Watching Christina Martinez making barbacoa in her South Philly Barbacoa restaurant (Chef’s Table, Se 5 Eps 1, Netflix) was, for me, the next best thing to being back in Mexico where food celebrates the very heart and soul of the country and its people.
Barbacoa originates from the central plains east of Mexico City where traditionally a lamb or a goat is slowly steamed in a deep pit lined with rocks preheated by a wood fire. The meat is marinated and wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and steamed underground overnight. Cooking a barbacoa in Mexico is all about having a special meal for large family gatherings on weekends and for special holidays and fiestas.
A deeply flavored succulent Barbacoa is built around using a variety of locally grown sun dried chiles, traditional herbs and spices, and a seasoned cook’s attention to the nuances of slow cookery and taste. Most Ingredients can be found in Mexican shops and markets, in some super markets, or online. Once you have your sourcing resolved, you will find yourself making barbacoa on a regular basis. This is the kind of authentic Mexican food everyone loves to eat!
That said, home cooks can replicate a traditional barbacoa with a few adaptations in their own kitchen oven. No pit required.
I would suggest using beef or pork in lieu of lamb or goat unless you and your friends and family are seasoned regional Mexican food enthusiasts. Goat in particular is definitely an acquired taste and best cooked outside.
Making a barbacoa requires both time and effort, but you will will be abundantly rewarded with a truly authentic taste of Mexico. If time is a real issue you may want to speed up the cooking time using a pressure cooker or instant pot. Another tip, barbacoa freezes beautifully so you may want to double or triple the recipe and have barbacoa nearly ready on demand.
Beef Barbacoa serves 6
- 2.2 pounds/ 1 kilo beef brisket or chuck roast (or pork shoulder) cut into 3 equal size pieces, trimming off excess fat and skin
- juice of 1 orange
- juice of 2 limes
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
- ¼ cup cider or white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a non-reactive bowl just large enough to hold the meat. Stir the marinade and add the meat, pressing the meat firmly down into the marinade to cover.
Cover the bowl with cling film and marinate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- 8 dried New Mexico Red or Mexican Guajillo chiles
- 3 dried ancho chiles
- 2 dried smoked chipotle chiles
- 4 large garlic cloves, dry roasted and peeled
- 1 small onion, peeled, chopped
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt or to taste
Heat a skillet over medium heat. When hot place some of the dried chiles in the skillet without crowding. Using a spatula, press the chiles against the bottom of the skillet and toast them for 30 to 45 seconds. Turn the chiles and repeat, remove them, and set aside. This dry toasting intensifies the flavor of the chiles.
When the dry toasted chiles are cool enough to handle remove the stems, slit them open lengthwise, remove all the seeds and discard. Then tear the chiles into pieces and place them in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover and bring the pot to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes and then set aside to cool. Drain the chiles, discard the cooking water, and set the chiles aside.
Using a blender, add the prepared softened dried chiles, sauteed onions, cumin, marjoram, black pepper, clove, sugar, cider vinegar, and salt. Blend all the ingredients together, scraping down the sides of the blender jar as needed, adding water as needed, until the sauce is very smooth. This may take several minutes.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and, using a silicon spatula, press the pureed sauce through the strainer until all the liquid has been extracted. Be sure to scrape off the residual sauce on the underside of the mesh strainer into the sauce. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed.
Transfer the adobo sauce to a container, cover, and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 275 F/ 135 C
- 1 small onion, peeled, quartered and separated
- 4 garlic cloves peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
- 6 bay leaves
- 6 whole cloves
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tomato blanched, skin removed and quartered, core removed
- 2 jalapeno or fresh red chiles, quartered and seeds removed
Select a Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid or a roasting pan. Place a shallow rack in the bottom of the pan of choice.
Remove the meat from the marinade and place it on the rack in the pan and add the marinade. Add just enough water to the pan to raise the level of liquid in the pan to about half way up the side of the meat.
Distribute the onions over the meat and tuck in garlic, bay leaves, and cloves. Season with salt and pepper, and top with tomatoes and jalapeno slices.
