October 1, 2010 7:00 PM
Brisket in Pasilla Chile and Tomatillo Sauce

This is by far, the best brisket I've ever had.

The meat chunks gain a nutty brown crust as they cook, yet as you take a bite they fall apart in your mouth. And the sauce, thick, a bit tart, a bit spicy and wholeheartedly rich, enhances the flavor of the meat. It is a dish with a flavor hard to forget: it has loads of personality.

It's become the trump card I pull out for guests that love unusual and authentic flavors from Mexico. The best part of it is, the hardest part about making it, is waiting for the brisket to cook on its own. 

I first tried a version of it in Santa Fé de la Laguna, Michoacán. A popular dish in that region, it goes by the name of Carne Enchilada. A young and knowledgeable Purépecha cook, Berenice Flores, showed me how to make it at her home. When my whole family sat down to eat it, we kept asking her for more corn tortillas to wipe the sauce clean off the plates.

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In Michoacán its typically made with pork, but when I got back home to DC, I couldn't resist trying it with brisket. As well as adding a layer of seasoned onion to the sauce.

When Cecilia Ramos, Executive Director for Mexico and the Dominican Republic at the IADB, invited me to cook an authentic Mexican menu for the monthly Board of Directors, the first thing that popped into my mind was this dish.

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The sauce has a base of two exemplary Mexican ingredients that are now widely available in the US.

First, Pasilla or Black chiles, which are the dried Chilaca chiles, by far the most common chiles grown and used in Michoacán. Their flavor is earthy, a bit bitter and slightly spicy.

If you don't find Pasillas, you can substitute with New Mexico chiles.

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Secondly, the Tomatillos, with their singular tasty tartness. The combination of the Pasillas and the Tomatillos is so good, its even hard to describe.    


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Aside from having a lot of fun planning the menu, cooking at the kitchens of the IADB under the expert guidance of Chef Craig Psulgi was quite a ride.

Forget about the facility: It's any cook's dream. What's more, the cooking team he directs is a group of international hard working people with the friendliest of dispositions.   

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They are used to making all sorts of Latin American meals, focusing on different national cuisines to satiate the cravings of the multicultural staff from the IADB. Thus making a unique Mexican menu at the IADB is one big challenge.

In the end, what I really wanted, was to make the Mexican patrons there feel back at home. 

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Though I had thought of a full menu, I didn't consider the appetizer for the pre-lunch hour. Since they had some beautiful shrimp, we came up with a tasty appetizer: quickly sauteed shrimp on top of a brioche toast, smothered with an easy avocado cream, topped with a spicy red bell pepper sauce.

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For the salad, we had watercress and spinach with a Jamaica vinaigrette.

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We offered a choice between Pasilla and Tomatillo brisket and an Acapulco style fish. Both with a side of a comfy Mexican rice and a pickled chayote side (sorry about the photo with the fluorescent lighting of the professional kitchen...)

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Yes there is always one or another kind of drama in the kitchen.

We almost dropped the entire tray with all of the brisket on the floor.

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Chef Psulgi caught it just on time.

And with that extra adrenaline rush, plating away we went.

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Always have to put a finishing touch in there...

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The waiters, I must say, were quite patient and helpful.

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And right before the luncheon started, I was invited to step out to describe what it was that they were all about to eat, that was on their menus...

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I'm happy to say that everyone seemed to love the brisket. Yes. Even the ones who opted for fish, because I insisted they try the brisket too...


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For dessert we offered black and white Tres Leches Cake..

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Because it was a soothing end, for the feast of flavors that came beforehand...

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3 pounds trimmed brisket of beef, rinsed and cut into about 2-inch chunks (leave some fat on!)
5 garlic cloves, peeled
5 peppercorns
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, divided (plus more to taste)
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed
3 ounces black or pasilla chiles, (may sub for New Mexico) stems and seeds removed
3 tablespoons corn or safflower oil
1/2 cup white onion, chopped
1 cup boiling water
2 cups meat cooking liquid
chopped white onion and cilantro leaves(optional garnish)

Place meat chunks in a large cooking pot along with 5 garlic cloves, peppercorns and salt. Cover with water, bring to a boil, cover partially and simmer over medium heat for 3 hours, or until meat is very soft. Drain and reserve 2 cups of its cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, char or roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet under the broiler, or directly on the comal or dry skillet or grill over medium heat, for about 10 minutes, turning 2 or 3 times. Tomatillos are ready when their skin is blistered and lightly charred, and their flesh is soft, mushy and juicy.

Toast chiles on a hot comal or dry skillet over-medium heat for 5 to 10 seconds per side. Chiles will release their aroma and become more pliable, and their inner skin will become a bit opaque. Don't let them burn.

Place toasted chiles and roasted or charred tomatillos in a bowl and cover with 1 cup boiling water and 2 cups of reserved meat cooking liquid (if you don't have 2 cups, add more water). Let this mixture soak for at least a half-hour and up to 4 hours. Pour the mixture into the blender or food processor, puree until smooth and reserve.

And 3 tablespoons of corn or safflower oil to the same pot in which meat was cooked, and heat over high heat until hot but not smoking. Add cooked meat chunks and brown them, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add the chopped onion, and stir as you continue to brown the meat for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Incorporate pureed chile mixture and a teaspoon of salt. Stir and simmer over medium heat for about 10 more minutes. The meat should be completely tender, yet still in chunks. The sauce should be think enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, but not pasty.Taste for salt and add more if need be.To serve, you can garnish with some raw chopped onion and cilantro leaves.

If there is any meat left over, you can cool, store and refrigerate it in a closed contained and then reheat, covered over a low simmer.