Tacos al Pastor

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It all started when I was watching Wes Avila on The Chef Show, making tacos al pastor. If you haven’t heard of my fascination with this show, I highly recommend it. I’ve mentioned in it my spicy pork post – a Roy Choi recipe. He and Jon Favreau host The Chef Show, and in each episode they visit with a chef or someone who loves food and cooking. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the show, which is maybe why I like it. You’re basically a fly on the wall!

Wes Avila, author of Guerilla Tacos, from which I made Chile Colorado, discusses in his episode when the hosts visit him at his restaurant of the same name, how tacos al pastor developed from the influx of Lebanese into Mexico. If you’ve ever had donor kebab, you’ll know that the process of stacking the meat on vertical spits, grilling, and then slicing it off and laying in flatbread or tortillas is the same. The name of the conical shape of the meat is called a trompo.

Below left is a trompo that rotates and cooks vertically in a commercial grill. Notice the pineapple on top! Sometimes the meat is only seasoned with paprika; I’ve figured out that trompo refers to the cone shape rather than a specific recipe. Below right is a vertical skewer I found on Amazon, also known as a Brazilian Gojo barbecue skewer.

When commercially grilled, donor kabob meat is thinly sliced in a vertical direction, but the spit continues to rotate so the meat continues to crisp up on the outside. This is an important aspect to tacos al pastor as well.

Since I’m making the meat in our outdoor charcoal grill, I’m not able to do this as with a commercial rotating grill. However, the meat can be sliced off, and then crisped up later in a little lard on a griddle or plancha before serving. We also made sure to rotate the vertical grill. The following photo is from the Serious Eats recipe page.

Oddly enough, even though Chef Avila makes tacos al pastor in the show, and his cookbook is all taco recipes, there is no recipe for tacos al pastor in his book, so I found one online at Serious Eats by J. Kenji López-Alt. There seem to be many options possible, but I stuck to this recipe because it seemed to contain the most common ingredients.

Tacos al pastor are really a process. Ideally you need 2-3 days to make them. First there is a marination step, then the cooking, then an important chilling step. In his recipe which follows, J. Kenji López-Alt uses a loaf pan to create the compressed and cohesive pork mixture, instead of a vertical grill. This is certainly a reasonable back-up plan, but I just had to try out my spit!

In my photos, you can see the slices of layered pork, solidified together, yet still tender. It’s critical that the pork doesn’t become pulled pork; that’s a very different texture. I could have pulled apart the pork layers, but as an ex-geologist, I like seeing layers!!!

Tacos  Al  Pastor
by J. Kenji López-Alt, updated Jul. 11, 2021
for Serious Eats

For the Pork:
2 whole ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
2 whole pasilla or guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
1/2 cup homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon dried ground cumin seed
1 tablespoon achiote powder or paste
1 chipotle chile packed in adobo sauce, plus 2 teaspoons sauce
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar (I used rice vinegar)
3 whole cloves garlic
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 pounds boneless blade-end loin or sirloin pork roast (I used 3 pounds pork shoulder, thinly sliced)
8 ounces (1/2 pound) sliced bacon (I used 1 1/2 pounds pork belly, sliced)

To Finish and Serve:
1 small pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into quarters lengthwise
32 to 48 corn tortillas, heated and kept warm
1 medium white onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup finely minced fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 cup basic salsa verde or your favorite salsa (I served a tomato salsa)
3 to 4 limes, cut into 8 wedges each for serving

Place chiles in a large saucepan over medium high heat and cook, turning chiles occasionally, until puffed, pliable, lightly browned in spots, and very aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add chicken stock (it should boil immediately), then pour contents of pan into a small bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.

Wipe out saucepan, add oil, and return to medium-high heat until oil is shimmering. Add cumin, oregano, and achiote and cook, stirring frequently, until aromatic but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add chipotle chiles and sauce and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds longer. Add vinegar, salt, and sugar and remove from heat.

Scrape contents of saucepan into a blender along with garlic and chiles with their soaking liquid. Blend on high speed until completely smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down sides as necessary. Set sauce aside to cool slightly.

Add marinade to bowl of pork and pork belly slices, and toss with hands until every piece of meat is evenly coated in marinade.

If you’re making the loaf: Line the bottom of a disposable aluminum loaf pan with bacon. Add a layer of thin-sliced marinated meat. Continue layering in bacon and meat until all the meat is used up. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 36.

