tweaking taco night

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I’ve been gravitating toward far simpler food during this pregnancy. Though I’m in the home stretch now, my appetite still comes and goes, and the only dishes that reliably work for me these days are straight-up comfort food, meals that are strongly evocative of my youth: simple pastas, mac and cheese, and Mexican food by way of Eagle Pass, Texas and Detroit, Michigan.

I grew up with taco night – and I’m willing to bet many of you did, too. And despite my heritage, I’m also willing to bet our taco night looked pretty much the same as yours: that familiar cardboard box of crispy taco shells, the packet of dry seasonings to mix with ground beef, little bowls of crunchy lettuce and diced tomato alongside. It was an easy weeknight dinner, a meal we all loved, and while I haven’t bought a “taco kit” in years, I still find myself craving those flavors and that satisfying crunch.

But I’m trying to pack as many vegetables as possible into my meals, too, both for the nutrition they bring to the table, and because everything at the market is just so good right now – and that’s how a recent taco craving morphed into this salad. It’s got a little bit of everything I wanted – crisp and crunchy vegetables, savory meat and beans, sweet summer corn, and a creamy, smoky dressing, punctuated with salty strips of crackly baked tortillas. This is a late summer salad that combines some of the best tastes of childhood with the fresh, bright flavors of the season.

taco (salad) night

my favorite taco salad (serves 4 as a main dish)
several leaves crisp romaine or butter lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
seasoned ground beef (recipe below)
1.5 cups drained, cooked beans – black or red, just make sure they taste good
½ cup shredded cheddar or monterey jack cheese
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
1 cup fresh corn kernels – off the cob
1 cup zucchini – cut into matchstick slices
1 cup seeded and diced fresh tomato
½ c sliced scallions/green onions
½ c sliced black olives
crispy tortilla strips (recipe below)
creamy cotija dressing (recipe below)

Place a layer of lettuce leaves on a big platter (or on individual plates). Using a slotted spoon, add a layer of the seasoned ground beef, then the beans. Sprinkle grated cheese over. Layer on the remaining ingredients, drizzling a bit of the dressing on as you go, and finishing with the crispy tortilla strips. Serve with additional dressing alongside.

seasoned ground beef
1 T neutral oil (I like to use grapeseed)
½ cup finely grated white or yellow onion
kosher or sea salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 t ground cumin
1 t dried marjoram
½ t ground chipotle
½ t cayenne pepper
½ t smoked paprika
½ t sweet paprika
1 lb. lean ground beef (I use a locally-farmed Angus that is 90% lean)

Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook until softened. Add the garlic and spices, and cook a few more minutes, until fragrant. Crumble the beef into the skillet and stir to coat with the spice mixture. Continue cooking until the meat is well-browned, adjusting the salt and other seasonings to taste. Set aside until ready to use.

crispy tortilla strips

crispy tortilla strips
6 corn tortillas
1-2 T neutral oil
kosher or sea salt

Preheat oven to 400. Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Stack the tortillas and cut them into ¼-inch thick strips. Scatter strips on the baking sheet, and toss with oil. Toss again, then back, tossing occasionally, until crisp and browned, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and set aside until using.

creamy cotija dressing
juice of ½ lime
¼ t kosher or sea salt
⅓ cup prepared mayonnaise
⅓ cup creme fraiche (or sour cream)
½ cup finely grated cotija (or pecorino) cheese
½ t smoked paprika

Combine the lime juice and salt in a small bowl, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Add the mayo, creme fraiche or sour cream, the grated cheese, and paprika, and whisk until well-combined. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Refrigerate until ready to use.

pico de gallo

feeding a family

tomatoes at market

It seems like just yesterday that we were bleary-eyed parents of a newborn, struggling to figure out how to keep this tiny little dependent creature fed and clean and happy, while taking care of ourselves, too. We didn’t have family nearby, and we had a very limited amount of freezer space, so we ate a lot of sandwiches from the deli down the street, and a lot of what I call “stuff on toast” – sardines and avocado, ricotta and jam, pretty much anything we could prepare quickly and eat one-handed.

