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Archive for the ‘Mexican’ Category

There’s a back story to today’s recipe. Because twice I had had steaks sent to a distant friend via the Kansas City Steak Company, I was invited to participate in a company focus group. I told the sponsors that I myself had never even tasted their products, but that was no obstacle. (I suspect that was because Manhattan residents hardly need to buy mail-order meats, so focus-group candidates aren’t easy to find hereabouts.) For my participation I received a gift certificate for company products, which I used to buy four 18-ounce USDA Prime porterhouse steaks.

When they arrived, we were not thrilled with their appearance: well marbled, but pinkishly pale and barely an inch thick.

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We tried the first two simply broiled, and found them nowhere near as good as the porterhouses we get from our own butcher, Ottomanelli & Sons. The mail-order steaks were extremely tender but just didn’t have much flavor. We like our beef beefy; these were a bit anemic. To help the remaining two, I went looking for preparations with enough strong flavors to make up for the flavor deficiencies of the meat.

???????????????????????????????I’ve had good results with spicy dishes from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen so I started there. Its recipe for Seared Skirt Steak with Chipotle and Garlic was exactly what I needed. Bayless OKs using other kinds of steaks, and there was a can of chipotles in adobo in my freezer. I got to work, as usual reducing the recipe quantities to serve only two.

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To start, you have to make his Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa, which I remembered liking when I’d made it once before. It involves roasting garlic cloves in a heavy pan, roasting tomatillos under the broiler, and taking the chipotles out of their sauce.

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That done, I pureed the tomatillos, chipotles, and one clove of the garlic, adding a little salt and a speck of sugar. The salsa looked and smelled very appetizing, all by itself.

Meanwhile, Tom had boned the steak for me, producing a filet and a contrafilet, which I seared quickly in lard and removed to a plate.

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In the same pan I browned thinly sliced onion and stirred in the salsa, along with ground cumin, black pepper, and the remaining garlic cloves. After a few minutes of simmering I added broth and cooked a little longer. Back in went the steak, which just needed heating through; and with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro I served it right from the pan.

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Incidentally, Bayless recommends using a cast-iron skillet for this dish, but I didn’t. I can’t bring myself to cook anything containing liquid in cast iron pans, because it destroys the seasoning. I used a nonstick pan.

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The recipe did exactly what I hoped it would for the steak. The strong, bright flavors of the sauce were a perfect supplement to the meekness of the meat. It was an unexpectedly subtle sauce too: The chipotle smokiness was not overpowering, and there was a pleasant sweet-sour tang from the tomatillos. The sauce went as well on plain rice as on the steak, and we wished there had been more of it. Altogether, it proved a very satisfactory way of livening up an otherwise unimpressive piece of beef.

I think I know what the fate of the last of my mail-order steaks is going to be.

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I’ll be away on vacation in the Yucatan when this post is published. I made this chicken recipe before I left because it’s supposed to be one of the most popular specialties of that region of Mexico, and I wondered how this version would compare to any I might have the opportunity to try there.

Tom and I are on a birding trip, sponsored by Wings Birding Tours Worldwide, so we’ll be spending a lot of time doing things that look like this:

yucatan birding

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But we’re also very interested in the parts of the trip that will look like this:

yucatan meal

(These are both Wings photos of previous Yucatan trips, not of our own group, obviously. If I get any good food shots when I’m there, I’ll post them when I get home.) (Update: I did. Look here.)

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baylessMy recipe for Pollo en Escabeche was in Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. Escabeche – cooked meat or fish served in a vinegary marinade/broth – was originally a Spanish preparation, which apparently came to the Yucatan with the conquistadores in the 16th century and has remained a staple in the region ever since. The spicing in the recipe is quite different from what one finds in other Mexican cuisines.

First, I had to prepare a seasoning paste. I ground peppercorns, allspice berries, whole cloves, cumin seeds, and Mexican oregano in a mortar and pestle, then roasted garlic cloves and mashed them with the spice mixture and some salt, vinegar, and flour. This had to sit for several hours to ripen.

Next was to poach chicken pieces in water seasoned with ground black pepper, cumin seeds, oregano, bay leaf, salt, and halved garlic cloves. When the chicken was done and cooled in the broth, I laid out the pieces to dry, then rubbed the seasoning paste into the skin sides. As you can see, my paste wouldn’t actually rub into the skin; it mostly just glommed around on top of it.

