Happy Cinco de Mayo! Another great excuse to pop the top off a Dos Equis, fire up the grill, and fill the neighborhood air with the smell of smoking carne and chilies….mmm, delicioso. These tacos were inspired by a street-cart dinner in Sayulita, Mexico. A heap of chile-rubbed meat sputtered and charred on a vertical spit, topped with a bright gold pineapple. Crispy bits of meat were shaved into a fresh corn tortilla, and then with a sharp knife and a flick of the wrist, little bits of hot pineapple were hurled into the air, landing in the taco cradled within the cook’s hand.
Remembering them, I have to borrow a quote from Tom Robbin’s (Jitterbug Perfume) who said, “Never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer.”
I can’t bring the dusty brine of seaside Sayulita to a Cinco de Mayo meal here in this land of never-ending winter. Heck, I can’t even drink a beer with lil’ bun in the oven, but I can put on a jacket, fire up the grill and rekindle a very delicious memory.
Cooking with dried chilies is a fun way to bring home some authentic Mexican flavor, and if you know how to use them it doesn’t have to be a five-alarm, fire-extinguisher-to-the-mouth kind of meal. The goal, after all, is flavor, not pain.
In this recipe I used about three parts dried Ancho Chilies, and 1 part Chipotle. Ancho Chilies are dried Poblanos, commonly available fresh, and used for fried, cheese-stuffed, Chile Rellenos. They are mildish in flavor, with dark and earthy characteristics, and a slight heat that increases as they age. Chipotle Chilies are jalapenos which have been dried using smoke. Because of this they infuse dishes with a wonderful smoky flavor and a lot of jalapeno-style HEAT. Use them sparingly.
To coax the most flavor from this wet rub, I first toast the chilies in a dry skillet, just until they’re heated through and aromatic. This wakes them up, so to speak, releasing the aromatic oils and flavor molecules. You can do this on the grill too, over medium heat. Let the chilies cool before breaking into pieces and discarding the stems and seeds. Much of the heat in chilies tends to be contained in the seeds, and in my opinion, some bitterness too. You’ll still get plenty of heat without them. Next I put the broken pieces in a coffee mug and pour hot water over them. This helps rehydrate and soften the chilies so you can blend them with other ingredients for a paste-like marinade– aka wet-rub– which will cling to the meat as you grill it, giving it a nice charred crust and lots of flavor. If you taste the wet-rub before adding it to the meat you’re likely to think it’s way too spicy, but rest assured, once combined with the grilled meat, onions, pineapple, tortilla, and avocado, it’s a just-right medium kind of heat. If you’re not afraid of a nice, well-balanced kick, you’ll love these tacos.
Recipe: Tri Tip Tacos with Ancho & Chipotle Wet Rub
These medium-hot tacos combine smoky charred beef, sweet juicy pineapple, lightly grilled onion, creamy avocado, the clean bite of fresh cilantro. Add your beverage of choice and Cinco de Mayo dinner is served!
- 2 large Ancho chilies
- 1 large Chipotle chili
- 4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
- 2teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 – 2 tablespoons water
For the Tacos:
- 2 pounds beef tri tip (You may substitute hangar steak, or pork tenderloin)
- 1 whole pineapple, trimmed and cut into spears
- 2 medium white onions, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch thick discs
- olive oil, salt, and pepper
- 12 – 15 small corn or flour tortillas (chef’s choice)
- 2 ripe avocados, diced, or mashed into guacamole (chef’s choice)
- fresh cilantro leaves (about 1/3 bunch)
1. To make the wet rub: Toast the dried chilies in a dry skillet or on the grill over medium heat, just until heated through and fragrant. Let cool, break into pieces, and discard stems and seeds. Place in a mug or other heat-proof bowl and pour over boiling water to cover. Let sit 20 to 30 minutes or until chilies have swelled and softened. Drain and discard liquid and place chilies in small food processor or blender with remaining wet-rub ingredients. Consistency should be a wet paste and should cling to the meat without being too clumpy. If needed, add a tablespoon or two of water to the mixture to thin a bit.
2. If necessary, trim excess fat from the meat and cut into chunks of approximately equal size, about 3 x 3 inches. Toss to coat with wet rub. You may grill immediately, but for best flavor marinate the meat 8 hours or better yet, overnight.
3. Heat grill to a medium-high flame. Slice the avocado (or make guacamole) and set aside. Wash and dry the fresh cilantro and set aside. Prepare tortillas for preferred heating method (see note) and set aside. Cut the pineapple into spears and set aside. Slice white onion, keeping discs intact, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside. Add meat to pre-heated grill and cook to medium rare ( no more than medium), about 4 minutes on each side. When meat is about halfway done, add pineapple and onions to grill. Flip as needed, cooking until heated through and lightly charred. Remove meat, onions, and pineapple to clean platter as ready, and tent with foil to keep warm. Allow meat to rest at least 10 minutes before cutting.
4. Heat tortillas while you roughly chop the grilled onions, and pineapple. Cut the meat into bits, working across the grain as much as possible. Place meat and other toppings on a large platter and serve with warmed tortillas. Enjoy!
A Note about reheating tortillas:
Flour tortillas are easy to reheat. Just place on a clean plate and cover with a damp paper towel. Steam in microwave, in 30 second intervals, until heated through. Corn tortillas take a little more lovin’ to prevent them from becoming either a soggy mess, or dry and broken bits. There are a couple ways to do this.
Oil and a hot skillet: If you want to heat and hold the tortillas for a while before serving, spray them with a light coat of canola oil cooking spray (or similar), and heat one by one in a hot skillet, about 20 seconds per side or until soft and pliable. Stack them on a clean plate and cover with foil to keep warm. You can also hold them in a warm oven this way for up to 30 minutes.
Steam: If you are able to heat your corn tortillas immediately before serving, I recommend steam, but the microwave method doesn’t work so well for these more-fragile beauties. Set up a steamer that doesn’t have the little peg in the middle, like a bamboo steamer or the type that inserts into a coordinating pan. Add a couple inches of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Wrap a stack of no more than a dozen corn tortillas in a damp, clean dish towel. Once water is boiling add tortillas to steamer, cover with a tight fitting lid, remove from heat and let sit 10 minutes. You may have to discard the over-sogged top tortilla, but the rest should be warm, moist, and pliable for the next 10 minutes or so.