preconceived notions discourage you — just trust me. I promise, if you like braised short ribs, pot roast or osso bucco, you will love lenguas tacos, or as they say in Spanish, tacos de lenguas. The tacos combine the delicious flavor of slow-cooked beef along with fresh accompaniments. The toppings are endless — cilantro, tomatoes, lime juice, avocado, pickled radishes, green onions, peppers, to name a few, and if you really want, lettuce. The balance is the best of both worlds and great for a hot summer day.
This is the part where you have to trust me. In Spanish, lenguas can mean many different things depending on how it is used and with what other words. It can mean languages — to talk, to chatter, to quarrel — or it can just mean the object that you do all that with: the tongue. Beef tongue use to be one of the more underutilized parts of the cow, but in the last several years, more and more people have discovered it is delicious.
Just like short ribs and pot roast, beef tongue is a muscle that is used frequently. It has a tremendous amount of connective tissue. This makes it a terrible candidate for short, high-heat cooking such as grilling or sautéing but a good candidate for braising or stewing. The prolonged process of slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue and bastes the meat from the inside during the stewing process. Stewing and braising are similar moist-cooking methods. When stewing, you don’t usually sear the meat first as you do when braising; larger portions of meat (osso bucco, short ribs and pot roast) work best for braising.
The two important details with any moist cooking are moisture and temperature.
Stock is the best option for moisture when stewing. Season the stock with aromatics of your choosing — garlic, resinous herbs, spices and chilies work great. Be careful with salt — you want some, but not an overwhelming amount. Make sure the liquid covers the meat the entire time it is cooking. If you stir the meat consistently while it is cooking, you can let the liquid evaporate more as the meat becomes done. If you extend the stewing process over more than one day, allow the fully cooked meat to cool completely overnight in the liquid (under refrigeration) and reheat it slowly the next day.
The optimal heat for moist cooking methods with tough meat is between 180 and 220 degrees. This range is the internal temperature of the meat and liquid, which differs from oven temperature. The oven temperature should be higher, closer to 250 or 300. The liquid helps keep the temperature in the proper range. An oven temperature that is too low, such as 220 degrees, will help maintain the structure of the meat while also tenderizing, but it can double the cooking time. An oven temperature that is too high, such as 350 degrees, will speed the cooking process but will make the meat become stringy and dry.
Tacos De Lenguas
Serves 4 to 6
1½ to 2 pounds beef tongue
1 tablespoon kosher salt, more as needed to taste
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of fresh marjoram or oregano
1½ to 2 pints of chicken stock, as needed
Warm corn or flour tortillas (10 to 15)
Fresh toppings as desired
Wash beef tongue and place into an oven-safe container that creates a snug fit. Cover with seasonings and chicken stock. Tightly wrap the top of the container with plastic wrap, then completely cover the plastic wrap with foil. You can use plastic wrap in an oven if it is covered with foil so that the wrap does not touch any oven parts. The wrap acts as a vapor barrier to seal in moisture.
Place pan into a 300-degree oven for 1½ to 2 hours. Remove from the oven and peel off the outer layer of the tongue. Cut into 2-inch chunks and return to the liquid, wrap with new plastic wrap and foil, and cook for 3 to 4 more hours until fork tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool uncovered in liquid for 15 to 30 minutes at room temperature (or overnight in refrigerator and reheat the next day). Shred meat with two forks or tongs (the meat needs to be hot to shred). Place into a bowl and cover.
Place the excess liquid into a pan and cook over medium heat, reducing until it has thickened slightly and become flavorful. Season liquid to taste, and then place just enough liquid into the shredded meat to moisten. Adjust seasoning to taste, if needed, then start to assemble tacos in warm tortillas.
Place tortillas in stacks of 5 or 6 and wrap with foil. Place in 300-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Do not unwrap the tortillas until ready to use. Unwrapping and allowing the tortillas to sit uncovered will dry them out rapidly.
Other fresh vegetables, as desired
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.