Barbacoa is one of those iconic Mexican foods: juicy, tender meat infused with a rustic, smoky flavour and a jungle-like fragrance that falls of the bones. It uses a cooking technique that began in ancient times, long before the Spanish arrived, and lives on to this day across Mexico, especially rooted in the central part of the country, where I grew up. Barbacoa sounds much like barbecue. The word comes from Spanish, but the Mexican way is completely different: meat is wrapped tightly in banana leaves, cooked for many (many!) hours in an underground pit and finally steamed and cooked overnight. You don’t need a pit; just cook it in an oven while you are tucked away in bed. Then, shred the meat in big chunks, have the vegetables on the side, invite some friends over and start making some tacos – there is a lot to share here.
- 4 kg bone-in leg and shoulder of lamb (or a leg or a shoulder)
- 2 onions, roughly chopped
- 750 g carrots, peeled, cut into 3 cm pieces
- 750 g potatoes, peeled, cut into 3 cm pieces
- 250 g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in 3 cups boiling water, drained
- 375 ml bottle light coloured beer, such as Corona
- 750 ml (3 cups) water
- 2 bay leaves
- 1½ tsp sea salt
- 500 g banana leaves (see Note)
- 6 fresh or dried avocado leaves (optional) (see Note)
- lime wedges, warm corn tortillas and salsa, to serve
- 10 dried guajillo chillies (see note), trimmed, seeds removed
- 10 dried ancho chillies (see note), trimmed, seeds removed
- 1.25 litre (5 cups) water
- 80 ml (⅓ cup) apple cider vinegar
- 1 roma (plum) tomato, cut into quarters
- ½ onion, roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground allspice
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 5 whole cloves, stems removed
- 2½ tsp sea salt
- 3 tbsp safflower or vegetable oil
Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.
Marinating time 2 hours
Resting time 20 minutes
You will need to begin this recipe 1 day ahead.
To make the marinade, heat a large, dry frying pan over medium heat. Add the dried chillies and toast for no more than 20 seconds per side, taking care not to burn. Transfer to a saucepan, add the water, place over medium heat and cook for 12–15 minutes or until the chillies are softened and rehydrated.
Transfer the chillies and 2 cups cooking liquid (that liquid has a tonne of flavour and colour, and you really want it in your dish) to a blender (discard remaining liquid). Add the vinegar, tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, cloves and salt, then blend until smooth.
Wipe the saucepan clean and add the oil. Heat over medium heat for 1–2 minutes, then add the marinade, being careful to avoid any splatters. Partially cover and cook, stirring once or twice, for 10–12 minutes or until the colour darkens and the mixture thickens to a paste-like consistency.
Rinse the lamb and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a large, non-reactive dish. Pour over the marinade to cover completely, rubbing the marinade into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for 2–24 hours.
Preheat the oven to 160˚C. Remove the lamb from the fridge about 20 minutes before cooking to bring to room temperature. Meanwhile, to make the vegetable base, combine the onions, carrots, potatoes and soaked chickpeas in a large roasting pan with a rack that fits inside with some space for the vegetables underneath. Pour the beer and water over the top. Add the bay leaves, season with salt and toss to combine. Place the roasting rack over the mixture.
Unfold the banana leaves and place a few layers on the roasting rack, leaving a generous amount of overlap on the long sides for wrapping the meat (alternatively, use a few long sheets of foil). Place the meat on top of the leaves and cover with all of the marinade. Place the avocado leaves, if using, on top, then fold over the banana leaves to cover the meat. If using the foil, poke a few small holes near the bottom edges to allow the meat juices to fall onto the vegetable base below during cooking. The juices will naturally fall through the spaces between the banana leaves.
Cover the banana leaf or foil package tightly with a layer of foil – remember this is to make up for not cooking it in an underground closed pit. Roast for 8–10 hours or until the meat comes off the bone easily and the vegetables are tender. Remove from the oven and rest for 15–20 minutes before opening the package. Discard the avocado leaves, if using.
Serve with the lime wedges, warm corn tortilla and salsa verde, if you like.
• Banana leaves help keep the moist and juicy, and add a grassy, fresh, aroma and flavour, as if you were really cooking the meat in an earth pit. Available from Asian food shops and select greengrocers. Substitute foil.
• Dried avocado leaves add a flavour similar to anise, just make sure not to eat them. They are difficult to source in Australia; try specialist Mexican food shops.
• Dried guanjillo and ancho chillies are available from specialist spice shops and Mexican food shops.
Recipe and photographs from Pati’s Mexican Table by Pati Jinich.