To watch the unearthing of Yucatecan cochinita pibil is like watching a rustic sort of magic happen before you.
The once-green banana leaves, now brittle from hours spent under the earth in rock-lined pits called pibes, are moved aside to reveal a steamy, aromatic treasure — little pigs marinated in brick-red achiote seasoning and sour orange juice.
That tender meat gets shredded and folded into palm-sized warm tortillas, then garnished with pickled red onion and spine-tingling habanero salsa.
It is one of the best tacos on the planet.
Now, even though I’ve been known to really get into pit cooking — as evidenced by the pit I have in my backyard (and the occasional burn marks on my arm) — this cochinita pibil recipe is adapted for the backyard grill.
I’m using a ceramic kamado cooker here, but the same low-and-slow principles apply if you’re using a charcoal or a charcoal or gas grill.
Place the half package of achiote seasoning in a small bowl, pour in ½ cup of the lime juice and 2 teaspoons salt, then use the back of a spoon to work the two together into a smooth, thickish marinade.
Marinating the meat. In a large bowl or large plastic food bag combine meat and marinade, turning the meat to coat it evenly. (Though achiote has tenacious coloring properties, I suggest you do this quickly with your hands.) For the greatest penetration of flavor, let the meat marinate refrigerated (covered if in a bowl) for several hours, or even overnight.
Slow-grilling the pork. Heat a gas grill to medium-low (approximately 300 degrees) or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. If using a kamado cooker, bring the temperature to a steady 300 degrees. Using scissors, cut off the hard edge you’ll find on most banana leaves (where the leaf attached to the central rib). Cut 3 sections of banana leaf, each about 1 foot longer than the length of a large roasting pan. Line the bottom and sides of the roasting pan with the leaves, overlapping them generously and letting them hang over the edges of the pan. Lay the meat in the pan, drizzle with all the marinade. Fold in the banana leaf edges over the meat. Cut 3 more sections of banana leaf slightly longer than the pan. Lay them over the top of the meat, again generously overlapping; tuck them in around the sides. Pour 4 cups of water into the pan. When the grill is ready, either turn the burner(s) in the center to medium-low or bank the coals of the grill for indirect cooking.
For the charcoal grill, set the grill grate in place. Set the pan on the grill grate and close the grill cover. On a kamado cooker, place the pan on the grill grate (or even directly atop the ceramic plate setter.) Grill until the meat is thoroughly tender and reaches about 205 degrees, usually about 4-5 hours. If your grill has a thermometer, aim to keep the temperature at 300 degrees. To maintain an even temperature with charcoal, add more charcoal regularly (usually a few pieces every half hour or so).
Simple pickled onions. While the meat is cooking, prepare the onions. Scoop the onions into a non-aluminum bowl. Pour boiling water over them, wait 10 seconds, then pour the onions into a strainer. Return the drained onions to the bowl, pour on the remaining ¼ cup lime juice and stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cover and set aside until serving time.
Serving. Remove the top banana leaves. Tip the pan to accumulate the juices in one end and spoon off the fat. Season with more salt if necessary.You may want to remove the bones and cut the large pieces of meat into manageable serving sizes, but I suggest you leave everything right in the roasting pan for serving. Set out your cochinita pibil with a large fork and spoon (for spooning up all those juices). Drain the red onions and set out in a serving bowl to top each portion, along with the salsa to cautiously dab on each portion.
Working Ahead: If you’re the plan-ahead type, make the marinade on Day 1, reblend it and marinate the meat on Day 2 and then slow-roast the meat for serving on Day 3. The marinade will hold for a week or more in the refrigerator. Once the pork is marinated, cook it within 24 hours. The finished dish will keep for a couple of days, covered and refrigerated (meat and juice only—no banana leaves), though the texture of the meat won’t be quite as nice as fresh-from-the-oven. Warm refrigerated cooked meat slowly (a 300 degree oven) in the juice, covered. Pickled onions will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator, well covered.
Variation: The pork can be baked in a 325 degree oven instead of on the grill; cover the meat rather loosely with foil before baking.
OK, this week’s Taco Tuesday takes me back to my time as a student living in Mexico City, where this mixture of tatume squash and roasted poblano in a tomato-crema sauce quickly became my go-to order at the taqueíra down the street.
Nostalgia aside, it’s still one of my favorite tacos of all time.
It all starts with the flavoring base, a simply satisfying tomato-onion-garlic mixture that serves as the foundation for the roasted chiles, corn and herbs. A big dollop of Mexican crema lends the mixture an irresistible richness. (If you stir it in al the very last moment, Greek yogurt can stand in for the crema.)
These are downright perfect as a vegetable option for dinner, but if your crowd is more carnivorous, these will be super good with the addition of small pieces of pork tenderloin (simmered along with the with the squash), shredded rotisserie chicken or, of course, some crispy fried bacon.
1. Preparing the flavoring base. Measure the oil into a large (12-inch) skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until richly browned, about 8 minutes. While the onion is cooking, coarsely puree the tomatoes in a food processor or blender. Add the garlic to the browned onion, cook 1 minute, stirring, then add the tomatoes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. (Cover the skillet if you think it’s reducing and thickening too fast.) Remove from the heat.
2. Roasting the chiles. Roast the poblanos directly over a gas flame or on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler, turning regularly until the skin has blistered and blackened on all sides, about 5 minutes for open flame, about 10 minutes for broiler. Cover with a kitchen towel and let stand 5 minutes. Rub off the blackened skin, then pull out the stem and seed pod. Rinse briefly to remove stray seeds and bits of skin. Slice into 1/2-inch strips.
