Sunday, July 15, 2012

All or nothing

Ever plan a trip just so you could eat the food at your destination?  Since I'm in the live-to-eat camp, I've been known to make just about every significant trip (even a trip into High Point, NC, near where my mother lives and where there's a great Thai restaurant) revolve around the food.  I've done that several times in New Orleans, in Albuquerque, in Central Coast California and in interior Mexico. I'm planning to do it again in Las Vegas later this summer.  My husband, however, has other goals in mind...

"Potluck" by Gil Elvgren
He likes to play the slots (and probably likes to watch the ladies play the slots), but I'm not much of a gambler when it comes to casinos.  I'm more of a people-watcher.  I will gamble, however, on a new recipe in hopes of a jackpot.  Recently, we entertained a dinner guest and good friend who is very adventurous and always up for something new.  She left the menu decisions to me, so I decided to take us all on a trip to interior Mexico with some new recipes in hopes of a little bit of beginner's luck.

There are some who say that you should never try new recipe at a dinner party before you've tested it yourself.  Oh, pish.  What's gambling without the risk?  Placing a blind bet on a new recipe when you've got trusted sources is almost always like cracking the nut.  It's easy money and everybody wins.

I love Diana Kennedy and her wonderful books on her travels and interior Mexican cuisine, but I will consistently reach for Zarela Martinez' book, Food From My Heart, which relays a warm and rich family history as well as exquisite Mexican cuisine.  Not only do I like her intimate writing style, I love her recipes.  They hit the jackpot every time I'm looking for interior Mexican food that is straightforward to prepare and delectable to eat. 

I've made Zarela's fish hash recipe several times, and it is beyond incredible.  Right now you are probably saying "Fish hash!?  What is so appetizing about fish hash??"  But this recipe, full of butter, garlic, mild heat and warm spice is killer.  And it is even better with crabmeat, as the original recipe calls for.  I have substituted good-quality imitation crab and you could just as well use a good-quality imitation lobster.  I put this warm "crabmeat" hash on small, warm hand-made gorditas, topped the hash with fresh corn kernels that had been caramelized with garlic, EVOO and a spice blend called Frontera Mexican Herbs and Lime that you can get at Crate and Barrel and elsewhere (yes, that's Rick Bayless' Frontera I'm talking about), or you can approximate your own mixture by combining some salt and pepper, minced cilantro, lime zest, minced chives and dried oregano.  On top of the warm, caramelized corn was some crema Mexicana, which I purchased, but which you can easily make.  And on top of that, some fresh cilantro and a wedge of fresh lime.  Oh my.

My wine guy, Bill, also recently passed on a recipe to me for a toasted quinoa, black bean and avocado salad that he's done backflips over.  I made it myself and it was refreshingly light, had a great flavor profile with fresh lime juice and cilantro and was a great accompaniment to our meal.  You'll find that recipe here.

 Quinoa salad in progress...

...and prior to being garnished with avocado and toasted pepitas.

I also had a papaya that was getting soft, so I developed a papaya salsa that was a creamy, cooling component to Zarela's camarones con coco (shrimp with coconut) bathed in a spicy salsa verde.  This shrimp recipe calls for a fresh coconut.  You can see a great video from Gourmet test kitchens demonstrating the easiest method I have ever used to crack open a coconut and extract the meat here.

Near-proof that I can crack a coconut.  I swear, no one else touched this hammer during the coconut-cracking episode.  This is a job best done outside because pieces of round things fly when hit with hammers.

I held my small crowd breathlessly captive as I extracted the coconut meat.  I have been known to be self-injurious with a knife.  In front of an audience.  Must.  Speak.  To.  Therapist.  About.  That.

And this is what we did with the coconut water...

Gin and coconut water is not exactly the most authentic cocktail to have with interior Mexican cuisine.  But it worked for Ernest Hemingway, now didn't it?  This was exceptionally fresh coconut water, straight from the coconut, not from a can.  And I have to gush about The Botanist Islay Dry Artisan Gin, an outstanding distillation of at least 31 aromatics and botanicals.  It has a complex, floral presence that complements coconut water in quite a lovely way.  Pity there was only enough coconut water for one cocktail.  But had there been more than one (and had we not shared the cocktail), we might have had a trip to the ER to reminisce about later since I was still extracting coconut meat with a rather dull paring knife whilst sipping merrily away.

