Friday, June 19, 2009

Cecina: Worth Its Salt

  Cecina is thinly sliced, salted and partially dried sheets or strips of beef or pork. The technique for making it requires an extremely sharp knife and considerable skill and patience. A largish piece of boneless beef of beef is turned into a continuous roll of thin slices by deft cutting, back and forth, within the mass of muscle.

It's much simpler to go to a specialist who'll make it for you. Remember, a little piece goes far to satisfy your need for both protein, and salt, for that matter.

I've had it, both in the United States and in different parts of Mexico. Some (at a Mexican restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas) it was so tough that it was impossible to chew. Even 4 hours of slow simmering at home rendered it barely masticable.

But cecina varies.

In Chihuahua city, in 1990, we entered a small shop selling everything needed to make antojitos Mexicanos: dried chiles, hojas de maíz para tamales, masa fresca, maíz pozolero preparado. They also served platillos típicos del Distrito Federal. The owner, Ramón, was from el DF and Edomex. One platillo offered was cecina enchilada. Although the hour was late, and the owner was reparing to close, he cooked a slab of cecina enchilada for me, and heated up a bowl of first rate pozole for Susan.

When the cecina arrived, I was a little surprised: it was like a large, thin, boneless steak. I had misunderstood and had been thinking of "enchiladas": corn tortillas dipped in a thin chile sauce, lightly fried, with a filling.

This was different. Pura carne, lightly coated with chile molido. It was pleasantly salty and mildly picante, chewy but doable. I'd rate it a "9" on the Chewy but Doable Decimal Scale.

Some years later, while in Oaxaca, we had tasajo, the Oaxacan version of cecina, often served in small pieces on tlayudas, (extra grande tortillas), smeared with a paste of frijoles negros, and nicely garnished with onions, avocado, tomato and quesillo, or Oaxacan string cheese. One is a meal.

Oaxaca goes its own separate way in la comida regional. There, "cecina" refers to sheets of semi dried pork, often with a sprinkling of chile molido. Tasajo is made from beef. This section of the Mercado 11 de noviembre, in Oaxaca Centro, specializes in grilled tasajo and cecina. It looks like a scene from Hell, but it smells great.

Here's a picture of a tlayuda con tasajo.

Tasajo Tlayuda in a Fonda Oaxaqueña

Last week, I saw that one of our favorite Pátzcuaro carnicerías, La Sin Rival, had some strips of cecina on top of the counter. I asked the hard working owner, Sr. Moíses Pérez H. about it. He guided me to some that was drier, for not long ago, at another carnicería, I'd bought some that spoiled. The fault was mine, for leaving it in the plastic bag without refrigeration. Not all cecina attains the dryness of carne seca, otherwise known as jerky.

Red flag means "Fresh meat today"

The cecina from La Sin Rival fared better. It became breakfast a few mornings later. I lightly oiled a skillet, and browned the meat on both sides. Meanwhile, I fried some huevos estrellados. These were flanked by a steaming mound of stone ground speckled grits from Nora Mill, Helen GA. Add some salsa casera of your choice, and you're all set. It's my Mexican version of a Good 'Ol Boy breakfast down South; the cecina a perfect stand-in for salty, aged Country Ham.

A couple of days  later, I lucked out when carrying my camera while in Pátzcuaro Centro. I went to La Sin Rival with hopes of photographing some cecina. Sr. Pérez told me that none was available until later, as it was drying at that moment, in the patio of the family house. 

He generously allowed me to pass through the work area of the carnicería to the pleasant patio where a large slab of plywood held sheets of meat drying in the sun.

Cecina drying in the sun

The carnicero and his assistant apply vegetable oil to keep flies from alighting.

Applying a light coat of vegetable oil

Sr. Moises with some dried cecina

I asked if any jugo de limón was used in the process, as I'd read in an old Mexican food cookbook.
"No Señor, solamente sal y un poco de aceite.", he replied.*

I recommend trying cecina when you have the chance. Just be sure to get it from a reliable shop like La Sin Rival in Pátzcuaro. (But, if you are less adventuresome, get una Hamburguesa Doble, como te gusta, at the Cafetería Chió's next door. Sr. Pérez wife runs the tidy little lonchería, and makes some of the best, juiciest hamburgers in Pátzcuaro.)

