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Archive for the ‘Mexican’ Category

Mexican Corn Soup

A good cookbook is a treasure chest. You can have it for years, returning to it again and again for the same few favorite recipes, and then one day you open it to a different page and find an unsuspected gem. I’ve just lucked in that way with Diana Kennedy’s 45-year-old classic The Cuisines of Mexico.

This was my very first Mexican cookbook, and many of its recipes intimidated me quite a bit, back then. Ingredients were strange and not easy to find. Cooking procedures were unfamiliar too. My first attempt was Kennedy’s guacamole, which we adored at first bite. Little by little, I tried other dishes, eventually working up to her magnificent 4½-page chiles rellenos recipe. As my confidence grew – and Latin-American ingredients became more accessible here – I acquired other Mexican cookbooks, newer ones that caught my interest and largely displaced Kennedy from my repertoire. Except for her guacamole, which is still the only one I ever make.

Now in late summer, when my greenmarket’s bountiful fresh corn keeps calling out to me, I recalled that Kennedy has recipes for corn soups (one of which I’d blogged about several years ago). Why not try another one? So I did, and it was an idea as brilliant as the recipe. It’s called simply sopa de elote – corn soup, and there’s very little but corn in it.

For half a recipe, I had to cut two cups of kernels off fresh ears of corn. (I had four ears ready, but only three were needed.)

 

 

The next instruction seemed very odd: first, put the corn and half a cup of water into a blender and process to a smooth puree; then put that puree through a food mill. Seemed like suspenders and a belt! But OK, I did it. It made a surprising difference.

 

 

As you see above, what the blending produced seemed to be smooth, but the food mill extracted a lot of chaff from the kernels, leaving a slightly thick corn liquid.

In a saucepan I melted 2 tablespoons of butter and cooked the corn liquid in it for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Then I stirred in 1¾ cups of milk and a little salt, brought it to a boil, and simmered it for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The butter kept trying to rise and separate out as the soup cooked, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.

 

While the soup simmered I prepared small amounts of garnishes to go in each bowl. Here I took a few liberties with the ingredients given in the recipe:

  • It calls for a dice of fresh chile poblano – or canned green chilies if necessary. It’s now easy to get fresh poblanos, but I had one, roasted, peeled and seeded, remaining in the freezer from last fall’s crop, so I used that.
  • It calls for crumbled cream cheese or Boursault. I was sure those were substitutes for a Mexican cheese that wasn’t widely available in the US in the 70s. Now we can easily get authentic queso fresco, which crumbles nicely. I used that.
  • It calls for small squares of tortilla that I’d have had to fry to crispness. Out of pure laziness, I just broke up some packaged corn tortilla chips.

To finish the dish I put some chile and cheese in the bottom of each bowl, poured on the hot soup, and strewed the tortilla chips over it.

 

 

It was lovely. The soup base was the pure soul of exquisitely sweet corn. This is being a good year for corn here, so the soup just sang of green fields and summer. Each garnish provided its own flavor and texture contrast: the poblano a hot chile zing, the cheese a faintly sour soft curd, and the chips a lightly spicy crunch. I’m sure I’m going to make this soup again before corn season is over.

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Incidentally, the corn soup was the centerpiece of a pleasant, down-home Mexican dinner. Before it we had Kennedy’s guacamole with tortilla chips and salsa, and after it we shared two large (purchased) tamales, one of cheese and one of chicken mole, along with which I served red Mexican rice and more of the guacamole.

 

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While the dishes named in the title above are linked by “and,” I hasten to assure you they weren’t eaten together. I made them as appetizers for two of Beloved Spouse’s culinary specialties, which he’d made within a short span of days: Louisiana shrimp remoulade to eat before gumbo and Mexican melted cheese before chili.

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Tom makes terrific oyster and sausage okra gumbos, one version of which I’ve written admiringly about here. For his latest rendition, it fell to me to prepare a worthy, but not overwhelming, first course. I chose a shrimp remoulade recipe from the Junior League of New Orleans’ Plantation Cookbook. The only shrimp remoulade I’d ever made before was a very elaborate version from Galatoire’s restaurant. This one was simpler: its remoulade sauce has only 9 ingredients, compared to Galatoire’s 12.