So, without further ado, the recipes:

Gorditas with Tampico-Style Crabmeat Hash, Caramelized Fresh Corn, Crema Mexicana, 
Cilantro and Lime

Here I've combined adaptations of Zarela Martinez' gorditas recipe with her crabmeat hash, then added the caramelized corn and the crema.  The results are amazing.   There are multiple layers to this appetizer, but you can make the gorditas, the hash and the corn ahead, then assemble and heat at the last minute, garnishing with the crema, cilantro and lime at the last minute.  

Make the gorditas:

2 cups masa harina
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 1/4 cups warm water; more or less as needed
vegetable oil or lard for frying

1.)  In a bowl, thoroughly combine the masa harina, flour, baking powder and salt.  
2.)  Stirring with your hand, add the water, a little at a time, using only enough to produce a soft, pliable, but not sticky dough.
3.)  Divide the dough into 24 balls.  
4.)  Keeping the dough covered with a slightly damp kitchen towel before and after shaping, flatten each ball and shape into a round, cookie-shaped pastry about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, making sure edges are squared off, not tapered.  Wetting your hands with water or even using a little oil makes it easier to handle the dough.  I've also found that pressing the balls flat between two pieces of waxed paper or parchment paper with the bottom of a mug or glass helps to flatten them evenly.  
5.)  Heat the oil to 350 degrees in a deep-fryer or a heavy, deep skillet over high heat.
6.)  Add the gorditas in batches of 3 or 4 at a time, watching to be sure the temperature remains constant.
7.)  Cook until they are crisp and golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes.  When they are done, they will rise to the top and be slightly puffed.
8.)  Remove from hot oil with a slotted spoon or flat mesh strainer and drain on paper towels.  Keep warm.  Makes 24 gorditas.  Can be made up to 48 hours ahead.

Make the crabmeat hash:

1/4 cup unsalted butter
3 large garlic cloves, finely minced
3 large scallions, whites and some of the green part, minced
1 large ripe tomato, chopped
1 large fresh chile, such as a jalapeno, stem removed but not seeded, finely chopped
2 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro
3/4 tsp. ground true cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon)
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 lb. lump crabmeat (or substitute good-quality imitation crab or imitation lobster)

1.)  Melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat.  
2.)  Add the garlic and scallions and cook for 1 or 2 minutes.
3.)  Add the tomato, chile, cilantro, spices and a little salt, stirring well to combine.
4.) Continue to cook, stirring often, until sauce is slightly concentrated, about 4 or 5 minutes.
5.)  Add the crabmeat and lower the heat, stirring gently to incorporate the sauce with the crabmeat.  Remove from heat and cover loosely to retain moisture.  Makes about 2 cups.  Can be made up to 24 hours ahead.

Make the caramelized fresh corn:

2 ears fresh sweet corn
1 to 2 Tbs. EVOO
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp. Frontera Mexican Herbs and Lime (or see notes above on how to approximate this blend)

1.)  Using a sharp knife, carefully cut the kernels away from the cob.  An easy trick an aunt taught me is to stick the wide end of the corn cob into the tube of an angel food cake pan and proceed.
2.)  Heat EVOO in a small skillet over medium-high heat.
3.)  Add garlic and corn kernels to skillet.  
4.)  Cook, stirring frequently, to lightly caramelize the kernels.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Makes about 1 cup.  Can be made up to 48 hours ahead.

Assemble the appetizer:

warm gorditas
warm crabmeat hash
warm sauteed corn
approximately 1 cup of crema Mexicana
fresh cilantro sprigs
fresh lime wedges

1.)  Layer gorditas with crabmeat hash and then sauteed corn.  You can split the gorditas if you'd like, but since they're so small, it's a bit difficult.
2.)  Spoon about 1 Tbs. crema Mexicana over corn; garnish with fresh cilantro and limes wedges.  Makes about 16 to 20 appetizers.
3.)  If you made the gorditas, hash and corn ahead and chilled them, just assemble them without the crema Mexicana, cilantro and lime.  Warm gorditas in a 400 degree oven for about 8 minutes, then garnish with crema Mexicana, cilantro and lime.

