Sunday Night Special: Menudo
Neither of my parents could’ve qualified as good cooks during the many years I lived with them. We probably ate breakfast for dinner twice a week and fried eggs, bacon, grated cheddar cheese and salsa wrapped in flour tortillas are the only thing I even recall my dad churning out. Breakfast burritos were about as Mexican as it got in my household, too.
Well, Tex-Mex enchiladas, along with lasagna–another baked dish adept at feeding crowds–were my mom’s two company’s-coming-over standards. The one anomaly, which I’ll have to ask her about, was her taco technique. She would deep-fry corn tortillas when making tacos while all of my friends’ families used those crunchy shells from a box. I’ve since learned that the puffy oil-dipped style is Texan, a state no one on my maternal side has any ties to. I have no idea where she picked that up because she’s way more of an out of the box woman than an extra step type.
I’ve never been given a straight answer as to when either sides of my family came to America and where they even came from. The closest I could gather from my father was that his ancestors lived in Texas before it was a state. That’s kind of weird, like my relatives didn’t come from anywhere; they were just hanging out in America already. But I don’t see how that century-old-plus connection could’ve had any influence on my mom frying corn tortillas.
Episodes that only occurred a couple times in childhood often multiply in the mind years later. My dad likely bought a big can of Juanita’s menudo two or three times, though I remember it as a more regular purchase. I thought the crimson, lightly spiced soup crammed with monster-sized white pieces of corn was the coolest thing ever. It was much more exotic than Campbell’s bean with bacon, my favorite up until that point.
My father and I were the only ones who’d eat it. Tripe was alien and like nothing I’d encountered before. The fact that it was cow stomach didn’t bother me–I was never grossed out by things like giblets either and had no problem eating pet food on dares. My sister turned out the opposite and grew up into a vegan whom I think has loosened up and started eating cheese. Cheese is one animal product worth clinging to.
I liked anything different or underdoggy. When given a choice between blue and white Trax (Kmart’s house brand) or tan and sienna, I chose the dirt colored combo because they were uglier and not the Nikes I wanted in the first place. Eventually I grew to genuinely enjoy the contrary. Maybe a lot more kids had to wear Trax than I realized at the time since like it not, irony is such a trait of my generation. ‘80s kids are way more straightforward and jubilant (and could use a good spirit-crushing).
You don’t see menudo in cans much here, or even freshly prepared on menus. It’s standard weekend fare on much of the west coast but NYC doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. Yesterday, I visited a tiny lunch counter in the Bronx, Real Azteca, and they had pancita, a tripe soup which I suspect is similar to menudo if not the same thing. I was just in the mood for tacos, though.
It had never occurred to me to try and cook my own menudo but it seemed like the perfect Sunday afternoon project. I know menudo is morning food but I rarely get out of bed before noon (and I didn’t even go out drinking on St. Patrick’s Day).
Finding a good recipe proved more difficult than I’d expected. For one, I don’t own a single Mexican cookbook, which is plain sad. In fact the only Latin American cookbooks I possess are a ‘60s Time Life Foods of the World volume and Havana Salsa and Daisy Cooks, which were freebies because I reviewed them for the New York Post. Not counting multi-cuisine (primarily S.E.) Asian cookbooks like Hot Sour Salty Sweet, New Wave Asian, The Occidental Tourist and the like (19 in all), I have 12 Malaysian, 7 Thai, 4 Singaporean, 2 Vietnamese and even 2 Filipino and I never ever cook Pinoy fare. This Mexican cookbook situation must be rectified pronto.
I turned to the internet but every recipe seemed slightly off to me. The Diana Kennedy one floating around had no call for liquid which had to be a misprint and contained no seasonings whatsoever, possibly because it was for white menudo. I didn’t want white. Others were too fancy and called for bay leaves and employed bouquet garni. Some put chopped green chiles in the broth and I don’t think anything but red and dried chiles belong. I’m so not a recipe writer, so I borrowed bits from all over as part of the learning process and would change a few things next time. I’m not saying what follows reflects any authenticity but it felt right.
Menudo (attempt #1)
2 pounds honeycomb tripe
1 calf’s foot, chopped into chunks
1 white onion, roughly sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced in half horizontally
1 ancho chile, toasted and ground
1 sprig thyme
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 28-ounce can hominy
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
chopped white onion
piquin chile powder
Place calf’s foot, garlic and onion in a large pot and sprinkle with salt. Top with tripe and salt a little more, then pour water to cover all the ingredients. Add peppercorns, thyme and ancho chile powder. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer for about two hours.
Strain out the ingredients. The garlic and onion can be tossed, any meat from the calf’s foot can be shredded and the tripe should be cut into one-inch pieces. Return the meat to the liquid. Add the hominy and oregano. Simmer for another two hours.
Skim off any foam or oil that has accumulated on the surface. Add salt to taste and serve garnished with chopped onion, cilantro and chile powder and lime wedges.
I’m still not 100% sure about the process. Next time I would cut the tripe before cooking it. There wasn’t any meat on my cow’s feet so there wasn’t anything to remove and add the pot. And I was confused by the onions and garlic. I’m assuming they had to be strained out because menudo doesn’t have chunks of aromatic vegetables floating in it.
Even after adding ancho chiles, thyme and oregano, which weren’t a part of the original recipe I was following, the broth tasted a little flat. It smelled and looked richer than it was. And my tripe was too tough (I didn’t cook it as long as I’ve indicated above). But after re-heating the pot full the next day the flavors had melded and the meat had softened up. This is a work in progress and I plan on revisiting tripe soup after I do a little more research.