All the ingredients went into my mini food processor, which quickly converted chopped onion, chopped scallion, pressed garlic, grainy mustard, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, cayenne, and paprika into a nubbly sauce. That went into the refrigerator overnight to integrate and develop its flavors. The next evening, to precede our gumbo, I arranged cold boiled shrimp on beds of shredded lettuce and topped them with the sauce.
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The remoulade wasn’t bad, and it complemented the shrimp well enough, but to our taste it wasn’t truly great, either. It was very acidic. That may be my fault, because the recipe called for tarragon vinegar and what I had was my own wine vinegar, which is very concentrated. I probably should have used less of it, or thinned it a little with water. Also, there was a lot more mustard in the mix, compared to Galatoire’s version, where the sharpness of the mustard is tempered by tomato puree and ketchup. So unless and until our palates want a really pungent shrimp remoulade, I guess I’ll revert to Galatoire’s version.

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A few days later, Tom made his Santa Maria Pinquito chili. He’s always tinkering with the details of his recipe, but he always uses those small, flavorful pinquito beans that we get from Rancho Gordo. And since he’s constitutionally incapable of making a small quantity of chili, we had to invite a few chili-loving friends to come and share it with us.

I’d planned to have guacamole and chips with aperitifs in the living room, so I needed something small to serve at the table before bringing on the main attraction. I turned to Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook for his queso fundido con rajas y chorizo, which I’d made successfully before. A dish of melted cheese with strips of roasted poblano pepper and crumbled chorizo is fairly hefty for an appetizer, but I made only very small portions.

Working alongside the chili chef in the kitchen, I made my advance preparations for the cheese dish. I roasted, peeled, seeded, and sliced a poblano chili into strips, which I sauteed along with some sliced onion. Next I peeled, chopped, and separately sauteed Mexican chorizo. And I cut Monterey Jack cheese into ½ inch cubes.

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Near serving time I put a pan of small, empty gratin dishes in a 375° oven. When they were hot, I spread the cheese cubes in them and returned them to the oven for five minutes, until the cheese was just bubbling. I took out the pan, strewed the pepper-onion mixture and the chorizo on the cheese, and put the pan back into oven for a final five minutes.
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Served with warm flour tortillas for scooping up the melted mixture, the queso fundido was a big hit with everyone. The combination of cheese, sausage, and vegetable flavors somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I must make this simple, satisfying dish more often!
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I always thought of shrimp sandwiches as using cold, mayonnaise-based shrimp salad. Now I’ve discovered a different kind of shrimp sandwich – warm, spicy, saucy, and good! The recipe, from Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors, is called Tortas con Camarones al Ajillo, or Garlic Shrimp Tortas. One further reason I liked it was that most of the ingredients are things I keep in the kitchen or can get easily, so no special shopping was required.

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I did change a few things when I made the recipe. First, it calls for just “crusty rolls,” which could be anything: French, kaiser, ciabatta, etc. I wanted to have true Mexican torta rolls. Online research told me there are two varieties, called telera and bolillo, which seem to be identical except for the way the tops are slashed. I found a nice recipe for them on the King Arthur Flour website and baked a small batch, using the easier bolillo slash.

 

The next day I was ready to make the tortas for lunch. For two sandwiches, the recipe calls for ¾ pound of shrimp. That sounded like too much for the size of my rolls, so I used only ½ pound. I peeled them, sprinkled on salt and pepper, and let them sit while I started their sauce. (Cook’s confession: I never bother to devein shrimp unless the veins are grossly unsightly.)

I persuaded Beloved Spouse to stem, seed, and cut up two small dried de árbol chiles, a variety I like very much, while I sliced two cloves of garlic very thin. These went into a large pan along with olive oil and a bay leaf, and sauteed until the garlic began to brown.

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I added the shrimp and cooked very briefly, until they just turned opaque . . .
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. . . and removed them from the pan. Into it I poured in ¾ cup of white wine and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice and cooked until the liquid had reduced by half. Off heat, I put the shrimp back in and left them there to soak up flavors while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

The tortas were to receive a garnish of tomato slices and a heap of baby arugula. For several days previously I’d had some halfway-flavorful Mexican tomatoes – winter’s best option – and a big plastic box of wild arugula, both of which I’d been using. Alas, when I reopened the box this time, the arugula had gone slimy. I had to substitute shredded Boston lettuce – a much milder green.

