The Great Taco Fiesta of 2014

I don’t like to cook things with a lot of ingredients. Most of my recipes consist of little more than olive oil, salt, and pepper, which means that I don’t do much in terms of more adventurous cuisine.

But when I throw my dinner party gauntly of “a protein and a vegetable” at a guest of honor and he comes back with “chicken and tomatillos,” I don’t exactly have many choices OTHER than something resembling Mexican food, do I?

Thus the great Taco Fiesta of 2014.

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I really must say, my favorite part of the entire meal wound up being the dish I decided to make last—the carne asada. It’s amazing what a good mortar and pestle can do.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds flank steak (I actually wound up using a sirloin because the choices at my local Whole Foods were ATROCIOUS and the last minute nature of the dish meant I hadn’t had time to acquire my beef of choice from Blue Rooster)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
  • A large handful of cilantro (parsley works, too, if you’re cilantro averse like me)
  • Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 1 orange, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil

I went with a carne asada recipe that wasn’t actually in How to Cook Everything, and that utilized a mojo as a marinade.

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In a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, salt, and pepper until they come together in a paste. Make sure you use a healthy pinch of salt, which will act as a much needed abrasive here. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can use a bowl and a fork (and some additional elbow grease). But you should probably just get a mortar and pestle.

Add the juice of one of the limes to the mortar and pestle, if you’re having trouble getting things paste-like. Then put the paste, vinegar, orange juice, and your remaining lime juice into a jar and shake. This can be used as a sauce on the table, but I dumped it directly over the steak (which I’d let rest outside of the fridge for about 20 minutes and then nestled into a just-barely-big-enough casserole dish) and let that sit in the fridge for just over an hour. The longer you let that soak, the better, as is generally the case with marinades, but DON’T got for over night, or the acidic elements will turn your steak into mush. And nobody wants that.

Alas, I lacked access to an outdoor grill, so I relied on a stove top ceramic grill pan instead. But the same rules apply. Let the pan get properly, roaringly hot, because a good sear makes all the difference when you’re talking steak. Coat the grates in a decent layer of olive oil (it shouldn’t be pooling, but it also shouldn’t be burning straight off) and pull the steak out of the mojo, removing any larger bits that could burn and throw off the searing. Salt and pepper each side generously, then place on the grill pan.

This should make a big noise. That’s how you know your pan is hot enough.

Sear the steak, cooking for 7 to 10 minutes on each side and turning only once. If it’s a thicker cut and you’re not the type who likes your steak to moo when you cut into it, finish it with another 5 to 7 minutes in an oven (heated to 350 degrees). I did this with the sirloin, and poured the remaining mojo over to keep it from drying out.

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Then remove it from the pan and let the steak rest on a cutting board for at 5 to 10 minutes, to avoid losing all the delightful juices. Then cut it taco sized—either in long thing strips or small cubes.

I also made shredded chicken to fill the tacos, but I honestly wound up deviating so much from the recipe that I don’t even really remember what actually wound up in the dish. It was slowed cooked close to perfection, though, which made for tasty tacos. There were also some relatively self-explanatory grilled mangos and Brett made guacamole, so I’ll skip those too.

The fresh tomato salsa I made, however, and it turned out fantastically, if I do say so myself.

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Ingredients

  • 4 large ripe, fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 1 large white onion, chopped (fine)
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • hot red pepper flakes or cayenne, to taste
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped fine
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • salt and pepper to taste

All the work on this one is done in the chopping. If your pieces are too big, you’ll throw off the dip-ability of your salsa. Large chunks of parsley won’t make anyone happy. Speaking of parsley, I went halvesies on the parsley and cilantro, but you can also just use 1 cup’s worth of one or the other.

Combine everything but the salt, pepper, and pepper flakes/cayenne. Combine, and then add your seasonings in small pinches, tasting as you go until you hit the level of spice you want. And voila, you’re done.

The Tomatillo Salsa (the bright green saucey thing from the first photo) isn’t that different.

Ingredients

  • 2 medium pablano or other mild green chilies
  • About a pound of tomatillos, husked and chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • salt and pepper

It’s another chop and combine deal here. Because I had the tomato salsa and the guacamole, I decided to take it to the next level and ran it all through the food processor so it was more liquid. It made a nice point of comparison. I added less spice to the tomatillo salsa (so you could actually taste the tomatillos, which you probably don’t every day) and then pumped up the tomato salsa.

