Mexican food has baffled me. Beyond the tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos and empandas – there’s this whole other world of Mexican dishes that are all new to me. I know how to make most standard Mexican fare, the comfort food I’m used to ordering as take out back home — but what I’m really curious about is everything else.
Tonight I made birria.
There are signs all over town for it, and usually there’s a big clay pot on a stand, perhaps with some plastic chairs and assorted accompaniments. It’s street food that only comes out only in the mornings. Birria reminds me a bit of a savory beef stew, but spicy and with a hint of cinnamon, cloves and cumin. Here in Puerto Vallarta, the meat is usually beef (res) or goat (chivo). The stands open up first thing in the morning and by noon or 2 pm at the latest, they shut down. No more soup for you.
What I couldn’t figure out is why birria, which is a hearty spicy stew, is served in the mornings, but pozole (another dish I have to cook one of these days) which in Puerto Vallarta is usually pozole blanco, a clear broth with chicken or pork and hominy (giant corn soaked in lime) is only served at night.
Interestingly birria is also well-known as a cure for hangovers (or the common cold). File that away for later.
Ingredients for Birria de Res
They didn’t have goat today at the butcher, so I went with beef. You can just swap out the 4 lbs of meat for whatever you like, beef, goat, or lamb.
4 lbs beef (I just went with a very cheap cut because the slow cooking will tenderize anything)
6 guajillo chiles
6 ancho or mulato chiles
12 cascabel chiles
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
5 whole allspice (Note: the recipe calls for this but I skipped it. Long story… in Spanish allspice is pimiento de jamaica, or literally hibiscus pepper but no one knew what I was talking about and tried to either give me pimento (pepper) or flor de jamaica (hibscus flowers) — so I skipped it. I’m guessing if Mexicans really included it in this dish it would be available everywhere, but feel free to correct me in the comments if I have that wrong.)
10 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
Salt to taste (I used 4 tbsp of coarse sea salt)
1 cup of water
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped cilantro
First make the soup base. This recipe calls for three types of peppers but first a word on that. The Spanish name for dried chiles is different than the fresh chiles. So our recipe calls for:
-dried guajillo chiles which are known as mirasol chiles when fresh <– medium hot
-dried ancho chiles which are known as poblano chiles when fresh (mulato is another version of this) <– mild heat
-dried cascabel chiles which are known as bell chiles when fresh <– medium hot
(I mention this because I’ve been completely confused by the world of dried chiles but knowing this helped).
You don’t have to use all three, just use what you can get. It’s better to mix different chiles for depth of flavor but if all you can get are say, ancho chiles, no worries!
These are the guajillo chiles, I see these most often in Mexico:
These are the mulato (or you might use ancho, same thing):
And these are the cascabel chiles:
You might want to use gloves for this next part, but whatever you do, don’t touch anything if you use your hands. To make the paste you have to remove the seeds and veins and spread them out on a cooking sheet or tin foil to be toasted in the oven for 3-5 minutes.
I used my hands to do this, just ripping them open and shaking out the seeds. Then I washed my hands vigorously several times. Two hours later I touched my eye and almost died. Seriously. It was like my eyeball was on fire and I hid in the bathroom, flushing my face with cold water and wondering if I was going blind. Then I posted an update on Twitter. Because that’s what you do when you’ve blinded yourself with chiles.
Anyway, it should look like this:
And the big mess you made in your kitchen is like this (those seeds are super spicy. just toss them):
After you’ve toasted the chiles, add about 1 cup of boiling water to them (in a bowl) and let them sit for 20 minutes. Then toss the water, the chiles and all of the spices (except the bay leaves) into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Set aside.
Next you’ll take your 4 lbs of meat and quickly sear it on both sides, but don’t cook it all the way.
Put the seared meat into a big pot and fill with water to cover the meat. Add the onion and bay leaves.
Next, use a mesh strainer to refine the paste you created in the blender:
Just keep stirring it:
And the liquid will continue to stream out:
Until you have a goopy paste left, which means you’re done, you can toss the rest:
Add 4 tbsp of kosher salt or there abouts (taste as you go). Cover your stew, set it on low heat for three hours.
Then you go outside and take pictures of flowers. And your son. And more flowers.
Maybe edit them in Lightroom while telling everyone on Facebook you’re making B-I-R-R-I-A!!!
Basically, you have three hours to kill. Do with what you will. But then there’s this…
Which is this really intense stew that is rich like the beef stew you know, but the chiles give it this mild under current of heat. It’s spicy, but only after a few bites. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and everything has the slightest hints of cinnamon, cloves and cumin. It’s really good.
I dressed mine with chopped cilantro and onion. I’ve seen radishes at all the stands. I also added a little extra salt. The best way to eat it? I like to use tortillas and fill them up with the meat, then dip it in the broth as I’m eating. Birria is also fantastic for tacos, quesadillas or just dunking tortillas.
And you know what? After I ate a bowl of this, I did feel like maybe it cleared up my sinuses. Maybe it is the miracle cure-all after all.