In Mexico, food is so much more than simply cooking and eating. It is the customs,the tradition, the story behind the food itself that makes it so wonderful. One of my very first, and finest, food memories of Mexico City was walking down to the market on the corner of my wife’s street on Sunday morning and buying barbacoa. In this street market, only on Sundays, there is Señora Maria, who brings her fresh barbacoa to market from Hidalgo, a state outside of the Distrito.
The preparation and the cooking of barbacoa is a story unto itself (but diabolically easy!). It is essentially just roasted lamb, but it is so much more than that! It is a whole lamb marinated in a chile paste, then wrapped in the leaves of a native cactus, the maguey. It is then placed in an earthen pit, and roasted in the ground for more than 8 hours. The result is some of the most tender and flavorful lamb you will ever eat! Legend has it that the best barbacoa in all of Mexico can be found alongside a Mexican Highway between Mexico City and Querétaro, at little place called Barbacoa Santiago. However, I wanted Barbacoa now!
Back in New England, there is no maguey cactus, my recipe uses banana leaves in its place. This is a more “Mayan” version of barbacoa, KAB BAALBAK (KAB “Earth”, BAAL “cover”, and BAK “meat”). On Saturday night I prepared the chili paste to marinate the meat. First, I toasted 4 chile ancho and 4 chile guajillo on my comal until they were beginning to become aromatic and darken just a bit. I then soaked them in hot water for 15 to 20 minutes or until they become soft. It is important to tell you to not burn the chiles as they will become very bitter if they are burnt.
While they were soaking, I went and put my cumin seeds, black peppercorns, thyme, oregano, and salt into my spice grinder. I ground them up into a fine powder and then put them in a blender. I also added 5 cloves of garlic, an onion, some olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. Finally, I stemmed, deveined, and seeded the chiles and then placed them in the blender with all of the other ingredients. I puréed them into a smooth, yet relatively thick paste. I then rubbed the paste all over the leg of lamb, put it into a container, covered it, and placed it in the refrigerator for the night.
On Sunday, I took some banana leaves, cut off the hard stem side of the leaves, placed about 4 leaves on my countertop with the curves all running the same direction and slightly overlapping.
I placed the leg of lamb directly in the center and rolled the package up all nice like a burrito. I placed the delicious package in a roasting pan and covered with foil. The package was then put it in a 325 degree oven for about 3 hours.
While the lamb was roasting in the oven, I set to preparing my chipotle salsa and a delicious cilantro-lime tzazikie that I love. With the chipotle salsa, I took 4 or 5 dried chile chipotle mora, removed the stem and boiled them in water with 2 Roma tomatoes. Once the pot comes to a boil, allow them to boil for about 5 more minutes, or until the chiles are nice and soft. Then place the chiles, tomato, 1 clove of garlic and a few slices of onion in a blender and purée . If the salsa is too thick, add a little of the water you boiled the chiles and tomatoes in about ½ tablespoon at a time until you get the desired consistency. Pour it into a serving bowl, add a pinch of salt, and it is ready to serve!
The cilantro-lime tzatziki is just as easy. Take 1 medium cucumber, peel it, remove the seeds with a spoon and roughly chop. Put the cucumber in a food processor with the juice of 1 lime, 1 clove of garlic, about ¼ cup of fresh cilantro, and a pinch of salt. Pulse it smooth, put into a mixing bowl, and fold in about 1 cup of plain greek yogurt (my favorite is Chobani). Now I know what you are all saying, what does a greek sauce have to do with Mexican Barbacoa? My answer is NOTHING AT ALL, but this cilantro-lime tzatziki is simply one of the most delicious sauces I have ever had!
After about 3 hours, I removed the lamb from the oven and placed it on the serving platter, still wrapped in its banana cocoon, to allow the meat to rest. While the meat rested, I diced up some onion and more fresh cilantro and mixed them all up together in another serving bowl. Finally, I prepared my masa for the fresh corn tortillas, pressed them out, and cooked them on my comal.
So now that everything is ready, take the lamb and make a nice cut along the center of the package to open it, carve the lamb and serve with your salsas and your fresh corn tortillas. Orale!
There were a few things learned that I would apply in the next preparation. The first is that I would probably try to cook the lamb for another hour to see if I can bring more tenderness to the meat. Although the meat was tender, I wanted it to be so tender that I could essentially “pull” the meat apart with a fork. I think I am going to do a little more research to see if I can procure a better cut of lamb.
But this story does end with the addition of another legendary food destination alongside a roadway, The DelGrosso kitchen, home of the finest Barbacoa in New England!
- 5 Cloves of Garlic
- 1 large white onion
- 4 Ancho Chiles
- 4 Guajillo Chiles
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 tablespoons dried oregano
- 1/3 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3-5 pound leg of lamb
- 4 banana leaves, stem removed
- Toast Chiles until smoky and aromatic, DO NOT BURN, then soak them in hot water for 15 to 20 minutes.
- In a spice grinder, grind up the cumin seeds, black peppercorns, thyme, oregano, and kosher salt.
- Remove the chiles for the water, stem, devein, and remove the seeds from the chiles and place them in a blender with the ground spices, garlic, onion, and olive oil.
- Puree the mixture until it is smooth, then remove from the blender and rub all over the lamb.
- Place the lamb in a container, covered, in a refrigerator overnight or at least 4 hours.
- Preheat your oven to 325F.
- Take 4 banana leaves, place lengthwise on a counter of cutting board, overlap them slightly with the curves going in the same direction.
- Place the lamb in the center of the leaves, fold up the ends, then start folding over the lamb, rolling like a wrap or a burrito, place the flap along the underside of the “package” or cut a few strings of banana leaf and use the strings to tie it all up.
- Place the “package” on the roasting tray in your roasting pan and place in the oven for at least 3 hours, preferably for 4.
- Let the meat rest for at least 10 minutes inside the banana leaves.
- Then cut along the center of the package.
- Serve still in the banana leaves with lime, onions and cilantro, a chipotle salsa, and fresh corn tortillas!
- 4 dried chile chipotles mora
- 2 Roma tomatoes
- 1 clove of garlic
- 3 slices of white onion
- kosher salt (al gusto)
- Place the chipotles and tomato in a saucepan and boil in water. Boil for 5 minutes, or until chipotles become soft.
- Place in a blender with the garlic, onion, and salt. Puree until smooth.
- If salsa is not the desired consistency, add some of the reserved water used to boil the chipotles about 1 teaspoon at a time.
- Add salt to taste.
- 1 medium cucumber
- 1 clove garlic
- ¼ cup cilantro, loosely packed
- Juice of 1 lime
- Kosher salt (al gusto)
- 1 Cup Green Plain Yogurt
- Peel, seed, and chop the cucumber and place in a food processor with the garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and salt.
- Pulse until smooth, then fold in the yogurt.