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After three years in Mexico, I still run into foodie surprises. This is quite possibly why I've been able to live in this country longer than anywhere else in the past six years - there is always something new on my plate.
Last night it was an alambre, which as it turns out, is a Mexican shish kebab. Alambre actually means "wire" or "skewer", although nowadays it's rare to find an alambre that's actually served on skewers. Instead of carrying the literal meaning, the name now evokes a certain style of grilled meat and a combination of ingredients - carne asada, beef, pork, or chicken; some type of pepper (typically red); onions, and the gem that makes it all swoon-worthy: bacon.
The meat and vegetables are fried together on a hot metal plate, and the chef chops and mixes them as they sizzle. At the last minute she adds creamy Oaxacan string cheese to the alambre and it melts into soft white rivers atop the meat and the veggies. The dish is typically served with flour tortillas (a key indicator that it is a norteño plate), limes, and a variety of salsas.
Alambres are unabashedly humble and deeply satisfying. They aren't fancy finger food or elaborate culinary masterpieces to be shown off on silver platters - rather, they're the ideal plate for a summer barbeque, a casual lunch or dinner between friends, a 4th of July party, or a potluck. They're easy to make and regardless of how they sometimes look - like a big pile of grilled randomness - they're heavenly in your mouth, especially followed with a beer and a lime.
The only rule you have to adhere to in alambre-making is the meat-pepper-onion-bacon-Oaxacan cheese combo (even the bacon can be substituted for ham if you're looking to stay on the light side of things). From there, you can do what you wish - here, hawaiano is all the rage, and at any decent taco joint you'll find alambres hawaianos with pineapple thrown into the mix. You can also try out a chicken and mushrooms combo, or throw in tomatoes and green peppers. Another option is marinading the meat in a combo of chile de arbol powder and lime juice for a few hours before cooking, adding an extra kick to the grilled flavor.
I always thought alambre referred somehow to the alleviation of hunger, to a dish that was meant to satisfy a big growling appetite, since "alambre" sounds like the Spanish term for hunger, "hambre." My friends got a kick out of that one, but I still think it's a great way to think about the dish - as an eminently satisfying, rich, scrumptious cure for raging hunger. Wait until your friends are good and piqued, craving a big plate of something toothsome, and then come out with your steaming alambre that'tll make 'em melt.
Basic alambres (serves four)
1 lb. beef or pork, chopped into small pieces
2 red peppers, diced
2 small white onions, diced
5 slices bacon, chopped into small pieces
1/2 lb. queso Oaxaca (can substitute mozzarella if you can't find queso Oaxaca in your area), pulled apart into strands
Vegetable oil for frying
20 flour tortillas
Fry the bacon briefly in a piping hot skillet until the edges are golden brown but bacon is not crispy or completely cooked. Remove from skillet and add the onions and red peppers to the hot oil. Lower the heat and saute until soft. Add the beef and bacon and turn up the heat, frying until the beef is cooked through. Spread the cheese on top. Serve with warm flour tortillas and limes.
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