Keeping our Christmas celebration simple but special with an easy, make-at-home lechonbelly roll
And just like that, the holiday season has arrived, creeping up on us without warning. Are you ready to get into the holiday spirit and all the trappings of a Filipino Christmas? To be honest, I’m not very excited to put up my tree just yet nor am I in the mood to buy Christmas gifts. There are just so many things to deal with these days, and I’m too distracted. This reminds me of what Jack Ma of Alibaba said: “2020 is really just a year for staying alive. Don’t even talk about your dreams or plans. Just make sure you stay alive. If you can stay alive, then you would have made a profit already.”
The news of the possible vaccine for Coronavirus broke just as I was writing this piece and that certainly perked me up, providing a much-needed ray of optimism about the future. If we are well enough to wake up every morning, then that’s enough reason to celebrate. Let us be grateful for life and love, family and faith, blessings great and small.
The Celebration Must Go On
To jump-start the holiday mood, I thought it might be a good idea to plan the menu for Noche Buena which is just a few weeks away. Those of us who are exposed to Western culture might mimic the holiday tables of the US and Europe with our Baked Ham, Roast Beef, Roast Turkey, or Roast Leg of Lamb, but in the spirit of “buying local”, I would like to make a stand by cooking and eating more local food and serving our very own lechon.
Except for vegetarians and vegans, and maybe people who don’t eat pork for religious or health reasons, most Pinoys really love lechon. Biting into its glistening golden crispy skin with a layer of soft fat underneath, and then savoring its tasty, tender meat, lechon is really a flavor and texture bomb like no other. Having a lechon on the table makes celebrations festive and extra special.
Unfortunately, this pandemic has now changed the way we celebrate Christmas in the Philippines—at least for this year. No more large family reunions, no secret Santa, no more noisy, crazy office parties. This is a time to simplify and scale down our celebrations especially with the recent calamities in our midst while keeping in mind the real reason for the season.
Even without a whole lechon gracing our tables, the Noche Buena family dinner can still feel festive and memorable with a Lechon Belly Roll. It’s quite easy to make as long as you can get your hands on some fresh or chilled pork belly or liempo. This recipe is versatile enough to be scaled up or down—a 1.2-1.5 kilo slab of pork belly can feed a small family or a bigger cut of 3 kilos is enough to satisfy 10-12 hungry guests.
For dessert, let’s turn to another Filipino classic that’s surprisingly easy to make, the Maja Blanca con Mais. There’s no need to get fresh coconut milk from the market because the canned coconut milk and coconut cream will do nicely. If you can find some banana leaves from your backyard (or neighbor’s garden), this will add to the “native kakanin” look that will surely impress your family.
Dinner for Two features a “leftover makeover” recipe using whatever is left of your belly roll. Leftover lechon is usually transformed into Lechon Paksiw or Sinigang, but another idea would be to turn it into a binagoongan with gata. With the classic vegetable tandem of sitaw and kalabasa, this could very well be a simple but satisfying post-holiday meal.
Here is some food for thought to digest while your Lechon Belly is in the oven.
How Baboy The Pig: All About Lechon
I have been invited to many town fiestas and lechon festivals, but I have never had the chance to be “behind the scenes” and witness what goes on before the pigs are roasted. Curious about the actual process, I watched several videos on Youtube posted by lechoneros from different parts of the Philippines who shared the tedious process of preparing a pig for roasting. Just like in cooking adobo, each one has their own recipe for seasoning and cooking the pig. While the lechonmay look the same on the outside, lechoneros from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao have different ways of stuffing it.
I zeroed in on Apraw TV by Roche Monera, a butcher from Aurora Municipal Abbatoir who describes himself as the “Slaughter King”. Monera shows every gory detail in preparing a pig for roasting. It is not a simple process and it takes someone fearless and unflinching who’s willing to deal with an animal carcass up close and personal.
Warning: the videos are not for the squeamish or faint-hearted, and certainly not for animal rights activists, but I thought we could all learn a thing or two about the requisite steps taken before putting the poor pig on a spit.
Important Steps to Get A Pig Ready For Roasting
After the pig is killed by slitting its throat, the body is rinsed thoroughly and the skin scalded with boiling water. Every nook and cranny is then scraped down completely with a very sharp knife shaving off all the pig hair until the skin is smooth and clean.
2. Emptying of Internal Organs
Next, the stomach is slit down the middle and the entrails and organs pulled out, slicing off the esophagus and the large intestines on both ends. The internal parts are then segregated for the different dishes usually prepared alongside the lechon in a fiesta. The blood, liver, and small intestines are reserved for Dinuguan, the lungs and heart for Bopis, and the kidney and spleen for Batchoy.
