Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Barbacoa (of sorts)

Ah... Barbacoa... the acme of Mexican cuisine.  The term "barbacoa" refers to a specific method of super-slow roasting meat, usually goat or lamb.  Traditionally, a hole is dug in the ground, a solid bed of wood coals is created which is then covered with a pot filled with herbs and chiles and vegetables, on top of which the meat is placed, and all is covered with maguay cactus leaves and a layer of soil.  As the meat slowly cooks in its own steam underground, usually somewhere around 8 hours, the pot collects the juices and creates a delicious, if sometimes greasy, "caldo" or soup.  And the meat simply falls off the bones and onto your plate, juicy and flavorful.

Here's how it's traditionally done down here...
... and how it's usually served.  Classic barbacoa.  Just add tortillas, onions, cilantro & spicy salsa...
... and a cup or two of the soup made from all the drippings.  Yum!
So, when our connoiseur-of-all-things-culinary pal Sam Hillers tells us that his gardener has a 40 kilo lamb for sale, there was little hesitation.  He decided it was time the Gringos take a stab at this barbacoa thing.

Understandably, the decision was made early on not to dig a big hole in the back yard of the Hillers' beautiful home.  Divorce papers would likely have been served.  And we had no desire to go scavenging for huge, thorn-ridden maguay leaves out in the campo.  So Sam got to work on the best "Plan B", scouring the internet for advice and developing detailed schematic drawings of how we were going to properly pull this off above ground...

Sam hard at work with a diagram that would confound a NASA engineer.
I'm pretty sure the drawings were eventually scrapped or simply misplaced.  But no matter.  The next day we were off to Israel's house to pick up the beast.  Israel is not only the gardener for both us and the Hillers family, he also is a bit of an expert on all things "carne" (meat), so he not only procured the lamb for us, but he slayed it, butchered it, skinned it, and neatly crammed it in to a plastic tub for ease of transport.

Israel unveils the prize.
Sam and Israel delicately managed to get the guest of honor down the tricky stairs, through the steep and narrow alley ways, traversing the ankle-twisting-cobblestones, and delicately loading the precious cargo into the back of Sam's car.  Sometimes it pays to be the photographer.  

Careful, boys.
Best to keep it covered so as not to alarm the neighbors.
Finally, approaching the bottom of the hill.
The kids were impressed and only mildly horrified by the sight.  That was good fun.  I was just hoping we weren't pulled over on the way to Sam's house.  There could be some awkward explaining to be done, in Spanish, of course.

Check out Mason (far right). Nightmares likely to follow.
Exactly how Sam managed to convince his wife Ann that it was perfectly reasonable to put our new friend in their shower overnight, with a slight cover of ice, well, that to me remains the biggest accomplishment of this entire adventure.  He's not only a highly talented cook, but clearly a master negotiator.  He should be working in the State Department.  Really?  In the shower?

Yep.  That's Sam & Ann's shower. 
Anyway, Sam got to work early the next morning.  Alas, I was not up in the wee hours of the morning (meaning before 10), so I was unable to capture on film some of the better moments of the early prep work.  Ann, however, most fortunately did rise early, and was wise enough to have camera in hand as their diminutive house-keeper, Luzma, promptly laid the carcass on the kitchen floor and hacked off the head with several blows of a sharp knife.  Luzma was, apparently, full of enthusiasm and all too thrilled to get to take the head home for soup.

As we say in Mexico, "bien hecho!" (well done!).
Luzma hard at work, prepping the lamb's head for some tasty soup.
After Sam and Ann got the lamb ready with a nice rub of olive oil, garlic, and herbs, on to a nice bed of coals it went, and under the watchful eyes of Sam-the-grill-master, this beast was ready about 6 hours later...

Just right!  Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside!
Janan's parents were visiting, which was a bonus, as her father Al was on hand to consult, being a bit of an expert on the art of cooking a good lamb.  He of anyone should know, having grown up in Palestine.  So he had the honor of one of the first pieces, and wasted little time.  And the verdict was obvious.
Al demonstrates proper one-handed technique.
Soon all the guests were enjoying it, Flintstones-style.  This due, of course, not to a lack of proper upbringing, but rather to the fact that the plates and silverware had been short-sightedly placed out of arm's reach from the grill.  Therefore, such formalities were quickly abandoned.

Al & Chris waste no time chasing down utensils.
It may have, in the end, really been more of a "barbecue" than "barbacoa", but no one seemed the least bit disappointed.  As you can see below, the real sign of success is evident in the empty cutting board and wine bottles:

Bien hecho indeed!
Maybe next time we'll try digging the hole and following all the traditional rules.  Then again, we probably won't.

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