While two split bolillos were toasting lightly, I reheated the shrimp, taking out the pieces of chile and the bay leaf, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped parsley and the grated zest of half a lemon, and dissolving two tablespoons of thinly sliced butter into the sauce for a final enrichment.

At last I could put together the tortas. The bottom half of a roll on a plate; the shrimp heaped on, the sauce poured over, plus tomato slices, lettuce, and the top half of the roll.

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Though a little messy to eat, the tortas were scrumptious. There was an almost symphonic interplay of flavors and textures – nutty sweetness of shrimp, subtle scent of garlic, spicy heat of chiles, bright acidity of wine and lemon, richness of butter, softness of tomato, and crispness of lettuce, all contained by a very tasty roll. I only regret having lost the arugula – it would have made another tangy element. Next time, for sure!

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You can’t win them all.

bayless-2I was really looking forward to trying a recipe for pasilla mushroom tacos in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. I’d never done anything with pasilla chiles before – didn’t remember even having tasted them. In his headnote Bayless says pasillas have “an unctuous creamlike quality” when pureed and a “magnetism that captures you.” Also, the recipe calls for woodland mushrooms, and Beloved Spouse and I dote on wild mushrooms. It all sounded wonderful.

So I bought a bag of dried pasillas and started by making Bayless’s “Essential Bold Pasilla Seasoning Paste,” which is one of the base preparations that are called for in many of his recipes. This one’s other ingredients are garlic cloves, Mexican oregano, cumin and black pepper. (The greenish leaves in the photo are epazote, which actually comes later in the recipe.)

pasilla-paste-ingredients

I cheated a little on the mushrooms, using half chanterelles and half cremini. Cremini aren’t woodland creatures any more, but in nature they do grow up to become portobellos, which are one of the varieties Bayless suggests.

mushrooms

The rest of the directions I followed scrupulously. I carefully split open the chiles, flattened them out and removed the seeds, and roasted them on a griddle, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.

roasting-chiles

I soaked the roasted chiles in hot water for half an hour to soften them, then put them into a blender with the peeled garlic, freshly ground cumin seed, oregano, black pepper, and some of the chile soaking liquid. That made a dense puree, which I cooked in a little oil for 5 minutes. I stirred in some chicken broth to loosen it, added the mushrooms and the epazote, and simmered it all for 15 minutes.

mushrooms-added

At dinner time I transferred the pasilla-mushroom mixture to a serving dish and topped it with diced onion and crumbled feta cheese (a Bayless-approved substitute for queso añejo, which none of my stores had, that week). We scooped the mixture into corn tortillas that I’d steamed to softness.

taco-mixture

Alas, there’s no happy ending to this story: The tacos weren’t very good. There was none of the recipe headnote’s promised “rich earthy spice” whose “woodsy flavor complemented the earthiness of the mushrooms.” Beloved Spouse said he found the predominant flavor more like smoked dirt – and I had to agree with him. You almost couldn’t taste the mushrooms at all. We tried brightening the tacos up with smears of salsa and guacamole, which we’d had as an appetizer, but that didn’t do much either. A very sad disappointment, the only one I’ve ever had from a Rick Bayless recipe. I really hated to waste those good chanterelles.

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As did more than 100 million other patriotic Americans, Beloved Spouse and I watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. Since the game was going to cut right across our dinner hour, we knew we’d need some frivolous food to sustain us during the long session in front of the TV. I found just the thing in the previous week’s food section of the New York Times.

It had been a long time since I made a recipe from the Times. Several that I’d tried in the past were very unsatisfactory, and few since then have been of any interest to me. But my fancy was caught by an article about super-elaborate Loaded Nachos for Super Bowl snacking. Half a recipe’s worth looked like a full dinner for us.

