Cooking With Dried Chilies, Part 3: Barbecued Pork al Pastor

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John Linn
Barbecued pork al pastor all chopped up and ready to eat.
Welcome back to Charlie's dried chili adventure. In previous installments, we talked about how to prepare dried chilies as powder or puree and how to transform those ingredients into award-winning chili con carne. Today, we're going to use our chilies to make pork al pastor, a Mexican dish I put a little twist on.

Classic al pastor is a spicy, tangy preparation of pork that is roasted on a vertical spit a la gyros or shawarma. The meat is marinated with a spicy paste with ingredients like chili, pineapples, orange juice, and even soda. Pastor makes fantastic tacos and burritos since the meat has so much flavor -- a number of local taco joints such as Tacos al Carbon and Dona Raquel make fabulous al pastor.

Since I didn't have access to a shawarma-style spit, I decided to put a twist on al pastor and barbecue it slow and low for hours. I hoped the results would be the same: tender meat that comes apart with a fork, the tangy, spicy flavor of the marinade seeping in over time. To put another twist on the dish, I decided to not only marinate and smoke an eight-pound pork butt but also an entire leg of lamb to go with it.

I started out using a recipe given to me by reader Freakerdude, which uses the chili paste I made from dried cascabel and ancho chilies (details in Monday's post). The recipe is as follows:

4 pasilla chilies, hydrated and pureed
4 guajillo chilies, hydrated and pureed
4 ancho chilies, hydrated and pureed
3 garlic cloves
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup Coca-Cola
1.75 oz. El Yucateco achiote (half of a 3.5-oz box)
1 tsp. cumin
4 cloves
chipotle chili powder for a bit of spice

Combine the above ingredients in a food processor and blitz. Since I had already purchased arbol, ancho, and cascabel chilies, I used those instead of the pasilla and guajillo. After you've pulsed the above ingredients, the marinade should be thick and brick-red. You'll want to strain it to remove any excess skin or seeds that we didn't remove beforehand, but if you already did that with your chili puree, you should be in the clear.

John Linn
I completely coated the surface of the pork butt in brick-red al pastor paste, then wrapped it tight with plastic wrap to marinate overnight.

Next, coat the meat in your marinade and wrap tightly in clear film. I like using this method better than using a freezer bag because (a) the marinade maintains surface contact with the meat, leaving air out of the equation, and (b) it works better with large pieces of meat that won't fit into bags or containers. Place the wrapped meat in a large baking dish (to collect juices that run off) and refrigerate overnight.

John Linn
I convert my propane grill into a makeshift smoker using wood chips, a large chaffing pan filled with water, and the top racks of the grill.

The next day, I removed the pork and lamb from the fridge, and they were a beautiful bright red. I warmed up my propane converted smoker using the method detailed in this post. I used a bag of hickory chips for smoke flavor and set up the bad boys to cook for eight hours. Some of the marinade had drained off the meat into the baking dish (plus I had a little left over), so I put that together in a bowl to save for later.

John Linn
This is the meat five hours in. I added a rack of ribs just below the pork and lamb for good measure.

John Linn
Here's the finished shoulder, resting. The crust was amazing, very crisp and full of spice.
After eight hours, the meat was done. I wasn't sure how the flavors of the al pastor would hold up to such long cook times. But as you can see, the pork formed a thick, deeply red crust that was spicy and full of chili flavor. It was also nice and crunchy, like good bark on barbecue is. I removed it from the smoker and allowed to rest for about 20 minutes (that stuff is hot). Then I chopped it up into half-inch chunks, mixing around the smoky bits by the surface, the bark, and the tender meat from the center of the shoulder.

John Linn
The flavor was great -- porky, juicy, fatty, and spicy. I took the marinade that I had set aside and simmered it in a saucepan until it was cooked completely, then set that on the side for people to add to their tacos as they liked. The proper method would be to cook the marinade into the chopped meat again in an oven or under the broiler, but I wasn't sure all my guests would want their meat that spicy.

To make tacos from the pork, I purchased a few big bundles of corn tortillas from Dona Raquel, as well as a quart of their vibrant green tomatillo salsa. I chopped up a whole mess of white Spanish onion and cilantro and set that to the side along with some crumbled queso fresco, sour cream, and homemade guac. The results were incredible. The pork made fantastic tacos, with the spicy/smoky flavor working great with the additional ingredients. My guests ate the entire pork shoulder in a matter of 20 minutes.

John Linn
A couple of tacos with the barbecued pork al pastor. Dig in!

How about the lamb? Well, here's the sad part. Somehow, the lamb leg I had purchased from Publix just the day before was bad. I mean funky bad... like rotten. I guess I hadn't noticed when I washed and cleaned the meat -- it didn't smell all that gamy for a piece of lamb. But yeah, it was wasted, just inedible. Really sad, since I had double-checked the use-by date in the store (it was two weeks away) and it cost more than $25. All I can say is, I probably won't be buying any meat from Publix again, especially meat like the lamb legs that come pre-packed in a vacuumed bag. In retrospect, I probably should have gone to a butcher or a reputable meat market. Next time I will.

Still, the pork was great, and I'd definitely make it again. Thanks to Freaker for supplying the recipe and my guests for eating it up.

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