Thursday, January 31, 2013

In Defense of the Crispy Taco

Crispy tacos have long been a Tex-Mex staple. However, in recent years with the widespread blandness of Taco Bell, sub-par Mexican restaurant chains, and store-bought "taco kits," they seem to have lost their favor, with the exception of the 2 am drunken crowd. In addition, who decided that crispy tacos don't have their roots in authentic Mexican? In fact, in Mexico they are called "tacos dorados" (golden tacos), and are filled with meat and fried. "Flautas" (flutes) are usually flour tortillas rolled up around the filling and fried. "Taquitos" are usually corn tortillas rolled up around the filling and fried. Both are considered tacos dorados. I've even seen taco dorados made by closing the tortilla in half with the filling inside and fried that way.

According to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, via Julia Moskin of The New York Times, the crispy taco began at Mitla Cafe, east of Los Angelos. Mitla Cafe was established in 1937 by Vicente and Lucia Montano, and is still family owned today. Their signature dish is "tacos dorados con carne molida," golden taco shells filled with seasoned ground beef, iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. Here is where the story gets interesting! "In 1950, one Glen Bell, an entrepreneur possessed by envy of the McDonald brothers' success, opened a burger stand across the street from Mitla." "According to Mr. Arellano's research, Mr. Bell ate often at Mitla and watched long lines form at its walk-up window; later, having persuaded the Montanos to show him how the tacos were made, he experimented after hours with a tool that would streamline the process of frying the tortillas."

Mr. Bell started serving his own tacos in 1951." The business went through several name changes (Taco Tia, El Taco) before starting as Taco Bell in 1962." "On the Taco Bell website, Mr. Bell is cited as the creator of the 'fast-food crunchy taco.'" Hmph! What do you think? Either way, the only way to make truly delicious crispy tacos is to make the beef seasoning yourself, instead of using those mystery packets from the store. In addition, either buy the best taco shells you can find (I like La Tiara brand, not Old El Paso or that blasted Taco Bell brand!) or fry up your own. Heat a couple inches of oil in a pot, drop in a corn tortilla (home-made or store-bought), shape with a spatula and tongs until golden, a few minutes. Drain and voila! These tacos are an easy and delicious week-night dinner that you and your family will love!

Awesome Crispy Tacos

1 lb ground beef chuck
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 Tablespoon chili powder (like Gebhardt, if possible)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1- 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt

Mix the dry ingredients together, set aside. Brown the meat in a large saute pan over medium-high heat, breaking it into pieces with a wooden spoon. When browned, drain the excess fat. Add the onion, spices, and 1/2 cup water. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Serve with crispy tortilla shells, avocado slices, your favorite salsa from my site! (or your favorite store-bought salsa), shredded iceberg lettuce dressed with a dash of cider vinegar and pinch of salt, diced tomato, chopped cilantro, Mexican crema or sour cream, and top it all off with some freshly grated cheddar cheese (the store-bought pre-shredded stuff taste nothing like freshly grated)! Enjoy!

Monday, January 28, 2013

For the Love of Poblanos! and Award Winning Poblano Chicken Chowder!

I LOVE poblano chiles! I love them roasted and peeled for my Green Chili Cheeseburgers, stuffed with cheese, battered and fried for Chiles Rellenos, and finely diced to create the most amazing "Poblano Chicken Chowder!" But before I continue, I have to get one thing straight: POBLANOS ARE NOT PASILLAS! This sort of thing makes me crazy because many people (particularly in California) are being sold a lie! According to Rick Bayless, "Because of a quirk of migratory history, some Californians still refer to this chile (poblano), and it's dried counterpart, as 'pasilla,' as they do in Michoacan. Otherwise, everyone else knows them as 'poblano,' or simply 'chile verde' in Mexican regions where they're the only game in town."

Here is a picture of poblano chiles:

(When dried, they are known as Ancho!)

Here is a picture of chilaca chiles:

(When dried, they are known as Pasilla!)

In addition, "poblano" is also used to refer to a person who lives and/or is from Puebla, Mexico. Got it?!?

Poblano chiles are not only popular in Mexican cuisine, but in Southwestern cuisine as well! One of the best chowders I've ever had was from Canyon Cafe (aka., Sam's Cafe and Desert Fire)! Their award winning Poblano Chicken Chowder has medaled in 5 out of 6 opportunities at the Manor Grove's "Soup's On" competition, and most recently took home an unprecedented double first-place win in the judge's and people's choice award! Yes, it's that good! Lucky for me and you, I have their cookbook, Canyon Cafe : Bringing The Southwest Experience Home, which I picked up way back in 2000! With the exception of a lot of chopping (great for practicing your knife skills), I found the recipe straight forward and easy to follow. How did it turn out? Absolutely delicious! In addition, it made enough for leftovers to eat for lunch (my favorite!) or even freeze for a cold rainy day! It may not look like much, but trust me, it's fabulous!

