Grilling intimidates me.
We didn’t grill a lot when I was growing up. I remember our tiny Hibachi grill that my mom filled with charcoal briquettes. Pork skewered in bamboo sticks and slathered with sweet homemade barbecue sauce. Thinly sliced pork chops studded with rock salt and black pepper. Fresh whole fish seasoned with ginger, onions, and tomatoes and wrapped in banana leaves. But my mom fried more than she grilled. Maybe it was too hot to grill outside. Or maybe grilling was saved for special occasions like a birthday or an anniversary.
Controlling the heat in a grill is what I find most daunting. I’m always too frightened to either burn or undercook the meat. Make sure the grill is very hot, most people say. To slow down or speed up cooking, locate the hot and cool spots on the grill. The list for grilling tips goes on and yet I still find it too intimidating and I end up leaving all grilling duties to Dennis. But I know I won’t learn if I don’t try. This past weekend Dennis was up in Canada with his dad, brother and uncles fishing (and grilling) walleyes and I thought it was the perfect time to experiment.
I wanted to start with something simple. Poc chuc came to mind. In our trip to Cancun and the Yucatan last year, I fell in love with the tangy flavors of the Yucatan grilled pork and grill-roasted onions. The tang of tender thinly sliced grilled pork went incredibly well with the sweet grilled onions and fresh crunchy cabbage. The amazing Rick Bayless has a simple recipe for this Yucatan favorite. The total cooking time for 1/8-inch pork steaks over a very hot fire will be no more than 3 or 4 minutes, Bayless says, which sounded easy to follow. Roast the onions, unpeeled, Bayless adds, which sounded even a lot easier. This was the perfect recipe to hone my grilling skills.
I also chose to do poc chuc because it is reminiscent of inihaw na baboy or grilled pork — thinly sliced pork chops seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled, and served with patis spiked with kalamansi or local lime. I find the flavors of inihaw na baboy dipped in patis and kalamansi I enjoyed growing up in Manila very similar to the flavors of the grilled pork marinated in sour oranges I enjoyed in El Meson del Marques in the old colonial town of Valladolid. Working with the familiar helped alleviate some of the intimidation.
Making Poc Chuc
1-1/2 pounds well-trimmed, thin-cut, boneless pork steaks, cut from the shoulder or leg, or alternatively, 1-1/2 pounds thin-cut, boneless pork chops
3/4 cup fresh sour orange juice, or alternatively 1/2 cup lime juice
2 medium white onions
3 cups thinly sliced cabbage
1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro, plus a few sprigs for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper for seasoning the meat and vegetables
roasted habanero salsa
The tasty tang of poc chuc and other Yucatan dishes comes from the juice of sour oranges or Seville oranges. In making the delicious cochinita pibil, for example, pork is marinated in achiote and sour orange juices, wrapped in banana leaves, and then cooked until the meat falls off the bone. The ubiquitous pickled red onions are soured in Seville orange juice and a host of spices and chiles. In making poc chuc, the pork is marinated while the onions and cabbage are tossed in sour orange juice. If fresh Seville oranges are not readily available, fresh limes can be a good substitute. Eight to ten sour oranges will give 3/4 cup juice with plenty leftover if needed.
Light a charcoal fire and let it burn until all the coals are medium-hot and covered with gray ash. Nestle the onions, unpeeled, directly in the coals and let them roast until charred on the outside and soft within, which takes about 20 minutes. If a charcoal grill is not available, like in our case, a gas grill will suffice.
While the onions are roasting, pound the meat with a flat mallet to about 1/8-inch thick. Drizzle with 1/4 cup of the sour orange (or 3 tablespoons lime) juice, cover and set aside.
Once the roasted onions are done, let them cool, peel the charred outer layers off, then cut what remains into 1/2-inch squares. Toss with 1/4 cup of the sour orange (or about 3 tablespoons lime) juice and season with salt and pepper. The sweetness of the white onions shines even more because of the tang of the Sevile orange.
Toss the cabbage with the chopped cilantro and the remaining 1/4 cup of the sour orange (or 3 tablespoons lime) juice and season with salt and pepper. This was truly a revelation when I first made it. It’s so simple yet so deliciously refreshing. The tang of the sour orange works wonderfully well with the sweetness and crunch of the cabbage.
Sprinkle both sides of the pork generously with salt and pepper. Working with a couple of pieces at a time, grill the pork. Let it sear about 2 minutes on one side, then flip it over and sear on the other. The total cooking time for 1/8-inch pork steaks over a very hot fire will be no more than 3 or 4 minutes.
Serve the grilled pork as soon as it comes out of the grill with roasted onions, soured cabbage, roasted habanero salsa and hot corn tortillas. Garnish with a few sprigs of cilantro.
Bayless suggests that this simple dish can be made with butterflied, pounded, boneless, skinless chicken breasts or skirt steaks. To add a little spice, smear some habanero peppers in the sour orange juice marinade.
My first venture in grilling by myself was a success but I must admit that I still feel intimidated by the grill. Baby steps, I say. I’m looking forward though to my next grilling experiment.