Cover the pan with a lid or tightly secured foil and transfer to the oven. Set the timer for 4 hours. Then check to see if there is sufficient liquid in the pan. If not replenish as needed. Repeat this every 2 hour until the beef is very tender and easily separated with a fork. Total cooking time will be between 7 and 9 hours. The longer the cooking time the more tender and flavorful the meat!
Once the meat is fully cooked set it aside covered until you are ready to serve.
Before serving you will want to remove the excess rendered fat gathered on top of the pan juices. Discard the fat or save for another purpose, like frying beans.
Before serving pull the beef apart using and reheat the reserved adobo sauce. The adobo should be the consistency of cream. If needed thin with pan juices. Spoon some adobo sauce over the pulled meat and serve the remaining adobo sauce in a bowl on the tables.
- corn and flour tortillas, warmed in a hot dry skillet (or comal, pictured)
- Salsa fresca
- salsa verde
- quesso fresca or mild feta
Place the Barbacoa in the cooking pan on the table along with corn and flour tortillas. Set out salsa and the quesso fresca for those who want to make barbacoa tacos.
Calabacitas is a traditional native squash dish that has been prepared throughout Central America and the American Southwest since ancient times. Today there are many regional variations, but the essential native ingredients that date back to pre-Columbian times include calabaza (pumpkin or squash), elote (corn), and chilies. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 1400’s cows, sheep, and goats were imported from the old world and calabacitas evolved with the introduction of dairy by-products, including cream (crema) and cheeses.
Interestingly, Mennonite farmers who settled in Chihuahua in the late 1800’s, began producing semi soft cows milk cheeses known as queso Mennonita, which is officially recognized as an authentic Mexican cheese, and often tops calabacitas beautifully to this day.
The recipe that follows reflects various New Mexican and Mexican calabacitas I have encountered while living in Santa Fe and on frequent forays into Mexico over the years. As Mexican cheeses are not generally available outside of Mexico, alternative cheeses include a mild hard or soft goat cheese or fresh or soft mozzarella.
Calabacitas is a beautiful dish to consider for a truly traditional American holiday meal. Or, do as they do in Mexico, a calabacitas con pavo and transform your leftover turkey into a comida a la Mexicana.
Calabacitas: serves 4
- 3 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
- 3 teaspoons butter
- 1 bunch fresh sage leaves, leaves only
- 3 medium size zucchini, ends trimmed, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 3 ears fresh sweet corn, kernels cut off the cob, cob scraped to extract the milk
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 onions, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 3-4 flame roasted jalapeno chilies, skin and seeds removed, cut into thin rajas (strips)
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano leaves
- ¼ cup stock as needed
- 3 ½ oz sour cream
- pinch of cinnamon
- flaked sea salt to taste
- 1/2 cup fresh Mexican cheese (or optional cheeses mentioned above)
- poached chicken or leftover turkey (optional)
Ideally I like to use a cast iron iron skillet for even browning of the vegetables, but a large heavy bottomed frying pan should work equally well.
Place the skillet on the stove top over medium flame. When the pan is hot add a tablespoon of oil and a teaspoon of butter. When melted add the sage leaves and fry until crisp, 30 to 45 seconds should do it. Transfer the fried leaves to a plate and set aside to use later.
Promptly add cubed zucchini to the pan with out crowding. You may have to brown the zucchini in several batches. Turn the zucchini to be sure it browns on all sides, about 5 or 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate to use later. Continue, browning the remaining zucchini and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil and teaspoon butter to the pan and, when hot, add the whole corn kernels. Brown the corn on all sides, again about 5 or 6 minutes. Then transfer to another plate and set aside to use later
Once again, add 1 tablespoon oil and 1 teaspoon butter to the pan. When melted add the onions and saute until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to saute until the onions just begin to color, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile place the milk in a small sauce pan and add the scrapped corn with its milk. Place the pan over low heat and warm to nearly simmering. Stir in the pinch of cinnamon and turn off the heat.