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wax peppers 2The chicken then had to sit for an hour. During that hour, I roasted, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips a pair of small yellow Hungarian wax peppers (a permitted substitute for chiles xcatiques).

Then the chicken pieces had to be dusted with flour, sautéed in lard four minutes on a side, drained on paper towels, and kept warm in a low oven while I finished the sauce. In the chicken’s pan I sautéed the pepper strips and thinly sliced onion; added most of the strained chicken broth, vinegar, and another big dollop of the seasoning paste; and simmered that for a few minutes.

Ready to serve at last, I put the chicken pieces in broad bowls and poured on the sauce and vegetables. It wasn’t a very pretty presentation. The broth was grimy-looking: cloudy and speckled from the spices. The paste was still clumped on the chicken skin.

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Alas, I have to say the dish was not to our taste. The sauce was too vinegary – possibly my fault, because the recipe wanted cider vinegar, and rather than buy a bottle of it for the 1½ tablespoons needed, I’d used just 1 tablespoon of my strong homemade red wine vinegar. Cider vinegar might have been sweeter. The rice that I served alongside cut the sharpness a little, but not enough.

To the extent that one could get past the acidity, the chicken, onions, and peppers were okay – especially the peppers, which had a pleasant medium heat and a nice flavor. Tom said the spicing made the dish taste medieval to him: Shades of those conquistadores! But altogether, the dish just didn’t work, and we didn’t finish our portions.

Luckily, we’d eaten a filling appetizer: one of Tom’s versions of nachos, which vary with what he finds in the refrigerator. This night’s dish was based on homemade chips (from fried tortilla triangles) topped with refried beans, tomato, avocado, pickled jalapeno slices, dabs of cilantro pesto, and melted asiago cheese. Plenty to keep body and soul together, even if not very authentic!

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Regardless of my less-than-happy experiment, I will definitely try a dish of pollo in escabeche in the Yucatan if I find it on a restaurant’s menu. Tom says it’ll be seafood and chiles for him.

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Continuing the exploration of corn off the cob that I wrote about here a few weeks ago, I made two new recipes for a casual Latin American vegetarian dinner. Again, one of them came out very well; the other less so. But this time the corn recipe was the star.

Kennedy MexicoIn The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy says there are so many variations of corn-chili-cream dishes that it was hard to decide which one to put in her book. I’ll say the recipe for Elote con Crema (Fresh Corn with Chiles, Cheese, and Cream) that she settled on was an excellent choice, rich with flavor and very little trouble to make.

The chiles in the recipe are poblanos, which can range from very mild to pretty hot. The ones I had from my local greenmarket were surprisingly hot – but very good. I roasted them on my stove burners, peeled them, and cut them into strips. In an oven-proof casserole I sautéed onions and garlic in butter, added the chile strips, and cooked them, covered, for a few minutes.

Meanwhile I was cutting the kernels off a few ears of corn. I added them to the peppers, along with salt and some cubed cheddar cheese. I covered the pan again and put it in a moderate oven for 40 minutes. Actually, I was supposed to add the cheese only after the first 20 minutes, but I didn’t notice that in the recipe, and so had it there from the outset. It didn’t seem to matter, fortunately!

Corn

Last of all came the cream – sour cream, which we stirred into our own portions at the table.

It didn’t make a pretty presentation, since I was too lazy to put it in an attractive serving dish, but it was great. The spicy warmth of the poblanos made your whole mouth sparkle. The combination of flavors was very satisfying, though I felt my mild cheddar didn’t contribute as much as it should have, so I’ll use a sharper one next time.

My second dish for the dinner was a recipe for Cuban-style black beans that I’d cut out from an issue of Saveur magazine and had been meaning to try for a long time. Alas, it turned out ho-hum. (The recipe’s available here, but I really can’t recommend it.) My beans, an heirloom variety called Negro de Arbol, had a nice flavor of their own, but they completely ignored the sauté of scallions, garlic, green pepper, oregano, bay leaf, and cumin that the recipe declares is “the secret of good black beans.” Well, it was certainly secret: we couldn’t taste them at all.

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The beans were much helped, however, by their companionship with the corn, poblanos, and sour cream. A scoop of each vegetable rolled into a warm fresh tortilla was very tasty. We finished the corn easily that evening, and a few days later Tom, with the help of some lard and habanero sauce, ingeniously turned our leftover beans into Mexican-style refried beans, which we ate with fajitas. Much better!

