I grew up in northern Arizona, in a town that is surrounded on all sides by several Native American Indian reservations. Closest to us are the Navajo and Hopi reservations. It is a unique and beautiful place full of red rock canyons, high desert flora and fauna and the occasional jack rabbit and coyote. It's also home to a pretty unique "taco."
Every culture has their version of a taco; a hand-held wrap made of corn or flour surrounding tasty fillings. The Navajo Taco hails mainly from the southwest. Growing up here, I've had my fair share of Navajo frybread - please see my pants size for proof. More like the Indian Na'an or Greek pita bread, frybread is flour-based, soft and puffy and it's the perfect base for a traditional taco filling. My mother took to frybread soon after we transplanted to Arizona from Oregon and as a taco-lover, we enjoyed these over sized, crispy/puffy tacos more often than Mexican tacos.
After living in a place for 35+ years, it's easy to get a bit lazy and start taking a place for granted. I thought I'd discovered pretty much everything about the high desert. That's why I was so pleasantly surprised to discover the Navajo Taco is really just scratching the surface when it comes to the availability of some really good, traditional Native American food. I was invited by friends to drop by the little "flea market" at the edge of town where the Navajo Indian reservation begins. Held every weekend, rain or shine (pretty much), folks show up to buy, sell and trade all sorts of things, including traditional food. I've probably driven by this place dozens of times and had no idea it was harboring such delicious hand-held delights. Fight for a place to park, if you can, and soon you'll be welcomed with the delicious aroma of grilling meat and frying bread. Street food at it's finest, right here in little ol' Page, AZ.
The flea market outside of Page doesn't usually offer "Navajo Tacos", though they always offer frybread. It's become more apparent to me that the Navajo Taco (filled with traditional taco fillings like seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomato, salsa) is often reserved for things like fund-raisers and church potlucks. It's more of a "commercial" or "touristy" dish. I would dare to say it's similar to a Chinese restaurant serving their clientele "Americanized" dishes while they cook and eat the really good stuff in the back.
If you're stopping at a stand out on the "rez" (reservation) or if you're invited over to someone's home, frybread is more often served with grilled meat or alongside a stew, and what I've run into most often is grilled lamb and/or mutton. This totally makes sense. Many Navajo still raise sheep on their land as opposed to cattle, so there's always going to be more lamb readily available to them than beef.
I felt rather foolish. How long had this all been going on, right under my very own nose? It was shameful that I had been a long-time resident of the area and yet I had no idea.
My mother was not a fan of lamb, so it was never on the menu at our house growing up, so I was naturally excited to try my first-ever Navajo Deluxe. Filled with grilled lamb or mutton and grilled green chiles, the Deluxe is also served with a boiled potato and corn on the cob perched on top. Most vendors also offer hot coffee or Navajo tea. It was bright and sunny when I pulled up a chair at the Begay's booth, but I was bundled up against the frigid temps and light wind. We're desert but we're high desert up here near the border of Arizona and Utah and temps in the winter get down into the teens at times. I welcomed the cup of coffee graciously and put my order in for one Navajo Deluxe.
I chatted with Mrs. Begay, living in St. George, Utah but originally from Coppermine, AZ. They travel every weekend to various markets around Arizona, selling the traditional foods they've been cooking and eating forever. "I never use mutton, I always use lamb," she explained as she patted the frybread dough back and forth deftly between her palms, stretching and elongating the dough. "Mutton (mature sheep) has a much stronger flavor and is a lot tougher, so I save that for my stews." I sniffed the air longingly as I listened to the thin strips of fresh leg of lamb sizzling on the hot grill. As I watched her cook frybread after frybread, I noticed that right before she slid the dough into the hot oil, she poked a hole in the middle of it. She explained that because the bread cooks over such high heat so quickly (it's literally in the hot oil for maybe 30 seconds per side) that the inside of the bread will not get as crispy as the edges if you don't put a little hole or tear in the middle. An insider's tip that has made all the difference in my attempts cooking frybread.
And then, it was in front of me, in all of it's crispy, chewy, meaty glory. I quickly punted the corn and potato to the back of my plate - they were hot and fresh, but for me, it was all about the frybread, the chiles and the grilled meat. It was amazing in the way that only simply cooked food can be when the ingredients are so fresh. The Navajo are not big into seasoning their food. You'll rarely find salt and pepper dusting anything they're grilling, but this was fresh lamb. It had been recently slaughtered and it was free-range. The flavor was incredible, if a bit chewy ... Navajos enjoy their meat medium-well to well-done. The chile came roasted but with the skin still on - you have to work a bit for your meal, but it's worth the extra effort. Crispy, chewy frybread and lamb deliciousness.
