Our recent journey home through the American southwest presented more than a few opportunities to sample the local regional fare of many locales. I’d love to say we were blown away by exceptional dishes at any number of dining venues, … but I can’t. The sole exception, as we made our way through Texas, was an opportunity to sample the justly famous beef brisket BBQ at City Market in Luling – and frankly, the experience of standing online on an early Saturday afternoon for eventual entry into the sacred inner-sanctum of the City Market’s smoke room was as much a part of what makes this a very special BBQ experience as the meat itself.
We wanted some take-out to eat in the park -or what passes for a park in Luling- mostly because we’d have waited again for any space at a table in the overcrowded dining room – and when we reached the front of the line, we noted that 1 lb was the smallest amount you could order – so, that’s what we ordered, along with 4 slices of white bread (No fancy plates or silverware here, just butcher paper). That was indeed a “heavy” 1 lb of brisket – we had two delightful meals on it, and stuffed ourselves at each.
No other Texas meals ever came close to that, in fact, I believe it’s fair to say that I came away from our Texas road trips with a re-newed disappointment -nearing disgust- for the stuff called “Tex-Mex” that we were served. As best I can tell, a Tex-Mex combo plate will get you 4 lumps of “something” covered with an olive drab sauce – it all looks the same, and it tastes the same – which would be fine if it were good, but it’s not. I will agree with those Texans who loudly claim that Tex-Mex is not Mexican food – neither is it New Mexican food, or Arizonian either. What I will tell you about it is that it is simply not good either!
And until Texas straightens out this prideful mess, I for one will not support the notion that these are the same people who make America’s best BBQ.
OK – got that off my chest. And it reminds me that when we arrived home, I went looking in the freezer for something to thaw for our next few meals – I spotted a pack of pork shoulder chunks, and the first thing that sprang to mind was to use it to make some real Mexican dish, if for no other reason, to make up for all the make-believe Mexican food we’d had along the way. So, I grabbed my Diana Kennedy books on Mexican cooking, and proceeded to search for inspiration.
I have long been reading Diana Kennedy’s work – she is the perfect cookbook author for a cook interested not only in the food itself, but also the culture and history of a region. Her style is impressive. First, she herself discovered the foods she wrote about – Kennedy did not borrow the ideas and research of others, but depended on her own first hand investigation – she found the respected cooks of the community, then she developed a friend’s relationship with that cook, and finally asked if she could witness the dish in question being made just as it had been for hundreds of years. Only then did she request permission to use the treasured recipe in her book. This is a painstaking methodology, and paired with a uniquely personal writing style, it has made Diana Kennedy Mexico’s most renowned non-native champion of classic Mexican cuisine.
Before too long, I had come across my own notes in her first book, “The Cuisines of Mexico”, suggesting that she had a very good recipe for pork picadillo on page 263 – turning to that page brought me to a recipe for Chiles Rellenos – so where was the pork picadillo? And then I saw; the picadillo was only part of this total recipe – the stuffing!
My memories came flooding back – I remembered beginning the rather long and involved task of making the stuffed chiles one weekend long ago – the picadillo is only step one of a the long project. I made the picadillo, but never got any further! Why? Because, my friends, once this picadillo is tasted, there is no reason to continue – the pleasure of a hundred nights is found within this one simple dish.
Yes, it’s that good. This was not my first picadillo – I have eaten often in Tampa, Florida, with its notable collection of Cuban family restaurants – and picadillo is on the menu of each and every one of them. It is to a Cuban family restaurant what chili is to an American diner – and in fact, that analogy gets even stronger when one examines the construction of each – they are quite similar in composition, spices notwithstanding. In fact, a Cuban picadillo may, or may not, be served with beans, just as with chili, and both are based on the use of ground beef. They are both, as well, pure peasant food – and I’ve loved each and every one I ever had.
But Kennedy’s picadillo trumps them all. And I can trace that fact to three distinct differences – first, the meat is pork, not beef, and pork always brings a richness to a dish that beef cannot (try pork chili sometime to see) – second, there is a world of difference between ground meat and shredded meat, or chunks, if you wish – and third, the peasant cooks of Mexico have had 100s of years to perfect this dish, and Kennedy has rediscovered it. It is a triumph.
May I suggest that you make this exactly as Ms. Kennedy presents it here – for so doing brings a balance of flavors which only a fine tuned recipe will. If you do so, you may never change a thing about this recipe as it becomes a family favorite. However, your taste buds may require an even further adjustment of flavors, and once the baseline is established, your own adjustments may be in order as well – But I hope your first try is of the classic.
Diana Kennedy’s Pork Picadillo
from “The Cuisines of Mexico”
(my notes in parens/italics)
3 lbs. of pork shoulder
1/2 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 Tbs. salt
Cold water to cover
Cut the meat into large chunks. Put them into a large, heavy pan with the onion, garlic, and salt – If you have bone and skin, use them as well – cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer until the meat is just tender – 40-45 minutes. Do not overcook. Let the meat cool in the broth.
Strain the cooled meat, reserving the broth, then shred or chop the meat finely and set it aside. Place the broth in the fridge and let it get cold enough for the fat to congeal on the surface – remove from fridge and skim off the fat – reserve the fat.
1/2 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
The chopped meat
Use up to 6 Tbs. of the reserved fat from the pork broth in a large frying pan and bring to a medium heat. Add the meat and let it cook for a few minutes.
5 whole cloves
1/2 inch of stick cinnamon (if you can get Mexican cinnamon, it is better)
3 heaping Tbs. of raisins
2 Tbs. blanched and slivered almonds
2 heaping Tbs. acitron or candied fruit, chopped
2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 1/4 lb. fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped roughly – (or a 1 lb. 12 oz can of whole tomatoes)
Crush the spices roughly in a molcajete (mortar and pestle) or grind in a spice grinder – add them, along with the rest of the ingredients (except tomatoes) to the meat mixture, and cook for a few minutes more. Mash the tomatoes a little and add them to the meat mixture, along with any juice from the tomatoes – continue cooking for 10 minutes. (Kennedy instructs you here to continue cooking the picadillo until it is almost dry, but recognize that she is intent on making a stuffing for her Chiles Rellenos – my choice at the stage is to use some/all of the reserved broth to give the picadillo a “saucy” character – my intent is to create a dish to be served over rice or beans or both. However, if you too would like to use your picadillo as a stuffing -it makes superb taco and burrito filling- then you too may want to cook most of the liquid out at this point.)
In the world of Hispanic foods, picadillo gets very little respect – and one good reason for this is that it is a dish so common that many restaurant versions are thrown together as a combination of shortcuts and cheap ingredients until only picadillo junkies would dare order it. However, wherever it survives as a treasured family recipe, it is worthy of adding to our food experience – and this is especially true of the Mexican versions, with their “cinnaminny” character, and their long historical tradition. Allow me to recommend Diana Kennedy’s version for its ease of preparation, but mostly for its taste – what’s more important than that?