Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Leg of Lamb Barbacoa

It all began with the Taino, who were the native inhabitants of the West Indies.  They took their meat, marinated it with herbs and spices, and then cooked it over an open fire.  The Taino called their cooking "barabicu," which translates into sacred pit.  

Enter the Portuguese, Spanish and English.  As explorers made their way through the West Indies, they encountered the Taino and their way of cooking.  The Spanish brought that cooking method to what is now known as Mexico, where it took root and ultimately became barbacoa.

True barbacoa involves the slow roasting of meat over a fire, usually in a pit lined with leaves from the agave plant.  The meat would be served with one of the many moles or salsas that are well known in Mexican cuisine. 

I have always wanted to make barbacoa.  However, there were some obstacles.  First, my beautiful wife would not look very kindly upon myself digging a pit in the backyard to cook meat over a flame.  Second, even if I took the time to dig that pit, I don't have any agave leaves to line that pit in order to cook the meat.  Third, even if I had dug a pit and lined it with agave leaves, I probably would have been too tired to cook and would have went to Chipotle to get barbacoa soft tacos. (Interestingly, I have never had barbacoa at Chipotle; instead, I rather have the carnitas.)

In any event, I have always wanted to make barbacoa.  Rather than dig a pit, I decided to use my smoker.  I have also wanted to smoke some lamb.  Given the multitude of lamb barbacoa recipes, this provided the perfect opportunity to check off a couple of things on my "to do" list. 

I found a recipe for lamb barbacoa on the Saveur website, which also included a very interesting and delicious tomatillo sauce.  The combination of tomatillos and jalapeno peppers usually results in a good sauce that works well with a wide range of proteins, from beef to lamb, and even chicken or turkey.  In this case, the combination of ingredients made a great salsa that worked very well with the lamb (as well as the steak that I had a few days later).  

One note about this dish.  The Saveur recipe called for the use of lamb shoulder.   Sometimes, I have a hard time finding lamb shoulder at the stores around where I live.  Leg of lamb, however, is plentiful.  I also happen to really like leg of lamb because, if you cook it right, it is amazing.  Even if you overshoot the temperature (which I did a little in this case), the meat can still be tender and juicy. After it was cooked, I chopped the meat for use with soft tacos, as well as sliced some of the leg for lunches at work.

Recipe adapted from Saveur
Serves Many

Ingredients (for the lamb):
1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 dried guajillo or similar chiles, stemmed and seeded
5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 whole cloves
2 whole allspice berries
1/4 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 leg of lamb, about 5 pounds
Freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients (for the tomatillo salsa):
1/4 pound of tomatillos, husked and rinsed
4 cloves of garlic
2 medium yellow onions, quartered
2 jalapeno peppers ,stemmed
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Marinate the lamb.  Puree the vinegar, salt, oregano, cinnamon, chiles, garlic, cloves, allspice and onion in a blender.  Season lamb with salt and pepper on a baking sheet and rub all over with the chile puree.  Refrigerate overnight. 

2.  Make the tomatillo salsa. Place the tomatillos, garlic, onions and jalapenos in a four quart saucepan and cover with water by one inch.  Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until slightly soft, about 5 minutes.  Drain vegetables and reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.  Puree boiled vegetables, reserved liquid, sugar, cilantro, salt and pepper in a blender.  Set aside.

3.  Smoke the lamb.   Prepare the smoker and the fire until the temperature is between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the lamb, fat side up in the smoker and add a piece or two of mesquite wood for the smoke.  Cook until a thermometer reads 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  Remove, let rest and then shred the lamb.  Serve with corn tortillas, the tomatillo salsa and other accompaniments.


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