Before I discovered Diana Kennedy, I thought that Mexican cuisine was all nachos and tacos and barbecued ribs. Then I came across the expat-British food writer and I read The Essential Cuisines of Mexico and Oaxaca al Gusto, and it blew me away.
First, a brief introduction. Or at least the briefest introduction I can manage for such a remarkable woman. Diana Southwood was born in Essex in 1923. Aged 30, she moved to America – where she met her husband Paul Kennedy, foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
The couple travelled in Mexico, and started the joint project of recording the recipes they came across. When Paul travelled, “he would collect recipes for me when I couldn’t accompany him” remembers Kennedy. But then in the mid-1960s he got cancer. Still, Kennedy worked at Columbia University while he was being treated, and put her wages toward trips to Mexico, where she continued the recipe-collecting mission. Back in New York, she began teaching Mexican cooking classes from her flat:
“I remember, on the same floor, some neighbours would put an Airwick outside their door because they couldn’t bear the smell of all these gorgeous things going on in my apartment.”Then in 1967, Paul died. And so began a new chapter in Kennedy’s life. She permanently relocated to Mexico, and started collecting recipes with the fervour of an anthropologist desperately chronicling the last days of a rapidly evolving country. Which, of course, is exactly what she was doing. Kennedy is often described as the Julia Child of Mexican cookery, but after spending a few days with her for a feature in Saveur, Beth Kracklauer writes:
“…the more time I spend with Diana Kennedy, the more I’m reminded not of Julia Child, but of the 19th-century philosopher-naturalists, of Charles Darwin, or Henry David Thoreau.“
If you think ‘Tex Mex’ when someone mentions Mexican cuisine, then I urge you to track down some of Kennedy’s books. You’ll read about the thick, dark mole pastes laden with chillies and spiked with cocoa which Oaxaca is so famous for. Or the lighter food of Yucatán – an isolated peninsula which juts into The Caribbean – its geographic isolation explaining why its unique regional dishes failed to dissipate throughout the rest of the country: achiote pork cooked in banana leaves or papadzules. There’s the wild frontier cooking on the northern border: smoky, charred meats. And the spicy Chilpachiole de Jaiba crab soup on the West coast.
Now 91 years old, Kennedy still lives in Michoacán. And she is as fervent as ever in her mission to accurately document Mexico’s food. Though in all the articles I read (see links below), it seems that her priorities have shifted. Aside from just writing Mexico’s culinary history, she is now its ‘protector’ – endlessly correcting barrage of inaccuracies which emerge as Mexico’s cuisine goes global. She chastises fermentation expert Sandor Katz about the mistakes he makes surrounding nixtamalization (a corn preparation process which is necessary for an authentic tortilla), and is waging war against the import of Chinese chillies which mimic those of Mexico, but are poorer quality, and undercut local farmers.
Bearing in mind Kennedy’s insistence on accuracy, I fear that this recipe might not do justice to this preamble. But I was limited to Bethnal Green when buying the ingredients…and I had neither time nor inclination to start tracking down a veal breast (as Kennedy’s recipe requires). You’ll be relieved to know though that the recipe does use proper Mexican chillies, and it does cook them properly (dry toasting ). And it does make a delicious (if not 100% authentic) birria .
If you want to read more about the legend that is Diana Kennedy, I recommend the following articles:
7 May 2014, Vice: You’re Eating Fake Tortillas, and Diana Kennedy is Pissed About It
4 September 2012, Saveur: The Interview, Diana Kennedy
13 August 2012, Saveur: The Expat, Diana Kennedy
David Lida: Who’s Afraid of Diana Kennedy?