Poblano Chicken Chowder

Serves 6-8

For the roux
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup flour

For the soup base
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lb onions, diced
1/2 lb celery, diced
1/2 lb carrots, diced
1/4 lb poblano chiles, stem removed, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 quarts (8 cups) strong chicken stock (or chicken bouillon/water)
1 1/2 tablespoons Tabasco pepper sauce
1/2 bunch cilantro, washed and finely chopped

To serve
1 quart* (4 cups) heavy cream (*I only use 2 1/2 cups of heavy cream, and like it better that way!)
1 lb chicken breast, grilled and diced (I use a grill pan.)
Fried crispy tortilla strips, for garnish (If you're too lazy, you can buy them, but it's better to make them fresh, see Techniques!)
Jack cheese, shredded (optional)

For the roux
Make a roux by heating melted butter with flour and whisking over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Do not brown this mixture. (You may have to adjust the heat!) It should be a blond color. Reserve.

For the soup base
Heat oil in a large pot or dutch oven, add onions, celery, carrots, poblanos and garlic. Saute until onions become translucent and carrots begin to soften.

Add thyme, pepper, and cumin, stir well. Add chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft.

Whisk the roux until smooth again. Begin adding the roux and whisk in each bit to incorporate. Be careful not to form lumps!

Continue to cook over high heat for 5 minutes to remove the flour taste. Remove from the heat and add Tabasco and cilantro. Add cream and diced chicken. Heat through. (Don't allow to boil or the chicken will not be tender!)

To serve
Ladle soup into bowls, top with crisp tortilla strips and jack cheese, if desired.

Recipe from Canyon Cafe: Bringing The Southwestern Experience Home.

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Butcher Thinks I'm Crazy!!!

As I promised, I would share with you how to make Whole Baked Camembert into a heavenly meal by serving it with Anthony Bourdain's "Salad d'Onglet," from his Les Halles Cookbook. This recipe is so delicious and pairs perfectly with the whole baked Camembert. My only problem is that I can't find an onglet steak! I've asked all the butchers I know, but they think I'm delusional! I ask, "Do you know the hanger steak, butcher's steak, onglet steak, from near the tenderloin and the rib?" Their answer: Crickets... So, in my defense I found an excellent article: Ask Casey: Hanger, Skirt, Flank, and Flatiron Steaks. Thanks Casey, I will be educating all my local butchers with this article, they'll be so happy?!?!

Because I couldn't find onglet steak, I used flatiron steak instead and the results were amazingly delicious! This recipe uses soy sauce in the marinade and finishing sauce, so I omitted adding any additional salt. You won't believe how hearty and satisfying this salad is, and the ginger really makes it sing! Also, you want to throw in some of that demi-glace, which is supposed to be hanging out in the freezer! Add a bottle of French red wine and you've got a meal you won't soon forget!

Salad d'Onglet

Serves 4

For the steak
12 ounces/340 g onglet steak (I used 16 ounce flatiron steak), cut into 1 1/2 ounce pieces (same-size chunks)
1/2 ounce/14 g fresh ginger, grated (I use my microplane.)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (if you use a garlic press, you shall surely burn in Hell)
4 tablespoons/56 ml soy sauce

For the sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons/28 g butter
1/4 cup/56 ml white wine
1/2 cup/56 ml dark chicken or veal stock (an added spoon from your stash of demi-glace would be nice, and so worth it!)
1 tablespoon/28 ml soy sauce
1/8 ounce/3 g fresh ginger, grated
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 sprig flat parsley, chopped

For the salad
5 ounces/112 g mesclun salad mix (I used baby spring mix.)
1 shallot, thinly sliced

For the red wine vinaigrette
1/4 cup/60 ml red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, crushed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon/2.5 g Dijon mustard
1/2 cup/120 ml extra-virgin olive oil

For marinating the steak
Place the meat in a deep bowl or dish large enough to hold the meat in a single layer. Add the ginger, chopped garlic cloves, and soy sauce, mix well. Cover and refrigerate overnight. (If you don't have overnight to marinate the meat, 2 to 3 hours still makes it fairly tender and flavorful.)

For the red wine vinaigrette
In a mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Let sit 30 minutes, then remove and discard the garlic. Add the mustard and slowly whisk in the oil, continuing to whisk until the mixture is emulsified. Set aside until ready to use. (Any leftover vinaigrette should be stored in the refrigerator and brought to room temperature before using.)

