Real Deal Q: Barbacoa de Borrego

Categories: Q, Recipes, Robblog

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This is some awesome barbecued lamb. It's the result of a fairly complicated process--a hybrid of braising and smoking. But I figure this is the season for a challenging barbecue recipe, what with the Rodeo BBQ Championship coming up and all. I figure Houston barbecue enthusiasts are ready to show off their stuff. (I coulda been a contender!)

The smoky-flavored, falling-off-the-bone tender meat this recipe yields is even better than the stellar barbacoa de borrego at Gerardo's Drive-In Grocery. At Gerardo's, the kitchen crew steams the lamb in giant steel-jacketed gas-fired kettles over a chile broth in a process related to the stewed goat dish called birria.

Mexican barbacoa is still made in a smoker by a few Tejano barbecue enthusiasts, but commercial pit barbacoa is all but extinct in Texas. Vera's in Brownsville is one of the last restaurants in the state to use a real pit to make barbacoa. In the old days, Mexican ranch hands used to wrap cow heads up in canvas or maguey leaves and bury them in the coals. (In the movie Giant, Elizabeth Taylor faints when they unwrap the package and show her the head.) But health departments frown on such traditional barbacoa these days.

Borrego actually means mutton, but for some reason, Anglos are more comfortable

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translating it to "lamb." Which is odd when you think about it, since Anglos are usually squeamish about eating veal, suckling pig, tiny cabritos and other baby animals. Mutton used to be a traditional meat in Texas barbecue and is still found at a few African-American barbecue joints such as Ruthie's in Navasota and Sam's in Austin. So call this "Mexican mutton barbecue" if you like.

A square-cut lamb shoulder isn't the most common roast in the world, but if your butcher can't find one, try a Mexican meat market.


Barbacoa de Borrego

Hope you've five or six hours, because this ain't fast food. Make sure you've got everything you need before you get started.

Equipment: Barbecue smoker or large covered grill, charcoal, hardwood logs, chips or chunks, starter chimney, soup pot, blender, roasting pan, heavy duty aluminum foil, fire gloves or pot holder mitts

7-8 pound square-cut lamb shoulder roast
2 tablespoons grill rub (or salt, pepper and chili powder)

For the chile puree:
2 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded

For the soup:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 celery stalks, cleaned and chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
14.5 ounce can stewed tomatoes
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, cleaned and chopped
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme, cleaned and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

For Serving:
24 warm flour tortillas
1 cup chopped onions
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 cups refried beans

Rub the lamb roast with seasonings and allow to marinate for a few hours. Light about 25 charcoal briquettes in a chimney and prepare a grill with the coals on one side only. Brown the lamb roast over the hot fire for a few minutes, turning often. Move it to the cool side of the grill or to the smoking chamber of an offset barbecue smoker. Put some hardwood on the coals and close the lid. Allow the roast to smoke for an hour and a half to two hours at around 250 degrees turning to cook evenly.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan over low heat, simmer the chiles in water to cover. Allow them to sit in the hot water for ten to twenty minutes until soft. Puree the chiles in a blender adding the soaking water a little at a time until the puree is smooth.

In a soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onions and celery. Stir and cook for five minutes or until softened. Add the garlic and cook another few minutes. Add the chile puree and cook for a three minutes stirring well. Add the remaining vegetables and herbs and 8 cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn down the heat and allow to simmer while the lamb smokes.

Add more charcoal and wood to the fire. Place a metal roasting pan on the grill directly

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over the coals. Carefully pour the chile broth into the roasting pan. Place the lamb roast in the roasting pan with the soup, rib bones down.
Allow the lamb to simmer and smoke for an hour to an hour and half, replenishing the liquid level if needed.

With the aid of fire gloves or pot holders, cover the roast and the roasting pan with aluminum foil and seal tightly. Simmer over the coals or in a 300 oven for another hour or 2 until the lamb meat is extremely tender. You want the roast to be intact, but the meat to be very soft.

Allow the roast to cool slightly. Clean the meat away from the bones and chop lightly. Serve the cleaned meat in some chile broth. You can also serve some of the broth in a cup as a first course. Warm the flour tortillas. Warm the refried beans. Combine the chopped cilantro with the chopped onions and place in a bowl on the table. Everybody get to make their own tacos.

Yields around 4 pounds of meat.

-Robb Walsh

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