Loaded the nachos certainly were: The recipe listed 25 ingredients. Happily, I had many of them on hand, so I had to buy only some of the fresh things: tortilla chips, ground beef, one of three cheeses, sour cream, tomatoes, an avocado, and a lime.

ingredients

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We started early in the afternoon by making the meat component. That involved sautéeing diced bacon, removing the bits and softening chopped onion in the bacon fat, then adding the ground beef and a big set of flavorings: garlic, chile powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika, black pepper, salt, brown sugar, cornstarch, and hot red pepper flakes. When all that had simmered together for a while, I stirred in enough water to loosen the mixture and let it sit on the back of the stove until needed.

beef mixture

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Just before the game started, we shredded Romaine lettuce and the three cheeses, Monterey jack, sharp cheddar, and cotija (misspelled in the recipe as cojita); cut up pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, and a lime; and sliced an avocado. (In another blooper, the recipe never again mentioned the bacon bits after they came out of the sauté pan. I assumed they weren’t to be discarded, so I added them to the other ingredients.)

Here we’re ready for the assembly:

assembly ready

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That was a matter of making layers in a baking dish. One-third of the tortilla chips, of the beef mixture, the lettuce, the jalapeños, the bacon, the avocado, the jack and cheddar cheeses. Repeat twice. Sprinkle the cotija over the top. After I’d done all that I discovered I’d skipped the third set of avocado slices, so I arranged them around the sides of the dish. That worked all right.

nachos for baking

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The nachos went into a 400° oven for 10 minutes, just until the cheeses had melted. For serving, I topped the dish with cut-up tomatoes and dabs of sour cream. (The recipe calls for an additional topping of sliced radishes and chopped cilantro, but the amounts were so tiny I’d decided to forgo them.) Everything went together well, and we ate messily but enjoyably in the living room while watching the game.

dinner

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A squeeze of lime juice on each portion was nice, but the hot sauce wasn’t even needed; the beef mixture provided a good lively spiciness. To drink, Beloved Spouse dug into his wine lair to extricate a 10-year-old Pagani Ranch Zinfandel from Ridge Vineyards, which is almost the only California producer he’ll allow in the house. Both robust and elegant, the bottle matched beautifully with the assertive yet complex flavors of the nachos.

Good as these particular nachos were, this is the kind of recipe that can easily be modified for individual tastes. If I make it again – for next year’s Super Bowl? It could become a family tradition – I’m likely to give it a substantial layer of refried beans, less of the meat mixture, more jalapeños, and more cheese. I’d still skip the radishes, but maybe reinstate the cilantro. And maybe next year the Giants will make it all the way to the big game.

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SandovalLast week I wrote about a deeply disappointing dish that I’d made from my newest cookbook, Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors. Despite the recipe’s problems, I resolved to give the book another try, so this week I got right back on the horse – with much happier results.

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I was attracted to a recipe for Shrimp and Bacon Quesadillas. Very cautious reading revealed no omissions or contradictions, no disappearing ingredients. The dish seemed to entail a fair amount of work, compared to quesadilla recipes I’d seen elsewhere (I’d never made my own before), but the ingredients weren’t particularly outré, and the entire filling mixture could be put together hours in advance. It looked promising.

ingredients

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To start the filling I tossed peeled shrimps with chili powder, oil, and salt, then cooked them briefly in a skillet. Sandoval hadn’t specified the kind of chili, and what I had was de Arbol, a Mexican variety that’s extremely hot (“has tannic, smoky flavor with searing acidic heat.”). The specified tablespoonful of it looked like a daunting amount on my six ounces of shrimp, but I went ahead with it. They came out with considerable pungency.

shrimp

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The shrimp then had to cool in the refrigerator. While they did, I crisped some bacon, chopped it, and mixed it in a bowl with shredded sharp cheddar cheese, thinly sliced scallion, chopped pickled jalapeños, chopped cilantro, mayonnaise, and lemon juice. To me, that seemed an odd combination: the mayonnaise in particular. But I soldiered on. I confess, though, that when it came time to chop the shrimp and add them to the bowl, I wimped out: I put them in a sieve and sprayed them with water to rinse off some of the chili.

