Friday, July 4, 2014

Cookin' With Shrub: Enchiladas Al Pastor-ish

I've always felt that one of the hidden talents of shrub is its ability to stealthily slide out of its supposed restraints of beverage bondage. If you want to get creative, there are a lot of ways to sneak some of this fantastic drink into any number of dishes, savory and sweet alike.

I've done some minor experiments with this notion in the past, but it was always kind of a quick affair, reducing some shrub here for a glaze, or straight as a topping for ice cream or such, but I had never concocted a recipe from the ground up that wasn't adapted from somewhere else specifically.

Until now.

Don Whoa!, the pineapple shrub we've talked about before, has long haunted me with its gustatory potential. Pineapple and vinegar are both well known tenderizers of meat, with their acids and enzymes and what have you. It's probably no wonder to most people, when I say that when I start gathering a mental picture of meat and pineapple my mind immediately goes to the South of the Border favorite, tacos al pastor.

For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to try this Mexican marvel, the short version is that "Al pastor" is essentially a style in which pork is loaded up on a vertical spit device called a trompo, which is very similar to Middle Eastern schwarma. The pork, having been marinated in spices, dried chile, and pineapple, becomes juicy and tender as the gentle heat crisps the outside of this pig mountain as it turns. Pieces are shaved off with a sharp knife, and the meat with onion and other accompaniments(including pineapple pieces) are either served in tacos or a few other manners.

Delightful, no? Despite the amazingly tasty nature of a dinner involving the al Pastor style of meat management, this method posed a few problems for an apartment dwelling gent who would love to have his own trompo, but who unfortunately used up the entirety of his half of the kitchen space allotment by buying 900 different coffee devices and commandeering his very patient wife's lid drawer for spices.

There are other ways to get closer to an authentic reproduction, such as this brilliant method by the ultra-brilliant J. Kenji Alt-Lopez(one of my culinary heroes), but I didn't want to borrow a recipe and just shoehorn the shrub in. Since there was no possible way I could compete on grounds of authenticity, I decided I would have to strive to be aces in flavor to make up for it.

So I guess rather than me inaccurately calling this creation Enchiladas Al Pastor, we could think of this as an homage to its vibrantly spicy, tangy pineapple flavors; perhaps a sort of fanciful tangent if you will.

I give unto you Enchiladas Al Pastor.

Er, I mean I will...let's take a look at how we got there.

As it turns out, my first attempt to pair Don Whoa! and pork was far, far less successful. My first thought years ago was that the magical enzymatic beatdown that takes place when pineapple and/or its juice comes into contact with meat made me think that using it by itself as a marinade would a great idea. After all we have the sharp tang of vinegar, the sweetness of both pineapple and raw sugar, and the gentle citrusy heat of habaneros rounding out the package.

On paper, this sounds like a real ass-kicking roundup of flavor. As it turns out, however, the result proved to be slightly tangy, not hot, and pretty damned sweet. Decidedly not tasty.

The reality was that despite all of those elements being present in the shrub, the marinade itself was quite thin and watery, as vinegar does have a pretty sizable amount of water along with our old sharp pal, acetic acid. After thinking long and hard about the Epic Marinade Failure of '12, I finally realized a couple of the key components that a good marinade has that shrub alone is missing.

First, salt. You can season the pork all you want, but if you don't put any in the liquid it's going to be bland and lacking in a general savoriness. The other glaring hole in this equation was a medium that would carry flavor, preferably one that had some fat to better absorb the flavors.

Armed with this new way of thinking I assembled a very simple marinade involving salt, oil, our pineapple shrub, and the additions of the potent, resinous Mexican Oregano and the earthy, pungent funk of toasted cumin. In the interim, I cubed the pork shoulder and put the chunks in a bowl, finally pouring the marinade over them and sealing the bowl with a lid. It would then rest there for at least a couple of hours. 

With the pork presumably taking on some real flavor in the fridge, it was on to the big show piece of the dish, the enchilada sauce. This was going to be tricky; not only was the sauce going to go over the tortillas before their final triumph bronzing in the oven, but this was also going to be the liquid that the pork shoulder would be simmered in.

