Every once in a while I get a craving for a Double Decker taco from Taco Bell like how I imagine a amputee has the sensation of a phantom limb. A feeling of hunger takes shape in space no longer occupied but where there once was something substantial, and when it come to my former consumption of Taco Bell, it was nothing if not substantial. Peaking my senior year of high school, when I had a job and thus the luxury of buying meals for myself, I ate Taco Bell a good three days a week. Visits slowed down a bit during my time in college—I was too distracted by all the delicious burritos in Santa Barbara—but after that four year slump I began touring a band, and well, poverty + traveling = Taco Bell. So I was back at it again.
These days I don't quiero Taco Bell like I used. My exposure to a much broader variety of foods has made a permanent impact on my palate and I just don't enjoy Crunchwrap Supremes or 7 Layer Burritos like I once did. I've learned enough to know what tastes good, and, well, Taco Bell doesn't. It's not that it's bad, it's just bland. And frankly, I'm not really happy about that. Instead, it makes me kinda sad. Like I lost something. There are times when ignorance really is bliss, and I'll be goddamned if back when I knew no better, I didn't blissfully enjoy a Chalupa on the reg. Now the closest I can get to re-creating that pleasure is in the temporary ignorance of inebriation, but even on those increasingly rare nights, I'm more likely to go home and make tortillas from scratch than "Live Mas."
The worst part about losing my love of Taco Bell is leaving behind all of its unique creations. Cunchy tacos and simple bean burritos are easily replaced by better versions elsewhere or at home, but what about the odd stuff? Specifically, what about Double Deckers? I mean, where else can one get a taco wrapped in a burrito? It's so texturally brilliant that it almost makes up for the fact that all the ingredients used are pallid at best. And it's exactly that—still wanting some of what Taco Bell makes but not wanting Taco Bell to make it—that is the hardest part about falling out of love with the Bell.
All of this was a problem until about six months ago. That's when I had a fateful conversation with a dishwasher at work about food from his home state of Yucatan. I knew about cochinita pabil, the popular Yucatan pork preparation, and was asking him where I could get some around Portland. He actually pulled out a business card from his favorite truck, said they made good pabil, but then said the best thing there was actually something called a panucho, and he insisted I get one. I had no idea what a panucho was, and neither of us knew each other's language well enough for him to comprehensively explain it, so I just took his word for it and ordered a panucho a week later.
That's when everything got better, because that's when I learned that a panucho is the authentic Mexican version of the Double Decker that pre-dates its American likeness and tastes so goddamned delicious it all but necessitates profanity. It's a taco (great) built on a freshly made corn tortilla (wonderful) that has been stuffed with refried beans and then lightly fried (holy shit)!!! It has the contrasting textures that makes the Double Decker great, but all while being built from nothing but quality ingredients. It's the best taco I've ever had. Hands down.
It get better too, because Panuchos are actually not hard to make. It's basically just a taco kicked up a few notches. The only critical element is knowing how to make a good corn tortilla that puffs up, so if you're not sure how to do that, read this post first. The rest is about making the components—the Yucatan's traditional cochinita pabil with pickled red onions and some good refried beans—and then putting that all together into the most delicious Double Decker death knell.
Let's start with the onions.
These are easy to make, good on just about anything that could use crunch and acidity (read: almost everything), and they last practically forever in the fridge. There are all sorts of ways to go about making pickled red onions, you can add a whole variety of vinegars and spices, but for this application I actually like this plain recipe the best.
First step: Cut up some red onions longitudinally, from end to end, so that each piece is relatively the same length.
Second step: Juice three to four limes and one orange.
Step 3: Cover the onions with the juice. Add a good pinch of salt. That's it.
These things are better if you give them a good 24 hours of sitting in the fridge, great after a week, and after a month will have turned entirely purple/pink and taste all sorts of delicious. If you want to really outdo yourself here, blanch the slices of onion in boiling water for ten seconds prior to adding the citrus juice. It'll mellow out the harsh onion bite and help them absorb the juice. I skipped the blanching because I forgot. I lived to tell about it.
