How to cook beef tongue, Part 1: Chile Colorado Lengua Tortas

Beef tongue–lengua–is cooked Mexican style then simmered in an easy red chile sauce to make into tortas (Mexican sandwiches).

This is the first in a three part series on how to cook cow's tongue (lengua) then use it in three different Mexican dishes: chile colorado tortas, a la Mexicana, and in chile verde for tacos. First up: chile colorado tortas (sandwiches).

When I was probably about 5 years old, Dad asked me to go to the kitchen and grab him a drink from the refrigerator. I remember happily bouncing to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door only to run from the room screaming straight to mom. Upon opening that door, staring at me at eye level was a big ol' pig’s head! Come the weekend, with a houseful of friends and relatives eagerly awaiting the barbacoa that my dad had prepared by digging a big hole in the backyard for the meat to smolder over hot coals during the night, I had no interest in going anywhere near that head. However, as an adult, the idea of tasty pig cheeks and crunchy pig ears has a certain appeal.

There is something about odd cuts of meat that can be quite polarizing. Take for instance cow’s tongue. I love it. Always have. But try to serve me a bowl of menudo (tripe, a.k.a., cow stomach lining) and I’ll be gagging at the very first whiff. Blehhhh.

When I was in college, tongue (along with liver, also another favorite), was super cheap meat mainly because it wasn’t mainstream. You rarely found it at major grocery stores. If you wanted tongue, you’d have to go to a butcher or better yet, a Mexican market. When I treated myself to meat while going to art school, it was invariably tongue or liver because they were the cuts that fit into my beans and rice grocery budget. Since the head to tail movement, odd cuts of meat can get pretty darn pricey! Tongue now costs as much per pound as a decent cut of steak. But here’s the thing, sure you might spend anywhere between $30 to $40 for a 5-pound tongue but that tongue can be served three different ways for four people. That’s 12 servings which comes out to about $3.30 per serving of meat.

About 25 years ago now, I served this chile colorado lengua over Mexican red rice with freshly made pinto beans on the side to a good friend. Of course, when he asked what was on the menu, I merely answered stewed meat in a Mexican red sauce because I didn’t want him to pre-judge the meal. He couldn’t stop mentioning how tender and flavorful the meat was while we were eating. After, he caught on that I had avoided saying what cut of meat we had been eating so he point blank asked. I said lengua, because I thought it sounded more exotic. He just laughed. My blond, blue-eyed surfer friend had spent enough time surfing Baja to be a better Spanish speaker than I was. He admitted to never having had it and was surprised at how much he enjoyed it.

Today I’m showing you how to cook the meat which will then be divided into thirds for three different meals. Along with how to cook the tongue, I’m sharing my dad’s chile colorado tongue sandwich recipe. We’re making a basic pan red sauce that my parent’s use for 90% of their Mexican red sauce needs. Our family rarely made chile colorado from whole dried chiles. That preparation was reserved for homemade chorizo and occasionally, mole for tamales. Everything else has always been made with California chile powder (sometimes they will use a combination of California chile powder and New Mexico chile powder). It cannot be made with generic chili powder so please don’t attempt to substitute it. Those spice jars that simply say “chili powder” have a muddled flavor profile. There is a distinct flavor to California chile powder that is absolutely necessary for Mexican dishes. You can find it in 1-ounce plastic cellophane bags in the Mexican aisle of most major grocery stores and Walmart stores. Preferably, it’s El Guapo brand and the package will say: Chile California Molido (Ground California Chili Pepper). It’ll run you anywhere between .99 cents to $1.60 depending on where you get it. Also, if you wind up liking the flavor, I suggest stopping in at Smart & Final and picking up their larger 8-ounce jar.

Next week, I’ll be sharing the other two preparations: Lengua a la Mexicana (with tomatoes, jalapeño, onions, cilantro) and chile verde lengua tacos.

Ok, ready to cook? Let’s get started!

So this is what five pounds of cow tongue looks like. I know, it's hard to make raw meat look appealing. You know how a really well prepared filet mignon practically melts in your mouth? Trust me, when this has cooked for 3 or 4 hours, it's just as tender and rich but with a much smoother texture.

To cook the meat, we're going to need salt, whole peppercorns, garlic cloves, some bay leaves, half an onion and whole Mexican oregano (find it in the Mexican spice section of your local grocery store, usually El Guapo is the brand most readily available).

We're also going to need half a bunch of cilantro.

All of this goes into a soup pot and gets covered with fresh cool water. Then onto the stove to bring to a boil.

After the meat comes to a boil, we'll reduce the heat to medium-low to keep the water at a low simmer. During the first hour of cooking, the impurities will be released from the meat. Use a spoon to skim it off and discard.

After 4 hours of cooking, we'll remove the tongue from the broth to cool. You want to reserve the broth because we'll be using it for all three dishes following the basic cooking process. 

Once the meat has cooled enough to handle, we're going to need to remove this tough skin.

