You may recognize this man by his trademark spectacles that darken in the sun yet inside magically clear. You will also no doubt recognize him as the grilling guru from his informative program on PBS. I do, because like NPR is where I get my up-to-date smart sounding stuff, PBS is where I get my historically relevant, though admittedly harder-to-fit-into-casual-conversation, knowledge.
This book, however, does not focus on the slow-cooking barbecue that comes to mind for many of us when we think of the word. It is rather, an encyclopedic volume of grilling from around the world. It is jam-packed with grilling tips, historical facts and cultural knowledge. It spares not one corner of any of its 600-some pages from something informative, and for this reason starts out a little overwhelming for Bush-league grillers like myself. But while leafing through page after mouth-watering page, from Vietnamese Grilled Bread to Burkina Faso-style Lamb Kebabs to Malaysian Grilled Fish Mousse, I came to page 212, and I realized why this book had found its way to me.
"Shepard's Tacos," it read. And in smaller, parenthetical letters below, were of course those three most delectable words: "Tacos al Pastor". A recipe for tacos al pastor is hard to come by. Taquerias in Mexico guard this recipe with ferocity, and internet searches turn up such a random mix of results that it doesn't seem worth it to even try. What Raichlen has here in his book is a recipe from a real-live taqueria in Mexico. I have no idea how he got it, and of course, it is likely that we don't even want to know the details of how he convinced them to hand it over, but he did, and it is a testament to how deeply researched and authentic this book likely is.
This recipe comes from "El Fogon" in "Carmen del Playa", which I believe must be just up the coast from "Playa del Carmen". And just like opposite world momentarily confused Raichlen's editorial staff, my world was suddenly about to change. My taco al pastor outside world and my pastor-less home kitchen world were, without warning, set to collide and potentially destroy everything that I once knew. Or? Or would my two worlds collide and create a new, unstoppable me, equipped with pastor at every meal, at every hour of the day?
While that sets the table for hours of interesting debate, I must move on to my next and most obvious question: what about the spit? As much as I love pastor, I don't think my wife will let me have a spit in the kitchen (I know she won't, actually, I've asked). This has always been the limiting factor that has stopped any of my attempts to make pastor at home, even if I could find the recipe. I have gone through many beer-fueled conversations scheming ways to rig a spit of some sort over my grill or stove. Raichlen's answer to this is simple and rather genius: slice paper thin strips of pork loin, marinate and then grill each quickly and individually over direct coals.
"That really might work!" I yell out in amazement. Once the marinade is good, the absolute key of a perfect taco al pastor is a thinly sliced piece of pork with perfect char on one side and moist pork on the other. While this would likely not be all that moist, it would be well-charred, and if the marinade was worthy, it had world-changing potential.
It starts with a 3-lb pork loin. Sliced paper-thin. Next time around I might have the butcher slice this up for me, because while I did come out with some good slices, my overall knife skills leave a lot to be desired. Finished slicing, I set to work on the marinade.
The Taco al Pastor Marinade:
4 ounces guajillo chiles, seeded, de-veined and soaked in 4 cups of hot water for 1 hour
1 cup of the chile-soaking liquid
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp coarse salt
2 tsps freshly ground black pepper
2 tsps dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp anise
1 tsp dried thyme
The marinade is super easy. After the chiles are ready, chop them and add them to a blender. Throw in everything else, including 1 cup of the water where the chiles were marinating. Mix it all up as best you can. Chop one of the onions up into 1/4 in slices and mix it in a tray or bowl with the slices of pork and all the marinade. At this point the marinade did not quite smell like pastor, but rather the strong spices of pepper, cinnamon and anise.
I still had faith that it would all come together, and covered it in foil and put it in the fridge overnight. (Mr. Raichlen recommends at least 4-6 hours.) The next day I fired up the charcoal grill and set the coals up in the middle for maximum direct heat. I then grilled the pork slices, several minutes on each side, or until they had some nice spots of char on them.
Mr. Raichlen also recommends grilling the onions, but pastor doesn't have grilled onions, so I didn't waste any more grill space with them. Oh, and before I grilled the pork, I grilled 1/4 inch slices of pineapple.
I also made a salsa from my own recipe book that goes like this: 8 to 10 boiled tomatillos, a slice of white onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a pinch of cilantro and 2-3 serranos. I blended it all up and then sautéed it for 4-5 minutes in some oil, adding salt to taste. I then mixed in a half avocado and mashed it up. It ends up being similar to the typical "salsa verde con aguacate" that is found in many a taqueria.
I also had ready some warmed tortillas, chopped onion and cilantro. When the first batch of pork came off, smelling, I must say, quite a lot like pastor, my wife and I made some tacos and nodded to each other, recognizing this potential world-changing first bite.
World changing it was. It was a very good taco al pastor. And I made it. It blew away every single taco al pastor that I have ever had in a taqueria that didn't use a spit. It was even a better tasting marinade than some places that do have a spit. It was a little dry, yes, but I think that is because my coals were not hot enough so I had to cook for a longer time to get a good char. It also was a little strong with the cinnamon flavor, but I used the powerful Vietnamese Saigon Cassia cinnamon from Savory Spice Shop. In the future, I will use Mexican cinnamon, or use a bit less of the former. Otherwise, it was really a great taco, and Steven Raichlen is the man for bringing it to me. Here is one more look without all the toppings.
Pastor, as I mentioned earlier is a hard recipe to come by. Many, many taco shops both inside and out of Mexico get this recipe absolutely wrong. Steven Raichlen somehow found a great one and then adapted it for the home cook brilliantly. I would venture to say, without having had the time to explore Planet Barbecue in full, that is likely full of other equally authentic recipes from around the world. For $22.95 it is an absolute steal of a cookbook that would give you years and years of good use.
Mr. Raichlen will be in Denver June 6th. Actually he will be all the way down in Park Meadows from 2-4pm signing books. At the Williams and Sonoma store. Hopefully he will join me in Denver after that for some tacos al pastor.