Next up: Cochinita Pabil
The basic idea of cochinita pabil is to marinate pork in an annatto seed (aka, achiote) and bitter orange based mixture, wrap it in banana leaves, then cook the whole thing buried in a hole filled with hot coals. The achiote is earthy sweet, the orange adds a welcome sour note to the rich pork, a wonderful vegetal aroma permeates the whole dish thanks to the banana leaves, and then it's all kissed by the fire, resulting in a complex and perfectly balanced Mexican take on pit BBQ. Back when I lived in Virginia I'd make really delicious pibil in my smoker, but now, living in a small one-bedroom apartment on the second floor near downtown Portland, I don't have that luxury. Luckily, though it lacks the unique flavor provided by fire, oven roasted pabil is still delicious and definitely worth your time. So if you can't dig a hole somewhere and fill it with fire, do what I do now and preheat your oven to 275.
This is a pork dish, so the obvious ingredient here is pork. Buy a roughly two and a half pound chunk of boneless shoulder (aka, Boston Butt) then cut it in half.
First step is to make the annatto seed paste. You can actually just buy this pre-made in the spice section of a well-stocked Mexican market—it'll be a red brick labeled achiote paste—but my market didn't have it so I figured I'd buy some ground annatto seeds (they didn't have whole) and make it myself. For the recipe I used a combination of this video on youtube (which is in a language I don't speak) and a page from Rick Bayless' first (and best) cookbook, Authentic Mexican (which is conveniently written in a language I do speak).
Bayless' recipe calls for adding flour at the end to turn it into a paste. Figuring I didn't need a thicker marinade, I didn't bother with that step.
Here's what you'll need to make the marinade (clockwise from the top)
- teaspoon ground black pepper
- teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- half teaspoon coriander seeds
- half teaspoon cumin seeds
- four cloves
- five cloves of garlic
- A good chunk of canela cinnamon
- And in the center, a tablespoon of annatto.
Quickly toast the whole seeds/cloves on the stovetop, buzz them up in a spice grinder, then dump all of that into a blender. Add a tablespoon of salt.
In the Yucatan they use bitter oranges for this dish, but those are really difficult to find in the US, so instead simply juice an orange and then add lime juice to it. Because I had lemons sitting around that needed to be used and it was too early to make a whiskey sour, I went ahead and threw in some lemon juice too. Point is, the marinade should be orange flavored, but also sour.
Add the juice to the spices in the blender and blend on high until everything is smooth. If you need to, strain the mixture through a medium mesh strainer.
Next up, procure some banana leaves from a Mexican or Asian market and (if frozen, they often are) thaw them on the counter. Banana leaves straight from the package are incredibly brittle and nearly impossible to work with, but if you run each side quickly over an open flame, like the burner on your stove (an electric burner works as well, as does a hot griddle), they become quite pliable. So do that.
Line the bottom of your roasting apparatus with a few banana leaves. I used a Dutch oven, but if you don't have one, you can use any sort of baking dish. Hell, even those disposable $0.30 aluminum roasting pans would work. Next make an x of two leaves, place one chunk of pork in the center, lift this whole thing into your baking dish, and then cover with half of the marinade. Annatto seeds are used for food coloring and stain like crazy, so if you aren't careful here everything in your life could very well be stained red. This is why I say to put the whole thing in the cooking vessel before applying the marinade, to prevent drips and mess in general. Also, wearing some form of latex glove isn't a bad idea here (unless you like the idea of being bombarded with "caught red handed" dad-jokes for the next few days). Rub the marinade into the meat, tightly wrap the leaves around it, then flip the whole thing over so the seam side is down. That make sense? Repeat with the other piece of pork.
When you're done it should look like this. Pork drenched in marinade somewhere beneath a delicious swaddling of banana leaves.
Now here's where my approach veers from tradition. At this point, every recipe I've read on the subject says to let the pork marinate in the mixture for four to twenty-four hours. I don't think this is a good idea at all. The marinade is highly acidic, and acid eats away at meat, meaning a full day in the marinade will accomplish little more than making the outer edge of the pork mushy. Plus it takes a whole day. Skip this step and proceed right with baking it. Cover it with a lid (or aluminum foil), place in your previously preheated 275 degree oven, then cook until fork tender, approximately 3 hours.
When the meat easily yields to a twisting fork, it's done. Pull it out of the oven and let it rest for ten or fifteen minutes, then remove it from the banana leaves (which you can throw away now), and shred using two forks.
The bottom of the cooking vessel should have a good amount of marinade and pork drippings hanging out in it. That's all great flavor there so be sure not to let it go to waste! Transfer the pulled pork back to the cooking vessel and stir it all up real good. If you're worried about fat content of the drippings a great way to handle that is to get over that long before buying pork shoulder. Well done.
