My father did most of the cooking at our house. I am unsure when this started since my first memories of him was cooking dinner. There were two reasons why a Portuguese man in the 1970s went against the cultural norm (both in Portugal and America) of women cooking: (1) my mom was a seamstress who worked late hours in a factory that churned out clothes for major department stores and (2) he simply loved cooking.
The origins of his passion for cooking came from two sources. His late uncle, who was exiled to the United States during the Salazar regime because he was a homosexual, and Chef Ramiro of the original Sol Mar Restaurant in Newark, NJ. (He is currently the owner of the Estrela da Ponderosa Bar & Restaurant in Newark, NJ)
My great uncle Evangelista (or uncle Evan as he was known to my family) was a great cook. I never met him, since he died in 1968, but the stories my father, aunt and uncle told of his kitchen exploits are legendary family lore.
He had the ability to transform any piece of meat or fish into a glorious feast. It is said that he would, by sheer will, manifest a pan juice and make a sauce or gravy so tasty that you would just want to drink it straight.
Many of the nascent 1960s Portuguese restaurants in Newark sought him out to become their chef but he turned them down. His real passion was music and acting and he starred in many productions at the Sport Club of Portugal Hall on Prospect Street in Newark.
Amalia Rodrigues became enamored with him when she performed in Newark. The two got on rather well and she once gave him a set of glasses embossed with the letter “S” (for Sousa) which he treasured and left to my father, aunt and uncle. We still have some of those glasses at my childhood home which also used to be uncle Evan’s before he passed away.
My grandfather, who had a strict conservative demeanor, so loved his brother that he accepted his homosexuality. He wasn’t tolerant of anything or anyone, but he would never allow anything negative to be said of his brother.
In the 1950s and 60s the acceptance and embracement of homosexuality wasn’t even on the radar. In Portugal it was treated like a disease and in America the mood wasn’t that much better. Uncle Evan couldn’t be openly gay like in modern day but he didn’t shy away from it and lived with his partner Bob for many years. He was and continues to be an inspiration to all who met him.
Even though I never met him his life was also an inspiration to me. So, my father was bitten by the cooking bug growing up and watching Uncle Evan cook.
In 1977 I went to kindergarten at St. Benedicts grammar school in Newark, NJ. St. Benedicts wasn’t part of the famous St. Benedicts Academy (a renowned high school for boys in Newark) they merely shared the name but that did not transpose to financial stability. To make ends meet the parish would hold a dinner dance in the fall to raise funds. My dad volunteered to be part of the organizing committee and eventually ran the whole thing himself. This was how he first met Chef Ramiro.
Ramiro was the chef at Sol Mar Restaurant on Niagara Street in Newark. Sol Mar was the place to go for great Portuguese food in the 1970s and Chef Ramiro was the reason why. He churned out delicious food and if you wanted to impress you sought him out to host or cater an event.
My dad did just that and Sol Mar catered all the dinner dances for St. Benedicts well into the 1980s. My father was given the first opportunity to visit and experience a commercial kitchen. Chef Ramiro and he clicked instantly and became friends for years.
One of the dishes he learned to make was Leitão à Bairrada (Roast Suckling Pig, Bairrada Style). Bairrada is a region located in the Beira Litoral Province. The region includes the municipalities of Anadia, Cantanhede, Mealhada and Oliveira do Bairro. The area is known for two things: (1) its bold and flavorful red wine and of course (2) roasted suckling pig.
The roasting of suckling pigs is Roman in its origin. Ever since the 17th century pig farming was a major industry in the Bairrada region. With all those pigs running around someone had the idea to take a suckling pig and roast it.
A suckling pig is so named because it is still suckling on its mother’s milk. This imparts a vastly different flavor than an older animal, much the same way veal tastes different than beef. The first known written recipe for suckling pig in Bairrada is from 1743 from a monastery in the region. The recipe is almost identical to the one I include here and has changed little since then.
The commercialization of selling cooked suckling pig was first started in 1941 when the company running the Luso water bottling operation ordered it for an event.
The concept of dedicating an entire restaurant to just serving suckling pig came to Álvaro Pedro who began selling suckling pig sandwiches shortly thereafter. As the region progressed and the EN1 road was built many copied this business model and roast suckling pig houses (casas de leitao) blossomed alongside this busy road.
