All You Need to Know About Mexican BBQ
For Canadians, February represents a lot of things: it's the coldest month of the year, the shortest month, as well as the season of love. But did you know that February also contains a few food-related holidays? For fans of Mexican cuisine, February is also home to National Tortilla Chip Day on February 24th and National Chilli Day on February 27th. What's more, National Margarita Day takes place on February 22nd.
Keeping in the festive February spirit, we've put together a history of Mexican BBQ along with some delicious recipes you can use whether or not you plan on celebrating the holidays (or even have heard of them). Read on to start learning and get grilling!
A Brief History of Barbecue in Mexico
Although most Canadians would associate 'barbecue' with hamburgers and fries, this type of bbq is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, before there was barbecue, there was barbacoa.
Barbacoa uses only the earth and its elements – no stainless steel appliances or flavoured wood chips needed. This ancient style of grilling is said to have originated in the Caribbean island of Barbados where locals cooked food in a pit using fire-resistant fig branches. The tradition was later taken up in Mexico, where it is still practiced today. But instead of fig branches, early barbacoa practitioners in Mexico used succulent leaves from the maguey plant to light the fire. Oftentimes the meat was grilled for a long period of time to create that tender, fall-off-the-bone effect – and that technique is still popular today.
Although Mexico was not the first country to invent barbacoa, it definitely played an integral role in popularizing the grilling technique and building a foundation for the barbecue we know and love today. In addition, Mexico was the first country to create what we now call 'barbecue sauce.' To accompany grilled meats, those in Mexico would create rich, thick sauces (called "molés") from ingredients like chile, garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, nuts, and even chocolate. Although it may seem unusual, that last ingredient gave the molés that sweet, tangy taste that is not all too different from the caramelized barbecue sauces we are used to in Canada.
As for what food was cooked barbacoa style, traditionally game, turkey, fish, and beans were grilled in the flaming-hot pits. Later, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, and brought with them cattle, goats, chickens, pigs, and sheep, the meat of those animals was also cooked in this style.
Years later, however, barbacoa got a technological upgrade in Mexico. Locals began to line their grill pits with brick and use wood to start the fire in their earthy ovens. They also began to place meat and other ingredients, wrapped in maguey leaves, inside a pot that was set above the fire. This pot would typically also contain some water, which would become a delicious soup as the meat cooked. Finally, locals covered their bbq pit with a metal sheet, piled fresh dirt on top of it, and left their food to cook overnight. Some locals still use this very technique today.
Top Mexican BBQ Dishes
Not everyone is able to grill their dinners using a brick-lined bbq pit – especially here in Canada – but you can still get an authentic flavour by using your modern barbecue.
There are a number of BBQ dishes that Mexico is famous for but we evidently can't list them all here. However, we've got a few showstopper recipes that will come in handy next time you're looking for meal inspiration or want to impress your guests.
Take Your Tacos up a Notch with Carne Asada
Photo & Recipe: The Stay at Home Chef
When we think of Mexican cuisine, tacos are often the first thing that comes to mind. But did you know that the food you get from some fast food restaurants here in Canada aren’t the type of tacos they eat in Mexico? Instead of spiced ground beef, Mexican tacos more commonly use a meat filling known as carne asada, which is made from flank steak.
To create carne asada, start by placing your flank steak in a resealable bag along with lime juice, orange juice, cilantro, garlic, jalapeno, salt & pepper, vinegar, and vegetable oil. Mix to combine, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, heat your grill to high heat. When it's ready, cook your marinated steak for 7 to 10 minutes on each steak. When it's done, wait 10 minutes, and cut your steak into thin slices. Remember to cut against the grain to avoid tough meat (for more BBQ tips, visit our recent blog post)!
Then you can warm up your corn tortillas and prepare some homemade pico de gallo salsa (great recipe found here), as well as ready any other toppings you want for your tacos.
Transform Your Chicken Dinner Through Pollo al Carbon
Photo & Recipe: Hilah Cooking
Pollo al Carbon is a tasty grilled chicken dish that involves slow roasting and citrus marinating.
Start by preparing marinade ingredients in a blender. You'll need orange and lime juice, as well as maggi seasoning, worcestershire sauce, achiote paste, and chicken bullion powder. Then spatchcock your chicken and dose it in marinade – but be sure to save 1/2 cup of the marinade to baste the chicken with as it cooks! Marinade for 2 to 4 hours.
Next, set up your bbq – ideally a charcoal one – for indirect grilling by making one side hotter than the other. Then oil your grill grates and lay your chicken, bone-side down, on the warmer end. Let it sear for 2-3 minutes. Next, move it to the cool side of the BBQ and let it cook for 20 minutes. You'll then alternate your chicken between the hot side, the cool side, and the hot side for 20 minute intervals, basting heavily with marinade in between. This entire process will take approximately 80 minutes – but is well worth it in the end!
Grilled Corn - Mexican Style
Photo & Recipe: All Recipes
Grilled corn is an American staple, but if you change the ingredients up, you'll have a whole new flavour palette that will fit well with the Mexican-style dishes listed above.
But before you start messing around with spices, preheat your grill for high heat and lightly oil your grates. You'll also need to boil your corn in a large pot of salted water for 5 minutes before barbecuing – that way, your corn will be fully cooked when it leaves the grill. Next, combine ancho chile powder and smoked paprika with mayonnaise and lime juice. You’ll use this once the corn is fully cooked
After, set your somewhat cooked corn cobs on the barbecue for about 2 to 3 minutes, or until the kernels begin caramelizing. Then turn your corn, cook for 1 to 2 minutes, and repeat the process until the cob is evenly browned and slightly charred.
Remove your cobs from the grill and brush them generously with the mayonnaise spice sauce. until all the kernels are fully coated. To make the corn extra special, sprinkle some cotija cheese over top of it and garnish with lime slices.
Bonus: How to make the Perfect Margarita
Photo & Recipe: A Farmgirl’s Dabbles
In honour of national margarita day, we've also got a margarita recipe for you to pair with your bbq dinner.
Start by preparing your margarita glass by sliding a lime wedge around the rim of your class and dipping it in some salt.
Then grab your drink shaker and add tequila, cointreau, and lime juice to it, basing your proportions based on how sweet or tangy you want your drink. Then add some ice cubes and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain the drink into your glass and garnish with a lime wedge on the side.
Combined with carne asada, pollo al carbon – or both, if you're a meat lover – this margarita will be the perfect addition to your next Mexican-inspired meal!
- Taylor Mitchell