I have always heard that the basis of a good enchilada sauce was the use of whole dried chiles and spices, and who am I to argue with conventional wisdom?

One benefit of making things up as you go along is the ability to use whatever chiles you damn well please. I have seen a lot of red sauces that are very ancho heavy, but I was curious to do something different; ancho still had a solid place in my mix, but guajillos were going to be the leaders of this pack. Backing them up was a ragtag band of misfits such as Aji Mirasol, for mild heat and fruitiness, ancho for earthiness and depth, and pequin for clean, bracing heat. 

With my pepper selections complete, I halved and seeded the chiles and dry toasted each type of pepper individually over medium heat. There is a delicate balance in toasting these things; take them out too early and they haven't become aromatic or begun to tap into their full flavor, but if left too long, your final results will be bitter and acrid. You should just be able to smell the aromas before pulling them. I advise being particularly careful with tiny peppers such as the pequins as they take practically no time at all. tossed the into some warm stock so they would soak up some liquid and become soft and pliable. 

While peppers make up the bulk of the sauce, we'd be nowhere without the aid of aromatics. An onion was divided, and half of it was blistered in the pan the chiles were toasted in. This slightly caramelized the onion and gave it a little bit of that rich, smoky element that comes with that process. To balance that out, the raw half was also used along with some raw garlic cloves, and more of the cumin and Mexican oregano that we used in the marinade to echo those flavors that should have been making their way into the pork at that very moment. 

To the aforementioned items, more pineapple shrub was added for an extra bit of vinegary acidity, pineapple sweetness, and to help thin the mixture a little. This mixture was transferred to the Vita-Mix and blended into a thick paste. The mixture was strained to get rid of lumps and/or any excess seeds through a metal strainer, until the paste was about the consistency of a Kansas City BBQ sauce.

I am not sure if it was the use of pork shoulder in this dish, or the use of vinegar, but I took a page from Indian cooking and decided to stew the pork cubes much in the same manner I make vindaloo. The pork was browned in batches, and the sauce mixture was poured over the meat. After bringing the mixture to a boil, and a tight fitting lid was placed over the pot, and the heat was reduced to a simmer.

This went on for nearly an hour, and by the time I checked on it, the meat had become fork tender.

At this point, the finish line was in sight. Sarah helped me fill the tortillas and get them situated in our glass baking dish. 

After being nestled snugly together, the sauce that the pork was cooked in was then ladled over the enchiladas, and blanketed in a generous layer of shredded cheese. 

After a brief stint in the oven we were greeted with the following results:

Now I give unto you, Enchiladas Al Pastor-ish.

So after five hours of working at this, what did I learn?

First, authentic or not(in this case, clearly not), these things are damned delicious. 

The shrub, while subtle, does lend flavors of fruit, sweetness, and acidity in both the pieces of pork from the marinade and the sauce. It brings a really great sharpness that balances the rich chile sauce and keeps it from feeling too heavy. The pork shoulder falls apart when stewed in this manner, but also has a more substantial feel than shredded pork sometimes does. With a healthy dose of gooey cheese, there is not much to dislike, barring dietary or religious restrictions. 

That said, even when something is pretty great, it would be disingenuous to say there was no room for improvement, so there are a couple of small items I might consider tweaking in the future.

I might add a few more ingredients to the marinade; perhaps some garlic in there would be nice, and I am toying with the addition of a few drops of Maggi sauce or Tamari to boost the umami factor a little bit. 

In regard to the sauce, I love this blend of chiles, but I could see it as a basis to rotate in and out some different chiles, such as cascabels, or for some smoky undertones, use a little bit of Pasilla Oaxaca to anchor it, though a little goes a long way, unless you're hankering to eat a bacon-y campfire, in which case, go nuts.

I think I would also reserve some of the sauce and not use the whole amount to simmer the pork in. As it cooks the heat of the chiles dissipates a fair amount and the whole thing melds into a really deep, mellow mode that while rich in flavor, does lack some of the bite of the raw sauce. I would like to try ladling the raw sauce over the assembled enchiladas to see if it retains a little more of that bright, snappy heat when only cooked over the enchiladas.

