Fall-apart tender Roast Pig with a layer of crackling skin competes on the platter with a double helping of Paella Rice and Creole Smothered Green Beans. This dish is the iconic cochon de lait, a Cajun culinary event that is full of flavor and French tradition.
Communal gatherings centered on food and family are at the heart of Cajun culture. And the joie de vivre (joy of life) that is part of Louisiana heritage is best summed up in an old-fashioned pig roast or cochon de lait. Whereas a boucherie features a full-grown hog (150 pounds or more), the center of attraction of a cochon de lait is a smaller pig (40 to 50 pounds). In translation, the French term cochon de lait means milk pig or a suckling pig.
Riding shotgun along the back roads of Carencro in upper Lafayette Parish with pitmaster Max Bacque, I am enlightened to the gospel of whole pig cooking from Max and his uncle Donnie Bacque, my close friend. Max is a second-generation cattle rancher with a spread near Youngsville where he raises and markets his Boeuf de Bacque.
His grass-fed beef is some of the best in the region and can be ordered (337-255-8727) in any cut you like. His Black Angus cattle are raised to eliminate stress and graze on a forage-only diet of lush Louisiana grass. The beef is processed right here in Acadiana, so you can’t get more local than that.
Max caters large gatherings, and his pig roasts have become legendary. I was lucky enough to be part of one from start to finish. Cooking a whole pig is not especially tricky, but it does require some special equipment and lots of time.
The overnight injectable marinade is easy enough, but the 10 to 12-hour cooking time requires your full attention to keep the internal temperature constant and to prevent burning of the meat. It helps to have a friend (or two) to assist.
There are a few Acadiana butchers that will prep the whole pig to order, and we sourced ours from Kirk Martin Slaughter House near Carencro. Kirk Martin has been in business for decades and can supply just about any cut of meat. With a week’s lead time, they had our pig trimmed (head and feet removed) and pre-seasoned with Cajun seasoning blend, and the only thing left to do was add a marinade.
Max loves using apple cider as the base marinade spiced with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. It’s inserted deep into the largest muscles of the meat with a Cajun injector. Injecting a marinade retains moisture and enhances flavor.
Max’s uncle Donnie is a camp cook of the highest order, and that means that he has just about every cooking apparatus you need for a specialty dish. And whole pig cooking is no different when he pulled up in the alley with his Cajun microwave. Based on the acclaimed La Caja China pig-roasting box, the Cajun microwave is a Louisiana version where an insulated cooking chamber is covered with a layer of hot embers (charcoal and wood chunks).
The only considerations are that the cooking chamber be thoroughly clean, the pig trimmed to fit the box, and you must have plenty of fuel on hand for the fire. The heat is indirect, and throughout the 10 to12-hour cooking time at 250ºF, a 50-pound pig is rendered fall-off-the-bone tender with mahogany skin. The skin is the prize: a cloak of crispy cracklin’ that comes off in chunks and eaten alongside the succulent meat; it is a texture and taste combo that is hard to beat.
Donnie’s wife Cookie is a skillful chef (a former caterer) who specializes in Italian and Spanish dishes. Her Paella Rice combines chorizo, tomatoes, and aromatics in a sofrito base that accentuates the Louisiana rice spiced with her secret ingredient Paellaro paella seasoning with saffron. I had never used the stuff, but one Google search later, and I have a box from Amazon on its way to me.
My recipe for Creole Smothered Green Beans rounds out the accompanying recipes, but as usual, our crowd of neighbors brought potluck covered dishes of all kinds. It was a feast.
So, get your hands on a Cajun microwave, a 50-pound pig, and a dozen of your neighbors, and keep the backyard tradition of the cochon de lait alive.
- 3 cups long-grain white rice, such as Supreme
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 package Paellero paella seasoning with saffron or any commercial paella seasoning
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 1 cup thinly sliced green bell pepper
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 ounces Spanish chorizo, finely chopped
- 1 (12-ounce) can tomatoes, diced
- 1 bay leaf
- ⅓ cup dry white wine
- Chicken stock, if needed
- 3 tablespoons bacon grease
- 2 cups loosely packed chopped smoked pork sausage or smoked ham
- 1 cup diced yellow onion
- ½ cup diced celery
- ½ cup diced green bell pepper
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
- 3 (28-ounce) cans flat-cut Italian green beans, drained
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
- 1 (40 to 50-pound) dressed whole pig, head and feet removed
- 2 cups Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 1 quart apple cider
- 1 tablespoon table salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- For the rice, in a rice cooker or pot with a tight-fitting lid, add the rice, chicken stock, and seasoning. Stir to combine and cook on low heat until the rice is fully cooked. Keep warm.
- For the sofrito, in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil until the onions turn translucent. Add the chorizo and sauté for another five minutes. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, and white wine and cook for 10 minutes. If the sofrito seems dry, add some chicken stock.
- Combine the cooked rice and sofrito in a baking dish or paella pan and cover with a tight lid or aluminum foil.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Place in the oven until heated through, about 20 minutes.
- Keep warm until serving.
- In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add the bacon grease, sausage, onion, celery, and bell pepper, and cook until the sausage browns, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the pan and stir it into the remaining grease to make a roux. Stir the flour until it begins to turn a beige color. Add the stock, stir until it thickens, and add the green beans. Stir to combine and season with white pepper, granulated garlic, black pepper, and salt. Stir in the heavy cream and combine. Lower the heat and let simmer and thicken for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep warm.
- The day before, move the pig to a cutting board and season the inside of the pig liberally with Cajun seasoning or have your butcher pre-season the meat.
- Using an injector needle, fill with the apple cider solution (cider, salt, pepper, and garlic powder) and inject the meat all over until you have penetrated all the major meat muscles. Pour any of the leftover marinade into a metal loaf pan. Wrap the pig and return to a large ice chest and cover with ice. Let chill overnight.
- Early the next morning, remove the pig and let come to room temperature.
- Thoroughly clean and prepare a Cajun microwave cooker with coals (charcoal and wood chunks) until the internal temperature of the box comes to 250ºF. Place the pig in the box skin-side down (rib cage facing up) and place the pan of leftover marinade in the box for added moisture as it evaporates. Place the hot coal-laden cover on top and let cook for 4 hours. Be sure to watch your thermometer and keep the temperature to a consistent 250ºF by adding more charcoal or wood chunks to the fire.
- After 6 hours, uncover, remove the foil, and with the help of a friend and using heatproof gloves, turn the meat over skin-side up. The second half of cooking is when the skin and back-fat crisps and cracks, so be sure to keep the temperature up to 250ºF. Replace the cover and cook for an additional 6 hours until the skin crisps and the meat is pull-apart tender. Check periodically during cooking and if the pig is cooking too hot or you detect burning, loosely cover the meat with heavy duty aluminum foil.
- After the full 12-hour cooking time, remove the pig, cover and keep warm with aluminum foil, and let rest until serving.
- According to Max, the universal truth of cooking a whole pig is: you must observe and adapt, and repeat until the mission is complete.
- To serve, use a sharp knife or cleaver to cut through the crispy skin and remove it in chunks to a pan. Cut down through the backbone and ribs to expose the meat. Pull the meat apart into pieces discarding any excess fat.
- Serve your guests family-style with the green beans and paella rice on the side.
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