Lamb Like You’ve Never Had It Before

Growing up with Jewish traditions, the Passover Seder was like our Thanksgiving. It was always a big to-do and the meal was always the same. Lamb. Lamb roasted over hot coals through the entire seder so you had this waft of amazing meat cooking, charring, and smoking making you eager for dinner. Lamb was always a normal thing for us. I never thought of it as weird but it was special. We only ever had it for Passover. Even now, when I buy lamb for any other meal, I kinda feel like I am cheating. 

I know there are plenty of people out there who don’t like lamb. Honestly, that seems a little weird to me but I have already shared I can’t be objective on this issue. I love it. What I hear most is that those who don’t like it don’t like the flavor. Whats interesting is depending on the part of the world the lamb is sourced from it will have quite distinctly different flavor profiles. Most lamb you buy at the market is from New Zealand. New Zealand lamb is pasture raised and feeds on grass it’s entire life. This is the main contributor for it’s flavor. American lamb is a more subtle flavor due to it being “finished” on grain rather than grass.

I mention all of this just to say that you shouldn’t write it off just yet. Hear me out. Prior to about two years ago a good number of people who knew me would probably have described me as a picky eater. This was true and false. I knew a lot of things I didn’t like but what I didn’t know what a majority of it was due to it’s preparation. What I have learned and continue to learn is that almost everything it about I didn’t like the finished dish it’s not that I didn’t like the ingredient. It’s a difficult thing to work through because you end up putting yourself in a situation of having to try something that you know from the start there’s a chance you won’t like it.

Now putting all that together, if you’re someone who typically doesn’t like lamb but either likes Mexican food or loves to cook this is a great place to start. It’s Barbacoa! To even begin to talk about barbacoa I have to talk about the lamb I got. This was yet another stellar purchase from the St. Paul Meat Shop. Being that they’re a local whole animal butcher specializing on local small farm livestock I am assuming it’s American lamb but when I go in next I plan on finding out who it’s “finished”.

Lamb Barbacoa (1)

So getting on to the recipe I need to start with explaining this is a recipe that uses 4 recipes. It takes time and it takes hunting for a couple key ingredients… but, if you have the time and find the ingredients this lunch is out of this world!

To start I had to make Adobo. This is a paste made out of several different dried peppers that are deseeded, torn into pieces, and toasted just till smoking, then soaked to soften. They are then added to some spices, and a tone of roasted garlic:

  • 8 Ancho Chilies
  • 8 Guajillo Chilies
  • 1 Chipotle Morita Chile

Carefull tear the peppers open, shake out the seeds, then tear the skin into pieces. Place on a small sheet pan lined with foil and toast in toaster oven for a few minutes just until you see a small wisp of smoke. Remove from the toaster oven and put in a bowl. Cover with hot tap water and weight down the peppers with a plate. Soak for 30 minutes. Drain (reserving the pepper water) and place in a blender.

While the peppers are soaking:

  • 3 whole Cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon Cumin Seeds
  • 1 two-inch Cinnamon Stick (canela, a Mexican cinnamon, if possible)
  • 1 teaspoon Black Peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon Dried Mexican Oregano

The recipe calls for toasting the spices and about a minute and then grinding them in a spice grinder but with such a small amount of spices I don’t know how necessary it is. If you want to I would recommend putting them on the pan you toasted you peppers on and just putting them in your toaster oven for a minute or two. (If you don’t have a toaster oven you can either use a conventional oven filling the same ideas as I laid out or you can toast both the peppers and the spices in a dry skillet.) After grinding the spices add them to the blender.

  • 20 Garlic Cloves

For the garlic I totally cheated and bought pre-pealed cloves. I put them in the same sheet pan I had been using this whole time and put them in the tasoter oven one more time. I roasted them until I see dark spots develop on all the cloves, some getting darker than others. I then pull them out and put them in the blender too. Along with:

  • 1 cup Cider Vinegar

Blend into a smooth paste. If it is too thick to purée little by little add some of the reserved pepper water to thin it out until you reach the consistency you want. Set aside until you’re ready to use it.