If you travel in the area today, you will be spoiled for choice. Roast suckling pig is considered a feast of kings and one of the seven gastronomical wonders of Portugal typically served on very special occasions for feasts and holidays. None more so than Christmas and New Year’s. The likely reason is that for the home cook roasting a suckling pig is a three day process the other factor is that the dish is so rich that it just isn’t something you want to eat all the time.
So, in 1977 my dad is exposed to cooking Portuguese food in a whole new way and in particular to one of his favorite dishes: roast suckling pig. He meticulously wrote down the whole process word for word as Chef Ramiro prepared a bunch of piglets for an upcoming wedding he was catering. Chef Ramiro is from the Bairrada region right down the road from the Luso water company which first ordered suckling pig and spawned an entire industry.
With recipe in hand my father began making roast suckling pig at home for special occasions. The first I can remember was my communion party in 1979 which was held in our basement. I can remember sitting and watching him prepare the suckling pig, peeling the various garlic heads, sewing the belly shut and hanging it overnight in our basement steps (which in winter served as a cold storage larder). The smell wafting through the house as it slowly roasted in the oven was intoxicatingly good. It was a magical experience.
I remember the quietness and stillness as he went about his process, admiring his passion as he lovingly prepared the dish. It’s one of those quiet moments you enjoy with your dad when not much is said but so much is communicated.
It was these moments where I first also began to be enamored with cooking. I enjoy the prep more than the actual cooking itself. The slow methodical process of carefully cutting the vegetables, seasoning the meat and checking in on it as it marinades or cures.
My dad passed away on December 4, 2016 at the young age of 68 of a heart attack (the same age and ailment that took uncle Evan) and I am grateful for those special moments I had watching him cook. I am glad that he didn’t mind putting on an apron and taking on a task that was considered feminine for his generation.
So, my recipe for suckling pig isn’t really mine. I am not sure it belongs to anyone since my dad got it from Chef Ramiro who in turn got it from working in one of the suckling pig houses where he worked and lived during his formative years. It is a classical hallmark of Portuguese cuisine that hasn’t been altered or adulterated since a monk wrote it down in 1743.
There are many variations one of which is to replace the suckling pig with another animal protein like chicken. I feature a recipe for the chicken variety on my blog site (www.cookingportuguesefood.com) This is why it is important to preserve the classics. The chicken variation is an approachable weeknight meal but were it not for my knowledge of making the original it would never come to be.
Now for the recipe.
You will have to procure lard. I don’t mean that stuff you get at the supermarket (vegetable shortening). I am afraid we must address the elephant in the room: Pork Fat. That’s right you will either make your own lard or purchase it. Purchasing it can be almost impossible which means you will likely have to make it. Don’t worry, it’s easy and the by-product is amazingly tasty.
For the pork lard:
- 10 lbs fat from unsalted pork that can be taken from the fat around the kidneys, ruffle fat (which is taken from the abdominal area of the animal or chunks of fatty pork butt or shoulder (skin on). Ask your butcher and he will help you select fatty pork.
- Water enough to reach ¼ inch from the bottom of the pan
Depending on how much lard you want to make determines how much pork fat you will need. Rendered pork lard takes a lot of fat to make a modest amount for this recipe.
I generally use about 10 lbs of ruffle fat. Regardless of which part of the animal you use cut it into about 1 – 2-inch chunks.
Add water to the pot until it reaches ¼ inch from the bottom and add the pork. Sprinkle some salt over the surface until it lightly covers the fat.
Mix everything together and slowly cook it over a low flame. This may take the better part of a day. You know it’s ready when the fat rises over the surface of whatever solids are left in the pot.
Drain the fat in a colander and let it cool for a few hours before pouring or spooning it into mason jars. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Now depending on what you used to get the lard you may have some edible goodies in the colander. If you used pork butt or shoulder you have rijoes which you can serve with some boiled potatoes and broccoli rabe. If you used pork skin with fat you will have torresmos (pork rinds). If you used ruffle fat you have sainhas de porco which are beautiful curvy chunks of goodness which you can eat as is or make a sandwich out of it. If you decide to save the solids make sure to place them on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels to absorb the fat left in it.
