Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snacking State-by-State: Arizona I - El Burro Más Grande

I have visited Arizona a few times, none of which was recently. My sister and her husband and their dog used to live in Phoenix, and my crazy uncle (we all have a crazy uncle) and his ex-wife still does. So I am not too unfamiliar with the distinctly Southwestern flavors of Arizona: Navajo and Hopi in the northeast (and Native American throughout), cattle rancher in the north, plus the heaviest doses of Mexican all over the whole of the state.

Snacking State-by-State: Arizona

Official Name: State of Arizona
State Nicknames: The Grand Canyon State; The Copper State
Admission to the US:
February 14, 1912 (#48)
Capital: Phoenix (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Tucson (2nd largest), Mesa (3rd largest), Glendale (4th largest)
Region: West (Southwest); Mountain (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut
Bordered by: Utah (north); New Mexico (east); Sonora (south); California, Nevada & Baja California (west); Colorado (northeast corner - Arizona is one of the Four Corners states)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: Arizona Trout (fish)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: chiles (mild in the south), tortillas (flour in the south), Navajo taco, beef, nopal cactus (both pad and fruit), burritos, chimichangas, menudo

The Mexican aspect of Arizona's cuisine is specifically tied to the cuisine of Sonora, the Mexican state right across the border. The two mirror each other very well. Note: I've also passed through Sonora state, on a major bus trip from Morelia (Michoacán) to Mexicali (Baja California) by way of Guadalajara (Jalisco), but that's a story for another day.

If you want to pin down Southwestern food, it is fairly easy. If you want to pin down what is specifically Arizonan, that is a bit more difficult. Kathi Long tries to do this in her cookbook on The Southwest from Williams-Sonoma, focusing on the most notable influences in Arizona cooking, from Mexico:
Arizona cooks have...looked to Mexico for inspiration. The southern part of the state borrowed from the cooking of Sonora, which lies directly across the border, a culinary alliance that reveals itself in large, thin flour tortillas, the use of nopal cactus, and a menu of mildly spiced dishes. Elsewhere in the state, residents traditionally dine on Mexican chimichangas..., menudo..., and giant burritos, as well as the more staid ranch fare introduced by early cattlemen and other settlers from the Midwest and East Coast. [Long, p. 12]
In the spirit of Arizona's Sonoran influences, I wanted to find a recipe that incorporated all three of these elements: nopal (that is, prickly pear) cactus, mild chiles and large, flour tortillas. They are out there, but I hadn't found them before I stumbled upon the massive compendium by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, The Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico (also on Google Books). In Arizona, burritos are standard fare - particulary massive ones. The Jamisons rightly call those burros, since a burrito is just a "little burro".

Among their many recipes for burros and burritos, one breakfast creation specifically piqued my interest: their machaca breakfast burro. Since it comes straight from Phoenix, it seemed like a good place to start.

The recipe: Machaca Breakfast Burro

As the Jamisons point out, machaca originally referred to beef or other meat.
Machaca originally referred to meat (usually beef) that was seasoned, dried for preservation, and later tenderized by pulverizing and cooking. The word comes from the verb machacar, meaning to pound or crush... Many people now use the term to describe any beef cooked well-done with seasonings and then shredded. [Alters Jamison et al., p. 75]

I don't buy a lot of meat these days, but I saw this as a great way to use up some frozen beef in my freezer. Before my former neighbor moved to Nova Scotia a few months ago he gave me some frozen beef he would've otherwise thrown out. Thawed it amounted to a pound and a half - perfect for a halved version of this recipe. This made the amount of money I put out for this recipe unusually light:

* beef (free!!! Thanks, Dale, if you ever read this)
* salt and pepper (have)
* bacon grease (if you have the bacon, it's not that difficult to make some on the spot)
* beef stock (had none, so I had to turn to the Maggi chicken bouillon in my pantry)
* onion (have)
* garlic (have)
* small Roma tomatoes (about $1 for two)
* mild green chiles (one poblano chile for about 50 cents)
* fresh lime juice (one lime for about the same)
* egg (this was optional - I wasn't planning to use one at the time but decided to add one later)
* burrito-size flour tortillas (the priciest item, about $3 for a package of eight)

This recipe was a bit more involved than many I do. First, you must briefly brown the beef in some of the bacon grease, then cook in a Dutch oven over low heat for over an hour with broth, onion & garlic. Wait for it to cool down a little, then break it up and - here's the part that I haven't done before - throw it in your food processor until shredded. You must do this in small batches lest it not shred everything.

Fry the beef a bit more until slightly drier and until some patches of beef look darker and more dessicated. Remove it, and cook the rest of the onion & garlic with the rest of the bacon grease, the reserved liquid from the Dutch oven, tomato, chile pepper (roasted and chopped) and lime juice. Add the beef and cook for about 25 minutes.

I never thought I would do this, but why the hell not?
I'm not making this for PETA after all...

The closeup hides the fact that I still need to clean my stove

25 minutes later... okay, so the stove isn't that bad...

Here is where I put the machaca mixture in the fridge, which the Jamisons say you can do at this point. I brought it out a day or so later and added an egg. Really, it added very little to the dish. I could neither taste it nor even see it at all. In retrospect, it was not necessary, and I wouldn't add it again. To be sure, the Jamisons day that part is optional.

The rest is ridiculously easy: just spoon the hot mixture into a large (Sonoran-style) flour tortilla and make yourself a burro. Eat it with salsa (my choice: a roasted tomato salsa from the Jamison's same book called salsa del norte).

Okay, mine really was more the size of a burrito, but still...

The thing about machaca-style beef: it isn't supposed to be soft and juicy, per se. Perhaps I did something wrong. I mean, it wasn't dripping and wet, but it was pleasantly soft and just a bit moist. Plus, the long, slow cooking with tomatoes and roasted poblano chile pepper, onions and garlic, bacon grease (yet another use!!!) and lime juice just blends together in the most beautiful way. I'm sorry if I'm starting to sound "foodie-ish". I really don't mean to. It was just a beautiful thing to eat. Even if you decide to turn that burro into the more diminutive burrito.

I have been subsisting off machaca burros and burritos since. I may even make a quesadilla if the mood strikes me, complete with thinkly sliced queso fresco, which is not easy to melt, let me tell you.


Alters Jamison, Cheryl, and Bill Jamison. The Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. The Harvard Common Press: Boston, 1995. Nopales recipes. Posted date June 24, 2005.

Long, Kathi. The Southwest: New American Cooking. From the Williams-Sonoma "New American Cooking" series, Chuck Williams, general editor. Time-Life Books: San Francisco, 2001.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Arizona" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Arizona".