Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -Mark Twain

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Birria: A Mexican Classic

Birria (accent on the first syllable) is one of those traditional Mexican dishes so ubiquitous that you can find it in every town and every home in the country. It originated in the state of Jalisco, and Guadalajara is especially famous for its birrierĂ­as. You will often find birria sold by street vendors throughout Mexico, and it's commonly served on special occasions like birthdays, baptisms, Christmas and weddings. I like it any old time.

A kind of spicy stew using a paste made of dried roasted peppers, different cooks will choose different peppers to use for the broth base, which makes it very versatile. It is served by combining a bowl of broth with freshly chopped roasted meat. You eat it by filling a corn tortilla with meat, onions and cilantro, seasoning with fresh squeezed lime juice, and then dipping it into the broth before eating it (kind of like a French Dip sandwich). The broth itself is eaten with a spoon or by drinking it from the bowl.

Originally (traditionally?) made with goat (birria chivo), lamb or mutton are also commonly used and so are pork (birria puerco) and beef (birria res). (In coastal areas of Colima and Jalisco, where the green iguana is common, iguana meat is a traditional ingredient of birria, but I'll pass on that. So call me squeamish.) Nowadays it is often made with more than one type of meat and family members/guests/customers can choose which one they want.

Birria is not something you whip up in half an hour for an impromptu meal. You need to plan ahead for this-- like a DAY ahead (but you can cheat, and I'll tell you how). But it's worth it! If you're homesick for Mexico, this is like being there without leaving your home!

NOTE: You will need a Dutch oven, roaster or large casserole dish with a tight fitting lid and a rack that sits inside of it. Also, some people like it soupy, some like the sauce a little thicker. I like it on the thicker side, but you can adjust the water level to suit your own tastes.

Cooking time: About 4 hours
Prep time: 24 hours (unless you cheat)
Serves 4 hungry people

  • 3-4 lbs meat (all one type or a combination)
  • 4 guajillo chiles
  • 5 ancho chiles
  • 4 Cascabel Chiles (note: you may use any kind of chiles you like. I have a friend who uses only a couple dozen Anaheim chiles, which tastes good but lacks the depth of color and flavor I like)
  • 18 pepper corns
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 cup of water

Chile Paste
Roast the chiles in a heavy a hot pan until browned, but not burned. Remove from pan and cool until you can handle them without burning your fingers. Remove the seeds and veins and cover with hot water for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and process in blender with the 3 Tbs. vinegar to make a paste.

(OR use dried peppers: Remove tops of dried chiles, remove seeds and veins and cover with hot water to soak. When they are softened (15 to 20 minutes), process them in the blender with the vinegar, as above, to make a paste. Preserve the water from soaking the chiles.

Meat Rub
Mix the salt, pepper, cloves, oregano, cumin, cinnamon and thyme. Make deep cuts in the meat (all the way to the bone if you are using bone-in meat). Rub the meat well with the mixture, making sure to get it deep into the cuts. Then coat the meat with half of the chile paste. Let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Cooking the Meat
Fill a Dutch oven with water preserved from soaking the chiles (you'll need 1 cup of water total). Add the chopped onion, bay leaf, garlic and the remaining chile sauce to the water. Place a rack inside the Dutch oven and put the meat on the rack. It should sit just above the water (add more water if necessary). Cover and bake for 4 hours at 350 degrees, by which time the meat should be falling-off-the-bones tender.

Remove the meat and place into serving bowls. Let the liquid cool slightly and remove the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add enough hot water to make at least 2 cups of liquid, then ladle it over the meat in individual serving bowls so it's like a soup. OR, shred the meat and serve it separately, with just the liquid in serving bowls. Allow people to make their own tacos using the shredded meat of their choice (assuming you use more than one kind of meat) in fresh corn tortillas, with chopped onion and cilantro, and then dipping them into the sauce.

As promised, here's how to do it in less than 24 hours. You know, like if you want it TODAY. Ignore the marinating step, making it on the fly with just the paste and the rub. Then straight into the oven, as described above. It cooks up fine, and though it lacks the depth of flavor that marinating gives the meat it's still mouthwatering good!

Buen provecho!

If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)