Birria Recipe (Nb. Birria means ‘mess’, as in “vas hecho una birria” translating as “you look a mess“)
2 ancho chillies
2 guajillo chillies
4 cascabel chillies
1/4 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
4 garlic cloves
1/2 onion, chopped
35ml white wine vinegar
500g lamb shoulder, bone in
500g pork shoulder, bone in
350ml water (for the bottom of the pan)
300g plain flour
1 tin of tomatoes (450g)
1 tbsp of tomato paste
1 tsp oregano
1. Toast the chillies. I wrote an article on this that goes into a lot of detail – if you’re interested, you can read it here – but brief instructions: pull out the stem, tear open the chillies and discard the seeds. Heat a frying pan, and use a wooden spatula to push the chillies against the dry hot surface, until they start to blacken and blister. Don’t use any oil – just dry-toast the chillies, and try not to inhale too many chilli fumes!
2. Put the toasted chillies in a bowl, and cover with hot water from the kettle. Allow them to ‘rehydrate’ for 20 minutes, so they plump up a little and soften.
3. Put the peppercorns, cumin, oregano, salt and garlic in a pestle and mortar, or a coffee grinder. Grind or blitz into a paste.
4. Put the softened chillies and chopped-up onion in a blender with the spicy paste, and add the vinegar for moisture. Blend, and then rub into the pork and lamb shoulder. Cover, and then leave to marinade for anywhere between 1 - 24 hours. The longer the better.
5. Diana Kennedy’s instructions for the next part are as follows: “Put the water in the bottom of a large Dutch over or casserole with a tightly fitting lid and place the meat on a rack so the it is just about the water.” As you can see from the photograph below, I’ve fashioned a rather cunning rack here by folding over chicken wire back on itself.
6. Pour the plain flour and water into a plastic tub or mixing bowl. Use a metal knife to stir until it forms a rough dough. Knead on a floured surface, and then roll into a long sausage. Wrap this dough-sausage round the lid of the casserole dish, so no heat or moisture will escape from the sides. Put the pot in an oven at 160°C for 3-4 hours, by which time the meat will be falling off the bone.
7. Take the pot out of the oven. Crack open the bread-like seal, and then remove the rack and the meat from the pan.
8. Now put the pan of meat juices on the hob. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and oregano, and let it simmer gently.
9. Meanwhile, use two forks to pull apart the meat. Cut away the fat, and cut into tiny pieces, (or chuck it if you don’t like the fat. But I think it’s so tasty!)
10. Add the pulled meat to the pan of tomato and meat juices. Serve.
- Serving suggestions: Put a scoop of birria inside a tortilla wrap, with guacamole, sour cream and salad. Or ladle a scoop over a bowl of quinoa, rice or freekeh.
- When you have rehydrated the chillies, don’t be tempted to keep the water. When you rehydrate dried mushrooms, for example, the water left behind can make a flavoursome stock. But the leftover chilli water is brown and bitter-tasting, so chuck it!
- It’s an expensive initial outlay, but also rather cunning to buy dried Mexican chillies online in bulk. Far cheaper and, being dried, they’ll keep well.
- The recipe above pares-down the chillies in Diana Kennedy’s original recipe (6 anchos, 3 guajillos, 10 cascabels), so feel free to add more, or experiment with the ratios.
- The recipe above also pares-down the meat! Diana Kennedy’s original recipe uses 2 lamb shanks, one veal breast, a lamb breast and 1.4kg of pork loin or rib or shoulder end. Basically, feel free to experiment with any type of meat which responds well to slow-cooking.
- Before rubbing the chilli paste into the meat, slash the meat down to the bone, so that the marinade can penetrate deeply.
- Most birria recipes require you to blend the tomatoes into a smooth sauce. Using a passata would be another option. I’m not adverse to a bit of texture from the tinned tomatoes, so feel free to follow my lead or substitute for passata.
- The lovely lamb in this recipe means the sauce can be a bit fatty. This never bothers me in the slightest. But if you’re not a fan, then let the birria cool. Refrigerate, and then scrape off the solid fatty layer which rises to the top. Then reheat once more and serve.
- Birria freezes really well. Just make sure that you don’t reheat it more than once. In fact, it freezes so excellently, I’d advise doubling the amount in the recipe above, to eat half, and freeze half for a (literally) rainy day.