It’s no secret that we’ve spent the last couple of years in the Southwest. I may not have known much about authentic Mexican food before I lived there (upstate New York not exactly being what you’d call famous for the cuisine), but being immersed in the local culture was quite an experience. I learned a bit about real Mexican food there, including the interesting fact that it’s not really a homogeneous cuisine at all. Think about it- Mexico is pretty darn big, not to mention diverse. There’s desert, mountains and rainforest, many different indigenous ethnic groups, immigrants (particularly from South America) as well as the obvious Spanish influence. And I’m just getting started!
With that sort of introduction, you’d expect me to have a well-researched, authentic recipe, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. I was there long enough to realize that ‘Mexican’ food is way more complex than I thought and to have come across some relatively more common techniques and flavors, but I’m still nowhere near an expert on the subject. What I am, however, is a small-town Northeasterner who doesn’t mind inauthentic cuisines. Quite frankly I only care about how it tastes- and I am very, very fond of this recipe. The smoothest, thickest, most umami-laden liquid tenderly caresses tender, juicy strands of shredded meat. Gooey cheese melts over the still hot richly flavored filling. Gentle curls of steam rise into a halo of delightfully enticing aromas…
Gosh darn it. I was just trying to prove I still have the skill to sell my ideas but I made myself really hungry. Now I need a snack! Excuse me for a moment….
That’s better. So, without further ado, this is my made-up taco recipe that may be inspired by real Mexican cookery but in reality has no more authenticity than a Halloween pirate costume (for a seasonally appropriate reference):
5 lbs. bone-in pork shoulder or chicken legs
1/4 C. cider vinegar and 3 Tbs. ground red chiles OR 1/3 C. Flavorful vinegar-based hot sauce (such as Frank’s; I’ve been using Louisiana Crystal because it tastes similar and costs half as much)
12-16 oz diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
1 large onion or 2 small ones
1 Tbl. granulated garlic or an entire bulb of fresh garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 lb. fresh green chiles (you can roast them for exceptional flavor)
2 green bell peppers
Building supplies (try not to buy them from the hardware store):
tortillas; we like corn for flavor
cheese! I’m using an aged sharp cheddar, but Colby Jack works well and you could even use a proper Mexican cheese (gasp!)
The filling will take a while. This is not the quickie throw-it-together-fast-dinner-has-to-be-on-the-table-in-half-an-hour sort of thing my Mom used to make with ground venison. You will have to carefully tend the pot for hours, shred meat (while trying not to scorch your fingers) and stir constantly towards the end of the cooking process. Consider yourself warned!
The most important detail is that it calls for bone-in meat. The rest of the ingredients are super simple- the slow cooked gelatin-rich meat flavor one gets with bone-in cuts is what makes this recipe special. I’ve made these tacos with both pork and chicken; I think they’re equally as good. If you do use chicken try to find the biggest, gnarliest chicken you can. I buy ten-pound sacks of very large, tough chicken legs for $0.68/ lb. They are ideal for this recipe. The older and tougher the meat the better, because don’t worry, you’ll be cooking this for plenty of time to ensure tenderness. You may be cooking this for long enough you start to feel yourself becoming older and tougher, but I think it’s worth it.
Still interested? Does the lure of mouth-wateringly delicious flavorful, tender shredded meat in its own sauce overcome your time constraints? Are you sure? I can’t hear you, speak up! ARE YOU SURE? I still can’t hear you….because I’m writing this way before you’ll ever read it from many miles away. Gotcha, didn’t I?
I’m just going to go ahead and assume that you answered with a full, Caps Lock-strong resounding YES. If not, it doesn’t really matter what I say at this point anyway. So- back to a recipe! For food! Because it’s a food blog! (yes, I’ve had a lot of caffeine this morning)….
Take your meat- which should, of course, be bone in *sternly glances around, checking for some poor fool using boneless skinless chicken breast*, stick it in your biggest, heaviest pot (I used my trusty enameled dutch oven) and fill about a third full with water. Dump in your vinegar and chiles (or hot sauce) and tomatoes, set it on the stove and start it on medium-high heat. Between the water, meat and cast iron you have a LOT of mass, which on my wimpy electric stove takes forever to get to temperature using low heat. You’re aiming for a brisk simmer. Here You Must Choose (to make it far more epic than it needs to be): turn down the heat to low and continue to simmer covered on the stove top OR stick the whole heavy mess (yes, lid and all) in a preheated 325 degree oven. You will have to occasionally stir the pot if you decide to cook stovetop, but at least you won’t risk a back injury or an unfortunate geyser-like spillage of hot, acidic liquid while transferring your cooking vessel. You’re probably regretting using your heaviest pot right now, aren’t you?
Relax, take a break! Nurse your scalded forearms (just kidding- I hope)! You’ll want to leave it to simmer for an hour and a half if you’re using chicken legs or at least two and a half hours for that pork shoulder. Read a book (I finished Crime and Punishment) or a blog (not that I’m suggesting any one in particular…hint…hint). All done? Are you sure? better check that meat. Stab it with a wooden spoon. Does it fall apart into meaty tendrils? You can move on to the next step. Remove your meat from the pot but continue letting the liquid simmer uncovered on the stovetop. Chop your onion(s) and add them to the cooking liquid. Is your meat cooled enough to hand shred? If so, you must be really slow at chopping onions. Wait a bit, do some chores, hum a tune. Come back, now that you have that song stuck firmly in your head and proceed to shred/ debone the meat. I like to hand shred because I can easily feel the little bone fragments/ cartilage lumps that might otherwise be passed over. You can use tools for the shredding in order to cheat on the cool-down time but your dentist may become significantly richer. Throw your now boneless meat back into the fluid from whence it came to cook uncovered while you dice your peppers. Add in the peppers, continuing to leave the lid off and keep an eye on the amount of liquid- you will probably have to start stirring a lot now. Your goal is to reduce the amount of liquid to just enough to nicely moisten the filling. Remember, nobody likes taco juice running down their shirt (or maybe you do; this is the internet, after all). This will take probably another half hour or so.
Now for the easy part: put your filling on a tortilla, add some cheese or the toppings of your choice and eat it already!