May 2, 2010

Al Pastor Tacos for Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May) is coming up and in Austin, that's a good excuse for a Mexican feast. The holiday celebrates the Mexican army's win over the French in a battle in 1862. In the U.S., especially Texas, it's a celebration of Mexican heritage.

Pork al pastor is traditionally cooked on a rotisserie like a Middle Eastern shawarma. It's roasted with a piece of pineapple on top to baste it as it cooks. The best al pastor has tender, juicy meat with crispy, lacquered outside bits. My favorite part of al pastor is that texture paired with the distinct flavor of pineapple.

We've been working our way around town, whenever we hear a tip or recommendation of a good al pastor taco somewhere in Austin, whether it's from a restaurant or a little taco trailer. So far, the best we've tasted have come from Al Pastor on Riverside or Piedras Negras on Cesar Chavez at Pleasant Valley. If you've got a favorite in Austin, leave a comment, we'd love to try it.

But we've also been experimenting at home. I clipped a pork kebab al pastor recipe from the sorely missed Gourmet magazine and we've been tinkering with it as our base. They take boneless pork shoulder, cut it into cubes, skewer it with pineapple and onions, and then grill it with a pineapple basting sauce. It's served with a tangy salsa of roasted tomatoes and onions combined with more of the pineapple basting sauce to form an incredible pineapple salsa.

We've experimented with this recipe quite a bit. We ended up wanting a lot more of the basting sauce and salsa so we've increased those quantities. I like having leftovers of the salsa. It has a bit of vinegar in it which means it keeps well and it's great on grilled fish or even corn tortilla chips. It's incredibly refreshing. As it heats up outside, I start to crave a tangy, zippy, fresh salsa. That's the taste of summer in Austin. And this one has become my favorite.

We've tried making this with different kinds of meat — pork shoulder, which requires a fair amount of prep to cut down into bite-sized cubes and as a shortcut, with big, fat boneless pork chops, which were faster to trim. The pork chops turned out to be too lean though. You need some fat to keep the meat moist so you can blast it a bit at the end to get that crispy texture you want on the outside.

This is a damn fine al pastor. But in the pursuit of perfection, we're going to keep experimenting to fine tune the texture to achieve the crispy edges we're looking for. Next time, we're thinking of trying pork butt instead. We'll debone the roast, slice it open lengthwise to get more surface area and then grill it in a large piece instead of cutting it into chunks. After it's seared on one side, flip it, brush with the basting sauce, then later, flip it again, and baste the other side. When it's cooked through, shred it, then if you like it really crispy, reheat and sear the shredded meat again before serving. A lot of prep, I know. But this is all in the service of a masterpiece. Tonight, we were trying the pork chops, so the meat was cut into small cubes so that it would cook quickly and not dry out. The meat was tender but we think it needs more fat to hold up to the blast of heat it needs to get some good crispy edges.

We also added a bit more chile. We like the smokiness of chipotle, so we used that. Chipotle powder is easy. But if you like some other dried chile, use that. The original recipe called for three dried chiles de arbol. If you use dried whole chiles, you'll want to heat them over medium heat in a dry skillet to toast them about 30 seconds on each side. Also, we have Mexican oregano growing in our garden. It's great for seasoning taco fillings, beans, you name it. You can substitute dried.

Note: Early on, we also tried marinating the meat in the pineapple basting sauce and while it imparts great flavor, the citrus essentially cooks the meat while it's marinating and destroys the texture. It just turns to paste. So don't do that!

Whether you cook it as kebabs, in a big piece and shred it or on a rotisserie, this is some good eating. Serve it on fresh corn tortillas with the pineapple salsa, some cilantro, roasted onions and pineapple and you'll be feasting.

Al Pastor Kebabs

Pineapple Basting Sauce and Salsa
1/2 white onion, peeled and sliced in half
1 + 1 teaspoon chipotle powder, separate
1 whole pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into cubes
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cloves of garlic
2 teaspoons of fresh Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
32 ounces canned fire-roasted tomatoes
6 tablespoons water
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Broil your onion half on your grill or under the broiler for about five minutes on each side, until it's softened and charred.

While that's cooking, make your pineapple basting sauce. In a blender, combine one teaspoon chipotle powder, pineapple, vinegar, oil, garlic, oregano and cumin. Pour into a bowl and set aside. Hang on to the blender, you're about to use it again. You don't even have to clean it out though.

When the onion has finished roasting, put it in the blender. Add the tomatoes, one teaspoon chipotle powder and water. Blend until smooth. Add cilantro and 3/4 cup of the pineapple basting sauce. Blend again to combine.

For the meat
2 pounds pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
1 large white onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 fresh pineapple, cut into 1-inch chunks

To serve
chopped fresh cilantro
lime wedges
fresh corn tortillas (approximately 16-20)

Prep your grill (medium-high heat). If you're doing kebabs, toss the pork in the remaining pineapple basting sauce. (Don't do this ahead or it'll ruin the texture of the meat.) Then immediately thread the pork, pineapple chunks and onions alternately on to skewers.

Grill until cooked through about 15 minutes, flipping them over about halfway through.

To serve, steam the tortillas in a damp kitchen towel in a microwave for about 1-2 minutes until steaming. Serve kebabs on the warm tortillas with pineapple salsa, cilantro and lime wedges.

Adapted from Gourmet.


MM Pack said...

Hi, great to meet you online last week! In response to your request for memorable tacos al pastor in Austin, if you haven't checked out the relatively new El Naranjo on Rainey St, I recommend it. Chef/owners Iliana de la Vega and Ernesto Torrealba formerly owned a restaurant by the same name in Oaxaca and their Mexican regional cooking is remarkable. They do different dishes on different days, so call ahead.

Lauren said...

Thanks for the tip! El Naranjo is at the top of my list, actually. Can't wait to try it.