Soon, we hope to sample some at a Santa Rosa, Guanajuato Restaurant, "La Cabana de la Lolita", recommended to us by Rachel Laudan, food scholar living in Guanajuato, as serving "Incredible cecina."

I hope to report back soon with my findings.

*I have the theory that all too often, American writers on Mexican food make overly complicated, overly elaborated versions of some simple, uncomplicated food. We could discuss the example of carnitas, but not here at this time. Remind me later.


Felipe Zapata said...

Nice report, señor. How you and the missus have attained your semi-ripe ages without multiple coronaries is beyond me. You are blessed.

I do not believe the red flag indicates "fresh meat today." From what I hear, it is simply a common thing for meat markets to put outside the door in Mexico, an indication that the business is a meat market. I could be wrong.

When you think on it a bit, were it to indicate "fresh meat today," then when the flag was not out there, it would indicate, "no fresh meat today," hardly something a meat market would want to proclaim.

Don Cuevas said...

I am confused by your undoubtedly impeccable logic, Felipe.

Back in Old México, I think that the carnicerías had fresh meat only on irregular days. Then they raised the Red Flag. Otherwise, they'd just be closed. La Sin Rival is honoring the tradition, altough not to the letter. It's open everyday except Sunday and selected holidays and closed on Fridays during Lent.

(There is also such a thing as meat that's TOO fresh. But, that's anther issue.)

The question also arises wheher cecina can be defined as "fresh meat".

At any rate, the question is one for food ethnologists or some group to ponder. Me, I just cook and eat the stuff.

Abut coronaries: I have a blessedly low cholesterol count although Doña Cuevas has to control hers. We don't eat a lt of red meat but we do eat lots of fresh vegetables.

Cecina is nearly fat free, altough its salt content is alarmingly high.

For breakfast, we finished off the cecina as part of an aporeadillo (eggs scrambled with cecina or machaca, lus chopped onions, chiles (Whoo-HOO!) and tomatoes. At least, my version of the dish. I think chiles may help to lower cholesterol.

Don Cuevas

Todd said...

Absolutely right, the best burgers in town are right next door!


Rachel Laudan said...

Hi, And you'll find the cecina I mentioned is yet another rendition. It is crackling thin shattering in the mouth or tortilla. No one best cecina.

PS. The cecina at Hotel La Sierra is much thicker and chewier.

Felipe Zapata said...

OK, where is this La Sin Rival and the burger joint next door? Addresses are notably and unforgivably absent. The link to the burger joint turned up nothing.

Don Cuevas said...

Felipe; it's on Calle Ibarra, about 2/3drs of the way to Calle Espejo, on the north side of the street. The Laboratorio Montes de Oca is ahead on the corner.

It's after the pet shop, when coming from Plaza Grande.

(By the way, we saw some incredible, $$ huge burgers yesterday evening at Restaurant Casa Valadez in Guanajuato. Ww are feverishly shuffling our meal plans in order to work one in.)

But that info does you a fat lot of good.


Felipe Zapata said...

Doña Cuevas has cholesterol issues, and you were "feverishly shuffling" plans to work in a monster burger?!

Let me explain cause and effect.

Don´t you love that woman? She´s cute. I would love her were I in your position.

Don Cuevas said...

Felipe; no te procupes. Vamos a compartir la burguer. Yo vo a comer la carne; ella la lechuga, tomate y cebolla.

Todos esfuerzos por mi parte para su mejor salud.

Aparte: ¡espera hasta que veas las fotos del Men's Room del Rest Casa Valadez! No vas a creer si no veas.

Si, de acuerdo. Ella es muy chula.

Don Cuevas

Tom said...

Small point, but I believe the mercado in downtown Oaxaca is called 20 de Noviembre. The hall they have with the meat being braised over charcoal everywhere is indeed impressive.

Don Cuevas said...

Tom, you are undoubtedly correct. I have a high degree of ineptitude regarding numbers.

Don Cuevas

PS: Don't anyone be confused by the change of photograph. None of them are really me.

Don Cuevas said...

I'd also been informed by mi amiga, "Bixaorellana", who lives in Oaxaca, that the correct spelling is tasajo, no accent on the last syllabub. She is correct, but I'm damned if I'm going to go in and change every instance.

Don Cuevas