Classic Mexican shredded meat, slow steam-roasted until it's falling off the bone for one of the best tacos you will ever have. Served with its own braising juices as a soup. Made here with lamb (see notes for substitutions).
5 guajillo chiles, each 5-6 inches long
4 medium cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano (or Italian oregano if not available)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
A pinch of ground cloves
4 pounds lamb shoulder chops, or combination of shoulder and shank cuts, with bones (see notes for substitutions)
1 1/2 cups carrots that have been diced into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces
1 small white onion, sliced thin
10 ounces small red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks (skin on)
1 cup cooked garbanzo beans (or use canned), salted
1 sprig fresh epazote (if available)
2-3 dried chipotle chiles (if available)
Dried avocado leaves (see recipe for details), if available
For serving: 18-24 corn tortillas, salsa, diced white onions and cilantro sprigs
1. Make the marinade:
Remove the stems from the chiles and slit them lengthwise so they can be opened flat. Remove the seeds.
Heat a large, dry skillet over medium-high. When hot, set one or two chiles at a time in the skillet and press them with a spatula to toast them, about 10 seconds per side. As you press on them, you may hear a slight sizzle and you'll notice the skin puff slightly from underneath. When they are aromatic and the inside surface of the chiles has lightened somewhat in color, they are done. Do not overcook, or they will become bitter.
When all the chiles have been toasted, transfer them to a large bowl with enough hot tap water to cover. Set a small plate directly on the surface of the chiles to keep them submerged within the bowl. Soak for 20 minutes.
Use tongs to transfer the chiles to a blender, reserving the soaking liquid! Add the garlic, oregano, black pepper and cloves to the blender. Taste the soaking liquid: if it's not bitter, add 1/2 cup to the blender. (If bitter, add 1/2 cup cold water instead.)
Blend into a smooth puree, then pour through a medium-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Use a silicone spatula to press the puree through the holes of the strainer, leaving any tougher, unblended pieces behind. Stir 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt into the marinade.
Add the lamb to the marinade, turning the pieces over to coat them all evenly (I find it easiest to use my hands for this). Let the meat marinate while you set everything else up.
2. Set up your cooking pot:
The most challenging part of making Barbacoa may be choosing the right cookware! If making this on the grill, choose a pot that will fit in your grill with the lid closed. If using a gas grill, the pot will sit on top of the grates. If using a charcoal grill, you'll nestle the pot directly into the coals (being careful to keep it upright), so be prepared for some charcoal marks on the pot (smearing dish liquid on the bottom of the pot before cooking can make cleanup easier). If making this in the oven, simply choose a large pot with a tight-fitting lid.
Once you choose the right pot, you'll need to set up a mini-steamer inside of it. You'll combine water and vegetables in the bottom of the pot to make a flavorful broth. Then you'll suspend the meat over the broth in a steamer basket or something similar, held above the liquid by overturned coffee cups or small bowls as "feet." (I used a handled steamer, but this made it a challenge to keep the lid tightly closed. A collapsible steamer basket would be ideal.)
3. Put everything in the pot and start cookin':
Combine the carrots, sliced onion, potatoes, garbanzo beans, epazote, chipotle chiles, 2-3 avocado leaves and 8 cups cold water in the pot. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt.
If using a gas grill, preheat it to medium-high. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. If using the oven, preheat to 325 degrees with the rack in the middle position.
Nestle your overturned coffee cups or bowls within the soup ingredients and prop your steamer on top of them. The bottom of the steamer should be suspended above the liquid, not touching it. Line the bottom of the steamer with avocado leaves, then lay half the meat on top of the leaves. Cover the meat with more avocado leaves and lay the remaining meat on top. Put the lid on the pot.
If using the oven, slide the pot onto the middle rack and close the door. If using a gas grill, put the pot on the grates in the middle section and turn the heat under the pot to medium-low, keeping the rest of the burner(s) on medium-high for indirect heat. If using a charcoal grill, bank the coals to the sides for indirect cooking and carefully nestle the pot in the middle of the coals. In either case, close the grill lid.
Cook slowly for 4-5 hours, until the meat is tender enough to easily fall off the bone. If your grill has a thermometer, try to maintain a temperature between 300-350 degrees. If using charcoal, add a few pieces every hour or so to maintain an even temperature.
4. Ready to serve!
Carefully remove the pot from the oven or grill, keeping it level. Carefully remove the meat from the steamer into a large bowl and cover.
Remove the avocado leaves from the broth. Skim the fat floating on top of the broth, either by spooning it off or by using a degreasing pitcher. (I did it this way: I strained the solids into another small pot, then poured the broth into a degreasing pitcher. When the fat had settled, I poured the de-fatted broth over the reserved solids.) Keep warm until ready to serve.
Shred the meat, discarding the avocado leaves and bones. Taste and mix in a few extra pinches of salt if needed (likely). Cover until ready to serve.
Warm tortillas on a dry griddle as described on this page (see Step 6). Serve the Barbacoa meat with the tortillas, salsa, diced onions and cilantro sprigs for your guests to make tacos. Serve the soup in small bowls alongside the Barbacoa.
You can make this with chicken, beef or goat instead of lamb (lamb or goat are traditional in most parts of Mexico). If using chicken, use 2 whole birds and cut cooking time to about 1.5 hours. If making with with beef, use stewing cuts with a few bones if possible. If making this with goat, use bone-in shoulder pieces from a young goat if possible.
This is a great make-ahead meal! You can make the marinade up to 3 days before cooking, and you can cook the entire dish a couple of days before serving. Just reheat the meat gently in a Dutch oven or other covered oven-proof dish at about 325 degrees in the oven - or in a covered dish in the microwave. Reheat the soup in a saucepan over medium heat on the stove. The only drawback to making it ahead is that your guests won't see all the effort that went into the steamer-inside-a-pot setup. :)
If possible, a trip to the Hispanic market will help you source the ingredients for this dish. (And if you don't have access to such a market, there's always Amazon of course.) But in case you can't find some of the ingredients, here are some suggestions:
I've read that ancho chiles may be substituted for the guajillo chiles in this recipe. Anchos are larger than guajillos, and have a spicier and darker flavor. I haven't personally used them in Barbacoa, but if you do, I'd suggest using 2-3 anchos rather than the 5 guajillos called for.
Epazote and chipotle chiles are listed as optional. I've made Barbacoa with and without each of them, and it's delicious regardless.
I'm not always able to find dried avocado leaves in my area. I haven't personally made this without them, and can't think of a suitable substitite, but if you can't get them, I wouldn't let that stop you from making this. It may be missing a bit of the complexity of the original recipe, but it will still be delicious. If you go this route, I'd suggest lining the steamer basket with parchment or aluminum foil to keep the marinade from dripping into the broth below.
My friend Diana is from Mexico City and mentioned that she recalls this being made with some sort of cactus leaves rather than avocado leaves. In my research I found that agave leaves are commonly used. I've never seen them here, but if you have access to agave leaves, you might want to give them a shot!
Adapted from Mexico: One Plate at at Time by Rick Bayless