When the onions are nicely colored add the browned zucchini, browned corn, and the roasted jalapeno strips to the skillet. Add the marjoram or oregano, and half of the sage leaves, crumbled over the other ingredients. Stir all the ingredients together and add just enough stock to moisten the calabacitas, about ¼ cup at the most should do it. Heat to a mere simmer, taste, and add sea salt to your liking. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 F/170 c (if using)
Meanwhile stir the sour cream into the warm milk mixture with corn scrapings until well combined,
At this point you can place the skillet of calabacitas over very low heat on the stove top. Stir in the sour cream milk mixture, top with grated cheese if using, cover lightly with foil and warm for several minutes. Then turn off the heat and set aside.
Alternately you can transfer the calabacitas to baking dish, scatter grated cheeses over the surface if using, and place in the preheated oven to warm for about 15 minutes.
You can serve the calabacitas on the stove top in the skillet, or transfer to a serving bowl, top with the remaining fried sage leaves and serve.
Or, serve the calabacitas directly out of the oven garnished with the fried sage leaves.
Chef’s Table Season 5 has arrived on Netflix with four documentary episodes on chefs who celebrate their native cuisines through traditional foods, their origins, their cultural bonds, and a return to sustainable organic farming.
This season of Chef’s Table, as well as all the preceding seasons, should not to be missed by anyone who loves food and cooking.
This is compelling food television at its very best!
Chefs’s Table Trailer ( click here)
Chef’s Table Season 5
Episode 1: Christina Martinez South Philly Barbacoa & El Compadre
Both restaurants are located on South 9th and Ellsworth, South Philadelphia
Episode 2: Musa Dagdeviren CIYA Kebap and CIYA Sofrasi, Istanbul, Turkey
Episode 3: Bo Songvisava Bo Lan, Bangkok, Thailand (www.bolan.co.th)
Soi 24 Sukhumvit 53, Bangkok BTS Thonglor station
Episode 4: Albert Adria Tickets, Enigma, and Pakta, Barcelona, Spain
The episode with Christina Martinez had particular resonance for me as I have an enduring love for Mexico and its cuisine. But also, as a working chef in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure to have worked with dedicated kitchen crews who were all immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Christina’s story is so like millions of others in many ways, but told through her love of her native food and culture. Her determination to make the best of her circumstances as an immigrant and thrive and, by example, giving a face to the mostly invisible immigrants who work behind the scenes in the American food industry.
Of course I am also very familiar with the food culture in South Philadelphia and was delighted to learn that Christina and her husband Ben Miller have been growing native Mexican corn on a farm in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.
Episode 3 also has particular resonance for me as Bo Lan Thai restaurant is here in Thailand. The lush photography, the street food, the markets, and Thai kitchen banter feels particularly familiar of course as this is where I live. Thai food is like none other and is only really understandable when you encounter all the totally unrecognizable produce and spices that are at the heart of real authentic Thai food.
All a real visual feast for anyone who loves food!
This is certainly one of the Yuctan’s most unique contributions to the world of Mexican cuisine. The Mayan version of tortilla soup that includes two unique ingredients from the Yucatan peninsula, citrus limetta (limon dulce) and habanero chilies. Citron Limetta is neither a lemon nor a lime as we know them, but an aromatic mildly tart lemon lime like citrus fruit with a mild tropical aromatic sweetness native to the Yucatan. The habanero chile is considered one of the hottest chilies in the world and the Yucatan’s most important agricultural export. The flavor has a hint of fruitiness as well as a heat delivery that is unrivaled. Alas, both of these ingredients will be hard to find unless you are lucky enough to have a Central American grocer where you live.
But not to worry, the best substitute for citrus limetta is either using Meyer lemons or Florida Key limes. Their juice mixed with a dash of Seville orange juice nearly replicates the flavor of citron limetta. In a pinch, using lemons or limes with a dash of orange juice will be just fine.
Likewise, the best substitute for the habanero chile is replacing it with 3 or 4 small red Thai thin skinned chiles.
