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There are meals you can make from just what’s in your pantry, and there are meals you have to stock your pantry to make. Unless you frequently make authentic Mexican dinners, this meal is one you’ll have to plan for. But I solemnly swear this Mexican fiesta is worth the ingredient hunt. In fact, instead of “tacos al pastor,” I think this recipe should be called “the best ever grilled pork tacos.”
While finding some of the ingredients in this dish might be a pain, actually putting it all together is fairly easy. Chunks of marbled pork shoulder are marinated overnight in a reconstituted dried chile sauce and then grilled with pineapples and onions. The smoky grilled meat and veggies are piled into tortillas and then topped with crema suprema, diced red onion, spicy salsa and cilantro—a truly authentic Mexican treat.
Guajillo and ancho peppers are the backbone of the al pastor marinade, and you can find them in many grocery stores, Latino markets, specialty shops and online. Here’s what The Spice House has to say about the two peppers: “Along with anchos, [guajillos are] the most commonly used chiles in Mexico. What the anchos are to ‘deep’ and ‘rich’, guajillos are to ‘spicy’ and ‘dynamic’… a puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo sings with a chorus of bright flavors that combine spiciness, tanginess (like cranberry), a slight smokiness and the warm flavor of a ripe, juicy, sweet tomato; the flavors go on and on.
That description alone should tell you that this is a marinade that will make your taste buds sing. The only other hard-to-find ingredient on this list is the annatto seed, also known as anchiote. Used mostly in Mexican and South American cooking, this seed lends a deep, bright color to the marinade. It’s got a peppery flavor with a sweet undertone. If you can’t find annatto seeds, substitute paprika or turmeric or a combination of both. Either way, “These are amazing!” will be the first thing you’ll hear after your dinner guests take that first bite.
I’ve also included a recipe here for Mexican Black Beans with Epazote. I’m growing epazote, a Mexican herb with a pungent flavor, in my garden this year, and I was looking for a chance to use some of it in my cooking. Through my research I learned that epazote is most often used with black beans because it cuts the heaviness of the black beans and it has gas-preventing (seriously!) properties. (You know you want to start singing “Beans! Beans! A magical fruit!”) While it will be difficult to find fresh epazote north of Texas (unless you grow it, of course), you can find dried epazote in most Mexican markets. Its flavor is hard to describe but it lends a nice earthiness to the beans, almost like a bay leaf, and the chorizo and veggies jazz it up nicely. This is another recipe to start a day ahead because the beans need to soak overnight.
Tacos Al Pastor
This recipe is adapted from one by Paul Kahan and Justin Large, owners of Big Star, a honky-tonk whiskey bar in Chicago with exceptional tacos, that appeared in the May issue of Food and Wine. Active Time: 45 minutes; Total Time: 1 hr, 15 min, plus overnight marinating. Make sure and start this a day ahead. You can purchase annatto seeds at specialty spice markets or at thespicehouse.com. Serves 4-6. Click here for a print copy of this recipe.
4 dried guajillo chiles (about 1 ounce)
1 dried ancho chile
2 dried chipotle chiles, or 3 fresh chipotles from a can
2 Tbs. fresh orange juice
½ Tbs. fresh lime juice
¼ c. Coca-Cola
3 Tbs. cider vinegar
1 tsp. annatto seeds
½ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. cumin seeds
1 whole clove
½ Tbs. brown sugar
¼ tsp. garlic powder
2 Tbs. vegetable oil, plus more for grilling
2½ pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
1 large Spanish onion, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
1 small can of pineapple slices
Salt and freshly ground pepper
12 corn tortillas, warmed
Diced red onion, sour cream, spicy salsa, and chopped cilantro, for serving
Make marinade. Stem and seed all of the dried chiles and place them in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with water and microwave at high power until softened, about 3 minutes. Let cool slightly, then drain and transfer to a blender. Add the orange juice, lime juice, soda and vinegar. In a spice grinder, grind the annatto with the oregano, cumin, clove, sugar and garlic powder until fine. Add the spice mixture to the blender and blend until smooth.
Heat marinade. Transfer the marinade to a saucepan. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until very thick, about 5 minutes; let cool. Transfer the marinade to a large resealable plastic bag. Add the pork and onion and seal the bag. Refrigerate overnight.
Grill pork and veggies. Light a grill. Remove the pork and onion from the marinade and scrape most of it off. Brush the pork, onion and pineapple with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over moderate heat, turning, until the meat is cooked through, 15 minutes. Transfer the pork and veggies to a work surface, cover loosely with foil and let stand 10 minutes.
Chop pork and veggies. Cut the pork into strips and chop the onions and pineapple into bite-size pieces. Serve the pork and onion with the warmed tortillas, red onion, sour cream and cilantro.
Mexican Black Beans with Epazote
This recipe is adapted from one that appeared on CHOW. If you don’t have chicken stock handy, simply double the water and add a few peppercorns and a bay leaf or two to the cheesecloth bouquet garni with the epazote. You can use regular chili powder in place of ancho or New Mexican chile powder in a pinch. If you can’t find annatto, substitute paprika or turmeric or a combination of both. For a print copy of this recipe, click here.
1 lb dried black beans
3 c. chicken stock
3 c. water
2 large sprigs fresh epazote (or 2 tablespoons dried)
½ pound chopped fresh chorizo sausage
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 Tbs. garlic, chopped
1 Tbs. ancho or New Mexico chile powder
1 Tbs. ground cumin
Soak black beans overnight in cold water to cover. Drain and rinse.
Cook beans. Preheat the oven to 300°F. If using fresh epazote, wrap sprigs in cheesecloth and tie to secure. Place the beans, chicken stock and water, and epazote in a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil on the stovetop, skim off foam, then cover and bake for 1½ hours.
Cook chorizo and veggies. In a large, heavy skillet, brown chorizo sausage. Remove the chorizo, leaving the fat in the pan. Add onion, carrots, celery stalks, and garlic to the pan and cook over medium heat until the vegetables become soft.
Combine, season and bake. Remove the pot of beans from the oven and stir in the vegetables and chorizo, along with ancho or New Mexico chile powder, ground cumin, and salt to taste. Cover and bake for 1 hour, or until the beans are soft. Remove the bouquet garni with the epazote and serve.