Sunday, August 26, 2012

Nachos excepcionales

Nachos get a bad rap.  You can find them on almost any menu, anywhere, covered in pasty, bland pinto beans that have the texture of baby food.  There's usually a cursory (or sometimes heavy-handed) sprinkling of jalapenos--usually canned--and maybe a little taco or fajita meat and some sour cream.   And then there's the crowning glory: the school-bus yellow "cheese" oozing over the top.  It arrives slightly runny and quickly congeals to a texture resembling plastic wrap.  Some restaurants use grated cheese rather than a canned, processed cheese product, which is an improvement.  But unfortunately, most nachos do nothing to impress.

You may not be able to imagine this, but Vindaloo Tiramisu eats nachos, and she is not afraid to admit this fact.  She has been known to eat nachos in various Tex-Mex restaurants in various Texas locales (which she is also not afraid to admit), but she doesn't eat them there very often.  That's because the nachos that Vindaloo eats usually come from her own kitchen.  And it's also because, yes, you guessed it: Vindaloo is a food snob.

But then, this is not a state secret.

Let's just say that Vindaloo expects a lot from her nachos and works hard to make the extraordinary happen.  Restaurant nachos are often despairingly pale, lifeless, unremarkable and do nothing to tease or satisfy the palate.  There are exceptions of course, but think about it: when was the last time you had a plate of nachos in a restaurant that made you say, "Dang!  I want more of those RIGHT NOW!"?

Vindaloo's nachos are memorable and irresistible.  They are nachos excepcionales.  They pass the husband (and the soon-to-be-husband) test, the picky eater test, the I-only-eat-nachos-on-Superbowl-Sunday test, the upscale cocktail party test and the ravenous-pack-of-teenage-boys-that-are-in-their-third growth-spurt-of-the-year test.  These nachos make you glad to be alive because every bite is a full-frontal encounter with your tastebuds.  They are the culinary equivalent of the New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge.  You will be sad and will be looking for a bereavement counselor forthwith when these nachos are gone.  You will also probably not want to share them with anyone, so if you're planning on making some to share, be sure to plan ahead and make more than you think you'll need.  A lot more.

Another redeeming factor in Vindaloo's book: these nachos are an excellent accompaniment to a juicy, fruity red wine.  Because they have lively, intense flavors with plenty of acid and spice and are relatively light on the cheese, choose a zinfandel, a shiraz, a fruity, not-too-tannic cabernet sauvignon or a full-bodied sangiovese.  As always, your wine guys at your local Spec's will help you find a great match.  Of course, if you're a beer quaffer, have at it, but as most readers know by now, Vindaloo loves a great glass of wine and would be hard-pressed to recommend anything containing hops or malt and yet remain convincingly reliable.

The concept behind a good plate of nachos is very simple: texture, flavor, contrast and color.  Basically, that means using fresh, quality ingredients and getting a little more bang for your nutritional buck than your average plate of nachos.  So with that in mind, let's talk about the foundation on which you will build your nachos excepcionales: the tostada chips.

Sure, you can use store-bought chips.  You can use a mainstream brand if you prefer, or you can even fry your own tostada chips, which are worth the extra time and effort.  But for nachos excepcionales, you'll need a substantial and flavorful chip.  Try artisanal chips made by a local tortilleria, or one of the many varieties of organic tostada chips that Central Market distributes.  Look for the flax seed, blue corn or red quinoa varieties.  They have texture, nuttiness, better nutritional value than the mainstream or generic brands and a crunch and texture that can support what you'll be piling on top of the tostadas. 

You can build your nachos with or without meat, but the meat of choice for Vindaloo's nachos is good-quality chorizo.  Choose Spanish chorizo, which is dense and dry, cured and smoked in an edible casing (you will have to chop the chorizo finely) or Mexican chorizo, which is soft and uncured, highly seasoned with vinegar and chile powder and often comes in an inedible plastic casing that you will have to remove before cooking.  Either way, you will get superior results.  One final suggestion: if you can make good carne adovada (or know someone who can), it would be an excellent alternative to the chorizo.  Just make sure the meat is well-shredded and mixed with just a bit of the chile sauce so that the tostada chips don't get saturated.