Camarones con Coco with Salsa Verde de Tampico

This is a coconut shrimp recipe like no other, from Zarela Martinez.  You can substitute dried, dessicated coconut flakes (not sweetened coconut from the baking aisle) in a pinch, but there's a lot of charm in getting your guests involved in cracking a fresh coconut.  Plus, you get a cocktail out of it!  Once you taste this green sauce (which you can make less spicy by reducing the amount chiles called for), you will want to have it with everything.  It's absolutely scrumptious.

3 Tbs. butter or EVOO
1 cup (approximately) Salsa Verde de Tampico (recipe follows)
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup freshly grated coconut
lime wedges

1.)  Heat the butter or EVOO in a heavy skillet or saute pan over high heat until the foam subsides and the butter is almost ready to brown.  If using EVOO, heat until very hot but not quite smoking.
2.)  Quickly add the salsa and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 2 minutes.
3.)  Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the shrimp; still well to combine.
4.)  Reduce the heat a little more and simmer until the shrimp are opaque and cooked through, about 3 minutes longer.  Do not overcook.
5,)  Arrange the shrimp and sauce on a serving platter, sprinkle with grated coconut and garnish with lime wedges.  Serves 4.

Salsa Verde de Tampico:

8 fresh chiles, either jalapeno or serrano, or to taste, stems removed, halved crosswise
1 medium-sized onion, quartered
5 garlic cloves
1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
1 tsp. powdered chicken base (I used a Knorr chicken bullion cube)

1.)  Place all the ingredients in a blender or a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped.  
2.)  Process to desired consistency.  This sauce is best when slightly coarse in texture.
3.)  Sauce can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks (although it will discolor).  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Papaya and Coconut Salsa

3 cups chopped papaya
1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and minced
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1/2 cup grated fresh coconut or about 1/3 cup dessicated flaked coconut (not sweetened)
juice of one lime
salt to taste
drizzles of honey, to taste
generous pinch each of ground ancho chile, cayenne pepper and smoked paprika

1.)  Combine all ingredients in a medium-size bowl and toss to combine.  Taste for balance of sweet, sour and salt.
2.)  Chill until ready to serve.  Can be made up to 24 hours ahead.  Makes about 3 cups.

What to drink with this meal:  The general rule when pairing wines with Mexican cuisine is to match the wine to the sauce, not the main ingredient.  Since the salsa verde is rather spicy, yet it has a rich component to it, I would suggest something bright and fruity and white.  Rick Bayless recommends a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley for grassy freshness or an Oregon pinot gris, which has more fruit, but still has great acidity.  As always, your wine guys as Spec's are ready to help you find a great match, with or without Mr. Bayless' suggestions.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Potatoes with a side of Pravachol

I made potatoes last night.  No, I mean, I made POTATOES last night.   This weekend, while looking for mole recipes (more on that in a later post), I found a Guy Fieri recipe that I'd been stashing away for a few years.  It's no wonder.  One look at the ingredients list and you know that even if you've never had high cholesterol, this is the recipe that will bring it on.  If you already have cholesterol issues, you will eat at your own risk and take your Pravachol.  Either way, you'll die happy.

For the potatoes, you'll probably need to start with the 40 mg dose.  This is not medical advice.

These potatoes are ridiculously decadent.  Bacon, cheddar cheese, butter AND sour cream???  Are you nuts, Guy?  But they are so good, I couldn't stop putting my fork into the bowl.  Apart from all the dairy fat, sauteed onions and garlic, what makes them so tasty is that the potatoes are first cooked in crab boil seasoning before they're tossed with the other ingredients, including a healthy dose of cayenne.  Guy calls for Zatarain's crab boil, but I had Old Bay Seasoning in the house, so that's what I cooked the potatoes in.  I also used less than half of the bacon, cheese and butter called for and they still tasted beyond fabulous.

Why Guy named this dish "Goody Girl Championship Potatoes" is beyond my ken.  These potatoes certainly aren't for good girls.  Everyone knows that good girls eat celery sticks, jog five miles a day and drink lots of water.  I do none of these things unless forced to at gunpoint.

