Editorial Note: This recipe was done as a live class as a fundraiser for Tucson Botanical Gardens. If you are so inclined and are able to do so, please donate to the garden through their website, or through my personal fundraiser, active until 4/9/20. To those of you who have donated, thank you for your generosity. It is sincerely appreciated.
This recipe has quickly become one of my favorites for how much it represents classic Sonoran cuisine. A lot is told by the name of the dish itself, carne de camino, beef of the road or path. Made with carne seca and ground red chiles, it a dish easily made with a lightweight but nutritionally dense dried beef, just a bit of garlic and water. This is the kind of dish those traveling by horse or mule could easily make while crossing the desert, ingredients packed in saddle bags, and in very little time.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Sonoran Desert, let me paint a picture of it. The desert spans both northern Mexico and southwestern US, covering most of Baja California and Sonora, Arizona and southeast California. Thinking of this desert as nothing but an expanse of sand dunes similar to the Sahara desert doesn’t come close to a true representation of it. This desert is a living green desert, home to a wide variety of ecosystems due to the vast differences in altitudes within it, from sea level to just below 8,000 feet above sea level. Average rain fall varies just as widely. In areas of Baja California rainfall is next to nothing. Subtropical areas of the desert in southern Sonora and even here in central Arizona rainfall can be in some years as much as 16″.
This creates a lush desert where the trees are covered in yellow blooms, grasses and wild greens cover every bit of available ground, and wildflowers are buzzing with activity. It isn’t a desert, is a garden.
But this garden gets hot. Very hot. In the city air temperatures get hot enough to melt the paint of street signs and turn the asphalt soft enough to stick to your shoe. The open desert is somewhat cooler, but still uncomfortable during the day.
The most important aspect of this environment is the sun itself and the way it is used as a means of food preservation. Want to dry something fast, hang it under the Sonoran sun. Carne seca, dried beef, would have been an ideal way of long term meat preservation without refrigeration. The low humidity of the desert means foods in dry storage keep well with relatively little spoilage. The thinly cut sheets of meat – mule deer, javelina or big horn sheep in pre-Columbian times, beef after – would be salted, rubbed with herbs, and hung to dry in the sun, preferably near a mesquite fire. The smoke would help keep insects away but also add a depth of flavor.
The first time I taught this dish in a class I was asked where find carne seca. My answer was of course the Mexican grocery store, but on my way back home, crossing the Sonoran desert, a moment of clarity. What is dried beef if not jerky, available in every convenience store in America? Lacking a Mexican grocery store nearby, it will more than do, but avoid teriyaki or any other such seasonings. Stick with a classic or peppered jerky.
This particular batch was made with a deer jerky, gifted to me by one of my regular students, a benefit of her hunter husband.
Carne de Camino
- 2 oz lard
- ½ pound carne seca
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- Water as needed
- ¼ cup distilled white vinegar
- 2 oz dry chile colorado, seeded and finely ground
- 1 tbsp Mexican oregano, ground between the palms
- Salt, as needed
DirectionsWorking in a large heavy bottomed skillet, melt lard over medium heat and lightly toast the carne seca on both sides until fragrant and browned but not charred. Add garlic cloves, toasting while constantly moving for 1 minute, and add enough water to cover meat. Bring water to a boil, simmer until meat starts to soften and remove from heat. Allow the meat to rest in the liquid to further rehydrate.
Remove the meat and garlic cloves, reserving water, and roughly pound with a meat tenderizer until broken up. Return skillet to heat, adding more water if too dry, and whisk in ground chile colorado until completely smooth. Add Mexican oregano and vinegar. Simmer for two minutes or so, and return meat and garlic to the pan, continuing to simmer until sauce thickens. Check for seasoning and adjust as necessary.
Serve with warm flour tortillas caseras.