Step Number C: Make a pot of beans. Then make them refried.
Making beans from scratch is an essential cooking skill, absurdly cheap, and is incredibly easy to do. Sadly, no one really talks about it because the conversation about cooking has for a very long time now been dominated by people trying to teach you how to cook in under a half hour, thus, the canned bean has reigned supreme for decades. Don't get me wrong, canned beans are totally fine, but that's all they are. Just fine. Cooking beans from scratch allows you to be an actual cook, meaning you get to control all of the flavors and textures. You end up with great tasting food and a working knowledge of how you got it there, as opposed to "I opened a can, it was fine." Plus, it yields a delicious bean broth as opposed to the slimy water that comes with canned beans. Point being, we're making refried beans from scratch here.
In a pinch, open a can. But be aware that I'll know, and I'm judging you.
Oh, and I'm making refried pinto beans here because that's what I had in my pantry. I'm pretty sure black beans would be more traditional here. Use either.
Above are two pinto beans. The one on the left is a plain old dried bean while our friend on the right has been soaked overnight in a light brine. You can make a pot of beans with un-soaked beans, but if you take the time to dump some saltwater on the beans the night before you'll be very glad you did. The benefits of soaking beans are as follows:
- soaked beans cook much quicker
- the beans cook more evenly without rupturing
- the final texture is much creamier
Pretty good reasons right? All for basically no extra work and barely any foresight. The key here is to soak them in a brine, meaning, dissolve some salt in the soaking water first. A good ratio to use is for every cup of dried beans, dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt into 4 cups of water. In the storied history of bean cooking, the salt here is a relatively new addition. For a very long time the general theory on salt and beans is that the former toughens the latter's skin, causing them to cook poorly. Salt was to be added halfway through cooking at the very earliest, leaving the cook with somewhat under-seasoned beans and over-seasoned broth. But recently, some smart people have figured out that what makes regular bean skins tough is calcium and magnesium ions bonded to pectin. Though regular soaked beans have hydrated a bit and become softer, nothing has been done to affect this bond, which is why the skins still rupture and the beans cook unevenly. But when salt is added to the soaking water, sodium ions actually go about replacing some of the calcium and magnesium ions, making the pectin bonds significantly weaker, ultimately resulting in a softer, better cooking bean. Granted, I barely understand any of those last few sentences, but I fully understand the part about brined beans tasting better. So brine them.
Oh, and you can go ahead and salt your cooking water too.
Drain your soaked beans and place them in a pot, then add aromatics. Onion and garlic are standard for Mexican style beans, which err on the side of simplicity. I threw a bay leaf in there with a shug. It worked but wasn't necessary. I also had some bacon that I cured a bit too long, rendering it too salty to eat plain but perfect for a pot of beans. I put it in the pot of beans. You can experiment with all sorts of delicious additions to your beans, so feel free to get creative. One note of warning though, acidic additions will prevent your beans from fully cooking. So don't add tomatoes until much later.
Now cover this whole mess with two inches of water, add a pinch of salt, bring to a simmer, then cover with a lid and place in the oven right next to the pabil. Check the beans in an hour or so. Depending on their freshness, they may be done then or need some more time. If you're making these without concurrently making pabil, they can be baked in a low oven set at 325F or over a low flame on the stove.
These beans are done. So are the aromatics. Dig out any additions to your beans and throw them away (If you added meat, taste it first. Is it good? Use it.). Don't worry, it's not wasteful. The flavor from the onion has been fully leached into the broth, rendering the onion itself somewhat flavorless and mushy, two adjectives I suggest to keep out of your cooking.
Look how creamy these beans are! So delicious. I smashed those ones up front to demonstrate their superior texture else they looked like the intact yet blurry guys in the back (which demonstrate my very arty ability to open up the aperture and press a button).
"I like refried beans. That's why I wanna try fried beans, because maybe they're just as good and we're just wasting time. You don't have to fry them again after all." -Mitch Hedberg
If you're like Mitch—first, please go get help for your drug problem, we're worried about you—go ahead and give your beans a try here. These are your pre-refried beans ("fried" beans), and they're delicious. Save them in their broth for a week or so in the fridge. When the beans get low and it's mostly broth, sauté onion, carrot, celery, and chiles, add some chicken and whatever herbs you like, then dump the broth and residual beans on there. You just made soup. You're welcome.
