Although the season for outdoor grilling has just begun north of the border, here in Mexico grilling is done nearly year-round. Whenever our family and next-door neighbors in Cholula had a Sunday free of other events, someone would inevitably suggest having a parillada – building a fire and preparing a whole meal on the grill. Derived from the word parilla, meaning the grill itself, a parillada is equivalent to the casual cookout called a “barbeque” in English (not to be confused with the Mexican deep-pit barbacoa, an entirely different cooking technique.)
We enjoyed these get-togethers so much and so frequently that they came together spontaneously. Advance planning would have seemed somehow out of place. The men would check on the charcoal supply and if it was low, head for the vendedora de carbon, the wood charcoal saleswoman, who stood on a nearby corner every weekend. (The beautiful embroidery she worked on while waiting for customers was inevitably smudged with charcoal and we often wondered how she ever got it clean.)
Nearly all grilling in Mexico is done over wood charcoal, with the type of wood varying in different parts of the country. In Central and Southern Mexico, it is nearly always pine, and in the north and on the northwest coast, mesquite. Ocote sticks, resinous fire-starting slivers of the same trees, are sold along with the charcoal.
While the carbón was being purchased, the older girls were sent to the Sunday outdoor market to buy the meat and vegetables, with advice on how much to expect to pay per kilo of each item. They were good bargainers, never came up short, and knew exactly what to buy because our parilladas differed very little from one time to the next. We knew what we liked, and that was the traditional Central Mexican mixed grill.
Although many fine grilling books and recipes have been published, many with mouth-watering gourmet dishes, no one would have thought of straying from our tried and true, never-fail meal. It always included bistec – sliced beef steak – plus the local chorizo, a specialty of Central Mexico. There were grilled nopales, another regional item, and cebollitas, grilled green onions. Queso fresco, the local farmer cheese, was wrapped either in banana or avocado leaves and put on the grill whenever there was room.
While the others were busy grilling, we women made the salsas. There was always a salsa fresca, the kind called pico de gallo in Central Mexico (although in the western part of the country, pico de gallo is a fruit salad) and a salsa verde, with the ingredients roasted and mixed with chopped avocado.
When things were nearly ready, one of the younger diners was dispatched to the tortillería for some piping hot tortillas, into which all of the other items would be scooped. Since any drop-in visitor to either household was invited to stay and join us, we often added a pot of beans to our menu. Agua fresca and cold beer accompanied the food.
With Father’s Day coming up, the King of the Grill might enjoy showing off his skills with the following recipes. For those who prefer chicken to beef, there is a dish from a bit further south, a specialty of our neighbors up the street here in Oaxaca, the Mendez Carrera family, who fire up the grill every Sunday and cook pollo al carbón. No matter which recipes are chosen, a parillada is a great way to enjoy a warm weather afternoon with family and friends.
- Bistec al Carbon: Grilled Beef Steak
- Pollo al Carbon: Grilled Chicken
- Queso Asado: Grill-Roasted Cheese