When chef Eric Rivera was a kid, he would go back to school after Thanksgiving break and talk to his friends excitedly about what they all ate for Thanksgiving dinner. He’d join in the conversation, raving about his mom’s beef picadillo and empanadillas, but was always met with blank stares.
“They were like, ‘But what about mashed potatoes?’” Rivera says.
He wondered the same thing. So his Puerto Rican mom, Ixa, started making turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, but deep down, Rivera says, he always knew “our food is better.”
This year, Rivera, owner of Ballard’s Addo:Incubator, is looking to spread the joy of his Puerto Rican Thanksgiving with a common denominator: turkey. Specifically, the pavochon, Puerto Rico’s answer to the traditional basted bird served on the fourth Thursday of each November in the United States.
The name itself is a portmanteau of “pavo,” the Spanish word for turkey, and “lechón,” a roasted suckling pig.
“Essentially, you’re cooking a turkey the same way you would cook pork. It’s super simple,” Rivera explains.
Normally this involves a few days of brining and an open flame, but it’s 100% possible to achieve delicious results in a home oven. With this form of pavochon, it’s all about the seasoning. Unlike the subtle butter-and-herb-roasted turkey you might be used to on Thanksgiving, pavochon is assertive. There’s salt, garlic and acid — but also an earthiness from the annatto and culantro, also known as Mexican coriander. Pavochon is also undeniably juicy, perhaps from all that wonderful annatto oil.
To prep, remove the backbone of the turkey and press it flat, a technique called spatchcock.This will result in a juicer bird because the flattened turkey will cook more evenly. Again, the seasoning is the most important element, so proceed as you normally would with a full bird, and see recipe below for instructions. Be careful to keep an eye on the turkey’s internal temperature, waiting for it to reach 155 degrees. Does spatchcocking a turkey sound too intimidating? You can also ask your butcher to spatchcock for you, or procure a bird from Rivera — he’ll do every step for $60.
What is this magical seasoning we keep stressing? It’s called sazon — a staple of the Puerto Rican kitchen, it’s a spice blend combining culantro, paprika, mustard seed, cumin, coriander, annatto, salt and black pepper. Rivera grinds his sazon fresh and sells it online for $9 and at Addo, but you can also obtain prepackaged sazon (about $3) at nearly any local grocery store, made by Goya.
After you rub the seasoning all over the bird, blend up a mixture of oil and annatto seeds. Sold as seeds or in a paste form called achiote, annatto is what gives white cheddar its orange color, and is available in any bulk aisle. Simply crush the seeds, or buy them in paste form, and mix with the oil until emulsified. It lends another depth of flavor to the dish; you’ll baste the bird with the oil periodically while it roasts.
The cooked bird is an arresting shade of burnt orange and packs a wallop of flavor. It’s salty and a little sour, with the tiniest bit of heat on the back end.
“It adds a little more complexity so you’re not having the same old turkey. It’s a nice little curveball,” Rivera said with a smile.
Traditionally, Rivera serves this flavorful turkey with Puerto Rican sides: stewed yucca, pinto beans cooked with sazon and sofrito, and a rice dish called arroz con gandules.
“It’s all real, super simple. Puerto Rican food, it’s not too finesse-y. It’s stuff you can braise, walk away from and you’re good to go,” the chef says.
However, even if you choose not to make a full Puerto Rican meal, this turkey is going to be a crowd-pleaser alongside mashed potatoes, stuffing and even sweet potato souffle, with those little marshmallows on top.
“If you put it on a table for Thanksgiving, people are going to be like, ‘Wow I really like this version,’ not, ‘This isn’t going to work with anything else.’ It’s a nice addition to your table,” Rivera says.
Rivera has two rules of thumb for cooking the perfect turkey. No. 1, use a thermometer – and not one of those little plastic ones that pops out when the bird is allegedly done.
“By the time those things pop, you’re like 10 degrees over,” he says.
Meat thermometers can be purchased for as little as $10, but he really likes ThermoWorks’ models, which run anywhere from $50 to $100.
Pull the turkey once it reaches 160 degrees and let it rest about 15-20 minutes before carving.
His second rule? Cook turkey more than once a year.
“Everybody thinks, ‘I’ve got this recipe, I’m going to do this,’ but there’s nothing else really in life that is that important and it’s only done once,” Rivera says.
One taste of a flavorful pavochon, though, and perhaps Puerto Rican turkey will become your holiday go-to.
Pavochon – Puerto Rican Turkey
By Chef Eric Rivera
1 package sazon (Rivera makes and sells an Addo blend, or get Goya’s version at your grocery store)
6 tablespoons annatto seeds and 4 cups neutral oil, blended until emulsified
1 10-pound turkey
1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees
2. Take a thawed turkey and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a large cutting board and turn the turkey so the backbone is facing up. With a sharp knife or kitchen shears, cut through the turkey — as close to the backbone as possible — on one side and then the other. Remove the spine and save for stock or gravy.
3. Turn the bird over so the breast side is facing up. Push out the thighs and apply pressure to the breast bone until you hear an audible crack and the turkey is lying flat on the cutting board.
4. Season the bird liberally with sazon, covering the entire bird.
5. Place in the oven, basting with annatto oil every 30 minutes.
6. At this low temp, aim for 15 minutes of cooking time per pound, and begin checking after two hours. When internal temperature of the bird reaches 155 degrees, turn oven up to 375 and cook bird until it reaches 160. This will caramelize and brown the bird.
7. Let turkey rest 15-20 minutes before cutting and serving.