Posts Tagged ‘tacos’

Har gow and tacos and chaat, oh my!

April 2, 2008

My friend Lina asked me recently if I’d gotten tired of my blog. I protested that I hadn’t, but I think I had, just a bit. But I recently spent a long weekend in San Francisco and got reinspired. I didn’t have any culinary epiphanies, despite the city’s reputation. In fact, I got seriously annoyed that my favorite bakery, Tartine, is no longer a place to have a quiet breakfast with a paper on a weekday morning. I think it was having an intense, packed weekend of opportunities to share good food with people I love, who I hadn’t seen in so long. One of those friends even ended up taking me on an all-afternoon eating tour of the East Bay.

“Zizou” (as she prefers to remain anonymous) did preliminary research, and as you can see, provided a full write-up as well. So I’m not going to repeat everything she said, just highlight my most lasting memories.

1) We went to eleven places!

2) We only ate at eight. The remaining three, we picked up food to eat later.

3) Zizou packed a cooler for stop #3, the meat counter at Café Rouge. She always carries a cooler, “just in case.”

4) I had ice cream that rivaled Il Laboratorio del Gelato and I do not say that lightly. The Catalan flavor at Ici, started by the pastry chef from Chez Panisse, was so good, I didn’t want it to end. It had a curious flavor that I didn’t recognize immediately, a mixture of anise, lemon, and something else that made it special and absolutely inimitable. I ordered it in a cup, to which Zizou said, “What! You want the cone. She’ll take the cone,” turning to the laughing ice cream scooper. She was right. The hand-rolled cone had a nugget of chocolate at the bottom.

5) Vik’s Chaat is as good as I’d hoped all that time I lived in San Francisco and never went there. I especially loved the chapati that came with the hyderabadi fish special—simple, flavorful, chewy, everything a flatbread should be.

6) Tao Yuen in Oakland’s Chinatown had crispy, not at all greasy, tofu skin rolls that I would never have believed could come out of a take-out dim sum place. I think they were 50 cents or something equally obscene.

7) We found at the Cheeseboard a bigger, pizza-only place next door to the cheese shop, with an elderly musical trio performing and young, happy Californians spilling out of the restaurant and just sitting on the grassy median in the middle of the busy two-way street. Pizza as excellent as ever. I love San Francisco when it just does its own thing and doesn’t worry whether its pizza crust lives up to some NY/New Haven ideal.

8) Taco trucks are the best, always.

I did eat dinner afterwards. I told Anne I had to eat vegetables, and she, former Midwestern carnivore, suggested we go to Greens, where I had a very simple and refreshing salad of greens, celery root, cheese, and butter beans. I was embarrassed that the waiter might think I was the kind of woman who only orders salad, but he praised my choice, saying, “Beautiful! That’s my favorite salad!” I was in such a good mood, I only giggled quietly and was thankful for all that the Bay Area had bestowed upon me that day.

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Bragging about my soup

September 6, 2007

One of the things I love most about my friend Mimi is that she does not believe in hiding one’s light under a bushel. Hanging around her, it has started to rub off on me, and I can say, without hesitation, that I made a fantastic black bean soup the other night, and that I also made tacos of chicken and Mexican greens in a tomatillo-serrano sauce were both complex and soothingly delicious.

Of course, I have to admit that neither was very hard to make. Both recipes came from Rick Bayless’s “Mexican Kitchen,” and involved little more than patience and a good blender, though the availability of authentic ingredients like avocado leaves and Oaxacan chorizo was no small matter.

The black bean soup involved so little work, it’s almost embarrassing. I put Mimi to work picking out the ugly beans, while I roughly chopped a small white onion and peeled the casing off of three fat, round links of Oaxacan chorizo. I also toasted 4 avocado leaves very briefly on the burner, watching with fascination as dark spots spread almost instantly and completely across the leaf. Everything got simmered together for about two hours, until the beans were tender, and then salted to taste. I blended the soup in batches, and we ate it garnished with fried tortilla strips and crumbled queso fresco. There was no stock! And yet so much flavor came from the chorizo, the beans, and the unique anise-like scent of the avocado leaves. It was slightly spicy, in a deep, dark way, and utterly warming.