3. Securing and Tying
The pig is then skewered from the mouth through the back end. Another surprising revelation is the necessary step of splitting the pig’s spinal cord. This allows the lechonero to attach the spine to the metal or bamboo pole so that the pig can be turned along with each rotation. Otherwise, the carcass will just slip and slide.
A large needle called a “rice sack needle”—threaded with plastic straw, butcher’s twine, or coconut fronds—is used to sew the carcass to the pole, being extra careful not to puncture the skin. Once the pig’s body is secured, it is ready for stuffing.
P.S. I was surprised that plastic straw is used for this step, but Manero swears that the straw does not melt during the 2 to 3-hour roasting over an open flame.
The pig’s cavity is then stuffed with an assortment of seasonings, herbs, and leaves, depending on what is available in the area and the lechonero’s secret recipe. Some staples are plenty of rock salt, black peppercorns, and aromatics like garlic, red onions, spring onions, lemongrass, bell peppers, and chili peppers. Other ingredients used are star anise, bay leaves, or even fresh pineapple. Clear softdrink is sometimes poured over the stuffing, which is believed to add juiciness to the meat. Others stuff banana leaves or tamarind leaves for added aroma, as well as to make the lechon look big and robust. The stomach cavity should not be left empty or hollow so that the skin stays tight and does not sag.
After stuffing, the ribs are sewn back together (to maintain the pig’s shape), and then the skin is carefully sewn shut. Again, one needs the dexterity and precision of a surgeon, as both sides of the skin have to come together seamlessly.
6. Tying the Legs
And then there’s the matter of the front and hind legs. Have you ever seen a lechon with its legs splayed out during roasting? Never! That’s because there is another important step which involves making a shallow cut on the joints of all four legs to loosen them up so that the front and back legs are pulled taut and tied to the pole. Manero uses rattan strips (called uway in Zamboanga, where he’s from) to secure the legs, while others use metal wire that can be twisted in place.
Lastly, some lechoneros make cuts on both of the pig’s ears—this makes the ears extra crispy when roasted.
Now comes the time for roasting. Lechoneros in the provincesuse a makeshift set-up of hollow blocks or bricks on both ends to set up a manual roasting spit, while the commercial lechon houses employ an electric automatic rotisserie.
This is almost always done outdoors with the heat source coming from the ground, usually using charcoal or dried branches. Lechoneros are very particular about roasting, and they all employ different methods. Some position the flame directly below the pig, while others create two rows of charcoal to the left and right side of the entire length of the pig. Manero uses a strong flame only on one side of the pig, its flames licking the pig skin as it turns. He says the most important thing is to keep the heat constant, without letting the temperature drop at any point.
The distance of the pig from the heat source is also important: it must not be too near nor too far. When turning the spit manually, experienced lechoneros should be able to adjust the heat during the roasting process, shifting coals and dried wood accordingly with a long pole or stick, to make sure the pig is cooking evenly.
Basting begins when the pig’s skin has dried and is just about to change color. This is done using an improvised brush made of banana leaves or when cooking several pigs, sometimes even a brand-new cotton floor mop! Different basting liquids are employed. Manero uses dark cola, others in Luzon slather on buko juice or evaporated milk, while Cebuanos brush the skin with a locally made soy sauce from Mandaue City called Camel. Its light caramel color gives the skin a beautiful reddish color. Whatever is used, the liquid mingles with the natural oils that ooze out of the pig, ensuring that the skin will come out golden and crisp all over.
9. Checking for Doneness
To know if the pig is completely cooked, check the thickest part of the pig which is the pork butt (pigue). Without ruining the outer skin, this can be done by inserting a knife in the inner thigh. If the knife comes out with clear meat juices and without any trace of blood, the whole pig is cooked through.
Now the lechon is finally ready to be served in all its glory. Do you appreciate lechon now more than ever?
Food for the Mind and Soul
An excerpt from the book THE CULINARY CULTURE OF THE PHILIPPINES, edited by Gilda Cordero Fernando (@1979 Bancom Audiovision Corporation)
From the first chapter, “The Geography of the Filipino Stomach”
“Traditionally, one approaches the roast pig armed with nothing, not a knife or a fork. The first pinch must be with the bare fingers and the secret is to find the vulnerable spot in the whole roast.
There are two such spots: one is around the ears and the other is around the tail. So one daintily tweaks off an ear of the roast, the skin comes out, juicy morsel by juicy morsel—and that is the first serving for the guest of honor.”