Next, consider the beans.  Traditionally, refried or whole, cooked pinto beans are used.  Refried beans tend to make the tostada chips soggy and whole pinto beans, while perfectly acceptable for restaurant nachos, are, well, just that: acceptable.  Why not elevate nachos beyond the acceptable and predictable?  This recipe calls for black beans, which you can cook yourself and drain well before incorporating with the chorizo, or you can use good-quality canned black beans that have been rinsed and drained.  You can also substitute small red beans (not kidney beans) or borlotti beans if you can find them.  Surprisingly, black-eyed peas also work well with these nachos because of their earthy, nutty flavor.  The goal is to have a flavorful bean with a firm texture that brings as much nutritional value to the table as possible.

Other key ingredients that make Vindaloo's nachos excepcionales rise above the norm are chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, plenty of garlic, three different kinds of onion for color, flavor and texture, pickled or fresh minced jalapenos, a little chopped, seeded tomato or sweet red pepper for color, and two cheeses: queso cotija for saltiness and Monterey Jack for creaminess and tang.  Again, please try to find the freshest, best-quality ingredients you have available to you.  Nachos are a simple concept, but as with most simple foods, high quality ingredients elevate a pedestrian dish to an exquisite one.  Your tastebuds will thank you.

Savor these nachos.  And please write when you do.  Your comments are coveted.

Nachos Excepcionales

Of course, use this recipe as a starting point for your own exceptional nachos.  Sliced black or green olives, avocado, chopped roasted red pepper, chopped roasted Hatch green chile, sour cream and leftover ropa vieja are all viable additions and/or substitutions.  Salsa optional.

1 bag (about 12 oz.) Central Market tostada chips (I prefer red quinoa with flax seed or blue corn varieties)
6 to 8 oz. Mexican chorizo, casings removed (or about 3/4 cup Spanish chorizo in small dice, or an equal amount of carne adovada, shredded)
1 cup cooked black beans, drained (or one 15 oz. can of black beans, rinsed and drained)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs. white onion, minced
salt to taste
2 to 3 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced
1/2 cup minced pickled jalapenos (I prefer the acidity of pickled jalapenos for these nachos, but you can substitute 1 fresh jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and minced if you like)
3/4 cup crumbled queso cotija
1 1/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 medium tomato, seeded and diced, or 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
sour cream, salsa and/or chopped cilantro for garnish, optional 

1.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  Lay tostada chips evenly over the surface of a large baking sheet with sides.
3.)  In a medium saucepan, saute chorizo over medium heat, breaking it up with a spoon or spatula.  If using Spanish chorizo or carne adovada, you will probably need to add a little olive oil to help saute the meat without sticking.
4.)  Add black beans, minced garlic, minced onion, salt to taste and minced chipotles.
5.)  Stir mixture well and lower heat to medium-low.  Taste and correct for salt.
6.)  Cook meat and bean mixture about 5 minutes, adding water if necessary.  The mixture will clump together slightly. 
7.)  Spoon dollops of the meat and bean mixture evenly over tostada chips.
8.)  Scatter jalapenos over tostadas, meat and beans.
9.)  Scatter queso cotija and Monterey Jack cheeses over all.
10.)  Scatter diced red onions, green onions and diced tomatoes (or diced red peppers, if using) over all.
11.)  Bake for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, or until Monterey Jack cheese is melted and slightly browned on the edges.
12.)  Serve immediately, garnishing with sour cream, salsa and cilantro, if desired.  Serves two very hungry people or four people as a hearty appetizer.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A perfect "pearing" with late harvest Reisling

The Voluptuous Table hosts a wine tasting each month.  At our most recent tasting, we sampled a variety of Austrian, Alsatian and German wines, all of them lovely and charming (as were the guests).  But for many of us, I think the most memorable wine was this one:

Acclaimed as one of the most exceptional producers in Germany, the Prum family has been making wine in the Mosel region for over two centuries.  Prum family wines are true estate wines and they are very special.  "JJ Prum wines are among the most exciting and delicious Riesling wines of the Middle-Mosel...[T]he astonishing quality of Dr. Prum's wines is achieved (combined with the schist soil type) through minimal manipulation and long, slow, temperature-controlled fermentation in his world-famous cool cellar.  Prum wines are known for their longevity and slow development.  They possess full-flavored pure fruit and piquant spiciness that are characteristic of Mosel wines.  From the inimitably light Kabinetts to the rich and harmonious Spatlese to the succulent Auslese and the noble late harvest wines, this producer and region make some of the most unforgettable wines of Germany."  This information is by way of an internet wine merchant; the JJ Prum website is here for those of you planning a wine tasting trip to Germany.

