For once, I am not basing this recipe on anything I ever ate during our time living in Mexico. For a country that can work such culinary magic with inexpensive, slow-cooked cuts of meat, I have not had a lot of experience with the region’s techniques for cooking lamb. I imagine that this dish would pass muster in the roadside taquerias South of the Border, however, thanks to its simple, balanced preparation. The tartness of the tomatillos considerably brightens the strong, Earthy flavors of the lamb, slow-simmered until it shreds and falls apart, with plenty of heat brought in at the last second from the ancho chiles, the sliced jalapeno, and the fresh flavors of the serrano peppers in the Salsa Mexicana. It’s a completely balanced meal, folded neatly in the palm of your hand.
Don’t bother with expensive cuts of lamb, here; since we’re going to be cooking it for a while, you can do just fine with lamb stew meat, which you can buy in smaller quantities for less money. We’ll use the food processor for the sauce that the lamb is simmered in, but please chop the ingredients for the Salsa Mexicana by hand. I think you end up with a better result when you try and match a rustic meal with an equally rustic preparation, and avoid using appliances to do jobs that a sharp knife and some patience can do much better. If you try and use a food processor for your salsa, you’ll likely end up with a mushy, sour mess. Where applicable, try to DWYIKMAWD (Do What Your Imaginary Kindly Mexican Abuela Would Do), in salsa making as in life.
Tomatillo Lamb Tacos
- 2 whole dried ancho chiles
- 6 tomatillos, peeled and quartered
- 1/2 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 chicken bullion cube
- 1/2 cup water (reserved from soaking the anchos, see note below)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 pounds lamb stew meat
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 1/2 red cabbage, thinly sliced
- Corn tortillas
- Lime, Mexican crema or sour cream, sliced avocado, sliced jalapeno, Salsa Mexicana (recipe follows), to garnish
In a small saucepan, cover dried ancho chiles with water. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and set aside (leaving the liquid in the pot) until chiles soften, about ten minutes.
In the bowl of a food processor, add tomatillos, onion, cumin, oregano, and a bouillon cube. Using tongs, carefully remove stems from ancho chiles, and add to food processor, along with 1/2 cup of the water the anchos were steeping in. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Pulse in 1-second bursts until well combined, but not pureed.
In a deep frying pan or small saucepan over medium heat, quickly brown lamb in vegetable oil, about 5-6 minutes. Add sauce from food processor and cook on low heat, covered, until lamb is fork-tender, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours. Serve on corn tortillas with a squeeze of lime, Mexican crema, sliced jalapeno, and fresh Salsa Mexicana.
Fresh Tomato-Serrano Salsa (Salsa Mexicana Classica)
Adapted from a recipe in Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen
- 2-3 ripe tomatoes, stemmed, cored, and seeded
- 5 fresh serrano chiles, stemmed
- A dozen or so large sprigs of cilantro
- 1 large garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped
- 1/2 medium white onion
- Juice from 1/2 a fresh lime
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
Finely dice tomatoes and serrano chiles. To dial down the heat (and make the finishes salsa a little more polished-looking,) you can remove the seeds from the serranos and the tomatoes. Or don’t bother. It’s up to you. Scoop the chopped tomato and chile into a bowl. Roughly chop cilantro, including stems, and add to bowl. Mince garlic, and add to bowl. Finely chop onion, and add to bowl. Squeeze lime juice over the whole shebiggle, sprinkle with salt, and toss to combine. Allow a half hour in the refrigerator for flavors to combine before serving.