce on smoky, salty, juicy meat. In my Cuban-American family and culture, a lechón means it's time to party. Every Cuban family has their own lechón recipe. The Italians have their marinara sauce, we have our dry rub.
I recently survived Goya Foods' Swine and Wine, a South Beach Wine and Food Festival event, where I experienced hog heaven.
Nearly two dozen chefs battled it out to be the winner of the coveted 18-karat Piggy Choice Award given to the cook with the most succulent hog.
I caught up with two of the competing chefs, Goya's Executive Chef Fernando Desa and Chef Ryan Nielsen of Bongos Cuban Café and Larios on the Beach, to get pointers on how to become a lechón master.
Nielsen says hogs have, at times, had a bad reputation as a food source because of their religious taboos and association with uncleanliness.
"Once pigs were seen as bottom feeders, but now they are better regulated," said Nielsen, who ended up winning top honors at the event.
Nielsen says that due to pork's versatility, leanness and, not to mention, deliciousness, more high-end chefs are starting to cook with it - especially heritage breed pigs.
First, Chef Desa says you've got to find a superb swine.
"You want to look for a young pig between 34-40 pounds," he said. "The smaller pigs are better because the meat is tender. That will be enough to feed around 100 people at 6 ounces per serving."
Another trick? If you're feeding a big crowd, it's best to roast several pigs instead of one larger pig.
Next, Chef Desa recommends marinating the pig for 48 hours in a dry rub. The key to a great lechón is all in the marinade, and it's best to rub the entire exterior of the pig as well as under the skin. Typical marinade ingredients include garlic, salt, cumin, oregano and naranja agria (the juice of sour oranges).
After the 48-hour period is complete, Desa recommends patting the meat dry with paper towels and re-seasoning it. The chefs also recommend injecting the meat with more marinade.
For the Swine and Wine competition, both Desa and Nielsen used a La Caja China (called "the Chinese box") to roast the pig, which is traditionally used outdoors. The box can cut the roasting time in half and results in tender, flavorful meat.
The total cooking time should be about 4 to 5 hours. Both chefs say you know you've got it right when the pork skin is crisp and crunchy, not rubbery.
"Say what you want [when it comes to eating the skin], but it's such a guilty meat - it's like filet mignon. You know you shouldn't [eat it] but you just can't stop!" Nielsen said.
When it's done roasting, allow it to sit for 30 minutes before the hungry guests tear it to shreds.