In discussing the many people who lent a hand during the town fiesta, Cordero writes:
“The auxiliary cooks and helpers receive no remuneration—hey are honored to lend a hand. But they too, expect a pabaon—some wrapped leftovers to bring home to the children. The portion of the roasted pig below the ears and down to the neck, and a diamond cut around the tail traditionally go to the fellow who turned the lechon. If it is a wedding or baptism, the ninang gets the pig’s head as pabaon and if there’s a godfather too, he gets a though. The innards which are removed before the pig is roasted are made into dinuguan which is what the auxiliary hands eat all the while they are cooking.
Sometimes the fiesta giver complains that too many helpers come – so that even if one pig would have been enough for the guests, they have to slaughter two, to feed the helpers. But there is probably no Filipino celebration that has been ruined by having too many cooks.”
An excerpt from the book PALAYOK by Doreen G. Fernandez, (@2000 published by The Bookmark, Inc.)
From the page “A Dissertation on the Philippine Roast Pig”
“Where did we get this predilection for roast pig? The name we call it by is Spanish, and simply means “pig.” The Spanish call their roast sucking pig cochinillo asado, and boast that it can be sliced with the edge of a saucer. But perhaps we may long have shared the dish with neighbors on the Pacific rim, since the Samoans and Hawaiians have roast pig, sometimes cooked on hot stones underground. And of course, the Chinese know roast pig well, they whom Charles Lamb immortalized in his essay, “Dissertation on a Roast Pig,” where they are reported as having discovered it when a house accidentally burned down, the owner poked his finger in, got scorched, and stuck it into his mouth—and discovered that by delicious circumstance the pig in the house had been transformed into ambrosia.”
Lechon Belly Roll
This recipe is from the new and updated Let’s Cook with Nora by Nora Daza (updated by Nina Daza Puyat).
1.5-2.5 kilos whole pork belly (liempo)
1 ½ Tbsps. rock salt
1 tsp. black peppercorns, crushed
2 Tbsps. chopped garlic
3-4 stalks lemongrass (tanglad), bulbs sliced thinly and stalks reserved
1 Tbsp. cooking oil
2-3 pcs. red bird’s eye chili, chopped
1 Tbsp. light soy sauce, for brushing
Annatto Oil for Basting:
3 Tbsps. cooking oil
1 Tbsp. annatto seeds (atsuete) or 1 tsp. annatto powder
2 bay leaves (laurel)
1 tsp. rock salt
1 tsp. black peppercorns
KITCHEN EQUIPMENT: oven, baking trays, wire rack or muffin pan, small saucepan (for making Annatto Oil),
TOOLS: chopping board, knife, mortar and pestle (for crushing peppercorns), pastry or basting brush, kitchen twine
1. Ask the butcher to debone the pork belly and scrape off any hair from the skin. At home, wipe the skin dry with paper towels and scrape any moisture left on the skin with a knife. Lay pork on a chopping board, skin-side down.
2. In a bowl, combine rock salt, peppercorns, garlic, sliced lemon grass bulbs, oil and chilies (if using). Rub this mixture all over the meat, including the sides. Reserve lemongrass leaves for rolling.
3. Place a rimmed baking tray over the pork belly and invert. The belly side should be on the tray, with the skin-side up. Allow pork to marinate for 4-5 hours (up to overnight) in the refrigerator. Leave the meat uncovered so that the skin will dry up.
4. Take the pork belly out of the refrigerator one hour before roasting to bring down the temperature. Pre-heat oven to 450 F.
5. When ready to cook, place a chopping board over the meat and invert it immediately with the belly-side facing up. Arrange folded lemongrass stalks in the middle and roll pork belly snugly, keeping all the aromatics inside. Roll the pork starting from the long side if it is a large cut, or starting from the short side if it’s a smaller cut. Truss pork belly tightly with kitchen twine in half inch intervals to hold its shape and also to keep the meat moist. Wipe the skin dry with paper towels.
6. Lay the trussed pork belly on a wire rack (or an inverted mini muffin pan) positioned inside a rimmed baking tray. This allows the hot air to circulate underneath the meat roll so that the bottom part will be crisp. Using a pastry brush, baste the skin all over with light soy sauce.
7. Open the oven door, and put the tray in the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 2 ½ – 3 hours (depending on the size of your meat). Keep oven door shut for 1 ½ hours and do not be tempted to peek inside!
8. Prepare the Annatto Oil. Heat oil in a small saucepan. Add annatto seeds or annatto powder. Stir in bay leaves, salt and peppercorns. Simmer for 1 minute then turn heat off.
