Locally, we call it Pepena. It's a combination of cow intestines, heart and lungs. (Without the heart and lungs, the intestines are called tripas or tripitas.) And it's always a big hit at the taco stands here in town.
Pepena is one of the few taco fillings that has never appealed to me. (Also on my list: brains and eyes!) Try as I might to be a somewhat fearless foodie like Andrew Zimmern and live by the motto of "I'll try anything once!", I've never been able to muster up enough courage to try pepena.
But that all changed last month when my suegra (mother-in-law) cooked up a batch for a family gathering in honor of my brother-in-law, who was visiting from the States. Somewhere between helping my suegra clean the intestines and watching it brown in a little manteca until it was nice and crispy, I had a change of heart. Suddenly, it didn't seem that bad. I mean, come on, I've eaten far more exotic things than intestines. (Hello, criadillas!)
I don't know what I was expecting the pepena to taste like, but it was far better than I had imagined. I wasn't too crazy about the texture of the intestines, but the heart and lungs were surprisingly good. Tasted just like liver. (Which I love!)
Depending on what part of Mexico you're visiting, you might find pepena served in Salsa Verde or a red chile sauce. But local pepena enthusiasts (and taqueros) assure me that the salsas take away from the flavor of the pepena, which is best appreciated plain.
Tacos de Pepena
- 2 pounds pepena
- Manteca (lard), shortening, or vegetable oil
- Corn Tortillas
- Cooked Beans
- Red & Green Salsas or Chile de Molcajete
Wash every piece of pepena, thoroughly, rinsing extremely well. The fastest and easiest way to clean the intestines is to slip one end over the kitchen faucet and let the water run through the intestine, while you gently massage it, until the water comes out clear. Repeat with the remaining intestines. (Trust me, you don't want to skip this part!)
Chop everything - heart, lungs and intestines - into 1 or 2-inch pieces. Place in a large skillet and cover with cold water to rinse just once more. Drain off the water, but don't squeeze the pepena dry. You want to retain some of the water to cook the pepena and to soften it.
Season the pepena with salt. Cover and cook over high heat until the pepena comes to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook until all of the liquid has been absorbed. (This is when you'll know if you did a good job of cleaning the intestines. If the cooking water remains clear, you did an excellent job. But if you see a brown foam start to form on top, you now know that you need to rinse the intestines a little longer next time. Just remove the foam with a large spoon and you'll be fine.)
Once all of the water has been absorbed, add a few tablespoons (about 4) of manteca to the skillet. Fry the pepena until golden and crisp. (You want them to look almost like Carnitas.)
To serve, spoon a couple of tablespoons of pepena onto warm corn tortillas. Top with warm Cooked Beans and your favorite salsa. (I recommend Chile de Molcajete.) Enjoy!!!