notes from the mexican kitchen

Make Mexican for Memorial Day

TacoTuesdayLogo_blueNo, I’m not expecting you to dig a classic Mexican backyard pit to cook lamb barbacoa for your Memorial Day taco party. (If you
really want to, though, here’s my step-by-step procedure…)

But I can suggest an alternate version, one where a lamb shoulder, wrapped in aromatic leaves and marinated in red chile, roasts in your slow cooker until it’s fall-apart tender. Folded into a tortilla, splashed with salsa and showered with fresh onion and cilantro, these succulent tacos offer a true taste of Mexico.  

Don’t be intimidated by my call for agave leaves (pencas de maguey) here. If you’re near a Mexican grocery store, you’ll typically find them in the meat or vegetable department. (Banana leaves make a decent substitute; you can find those in Mexican and Asian markets.)

Barbacoa de Borrego
Servings: 6


  • For the lamb
  • A12-inch chunk of an agave leaf (penca de maguey) or 1 large banana leaf, optional
  • 2tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder
  • 112-ounce bottle of beer (optional but I love this!)
  • Salt
  • For the marinade
  • 2dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into large pieces
  • 2dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into large pieces
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • 1teaspoon salt
  • 1canned chipotle chile en adobo
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably Mexican canela
  • 1/2 teaspoondried Mexican oregano,
  • For serving
  • Your favorite hot sauce or salsa
  • A little chopped white onion
  • A handful of cilantro leaves


Roast the agave leaf being careful not to touch the exposed flesh of the agave) over an open flame, turning every few minutes until pliable and charred, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness.  (If using a banana leaf, run it briefly over an open flame to soften it.)  Cut into 3 pieces.

In the stovetop-safe insert of your slow cooker or in a very large (12-inch) skillet, heat the oil over medium-high.  Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel, sprinkle generously with salt and lay it in the insert of skillet.  Cook, turning occasionally, until richly brown on all sides, about 10 minutes.  Fit the insert into the machine or transfer the meat to the slow cooker.

Combine all the marinade ingredients in a blender with 2 cups of water and blend to a smooth puree.  Pour through a medium mesh strainer into the slow cooker. Nestle the pieces of agave leaf or banana leaf under and around the meat and pour the beer over the top, if you are using them.  Cover and turn on the slow cooker to high.  Your barbacoa  will be done in about 6 hours, though you can hold it for longer. (My slow-cooker can be programmed to switch from high after 6 hours to a “keep warm” temperature for up to another 6 hours. Some slow cookers click to “keep warm” automatically; others need to be switched manually.)

When you are ready to serve, coarsely shred the lamb and arrange it on a warm platter.  Skim any fat from the sauce that remains in the slow cooker, then taste it.  If you feel it would be better with a more concentrated flavor, pour it into a medium saucepan or remove the insert and set it over high heat.  Boil for a few minutes to reduce that quantity, then taste and season with salt if it needs it. Spoon as much as you like over the lamb or beef.  (I like to sprinkle coarse salt over the meat at this point.)  Serve the barbacoa with the hot sauce or salsa, onion and cilantro.  Grab some tortillas, if you like, and you’re ready to make some delicious tacos.


No slow cooker?


In a large (6- to 8-quart, at least 12 inches in diameter) heavy pot (preferably a Dutch oven), combine the ingredients as described.  Set the cover in place and braise in a 300-degree oven for about 3 hours, adding water occasionally if necessary to ensure the liquid stays at about the same level.  Finish as described.


  1. Any thoughts on where to find fresh agave leaves ? We live in northern Virginia which is just a *tad* removed from the great Southwest. The recipe sounds delicious but my quick google search for the key ingredient came up empty. Would really appreciate your recommendations. Thanks !

    1. We get ours from the butcher section at our local Mexican markets! But if you cannot find those, then banana leaves are easier to find.

  2. Hey Rick!
    I love the Taco Tuesday. Its an upgrade to what you used to send and its great to get something in the week. My love of art from Oaxaca and you/your food keep me alive!
    Great Lamb recipe today and going to make it.

  3. I just tried this, to bring to a party tomorrow. It’s amazing. Right now it’s late at night and i can’t stop thinking about it sitting in the fridge because i want some. But have to wait ’til tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Where can I find the ‘new’Red Chile Adobo’ I keep seeing mentioned lately?
    I really want to get some for a bunch of recipes I have saved that mention it
    I do not remember it from my living in Mexico City– at least the one mentioned in your recipes
    I must say I still feel like I live there cooking your recipes— the flavors and smells when my hisband comes in drive him wild!!!!

  5. This is a delicious yet simple to follow recipe all my family loved it !!!! Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us! Best barbacoa ever.

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