The leaves of the maguey, called “pencas” are utilised for numerous purposes. One variety is used to create the fibre known as sisal while the thicker varieties can be cooked and eaten. Even the thorns were used as needles and for the practice of auto sacrifice. Some religious devotees and priests would pierce their earlobes, tongues or genitals with the thorns and collect the blood as offerings to the gods.
The leaf also plays a part in the kitchen. The outer skin of the penca can be carefully peeled off and used to wrap food before cooking. This will protect the food and impart a unique flavour, much like a banana leaf would. The wrapping, and the dish it creates, are called mixiotes. Mixiote is a traditional underground pit barbequed dish often consisting of mutton or rabbit although any meat (even fish) can be cooked in this manner. These days it’s done in the oven or on the stove top. One word of caution though, removing the mixiote from the penca kills the leaf. Remove too many and you risk killing the plant.
An alternative to using the mixiote is by cooking food wrapped in parchment paper in a process the French refer to as “en papillote” in a Mexican dish also referred to as Mixiotes.
Mixiotes de Pollo
- 6 ancho chiles
- 8 guajillo chiles
- 4 pasilla chiles
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Pinch of dried marjoram
- Small pinch of cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 dried bay leaf
- Pinch of dried thyme
- 8 whole cloves
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 3 chicken drumsticks
- 3 chicken thighs
- 3 fresh avocado leaves
- Fresh tortillas, for serving
- In a dry, hot pan, toast chiles over medium-high heat until pliable, turning often to prevent burning. Remove seeds and veins from chiles, and discard. Soak each type of chile separately in enough hot water to cover for about 20 minutes. Drain, and reserve liquid.
- Grind marjoram, cumin seeds, oregano, bay leaf, thyme, and cloves to a powder.
- In batches, combine drained chiles, ground herbs, garlic, vinegar, 1/2 cup chile soaking liquid (if not too bitter otherwise use chicken stock), and salt in a blender. Transfer to a large bowl. Add chicken, and marinate for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight.
- Cut three 16-by-16-inch parchment-paper squares. Place a drumstick, thigh, and an avocado leaf (or some hoja santa) in the centre of each square. Bring the four corners together, and tie with string. Place in a steamer, and steam over simmering water for 1 hour.
- To serve, remove string, and open parchment paper, folding under slightly. Serve with fresh, warm tortillas.
Barbacoa al Hoyo
Mixiotes are also cooked in a process known in Mexico as Barbacoa (not to be confused with the process known as barbeque or BBQ)
Barbacoa is a method of cooking foods underground in an earth oven and the pencas of the maguey are used to create an oven that helps cook, protect and impart a unique flavour to the food cooked in it.
There is a fine line between barbacoa, birria, mixiotes and pibil. Barbacoa is the Mexican way of cooking meat (which has been wrapped in agave) in a pit, birria is similar with mainly the meat and marinade used being slightly different. Mixiotes are individually wrapped packages of meat cooked in the pit while pibil is the Yucatecan way of pit cooking (primarily chicken or turkey). In Oaxaca the meat is often layered with avocado leaves which add a unique flavour.
To make a barbacoa first dig a hole about 4 feet deep and 2 feet wide. Line the sides and base of the pit with bricks or stones (or you could use charcoal briquettes in lieu of a stone lined pit).
The pit can just be a hole in the ground,
or something more permanent.
Build your fire in the pit and allow it to burn down to coals. While the fire is burning char your agave pencas over the flame to make them limp and flexible. The pencas must first be shaved at the base so they are of even thickness and pliability. Once the fire has burned down you can line the sides of the pit with the pencas overlapping them and laying the tops back on the surface of the ground. You may want to hold the tops down with stones while you finish the pit.
Lower a grate into the pit and stand a large metal pot on it. This pot will catch the juices from the cooking meat. Place a rack over the dish and place the food to be cooked on top of the rack. Add the ingredients in order of required cooking time. Ingredients that require longer cooking time like potatoes go in first, then comes the meat, which may include any or all of the following: chicken, pork, beef, lamb, and goat.
Fold the pencas over the meat and cover with a tray or board. If you don’t have agave pencas then you could use banana leaves to cover the food. This will also add a little flavour (as anyone who has eaten food cooked in banana leaves will know). Lay more leaves over this and cover with a straw mat (the Aztecs used a mat called a petate). The leaves (and mat) will help the steam to build up and to prevent heat and smoke escaping.Cover all of this with earth and allow the meat to cook.
