This carne asada recipe roots one metro Phoenix chef to generations of female grill masters

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Minerva Orduño Rincón calls the scent of carne asada “the Sonoran Bat-signal.” It’s the smell of roasted chiles, beefsteak and smoky mesquite that calls everyone for miles, she says.

Orduño Rincón, who cooked in restaurants in the Valley for eight years, grew up in Sonora, Mexico. The smell of carne asada takes her back to her childhood in Hermosillo, running around the backyard with her older sister, chasing after the “very spoiled” neighborhood cats.

“Scent is a powerful driver of memory,” she says. “With food, you’re instantly thinking about where you ate it 10 years ago, the person who made it. We can build much stronger memories with our sense of smell than even our taste.”

Orduño Rincón lives in Tempe now with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. She teaches a variety of cooking classes at Sur la Table at Scottsdale Fashion Square and hosts Sonoran cooking workshops in Tucson and Tubac, a community in southern Arizona.

It’s easy for people to romanticize the vaquero culture behind carne asada, although she didn’t grow up in that traditional lifestyle, she says. Still, carne asada connects her to the women in her family who have tended the grill for generations. It also connects her to her roots in Sonora, where people raise livestock in the region’s arid climate and rough terrain.

Sonora’s deep connection to carne asada

The state of Sonora has a more than 500-mile long coastline, so when Orduño Rincón thinks of Sonoran food, she thinks about seafood first.

But good quality beef is also a point of pride when it comes Sonoran cuisine, she says. Traditional cattle ranching has dominated northwest Mexico since the 1600s and more than 80% of Sonora is grazed by livestock, High Country News reports. 

In one episode of Netflix series “The Taco Chronicles,” the documentary team goes to her hometown of Hermosillo, as well as surrounding cities and towns, to find the best carne asada tacos.

Orduño Rincón’s early memories of carne asada involve birthday parties and Sunday gatherings at her family’s house, the smoke of mesquite charcoal burning wafting from one corner of the yard where her father built a grill behind an enormous fig tree.

Before cooking the meat, her father, Fermín, marinades the arrachera, or skirt steak, in a Mexican lager. Orduño Rincón picked up the beer marinade technique from him.

“What’s funny is that we all make the same dishes,” she says. “We all make them very differently. My great frustration with anyone in my family is that nobody ever writes anything down. I am a huge advocate for writing recipes so people in your family can use them.”

Generations of women who grill 

Her grandmother on her mother’s side, Igdelina, is also a grill cook. Sometimes Orduño Rincon’s dad tries to take over, insisting her grandmother rest, but this results in an argument — and nana usually wins, Orduño Rincón says.

From her mother Irene’s stories, Orduño Rincón learned her great-grandmother Elodia, now deceased, was also a grill cook. Elodia had a wood stove and oven in her home in Mexico. When there was leftover carne asada, Elodia dried the meat out in the oven. Once dry, Elodia hung the meat in the sun to dry more and later pounded the beef to make carne machaca, a dried meat dish that’s “another Sonoran staple,” Orduño Rincón says.

Before refrigeration, this was a way to have a supply of meat around when nothing fresh was available, she explains.

Most of what Orduño Rincón has learned about cooking came from observing other people over the years, but since moving to the U.S., Orduño Rincón sometimes finds her life story doesn’t fit people’s expectations of a chef from Mexico.

People envision someone who came from a large and traditional, churchgoing family that butchers their own animals, or makes all their tortillas and masa from scratch, she says. But her family’s not Catholic and they often bought tortillas from any of the local tortillerias around, she describes.

“I think there’s an expectation of a bucolic story behind the person, that you can’t just be someone that’s Mexican and good at cooking, that you have to have a rural background or some extraordinary backstory,” Orduño Rincón says.

‘It’s important to carry on food memory’

Regardless, she still values the skills she has learned from her family, such as learning how to make ceviche and carne asada from her father. She wants to pass those skills down to her own daughter, even if it’s just so her daughter can feed herself more than macaroni and cheese from the box.