Next you’re going to get you lamb cooking. Now with traditional barbacoa it’s wrapped up in maguey leaves. However, in this recipe they offer an alternative but in technique and in what kind of leaf. So, rather than burying the meat in the ground over hot coals this will have you use a dutch oven lined with banana leaves. Finding banana leaves can be tricky. I finally found mine at an Asian Market in the freezer section.

You start with preheating your oven to 300ºF. Then you take:

  • 2 pounds Lamb Shoulder or Leg

…and coat it with the adobo you made. This is going to be a super messy job but essential. Then take your dutch oven and line it with the banana leaves one going left to right and one going top to bottom. (You need to make sure the leaves a thawed if frozen and be gentle you want to try avoiding any tears.) Then sprinkle 1 package of:

  • 2 packages Avocado Leaves (you should be able to find these at any Mexican market)

Add your lamb, top with the remaining package of avocado leaves, and one at a time tuck the banana leaves in around the meat, trimming off any excessive excess of the leaf with a pair of scissors. Once all the leaves are tucked in add:

  • 1 cup (8 ounces) Water

Cover with the lid and place in the oven for 3 hours. At the end of the cooking time you will need to pull the dutch oven out and place it somewhere to rest for 1 hour undisturbed. After the 1 hour rest open and uncover the lamb. It will have shrunken considerably. Carefully remove it from the pot (it will be VERY tender and want to fall apart). Once on a cutting board or platter remove any avocado leaves stuck to the meat. With two forks pull off chucks of the meat. Pull in opposite directions with your fork against the grain of the meat, shredding it.

Once all the meat has been shredded remove the banana leaves from the pot carefully trying to get all the juices and adobo to stay in the pot. Discard the banana leaves. Pass all the remaining content through a fine mesh sieve. Add the shredded lamb into the strained juices. Toss to coat well and set aside.


Now on to the Salsa Baracha! This is a fascinating salsa that starts with:

  • 2 Pasilla Oaxaqueno Chiles, carefully torn open, seeds removed, torn and briefly toasted just to the point where they begin to smoke

Place in a bowl and cover with hot tap water, weighting them down with a plate for 30 minutes. Then drain.

  • 3-4 medium Tomatillos, remove the husk and stem

Leaving the tomatillos whole place them on the same sheet pan you have been using and add

  • 1-2 Garlic Cloves

Roast, turning as you see ark spots developing. Once you have dark spots all over the tomatillos remove from the toaster oven and put both the tomatillos and the garlic in a blender. For the final use of the sheet pan slice:

  • 1 White Onion, ¼ inch thick slices, spreading out on the sheet pan

Place in the toaster oven until you start to see darkening. Remove from the toaster oven and add to the blender. Add:

  • 1 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Honey
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) Mezcal

Purée until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use. The last step is to make the tortillas. For this recipe we made Corn Tortillas. All thats left is to put together all the toppings:

  • 1 small Cucumber, thinly sliced
  • 24 Green Olives, minced (I did this in a mini chopper)
  • ½ White Onion, diced (we’re not a fan of raw onion so I sliced mine and then sautéed them until they began to caramelize.)
  • Fresh Cilantro
  • Limes cut into wedges

Once assembled you get this explosion of flavor in your mouth that’s hard to describe. Even though there are more peppers used in this than I have ever used before this dish is not spicy. The Salsa Baracha is complex and when paired with the cucumber offers up something that’s crisp, fresh, and well balanced. The olives offer a bit of salty tang and the cilantro and lime gives it just enough of a sourness and bite. What you won’t detect anywhere in this meal is the gaminess some associate with lamb. Although this isn’t quick and easy both my husband and I loved it so much that this is sure to be a recurring treat each year when I am working with lamb.

This resembles nothing that I associate with my Passover memories so I no longer feel like I am cheating on my annual Seder treat. All of the components of this can be made ahead, re warm the meat and the tortillas and your good to go. This is making a memorable lunch this week that I just couldn’t wait to share. Yet again, Tacos knocked this recipe out of the park!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s