The only other variant that I thought might be fun would be to adapt a dish that I used to enjoy at a Mexican restaurant my family went to often when I first moved to Seattle. They called it "Enchiladas Texas Style" aka "El Paso Enchiladas." I cannot say what made these enchiladas particularly aligned to that region per se, but I do know that they were stuffed with a metric ton of jalapeño and sour cream in addition to shredded chicken. 

Just do everything the same as above, but when assembling the actual enchiladas, add generous helpings of diced habanero and sour cream before baking. And if you really want, maybe some grilled pineapple if you're into that sort of thing.

From the ashes of disappointment to triumph on a plate, Enchiladas Al Pastor is a culinary comeback kid I think we can all get behind, authenticity be damned.

Enchiladas Al Pastor-ish

1.25 cup pineapple shrub
1 tbsp Mexican oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp salt

Enchilada sauce:
5 dried guajillo chiles
2 dried aji mirasol chile
1 dried ancho chile
3-4 pequin chiles
2 tsp salt
1 onion, halved
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup pineapple shrub
2 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp Mexican Oregano
2 tsp cumin, ground

3 pound pork shoulder, cubed
Flour Tortillas
Cheese, shredded

For Marinade:

If using whole cumin seeds,  place seeds in a small, dry skillet, toast whole cumin until fragrant. Let cumin cool, then grind in spice grinder. If using ground cumin, disregard this step and continue assembling marinade.

In a large immersion blender friendly container, combine oil, shrub, salt, and ground cumin. Crumble Mexican oregano between your fingers into marinade. Using an immersion blender, thoroughly blend the mixture until uniform. If you do not have an immersion blender, place all marinade ingredients into blender cup, and blend until uniform.

Trim pork shoulder of excess fat and cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch cubes. Place cubes in a sealable container such as a bowl with a lid or zip top bag and cover with marinade. Refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours. 

For Enchilada Sauce:

Start a medium skillet over medium heat, toast each individual type of chile separately, gently turning until chiles become aromatic and removing right away and setting aside. Overly toasted chiles will give the sauce an acrid taste, so be careful not to over toast them.

Warm chicken or vegetable stock on stove or in microwave until hot, but not boiling. Gently place dried, toasted chiles in hot stock and cover for thirty minutes. 

Meanwhile, pour 1 to 2 tbsp vegetable oil in the same skillet the chiles were toasted in and turn heat up to medium high until shimmering. While waiting for oil to heat, halve an onion. When oil has gotten to temperature, place onion half in oil, watching carefully and turning frequently until browned and lightly charred. Remove onion and set aside. 

After the chiles have soaked in stock for thirty minutes, pour chiles and stock into blender with garlic, both onion halves, shrub, salt, and ground cumin. Crumble Mexican oregano into mixture. Blend until smooth. Alternatively, you may use an immersion blender on this mixture in a large immersion blender safe container.

Strain sauce mixture through a metal strainer over large measuring cup or bowl. If mixture seems exceedingly thick, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup water to thin to desired consistency. 

Sauce can be made ahead of time and should be good refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

Stewing pork:

Remove pork in marinade from refrigerator. In a large heavy bottomed pot, heat vegetable oil on medium high heat until shimmering.

Working in batches, brown pork cubes in pot until they have taken on color, and set aside. After last batch of pork has been browned, add all other browned pork cubes back into the pot and cover with enchilada sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, the reduce to medium-low heat and cover with tight fitting lid. Simmer, stirring, very occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour or until pork cubes are fork tender or otherwise falling apart.

Assemble enchiladas:

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.

Spoon stewed pork chunks into tortillas, with some sauce from the stewing mixture, and add generous sprinkling of shredded cheese, careful not to overstuff enchilada. Place tortilla seam side down in 9 x 13 glass dish. Repeat process until glass dish is full of completed enchiladas. Ladle sauce from stewed pork over the enchiladas, smothering in sauce. Sprinkle generous amount of cheese over the sauced enchiladas. 

Place glass dish into oven, watching carefully until cheese has become fully melted and gooey. 

Remove dish and serve immediately.

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