This birria de borrego, or lamb birria, comes from Test Kitchen Assistant and master of dried chile sauces, Medardo Winkler. His education in birria comes directly from his family, who run birria stands in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Winkler is also entrusted with the Test Kitchen's secret recipe for harissa, our Algerian chile paste, so it seemed like a natural fit when he said he wanted to add a little harissa into his Sinaloan chile paste for the our birria experiment.
Winkler says that Sinaloan cooking, or at least his family's version of it, tends to be simple and doesn't use hard-to-source or complicated ingredients. This is Mexican comfort food at its best.
We made our birria with lamb, because there's only so much goat that two men can love.
Winkler's family prepares birria as a guisado or stew. We decided to barbeque our lamb to get a little closer to birrias prepared with pit roasted meats, without actually having to dig a pit in our asphalt terrace. We cooked 2" cubes of boneless lamb shoulder and leg meat in flame-safe cazuelas and used the bones for the consomé. Winkler's family prefers to use the goat head to make the stock or a little bit of caldo de pollo and bottled ranchero sauce to add umami flavor.
The North African influence is in the chile paste. Winkler's family generally only uses pasilla chiles for their birria recipe.
Birria de Borrego Estilo Sinoloa y Norte Africano
From: Test Kitchen Assistant Medardo Winkler and Chef Farid Zadi
For Medardo Winkler's Sinaloan Spice Blend:
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 small cinnamon stick
18 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1. Grind all the spices in a coffee or spice grinder. If you're using a coffee grinder, break the cinnamon into smaller pieces with a mallet before pulverizing.
For the chile paste:
8 dried pasilla chiles
3 dried guajillo chiles
3 dried chiles de arbol
2 dried ancho chiles
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1. Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles, toast on a hot comal or skillet for a few seconds on each side. Soak in hot water until soft, approximately 20-30 minutes.
2. Place chiles and garlic in a food processor, add 2 teaspoons of the spice blend, 1/4 cup of the chile soaking liquid and process until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the food processor as you work, add additional soaking liquid if the paste is too thick to process.
For the consommé:
Notes: Goat heads are inexpensive and easy to obtain if you live near a Latino butcher shop or supermarket. We also used leftover bones from our lamb.
1 goat head or 3-4 lbs of lamb bones
3 bay leaves
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
1. Season head or bones with salt and pepper, brown over high heat in large skillet. We charred our bones on the grill, since we had it turned on anyway.
2. Place head or bones in a large stock pock, cover with water and bring to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer, add chile paste, stir well. Cook for three hours, uncovered, taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper as desired, cook for one more hour.
For the lamb barbacoa:
4-5 lbs boneless lamb shoulder or leg meat cut into 2" cubes
1 tablespoon ground Sinaloan spice blend
Salt and pepper
1. Season lamb with spices, salt and pepper. Place in flameware cazuela or roasting pan, cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate and let marinade for at least an hour.
2. Pre-heat gas grill on high, place the cazuela or roasting pan on top of the grates, cover grill with the lid, reduce heat to lowest temperature. If you've never roasted on a barbeque grill using this method, open the lid about 10 minutes later to check the temperature, if the meat is browning too fast, add some water, stir the meat, scrape the bottom of the cazuela or roasting pan to prevent burning and cover the lid. Check every 15 minutes or so, until you get a sense of how hot your grill is.
Notes: We kept our lamb completely covered for 30-40 minutes at a time, but every grill can be a little different, spend a little effort to get to know where the hot spots are determine if your thermometer is accurate. Total cooking time for our lamb was 4 1/2 hours.
Also, If you don't have flameware cooking vessels (not very many people do) you can use a disposable roasting pan. Alternatively, you can also slow roast the lamb in a 325F oven or simply prepare this recipe as a guisado or tatemada instead. Our recipe incorporates harissa ingredients and Medardo's chile paste into one step, since the methods for making both are nearly identical.
Overall, Mexican and North African cuisines share quite a few of the same ingredients and cooking techniques, so you might not even be able to discern which component comes from which part of the world in this recipe. Cooking birria outdoors is an all day affair or what Winkler calls, "an 18 pack of beer day," and that's just for the cook. So make this a social event, and invite some family and friends over to help with cooking.
Serve birria with warm corn tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro and wedges of lime.