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Barbacoa: Slow-Cooked, Chile-Rubbed Mexican Meat

Barbacoa, let it be said, is NOT barbeque. It's denser and meatier, with a different kind of smokiness and an emphasis on spice over sweetness. It has ground chile paste where barbeque has hickory, dark gamey goat where barbeque has beef. The meat peels off the bone and dissolves in your mouth, piqued by a sip of mezcal with lime and mellowed by smooth black bean paste.

My husband's uncles buried a chile-rubbed goat in a big square pit with a bunch of avocado and maguey leaves and left it there for twelve hours. It slow cooked over a pot of coals. When it was time to extract it at 3 p.m., the hour of the massive, siesta-inducing Mexican comida, the whole family gathered round to watch. Kids clamored to get a peek at the covered pit, the men adopted an air of esteemed ceremony, and a few older sombrero-d types who'd already been hitting the mezcal with affection started sending off fireworks in random directions.

Jorge photographed, I gaped. The men peeled away straw mats to reveal the slow-smoking goat, removed the cooked leaves, and placed the goat parts carefully in a big white bucket. Then, they heaved the unimaginably heavy pot of soup, full of diced veggies cooked in a spiced tomato broth into which dripped the goat-chile juices, onto a small fire.

We ate. Out came bowls of creamy bean paste and guacamole, plates of garnishes, limes, peanuts, more beer, more mezcal, tortillas wrapped in warm cloths, small bowls of caldito, and the goat.

This is how we spent New Year's, with toasts of "Felicidades!" between shots (sipped) of mezcal, handfuls of spicy garlic peanuts and plates of barbacoa decorated in fresh cilantro, sliced onions, and guacamole. Felicidades, indeed.

You can make a modified version of barbacoa with lamb at home in the oven. It's a departure from the traditional Mexican dish, but delicious nonetheless and surely something that your friends and family won't experience everyday. This would be a great recipe to experiment with for a laid-back dinner party with a couple of good IPA's and open-minded guests.



5 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 large white onion, diced
4 ancho chiles
4 guajillo chiles
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon whole black pepper beads
1 tablespoon dried thyme
4 tablespoons dried oregano
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
6-8 pound lamb shoulder
1 lb dried avocado leaves
2 avocados, sliced in wedges
chopped cilantro for garnish
lime wedges for garnish


Toast chiles until the skin turns a deep maroon. Be careful not to burn them. They should be aromatic and smoky, not black. Leave them to soak for ten or fifteen minutes or until they get soft. In a mortar pestle, grind the cumin, black pepper, thyme and oregano. Remove chiles from water and puree them with the ground spices, garlic, onion, oil and vinegar in a blender. Remove from blender and rub all over the lamb. Place in the refrigerator and let marinate at least three hours.

Preheat the oven to 325ºF.

Spread half avocado leaves in the bottom of a deep roasting pan. Place lamb on top and cover with remaining avocado leaves. (Make sure to use dried avocado leaves, as fresh ones can be toxic). Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Let cook 4 hours or until meat is falling off the bone. Serve with avocado slices, lime, cilantro, and warm tortillas.

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Tags: avocado, barbacoa, chiles, goat, lamb, mexico


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Comment by Cindy Kennedy on January 28, 2010 at 2:08pm
This is our kind of feast! Come May, we'll be siting our pit and going in search of cabrito around here.

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