I grew up in Phoenix and though I’ve now lived in Chicago for a good long while, my ideas of Mexican food were formed early in that hot, desert community at a lot of small mom & pop corner restaurants. “Our” Mexican food was influenced from the northern part of the country, just south of our Arizona borders, with a lot of local specialties thrown in. Say what you will about pollo fundito, a sort of square fried chicken burrito in a jalapeno cream cheese sauce that’s never seen the light of day in Mexico, but it’s pretty delicious and something with which every Phoenician is familiar and I’ll take a cheese crisp with green chilies over an ordinary quesadilla any day.
When I first moved to Chicago half a life ago, I quickly realized that the Mexican immigrants in these parts came from somewhere else in Mexico than my AZ compadres. This Mexican food looks like nothing from my childhood. The chimichangas, deep fried burritos said to originate in Tucson, I was served were what we called flautas in Arizona – long thin cigar shaped filled and fried corn tortillas. Huh? There was no chili Colorado or adovada, no green chili sauce (predominate in New Mexican cuisine). There was salsa but it was chunky and there was none of that smooth incendiary hot sauce. But most of all machaca, the spicy shredded beef dear to my heart, was nowhere to be found. Bummer. Don’t get me wrong; the food was good it was just different. When you’re homesick and Mexican is your comfort food, this can be a tough adjustment.
Outside of the Northern Mexico communities where it originated, machaca is known primarily in southwestern states of Arizona, California, and New Mexico and from what I can tell, not much elsewhere. Traditionally, it is made from beef or pork that has been dried almost to the point of jerky, then rehydrated, pounded until tender and shredded. In Tucson, this is how you’ll commonly find it, very dry, almost fluffy and frequently called carne secca. It’s more authentic to what you might find in Mexico but in Phoenix, where I’m from, machaca is a bit moister and soupier and I greatly prefer it this way. It is often beef brisket or chuck, well cooked, shredded then cooked again, with onions and chilies. It’s also usually very spicy, which is just how I like it.
For me, it has always been beef though in reading up on the topic I’ve learned that pork is often prepared this way in Mexico. I’ve yet to see this, though it intrigues me. I bet a pork machaca served with a spicy green chili sauce is pretty amazing. I think I need to look into this further. Stay tuned.
I can’t really speak to California or New Mexico or even Mexico for that matter, but in Arizona you’ll see machaca often in all the expected “filled” Mexican dishes: tacos, burritos, chimichangas, flautas, etc., and a popular and very good dish in certain dive-y diners is machaca with eggs. With warm tortillas and a good shot of hot sauce, that’s a helluva good breakfast and better than any breakfast burrito. But trust me on this: the very best way to enjoy machaca is in a chimichanga served Christmas style (sauced with sour cream and both red and green chili sauces). It’s Northern Mexican with a New Mexican/Arizona twist and is my favorite for good reason. Because it’s damn good.
Since I moved to the middle of the country, I’ve been content to get my machaca chimichanga fix every time I go home, hitting my favorite New Mexican restaurant once, maybe twice if I can squeeze it in. It’s a beautiful thing and so satisfyingly spicy that it takes about an hour to eat and several margaritas to soothe that searing burn. It’s my ritual and I love it but there is one problem with this strategy. Occasionally the holidays fall near the restaurants weekly Monday-Tuesday closures and the place simply isn’t open while I’m in town. Woe to the person that has to deal with me when I discover this is how my holiday visit will shake out (my mother is a saint.) This is exactly what happened last year. I went to two other Mexican restaurants but it just wasn’t the same. It’s Los Dos Molinos or bust.
This is what spurred me to make machaca back in Chicago recently. It’s really not difficult; anyone who has made a pot roast can do it and I don’t know why I haven’t done it before. Sear and braise a big piece of chuck roast then shred it and cook again with green chilies, onions and tomatoes. Though I adore it in a chimichanga, in my kitchen I’ll fill tacos or make enchiladas, as the act of deep-frying a burrito is more than I care to deal with at home. I save that for the restaurant folks. I also eat more than a plate or two of machaca and eggs when the opportunity arises. And you should too.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: 5 GIANT NOSTALGIC STARS. C’mon. This is a key part of one of my favorite happy meals. A big cheesy smile emoji and a gigantic sigh of contentment is probably the only label that applies. Machaca is a great filling for anything Mexican and freezes beautifully. It’s also a delicious surprise stirred into a soup. Make extra – a stash in the freezer is like your own private golden ticket. I may be a Polish girl from Arizona but I have deep deep love for my Mexican food. A firmly opinionated and probably wildly inauthentic idea as to what that is may be inevitable but when it’s the food you grew up on, you’re allowed to hold firm to those ideals. One day I’ll show you how to make a cheese crisp. Because that s@$% is good. And one quick note about chimichangas. It is always “chimichanga”, never “chimi”. Only tourists say that, the same people who refer to Chicago as “Chi-Town.” Right.
Six years ago: Chocoflan (a miraculous creation of chocolate cake and flan)
Five years ago: Peach Frozen Custard
Four years ago: Sweet Corn Soup
Three years ago: Bastille Day Lunch – Figgy BBQ Sauce
Two years ago: Roasted Ratatouille with Sweet Corn Polenta
Last year: Gateau Breton (a most lovely French butter cake)
MACHACA – MEXICAN SHREDDED BEEF
Makes about 3 cups of shredded beef
If you have a slow cooker/crockpot, by all means use it for the first long simmer. Sear off the beef as directed in steps 1-3 then put it in the crock on low for at least 6-8 hours until tender and falling apart then pick up the recipe at step 6 and proceed as directed on the stovetop. The finished machaca freezes beautifully, tightly wrapped for 2-3 months. It’s a little bit spicy as written but not overly so. The green chilies are mild but if the thought of a few serranos and jalapenos makes you a bit antsy, cut them back. I’ve found that I like double the amount listed below but that’s me.
3 pounds boneless beef chuck roast
kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 large white onions, thinly sliced, divided
1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced, divided
1 ½ cups low-salt beef stock
1 cup water
3 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 8-ounce can whole green chilies, cut into strips, Hatch green chilies if possible
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
2 serrano peppers, seeded and diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup fresh lime juice
- Season the beef on all sides with salt and pepper.
- Heat 2 Tablespoons oil over high heat in large pot.
- Sear the meat on all sides until browned. Depending on the pot size, you may have to do this in batches.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the beef stock, water, one of the sliced onions and half of the garlic over the meat.
- Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered for 2 hours until the beef is tender and falling apart. After the first hour, turn the beef and leave the lid partially covered for the 2nd
- Transfer the beef to a cutting board and allow to cool. Reserve the cooking liquid.
- When the beef is cool enough to handle, shred into ½” wide strips, going with the grain, discarding any fat or connective tissue as you go.
- Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons oil over medium high until hot.
- Sauté the remaining half onion until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the shredded beef and sauté until well browned and dry, scraping the bottom of the pan and allowing the beef to crisp. Be diligent as this will take a little while, around 10 minutes. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to do this in batches.
- Push the beef to one side of the pot and add the remaining garlic, jalapenos, and serranos in the cleared space; sauté until fragrant, 1-2 minutes.
- Over medium heat, add the reserved cooling liquid, chopped tomatoes, green chilies and lime juice.
- Bring to a boil, reduce to low and simmer 1 hour, partially covered removing the lid after the first 30 minutes until most of the liquid has cooked off but the beef is moist. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.
- Use as a taco, burrito or enchilada filling or make my very favorite dish, machaca chimichangas Christmas style (deep fried burrito with sour cream, green and red chili sauces.)