I used the vertical Gojo, so I began laying slices of pork on the base and working upwards. Top with a pineapple chunk or slice.

To cook outdoors: Light half a chimney of charcoal and allow to preheat until coals are mostly covered in gray ash. Spread out under one half of coal grate, and place cooking grate on top. Alternatively, set one set of burners on a gas grill to low and leave the remaining burners off. Unwrap aluminum loaf pan and place directly over cooler side of grill, placing a drip pan underneath if desired. Cover grill and cook until loaf registers 180 to 190°F in the center, about 4 hours, adding more coals to grill or adjusting burners as necessary to maintain an air temperature of around 275°F for the duration of cooking. Remove from grill, allow to cool slightly, cover with aluminum foil, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

What I have learned from this recipe, is that the marinated pork slices cook low and slow for the perfect texture, with an ending temperature of 180 – 190 degrees. That is why a digital meat thermometer is necessary for this type of cooking.

For tacos al pastor, the meat has to cook beyond an internal temperature of 170 degrees, because that is when the connective tissue of the pork breaks down and the meat coagulates, basically forming a cone-shaped loaf. Also important is that the ambient temperature in the grill doesn’t go over 300 degrees, and in fact, when cooked in an oven, the oven setting is 275 degrees.

For the 4 1/2 pounds of meat, it took exactly 5 hours of cooking, using a whole 25-pound bag of charcoal briquettes. My pork browned a lot on the outside, even though we followed the cooking directions, but it was still tasty, tender, and not burnt.

I roasted chunks of fresh pineapple tossed in a little olive oil with cumin and salt until there was some caramelization.

For my crema, I blended 16 ounces sour cream with one ripe avocado, 2 tablespoons pineapple juice, 1 tablespoon of lime juice, a little oregano and a little salt.

I also toasted the tortillas directly on my stove for more flavor and color.

These taco and all of the accompanying goodies are perfect for company!

My only regret is that I didn’t make more marinade, which is dumb because I used 2 more pounds of meat than directed in this recipe.

There is so much to making tacos al pastor, I’ve discovered, that I encourage you to check out the Serious Eats recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt. There are so many important details regarding slicing the pork, cooking it, and more, that I couldn’t add to this post.

Tongue, as a Cold Cut

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Let’s face it, they’re not pretty. They look like huge, well, tongues. So just don’t think about it being a tongue. Think of it as a culinary delicacy. Tongue is soft, tender, and lean, with a unique texture.

With very little work, you can turn this piece of cow into a fabulous “cold cut” for hors d’oeuvres. All you need to do is poach the tongue, just like you were poaching a chicken.

Not intended to offend anyone, but this is a tongue!

Beef Tongue

1 beef tongue, about 3 1/2 pounds, at room temperature
1 onion, quartered
3-4 stalks celery, quartered
10 baby carrots
1 leek, cleaned, quartered
1 bunch parsley
5 bay leaves
1 head of cloves, sliced horizontally
Handful of whole black pepper corns
2 teaspoons salt

Place all of the ingredients in a large pot. Add enough water to cover everything. Bring it all to a boil on the stove, then simmer, covered, for about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

You could heat the broth ingredients first, and then add the tongue, but this way works well, and you do end up with a great meat plus a good broth. After cooking, remove the lid and let the mixture cool a bit, then remove the tongue and set on a plate to cool completely.

Remove the fatty chunk at the base of the tongue, but don’t discard it. Peel the tongue – especially the top part of it where you can see the taste buds. It doesn’t all work with the pinch and pull method; a paring knife comes in handy.

Slice the peeled tongue crosswise into 1/4 to 3/8″ slices. Tongue is good at room temperature, or cold. I love it with Dijon mustard and good bread.

The slices are wonderful as part of an charcuterie platter, along with cheeses, olives, and cornichons.

If you don’t want the tongue as a cold cut, sear the slices instead in hot skillet with a teaspoon of olive oil. Add salt and pepper after turning. I sliced up that piece I cut off the tongue to make these non-uniform strips to sear.

I like to put these in flour tortillas and eat with onions and cilantro, and you can make a more involved filling like Rick Bayless’s creamy zucchini and corn. Or, serve the hot seared tongue with crispy potatoes and a couple over easy eggs.

Tongue is also good with pigs’ feet, but that’s another post!

Make sure to use this wonderful broth in another recipe! I added potatoes and leeks for a quicky soup!