Sopa de Lima is uniquely flavored with spices that have been used in the local cuisine dating back to the early Mayan culture. There are versions of Sopa de Lima found throughout Mexico, but once you have tasted the Yucatecan version you will appreciate the subtlety of this refreshing tropical soup that cools you down in the hot and humid climate of the Yucatan or warms you in the middle of winter further north. A visit to this lush tropical peninsula that sits between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea lulls you into slowing down and letting the Mayan cultures of the past as well as the present wash over you. Merida is a beautiful colonial town where you can easily fall into the rhythm of the local’s lifestyle and enjoy some of the most beautiful markets and delicious foods in all of Mexico.
Sopa de Lima serves 4
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, roasted, peeled, and chopped
- roots of 3 cilantro stalks, crushed
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves, lightly toasted
- 8 whole peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves, lightly toasted
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 inch piece cinnamon bark (canella)
- 4 allspice berries
- 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt + more as needed
- 10 cups water plus more if needed
- 1 pound/450g chicken breasts (or turkey breast), skinless and boneless
- 8oz/225g chicken livers (optional)
- 2 teaspoons lard or vegetable oil
- 1 red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 sweet green bell pepper, seeds and membrane removed, thinly sliced into strips and halved
- 1 habanero chile, minced (or 4 small thin skinned Thai red chillies, minced)
- 2 vine ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and diced
- 4 citrus limetta (or alternatives as mentioned above)
- 6 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup finely chopped serrano or jalapeno chilies, including seeds
- 2 ripe Haas avocados, sliced
- a handful of fresh cilantro leaves
To make the broth, place onions, roasted garlic cloves, cilantro roots, marjoram, peppercorns, bay leaves, whole cloves, cinnamon bark, allspice berries, sea salt, and water in a stock pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Then add the chicken breasts (or turkey breast which is a local favorite) and lower the heat to a simmer and poach for 20 to 30 minutes. Timing will depend on the size of the breasts. As soon as the breast are tender remove them from the broth and set aside to cool. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle pull the flesh apart into pieces and set aside.
While the breasts are poaching you can cook the chicken livers. Rinse the livers and place them in a small sauce pan. Ladle in just enough broth from the stock pot to cover the livers and bring to a simmer. Cook about 8 to 10 minutes only. Using a slotted spoon transfer the livers to a bowl and set aside. Pour the broth back into the stock pot. When the livers are cool cut them into a fine dice and set aside.
Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the broth into a large bowl. Discard the solids left in the strainer and return the strained broth to a cleaned stock pot and set it back on the stove over very low heat.
To make the soffrito place the lard or vegetable oil in a skillet placed over medium heat. When hot add the onions, garlic, bell peppers, habanero chile or (Thai chiles), and a pinch of salt. Saute for 8 to 10 minutes or until the vegetables are wilted and very soft without browning.
Meanwhile blanche the tomatoes in boiling water for 45 seconds or until the skin begins to split. Promptly remove the tomatoes and set aside to cool a couple of minutes. Then slip of the skin off and discard. Quarter the tomatoes and remove the seeds and core and discard. Finely dice the tomatoes and place them in a bowl along with juices.
Then stir the diced tomatoes into the soffrito and cook a couple more minutes. Then transfer the mixture to the broth in the stock pot and bring back to to a simmer. Continue simmering the soup for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Meanwhile juice 2 of the citrus limetta and thinly slice the 2 remaining and set aside.
In a small saucepan heat the vegetable oil for frying the tortilla strips. When the oil is hot add the strips a fry until golden, about 45 seconds. Set the fried tortilla strips on paper towels and set aside.
When you are nearly ready to serve add the pulled chicken and the chicken livers (if using) to the simmering soup and cook another couple of minutes.
Best to serve the soup in individual bowls as pictured above. Have all of the finishing condiments ready and within reach.
Just before serving add the citrus limetta juice to the soup and stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Ladle portions of the hot soup into each bowl and tuck several slices of citrus limetta into the soup. Put the remaining sliced limetta in a small bowl to serve along with the soup at the table.
Place 3 slices of fresh avocado over each serving and top with tortilla strips. Scatter some serrano or jalapeno chilies and fresh cilantro leaves over each serving and serve promptly! Serve with the remaining serrano or jalapeno chilies in a bowl on the table.
Buen provecho y feliz cinco de Mayo!