I knew I wanted to make this at home, but I wanted to put my stamp on it. I wouldn't advise straying too far from the Navajo frybread recipe, though the recipe I've listed below is not the only one I've come across living in Page. This is the recipe my mother received from trusted friends, but there are others out there. I did take a bit of creative license when it came to the lamb, though. I used an ancho-chile rub to marinate the leg of lamb overnight and I grilled large pieces of the leg on the grill instead of slicing it before it went on the grill, which is more common when you get a Navajo Deluxe on the "street."
While I did make some adjustments to the traditional recipe, this is still a very basic recipe that most home cooks should be able to handle breezily. It does take a bit of planning, though. It's best if you can marinate your butterflied leg of lamb overnight and it takes about two hours for the frybread dough to rise (with the recipe below) before you can roll it out and fry it.
My leg of lab did not come boneless. If you have amazing knife skills, it's definitely possible to end up with one large piece of meat with even thickness. My boning skills are still negligible and I found it easier to trim the meat of extra fat and silver skin by cutting the leg into three large sections. Ultimately, though, I wanted to have large hunks of meat I could carve as needed which helped me get a good sear on the outside but kept the meat juicy on the inside. I prepared my rub, covered the lamb and left it to marinate in the fridge overnight.
The next afternoon I made my frybread dough. It comes together quickly with only three ingredients (seriously!) but you've got to give the dough time to rise, so make sure you're doing this a bit ahead of time.
Frying the bread is quick and easy, too. I recommend that you let your meat rest for about 20 minutes or so after it comes off the grill, so wait until the meat is resting before frying your bread. You'll want to eat it as soon as it comes out of the oil, hot and crispy!
As far as the green chiles go, use whatever you have access to. Go for a largish, firm-skinned green chile. I simply fire up the grill to medium-high, spray the chiles with a bit of olive oil and roast them on the grill until their skins blister and begin to peel. Remove them from the grill and place in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. When they're cool enough to handle you should be able to easily wipe the skins off the flesh.
The recipe I used called for 15-16 minutes per side for medium rare (you'll want the meat to be about 130°F) but I found with my grill on medium, it only took about 10-12 minutes per side. If you care about how rare your meat is, keep an instant-read thermometer handy and poke around a bit.
I hope you'll try this recipe and keep an open mind when it comes to what's really available to you in your own neighborhoods. There's some fantastic food out there just waiting to be discovered!
Heidi's Navajo Deluxe Recipe
Grilled Leg of Lamb with Ancho Chile Marinade (adapted from Bon Appetit)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
- 3 tablespoons ancho chile powder
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 green onions
- 1 tablespoon (packed) dark brown sugar
- 2 1/2tteaspoons coarse kosher salt
- 2 1/2t teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 4 1/2-pound boneless leg of lamb, butterflied flat like a book, trimmed of all fat and sinew (around 3 1/2 pounds after trimming)
Combine wine, oil, garlic, oregano, ancho chile powder, lemon juice, green onion, sugar, salt, and pepper in a blender. Blend mixture until smooth. Transfer marinade to 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Add the lamb and turn to coat evenly. Cover dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.Prepare a grill to medium heat. Grill the lamb with some of marinade still clinging to its surface until the lamb is cooked to desired doneness, 15 to 16 (depending on your grill) minutes per side for medium-rare (130°F). Transfer lamb to carving board. Let lamb rest at least 20 minutes.Thinly slice the lamb against the grain. Top your frybread with slices of the lamb and grilled green chile. If you'd like, top with a spicy sour cream sauce like I did (sour cream plus a couple chopped chipotle chiles for some heat, salt and pepper).
This is my mom's recipe, given to her by trusted friends. It is a slight departure from more traditional recipes you'll find which use all purpose flour (Bluebird is the most popular) and baking soda. Here, the self-rising flour substitutes for the baking soda and the powdered milk makes the bread a little softer.
4 c. self rising flour
2 c warm water
1 c powdered milk
Mix all three ingredients in a stand mixer until the dough is smooth. Cover and let stand for two hours.
Heat a cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet to medium-high and add enough crisco so you've got about 1-1 1/2 inches of oil to fry in. Roll out balls of dough slightly smaller than a baseball on a floured surface. You want the dough to be pretty thin, like a thin-crust pizza dough so it cooks quickly. Tear or punch a small hole in the middle of the dough and slide it gently into the oil. Fry, turning once to brown evenly. Drain on paper towels.