Cooking Like A Mexican

BY: ALE BORBOLLA

I believe stews are as old as time, and in Mexican cooking, we have quite a few that warm our hearts and bellies on more than one occasion. Nothing is now how it used to be, and food has evolved into a different context now. Before the Spanish came, cooking was quite distant from what happens in a Mexican kitchen now. There were ceremonial stews like pozole, party stews like sopa de Piedra, funeral stews like (a type of) mole and so on. In most of the cultures I have had a chance of interacting with, there is a common dish: some type of stew or soup that is beautifully traditional and emblematic.

In Mexico, since there are more than 6 culinary regions, we can’t say there’s an absolute winner when it comes to a staple dish. Many dishes have a variation from one state to another, and birria is one of those tricky ones.

I got an email this week from Kimberly asking for a birria recipe, hey Kim! She wrote that she had found several recipes online but none of them seemed to be right, and she had tried birria somewhere in the Baja. My heart sank because as far as I knew, birria is from the state of Jalisco, western Mexico and that meant she had tried someone’s recipe who had taken it farther north and had very specific differences to the one I’ve had. So, I broke open my ’88 Mexican recipe book. And there are two recipes for birria. Sigh. Full disclosure: I did not like birria up until a year ago and refused to eat it anywhere. There was just something about the smell that did not appeal to me, and there are very few things I will not eat.

The magic in this dish lies in its spices, and all of them are equally important for the perfect balance but I find chiles very fascinating. Chiles (Capsicum spp.) have been cultivated in Mexico for centuries and are a vital ingredient in Mexico’s traditional cuisine, recently recognized by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Spicy chiles also have numerous medicinal uses. Graphical representations of chiles have even been used as a national symbol. Evidence for chiles in the diet of indigenous groups in Puebla’s Tehuacán Valley dates back at least as far as 6500BC; by 4100BC, the plant was already domesticated.

There are more than 100 varieties of chiles, grouped into 22 groups of green chiles and 12 of dried chiles. Green chiles by far the most important in volume and value of production and trade. Mexico remains the world’s leading exporter of green chiles and is the sixth-largest exporter of dried chiles.

One thing that blows my mind is how the same chile can be named differently if it’s fresh or dry; for example, jalapeños when dried become chipotles. I bet your mind is blown. And it happens with pretty much every single chile we have.

Birria has 4 different types of chiles and can not be made with fresh chiles, but all chiles in birria can be tamed down by removing the veins and seeds for a milder kick. Birria is a spicy dish, but not picante- it’s not the same. Spicy as in spices and flavor, not picante as in sticking-your-tongue-out-sweating while eating.

Before we start, I’d like to give some tips, pointers or whatever they are called.

-Birria can be made with beef, pork, goat, lamb or even chicken. The one I’ve had is beef or goat, but it can be made with any combination of the above mentioned.

-Birria is often eaten in tacos, not as a stew. If you want “caldo” (liquid) add an extra 6 cups of water to the sauce, starting with four and tasting how thick and rich you’d like it.

-Birria tatemada is when the shredded meat is “toasted” on a skillet with some lard, or charred on a Comal.

Let’s get it started. Kim, hope you like this!

Ingredients:

2 lb. of meat (beef, goat or lamb to preference) can be beef tail or rump roast, beef cheek, round or whatever the equivalent in lamb or goat. Ribs are also recommended.

3 ancho chiles

6 guajillo chiles

5 morita chiles

4 cascabel chiles

2 large tomatoes, roasted

4 garlic cloves

½ teaspoon of cumin

½ teaspoon of whole black pepper

½ teaspoon of marjoram

½ teaspoon of oregano

½ teaspoon of thyme

4 cloves

½ onion, sliced

1 inch of a cinnamon stick

1 cup of pulque (can be substituted by ½ cup of white vinegar)

1 teaspoon of salt

To serve:

1 cup of finely chopped cilantro

1 cup of finely chopped onions

Lime wedges

Procedure:

    •    Season protein with salt and pepper and place in a large bake safe container.

    •    Clean the chiles (open and remove veins and seeds) and lightly toast them over mild heat, making sure you don’t burn them- burnt chiles will result in a bitter taste.

    •    Soak the toasted chiles in a cup of hot water for twenty minutes.

    •    Roast the garlic and onion on a Comal or a skillet with no oil until lightly charred.

    •    Toast the rest of the spices.

    •    In a blender, add the chiles, spices, tomatoes, herbs, cinnamon and vinegar or pulque.

    •    Blend until smooth adding a spoonful of water at a time, only enough to let the blender do its job. Season with salt.

    •    Pour the sauce on the meat, making sure it is completely covered, cover with aluminum foil and let it rest overnight.

    •    Preheat your oven to 350ºF and bake for four hours until tender.

    •    Serve in bowls and distribute broth accordingly, remember to add more water before the last hour if you want this to have more liquid to sip on.

    •    This can also be made in a rice cooker, or an express pot, modifying the cooking times to your best liking.

That’s it! Enjoy! Serve with warm tortillas, let me know what you think ale.borbolla@gringogazette.com