The first carne guisada I ever encountered was from a fast-food restaurant, a fact that I’d be hesitant to admit if the restaurant hadn’t been Texas’s beloved San Antonio–born Taco Cabana. The flamingo-hued eatery served me a more than respectable guisada taco, the nuggets of tender, spicy beef tucked into a fluffy flour tortilla and showered with skinny shreds of half-melted yellow cheese. It got me to wondering what else the world had been holding out on me.
Carne guisada is literally “meat stew,” some version of which can be found in every cuisine. But what a stew it is, its meaty broth thickened with roux and animated with a magical mix of dried chiles, garlic, cumin, and black pepper. It was never part of the revolving Tex-Mex repertoire of picadillo, cheese enchiladas, and beef tacos that delighted my family over the years. But then I made it during the holidays, surrounded by said kinfolk, who with margarita-fueled enthusiasm generously kept me company, “helped” me cook (“What the heck is Mexican oregano?” “You’re going to seed those chiles, right?”), and, over the next few days, ate every last bit of it—all by itself, mixed with eggs, atop fresh-made grits, and, of course, wrapped in fluffy flour tortillas and showered with yellow cheese.
Sylvia Casares’s Frontera Carne Guisada
3 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
3 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
1 chile de árbol, stem removed
1 cup chopped white onion
1 cup chopped tomato
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup tomato sauce
2 teaspoons Holy Trinity*
1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
2–3 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
*In a spice grinder, combine 3 peeled garlic cloves, 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, and 1 1/4 teaspoons peppercorns, along with 1 tablespoon water. Process into a smooth paste.
In a large saucepan, combine the meat with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Skim the froth, then cover and simmer for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the chiles with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool.
In a blender, process the chiles and their liquid until you have a smooth sauce, about 1 minute. Pass the sauce through a strainer, and reserve 1/2 cup of the liquid.
To the meat in the saucepan, add the onion, tomato, and bell pepper. Stir in the 1/2 cup chile
liquid, tomato sauce, Holy Trinity, oregano, bay leaves, and salt.
Simmer for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and stir until golden in color. Remove from heat and add a small amount of liquid from the stew pot and stir to remove any lumps.
When the meat is tender, whisk in the flour mixture. Stir occasionally while simmering for about an hour, or until the stew is thickened. Serve immediately.