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Barbecue Secrets

Recipes of the Week: The Joys of Mesquite - Tequila Lime Quail and Grilled Pork Tacos

Aug 17, 2012

This week let’s celebrate good old mesquite, one of the most flavourful and versatile cooking woods. It grows everywhere, but I suppose it’s most associated with places like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where mesquite wood and charcoal have been used for ages to produce some of the best barbecue in the world. In the early 1980s a bunch of fancy New York and California chefs started to use it to fuel their grills, and the mesquite fire spread from there to become popular in restaurants across North America.

Mesquite is a dark-coloured, dense, hard wood. It’s actually a member of the legume family and produces beans that were a staple food for the aboriginal people of the American Southwest. Its smoke has a sweet, strong aroma with a bitter edge; if you’re not careful you can use too much of it. In competition I like to use a blend of mesquite, hickory and a fruitwood like apple or cherry for a nice, well-rounded flavour, but mesquite on its own works extremely well in many applications.

Mesquite charcoal is highly valued by outdoor cooks because it burns clean and hot for maximum searing power. Lump charcoal – even if it’s made from mesquite – doesn’t impart a lot of flavour, so if you use it, add a few chunks of mesquite wood on top of the coals once you’ve got them going. 

You can buy mesquite chips and chunks at most barbecue stores and in the grilling section of home improvement stores. Chunks work best when you’re using a covered charcoal grill like a Weber kettle. If you’ve got a gas grill, the easiest way to get some mesquite smoke into your food is to wrap a couple of handfuls of mesquite chips in aluminum foil sort of like a big cigar, poke some holes in it with a fork, and place the package under your cooking grate, right above the heating elements. As your grill heats up, the chips will start to smoulder and throw off lovely aromatic smoke into the cooking chamber. If you want extra smoke, soak the chips for an hour or so before using.

Here are a couple of great recipes that take full advantage of mesquite’s magical powers. Hope you like them! If you do, let me know by posting a note on the Barbecue Secrets Facebook page.

Tequila-Lime Quail

This dish is inspired by a recipe in an old cookbook called Mesquite Cookery by Courtenay Beinhorn. You can get frozen quail, six in a pack, in the frozen poultry section of bigger supermarkets. These tasty little birds make a great first course. Gnawing on their tiny drumsticks makes me feel like Shrek.

Makes six appetizers or three first-course servings

6 quail
½ cup tequila
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons corn oil or other neutral-flavored oil
8 crushed pequin chiles or 1 tablespoon crushed chile flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder (regular chile powder will do)
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
some more corn oil for brushing the birds
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 firm, ripe avocado
Lime wedges and cilantro leaves for garnish

Remove the backbone from the quail using a sharp knife or poultry shears. Discard the bones or save them to make stock. Once you’ve removed the backbones, place the quail, bone-side down, on a cutting board and press down on them with the heel of your hand to flatten them. You’ll feel the breastbone crack.

Combine the tequila, lime juice, 2 tablespoons of oil, chiles, salt, cumin, chile powder and cilantro in a bowl and mix them together well. Combine the marinade with the quail in a heavy duty Ziploc bag, push the air out of the bag and seal it. Put the bag in your refrigerator and marinate the quail for at least one or two hours, turning them once or twice. (You can marinate them overnight if you like.)

Get your charcoal or gas grill going at medium-high. If you’re using a gas grill, use mesquite chips wrapped in aluminum foil; if you’re cooking with charcoal, place one or two chunks of mesquite on the hot coals just before you start to cook.

Remove the quail from the marinade and pat them dry. Brush them with some oil and give them a light coating of salt and pepper. When your fire is hot, put the quail on the grill, bone side down. Cover the grill and cook the quail for four minutes. Turn it over and cook it for another four minutes, or until the skin is crispy and golden brown and the meat is cooked to a core temperature of 160F.

Remove the quail from the grill and while it’s resting, peel the avocado. Serve the quail garnished with a few cilantro leaves, a couple of slices of avocado and a lime wedge.

Grilled Pork Tacos

Instead of making tacos with seasoned ground meat, try it this way, with smoky slices of grilled pork tossed with enchilada sauce. Yummy!

Serves four adults or two teenagers

1 small onion
1 10-ounce can of enchilada sauce
1 fresh lime
4 8-ounce boneless pork loin chops
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon granulated onion
2 tablespoons corn oil or any neutral-flavored oil
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Your favorite taco condiments (salsa, guacamole, pickled jalapeño)
12 warmed corn or flour tortillas

Peel and chop the onion and sauté it in the oil over medium heat for about three minutes, stirring often, until it’s translucent. Add the enchilada sauce and the juice of half a lime. Season the sauce to taste and set it aside.

Combine the salt, pepper and granulated onion and garlic and sprinkle the mixture onto the pork chops. Drizzle the oil over the chops to coat them lightly.

Get your charcoal or gas grill going at medium-high. If you’re using a gas grill, use mesquite chips wrapped in aluminum foil; if you’re cooking with charcoal, place one or two chunks of mesquite on the hot coals just before you start to cook.

Place the chops on the grill, cover it, and cook them for about 4 minutes per side or until they’re cooked through to about 140F for medium-rare, or 160F for well done.

Remove the chops from the grill, cover them loosely in aluminum foil, and while they’re resting, heat the tortillas by placing them, one at a time, in a hot non-stick skillet, turning them once to heat them through. When the tortillas are done, thinly slice the pork chops and toss the slices in the enchilada sauce. Transfer the meat to a serving bowl and lay out the pork, tortillas and condiments on the table so everyone can make their own tacos.


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