Guiso de Carne

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At our favorite Mexican restaurant in town, I typically order one of two favorite items. One is shrimp Saltado, and the other is guiso de carne This is what is looks like at the restaurant.

It’s tender beef in a rich red sauce – not spicy, but very flavorful, served with rice, beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream.

Recently I decided to make guiso de carne at home, and I immediately had challenges. The first was that this didn’t exist in any of my Mexican cookbooks, and then online, the name guiso de carne was most often changed to carne guisado. I tried to figure out the difference, but hit a dead end.

Carne Guisado is beef braised in a seasoned red sauce, and at this point I’m thinking its a Tex-Mex creation.

So I created my own recipe, and is it exactly like what I love at the restaurant? I’d have to do a side-by-side taste test. But it’s really good.

Guiso de Carne

2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Grapeseed or canola oil, divided
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 guajillo chile peppers, stemmed, seeded
8 ounces hot chicken broth
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground ancho chile pepper
8 ounces tomato sauce

Place the cut up beef in a large bowl. Add the salt, pepper, cumin and coriander and toss so that all the beef is seasoned.

Starting with 1 tablespoon of oil in a large Dutch oven, brown the meat in batches over high heat, without crowding, then place in another bowl. Continue with remaining beef.

Reduce the heat and add a little more oil if necessary, and sauté the onion; don’t caramelized much.

Meanwhile, place the hot chicken broth in a small blender jar with the guajillo peppers, broken up slightly, the chipotle peppers, the oregano, and ground ancho chile. Let sit for about 5 minutes before blending until smooth.

Add the tomato sauce and blend again; set aside.

Once the onions are sautéed, stir in the minced garlic for barely a minute, then pour in the tomato sauce mixture.

Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the beef and its juices to the sauce, give everything a stir, and simmer on low for 1 hour.

Check halfway through cooking – add some more broth if necessary. Make sure to give the meat a stir to make sure there is no sticking.

Serve the guiso de carne on a plate with your desired side dishes and toppings.

Rice and beans are great accompaniments, as are flour tortillas.

If you prefer eating guiso de carne in tortillas, like tacos, it’s best to make sure the pieces of chuck aren’t bigger than 1/2″.

Calabacitas y Elote con Rajas y Crema

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This beautiful recipe name translates to “creamy zucchini, corn, and roasted poblanos, and I happened upon it on The Splendid Table website. If you’re not familiar with The Splendid Table, it was originally a food program on National Public Radio, hosted by the splendid Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

Her voice is like sweet nectar, if nectar could talk. You can listen to her here, on You Tube, discussing her years hosting The Splendid Table.

Ms. Kasper retired after 20 years, but The Splendid Table has expanded and now offers podcasts, recipes, interviews, and more. If you want to hear The Splendid Table, check out American Public Media to find the schedule.

The new host is a young man named Francis Lam, who “leads listeners on a journey of the senses and hosts discussions with a variety of writers and personalities who share their passion for the culinary delights.” He’s the one interviewing Ms. Kasper in the you tube video.

This perfect late summer recipe, is a Rick Bayless recipe, from his cookbook More Mexican Everyday, published in 2015, which is one of the few I don’t own. It’s a mixture of zucchini, corn, and roasted chile peppers in cream, used as a taco filling!

This is the photo from the website. The taco filling looks way more crema’d than mine, and I actually followed the recipe. So if you want the filling creamier, add more crema.

Ms. Kasper interviewed Rick Bayless and this is the recipe he describes on air. I’ve adjusted the recipe to read as a recipe, not a story!

Creamy Zucchini, Corn, and Roasted Poblanos Taco Filling
Calabacitas y Elote con Rajas y Crema
printable recipe below

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 zucchini, about 1 pound total, cut into cubes a little smaller than 1/2″
1 cup fresh corn kernels
2 cups poblano rajas (recipe below)
2 tablespoons Mexican crema
1 sprig epazote or 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup crumbled Mexican queso

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When really hot, add the zucchini, stirring and turning the pieces frequently, until they are richly browned all over.

Add the corn and let them brown, for about 2 minutes. I actually browned the corn separately the night before after I cooked corn on the cobs.

Scrape in the 2 cups of rajas, along with the epazote or cilantro (cilantro in my case).

Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, and add the crema. Taste for salt.

Scrape it into a serving bowl and sprinkled with crumbled queso.

I chose Cotija for my cheese but after-the-fact felt it was too salty.

The great thing about this recipe is that once you’ve made it the first time, you will be able to make it in your sleep. It’s so easy, and the ratios aren’t critical.

