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In search of “pavochón”—Puerto Rico’s delectable answer to the Thanksgiving turkey

If you've ever tried a pavochón, that unmistakably Puerto Rican take on how the big bird is cooked up during Thanksgiving, you'd think this is the only way turkey was ever meant to be cooked. (Photo/Courtesy Jason Perlow)

It’s interesting (admittedly in a food geek sort of way) that when you look at classic, early Puerto Rican cookbooks—El Cocinero Puerto Riqueño, the first one ever written in 1859; Carmen Valledejuli’s legendary Cocina Criolla, first published in 1954; and 1970’s Cocine Conmigo by Dora Romano, just to name a few—there’s no hint of the turkey dish that appears on so many Puerto Rican dinner tables this time of year: the pavochón.

A delectable, unmistakably Latino take on how the big bird is cooked up during the holidays, the word pavochón itself is a concoction, much like the recipe: pavo- (Spanish for turkey) is paired up with –chon, the second syllable of the word lechón, as in the object of our Caribbean porcine obsession, the beloved spit-roasted pork. It’s a reference to the fact that the bird is treated much like the pig, rubbed with adobo, dunked in garlic and acid or citrus, and cooked until the flesh is the juiciest, most flavorful fall-off-the-bone stuff you’ve ever tasted. The mind-blowing result is enough to make you think this is the way—the only way!— turkey was ever meant to be cooked. (No disrespect to the pilgrims.)

To many Puerto Ricans (not to mention Cubans and Dominicans) it is the only way. Why then, I wondered, does the pavochón not appear in any of those classic cookbooks? And when exactly did it make its debut as the island’s tasty answer to the Thanksgiving turkey? I hunted down some of the best Puerto Rican cooks, both on and off the island, to try to find out.

ANSWERS

It turns out there are as many theories as there are pavochón recipes. Ivonne Figueroa, the Dallas-based blogger at elboricua.com, says she’s been eating pavochón since her childhood days in the 1960s in rural Puerto Rico “where my family cooked the pavo on a spit outdoors. All day long. With lots and lots of garlic. All my life, this is how I’ve been seasoning turkey.”

Like Figueroa, chef and TV host Daisy Martinez, who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents, agrees there’s never really been another way, although she didn’t actually hear the term pavochón until she was writing her first cookbook, Daisy Cooks! Latin Flavors That Will Rock Your World, in 2005. Her best guess is that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when Puerto Rican migration to the mainland skyrocketed, the flavors and cooking techniques of Puerto Rico (the adobo, the spit fire) and the American traditions (Thanksgiving) blended together. “But when exactly it happened,” she says. “I’m not sure we know.”

Miami chef Jose Mendin, who grew up in San Juan in the 1990s, moved to South Florida to attend culinary school and has since opened five Miami restaurants, recalls his abuela’s turkey, which was most definitely cooked with Puerto Rican sazón, but “we never called it pavochón. It was just turkey cooked in a traditional Puerto Rican way.” In 2007, when he helmed the kitchen at Miami’s Sushisamba, he finally ventured into pavochón land, putting one on the Thanksgiving dinner menu. “I did it the way we would do a barbecued chicken in Puerto Rico. I halved the bird, deboned it except for the legs, brined it for a day, then marinated it for two days. There was a lot of garlic and a lot of herbs. When I roasted it, I basted it with pork fat and stuffed it with mofongo. So I guess it was my own interpretation of the pavochón!”

On the island itself, there are just as many opinions about the dish’s true roots. I tracked down Wilo Benet, one of the most respected, classically trained chefs there, to ask about his pavochón experience. “It’s basically a turkey seasoned the way pork is,” he says. “With salt, pepper, oregano and some garlic.” In his circles, he adds, people are less adamant about cooking it “Puerto Rican style. The truth is, if you walk through a supermarket here you will see lots of cranberry, lots of bread stuffing and lots of other flavors. The pavochón is out there, yes. But the palettes on the island have really expanded as well.”

AN ACADEMIC APPROACH

After tracking down all the cooks, here and there, pros and home experts, I finally found my way to a man I thought would certainly have the definitive answer for us:  Professor Cruz Ortiz Cuadro, a PhD food historian from the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao and author of Eating Puerto Rico: A history of Food, Culture and Identity who also blogs here. A self-described foodie, this is a man dedicated to understanding and exploring the precise spot where food and history intersect en la isla del encanto. So when did he discover pavochón? It turns out, it wasn’t exactly an academic moment. “I first heard the term sometime in the early 90s, when a friend asked me, “Have you tried the pavochón? I said no! So he took me out for a drive along one of the carreteras outside of the city to a ramshackle along the side of the road.” It was there that Ortiz Cuadro spotted a bara (spit) over leña (charcoal wood) on which a turkey was placed, in exactly the way a traditional lechón would have been placed. “The seasonings were the same,” he said. “Adobo and garlic. It was quite good.”

In his studied opinion, the pavochón might actually be the result of Puerto Rican economics. Ortiz Cuadra believes the dish became popular in the late 80s or early 90s, when the island’s economy suffered and pork prices skyrocketed. Turkey was a far less expensive option than pork, grown much more quickly and cheaply by poor, rural farmers looking for ways to survive the economic downturn. “As with so many popular foods, they first become popular with poor people and then they work their way up,” he said. The first the recipe finally appears in 1998’s Cocina Desde Mi Pueblo, a cookbook based on a popular cooking TV show that aired between 1995 and 1998. “I don’t have every edition of every cookbook ever printed, but as far as I can tell, that’s the first one.”