For the steak and sauce
Remove the meat from the marinade and pat dry. Season lightly with pepper. (The soy sauce more than compensates for the lack of salt.) Place the saute pan over high heat and add 1 tablespoon/14 g of the butter. When the butter has foamed and subsided, add the meat, working in batches, if necessary, to avoid overcrowding the pan. Sear 3 minutes on each side, so that the meat is nicely browned. Using tongs, set the meat aside on a plate.

Over high heat, stir in the wine, scraping the bottom, of course, with the wooden spoon. Cook until the pan is almost dry, then add the stock (and the demi-glace, if you have any) and the soy and reduce by half. Add the remaining 1/8 ounce/3 g ginger and the sliced garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then whisk in the remaining butter. Return the meat to the pan and cook for about a minute. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and remove from the heat.

Finishing the dish
Place the mesclun in a large bowl and add the shallot. Add enough of the vinaigrette to moisten, but not drown, the greens. (Save the remainder of the vinaigrette for another use.) Toss well and arrange the salad in the center of a large serving platter. Arrange the meat around the salad and drizzle with the sauce. Serve right away.

(Mmmmm! That bread and salad are delicious together!)

Monday, January 14, 2013

What do a Priest, Napoleon, and Salvador Dali have in common?

Camembert cheese is a creamy, originally unpasteurized, cow's milk cheese made in the Normandy region of France. At the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Harel family gave refuge to a priest from the Brie region. The priest repayed the Harel's for their kindness by teaching Marie Harel, the farmer's wife, how to make cheese. In 1855, one of Marie Harel's daughters presented Napoleon with one of the cheeses and told him that it was from Camembert, thus the name. With the expansion of the railroads and the invention of the iconic wooden cheeseboxes, created by engineer M. Ridel in 1890, Camembert has become one of the most popular French cheeses in the world! It is rumored that French troops were issued Camembert in their rationings during WW1, but I could not verify that. In addition, Salvador Dali's famous melting clocks painting, "The Persistence of Memory," was inspired by Camembert melting in the sun! Who knew? With it's voluptuous texture and mushroom aroma it is one of my favorite cheeses!

Renowned chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli, began his career in his home town of Arras, Northern France. Who better than a true Frenchman to create this amazing recipe for "Whole Baked Camembert?" Imagine freshly baked bread with an entire wheel of marinated Camembert baked inside! Fantastic! The first time I made this, I called my neighborhood friends as I removed it from the oven. While we tried to allow it to cool, gazing at it in excitement, we finally gave in and devoured it in less than 10 minutes flat! It's that good! This recipe may appear to be complicated, but it really is quite easy. The Camembert should be marinated overnight, so allow for that. In addition, this recipe is for two Whole Baked Camemberts, but I usually make one Camembert and use the remainder of the dough to make a second loaf without the Camembert for another day. As this is a European recipe, you will need a kitchen scale, and a spray bottle. *Make sure to check back for the perfect accompaniment (hint: it's from Anthony Bourdain!) to make this a truly heavenly meal!

Whole Baked Camembert

Makes two loaves.  *This recipe takes me about 3 hours or so, start to finish, however; my oven has a "proof" function which aides in rising.

For the marinated Camembert
2 wheels Camembert (preferably unpasteurized, if possible)
Sun blushed tomatoes (optional, I don't use)
Olives/tapenade (optional, I don't use)
Fresh thyme and a bay leaf
Cracked garlic, skins removed (I use about 3 cloves)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the bread dough
1 lb strong bread flour
2 teaspoons salt (I use Kosher.)
1 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons active bread yeast
Up to 2 cups warm water
1 pinch sugar

For the marinated Camembert
Prepare the cheese by piercing the top and bottom rind with a fork. In a small bowl just large enough to hold the cheese, add the tomatoes (if using), olives or tapenade (if using), some fresh thyme and one bay leaf, a few cloves of crushed garlic, season with salt and pepper, then fill to cover with the olive oil. Marinate refrigerated overnight.

For the bread dough
In a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the flour, salt, butter, yeast, and sugar. Add enough water to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. If the dough becomes too wet and will not come together, add extra flour a little at a time, until soft and slightly sticky. Knead the dough for 5 minutes in the electric mixer, or turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes by hand. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a large floured bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. Remove the marinated cheese from the refrigerator.

Once doubled, turn out onto a floured surface and gently press out the excess gas from the dough. Knead a couple of times to smooth out the dough. Divide into two. Roll each piece out one times bigger than the cheese. Place the cheese in the center of the dough, adding some of the ingredients from the marinade and wrap the dough over and around the cheese to seal.