The chicken in tomatillo sauce had a completely different flavor, all brightness and verve. I began by roasting tomatillos and 2 serrano chiles on a metal comal, directly on the stove, until they had big, dark, soft spots. In the meantime, I sautéed half a white chopped onion until deep golden, adding some chopped garlic to cook for a minute more, and then blended the onions and garlic with the roasted tomatillos and chiles. This puree got fried in oil for 10 minutes, getting darker and richer. When it was done cooking, I stirred in 3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro.

In the meantime, I was simmering three chicken legs in plain water. I had been nervous about buying unrefrigerated chicken in the markets, and had wandered around for 2 hours looking for a rotisserie chicken, but in the end, I felt so lucky I had had a chance to cook those marigold-yellow chickens in the market. I didn’t put in an onion or a carrot, peppercorns or thyme, too lazy to try to make a real broth, and I even pulled off the skin in a fit of fat-consciousness, but nothing I could do could make the chicken taste bad. To think I just boiled the darn things! And yet they were meaty with flavor. Now that I think about it, chicken in the U.S. so rarely tastes like meat, it just tastes like filler or a flavor vehicle. When I think of all those people who only eat chicken, and even then only white meat, I have to blame them for creating a market for flavorless gum.

While the chicken finished poaching, I added thin strips of amaranth leaves, or quintoniles, in the tomatillo-serrano sauce, until they were only slightly bitter. I almost felt like they took on a bright tartness of their own. When I added the cooked, shredded chicken, the richness of the meat rounded out the tartness of the greens and sauce. All it needed was a little crumbled queso fresco.

We also had a salad of jicama, mango, and avocado, with some red leaf lettuce to bulk it up. Mimi and I ate most of it, as Alex didn’t even notice we had a salad until he was full of soup and chicken. (Thanks to them both for the glamorous close-ups; I was too frazzled to take photos.)

Tacos in the crisp mountain air!

August 29, 2007

One of the things I love most about Mexico is how good food can just happen to you, right when you least expect it.

Last Wednesday, I got in a car at 7:30 in the morning to go with two Puente staff members to a town far, far away in the mountains, one of the communities they work with. They were going to check in on how the amaranth was growing, give advice to the farmers, and then lead a cooking with amaranth workshop. It was gorgeous country, but for the first time in my life, I felt carsick with every U-shaped curve. So when we stopped in Ayutla, a larger town on the way to Tejas, they asked if I wanted some breakfast. I stumbled out of the car, thinking, “Okay, something hot to drink might be good,” but that there was no way I could actually eat anything.

And then we sat down at a fonda that declared, with multiple exclamation points, that they had “caldo de pancita.” It smelled so good, suddenly my nausea went away and my appetite returned. I tried to figure out what “pancita” is, and in the end, I decided it must be some kind of beef belly, as it was lovely and smooth, soft and chewy at the same time. Garnished with some raw chopped onions, spicy chopped “chiles de canario” that were bright yellow with black seeds, and a spoonful or two of salsa, the soup made me instantly feel better. (But I don’t have photos because I felt too ill getting out of the car to think of documenting anything.)

On the way back, they asked again, “Should we stop to eat or just go home as quickly as possible?” Again, I wasn’t really hungry, but then one of them said, “Mmmm, tacos de tripa, que sabrosos,” and the question was answered. I started with two, one of tripe and one of “suadero,” which isn’t in my dictionary,” and then couldn’t resist and ordered two more, another suadero and one of “maciza,” which I think is some sort of thigh meat of beef. I don’t know if it was the cool mountain air, but they were so good! This time, I had my camera, but I kept forgetting to take a picture in my eagerness to eat. I finally managed to remember to take a photo of my very last taco.

It’s funny, Pola the agronomist asked me if I was vegetarian, because nearly all the volunteers are vegetarian. Ha ha ha ha! Given the type of American who comes to Oaxaca, Oaxacans must think all Americans are liberal, Bush-hating vegetarians. And even I am two out of three.