But refried beans are needed for panuchos, so we must proceed
Mince up half an onion and sauté it over medium heat in some pork lard. If you don't like your food tasting the best it possibly can, by all means use vegetable oil here. The rest of you, go buy some good pork lard and then thank me later. It's astounding the impact on flavor a tablespoon of lard can have. Plus, it's "technically" healthier than butter. When the onion is translucent (3-5 minutes) a minced clove of garlic and sauté for thirty seconds, then dump in a scoop of beans.
Take a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon and get to mashing. Keep adding beans until you're out.
There. Refried beans. If you like a smoother textured bean, feel free to skip the mashing part and instead throw the whole mess in a blender. That works too. I personally like a more rustic looking bean, which is great because I also hate cleaning blenders.
Ok, lets take stock of what has happened so far. You made pickled onions earlier in the day or, preferably, a few days/weeks ago. You got the cochinita started and while it was braising you cooked the soaked beans and turned them into refried beans. That took an hour and a half (of mostly not doing anything, keep in mind). The cochinita needs another hour, so take this time to make tortillas and stuff them with the refried beans. Because these are fried later, it's totally ok to do this ahead of time and let them get tepid/cold. Hell, you could probably store them wrapped up tight in the fridge for a few days.
My limited experience making panuchos has taught me it's much easier to stuff a freshly made tortilla, as opposed to one that's been sitting around for a while. So make one tortilla, then stuff it, then proceed with making the next tortilla. You can eventually get a rhythm down where you start making the next tortilla right away, stuffing the previous one while the following guy cooks. The key here though is to make sure your tortillas puff up. Even a few small bubbles of separation are enough. So get that technique locked in.
Take your tortilla and make a two inch slice along the side. I originally used a sharp knife for this task, but the tortilla was actually too soft and had a tendency to tear. I switched to using scissors after taking the above picture on the left, and everything got a whole lot easier. Next, run a dull knife around the interior to fully separate the two sides of the tortilla.
You should end up with a pocket that looks like this.
Stuff it with a heaping spoonful of refried beans, and then massage the beans into every square centimeter of inner tortilla real estate.
Remember, this is going to be used as a taco shell, meaning it will still need to bend, so don't overstuff it. A thin even coating of beans is all you need. Repeat with as many tortillas as you want to eat.
When your cochinita is finished and everything is ready to go for eating, get a pan hot and pour in a thin layer of oil. Tortillas tend to sop up oil pretty well (which is why chips taste so damn good) so you'll have to replenish this relatively often.
Lightly fry the tortilla on both sides so that there are crisp brown spots. It still needs to be pliable so don't overdo it here (unless you want a bean stuff tostada, which sounds great too). Set the fried panuchos on paper towels to drain, stacking them with a layer of paper towel between them, to prevent sticking.
Top simply with the cochinita pabil, the pickled onions, thinly sliced habanero chile (or a habanero hot sauce), and some avocado if you have it.
Enjoy the hell out of your new favorite taco. And be grateful to the geniuses from the Yucatan who have been making the world's best Double Decker taco long before the world knew about the inferior version.
- Quickly blanch sliced red onions then cover with lime/orange juice. Add sugar or vinegar or spices that you like. Or don't. Always have this in your fridge.
- Blend achiote paste with oranges and limes then spread over 2 1/2 lbs of pork shoulder. Wrap that in thawed banana leaves that have been run over a hot flame to make pliable. Braise in a covered container in an oven set at 275F until the meat is tender. About 3 hours.
- Dissolve a tablespoon of salt into four cups of water, then dump in a cup of dried pinto beans. Let soak overnight. Drain then place the beans in a pot with aromatic veggies and salty meat/fat. Cover with water, bring to a simmer, put a lid on it, then cook in a low oven or over a low flame until soft and delicious. 1+ hours. Smash into some lard sautéed onions and garlic.
- Make corn tortillas. Cut a slit in the side with scissors and hollow out with a dull knife. Stuff with a scoop of refried beans. Lightly fry. Top with meat, onions, and something spicy.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com. The point here is not food porn or for me to brag about some dinner I had. I want you to come away with enough information to confidently cook this. So if you're unsure about something, please let me know and I'll try to explain things more gooder. Word.