While I was working and living in Decorah, Iowa, a couple of my friends and I would always be on the look out for new and interesting places to eat. One place we found in a neighboring town was a Mexican grocery/restaurant called Sabor Latino, which translates as Latin Flavor. Within a year after we had first visited this place they opened a restaurant in Decorah. The new place was such a regular stop that the whole staff knew our names, our order, and what was going on in our life. Plus, they would throw in some freebies on a regular basis. Which, of course, just encouraged us to come back all the more often. They closed their doors shortly after we stopped making it a regular stop. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not. The reason why we stopped going was that one our trio graduated from college and stopped coming into town on a regular basis. Of course, the fact that they got raided for having illegal immigrants working there may have been a factor. (Just for the record, we did not know that some of the workers were here illegally).
There were several things that I learned from our frequent visits. I fell in love with their pico de gallo (fresh, uncooked salsa) as well as relished their guacamole. In fact, when I make either of these items at home, it is their recipes that I try to emulate. We also discovered a drink called horchata. Horchata is a rice milk beverage made with cinnamon, sugar, and sometimes with almonds or vanilla. It is a cool and very refreshing drink that I have surprisingly not attempted to make. I’ll have to put that on my list to try. I’m not sure if it’s the same one as in his cookbook that I have or if it’s a different recipe, but here is a link to Aarón Sanchez’s horchata recipe (Right now I’m too lazy to get up off the couch and look). But, the most relevant thing to this post is that I discovered the method how Mexicans prepare their tacos. Forget about what you normally see in the U.S., i.e. covered in lettuce, tomato, and all sorts of a salad, the way we were shown was to just put some diced onions and some cilantro on top of the meat. I’m not sure what it is about that combination, but it helps to liven up the meat flavor as well as add its own dimension to each bite. I much prefer “Mexican style,” as the boys at Sabor liked to say, as opposed to what normally passes in the U.S.
While flipping through the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a Tacos al Pastor (shepherd’s style taco) recipe. I was even more surprised when they just called for cilantro and onions for a topping. Given this gift of a recipe and the memories that I have connected with eating this dish, I couldn’t wait to cook it. At this point in time, we had already made plans to go down and visit one of the people that I had spent so much time with at Sabor Latino. It seemed almost sacrilegious not to cook it for him. It was even more fitting in my brain to cook this for Narren because he has cooked for me countless times in the past. Granted, it was often payment for helping him with something (hence him dubbing me a food-whore). But the occasional payback is nice too.
I did end up making several modifications to the recipe because I wasn’t cooking in my own kitchen. As usual, I’ll put my notes in parenthesis.
- 10 large dried guajillo chiles, wiped clean; can substitute New Mexican chiles (I used a Tbs of Crushed Red Peppers)
- 1 1/2 C Water
- 1 1/4 lbs plum tomatoes, cored and quartered
- 8 Garlic Cloves (I used 1 1/2 small bulbs)
- 4 Bay Leaves
- Salt and Pepper
- 3/4 tsp Sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground Cumin
- 1/8 tsp ground Cloves
- 3 lbs boneless Pork Butt Roast (the one I got weighed 3.5 lbs and had a bone, but it dressed out to 3 lbs)
- 1 Lime, cut into 8 wedges (I used 2)
- 1/2 Pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2″ thick rings (did not use at all)
- Veggie Oil
- 18 Corn or Flour Tortillas, about 6″, warmed
- 1 small Onion, chopped fine
- 1/2 C fresh Cilantro, coarsely chopped
Toast guajillos in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until softened and fragrant, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to large plate and when cool enough to handle, remove stems. (Obviously, I completely skipped this step.) Bring toasted guajillos, water, tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, 2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, sugar, cumin, and cloves to simmer in now-empty Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occassionally, until guajillos are softened and tomatoes mash easily, about 20 minutes (I only cooked it about 12 minutes).
While the sauce simmers, trim excess fat from exterior of pork, leaving 1/4″ thick fat cap. Slice pork against grain into 1/2″ thick slabs.