But the real surprise of the evening was my one-pot-wonder rice and beans—which, apparently, we all found too tasty to photograph…

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 cup dried blackbeans, washing, picked over, and soaked
  • 1 ½ cups long grain rice
  • 1 cup chopped tomato
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley

Put the oil in a large ovenproof pot over medium heat. I used a massive cast iron, and it all worked out fine, but this dish swells, so make sure you’re giving yourself some extra room here.

When hot, add the onion, bell peppers, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft. You can get this done in about 5 minutes, but I gave mine a bit longer (probably closer to 10) to deepen the flavor. Add the beans and cover with water. Bring to the whole thing to a boil, then turn the heat down to low so that the mixture bubbles gently. Cover loosely and cook, stirring occasional and adding water as necessary, until the beans are about half done (softening, but still tough in the middle). This takes about 40 minutes to an hour, and requires tending. Check every 10 minutes or so, adding water if it’s running dry or if the beans start to stick.

When the beans are softened, turn the oven to 350 degrees.

Ladle about a quarter to a half of the beans into a shallow dish. Use a form or a potato masher to semi puree (meaning, smash). There’s some science here, about releasing enzymes that catalyze been cooking or some such. But I mostly chalk it up to magic and leave it at that.

Stir in the rice, tomato, and a good amount of salt and pepper. Then pop the now-incredinly-heavy pan into the oven and bake until the rice and beans are tender, about an hour, adding a little water as needed. Again, keep an eye on this. If you’re not attentive with the water, your rice is going to stay crispy, which is a trait you should leave for the nice crust that will develop on the top of the dish, not for the rice throughout.

Taste to see if you need to add salt and pepper, sprinkle with a healthy handful and parsley, and serve up the whole thing straight from the pan.

This was super delicious but made A LOT of food, so if you’re cooking for a pair rather than a group and wind up with a lot of this leftover, put it in a airtight containers and freeze in lunch portions.

Add a variety of your favorite hot sauces, hard and soft taco shells, cheese, and you’ve got a party.  

I’ll leave the quick pickles and the sautéed olives that completed the meal to another day. They were good, but realistically, a lot of my anxiety about the meal was concentrated in the recipes above. But thankfully this taco fiesta didn’t become a taco fiasco.  

Telling my most valuable secret

I’m sorry, dear readers.

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After a strong Week 1, I’ve fallen victim to the omnipresent forces that have thwarted my blogging in the past. But I’m going to try to better now, I promise.

And to show that I’m serious, I’m going to teach you how to roast a chicken, which is basically my greatest joy in life. This recipe isn’t from How to Cook Everything. I’ve sort of just been developing for a couple of years now.

I’m almost hesitant to show you how. Once people see how easy this actually is, I’m concerned no one will think my little poultry masterpieces are actually that impressive. I’ll just have to up my game to make sure that doesn’t happen.

This variation includes caper butter and fennel (which was a bit of a whim but turned out smashing), but you can use basically anything to flavor a chicken. Some of my pretty obvious favorites: rosemary & lemon, a Provençal mirepoix, sage (and citrus, if that’s what you’re into), roasted garlic, mustard (Dijon, mostly, but whole grain situations could be interesting), etc etc.

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Ingredients

2 bulbs fennel, sliced

1 small onion, cut into chunks

4-6 carrots, sliced

About half a stick of butter

2 tablespoons capers, roughly chopped

One 3-5 pound chicken

Salt

Pepper

The better the chicken at the beginning of this process, the better the final product. That goes for all of the ingredients you use (ever, really, but particularly here). The process is so simple that you’re really reliant on good things being good.

That being said, if you’re using a chicken that’s more than 6 pounds, it’s probably stuffed full of steroids. Avoid that.

Heat your oven to 425 degrees and take your chicken out of the fridge. Give it somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes to get close to room temperature.

Toss the sliced fennel, onion, and carrots into a baking dish (I typically go glass, but ceramic is fine too. I usually reserve metal for the larger birds, though), and sprinkle on a couple pinches of salt and a healthy showing of freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle the roasting vegetables in a few tablespoons of olive oil, to avoid charring. Spread all the vegetables out into an even layer in the bottom of the dish, making sure that there are no holes. The vegetables act as a roasting rack here, and it’s important to keep the chicken from touching the bottom of the dish, for heat circulation purposes and all.

