An unusual take on a Mexican favorite, this Barbecued Lamb’s Head Carnitas with Masa from Richard Blais’s cookbook, So Good, substitutes the meat from a lamb’s noggin (and tail) for the usual pork. You should be able to special order a lamb’s head and tail from your butcher (ask them to clean out the eye sockets too). The head should be around 3 pounds, and the tail 2 to 3 pounds; there’s not much meat on the head, so the tail will add more heft to your meal. If you’re not feeling quite so adventurous, you can make the recipe with a pork shoulder, or even with a leg of lamb instead.
Whichever kind of meat you use, it’s marinated in orange juice, cilantro, cumin, ancho chile powder, and oregano, then roasted low and slow until it’s super tender. Fresh masa harina tacos make wonderfully fragrant and pillowy vehicles for the succulent meat, along with its reduced pan juices and whatever accompaniments you like. Mild salsa (like our Pico de Gallo recipe) and sliced radishes are a good way to go, but you can bring cotija cheese, avocado, pickled jalapeños and onions, or fresh cilantro to the party too.
- Yield: 24 tacos, or 4 to 6 servings
- Total: 5 hrs, plus 24 + hours marinating time
- Active: 1 hr 35 min
- 2 handfuls of kosher salt
- 10 whole black peppercorns
- Small handful of coriander seeds
- 2 or 3 bay leaves
- 1 lamb’s head or 2 to 2 1/2 pounds leg of lamb or pork shoulder
- 1 lamb’s tail (unless using leg of lamb or pork shoulder)
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 pounds masa harina
- About 1 1/2 pounds lard, or about 3 cups vegetable oil
- Mild salsa (your favorite kind), for serving
- Sliced fresh radishes, for serving
- Fill a bucket about two-thirds full with cold water. Add the salt, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and bay leaves. Submerge the lamb’s head and the lamb’s tail in the bucket and refrigerate, covered, for 2 days. If you haven’t enough room in the fridge and it’s cold outside, put the bucket in the garage or on a screened porch. The temperature of the air should hover around 41°F. (You can complete this step in a large bowl or even an oversize zipped plastic bag.) If you’re using one of the alternative cuts of meat (the leg of lamb or pork shoulder), soak only for 24 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Lift the lamb’s head and tail from the bucket and rinse under cool running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
- In a small bowl, whisk the olive oil with the orange juice. Add the cilantro, cumin, ancho chile powder, and oregano and stir well. Brush the marinade over the meat and season with salt and pepper.
- Wrap the head and tail in several layers of aluminum foil, put in a roasting pan, and roast for 5 hours, or until the meat is cooked through and an instant-read thermometer registers 140°F for lamb (or 150°F for pork).
- Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, stir the masa harina with 1 cup warm water until smooth and well mixed. Set aside to rest for about 30 minutes.
- In a deep, heavy pot, heat the lard or vegetable oil (you will need a depth of 3-plus inches) over high heat until it registers 375°F on a deep-frying thermometer.
- Form the masa into golf ball–size pieces and then flatten into cakes. Using long-handled tongs, submerge a cake in the hot lard or oil and fry for a few minutes, until puffy. Lift the puffed cake from the lard or oil and drain on a paper towel–lined baking sheet. Using a spoon, immediately depress the center of the hot masa cake to create a taco shape. Repeat with the remaining masa to make about 24 tacos.
- Unwrap the lamb or pork shoulder and capture the accumulated juices in a bowl. Strain the juices into a saucepan. Skim as much fat from the juices as possible and then bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook for about 5 minutes to reduce the pan juices just a little.
- Slice the meat and serve with the tacos, reduced pan juices, salsa, and radishes.