9. After 1 ½ hours in the oven, take a pastry brush and open the over door. Brush the pork roll quickly with the Annatto Oil. Close oven door immediately. Repeat this step two or three more times every half hour, cooking for 1 ½ hours more until the skin is evenly crisp and golden. If skin is browning too quickly, lower the oven temperature.
10. Take the pork roll out of the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes. Cut off kitchen twine. Serve Lechon Belly Roll whole or sliced, with a side of lechon liver sauce or a dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, minced garlic, chopped red onions and sliced chilies.
Dinner For Two: Lechong Binagoongan Sa Gata
1 Tbsp. cooking oil
1 medium onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
½ inch ginger, sliced into strips
1/2 cup raw salted bagoong
2 cups of cubed leftover Lechon Belly Roll
(or ½ kilo fresh pork belly (liempo) or pork spareribs)
1 ½ cups water (if using cooked pork) or 2 cups water (if using fresh pork)
1 can coconut milk (or 1 ¾ cups fresh gata)
1 Tbsp. fish sauce (patis)
1 tsp. rock salt
1 slice squash (kalabasa), peeled and cubed
1 bundle long beans (sitaw), cut into 2” lengths
KITCHEN EQUIPMENT: large sauce pan with a lid
TOOLS: chopping board, knife, mixing spoon
1. In a deep saucepan, heat cooking oil. Toss in chopped onions and sauté for 3-4 minutes until soft and translucent. Next, add garlic and ginger, cooking for another 1-2 minutes.
2. Pour bagoong into a strainer to remove excess liquid, then toss into the sautéed mixture.
3. Cook bagoong for about 3 minutes, stirring continuously, then add cubed lechon belly or fresh pork. Toss to coat pork with the mixture.
4. Next, pour in water and turn heat up. Once mixture boils, cover the pot, turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes if using leftover lechon, 30-45 minutes if using fresh pork (or until meat is tender).
NOTE: If using leftover lechon, you may opt to include the stuffing such as chilies and lemongrass, which will lend a unique flavor to the sauce.
5. When pork is tender, stir in the coconut milk. Simmer uncovered, over medium heat. Season with patis and salt.
6. When sauce is flavored to your liking, add squash. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add sitaw, cooking for another 3-4 minutes. Turn heat off. Serve hot with white, brown or red rice.
Dessert: Maja Blanca con Mais
For Latik Topping:
1 (400g) can coconut cream
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup white sugar
1 cup water
1 (400g) can coconut milk
1 (425g) can whole kernel corn, drained (set aside 2 Tbsps. for topping)
KITCHEN EQUIPMENT: small non-stick frying pan, medium non-stick sauce pan, baking dish
TOOLS: measuring cups, can opener, whisk, pastry brush, scissors
To line serving dish:
Fresh or frozen banana leaves, wiped dry, then singed on both sides over high heat to sanitize the surface and make the leaves pliable.
To make latik and coconut oil, pour coconut cream into a small frying pan. Cook over low-medium heat for about 30 minutes, stirring every few minutes to prevent burning. Mixture will become thick and bubbly, and then oily with light brown curds. Break up the pieces with a spoon and cook until light brown in color. Strain out the solids – this is the latik.
*Reserve 2 tsps. coconut oil for brushing the banana leaf lining. Extra coconut oil may be used for other purposes.
1. Prepare a square baking dish (9” x 9”) or small rectangular dish (7”x 11”). If available, cut banana leaf and line the bottom and sides of the dish. Brush 2 teaspoons coconut oil* lightly on the leaf lining.
2. In a medium non-stick saucepan, combine cornstarch, sugar and water. Using a whisk, stir to dissolve sugar and cornstarch (make sure there are no lumps at the bottom).
3. Next, add coconut milk and stir. Set pan over medium heat and bring mixture to a gentle simmer. Continue stirring for 5-7 minutes until mixture is thick, with the consistency of a heavy cake batter.
4. Add corn and continue to cook for another minute. Stir until corn is evenly distributed then immediately pour into the prepared dish. Allow Maja Blanca to set as it cools then top with more corn. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
5. To serve, top with latik then cut into squares.
A proud home cook and cookbook author, Nina is in love with the cooking process. She believes there's something magical about bringing random ingredients together to create a cohesive dish that's delicious, nourishing, and satisfying. She likens cooking in the kitchen to a dance, with its many movements, rhythmic sounds, and stimulating smells, all working together in perfect harmony and synchronicity.
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