“I was born a poor black child.”
Steve Martin, The Jerk
While I clearly was not born a poor Mexican child, there were times when I ate like one. For a significant period in the early 70s my mother was working in Los Angeles and my father at the hospital. That left our Mexican housekeeper to prepare meals for my sister and me. For us, then, tacos and enchiladas were our hot dogs and hamburgers. Tamales played a larger role in our life than spaghetti and refrijoles meant more to us than French fries.
But perhaps no dish says more about the ingenuity of Mexican cuisine – and the poverty that gave birth to much of it – than Menudo Colorado. Even before wave after wave of currency devaluations it is unlikely that all of the ingredients to serve a family of six would total more than a few pesos. It is – like so much of the great glories of many cuisines (including some considered rather highly) – made of what was on hand. In this case, it is made of the less gloried parts of the beasts. The sum, however, is much greater than its parts.
But why, when so much of Mexican cuisine has entered the American consciousness, has Menudo remained something either unknown or exotic? The answer is one word: tripe. Face it, tripe does not have a very good reputation in this country, though few can say exactly why beyond vague terms like “yucky” or that catch-all, “guts.”
The truth of what tripe is – one of the cow’s three stomachs (the third, in the case of the honeycomb tripe here) – does not help. But what does help is proper cooking. Undercooking tripe is not necessarily bad but leaves it a bit more al dente (in the pasta sense) than most folks like their meats. Overcooking tripe leaves it way too mushy. If it is properly cooked in a dish as strongly flavorful as this one, the tripe will give the dish a body and meaty feel that is nearly irresistible to those approaching it with open mind. It is this careful simmering of the tripe in particular (but also the trotters) that is the first key to Menudo Colorado. It harvests the intrinsic goodness of the meats, leaving the tripe (in particular) succulent and tender.
The other key to Menudo Colorado is the technique for handling the chiles. Of course, the most important first step toward implementing that technique lies in finding good quality dried chiles. Sadly, unless you live in a Mexican neighborhood the dried chiles available at your local market are unlikely to turn over fast enough that they will be anything more tasty than cardboard. Go to a nearby Mexican market – we went to the Gonzales Northgate off of the 43rd street exit on the 805. The toasting and soaking of good quality dried chiles, in combination with the garlic and emulsification in a blender, provides the backbone of the stew’s deep flavor profile.
One final note: the very things that brought Menudo (whether it’s the Rojo version, here, or the Blanco version without the chiles) into the Mexican cuisine is the thing that makes it an important part of nose-to-tail and slow food cuisine. If you are going to eat a beast such as a cow – if you are going to ask that cow to give up its life for our sustenance – it is important to consume as much of it as possible. Why leave the tripe and trotters behind? What are you going to do, throw them in the trash? Why would you want to do that when you can, for nearly nothing, use them in a dish such as this one?
Makes 4 servings
For the Initial Braise
- 2 lbs honeycomb tripe, rinsed well and cut into 1-inch squares
- 2 pig’s feet (trotters), halved
- 1 calve’s foot, halved
- 1 large and meaty fresh (not smoked) pork hock (or, if not meaty, add ½ lb. pork meat in 1 inch dice)
- 5 cloves, garlic
- Kosher salt
For the Chile Puree
- 5 dried Guajillo chiles, seeds removed
- 2 dried Ancho chiles, seeds removed
- 1 dried New Mexico chile, seeds removed
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 3 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
- 1 ½ cups, water
For the Stew
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 15-ounce cans white hominy, drained
For the Garnish
- Fresh cilantro
- Finely diced onions
- Fresh tortillas
1. Prepare the Meats. Place the tripe, pig and calve’s trotters, pork hock (and/or pork), garlic, , salt and water in a large stockpot or soup pot. The water ought to be enough to very comfortably cover the meats with room to spare. Bring the water to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Allow to simmer uncovered for about 3 hours, or until the tripe and feet are tender but not too soft.
2. Prepare the Chile Puree. About 2 hours into the simmer, remove the stems and seeds from the chiles and toast on a dry skillet for about 20 seconds or until fragrant. Do not over-toast the chiles. It is better to go to short than too long. Place the chiles in a bowl and pour enough water over them to fully cover the chiles. Soak them for 20 minutes. When soaked, remove the chiles from the water and place in the bowl of a high speed blender or a Cuisinart fitted with the “S” blade along with the cumin, oregano, garlic and 1 ½ cups of the broth from the meat. Puree the mixture until very smooth, adding more broth if necessary.
3. Make the Menudo. After 3 hours of simmering, remove the pig and calve’s trotters and pork hock from the pot and set aside. When the meats are cool enough to touch, remove the fleshy parts and either tear into small pieces or chop, and return to pot with the onion, carrot, celery, hominy and the Chile Puree and simmer for about an hour (or more), until all the flavors have fully melded. Season with additional salt as necessary.
4. Serve the Dish. Serve in large bowls, with the cilantro, limes, onions and tortillas at the table for each guest to use as desired.