3. Finishing the dish. Uncover the skillet and raise the heat to medium-high. Stir in the poblanos, corn, zucchini, epazote (or cilantro) and the crema (or one of its stand-ins). Cook, stirring frequently, until the zucchini is crisp-tender and the liquid has thickened enough to coat the vegetables nicely, about 8 minutes. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon. Serve in a decorative bowl, sprinkle with the crumbled cheese and pass the hot tortillas separately for do-it-yourself tacos.
It has come to my attention over the years that a good number of people think my mellow enthusiasm for stuff I taste or cook is a result of—I’ll just say it—a little weed. While those that know me find that a little hilarious, the truth is I never touch the stuff. Well, certainly not recently (remember, I came of age in the ‘60s). Besides, I’m a mezcal man.
Nevertheless I find the presumed connection between me and a little weed just hilarious enough to do a 420 edition of Taco Tuesday dedicated to some tacos worthy of late-night munchies.
First, we start with bacon. (I mean, obvious, right?)
Then, we’ll caramelize some onions in all of that beautiful bacon fat, which is then used to fry a big mess of diced potatoes. And since these tacos wouldn’t be complete without some gooey melted cheese, we’ll add just enough to blend with all that delicious crispy bacon and onion caramelized in bacon fat. (I’ll bet you’re thinking about a one-hitter, aren’t you?)
Oh, and there’s some healthy splashes of Mexican hot sauce. And a handful of crumbled chicharrón (hey, potato chips could work here, too) for some crunchy, salty goodness.
Ok, maybe not everyone who partakes craves indulgent eats, but trust me, you’re going to want to make these — “enhanced” state of consciousness or not.
In a large (10-inch) skillet set over medium heat, cook the bacon and onions, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is crispy and the onions are golden, about 10 minutes.
Scoop the potatoes into a microwave-safe bowl and splash with a few tablespoons of water. Cover with plastic wrap, poke a few holes in the top and microwave at 100% for 3 minutes, until mostly cooked. Tip out the water and add the potatoes to the pan, raise the heat to medium-high until the potatoes begin to crisp, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle the skillet with cheese and hot sauce.
Scoop the mixture into warm tortillas and top with chicharrón and more hot sauce.
This being Taco Tuesday, I’m taking one of the most classic preparations of the Mexican kitchen—huevos a la Mexicana—and folding it into warm corn tortillas for the most delicious speedy tacos I know how to make.
All these tacos require are a hot pan, melted fat, whisked eggs and the a la Mexicana part—that’s tomatoes, green chiles and onion. And, of course, some tortillas. (See? Simple.) The garnish of avocado and cilantro are optional, but are always a good call if you have them on hand.
So is this breakfast? Lunch? Dinner?
To tell the truth, I’ve eaten huevos a la Mexicana at all hours of the day, and you will too after learning the basics of this Mexican staple.
1. The flavorings. Melt the lard or other fat in a medium-size skillet set over medium heat. For a milder dish, seed the chiles then chop them finely and add to the skillet, along with the onion and tomato. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened but is not brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
2. The eggs. Beat the eggs with the salt, just enough to combine the whites and yolks. Add them to the skillet and scramble until they are as sone as you like. Taste for salt, then scoop them into a warm dish and serve right away.
These grilled mushroom tacos are an unexpectedly delicious diversion from meat-centric, over-the-top fiesta food that typically arrives with summer barbecue season.) I’m thinking about the ribs and twice baked potatoes I’m making in a couple of weeks …)
Marinating the mushrooms: In a food processor or blender, combine 1/3 of the onion, the garlic, 3 tablespoons of the lime juice, the cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Process to a smooth puree. Lay out the mushroom caps in a nonaluminum baking dish. Using a spoon, smear the marinade over both sides of each mushroom cap. Cover and let stand for 1 hour.
Preparing the salsa: Heat a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. Either turn the burner(s) in the center of the grill to medium-low or bank the coals to the sides of the grill for indirect cooking. Set the cooking grate in place, cover the grill and let the grate heat up, 5 minutes or so.
Brush or spray the remaining onion slices with oil and lay in a single layer in the center (the least hot part) of the grill, along with the tomatoes. Set the chiles over the hottest part. Roast, turning everything occasionally, until the chiles' skin (but not the flesh) is blistered and uniformly blackened all over, about 5 minutes, and the onion and tomatoes are softened and browned in spots, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on their size and the heat. When the chiles are done, remove them and cover with a kitchen towel. Set the tomatoes aside on a plate. Finely chop the onion and scoop it into a bowl.
When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, pull off their skins. Use a mortar to crush them, or place them in a food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely pureed. Add to the chopped onion.
Rub the blackened skin off the chiles, then pull out the stems and seed pods. Rinse briefly to remove any stray seeds and bits of skin. Chop into small bits and stir half into the tomato-onion mixture along with the remaining 1 tablespoon, lime juice and the cilantro. Taste, season with salt, usually about 3/4 teaspoon, and then scoop into a serving bowl.
Grilling the mushrooms: Remove the mushrooms from the marinade, spray or brush them with oil and lay gill side up over the hot part of the grill. Cook until browned in spots, about 5 minutes, then flip and move to the center of the grill - the cooler part - and continue grilling until they feel a little limp but still have some body, about 10 minutes more.
Serving the tacos: Cut the mushrooms into 1/4-inch strips. Scoop into a warm serving dish and mix with the remaining chopped poblanos. Season with salt, usually about 1/4 teaspoon. Set the mushrooms on the table along with the salsa and hot tortillas - everything you need for making wonderful soft tacos.
Working ahead: The mushroom caps can remain in their marinade for as long as 24 hours, covered in the refrigerator. The salsa will keep nicely (covered and refrigerated) for a day or so. The mushrooms are best cooked shortly before serving.