peppers, pickled

We’ll be in that situation again soon, this time with a hungry toddler to feed as well, and you’d better believe Mike and I are already talking strategy, testing out new one-dish meals, and planning a rotation of things we can have around to keep us all nourished and happy. Some local friends of ours, whose son is one of Julian’s buddies, are in the same boat, having just welcomed a new baby girl to the world. Some of the other neighborhood moms had the wonderful idea to organize a sort of “meal train”, with everyone signing up for a night and taking over a meal to the family, and of course we were happy to contribute.

pico de gallo

My original thought was to send over a roast chicken dinner, which is great hot or cold and is so versatile – but with temperatures on our selected day still in the 90s, something a bit fresher and brighter seemed more appropriate. And since our friends said they were pretty much game for anything, I thought a taco dinner would be fun.

whole lotta brisket

I picked up a 5 lb. slab of brisket and braised it low and slow in the oven for the better part of a day in a mix of mild chiles, smoky spices, and a splash of coffee, then I carved the super-tender meat into shreds and chunks. I reduced the braising liquid by about half on the stovetop, returning the meat to the sauce and finishing it with a good hit of fresh lime juice.

borrachos

I made a big pot of Borrachos with some Cayuga Farm pinto beans and home-pickled jalapenos, and a big pot of Mexican rice as well. We had a ton of juicy, ping pong ball-sized tomatoes from the farmers’ market that made a terrific pico de gallo, and a wee head of red cabbage that I shredded for a cilantro and lime-spiked slaw.

care package

I packaged everything up and packed it into a tote with some soft tortillas, fresh lime wedges, and some beer for the grown-ups.

brisket tacos

I set aside a little of everything for us, too. Quality control is important.

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Mike and Julian took our care package over early the next day, and Mike reports the food (and beer) were very much appreciated. I’m just happy we could make one of those early, bleary-eyed days with a new baby a little easier for our friends.

Borrachos, remixed

Dinner: March 15, 2010

It’s funny how a humble dish you grew up with can make a big splash when you share it with friends. I first posted about these “drunken” beans years ago on a group food blog I contributed to, and I recently revisited the recipe for food52’s “Your Best Recipe for Beans” challenge. Since then, and to my delight, these soupy, homey beans have gained some new fans. These really are a go-to dish for me – they’re a breeze to prepare, they’re inexpensive, and they are a great option when you need to serve a crowd. They can be made in advance (in fact I think they taste even better after a day or two), and they hold beautifully in a slow cooker or a heavy pot in a low oven. They’re as good with summer barbecue or burgers as they are alongside heartier winter fare like enchiladas or roast chicken, and they stand alone quite nicely with a stack of warmed tortillas alongside.

True Vermont Cranberry Beans

We are lucky to have had great dried heirloom beans from Freedom Bean Farm in Maine available at our farmers’ market earlier in the season, and I stocked up to get us through the winter months. My favorite beans for this dish are a variety called True Vermont Cranberry Beans, a smallish, red-mottled bean with a tender bite, but you can certainly use whatever variety of dried beans you have available. Pinto beans, borlotti beans, and the like all work extremely well. (Rancho Gordo is a great online source of heirloom beans.)

For this latest version, I decided to skip the pork entirely, omitting the bacon and its rendered fat, instead adding some of my favorite spices – ground chipotle powder and smoked Spanish paprika – to mimic the smoky depth the bacon would impart. I used olive oil here to soften the onion, but any vegetable oil will do. I asked my pork-loving husband to taste them before even telling him what I had done differently, and he had no clue they were meat-free.

I use my own home-pickled Serrano chiles in this dish, but if you don’t make your own, feel free to use canned green chiles from your local grocery. I like my borrachos with a little zip, but if you’re sensitive to heat, you can of course dial back on the amount of chipotle and chile peppers (or serve the pickled chiles alongside so guests can add them to taste).