Cooking times vary from about 6 – 24 hours depending on the amount of meat to be cooked. A small lamb will take about 8-10 hours.
Once cooked carefully uncover the meat so that you don’t get any dirt into it and eat away. The juices which have collected in the pot are eaten as a kind of soup or they can be added back to the chopped cooked meat for extra flavour.
Other varieties of pit cooking from around the world include, pachamanca (Peru), hangi (Maori), umu (Samoa), imu (Hawaii) and the lovo (Fiji). They are all very similar in nature to barbacoa.
Traditionally a salsa made with pulque, salsa borracha, was served with barbacoa.
Salsa borracha (adapted from a recipe by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz)
- 6 pasilla chiles
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 500ml pulque
- Salt and pepper to taste
Wipe down the chiles with a damp cloth to remove any dust that may be on them. Dry roast the chiles in a pan being careful not to burn them. Remove stems and seeds and soak them in enough hot water to just cover them. Soak the chiles for about 20 minutes until they are soft.
Blend (or grind in a molcajete) the chiles with the garlic and a little of the pulque to make a smooth paste.
Mix in the oil, the rest of the pulque and season with salt and pepper
A pasilla chile is a dried chilaca chile. They are often confused with the Ancho chile (which they look nothing like) because they can both be called chile negro.
The ancho chile is the dried form of a poblano chile. Both the ancho and the pasilla are mild chiles with complex flavours. The ancho is one of the chiles commonly used in making the famous mole poblano sauce of México.
If you don’t have access to a barbacoa pit (or the space to dig one) then you do not have to be forever bereft of the joys of barbacoa. Here is a recipe for barbacoa that can be made in a slow cooker. It is an adaptation of another chefs recipe. This particular chef is from the U.S.A. and has a genuine love for Mexico and its culinary history. He has been (somewhat unfortunately) the recipient of some criticism and has been accused of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a particular bugbear of mine and I feel that accusing someone of it can in some cases be a form of racism. This is not the place for me to rant on this particular subject but it will be the subject of a future post.
Slow Cooker Lamb Barbacoa
Cook Time 6-10 hours
- One 12-inch chunk of agave penca (leaf), spines removed
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3kg lamb (preferably on the bone)
- One 12 ounce bottle of Negra Modelo (average sized stubbie)
- 3 guajillo chiles stemmed, seeded and torn into large pieces
- 3 large or 4 small(ish) ancho chiles stemmed, seeded and torn into large pieces
- 4 garlic cloves peeled and rough chopped
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (about 50ml)
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 canned chipotle chile in adobo (and a tablespoon of the puree)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano (regular oregano will work too)
- 2-3 cups water
- Corn tortillas
- Chopped white onion
- Cilantro leaves
- Roast the agave leaf over an open flame (your gas stove would work just fine for this), turning every few minutes until it becomes charred and pliable, about 10 to 15 minutes depending on thickness. Cut the agave into 3 pieces.
- Pat the lamb dry with paper towels, and then season generously with salt.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place the lamb into the hot oil and sear each side of the lamb, turning as needed, you want some colour and a little char on the lamb.
- Place all the marinade ingredients in a blender (or food processor) with 2 cups of water and puree until smooth.
- Place the lamb in your slow cooker and pour in the beer.
- Pour the marinade through a mesh strainer into the slow cooker and all over the lamb. Nestle the pieces of agave around the lamb.
- Turn the slow cooker to HIGH and cover. Cook for 6-8 hours. You may need to add a cupful of water (250-300ml) or about the same in beer if you want there to be a little more broth in the finished dish. If you will not be ready to eat right away, turn the slow cooker to WARM once the cooking time is completed.
- Remove the lamb from the cooker and take all the meat off the bone. Pour the broth out of the cooker into a clear jug and allow it to rest for a little while so the fat rises to the top. There can be quite a lot of fat in lamb. Decant off the fat and return the broth to the cooker. Taste the sauce. If you feel like the sauce should be more concentrated, transfer it to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat to reduce the sauce down. Season with salt if needed.
- Return the meat to the cooker and keep warm until service. Serve with corn tortillas (or rice) and garnish with a salsa of chopped cilantro and onions.
I used a penca from this type of agave (A.americana). This variety grows prolifically in Australia and it can often be found in areas of bush land where irresponsible people have dumped their garden waste. It has wicked thorns and the spines on the tip of each penca are rigid and strong. Caution should be taken when harvesting them as they pose a very real threat to your eyes if you’re not careful.
Negra Modelo is a dark beer. It is a Munich Dunkel-style Lager with a smooth malt flavour.