I think the 3 things I miss most about California are owning a car, having a grill, and the Mexican food. The later two are especially salient around Cinqo De Mayo which for me used to signal the start of the grilling season.
Like the Mexican food in NYC, Cinco De Mayo is a bit misguided here in the US. Most people think it’s the Mexican equivalent of July 4th, but it’s actually not even a federal holiday south of the border (Mexican Independence day on September 16th however is). I suspect its prominence in the US has a lot to do with the marketing engines of big tex-mex chains looking for a way to sell more burritos (ironically, this is a food item that doesn’t have the wide popularity in Mexico that it does here). Still, it is a good excuse to cook Mexican food especially something a bit more elaborate that takes about a day to make.
One of my favourite tacos, Tacos Al Pastor (“shepherd style”) likely originated from Lebanese immigrants who made their way to Mexico and brought with them Shawarma. Like any food that emigrates from one place to another, changes are made to include locally available ingredients and to suit local palettes. In this case, the meats were flavored with various chiles and then topped with a pineapple while roasting.
The pineapple, aside from adding some sweetness and acidity, also has an enzyme called bromelain that breaks down proteins making the meat very tender. Since we don’t all have shawarma spits at home, I’ve adapted this recipe to work in an oven or on a cooler grill. The pineapple goes into the marinade which gets layered into the roast and is then left to marinade for a short amount of time.
The meat is stunningly tender with a distinct earthy-smokey flavor coming from the dried chiles and a nice balance of sweetness, tartness and salt. I like my tacos simple (like they serve them at taquerias in Mexico) and load up a double layer of corn tortillas with meat then add a bit of minced sweet onion, cilantro and salsa verde on top.
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4 lbs pork “butt” roast
1/4 pineapple sliced into long 1/4″ thick strips
2 ancho chiles
1 guajillo chile
3/4 C fresh pineapple
1 Chipotle chile (in adobo sauce)
1 Tbs adobo sauce
1 Tbs vinegar
5 cloves of garlic
1 Tbs + 1 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp achiote paste (or 1/2 tsp paprika)
small white corn tortillas
minced vidalia onion
salsa verde (see recipe below)
Put the pork in the freezer until its firm enough to cut (about 30 minutes).
Remove the seeds and stems from the chilies and put them in a bowl. Boil some water and pour it onto the chilies and allow them to rehydrate (about 10 minutes). Put the chilies in a food processor along with all the other marinade ingredients and process until smooth. Add the marinade to a pot and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. This destroys some of the enzymes in fresh pineapple that can turn your meat into mush. Turn off the heat then let the marinade cool to room temperature.
Take the roast out of the freezer and orient the roast how you’d have it sitting in the roasting pan (fat side up). The idea here is that you want to slice the meat into 1/2″ thick slices that will stack on top of each other in the roasting pan. I don’t slice all the way through which helps when you’re trying to put the roast back together.
Slather the marinade between each layer until every nook and cranny is covered. Tie the roast back together. Cover it and allow it to marinade for no more than an hour. Fresh pineapple has a powerful enzyme that breaks down proteins and while heating it destroys some of the enzymes, it’s still a powerful meat tenderizer. If you’re using canned pineapple let it marinate overnight as most of the enzyme is destroyed in the canning process.
When the roast is ready to go in the oven, set the oven to 450 degrees F. Put the roast on a rack in a roasting pan and add water to the bottom of the pan (this is to keep the drippings from smoking). Roast for 30 minutes at this temperature then place the pineapple slices on top of the roast and turn down the heat to 300 degrees F. Roast until the meat is tender (about 3 hours).
After removing the meat from the oven, cover it with foil and let it rest for about 20 minutes. When you’re ready to serve, just cut the meat up into small cubes. I like to pan fry it at this point to give the pieces a bit more caramelization but it’s up to you.
To assemble the tacos just heat up a pile of tortilla’s in the microwave covered with a damp paper towel for about 30 seconds. Using 2 tortilla’s per taco, fill with meat, then top with minced onions, cilantro and salsa verde. Serve with a wedge of lime for squeezing.
for salsa verde
4 large tomatillo’s or 6 smaller ones husked and washed well with warm water
1/2 an onion sliced into wedges
4 jalepeno peppers sliced in half lengthwise
3 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup cilantro leaves (about 4 sprigs)
juice of half a lime
salt and pepper to taste
Move your oven rack to the top position and lay down a piece of foil. Score the bottoms of the tomatillos (so they don’t explode) then place them on the foil. Place the jalepenos skin side up around the tomatillos along with the onions and garlic. Turn the broiler on and allow everything to get a nice bubbly char going on. Using tongs, flip things over and then char the other side. The smaller items like onion and garlic may need to come out first.
Flake off any excess char (you want to keep some of it) then toss everything in a food processor along with the cilantro and salt and pepper. Process until smooth.