Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Beef Barbacoa Tacos
Photo by Thelmadatter

"First, buy a cow head...." the instructions read. A cow what?

Then, "Remove the eyes, tongue and ears of the beef head, and discard the tongue."

My stomach flipped and my heart sank and it occurred to me I might not have what it takes to do an authentic beef barbacoa. (If you would like to read how this is done, check out this recipe and also a post by one tough hermana, the Homesick Texan.)

I had plunged into my cookbooks and the internet in search of barbacoa, that wonderful Mexican method of cooking meat, which traditionally is steamed/roasted overnight in an outdoor pit (PLEASE don't tell my husband about this, or he will be out in our backyard digging a hole...again....)

Beef barbacoa seems to be a tex-mex and northern Mexican specialty. In fact, my favorite chef, Rick Bayless, mentions it only in passing. Another great Mexican food authority, Diane Kennedy, doesn't discuss it at all in her cookbooks.

Barbacoa, it seems, is made all over Mexico, but is regionally specific. In northern Mexico, goat is most often used; in the central region, lamb is used (this also is called birria), and in the Yucatan, pork is the most common (called cochinita p'bil or "little pig in a pit"). It is not unusual to find pork barbacoa in other parts of Mexico, typically referred to as carnitas.

Traditional barbacoa was made for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. The meat is seasoned and wrapped in maguey, banana or agave leaves. A large pit is dug, about 3 ft deep, and when the coals are glowing, a large cauldron of water is set upon them. A grill is placed over the pot and the wrapped meat is placed on top. the pit is covered and left to cook overnight. The water contains vegetables, spices and maybe beans. While cooking, drippings from the meat above go into the water creating an amazing broth or consommƩ to serve alongside.

A current day pit for barbacoa
photo by Javier2k35

Internet sites recommend any number of cooking methods to replicate the flavor of traditional barbacoa: grilling, smoking or baking. Rick Bayless, in Mexico: One Plate at a Time, rigs up his kettle grill, preferring it for the smoky flavor it imparts. Since we have only a gas grill (again, please don't mention this to my husband) I reasoned (rationalized) that all the extra work would not be worth it. Then, I discovered an easier method in his book, Mexican Everyday, where he recommends a slow cooker!

I took off for our neighborhood wonderful tortilleria, which also has a meat counter, and found I could purchase beef cheeks (not the whole head, thank goodness!) or cachetes. Only $1.99 per pound!

Here is the recipe, "Slow-braised Lamb (or Goat) Jalisco0Style," from Bayless' cookbook, Mexican Everyday, with his modifications for using beef and my slight adaptation.

Makes 6 generous servings.

8 garlic cloves
1/4 cup ground ancho chile powder (you can buy this on the spice racks in our grocery stores)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
6 medium red skin or Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 6 wedges each
3 pounds beef cheeks or bone-in chuck roast

!/2 cup chopped white onion, for garnish
1/2 cup chopped cilantro for garnish
1 lime, cut into six wedges for serving
hot sauce, if desired

You'll also need lots of fresh corn tortillas.

Smash garlic cloves, peel, and toss in a food processor one by one, completely chopping one before adding the next. Add chile powder, cumin, black pepper, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup water. Pulse to blend.

Spread potatoes over bottom of slow cooker. Sprinkle generously with salt. Lay meat on top and pour marinade over all. Add enough water to cover potatoes and the lower 1/4 inch of the meat. Cover and slow-cook on high for 6 hours.

Remove the meat to a large plate, pulling out any bone, cutting out any visible gristle or fat and shredding. Use a slotted spoon to scoop the potatoes onto the plate with the meat. Keep warm.

Degrease broth from the slow cooker and pour into a pan. Reduce broth to concentrate flavors and ladle it over the meat and potatoes.

I like to toast the corn tortillas in a hot frying pan. They will still be very pliable, just warm and with a toasty flavor. Just place a tortilla in and let it heat, flip it once, flip it again and then place it in the folds of a clean dishtowel. Continue until you have all you need.

Mix together the onion and cilantro. Serve barbacoa on the tortillas, sprinkle with onion/cilantro mixture, and squeeze a lime wedge over. Potatoes can be served alongside.

¡Que Rico! You must make this soon!

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