These potatoes definitely call for beer or a hearty red wine (and a big, 16 oz. ribeye, a huge Caesar salad and a large hunk of some gooey, chocolaty dessert.  And the Pravachol.).  But good girls don't drink beer.  Or do they?  I think my mother would prefer that if I insisted on drinking beer, I would pour it into a chilled glass first.  Good girls don't chug their beer out of the bottle.  Or do they?

Photo courtesy of

I'm realizing now that the reason I squirreled this recipe away for a later date was because this is not a recipe I would normally consider making--the combination of that many fat-laden ingredients scared me.  It's the kind of dish you order at a restaurant, where you don't know all the ingredients or the calorie count per serving and therefore can absolve yourself of all responsibility for eating it.  Temporarily.  So what fate would I tempt by making these potatoes?  Would poor cardiac health ensue?  Would I have my first gall bladder attack?  Surely, at the least, the three pounds of potatoes called for in the recipe (not to mention the quarter pound each of butter and cheddar cheese) would appear immediately on the scales during my morning weigh-in.

This is exactly why I got rid of my scales.  I've been deliriously happy ever since.

So here's the recipe (with my notes), with thanks to Guy Fieri and the goody girl of his fantasies.  Maybe she eats these potatoes and drinks beer.  Straight out of the bottle.

Goody Girl Championship Potatoes

1 pkg. dry crab boil (Zatarain's recommended, but you can substitute 2 Tbs. Old Bay Seasoning)
3 lbs. red potatoes
1 lb. thick-cut bacon, diced (I used about 1/2 lb.)
1 cup diced red onion
1 Tbs. minced garlic
1/4 lb. butter, at room temperature (I used about 4 Tbs.)
1/4 lb. finely shredded cheddar cheese (I used about 1/8 of a lb.)
1 green onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. paprika
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup sour cream (I used about 1/2 cup)

1.)  Fill a 6-quart pot 2/3 full of water and add the crab boil; mix until blended.
2.)  Cut the potatoes in half and then into 3/8-inch thick pieces.
3.)  Add the potatoes to the seasoned water and bring to a boil.
4.)  Cook the potatoes until fork-tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.
5.)  While the potatoes are cooking, in a medium saute pan on medium heat, cook bacon until crispy.
6.)  Remove bacon and drain on paper towels.
7.)  Add red onion to bacon grease; cook until caramelized.
8.)  Just before onions are done, stir in the garlic and cook until lightly toasted.
9.)  In a large bowl, place the butter, 1/2 the cheese, 1/2 the bacon, 1/2 the green onions, the cooked red onions and garlic, cayenne, paprika, salt, pepper, and sour cream.
10.)  Mix together thoroughly.
11.)  Strain potatoes and add them to the bowl.
12.)  Let potatoes stand for a few minutes or until cheese starts to melt.
13.)  Fold ingredients together, using a gentle hand so as to not break the potatoes too much.
14.)  Top with remaining cheese, bacon and green onions.
15.)  Adjust salt and pepper to taste.  Serves 6 to 8.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bossy-pants chicken

I mean really.  Don't tell me that you don't get the image of your big sister giving you what for.  I'm sure I'll get some flack from my readers (or perhaps even someone's big sister) for that comment, but beside the fact that this photo really does make this chicken look like you're about to get a good check-in at the smack-down motel, I think I've improved on its original moniker quite nicely.

Bossy-Pants Chicken's original alias is "beer can chicken."  It has other aliases, but you can look those up on the internet.  We try not to be in poor taste here, this is a family blog.

If you don't drink beer, it might be hard to figure out what to do with the five other cans in the six-pack after you use one to make the chicken.  To those of you struggling with this particular challenge, might I suggest beer can art.  This example of the famous John Milkovisch house in Houston, TX is rather stunning, don't you think?  I rather like the festive entryway.  Those are beer can tops hanging from the eaves like long, sparkly fringe.  It's what I plan to do with all my beer cans when I'm not making Bossy-Pants Chicken.  Really!

