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.

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