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This week’s recipes are a double-double feature. I made the guacamole, and Tom made the chili. Chili is one of his specialties, a dish often invented as he goes along. I’m the main recipe follower of the family, but he’ll consult one sometimes. So here you have the fruits of our dual labors for a recent dinner.

The way I usually make guacamole is based on a recipe of Diana Kennedy’s: a mashed avocado, mixed with chopped onion, tomato, serrano pepper, and cilantro, plus a little salt. Easy, tasty, zingy on tortilla chips. But I thought I’d try a little different approach this week, so I turned to Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook.

He starts his Chunky Guacamole with the usual chopped suspects – onion, serrano or jalapeño, tomato, and cilantro (the last two both optional, but I used them), plus garlic (which I don’t, but did this time). He puts these in a bowl and lets them get acquainted, then mixes them into the mashed avocado, along with salt and lime juice – the last also not one of my regular ingredients. Then, to serve it, Bayless suggests several additional garnitures: more chopped onion and cilantro, radish slices, the Mexican cheese queso fresco, and more lime juice. So I did all that too.

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It wasn’t too much different from my regular guacamole. Mine has proportionately more tomato and more hot pepper. Tom sees to that last item! The lime juice was nice on it, the garlic barely noticeable, and the cheese very bland. Nice for a change, but I’m likely to stay with my usual version.

For the chili, Tom chose a recipe called Fiery Chili with Red Beans from my giant recipe binder. The page it’s on is a photocopy so old that I can’t remember when or where I got it. Since the bottom of the paper says “Cuisine Economique,” online research suggests that the recipe may be from Jacques Pepin’s cookbook of that name, but it’s a book I’ve never owned. However that may be, I had the recipe, and now Tom has made it for the first time.

The beans he used were one of our favorites: Santa Maria Pinquitos, a lovely, smallish pink bean that we buy online from Rancho Gordo. The family chili-maven says they are the best beans for chili he’s ever encountered.

First, the beans are boiled in plain water until barely done.

Next is the meat mixture. One unusual ingredient in it is pork rind, cut small and rendered out. The chopped beef is browned in that rendered fat, along with onions, and then gets an addition of garlic, jalapeño, and tomatoes. Then comes the heavy stuff: chili powder, red pepper flakes, ground cumin and coriander, dry mustard, salt. That highly seasoned meat is stirred into the bean pot, which then simmers gently for an hour or more, perfuming the kitchen most appetizingly.

Here’s the chili as we served it, with plain rice and a few leaves of cilantro. We also had more chopped onion and some grated cheddar to stir in, and warm corn tortillas to scoop stuff up with.

And here’s Tom’s judgment on his creation:

It makes a decent chili, tasty enough, but hardly “fiery,” unless your palate is totally unused to spicy food. I’m not sure that the pork rind, coriander, or mustard added anything perceptible to the dish, though I always like a touch of cumin in a chili. I would have preferred more fresh chilis and less chili powder; I think you get a fresher, richer, and more complex flavor that way. For me, a good chili doesn’t sear, and it’s never simply hot.  It warms, yes, but it intrigues too.  This one was straightforward and one-dimensional: to my mind, a non-chili-maven’s idea of chili. Edible, for sure, but hardly worth doing again.

So, all in all, this was not a meal for the memory books, even though it made a pleasant enough dinner. One nice thing about recipes that aren’t quite as good as the ones you usually use: They make you appreciate your familiar ones more.

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It takes a lot of kitchen time to prepare many of Rick Bayless’s Mexican recipes. Most Mexican cooking is labor-intensive, and his especially so. It’s almost a shame that his results are so good that I can’t keep away from them. This week I was attracted to a Yucatecan snack called Pan de Cazón from his first cookbook, Authentic Mexican. I guess this would translate as Shark Cakes, but Bayless has given it the more descriptive English name in my title – maybe to reassure us gringos.

As with many Bayless recipes, this one is deceptively short and sweet at first glance. It lists only eight ingredients and has only three numbered steps. But half the ingredient items are actually other recipes that have to be made first or advance preparations described elsewhere.