When I explained what we would have for dinner on a recent weekend night, my husband's reply was "WHAT??"  To him, cooking a whole chicken on a grill with a can of beer stuck up its, well, cavity was a bit repulsive.  I told him that I was sorry I'd explained the preparation process, something that often helps him make up his mind that he's not going to like something before he even tastes it.

Trust me, it's really good chicken.  I've cooked quite a few chickens this way but hadn't done one in about a dozen years.  And I had a really good spice rub and some hardwood charcoal, which pretty much makes everything on the grill taste great.

I hope you'll try Bossy-Pants Chicken soon.  You can season it with whatever you'd like, you can brine it ahead of time, you can even pour out all the beer in the can and use wine or bourbon or Crystal Light lemonade (just joking), but I still think that half can of beer makes a great chicken.  The meat--all the meat--is succulent, tender, falling off the bone, while the skin is crispy and totally addictive, and there's a slight malty flavor from the beer that complements the spices nicely.  Did I convince you?

Now, if you're worried about bisphenol A, an epoxy that has been known to sometimes line the interiors of beer cans, or the about ink on the outside of the beer can, you can use a vertical chicken roaster such this one and pour a small amount of beer in the receptacle on the bottom, or try to find a stainless steel cup to fit inside the center ring.  Or perhaps, if you're very clever, you can fashion something out of heavy duty aluminum foil to hold the beer inside the confines of the roaster.  Let's see who's the cleverest amongst you!  Send your ideas posthaste!

Here's the basic procedure for Bossy-Pants Chicken.  The seasoning in the recipe link is good, but I like my spice rub better (find that recipe below).  Brine if you wish for extra moistness.  And don't forget the hardwood charcoal!

Oh, and by the way: if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll have figured out that I'm the original Bossy Pants.  No lie.

My Favorite Spice Rub for Grilled Chicken

This recipe makes about 1/2 cup.  Published November 1, 2006 in Cook's Illustrated.

2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 Tbs. kosher salt (my addition)
2 Tbs. Penzey's BBQ 3000 seasoning or an equal amount of Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning or other Cajun seasoning mix (my addition)

Combine all ingredients in small bowl and seal airtight if you don't plan to use this rub right away. To apply spice rubs, sprinkle over the food and then gently massage in the seasonings to make sure they adhere. As a general rule, use about 1 tablespoon of rub per portion of poultry or meat and 1 teaspoon of rub per portion of fish. Although rubs can be applied right before cooking, we’ve discovered that the flavor of the spices penetrates deeper into the food if given time. Refrigerate rubbed meat for at least an hour to maximize the return (large cuts of meat can sit overnight for a spicier, more intense flavor).


Right before this post was to be published, I got a spice rub recipe via email from one of my trusted recipe sites that I want to pass on to you.  Although I haven't tried it myself, one scan of the ingredient list made me a believer.  Maybe you can give it a whirl before I do.  The recipe follows.

All-Purpose Summer Spice Rub

Recipe from the Tasting Table Test Kitchen

Yield: 1/3 cup


2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sweet smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón)
1 tablespoon kosher salt


1. In a medium skillet set over medium-low heat, add the mustard seeds, anise seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, celery seeds and black pepper. Cook, shaking the pan often, until the spices begin to smoke and become golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
2. Turn the spices out onto a large plate to cool, then transfer to a spice grinder or coffee mill and pulverize until fine. Pour into a medium bowl and whisk in the smoked paprika and salt. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark and dry spot for up to six months. Shake to combine before using.


What wine to drink with this chicken?   If you prefer white wine, you'll want one that's full-bodied and juicy, such as a domestic sauvignon blanc or a fume blanc; those will go nicely with the chicken in the basic recipe.  If you use the aromatic spice rub, above, be adventurous and try Charles' Smith's Kung Fu Girl Reisling, from Washington state.  A substantial, juicy rose such as Marques de Caceres Rioja Rose (Spain) would work too.  I prefer a red with this chicken.  A bright, young, lighter-bodied pinot noir (look for Forefront Pinot Noir, a Pine Ridge label from the Willamette Valley or Pierre Labet Ile de Beaute Pinot Noir) would be a great match.  You could also choose a fruity, lighter zinfandel or a syrah.  Ask your wine guy at Spec's to help you choose something you'll enjoy.