Oaxacan cooking

Crash course in Mexican cooking: lamb barbacoa tacos

Here's a project to attempt if you're in the mood for a major cooking endeavor. It involves some advance planning – scouting ingredients, a day or so of advance prep, a long, slow roast (three hours) and an hour letting the meat rest. You'll make a serious salsa, for which you'll roast dried chiles, spiked with mezcal, and create adobo, the brilliant paste that serves as a marinade for the lamb. You'll learn how to simulate pit-roasting in your oven. You'll make handmade corn tortillas. 

A lot of work – and time – to be sure. But it's really fun (if you're the type of person who loves to spend quality time in the kitchen), and when you're done, if you're not already adept at Mexican cooking techniques, when the project is done, you will be. 

And you will have something incredibly delicious to show for it. Invite your more gastronomically inclined friends, people who will truly appreciate it. It's the moment to break out that bottle of great mezcal you're been hoarding.

Lamb barbacoa – pit-roasted lamb – is a specialty of Oaxaca. I had a wonderful rendition recently in Mexico City, at El Cardenal in the historic district. So when I found a version in Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman's new cookbook Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, I had to try it. Even if it meant chasing down ingredients in no less than four stores, two of them huge Mexican supermarkets. 

The most challenging was probably dried avocado leaves, which I found at one of the Mexican supermarkets (La Michoacana Meat Market in Richardson, Texas). I'm glad I bought three times the amount I needed, so I won't go through that next time. 

The two other challenges were fresh banana leaves, which I found easily at a Fiesta supermarket, and a boneless lamb shoulder. My local Whole Foods didn't have any kind of lamb shoulder; so I called Central Market (another well-stocked Dallas area supermarket) and the butcher was happy to bone one for me. I couldn't help but wonder, after making the dish, why it called for boneless. Maybe because it only called for two pounds? Still, my Dutch oven could have accommodated a larger piece of meat, and I would have been thrilled to have more barbacoa, so I think next time I'll try using a bone-in shoulder – or a piece of one.

So here's how the thing goes. The day before you're going to serve the tacos, make adobo. It's included in the main recipe. Five and a half hours or so before you want to make the tacos, take the lamb shoulder out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature. Coat the roast in the adobo (very messy!).

Line a Dutch oven with banana leaves (this is explained more precisely in the recipe), then add a layer of avocado leaves:

Place the adobo-coated lamb shoulder on top . . . 

Cover it with more avocado leaves, then fold the ends of the banana leaves over it all and tuck them in.

Pour in a cup of water, cover the Dutch oven, and roast it slowly for three hours. After letting it rest at room temperature for an hour, unwrap the lamb, discard the banana and avocado leaves, skim the fat off the sauce and strain it, clean the Dutch oven, shred the meat and add it to the sauce. 

This is the moment when you know it was all worth it! The complex flavors go very deep. It's delicious.

Up for it? Here's the recipe:

You can eat the lamb barbacoa wrapped in freshly made corn tortillas, maybe dressed with guacamole (that's how I had it in Mexico City). Or you can go all the way and make Alex Stupak's lamb barbaco tacos. If you do that, you'll want to make salsa borracha sometime during the roasting process, or the day before. This is the part where you get to toast dried chiles and reconstitute them, grinding them up with other ingredients.

Aquí lo tiene:

You'll also need to prep the other stuff that goes in the tacos with the lamb: mince some white onion, chop green olives, slice some limes and cucumbers. 

Here's what you have to look forward to:

Awesome, right? Here's the recipe:

Let us know, in a comment, how it all goes!