Good that winter is waning, but its final throes seem especially hateful. Warm breaks ushering equal-and-opposite punishments. Yet I keep the faith. Spring is next and it’s going to be wonderful. Like it was in Mexico when Skip and I dropped out of Winter for a little while. Last week’s brutal weather had me daydreaming about that escape and the food we were eating. On the day of Winter Storm Remus I came up with a recipe to encapsulated the flavors of our trip. It was a pot roast kind of day so I went with that.
Skip and I languished for a few weeks in Mexico on a belated honeymoon. Long sunny days of exploring and eating. The last leg of our trip was Mexico City, one of our favorite places to be. The food scene there is ablaze right now. Lots of remarkable places to eat—high and low. I was struck particularly by the flush of new eateries reinterpreting the humble dishes and lowly ingredients of Mexico’s ancient and diverse cuisine. It inspired me.
At this point I have to admit that, although I love Mexican food, “comida” three times a day for more than a week is wearisome. I’m accustomed to swinging from pizza to pho, boeuf Bourguignon to bibimbap. So it never got old to explore Mexican restaurants that reflect native cuisine through an international lens.
Landing in Mexico City • On the bus to San Miguel de Allende • Favorite painting in Frida’s house | Cheese puff shop • Plaza de San Antonio • Chicharrón lasagne with chipotle-cinnamon | Cocoa maker’s shop • Guanajuato!!! • Condiment queen’s wet dream
Chipotle and Cinnamon
In the places we ate, one distinct flavor profile kept showing up—the coupling of chipotle with cinnamon. It makes sense. Smoky heat soothed by velvety sweetness. Rustic and sophisticated. I clocked the pairing in a French beurre blanc, a sweet and sour Asian drizzle, and an unctuous Italian bolognese. I’m drawn to the combo.
Here, we’re riding the crest of an all-things-chipotle wave, with chipotle flavored beer, coffee, peanuts, ice cream, and (it had to happen) chipotle flavored bacon. But contemporary (and old style) Mexican cuisine maintains restraint. Chipotles are not an obsession, probably because they’ve been around the zocalo a few thousand years. As long as I don’t overplay them, I see chipotles, likely paired with cinnamon, in my kitchen for an eternity too.
Chipotle Pot Roast with Prunes and Sweet Potatoes
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Ingredients for this aromatic pot roast speak of Mexico. Rustic chipotle and soothing cinnamon meld into an elegant sauce that’s a bit smoky, a bit sweet. The mild chipotle heat is offset by sweet potatoes and prunes—apricots or figs would be nice too. Green olives bring tart bitterness (I use pimento stuffed ones), and the sauce-soaked chickpeas share their voluptuous texture.
Rice would make a lovely bed for drawing in the stewy sauce. Likewise with couscous or quinoa. For mine, I decided to go with stone ground grits because corn seemed right.
I happened to have beef on hand, but a pork Chipotle Pot Roast would be estupendo!—the sublime match of sweet potatoes and pork, you know. I made tacos with the leftover meat, adding shaved cabbage, red onion, crema, and a squeeze of lime. And just imagine the exquisite enchiladas you could make from a pork version! In fact, cut to the chase and make the recipe just for taco and enchilada filling—with or without sweet potatoes—by leaving out the extra water or broth. Now you’re set for a summer fiesta!
HUNTING – GATHERING
ANCHO CHILI POWDER comes from red-ripened, dried, and ground poblano peppers. It has a mild heat and complex almost raisiny flavor. If powder can’t be found, whole dried ancho chilies are very common and can be whirred through the food mill (actually the ideal route for powder). Substitute Aleppo chili powder or paprika with a dash of cayenne. PILONCILLO is an unrefined sugar similar to brown sugar or molasses, either of which can be substituted. It has an almost smokey flavor and comes in hard little cones (the name means “little pylon”) that you grate into powder. The 3- to 4 -inch cones are sometimes found unpackaged in produce sections of Latin and conventional grocery stores. CHIPOTLES IN ADOBO are ripe jalapeños (matured and semi-dried on the plant then smoked) that have been processed in tomato sauce spiked with onion, sugar, and vinegar. Find it in the Latin food section of almost every grocery store. Unused portions freeze well.
- 1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
- 2 teaspoons dried crushed oregano, preferably Mexican
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 small sticks cinnamon, or ½ teaspoon ground
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1–2 whole cloves
- 1–2 bay leaves
- 1 cup (8 ounce can) tomato sauce
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup (8 ounce can) cooked chickpeas
- ¾ cup (12–15) pitted whole prunes (or figs or apricots)
- ½ cup olives
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 2–4 chiptoles (to taste), split, seeded, and roughly chopped
- 2–3 teaspoons adobo
- 1 teaspoon piloncillo sugar (substitute brown sugar)
For the Pot Roast
- 2–3 pound boneless beef sirloin, chuck, or round roast, or boneless pork shoulder (AKA Butt) trimmed of excess fat. Note: Tie roast with kitchen twine if not compact
- 2–3 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup (1 medium) very finely chopped onion
- 1 cup red wine
- 3–4 small-to-medium sweet potatoes (1 per person), halved lengthwise
- 1 large onion, split into wedges
- Water or broth as needed
- Lime wedges, optional
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
- Make the Spice Blend. In a small bowl combine the ancho chili powder, oregano, salt, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, and bay leaves
- Make the Braising Mixture. In a bowl or measuring cup, combine the tomato sauce, water, chickpeas, prunes, olives, vinegar, chipotles, adobo, and sugar.
- Prepare the Pot Roast. Blot the roast with paper towels until it’s dry and then roll it in the flour, packing it into the surface.
- Select a deep, heavy Dutch oven with room for roast and vegetables. Warm the pot over medium heat, add the oil, and sear the roast on each side until there’s some nice brown crustiness here and there (10 to 15 minutes).
- Push the roast to the side (or transfer to a plate if room is tight), add the chopped onions, and sauté until they begin to brown (1 to 2 minutes). Transfer the roast to a plate if you have not already done so.
- Add the Spice Blend to the onions and combine a few seconds until the mixture becomes fragrant. Deglaze the pan by adding the wine and stirring to loosen the brown bits from the bottom of the pot.
- Return the meat to the Dutch oven, surround it with the potatoes and onions, and add the the Braising Mixture. Gently shake the pan to combine. Add water or broth until the liquid comes just to the top of the meat.
- Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a low simmer and then cover the Dutch oven and transfer it to the oven.
- Bake the Chipotle Pot Roast for 2½ to 3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Add more water or broth if the roast seems to be drying (you want a stewy sauce).
- Allow the roast to cool for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Gently shake the Dutch oven to loosen the meat and vegetables. Transfer the sweet potatoes, onions, and prunes to a platter or to individual plates. Using kitchen tongs, break the roast into chunks and arrange them with the vegetables. Spoon sauce over the roast and serve it with lime wedges, if you like.
Tie the roast into a compact bundle • The Braising Mixture
Brown the roast and onion • Surround it with sweet potatoes and onion
Add extra water or broth until liquid comes to the top of the meat • Chipotle Pot Roast done and delicious!
Flour and brown the roast as described above. Transfer it to the crockpot and surround it with the sweet potatoes and onion. Sauté the onions for 1 to 2 minutes then add the spice blend and stir to combine until fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the wine, stirring to loosen the brown bits from the bottom. Add the braising liquid and once it comes to a boil, pour it over the meat and vegetables in the crockpot. If necessary, add more water until the liquid comes about ¾ of the way to the top of the meat. Cook on high for 4 to 5 hours, or on low for 7 to 8 hours. Allow to cool and serve as described above.