Lamb barbacoa

Recipe adapted from Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman

This wonderful version of Mexican barbacoa de cordero – lamb barbacoa – requires some unusual ingredients: banana leaves and dried avocado leaves (hojas de aguacate). Both can be found at supermarkets that specialize in Mexican ingredients, though you might have to stop at more than one (I found fresh banana leaves at one supermarket in the Dallas area, but I had to go to another a few blocks away for the avocado leaves). If you can plan ahead, you can buy the dried avocado leaves online. You will also need a spice grinder or mini-chop food processor in order to make the adobo, which I based loosely on Stupak's recipe. You coat a boneless lamb shoulder in the adobo and roast it slowly, wrapped in the banana leaves, for three hours, and let it sit an hour longer. So there's some time involved – and a bit of preparation, to make the adobo. 

But the result is pretty wonderful. You can serve it with warm tortillas – plus salsa and guacamole, if you like. Or use it to make lamb barbacoa tacos.

This recipe makes about 1 1/4 cups of adobo. You'll only need about 3/4 cup to coat the lamb; save the rest of the adobo for another use. "The dried chile paste is a component in countless dishes," Stupak and Rothman write, "slathered on robust meats like the pork for al pastor tacos...." Stored in an airtight container, it will last a week in the fridge or a month in the freezer.


FOR THE ADOBO

5 ancho chiles

5 guajillo chiles

3 whole cloves

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

One 2-inch stick of Mexican cinnamon, broken into a few pieces

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

5 garlic cloves, skin on

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Remove the stems from the chiles, tear an opening into each, shake out and discard the seeds. Set a cast-iron skillet over medium heat for a few minutes till the skillet is hot. Add the cloves, cumin, cinnamon stick pieces, peppercorns and oregano and toast them, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove the spices from the pan and grind them to a fine powder in a spice grinder.

2. Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Toast the ancho and guajillo chiles, turning them with tongs a few times, for about 30 seconds. Transfer the chiles to a medium bowl, cover them with boiling water and place plate over them (weighting it if necessary) to keep them submerged. Let the chiles soak for 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, reheat the skillet, add the garlic cloves and roast them, turning them with tongs a few times, until they're slightly softened and a little charred, about 6 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the cloves and set them aside until they're cool enough to handle, then pop them out of their skins with your fingers and discard the skins.

4. Drain the chiles and place them in a food processor with the ground spices, roasted garlic, vinegar and salt and purée to a paste.  Use about 3/4 of a cup to coat the lamb; store the rest in the refrigerator (for up to a week) or the freezer (for up to a month) until ready to use it.

FOR THE LAMB BARBACOA

1 boneless lamb shoulder, about 2 pounds

3/4 cup adobo (recipe above)

salt

2 banana leaves, with as few tears as possible

2 cups loosely packed dried avocado leaves (hojas de aguacate), about 1 ounce

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Slather the adobo all over the the lamb shoulder and season liberally with salt.

2. Gently unfold the banana leaves, keeping them intact as possible. Line the inside of a Dutch oven with one banana leaf, with its ends extending out of the pot. Lay the second leaf across it in the opposite direction, forming an X, with the ends of the leaves hanging over the sides. 

Banana leaves lining the Dutch oven

3. Arrange half the avocado leaves in a single layer on top of the banana leaves in the bottom of the pot. Nestle the adobo-coated lamb over the avocado leaves, and top with the remaining avocado leaves. Fold the banana leaves over the meat and tuck in the edges.  Pour in 1 cup of water and cover with a lid. Place in the oven and cook for 3 hours, until fork-tender.

4. Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and let the meat rest, covered and undisturbed, for 1 hour at room temperature. Remove the lid, unfold the banana leaves and transfer the lamb to a cutting board. Pick off any avocado leaves clinging to the meat and discard, along with the banana leaves.

5. Skim as much fat off the cooking juices as you can. Set a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the cooking juices through it. Clean the Dutch oven and pour the strained cooking juices into the vessel. 

6. Use two forks to shred the lamb shoulder, discarding any large pieces of fat. Return the meat to the Dutch oven, mixing it to coat it with the cooking juices. Adjust the seasoning, adding salt if necessary. Serve immediately with warm tortillas, or keep it warm in the covered Dutch oven while you make fresh tortillas for lamb barbacoa tacos.