“It drives me crazy that I don’t have my great-grandma’s food memories or her recipes,” Orduño Rincón says. “I didn’t get to watch her cook. That’s the aspect that’s important to me: To carry the memory from one member of the family to the other because unfortunately, we lose that so quickly.”

In her workshops, she also focuses on cuisine from her home state. In November, she’ll teach a class in Tubac about how to make gallina pinta, a beef-based soup with hominy and pinto beans. Later she’s teaching a class in Tucson on how to make Sonoran-style tamales.

“Food can sometimes be seen as more of a chore, rather than something enjoyable,” she says. “I see that a lot in my cooking classes where nobody has taught people how to cook. Parents were busy working trying to provide for the family. For me it’s important to carry on food memory.”

Recipe: Beer-marinated carne asada

Serves: 6

Arrachera is a tough, long, flat, lean but flavorful cut of steak, and it’s best cooked over high heat for a short period of time to no more than medium doneness.

I usually have a couple of different sources for the meat. Mekong Market has a wide range of cuts and all the ingredients. Sprouts also usually has the right cuts. I always try to go with grass-fed beef because if I’m going to have beef, I want it to taste beefy. I don’t want the flavor masked.

If you don’t want to spend too much money, just make sure you have a lot of vegetables to go on the side to cut down the amount of meat.

Ingredients

For carne asada:

  • 3 to 4 pounds arrachera (skirt steak).
  • 2 12-oz. cans of Mexican-style lager, preferably Tecate.
  • 2 chiles verdes (Anaheim peppers) thickly sliced.
  • 1 small white onion, medium diced.
  • 2 oranges, peel and juice.
  • A small handful of cilantro.
  • 1 head of garlic, peeled and crushed.
  • Dry Mexican oregano, to taste.

For salsa tatemada:

  • 3 large mature tomatoes.
  • 1 medium white onion, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch thick rings.
  • 2 chiles verdes.
  • 1 or 2 serrano chiles, or to taste.
  • Cilantro, roughly chopped, to taste.
  • Fresh lime juice, to taste.
  • Sea salt, to taste.

To serve:

  • Spring onions.
  • Flour tortillas.
  • White onion, diced.
  • Cilantro, roughly chopped.

Preparation

Place the steaks in a container just large enough to hold them without much overlapping. Pour the beer over them, adding the remaining ingredients. Toss them well to ensure even distribution of ingredients. Marinate for two hours, but no more than four hours, noting that the beer flavor will be more pronounced the longer it is marinated.

Begin by charring salsa ingredients before grilling the steak. Place tomatoes, chiles and cut onions on the grill, ungreased. Char to a dark brown, not black, on all sides. Allow to cool enough to handle, then cut to 1/4-inch dice. Mix with remaining salsa ingredients and season to taste. Set aside.

Remove the steaks from the marinade and lightly pat dry. Season well with coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper on both sides and cook on a hot grill until meat juices appear on the top, or approximately 3 minutes. Flip to the other side and cook for an additional 2 minutes.

If a well done steak is desired, heat a cast skillet on the grill. Cook the steak as above, pull from the grill and rest for 5 minutes. Cut into strips or dice and cook to desired doneness. This secondary cooking can help provide that characteristic outer crust of a good carne asada.

Take advantage of the hot grill to char spring onions, chile verde (Anaheim peppers) to accompany the beef, as well as heat up a mountain of flour tortillas.

Tip: Carne asada is best when cooked over a hot mesquite fire. The desired effect for this steak is for the outside to be seared and caramelized almost instantly, while the center retains its bright red color and remains tender.

From Minerva Orduño Rincón.

What are some of your fondest food memories? Reach the reporter at Priscilla.Totiya@azcentral.com or 602-444-8092. Follow her on Twitter: @PriscillaTotiya.

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