Tacos of picadillo, a.k.a., delicious shredded pork

August 21, 2007

The Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, just a little north of Quetzalcoatl with its bright green entrances on both Porfirio Diaz and Tinoco y Palacios, is probably my favorite everyday market in Oaxaca. It’s not as overwhelming as the Mercado Abastos, or as colorful as Mercado Juarez, and it doesn’t have the steamy meat market-slash-taco stands of Mercado 20 de noviembre, but it feels like a neighborhood market, and increasingly, like my neighborhood market. It’s smaller than the ones closer to the zocalo described in the all the guidebooks, and on a weekday afternoon, you might even think it was half-empty. But every Saturday and Sunday morning, it’s bustling with people buying fresh blandas, flowers, tamales, all kinds of produce, various jugos, and even some barro verde, the pottery with the dark green glaze. Unlike the surly people at Mercado Juarez, the people at Mercado Sanchez don’t mind if you handle and pick your fruit yourself. Because it’s smaller, you can also see more clearly where people are clustering to buy their chicken or pork and gauge which carnicerias have the freshest meat. It’s also easier to notice who has criollo tomatoes, those heirloom tomatoes that have so much more flavor, or even criollo avocados with their enormous pits and a high, clean taste, if somewhat less rich and creamy in flavor. (You can find some fantastic photos from Planeta.com.)

This past Sunday, after a fortifying breakfast of chocolatle atole and empanadas, I enlisted my Spanish teacher and friend Lety to help in sussing out the best places to get the ingredients for the picadillo pork tacos I planned to make that afternoon. She pointed in one direction to indicate her favorite carniceria, but from across the market, I misjudged where she was pointing and had already started talking to a woman in a very smelly stand when she came over and whispered, “I meant that one.” I murmured my apologies, pretending I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, and we quietly scurried all the way to the other end of the meat section.

I didn’t know if I could literally translate English phrases for pork cuts into Spanish, if pork shoulder is “espalda” or “pierna” or something completely different, so to our new butcher, I just asked for the cut of meat that had a lot of “grasa” or fat. “Ah, espaldita!” he said. He proudly showed off the layer of fat glistening on the piece of pork, and Lety nodded with approval. Later, when I asked her if I should trim some of the fat off before we cooked it, she said, “But that will remove the flavor!” God, I love Mexico.

After seeing the “picadillo” recipe in Rick Bayless’s cookbook last weekend, I had spent all week just thinking about it, when and where I should buy the meat, whether I should cook it on Saturday or Sunday. I had read the recipe over and over, charmed by the thought of taking shredded, cooked pork shoulder, and then browning it, scraping it up as it stuck to the pot, with chopped onion, a handful of raisins, a handful of chopped almonds, a little cinnamon, an even smaller pinch of freshly ground cloves, and a roasted tomato-pasilla oaxaquena sauce. But I’d never even tried it, so I was thankful to have Lety there to say, “Oh, it looks a little dry,” or “Add a little sugar.”

The picadillo was as easy as promised, even though it took about 2 and half hours to make, to simmer the pork shoulder with all its fat, to grind the cloves in a little molcajete, to chop and toast the almonds, to make the sweet smoky salsa, and then to cook it all together. But it was very laid-back cooking, though there was a moment when I realized trying to understand Spanish and chop almonds at the same time is the kind of multi-tasking that is yet beyond me. But otherwise, we chatted easily as she told me about the terrible people at her workplace and I told her about the horrible blind date I went on before I left New York.

Lety even showed me how to make horchata:

1) Carefully clean and wash about 1 cup of rice. Let it soak in water about 2 inches above the rice with some broken canela, the equivalent probably of 2 American cinnamon sticks. Let it sit for about 2 hours, until the rice gets soft enough that you can pinch a kernel in half.

2) Blend everything in the blender as smooth as possible.

3) Strain into a pitcher, reserving any rice-cinnamon paste for “atole de arroz.” (I only had a strainer, but I imagine a cheesecloth would be better.)

4) Add water and sugar to taste. Make sure to stir it up immediately before pouring it into a glass, as some sediment will sink to the bottom.

Incredibly clean and pure. I can totally see myself doing this in Brooklyn on a hot summer day. Other recipes I’ve seen say that you should add ground almonds, and I imagine that would be wonderful, too, as well as some pureed bright red, tiny cactus fruits with their prickly armor of skin.

I chopped up some jicama, radishes, avocado, and pickled jalapeno for garnish and heated up some of this week’s pot of black beans while Lety warmed and wrapped the tortillas in a towel. With the bright pink pitcher of horchata and a little leftover mezcal, we had a very colorful feast.

And the picadillo I liked as much as last Sunday’s supper of greens, onions, and cheese tacos. It wasn’t at all spicy—which Lety assured me was normal—but it had such a range of flavors, from smoky to rich to slightly sweet and nutty. It was complex and yet easily appealing, almost as warming as Lety’s company. Definitely one to add to the taco buffet dinner I intend to host when I get back to New York.