Starting at the base of the tongue, we're going to grab a corner of the skin and lift. 

Slip a sharp knife between the skin and the meat and carefully slice through it, lifting the skin as you go.

The closer you get to the tip of the tongue, the more difficult it will be to remove the skin–it gets thinner as it moves down the length of the tongue. You might need to make horizontal cuts into the skin to help remove. Once it's completely removed, the skin can be discarded.

Back up at the base of the tongue, this underside resembles more of a pot roast in texture. It also often has excess fat. Trim away the fat.

Then slice away the underside–tenderloin, I call it–and save it for the taco recipe. We want to make the tortas first, using the thickest part of the meat here at the base of the tongue as they fit best on the rolls. Removing the "tenderloin" allows for cleaner cuts and better slices for the sandwiches. At this point, you could wrap the meat up and pour all the broth into a container, refrigerate and continue the rest of this recipe the next day. Or continue. 

For the tortas, starting at the base of the tongue, we'll make 8-10 thin slices. Set aside.

The Mexican red sauce starts like most sauces do: with a rue. We're using butter, chile powder and flour. We'll also be using beef bouillon in place of salt during the finishing stage of the sauce.

As soon as the butter has melted, in goes the chile powder and flour.

Cook the flour and chile, stirring, for one minute. You want to cook it long enough to get rid of the raw flavor in the flour but not too long as the chile burns easily and that will make it bitter.

In goes 2 cups of the broth, whisking it until it's smooth. Then a small can of tomato sauce is whisked in.

Then comes the bouillon. It gets whisked in.

Add the sliced meat.

Turn the meat to make sure it's fully covered in sauce and heat until warmed through. If the sauce seems too thick, add more broth, a tablespoon at a time. It should be a little thinner than gravy but not as thin as soup. 

A generous slathering of mayonnaise goes on the bottom slice of the telera roll. If you don't have a local latin market or bakery, choose a soft crusted roll. But to make it authentic, do search out a telera roll. It's flatter and softer crusted than a bolillo or birote (basically, two different names for the same kind of Mexican-style French bread, just depends on which part of Mexico the bakers are from). A bolillo can be used in a pinch but you'll need to hollow out the inside a little to make room for the sandwich fixings otherwise they'll simply slip out when you try to take a bite due to the harder crust. Next comes the avocado, followed by the thinly sliced cold iceberg, then the meat. Lastly, the top half of the bread gets a quick dip in the sauce before topping the torta. Also, like a good burger, I feel like Coca-Cola is the best beverage with this. But that's probably just me. 

Until next time, friends, be well and buen provecho!

Basic Beef Tongue and Chile Colorado Lengua Tortas 

To cook the meat:

5 pound beef tongue
1 tbs salt 
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
½ tbs whole oregano

½ tsp cracked black pepper or peppercorns
3-4 bay leaves
Small bunch cilantro
½ onion
3-4 peeled garlic cloves 

Place ingredients in a soup pot. Cover with water by 2-inches. Bring to a boil then lower to medium-low and simmer for 4 hours. During the first hour of cooking, skim off the foam as it appears and discard. Once the meat is cooked, carefully remove to a plate; allow to cool until it’s easy to handle. Drain the broth, reserving the cooking liquid and discarding the solids. You’ll need the broth for all three cooking preparations to follow.

When meat is cool enough to handle, use a sharp knife to remove the skin. Start near the base of the tongue, grip a corner of skin, slip the knife between the skin and meat and carefully slice away the skin, gently pulling up on it as you go; try not to cut into the meat. Discard skin. Cut away any visible fat near the base of the tongue. Also, there is “tenderloin” of sorts at the base of the tongue that can be sliced off to allow for cleanly slicing the rest of the tongue for the tortas; the tenderloin will be reserved for the tacos.

At this point, once the meat and broth have completely cooled, you can refrigerate and continue with the recipe the next day.

For the chile colorado:

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon California chile powder
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups reserved cooking liquid, plus more as needed
8-ounce can of tomato sauce (I prefer Hunt’s because it doesn’t have added sugar)
1 tablespoon powdered beef bouillon, such as Knorrs

To make the rue: Warm a skillet over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the chile powder and flour, either with a whisk or silicon spatula, stir to incorporate for 1 minute.

Make the sauce: Whisk in the cooking liquid until smooth. Add the tomato sauce. Pour 4 ounces of cooking liquid into can, swirl to rinse and add to sauce. Whisk until smooth, then whisk in the bouillon. Taste and adjust seasoning by adding more bouillon, if needed.

Starting at the base of the tongue, make 8-10 thin slices. Add to sauce.

For tortas:

4 telera rolls
mayonaise, to taste
1 large ripe avocado, thinly sliced
iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced or shredded

Split the rolls. Spread mayonnaise, to taste, on the bottom halves. Divide the avocado slices between the four bottoms. Top the avocado with lettuce. Next, add the meat, divided between the four bottoms. Dip the top halves of the rolls in the sauce, then top the sandwiches.

More in the series