Pernil, fall-off-the-bone pork leg or shoulder that is slow-roasted for hours, is the culinary centerpiece of the Christmas celebration in many Latino countries and certainly in her homeland, says Liliana Hernandez, one of our favorite Venezuelan cooks. In Caracas, where she grew up, and throughout the country, tradition dictates that the main meal each December 24 or 25 is a festive plate piled with four dishes, says Liliana.
The first is, of course, this pernil, marinated overnight, juicy on the inside, caramelized-crispy on the outside, and savory all over. Served beside it is one hallaca—Venezuela’s take on the tamale, a pork, beef and chicken-filled corn masa treat wrapped in banana leaves and steamed or boiled. The last two Christmas essentials in Venezuela’s festive four are: chicken salad and pan de jamon, says Liliana. Pan de jamon is a sweet bread dough made with flour, eggs, sugar, milk and yeast—and then stuffed with slices of ham, olives and raisins. “No one can stop eating it all December,” says Liliana, adding that pan de jamon is one of the main reasons she and everyone she knows in Venezuela has to go on a diet every January.
All four dishes are deeply loved holiday essentials in Venezuela, but pernil is the slow-cooked star of the meal, says Liliana. Each year, she loves how her home is filled with the scent of caramelized, crispy-succulent roast pork. The secret to its tender flavor and crunchy texture is hours in the oven at 325° heat, as the meat roasts to tender perfección. “And then, to get that delicious crusty-golden outside, in the last 30 minutes turn up the oven to anywhere between 380° and 400°. The high heat gives the pernil a final zap to brown the edges,” says Liliana. “It makes the pork shoulder or pork leg taste truly out of this world.”
Finally, the sauce. Much like we do with our Thanksgiving turkey, Liliana reduces the pan juices to make a sauce, thickened with butter and flour. “It makes the pernil tastes divino,” says Liliana. “Espectacular. Everyone looks forward to this Christmas cochino dish all year.”
Christmas Cooking Kickoff: Making the Pernil Shopping List
And so, every early December, Liliana sits down to write her shopping list and cooking plan to make this family-famous pernil and the other three dishes of Venezuelan Christmas. For her, that means it’s officially the start of the Christmas season, she says. We love thinking about how Liliana is joined by millions more homecooks, all writing their holiday pernil shopping lists in kitchens across Latin America. This is especially true in Puerto Rico and the República Dominicana, where the holiday pork is rubbed with adobo and sazón and served alongside Arroz con Gandules (in Puerto Rico) or moro de guandules (in the D.R.).
For her pernil-making step-by-step guidance, check out Liliana’s video master class on how to make Venezuelan pernil on her homecooking channel “Mi Show de Cocina.” For more delicioso dishes by Liliana, one of the homecooks celebrated in our Recetario Cocina Familia, check out her gorgeous bizcocho bienmesabe, a meringue-topped, creamy coconuty cake. If you are all about savory, try her addictive tequeños, dough-wrapped cheese sticks, and her step-by-step video how to making traditional pork, beef and chicken hallacas, another Venezuelan Christmas season staple.
The best thing about pernil, according to Liliana, are the leftovers, ”if you miraculously have any left,” she says. ”The next day is all about the recalentado,” the reheating of this dish. ”In Venezuela, we love to eat nice, hot slices of pernil with our delicious arepas. It is lo máximo!”