For the Suckling Pig:
- Kosher Salt
- 2 cups pork rendered lard at room temperature
- 2 heads of garlic peeled
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup white wine
- 3 bay leaves crushed
- 1 suckling pig no more than 15 lbs innards removed and the belly cut open from head to tail
- Oranges sliced with skin on
Special Equipment Needed:
- A large food ready receptacle that can accommodate a suckling pig up to 15lbs.
- A cold storage larder or a spare refrigerator where you can store the pig while it brines and eventually hang or partially hang the suckling pig.
- Big sewing needle
- Kitchen twine or other very strong but thin thread that will fit through the eye of the needle
- A raw potato
- Aluminum foil
Instructions for Making Suckling Pig
3 days before serving the suckling pig place enough water and kosher salt in a large food ready receptacle until a raw potato floats to the top. Remove the potato and submerge the suckling pig.
Place the receptacle in a refrigerator or a cold place in your home. In the winter you can store it in the garage or cold section of your basement if the temperature is 40 degrees or below. The brine won’t freeze since it contains a lot of salt. Let the suckling pig brine for 24 hours.
After 24 hours remove the suckling pig from the brine, pat dry with a towel and hang the suckling by the head and place a container below to catch the liquid. If you don’t have the space to do this in your house lay the suckling pig flat on its belly on a roasting pan with a grate.
Place the suckling pig in a cold space or refrigerator for another 24 hours. The next day take the lard, peeled garlic, pepper, salt, bay leaves and wine and place in a food processor or blender and process until all the garlic has been crushed and ground. The mixture should be fully incorporated, and the pepper and bay leave evenly distributed.
Take the suckling pig out of the refrigerator or cold storage place and lay it flat on its back. Make tiny slits in the body cavity. Small incisions so that the flavor can seep in. Do not pierce the skin. You want tiny gashes along the inside cavity. Spread the lard mixture evenly inside and outside of the suckling pig making sure to get into all the crevices. Begin sewing the body cavity shut starting from the head to the tail.
After this is complete re-hang the suckling pig in a cold storage area or refrigerator being careful to place a container underneath to catch any drippings. Let it sit overnight. The next day you have some decisions to make. Is your oven large enough to accommodate the suckling pig flat on its belly? If so, place it belly side up and flat on a baking pan with a metal grate. If not truss the suckling pig by bringing the feet together making sure to wrap the twine around the head so it is supported while it cooks. Place it in a roasting pan with a v-shaped metal grate belly side up (the kind you sue for roasting turkey).
Pre-heat the oven to 375. Before placing the suckling pig in the oven cover it with aluminum foil so the skin doesn’t scorch. Roast until the internal temperature is measured at 145 degrees. About an hour before it is done (when the internal temperature it at around 100 degrees) remove the foil and carefully turn the suckling so its back is now in an upright position. After 30 minutes (or when you see the skin looks brown and crispy) turn it again so the belly is now facing up. Continue to cook until it is ready.
Remove from oven and let it rest for 30 minutes. Collect any drippings from the pan. Place the drippings in a fat skimmer and collect the sauce (without the fat) and place in a gravy boat. Carefully remove the thread or twine from the entire animal. If it gets difficult in the belly just cut the skin away by making a small sliver on each side of the thread with a sharp pairing knife.
Cut the suckling pig up into single serving portions with a pair of kitchen shears and place on a serving platter. Decorate the edges of the platter with orange slices (skin on) and serve with French fries, salad and the gravy.
**A special note on lard disposal** Animal fat congeals at room temperature. This comes in handy because it allows us to store it unrefrigerated (although keeping it in the fridge delays it turning rancid), and is convenient because we can spoon and measure it and it can be rubbed or applied to food easily. My grandfather used rendered chicken fat (schmaltz) as a butter substitute to spread on his morning toast (it is actually very tasty). This ability to congeal has a very serious and negative side effect. It won’t melt if you pour it down your kitchen sink no matter how much hot water you wash it down with. Eventually it will congeal further on down the pipe system and force you to call in a plumber to unclog it. It is best to let the fat congeal after it has done it’s duty and just scrape it into your garbage can. Or if you are making bacon collect the fat in a jar and use it in another recipe.
About The Author
Nelson de Sousa is a blogger and a food enthusiast who recently created a blog dedicated to Portuguese cuisine called CookingPortugueseFood. You can follow Nelson on Facebook and subscribe to his Facebook group.