Cooking al carbón—over charcoal or wood, invariably mesquite—is the heart and soul of northern Mexican cooking. I learned to cook al carbón years ago on a trip to Múzquiz in the Mexican state of Coahuila, where a friend took me to a gathering of the Pirañas (piranhas), an unofficial men’s club so named because of the members’ affinity for meat. The men gather to spend an afternoon catching up on the week’s events, to cook, and to drink beer (but not necessarily in that order). On a long barbecue constructed of cinder blocks, I saw large, thin slices of chuck steak cooking over what seemed to be inadequate coals. About every ten minutes, one of the men would wander over and turn the meat. After thirty minutes or so, a piece of meat was removed, chopped with a cleaver, and served with hot flour tortillas, pico de gallo, and a wonderful salsa. The meat was tender and had a smoky, almost buttery taste. Even though I often prefer steak medium rare, I was soon addicted to the flavor and consistency of this well-done meat.
Being predominantly arid, hot in summer and often quite cold in winter, northern Mexico can’t support the wide variety of plant life found in the temperate, central plateau and steamy jungles of southern Mexico. Still, the north has significant resources. The ingredients below merge to create the basic elements of much of northern Mexican cooking.
There’s a good reason why, to this day, you’ll find flour tortillas in northern Mexico as often as corn tortillas, but you’ll rarely encounter them farther south. When the Spanish came to Mexico, they brought wheat. Soon they found that wheat, combined with another Spanish ingredient, lard, made a terrific version of the native flatbread, the tortilla. Flour tortillas had advantages over those made of corn, since corn was difficult to grow in the north and dough made from it spoiled quickly. Some U.S. supermarkets carry decent flour tortillas, but those sold in Mexican or Latin American markets are likely to be fresher and better. You can also order terrific fresh flour tortillas from Maria & Ricardo’s Tortilla Factory in, of all places, Boston.
The Spanish brought cattle, sheep, and goats to Mexico, and they thrived in the north. With the vast majority of northern land devoted to range animals—mostly cattle—beef became an integral part of the cuisine. Cuts from the flavorful chuck are perfect for the slow grilling of northern Mexico. For this technique and recipe featured here, you’ll need the thinnest chuck steaks you can find (no thicker than 3/4 inch), well marbled and preferably cut from the eye of chuck. I often pound my steaks to about 1/2 inch thick. Bone-in steaks are the most authentic, but boneless steaks also work well.
In times of drought, the Spanish fed mesquite tree seed pods to their cattle, and the result was that mesquite seeds were dropped into the soil in a near-perfect growing medium. Soon mesquite, an ideal grilling wood, was everywhere. Today in the north, you can’t go far without smelling the enticing aroma of meat cooking over mesquite. Mesquite wood chunks and hardwood charcoal are available in many parts of the U.S. And while cooking al carbón isn’t traditional over a gas grill, you can simulate smoking hardwood by using mesquite wood chips with your gas fire. (Charcoal grillers will also want to have some mesquite chips on hand.) Oak, hickory, or other hardwood charcoal or chips will serve if you can’t find mesquite.
Fruits and vegetables
Northern Mexico is blessed with rivers that provide sufficiently rich soil and irrigation to produce a modest number of crops (compared to the south), including tomatoes, chiles, and onions, which are used to make a wide variety of salsas and relishes. Avocados grow in the north, too, and are frequently either served in slices or used to make guacamole.
An important difference between the way Americans and Mexicans grill is that Mexicans usually cook meat over much lower heat for a longer time. The technique has a few advantages: Cheaper, more flavorful cuts of meat can be used; less fuel is needed; precise timing isn’t necessary; and it doesn’t interfere with socializing.
To prepare a wood or charcoal fire, ignite about 5 quarts of mesquite or other hardwood chunks or charcoal using an electric or chimney starter. Avoid using lighter fluid, as it gives off an unpleasant odor.
When the fire is well established, bank the coals to one side of the grill and grill the tomatoes and chiles for the salsa directly over the coals while they’re still very hot. Then let the coals burn down until they’re covered with gray ash and no flames are visible (this will take 30 to 40 minutes from the time you bank the coals). An oven thermometer set on the grill grate opposite the coals should read 250° to 275ºF after the grill lid has been on for a few minutes.
If you’re using charcoal, toss over the coals a handful of mesquite chips that have been soaked in water for about an hour (mesquite wood chunks put out enough smoke on their own). As soon as the chips begin to smoke, put the meat on the grate opposite from and-as far from the coals as possible and cover the grill. If you’re using a gas grill, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for setting it up for indirect grilling and smoking.
Cooking time depends on the heat of the coals, the distance of the meat from the fire, air circulation, and the shape of the grill. As a starting point, a 3/4-inch-thick boneless chuck steak will take 30 to 40 minutes, but let experience and instinct be your guide.
Sources for tortillas and mesquite
Maria & Ricardo’s tortillas can be ordered from the Harbar Corporation at 800-881-7040. A package of ten 6-inch flour tortillas is $1.80 plus shipping. Whole-wheat, corn, and flavored tortillas are also available. They store well in the freezer for up to two months.
B&B Charcoal in Texas (877-725-8815) sells mesquite wood chunks, charcoal, and chips. Ten pounds of charcoal cost $4.10; five pounds of wood chunks cost $2; and two pounds of chips cost $1.45 (shipping is extra).