So what about the idea that pavochon is the fruit of American and Puerto Rican culture and traditions blending, fueled by a boricua diaspora, I ask? “That’s a good explanation too,” he says. “It may be a little of both.”

Whichever it is, the finished dish remains the same—a mouthwatering way to give Thanksgiving a delectable Latin twist, to make the quintessential American holiday a little more de nosotros. Below are two great pavochón recipes. The first is from Chef Daisy Martinez, the second from Chef Jose Mendín.

Chef Daisy Martinez’s pavochón

1 small (12- to 13-pound) turkey

¾ cup wet adobo (recipe below)

1 large Spanish onion

1 large carrot, peeled, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

3 celery stalks, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons arrowroot or 4 teaspoons cornstarch

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons water

1. Remove the bag of giblets and neck from the turkey. Discard the liver and whack the remaining giblets and neck into large pieces with a cleaver or heavy knife.

2. Wash the turkey, pulling out and discarding any large pockets of fat from the body cavity as you do. Pat the turkey dry, and set on paper towels on your cutting board. Work your fingers between the skin and flesh of the turkey, working carefully and slowly to prevent tearing the skin. Once you have separated the skin from the breast, thigh and as much of the leg meat as you can, rub the wet adobo into the flesh and inside  the turkey. Truss the turkey with kitchen twine. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Scatter the onion, celery, carrot, bay leaves, and reserved neck and giblet pieces into a roasting pan. Pour in 2 cups water. Place the turkey breast side down on  a  roasting rack (preferably a V-shaped one) and roast the turkey 13-15 minutes a pound, until the juices run clear, not pink, from the thickest part of the thigh when poked down to the bone with a paring knife. About 30 minutes before the turkey is cooked, turn it breast side up to give the breast a lovely color.

4. Remove the turkey from the rack, and let it rest on a cutting board. Add water, if necessary, to make about 2 cups of liquid in the pan. Skim fat from the liquid and place the pan over high heat. Cook, stirring up the bits from the bottom, and bring to a boil. Strain through a fine sieve, discarding the solids, and return the liquid to the pan. Stir the arrowroot and 2 tablespoons water together in a small bowl until the arrowroot is dissolved. Add to the gravy, and stir over medium high heat, until the gravy is slightly thickened and glossy. Check for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Serves 12.

For wet adobo

12 cloves garlic, peeled

1 ½ tablespoons fine sea or kosher salt

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

2 tablespoons dried oregano

1teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons olive oil (or achiote oil; recipe below)

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Pound the garlic cloves and salt to a paste using a mortar and pestle. Add the peppercorns, oregano, and cumin stirring well after each addition to incorporate them into the paste. Stir in the olive oil and vinegar. Makes 3/4 cup.

For achiote oil

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 heaping tablespoons of good quality achiote seeds

1. Pour the olive oil into a small saucepan, and add the achiote seeds at high heat, until to see the rim of the oil in the pan start to twinkle. Immediately lower the heat on the oil so you can control how fast you leach the color and flavor out of the seeds. When your oil reaches a brilliant orange color, turn the heat off.

2.  Pass the oil through a fine sieve or chinois into a glass receptacle and let cool until ready for use. Makes about 1 cup.

*NOTE: Achiote oil is not something you can put on the stove and walk away from; you must watch it very closely to monitor the process. If the heat is too high or you cook it too long, the oil will turn green, the seeds will turn black, and the whole thing will turn into a bitter mess. It must be discarded as it is not fit for use.

 

Chef Jose Mendin’s pavochón

For the mojo and turkey

4 heads garlic

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black peppercorns (whole)

1 cup orange juice

1 cup lemon juice

1 cup lime juice

1 cup minced onion

2 teaspoons oregano

1 cup Spanish olive oil

1 8-10 lb. whole organic pastured turkey

1. Blend all mojo ingredients together. You can make up to 2-3 days before. Marinate turkey in the mojo one day before cooking.

2. Preheat oven to 425°F. Remove turkey from marinade, and place, skin side up, on racks set in a medium roasting pan. Pour 1 cup water into each pan. Drizzle turkey with olive oil. Roast until beginning to brown, about 30 minutes.

3. Lower heat to 400°F, rotating pan 180°. Continue roasting until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of breast, avoiding bone, registers 165°, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Transfer turkey parts to platter and tent with foil. Reserve the roasting pan and juices in it. Serve 8 to 10.

For gravy

2 cups chicken stock

3 garlic cloves

2 shallots

¼ cup all purpose flour

2 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. sugar

¼ cup crema fresca or sour cream (optional)

1. Scrape juices and browned bits from reserved roasting pan into large glass measuring cup. Spoon off fat, reserving 2 tablespoons.Add enough stock to juices to measure 1 2/3 cups.

2. Heat reserved 2 tablespoons fat in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and shallot; sauté 2 minutes.

3. Add flour; whisk until golden, about 4 minutes.

4. Add degreased pan juices and the 2 cups stock.

5. Bring to boil, whisking until smooth. Reduce heat and simmer until gravy is reduced to desired consistency, about 4 minutes. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and sugar. Whisk in crème fraîche, if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper.