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Cactus and Cow’s Head?Exploring the Flavors of Mexico with Yolanda Resendiz

Hola! Welcome to Yolanda Resendiz’s home kitchen where we cook, style and photograph her classic Mexican recipes for Beyond Wonderful. Yolanda is a talented, self-taught home chef and her kitchen is filled with laughter, lively conversations and shared work. It is the very essence of the joyful sense of community that permeates kitchens across her native land.

Our photographers and I are veterans of Yolanda’s marathon, multi-dish cooking sessions and have become her dedicated prep assistants; peeling, chopping and preparing fresh produce and herbs, roasting and peeling chiles and marinating and roasting meats. At the same time we’ve taught Yolanda—an instinctive cook who does not use measuring cups or spoons—to precisely measure all her ingredients so we can write accurate recipes for your kitchen. This is a challenge when she’s moving quickly, juggling 10–12 recipes in various states of completion!

Since most of Yolanda’s more involved recipes include illustrated, step-by-step how-to pages, I assign one photographer to record each step of a recipe. Having the images also helps me back at the office when I’ve missed something in all the activity.

I’m currently working on recipe and how-to pages from our latest session that began early Saturday morning. We arrived and got settled at Yolanda’s long kitchen table piled high with all the ingredients needed for the day. As I went over the schedule with the group, Yolanda served a Mexican breakfast of scrambled eggs with cactus, beans, warm tortillas, and unlimited mugs of steaming hot coffee.

Fortified, we got our prepping assignments as Yolanda checked her bubbling pots on the stove. I find that there is always one dish that stands out from the rest—the one that I make in my own kitchen later. Today’s was barbacoa des res, or steamed beef shanks wrapped in roasted maguey (century cactus leaves). This popular Mexican dish is a party favorite and gets its rich flavor from the cactus—so don’t even think of trying to skip that element.

Maguey is not something that you pick up at the local supermarket or Mexican market. Instead, you have to find a plant nearby or substitute banana leaves that are readily available, and also yield fairly good results. Yolanda and I walked to a neighbor’s house to cut the leaves from a huge, ancient plant. She told me that all the neighbors share their garden bounties with each other. Today we took the cactus; tomorrow the neighbor would receive a bag of freshly picked apples.

Yolanda surveyed the plant, picked four, four-foot long leaves and cut them at the base with a sharp chef’s knife. I didn’t have a clue what to do with these gray-green giants, but when Yolanda handed them to me I quickly became aware that they had nasty looking prickles around the outer edges.

We hauled them back to Yolanda’s garden where her husband, Tomas, had set up two large camp stoves. This is not an exotic way to process these leaves, but simply a necessity because all of the burners on the inside stove were in use. Yolanda removed the prickles from the first leaf and started roasting it on the open flame. Soon the leaf softened and turned dark green. “Barbara, you want the leaves to bend so that we can wrap the meat in the steamer.” I was impressed. “All right, it’s your turn, you finish trimming and roasting the leaves and I’ll get the steamer ready.” Things moved quickly and brightened significantly when Tomas brought me an ice cold beer.

Yolanda arranged the roasted leaves in the steamer basket, added the beef shanks and covered them with the protruding ends of the cactus. Tomas helped Yolanda seal the steamer so that it could slow cook for five hours. I asked if one could use other cuts of meat and learned that lamb and pork are good choices, or cow’s head if you’re truly adventurous. “You get the best flavor from a cow’s head,” Yolanda assured me. “Just have the butcher at a Mexican or Latin market cut it into pieces and cook everything the same way.” She told me that in Mexico, they dig a big hole in the ground, add a heat source, lay in the roasted maguey and then slow cook the meat for hours. I thought that sounded very cool, and was told it got even better when you put a pan under the meat to catch the juices. “Barbara, it’s the best juice—so rich. It makes a great consommé.”

As the steamer pot did its work, we moved on to a slew of other delectables; roasted goat meat, caldillo soup, apple and pineapple salad, Mexican Kahlúa flan and pitchers of prickly pear juice known as agua de tuna (no relation to the fish).

Five hours later, we opened the steamer pot, peeled back the cactus leaves and inhaled the most wonderful scent. The meat was fork tender and amazingly good. I decided right there to make this at home—with the whole cow’s head. Life should always be an adventure, and there is a large maguey growing wild at the bottom of my hill.

Get a printable copy of barbacoa des res for easy reference.

Read more about Beyond Wonderful’s International Home Chef, Yolanda Resendiz and her classic Mexican recipes.