The completed filling went back into the refrigerator for the whole afternoon, and when I took it out in the evening, one whiff was enough to know that there was still plenty of chili in it.

filling

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As I said above, I’d never made quesadillas before, and cooking these was a bit tricky, requiring a rapid assembly-line technique. Fortunately I was able to enlist Beloved Spouse to work with me. Here’s how we did it:

  • Heat a large nonstick skillet.
  • Put in a 6-inch flour tortilla, cook 30 seconds.
  • Flip it over, spoon a portion of filling on the bottom half.
  • Fold the top half over the filling, cook 30 seconds.
  • Turn the tortilla over (not letting the filling spill out), cook 30 seconds.
  • Transfer it to a baking sheet, put it in a warming oven.
  • Put next tortilla in the skillet and repeat.

In this partnership, I did the filling and the transfers between countertop, stove, and oven; he did the skillet work. If we’d been line cooks in a restaurant kitchen, I suspect it would have been a breeze; as it was, I couldn’t help thinking of Lucy and Ethel at the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory.

To my happy surprise, no disasters occurred; the filling didn’t even try to ooze out. In fact, I was a little concerned at how thin the layer of filling was. Would the quesadillas be too dry?

quesadillas

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No, they weren’t dry at all. And, even though they seemed thin, they were quite substantial – and they really tasted good! The flavor was hard to describe: Everything had come together so that no one of the individual ingredients prevailed. We probably wouldn’t even have guessed shrimp or bacon if we hadn’t known they were in there. But the combination was delicious, with just the right amount of chili heat. To top it all off – or, more accurately, to wrap everything up – the soft flour tortillas had developed a rich wheatiness from the toasting. Each bite we took made us eager for the next one.

So the book stays on my shelves for at least a while longer.

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My newest cookbook acquisition came about because of a very good dinner that Tom and I had at Pampano, an upscale Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan. All the dishes we had were so interesting that I asked if the owner-chef had a cookbook out. Of course he did, and home I went with a copy of Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors.

SandovalIt’s an attractive book, well designed and laid out, with enough glamorous color photographs to induce salivation. (A mild disappointment, when I got it home, was that, of all the food we’d enjoyed at the restaurant, the only item represented in the book was a chipotle aioli.) The chef’s exuberance encompasses Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, and Argentinian culinary traditions, and he loves to add recondite Asian accents. For my initial cooking venture, I looked for a recipe that wouldn’t put too much strain on my pantry and grocery resources. I chose Mexican-style Mahi Mahi Ceviche with Tomato, Cucumber, & Chile.

The fresh ingredients I had to buy were no trouble to acquire: the fish, a plum tomato, a cucumber, an avocado, a lime, and cilantro. I couldn’t get the recommended yuca chips for serving alongside the ceviche, but I found a bag of mixed yuca, taro, and sweet potato chips. And I made one substitution for a seasoning, as I’ll explain in a moment.

ceviche ingredients

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Once I had “cooked” the mahi mahi cubes in lime juice in the refrigerator, I stirred in chopped onion, tomato, cilantro, cucumber, and serrano chile. That combination seemed to promise fresh, bright flavors. Further, each serving was to be garnished with avocado slices sprinkled with salt seasoned with “pure ground chipotle chile.” I didn’t have any of that, so since it would need only ⅛ teaspoon, I decided that Spanish smoked paprika – pimentón picantewould do.

To serve, I set two little bowls of ceviche on plates and put a ring of seasoned avocado slices and another of vegetable chips around each.

mahi mahi ceviche

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And you know what? It was terrible. Not terrible-revolting, but terrible-blah. The mahi mahi itself had almost no flavor – pretty much a waste of a good piece of fish. The condiments had no pep. The chips were horrid: stale, tough, tasteless. (That wasn’t the book’s fault, of course.) The chile-salted avocado was the only thing on the plate that tasted good.

I don’t know what went wrong, but two tricky little points back at the beginning might have been an omen: The recipe’s title mentions cucumber, but there’s none in the ingredient list or the instructions; and the ingredient list says lemon juice while the instructions say lime juice. Poor editing, at the very least – and who knows what other errors may have gone unnoticed? Well, one failure shouldn’t make me damn the whole book. I’ll try it again, with a different recipe.

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