Tacos of garlicky greens and cheese, plus beans

August 15, 2007

There are several things that make cooking in Mexico very different from cooking in my Brooklyn apartment:

• Stoves that won’t turn down to low
• No oven
• Cheap, thin pots and pans with uneven bottoms that make the hot stove even less forgiving
• Garlic that comes in tiny, intense cloves and only white onions, rawer and better for Mexican cooking, but not complex
enough for Italian pasta sauces
• Not enough bowls
• I miss my good chef’s knife!

Still, there are quite a few advantages. Last Saturday, I cooked a pot of black beans, practically cackling with glee that I had epazote, which Rick Bayless says to use “if you can get it.” They were the best beans I’ve ever made, if not the best I’ve ever tasted, tender but with distinction, full-bodied with the incomparable flavor of epazote, and so easy, as all I had to do was boil up a cup of beans in water covering them with a sprig of epazote for two hours, adding more water when necessary and a bit of salt near the end. They didn’t even need to be pre-soaked! I may cook a pot of beans every weekend while I’m here. And if I can smuggle some fresh epazote past customs and into my Le Creuset dutch oven in Brooklyn, they might be even better than they were in the cheap, thin, misshaped pot I had to use, though admittedly, there may be some special risks to smuggling packages of herbs and weeds from Mexico into the U.S.

On Sunday, I decided to make a lunch of tacos, of garlicky greens and fried onions, from my beloved Rick Bayless cookbook. Most of his recipes are eminently and invitingly doable, but with my crappy stove and my reluctance to stock up on all kinds of spices, I’ve decided to stick to simple dishes and try making at least one kind of salsa a week, which is still an exciting goal.

I started by making Bayless’s Yucatecan simmered salsa of roasted tomatoes and fresh peppers, substituting serranos for the habaneros I couldn’t find. I roasted the tomatoes on a metal comal covered in foil right on top of the stove, until the skins were black and splitting open. After peeling them the best I could, I threw them in the blender. In the meantime, I sautéed chopped white onions until dark gold and sweet. I added the pureed tomatoes and two chiles, halved. It wasn’t as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still such a joy to spoon it up, to remember with such brightness how delicious tomatoes could be. I wonder if this is what it’s like to fall in love again with someone you’ve been married to for 20 years.

For the greens, I had some fresh green chard from the organic market. That got washed, sliced into ribbons, and then blanched for a minute or two in boiling water. Then I thinly sliced white onions and sautéed them until dark and sweet, threw in some chopped garlic, and then the chard until it was warmed through, adding a bit of salt. Meanwhile, the black beans from the day before were reheating in another pot.

I even walked to “Las Delicias de Etla” on Independencia, past the Basilica de la Nuestra Soledad, for my cheese to try to ensure that the queso fresco I bought was truly “fresco” from Etla, where all great Oaxacan cheese is born.

Ah, the juggling of pots and pans! The mug I had to fill with crumbled cheese, the juice glass with salsa! My little sink was overflowing. But I sprinkled queso fresco all over the beans and greens, made sure my blandas, the big floppy tortillas, were warm, and sat down for a very good meal. It was so satisfying, and almost surprising to taste the sweet onions mixed in the slightly bitter, strong flavor of the chard. The beans were even better reheated, and the salsa added a tang that would otherwise have been missed. It was simple meal, despite the number of burners I had going at one point, but it was the best thing I could have eaten on that Sunday afternoon. It felt so good to be cooking again!

This weekend, I’m going to make shredded pork tacos with a tomato-chipotle salsa.

Tacos Alvaro

August 8, 2007

Impressive, no?

The chile-turkey is sitting on top of a refrigerator case of sodas at Tacos Alvaro on Porfirio Diaz at the corner of Quetzalcoatl.

They serve quite good tacos, from 2 pm until late at night, which I would describe in greater detail, except I can’t quite remember whether I ate “buche” or “trompa,” which my dictionary both translate as “mouth” or “maw,” but I’m sure the waiter said one of them was some sort of innards, “como tripa.” Erin and I had the “al pastor” and “carnitas” each, and one was very good and the other very strange, so strange to be inedible even to us, but I can’t remember which was which either.

We were tired after being in the sun and rain all day for Guelaguetza, and on our way to our all-night bus ride to Puerto Escondido, please forgive me.