So you start the night before by soaking dried black beans and next morning cooking them up according to his Brothy Beans recipe (very good in itself, by the way). Then you turn them into Refried Beans. Next you make a Yucatecan Tomato Sauce, which is a variant on his Quick-cooked Tomato Chile Sauce. Then you make up some “mock bitter orange juice” from lime juice, grapefruit juice, and orange zest. And you roast some serrano chiles.

The sauce cooking: with onions, serranos, and epazote

Having done all that, you’re ready to start on those three little steps.

#1 is to warm up the beans, tortillas, and tomato sauce, adding the roasted chiles to the sauce.

#2 is to poach a shark steak, flake it and mix with epazote and bitter orange juice, and keep it warm.

#3 is to assemble and bake the dish. Lay out tortillas, spread with beans, then fish and sauce, top with another tortilla and more sauce. Cover and bake eight minutes. Serve with more sauce and its chiles.

Is it madness to do all that for a simple supper for two? Maybe. Is it gorgeous to look at, after all the work? No, it’s kind of plain-looking. But is it delicious? Absolutely. The flavors just sing together in every bite. But it’s the kind of recipe I’d really like to have somebody else make for me – say about once or twice a month.

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It’s corn season again. Hooray! I wait all year for it. I’m not sure yet how good this year’s corn will be – last year’s was great, but my samplings this month have been inconclusive. Only white corn has been available at my Greenmarket so far, and I prefer the bicolor, which comes along later. But even in an inferior year, I can blissfully eat corn on the cob all summer long. And freeze some, off the cob, for winter eating.

Normally, all I feel a need to do with fresh corn is boil it for four minutes and eat it, not even with butter, just salt. Occasionally I’ll roast ears in their husks, which makes them taste even better, but takes rather a long time in a very hot oven. In honor of this blog, however, I decided to do an actual recipe with corn this week.

I found a treasure trove of corn recipes in my Mexican cookbooks. I chose one of three corn soups from Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico. All use corn, cheese, and poblano chilies, which seem to be a classic combination. I liked the one called Sopa de Elote de Grano because it keeps the corn kernels whole, rather than pureeing them. Also, the liquid base is broth rather than milk, which appealed to me more. 

It was a quick, easy recipe, except for the very first step. That was roasting, peeling, and cleaning the poblanos. Not difficult, but sweaty work on a July heat-wave afternoon: setting the peppers on stove burners turned high, turning them with tongs until all the skin blackened, scraping it off under a thin stream of water, and removing veins and seeds. (It occurred to me that, one cool day when I’m not otherwise occupied, I could do a lot worse than buy a batch of big, shiny, firm poblanos, prepare them this way, and freeze them for a million tasty Mexican uses. Peppers do freeze beautifully.)

That done, all that was needed was to puree the chilies with a little chicken broth (from Knorr bouillon cubes), cook that briefly in butter, add more broth and the raw corn kernels, and simmer for about 10 minutes.

To serve, you start by putting a tablespoon of crumbled queso fresco in each bowl. (The recipe actually calls for farmer cheese, explaining that it’s the nearest thing to Mexican fresh cheese. No doubt it was, back when the book was written, but it’s easy to get the Mexican cheese here now.) Then ladle in the soup and top with strips of roasted poblanos and a dollop of – to be totally authentic – Mexican “thick sour cream.” which I learned, from both Kennedy and my Rick Bayless cookbooks, translates best as crème fraiche. That was a brand-new piece of culinary information for me. I used it, but I can’t imagine the soup would’ve been hurt if I’d had only plain American sour cream.

The soup was lovely. The peppers were very mild (really should have been a little more picante, I thought) but they thickened the broth nicely and made it lush. The corn kernels were tender little bursts of intense flavor. The crumbled cheese softened but didn’t melt, providing a nice texture in each spoonful, and the crème fraiche quickly dissolved and creamily enriched everything.

Every summer Tom and I drive out to Merrill Creek Reservoir, in New Jersey just this side of the Delaware river, to look at birds – especially a resident indigo bunting ­– and stop at the nearby Woolf Farm vegetable stand, which has terrific corn and tomatoes at ridiculously low prices. In a good corn season, we tend to come home with a bag of four dozen ears and then wonder what we’re going to do with them all. Now, if this proves to be such a year, I’ll know. I found a lot of intriguing recipes during my cookbook search this week. So you may read of another corn dish here before the summer is out.

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