Lily's Mexican Market was one of my original food finds in Howard County, but Raichlen's book led me to ingredients that I had never noticed before. It let me pair Lily's house-made corn tortillas with pork marinated in Mexican flavors, grilled thin-sliced, then served with pineapple for a dinner that felt more like a restaurant than my patio.
All week I have been posting about Planet Barbecue and promoting the book for people who want to explore Howard County's ethnic shopping. You have to know Lily's Mexican Market in Columbia, and you will want to taste these tacos.
Ironically, you need to start somewhere else because Lily's does not sell pork loin or pineapples -- the two largest ingredients. I got three small loins at Roots in Clarksville because I avoid supermarket pork injected with saltwater. I'd love another source if you know a good place for pork. Maybe the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Laurel? You also need a ripe pineapple. The balance of sweet and tart cuts through the rich flavors of the al pastor marinade, and the fruit's texture pairs nicely with the meat and grilled onions.
Go to Lily's for the Mexican flavor. In the back next to the butcher, you'll find a spice wall with packages of cinnamon, dried oregano, cumin, anise, and thyme. You'll also find packages of dried guajillo chiles and a block of the achiote paste. The guajillos and achiote deliver the unique taste that made me think that I'll need my own hardcover Planet Barbecue. Next to the spices is Lily's takeout taco counter where a machine punches out fresh corn tortillas. On the shelf nearby, coolers hold big plastic bags of tortillas. They're cheap, but you can also ask the folks at the counter for a small bag -- "Me puede dar una bolsa pequena de tortillas por favor?"
(In the interest of full disclosure, you may want some flour tortillas on hand. Mrs. HowChow prefers them over corn.)
Lily's is the perfect place to explore. All the packages have English ingredients. The checkout clerks speak English, and they're happy to answer questions or tell you where to find something. The produce section should have the small green tomatillos and onion that Raichlen's recipe requires. You can also get cactus for an alternative taco. Try a jar of the yellow Peruvian aji hot peppers, the smokey canned chipotle peppers, or a bag of plantain chips. (If you're closer to Laurel, you can find all the ingredients plus way more at Panam Supermarket. Panam's butcher might even have pork loin.)
Pair the tacos with grilled corn topped with cheese. The Planet Barbecue recipe called for grilling shucked ears, then spreading butter and sprinkling finely grated Parmesan cheese. The microplane grater does magic on Parmesan here. We have already adapted to replace the butter with lime juice. Either way, it's a delicious innovation for our summer -- one that you can follow page by page through Raichlen's book.
Tacos al Pastor
Adapted From Planet Barbecue
Note: Raichlen's recipe says the achiote paste was optional, but it's available at Lily's and part of the unusual flavor. This recipe made more than enough pork for four adults, two kids and two leftover lunches. We had more cooked onion than we needed for the tacos, but they were delicious enough to eat on their own. Raichlen's recipe also says you can add your favorite salsa. I didn't. The flavors here were new and exciting for me, and I don't suggest that you muddle them with anything else.
4 ounces dried guajillo chiles, about one bag
1 pork loin (about three pounds)
2 medium sweet onions, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide slices.
3 TBL achiote paste, a little less than the package at Lily's
3 tomatillos or 1 ripe tomato, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlice, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1 tsp coarse salt (kosher or sea)
2 tsp ground pepper
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp anise seed
1 tsp dried thyme or a bunch of fresh thyme
1 fresh ripe pineapple, peeled and cut crosswide into 1/4-inch-wide slices.
20-24 corn tortillas
1 bunch cilantro, chopped and put in a serving bowl
1) Place the guajillo chiles in a bowl with four cups of warm water and let them soak for an hour. They'll soften.
2) Using a very sharp knife, cut the pork loin across the grain into round slices. Raichlen said "paper thin." I couldn't cut that well. I had "cardboard-thin" to "cardboard box-thin," and the meat cooked fine. Arrange half of the onion slices in a bowl or roasting pan. Layer the pork on top. Later the rest of the onions.
3) Drain the soaked guajillo chiles, setting aside 1 cup of the soaking liquid. Tear open each chili and scrape and discard the seeds. Coarsely chop the chiles. Put them in a blender with the 1 cup of reserved soaking liquid, then puree smooth. Add the achiote paste, the tomatillos, garlic, and all the spices. (Everything but the pineapple, tortillas and cilantro.) Process them to a pourable puree. Alternatively, you can puree in a food processor. In that case, puree all the solid ingredients first and then add the liquids.
4) Pour the marinade over the pork and onion slices. Flip the pork and onions so that both sides are coated. They don't have to be in strict layers. Let marinate for 3 to 6 hours. The longer that you can wait, the richer the flavors.
5) Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat it to high.
6) When ready to cook, brush the grill with oil. Drain the pork and onion slices, discarding the marinade. Place the pineapple slices on the hot grate and grill until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Keep the pineapple warm on the side of the grill or on a platter.
7) Place the pork and onion slices on the grate and grill until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Larger slices of pork were better at staying on top of the grill. The thin pork cooked through quite quickly, and I turned it with tongs.
8) Transfer the pork, onion and pineapple to a cutting board and slice them crosswise. You'll get strips of all three. Raichlen called for slicing them together so that you get a mix. I sliced them separately so that people could decide their own rations.
9) Warm the tortillas on the grill for 30 seconds or in a microwave. Let people put pork, onion and pineapple in a tortilla, top with cilantro and fold into a taco.
Earlier this week, I posted about how Barbecue Planet could take you for whole fish at an Asian grocery store or lamb at a halal butcher.