Slow Food, Sonora Style

Unless you’re a drug runner, things in Mexico generally move pretty slowly. I remember watching an entire construction crew working on a resort collapse in the heat and humidity of the late morning in Nayarit, and nap on site until the mid afternoon.

Machaca, mid-mash

Machaca, mid-mash

A lot of the foods of Mexico are slow, too. In the Yucatan, for example, they wrap pigs in banana leaves and bury them in the ground to cook for a day. Nobody’s setting timers or watching the clock. And in the cowboy cattle country of the desert north, they hang strips of beef in the sun to dry out in the blazing sun. Up there, they call it machaca.

Early encounters with something called “machaca” in the ubiquitous gringo burrito joints around L.A. left me unimpressed. How much cheap shredded beef can you stuff into a giant flour tortilla? It would be some time before I realized that I was not eating the real thing.

Properly prepared, authentic machaca is a revelation — savory thin slabs of dried beef, pounded into fluff, and then cooked with oil and onions and tomato, and rolled with a flour tortilla and a drizzle of salsa into a taco. It’s one of those tastes that is like nothing else — certainly nothing like the version you ordered at Baja Fresh or La Salsa.

10 minutes more pounding, perfect fibrous fluff!

10 minutes more pounding, perfect fibrous fluff!

Tradition has you pulling the beef down from the string you hung it on, crisping it up over a fire, then throwing it into a mortar and banging on it until anything resembling muscle fiber has been reduced to chiffon. Then you would stir it into a earthenware pot set over the fire with some lard, onion and tomato — maybe a chile or two — and cook until caramely. You would scoop it into some handmade flour tortillas and top with a little smoky dark salsa. Finally, you would take your plate of tacos out to a shady spot on the patio and enjoy it with a cerveza or freshly made margarita.

What could be better than that?

I would be nervous to hang beef outside, even on the hottest of Southern California days. When I’ve seen it done this way in Mexico, there are always flies in attendance. I do like the romance of it, though. I choose a food dehydrator instead, and find that thin skirt steak works well.

There are several shortcuts you can take when making machaca. For example, you could buy beef jerky — plain, not teriyaki flavor, please. Instead of pounding it out, you could throw it in the food processor or Vitamix. The result, while powdery instead of shreddy, will still taste good. Though the vaqueros may frown upon you — plus you’ll miss the therapeutic benefits of all that pounding (imagine you’re taking your aggression out on your boss or your spouse). But the important thing is that however you try it, you try it.

The taco

The taco

I like to make my own homemade flour tortillas for this dish, slowing things down even further. I’ve included that recipe below, too. But if you’re in a hurry, my city folk amigos, pre-made will do.

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Machaca tacos
serves 4 – 6

1 lb. flank or skirt steak, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick
1 brown onion, sliced thinly
1 tomato, chopped
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
8 – 12 small flour tortillas
2 ripe avocados, sliced
your favorite salsa

Sprinkle the steak liberally with salt. Next, you will want to slowly dry it out — use either a food dehydrator or an oven set at 160. Depending on the thickness of your meat, it will take anywhere from three to eight hours. When you’re finished, it should resemble large sheets of beef jerky. Remove from dehydrator or oven and let cool completely.

Once meat has cooled, place it in an oven at 400 degrees or a toaster oven, and toast for two or three minutes, until crispy. Remove from heat and let cool again.

Break and tear meat up into strips with your hands. Now you have a choice — do it the authentic way if you’ve got a good large mortar and pestle, or throw it in a food processor. The former method will take you 30 minutes, the later 30 seconds. I like the result better with the mortar and pestle, but I’m an authenticity geek. (And here I’ll just take a moment to promote my favorite mortar and pestle, the Milton Brook 6-inch — you’ll thank yourself for all eternity if you purchase this.)

Place the meat strips in the vessel of your choice. If you’re using a mortar, pound the meat for approximately 10 -12 minutes, grinding as you go, until it is beginning to break up. Take two forks, and shred the meat as much as you can. Then continue pounding and grinding with the pestle, taking breaks every few minutes to shred with the forks, for another 10 – 12 minutes, or until completely shredded and fluffy.

If you are using a food processor, grind on high for about 30 seconds, or until powdery.

Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, for about  3 minutes, until they begin to brown. Lower heat to medium and add tomato, stirring to meld with onions. Add machaca beef and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until water has cooked away. Remove from heat.

Serve machaca with sliced avocado, salsa and flour tortillas. You may choose instead to construct the tacos for your guests before serving them — place a tablespoon or so of machaca in a tortilla, top with avocado and drizzle with salsa.

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Homemade flour tortillas
makes 12

2 1/2 cups flour
4 tbsp. lard or shortening
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup warm water

Mix together the flour, salt and lard until thoroughly combined, using two forks or your fingers. Drizzle in warm water and stir with a fork until combined. Flour a cutting board, and knead the dough for a minute or two, until smooth.

Roll the dough out into a long cylinder, and cut into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, flour lightly and place on a platter or baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes.

Heat a flat griddle or large pan over medium heat. Flour a cutting board, and with a rolling pin roll out each dough ball until you’ve got a thin 5- to 6-inch circle. As you make them, toss them onto the hot pan and cook about 45 seconds to 1 minute. Flip, and do the same on the other side. When they’ve cooked, remove to a clean kitchen towel and stack, wrapping as you go.

Once made, you may keep them in the fridge wrapped in plastic wrap for up to a week.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Mar 08, 2013 @ 15:25:59

    This sounds wonderful. And, it will give us an excuse to finally buy a mortar and pestle, which we’ve been meaning to do for years.


  2. Angela
    Jun 14, 2014 @ 18:56:37

    This all sounds amazing!!! Where is this place located???


  3. Trackback: Year of the Taco | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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