To say that this wine is "succulent" is a one-dimensional description.  It is creamy, rich, spicy and has a nose full of lime and herbal notes.  This wine tastes of tropical fruit, and has that gingery, acidic finish that makes you want to have another glass as soon as possible.  There's also enough minerality to balance out all the sweetness and fruit.  In short, this wine is well balanced and in my mind, perfect for a late-harvest Reisling.  To date, it's the best I've sampled of its genre.  You can expect to pay up to $40 for this wine.  It pairs well with rich foods like avocado, crabmeat, foie gras and rich cheeses.  And it makes an excellent dessert wine.

My friend Bill the Wine Guy suggested we pair the JJ Prum with something richer and sweeter since it was the last wine on our tasting list.  He also suggested we consider something with pears and goat cheese.  This is a classic combination; but it can be very sedate and conservative.  I wanted to transform this last plate into something "off the hook," as Guy Fieri would say.

I researched several recipes, but didn't find the right flavor profiles or enough "oomph" to complement the JJ Prum.  What I eventually came up with on intuition was so lovely, I served a second round of it to my after-partiers and then felt compelled to make it again later in the week.  Even my husband, who swears that he intensely dislikes warm fruit desserts (because fruit should be cold, you know), devoured this twice.

The pears are caramelized in a skillet, then roasted briefly in the oven with their pan juices.  Then they are plated, topped with soft goat cheese blended with crushed, roasted hazelnuts, thyme and thyme honey.

But we're not finished!  The juices from the roasting pan are combined with more thyme honey, thyme and a little water and simmered briefly before drizzling over the pears.  More crushed, roasted hazelnuts are sprinkled over the pears and then...a final flourish of fleur de sel, which has the effect of making all those flavors explode in your mouth.

I plan to make this dish over and over again.  You can experiment with other herbs and nuts to suit your taste and your dessert wine.  But for the JJ Prum, I thought that this combination was total bliss.

Caramelized Roasted Pears with Goat Cheese, Thyme Honey and Toasted Hazelnuts

      This dish would also be lovely with a not-too-sweet Moscato.
2 pears, preferably Bartlett, ripe but firm to the touch
3 Tbs. butter
2 tsp. sugar
4 oz. soft goat cheese, like Montrachet or Chevre, at room temperature
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and crushed, divided
1/2 tsp. thyme, divided
4 Tbs. thyme honey (or substitute wildflower or clover honey), divided
fleur de sel

1.  Wash pears and slice lengthwise in half, leaving stem intact.
2.  Using a metal melon ball utensil or a round metal measuring spoon, gently scoop out the core and seeds from each pear half.  You should have a space about the size of a walnut.
3.  Heat the butter in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat until foaming; add the sugar and swirl the pan to distribute the sugar.
4.  Saute pear halves, cut side down, in the butter and sugar mixture for about 7 to 10 minutes, or until nicely caramelized.
5.  Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350 degrees.  
6.  Remove pears from heat and transfer, caramelized surfaces facing up, to an oven proof baking dish.
7.  Pour the cooking liquid over the pears and add 1/2 cup water to the baking dish.
8.  Bake pears for about 12 minutes, or until tender, but not mushy.
9.  While pears are baking, in a small dish, blend goat cheese with half the hazelnuts, half the thyme and half the thyme honey.  Set aside.
10.  Put remaining honey and thyme in a small saucepan and heat gently.
11.  When finished baking, remove the pears from oven and place on dessert plates, caramelized side up.
12.  With a small scoop or using two spoons to form a quenelle, divide the goat cheese mixture among the pear halves, placing it in the hollowed-out spaces.
13.  Pour the cooking liquid into the sauce pan with the honey mixture and raise heat to high to reduce liquid slightly, about 1 minute.
14.  Drizzle the honey mixture over the filled pears, dividing evenly.
15.  Sprinkle the pears with the remaining hazelnuts, dividing evenly.
16.  Sprinkle each pear with a pinch of fleur de sel.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The well-traveled refrigerator

The 20-something-year-old Kenmore refrigerator that sits in my garage, humming ominously, once purred contentedly.  This past week, it has given me several indications that it may be ready to depart this world.  Oh, you know, things such as being louder than normal and not keeping things as cold on the top shelf as it did in the crisper drawers.  Or not keeping the left side as cold as the right side.  And especially, especially, protesting noticeably after having endured 10 years of extreme Texas summer heat in a garage that remains closed much of the time.  Which sounds rather like an exasperated sigh.

