Barbacoa is one of Mexico's most beloved pit-cooked preparations. Do not confuse barbacoa with American barbecue, it has no similarity whatsoever with grill cooking. Instead, it is an ancient tradition that starts with a hole in the ground. Coals line the bottom and when the coals are ready, a huge pot is set over the coals. Into the pot go water, aromatics and beans like chickpeas, and then on a rack over the liquid goes the meat, wrapped in banana leaves or pencas de maguey (agave leaves). A metal cover goes over the top, the pit is sealed with dirt and cloth and the whole thing cooks long and slow, usually overnight.
Barbacoas are traditionally enjoyed for breakfast, with plenty of tortillas for making tacos, an assortment of spicy salsas and lots of onion, cilantro and lime wedges. The broth becomes a delicious consomé, and perfect accompaniment for the tacos.
I remember growing up in Monterrey, when I lived at the ranch, we would have a barbacoa at least once a year. All the ranch hands and their families would join us and it would be a happy affair. In northern Mexico, it's traditional to have a whole cow's head cooked in the pit, and the meal is outrageously good, the meat so tender it falls apart. Perfect taco fare.
There are different kinds of barbacoas - cow, goat, pork, lamb, turkey and even fish. You may be familiar with Cochinita Pibil from Yucatán - that is pit cooking at its best. In Jalisco, they make Birria, made of lamb or goat. In northern Mexico, as I mentioned, the cow's head is preferred, with the tongue being the most coveted. There are many regional variations, and what I'm sharing with you today comes from Oaxaca where a chile adobo coats and flavours the meat.
This lamb barbacoa may not have gone into a pit in my back yard, but it is still very, very good. Even better, it is made in the crock pot so you can prep it and walk away to come back 8 hours later to enjoy a fabulous meal. Invite your friends over because Barbacoa calls for a party!
Barbacoa de Borrego estilo Oaxaca
Lamb Barbacoa, Oaxaca style
1.5-2kg bone-in lamb shoulder
2 ancho chiles, seeded and de-veined
4 guajillo chiles, seeded and de-veined
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 Tbsp piloncillo, chopped (or dark brown sugar)
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp canela, ground
1 Tbsp kosher salt, or more to taste
2-3 cups water
In medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Place cleaned anchos and guajillos in boiling water and turn off heat. Cover and let sit for 15-20 minutes, until chiles are soft and re-hydrated. Remove chiles from soaking water and place in blender jar along with garlic, piloncillo, vinegar, oregano, canela and salt. Add a bit of the soaking liquid if your blender needs help. Process to make a smooth paste.
Cut lamb into large chunks (about 3"). Place in large bowl and add chile paste. Toss meat and chile paste to coat all over. Let sit for 30 minutes. Line crock pot with banana leaves. Add marinated lamb and water, just enough to barely cover the meat. Place banana leaf over the meat and cover. Turn slow cooker to the "slow" setting.
After 5 or 6 hours, taste the meat - it won't be completely ready, but adjust seasonings at this point. Add more salt if needed. Cook for another 2 hours, or until meat shreds easily.
To serve, shred the meat into small chunks. If liquid is too runny, you can place it in a small saucepan and reduce to a thicker consistency. Pour it over the meat and serve with corn tortillas, chopped cilantro, chopped onions and salsa.