A little bit more corn? More crema? It all works.

I did add about 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin, however, and liked the addition.

Roasted Poblano Cream
Crema Poblana

4 medium fresh poblano chile peppers, about 1 pound
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large white onion, sliced 1/4″ thick
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 cup Mexican crema
1/2 teaspoon salt

Roast the poblano chiles directly over high heat, turning frequently. The skin of the chiles should blister and blacken.

Place them in a covered bowl or, what I use, which is a paper bag rolled up so that the peppers can steam cook and the peels loosen. After about 15 minutes, take them out and remove the charred skins and the seeds. Briefly rinse the peppers, then slice them into 1/4″ strips.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a very large skillet. When hot, add the white onion and cook until the onion is richly browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and oregano.

After a minute, stir in the chile strips and crema.

Continue stirring until the cream has thickened enough to coat the chiles. Season with salt.

Combine the zucchini with the poblano crema, then use as a filling for medium-sized flour tortillas.

Mr. Bayless suggests that the poblano cream sauce is also good with grilled meat, steak, pork chops, broiled fish, chiken or fish tacos. Obviously it goes with everything!

 

 

 

 

 

Smoked Salmon Quesadillas

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Back when I catered, I once created a quesadilla bar for a smallish party. It was a lot of work, with two skillets going, but the guests enjoyed choosing their custom ingredients and their ooey gooey appetizers.

If my memory serves, I had chicken, beef, and shrimp, peppers and onions, tomatoes and mangos, good cheeses, plus cilantro. There are just so many options with quesadillas.

On this blog I’ve posted on what I’d call traditional, southwestern-style quesadillas, which I’ve made a lot over the years, especially when my kids were home. I love serving them with both red and green salsas.

With flour tortillas that get extra crispy in butter, and all of the cheesy goodness inside, you hardly need anything else. But I do. And smoked salmon quesadillas are a perfect example of going beyond the traditional quesadilla.

Smoked Salmon Quesadillas
Makes 3 – 8″ quesadillas

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces soft goat cheese like chèvre, at room temperature
1 generous tablespoon chopped chives
1 generous tablespoon finely chopped parsley
2 teaspoons olive oil or butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
6 – 8” flour tortillas
12 ounces grated mozzarella
6 ounces high quality smoked salmon
Butter, about 3 generous tablespoons

Mix together the cream cheese and goat cheese along with the chives and parsley until smooth. Don’t overstir.

In a 12” skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté them for about 5 minutes. Remove the cooked shallots to a small bowl, and keep the skillet on the stove. Get out a lid that works with the skillet as well as a large metal spatula.

Set out a large cutting board for cutting the quesadillas, and a serving platter.

Spread the soft cheese on all 6 tortillas.

Then add the slices of smoked salmon to 3 “bottom” tortillas, and top the salmon with 1/3 of the cooked shallots on each of the 3 tortillas.

When ready to start cooking, have all of the tortillas, tops and bottoms, the grated mozzarella, and butter on hand. It’s best to be fully prepared.

Heat the skillet over medium-high heat and add the butter; some browning is good. Carefully place the bottom tortilla in the skillet, tortilla side down, then immediately add a generous amount of grated cheese, about 4 ounces per quesadilla, followed by the top tortilla (that only has the soft cheese spread on it.) Press gently on the quesadilla.

If the tortilla has crisped up golden on the bottom, carefully turn over the quesadilla using a heavy spatula. Press down on it with the spatula, then cover the skillet, turn down the heat and put on the lid.

The heat is lowered to allow the cheeses to melt thoroughly and the quesadilla to heat through.
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Carefully place the quesadilla to the cutting board. Add more butter to the skillet, turn up the heat, and repeat with the remaining 2 quesadillas.

Let the quesadillas rest for at least five minutes before cutting up like a pizza, using a long knife or pizza cutter, then layer onto a serving platter.

Cover with a clean towel to keep them warm, but keep it loose. You want to retain the crispiness of the tortillas, which is why it’s best to work fast.

As an appetizer, these will serve quite a few people; they’re quite rich.

Keep in mind that these alone are fabulous with a rosé or Prosecco, or better yet, a sparkling rosé!

And if you prefer, use raw shallots instead of sautéed. Even capers can be used in the quesadillas.

You can play with my version of these quesadillas, but I highly suggest you stick to my cheeses because they’re mild. You want to taste the luscious smoked salmon in these.