My garage refrigerator, which I named Kenny, has given me many happy years of service and has traveled uncomplainingly and faithfully with me to three states since 1994.  Kenny was purchased used and made the first trip with me to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  From there it followed me across the country to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then again, further west and up two flights of stairs to Morro Bay, California.  And then down two flights of stairs and to central Texas, where it has lived in three separate residences and endured two additional moves.  It has been through a lot: cross-country travel, heat, cold, high altitude, an inexpert exterior paint job (courtesy of moi and a clumsily-wielded can of Rustoleum Appliance Epoxy), and as ever, being overstuffed and in constant daily use.  The seals on the freezer door are absolutely non-existent.  You might say that I'm hard on my appliances.  

You will notice in the picture to the left, that black cord with the hook in the lower portion of the photo is actually two rubber tie-down straps that I inherited when I bought my house.  I'm grateful they were available, since nothing else keeps the freezer door shut.

No wonder Kenny decided that it was time to give up the ghost.

Since Kenny was making a big to-do about needing to move on to the other side, Appliance Hereafter, I am graciously obliging. 

Yesterday morning, at 7:43 a.m., I made the solemn, yet hopeful journey into a neighboring town to buy a new refrigerator.  Nothing fancy, just a basic, white, as-much-cubic-feet-for-the-price-as-I-could-find refrigerator.  It's being delivered Friday afternoon, after I have spent Friday morning emptying everything into coolers and performing Vindaloo's Ultimate Refrigerator Purge and Exorcism, a process that involves shame, humiliation, disgust, a few secret rituals and perhaps some overdue personal reflection.  Yes, I really do need and use nine kinds of Thai curry pastes.  And I use and enjoy every one of those chile paste products, from Sriracha sauce to sambal oelek.  Dried shrimp paste, soup base, yuzu juice, mango pickles and Japanese plums in plum wine, also necessary for a happy existence.  Several bottles of champagne and sparkling wine.  A dozen bottles of white wine.  Dubonnet Rouge.  Beer from everywhere.  A bottle of Lillet Blanc just in case someone is feeling very James Bondish and wants a Vesper.  And I definitely like to have on hand artisan tonic water, several kinds of mineral water and those beautiful little bottles of French sodas that come in flavors like blood orange and lavender.

Because you just never know.

But what I probably do not need any longer are the jars of preserved lemons (preserved past the point of recognition), hand-pickled Habaneros that never made it out of the jar (too scary) and that jar of sweet pickle relish (for someone's potato salad recipe, somewhere, sometime) that I know is lurking back there in all its lurid greenness.  At this point, it's not worthy of gracing a hot dog.

And what I also do not need is the nerve-wracking, make-shift storage that I rigged up over the years on a wing and a prayer, either because there was no existing shelving, or because, as was the case in the middle of one fabulously wild dinner party, the shelving just plain collapsed.  Having cold cucumber soup catapult out of the refrigerator and all over the garage floor was the highlight of the evening.

So here's what I did about it:

A wire bin that I fastened to the inside of the door.  With recycled wire.

I am a firm subscriber to the "necessity is the mother of invention" philosophy.  Here are the milk crates and lids from plastic storage bins that I rigged up after the shelving collapsed.  They are resting on the (gulp!) crisper bins.  It works.

I suppose that after making such a searing exposé of the true condition of my garage refrigerator (not to mention my soul) I should be embarrassed.  But I'm not.  I do what I have to do in order to support my habits.  And as you can see, they are considerable.

I leave you with one memorable quotation from a very dear friend: "You are not really a hoarder.  No, not really a hoarder because you actually use what you collect.  But you are a collector.  And I'm just amazed at the places you find to store your collections."

And that, my friends, was supremely comforting and validating to hear.   But I also hear that bets are out on how long it takes me to trash my new refrigerator.  

I'll keep you posted.