Transfer the pepper-tomato mixture to blender and process until smooth, about 1 minute (I pulled out the bay leaves). Strain puree through fine-mesh strainer, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Return puree to pot, submerge pork slices in liquid, and bring to simmer over medium heat. Partially cover, reduce heat, and gently simmer until pork is tender but still holds together, 90 to 105 minutes, flipping and rearranging pork halfway through cooking. Transfer pork to large plate, season both sides with salt, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Whisk sauce to combine. Transfer 1/2 cup to bowl for grilling. Save another 1/2 cup for use later. Squeeze 2 lime wedges into sauce in bowl and add spent wedges; season with salt to taste. (This is where I stopped with the recipe, I just used the bit of sauce to keep the pork moist for serving it.)
Heat grill until hot. Clean and oil cooking grate. Brush one side of pork with 1/4 cup reserved sauce. Place pork on one side of grill, sauce side down, and cook until well browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Brush pork with remaining 1/4 cup of sauce, flip and continue to cook until the second side is well browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Transfer to cutting board. Meanwhile, brush both sides of pineapple rings with vegetable oil and season with salt to taste. Place on other half of grill and cook until pineapple is softened and caramelized, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer to cutting board. Coarsely chop pineapple and transfer to serving bowl. Using tongs to steady the pork, slice each piece crosswise into 1/8th inch pieces. Bring remaining sauce to simmer, add sliced pork, remove pot from heat, and toss to coat pork well. Season with salt to taste. Spoon small amount of pork into each warm tortilla and serve, passing chopped pineapple, remaining 6 lime wedges, onion and cilantro separately.
Normally, I try and stick pretty close to the recipe the first time I follow it. I make notes and change it on the subsequent tries. The reason I deviated so much on this one is because I was cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen (Narren’s) and using a grocery store that I was unfamiliar with, i.e. I would have picked up the peppers somewhere else had I known I couldn’t get anything close to them. I’m going to go one of two ways the next time I do this recipe. Either I will follow the recipe as intended and grill the meat and pineapple, or, more likely, I will do a slow roast in the oven instead of the stove top treatment. Really the only critique that I had with the way I did it was that the meat ended up a bit tough. But through some creative slicing, I was able to minimize it. Which is why I’m thinking of doing a slow roast, and almost going for a pulled pork sort of effect. Although I do like the idea of crisping up the pork. Well, we’ll see where my whims take me.
Is it possible to have nostalgia for some place that you have never been? I just finished watching a BBC series called Michael Palin’s New Europe. It’s a really good documentary done by one of the Monty Python boys about life in Eastern Europe in 2007. It’s a typical travel show that is really well done, but that’s not the reason why I’m writing about it. Any decent travel show at least touches on the local foods. What I’ve noticed many times, especially with this series, is that when they show the traditional foods of northern Eastern Europe I get hungry and a bit homesick. This is because that food is what I’ve always considered comfort food even though for most people it is exotic and a bit disgusting and/or disturbing. Pickled anything, and I mean anything, gizzards, vegetables, pig’s feet, fish, just to name a few. Headcheese, regular cheese, bread so dense that it could be used in self-defense, duck blood soup (OK, I don’t like this one, it’s too sweet, but my mom loves it), sausages, sausages, and more sausages, mushrooms, herring and other small fish. vodka (duh), cabbage in all of its glorious forms, fat in so many forms and quantities that you wonder how the whole country doesn’t drop dead from a massive heart attack, and certainly not least, horseradish. I think you get the idea, and I’m hungry again.
As for the homesick part, I’m not sure how to describe it. When I see the Old World where my ancestors came from, it’s the same set of emotions that I get when I drive up to visit my folks on their farm. The sensations are almost physical in their intensity. It is a relaxing feeling, but with the knowledge that life isn’t easier out in the country. Simpler, yes, but not easier. I think I’ll just stick with that for now, relaxing but with an underlying edge of uneasiness. When these travel shows talk about the culture and the spirituality of the people, I can easily see why my family behaves as it does. Which is probably another factor in why I get homesick. Poles love food, hospitality, music, gatherings, all with an undercurrent of cynicism, and the more you can combine all of these, the better. Again, this explains a lot about my family.
That’s probably enough early morning ramblings for one post, so I’ll leave you with just one more thought and some pictures! Spirituality, specifically Catholicism, runs deep in both Polish culture and in my family. One of Grandma Rose’s happiest days was when my cousin Thomas took his vows as a priest. Back in 2004, he took a trip to Falkowice, Poland, where Dad’s side came from. Here are some photos from that trip.