Cut the butter into cubes and place into a small bowl. You want your butter to be pliable, because you’re basically going to spread it like lotion all over the chicken. You can usually accomplish this by placing the small bowl on the stovetop as your oven heats, or microwaving the butter for 10-15 seconds. When it’s mushy, toss in the chopped capers and mash them into the butter using a fork. You can also use herbs at this stage, or nothing at all, depending on what you’re using as flavoring. At the very least, this is where I add some more black pepper. Salt comes into play in a bit, but at this stage, you should put a palm’s worth into a small bowl.

The verdict is out on rinsing the chicken. I tend to do it, but mostly because I use organic chickens that generally still have bits and pieces clinging to the inside cavity, and I just prefer to handle those at the start. I also douse my entire sink and counter in some serious cleaner afterwards, though.

It is now time to get up close and personal with your bird.

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Place the chicken on top of the vegetables in the baking dish. You want to get the butter mixture EVERYWHERE. Top and bottom, paying special attention to the legs and wings. Don’t forget to get up under the skin, too, to keep your bird moist. I usually throw a couple of pieces of the roasting vegetables under the skin of the breast (this works particularly well with the fennel and onions, but if I was going for an herb chicken, I’d also make sure that some springs of the rosemary/thyme/sage/whatever I was using were lodged under the skin as well) and inside the cavity.

Once you’ve got the butter all up on that chicken, take pinches of salt and massage them into the meat. Think of this as exfoliating your chicken. Use the salt as an abrasive to really increase your flavor quotient. Salt also makes the skin of the chicken crispy, so if you’re into that, add an extra pinch to the breast and legs.

Once that’s all done, wash your hands. Then put the baking dish—uncovered—on the top rack of your oven. You don’t want it too close to the top heating element, because the chicken will cook unevenly, but you want it near enough to develop nice color.

And then you basically just leave the chicken alone for an hour and a half. I usually check on it after an hour, to make sure nothing’s burning. Depending on the roasting vegetables you’re using and whether you’ve gone with butter or olive, you might want to have a cup of chicken stock on hand, should the roasting vegetables burn easily (less necessary with potatoes and carrots, more important if you’re going the fennel route, for instance). You can also use wine, and since you should really have a nice bottle on hand for your glorious dinner anyway, it’s a convenient option. If the bottom of the pan is looking too dry when you check it, just add enough stock or wine to the baking dish to loosen up the vegetables. Then give it another 20 minutes to finish roasting.

Timing here can be flexible depending on the size of the chicken. If you’re using a smaller bird, you’ll want to check for doneness after an hour. You can use a fancy meat thermometer, or you can carefully cut into the leg joint. If the juices run clear, you’re ready to go. If they’re still pinkish, you’ve got some time left. I also tend to make a small cut along to the breast bone to check the texture there, too, not necessarily for doneness but to see if it’s worth ladling some of the pan dripping over the top to keep that part of the chicken moist as the rest finishes cooking.

When you’re done, pull the dish out of the oven and let the chicken hang out for about 10 to 15 minutes. This also gives you time to really revel, because there are few things as satisfying as a whole roast bird, in my opinion. Then carve it up according to your cut preferences and go to town.

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You can do fancy things, like convert the drippings into a pan gravy, but if it’s not too oily, I generally use the drippings straight as a sauce. Heartier roasting vegetables, like potatoes, can double as a side dish.

And that’s that. Now you know my most valuable secret, save for a couple of my favorite pro tips. But really it’s a matter of feeling. The more often you go whole bird, the better you’ll get at figuring out timing and flavors. 

Some simple Saturday morning sweetness

I can’t say no to strawberries that look as good as the ones coming out of my farmers market these days. So this morning, after a rainy market, I decided to make something that would celebrate the first official day of summer in a nice, easy way. 

That’s where the ricotta came in. I indulged and picked up some fresh ricotta from a local dairy at Whole Foods, and my favorite thing to do with that is to basically eat it straight, because why change perfection, anyway. But some slight enhancements didn’t disappoint. 

Fresh Ricotta with Summer Strawberries & Fresh Mint

Ingredients

Somewhere between a half a cup to a whole cup of fresh ricotta

1/2 tablespoon(ish) clover honey

1/2 teaspoon(ish) high quality olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

3-5 finely diced strawberries

1 sliced strawberry to garnish

It’s a pretty simple process here. Add the honey to the ricotta, adjusting for sweetness. You really don’t need that much, unless you’re going for something way more dessert-like than what I was looking for. Then add the olive oil. I know it sounds sort of weird, but it provides a nice richness and cuts the sweetness for a nice balance. Mix all that up, then toss in the diced strawberries and chopped mint. Garnish with the strawberry slices, if you’re into that, and serve right away.