Turn over onto a parchment lined baking sheet so the folded dough is on the base. Brush the top with some of the olive oil from the marinade and finish with sprigs of thyme, a bay leaf, and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.

Allow the dough to double in size before baking in a 450 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown...not dark brown. Using a spray bottle, spray the inside of the hot oven just after placing the bread inside. Spray a second time 5 minutes before the end of cooking. (This helps make a nice crust.)

When done, remove the bread to a large serving board and allow at least 10 minutes before serving.

(You know you want that!!! Mmmmmm!)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Hangover

I can't think of a better way to start the new year than with my most beloved breakfast, "Eggs Benedict!" Eggs Benedict is a classic American dish with many theories of it's creation. The most interesting version is that of Lemuel Benedict. Lemuel Benedict was a dashing ladies' man, a successful New York stockbroker, had a reputation for leaving huge tips at New York's finest restaurants, and was frequently included in the newspaper society columns. In 1894, Lemuel showed up at the former Waldorf hotel location with a nasty hangover. He ordered two poached eggs, bacon, buttered toast and a pitcher of Hollandaise sauce. The dish was quickly adopted by the Waldorf, substituting rounds of ham for the bacon and an English muffin for the toast. Lemuel enjoyed the attention and prestige following his creation. Upon Lemuel's death in 1943, Jack Benedict, Lemuel's first cousin and real estate salesman from Colorado, became obsessed with making sure Lemuel got credit for creating eggs Benedict. In 1978, Jack became furious about an article that appeared in Bon Appetit crediting Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict as the creators of the dish at Delmonico's. The article did refer to one account of a young man with a hangover at the Waldorf; however, the article did not name the man as Lemuel Benedict but Samuel! Jack was completely enraged, or it could have been all the trans fats and cholesterol in his system! Either way, although this is probably the most unhealthy breakfast you could eat, it is delicious and definitely worthy of special occasions!

The most important part of eggs Benedict is, of course, the Hollandaise sauce! I have previously posted a recipe for Blender Hollandaise, but I think it's empowering to make it successfully by hand! Hollandaise sauce is one of the five French mother sauces, and is believed to date back to the mid-18th century. The name, as it suggests, is a nod to the fine butter and eggs provided by Holland (and the Netherlands) required to make a quality Hollandaise. Not only is Hollandaise sauce delicious with poached eggs, it's also very nice with vegetables (especially asparagus), fish, and even beef! In fact, it is the base for Bearnaise sauce! When making a Hollandaise sauce, it is very important to use the freshest, best-quality eggs you can find. In addition, I like to make the Hollandaise first, and rather than hold it in a warm water bath, I put it in a small thermos (a great tip from Anthony Bourdain), where it will keep for up to an hour! According to James Beard, eggs Benedict was usually topped with "Hollandaise sauce and a slice of truffle," but I rather like a little chopped chives. And finally, there are many recipes for Hollandaise sauce, but this is the one I've been making for years to great success! So don't be scared, you can do it! Lemuel and Jack would be so proud!

Eggs Benedict

Serves 6

For the hollandaise sauce
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/3 cup boiling water
Dash of salt, white pepper, and cayenne, to taste

For the eggs Benedict
12 slices Canadian bacon or thin slices of cooked ham
12 eggs
6 English muffins, split, toasted and buttered
Truffle slice or chopped chives (optional)

For the hollandaise sauce
Divide the butter into thirds. Beat egg yolks with lemon juice in the top of a double boiler. (No double boiler, click here!) Add 1/3 of the butter. Place the pan over simmering, NOT BOILING, water; cook, beating constantly, until the sauce starts to thicken; add remaining butter, 1/3 at a time, whisking constantly until fully incorporated. Beat in the boiling water and continue stirring until mixture thickens; remove from the water. Stir in the salt, white pepper, and cayenne, to taste. Hold in a warm water bath or a small thermos. (If the sauce separates, whisk in 1-2 tablespoons cream until smooth again. If the sauce curdles, throw it out and start again.)

For the poached eggs
To poach eggs to perfection, bring a pan of water to a gentle simmer with a splash of vinegar. (I highly recommend a non-stick pan, if you have one.) Carefully break in the eggs, or break them into small cups and then gently tilt them into the water, return the water to a simmer, then immediately remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Finishing the dish
Cook the ham in a large skillet until lightly browned, keep warm.

Place two halves of one of the muffins on each plate. Top each muffin half with ham and poached egg. Spoon the sauce evenly over each plate. Garnish with truffle or chives, if you like. Mmmmm!