Borrachos, Vegan Variation

1 pound dried Pinto or other small pink/red beans
6 cups water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
½ to 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano or dried marjoram
2-3 canned pickled whole Jalapeño or Serrano chiles, plus 2-3 tablespoons of the spicy brine
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
1 bottle amber or dark beer
Kosher salt
Juice of one lime, about 1 oz.

Pick over the beans to remove any stones or debris, and place them in a large pot. Add 6 cups of cold tap water, cover the pot, and bring it to a boil. Let boil for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the beans stand, undrained, for an hour. (Note: the beans should be fairly tender at this point, though older beans may need more soaking time.)

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering.
Add the onion to the pot with a pinch of salt and cook until softened. Add the garlic cloves, chipotle powder, smoked paprika, and the oregano or marjoram, rubbing the dried herb between your palms to crumble it a bit, and cook until fragrant. Add the beans with their cooking liquid, then add the tomatoes, the beer, the chile(s) and the chile brine.

Bring the beans up to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook, partially covered, for 1 to 1½ hours, stirring occasionally and tasting to adjust salt as needed. Stir in the lime juice just before serving, then ladle into bowls.

Comfort Me with Tacos

I know, I know, Mexican again. I’m feeling overwhelmed by life this week, and when that happens inspiration goes out the window and I just want something comforting and familiar.

Dinner:  September 15, 2009

These are comprised of the other half of a hunk of beef bottom round I bought over the weekend, marinated with lime, seared, and sliced paper thin, then topped with diced tomato, avocado, jack cheese, red cabbage, scallions and lime crema. I had some leftover Rancho Gordo pintos in the fridge, to which I added some of my pickled serranos for a little extra punch. Good enough for a Tuesday.

Stuffed

inside

I love a good, authentic chile relleno as much as anyone, but as Nick over at The Paupered Chef learned, they can be very time- and labor-intensive. But when a craving hits and you just happen to have some chile-braised pork left over, you can bang out a reasonable facsimile pretty easily on a weeknight.

chiles, charred and steaming

For my simplified version, I charred my peppers over a gas flame and placed them in a plastic bag to steam, then warmed up my shreddy pork in a small sauté pan. For the sauce, I roasted some halved plum tomatoes and peeled garlic cloves, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with a little olive oil, in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, plucking the shriveled tomato skins off when they were cool enough to touch. In the same pan which I used to re-heat the pork (don’t wipe it out – you want to use the tasty pork fat that remains in the pan), I toasted some cumin, freshly grated canela and dried Mexican oregano, then added the tomatoes and garlic, smashing them against the bottom of the pan.

roasted tomatoes and garlic

I whipped up an egg batter like the one Nick used, dipping my pork-stuffed chiles into flour before battering them and frying them in a mixture of rendered fatback and canola (I did a shallow fry in our iron skillet), turning them once and removing them to a paper towel-lined plate as they finished cooking. I pressed my chunky tomato sauce through a fine mesh strainer, spooned some onto our plates, added the chiles, some grated cheese, and served them with a side of creamy black beans.

Dinner:  September 1, 2009

I’m sure these lacked the complexity and depth of flavor of chiles stuffed with a proper picadillo, but this was a great way to use up leftover pork and satisfy my hunger for this favorite dish.

Summertime Stew

Dinner:  June 22, 2009

You wouldn’t know it by looking outside, but the official start of Summer has arrived. Mother Nature has decided to ring in the season with a heaping helping of rain, wind, and grey skies, and I am none too pleased about it. For starters, it makes meal planning a challenge – I want to be outside, grilling something fresh and light and eating it under the stars with Mike, not rummaging through the pantry for an alternate dinner that isn’t another. damned. pasta dish.

Don’t get me wrong – I love pasta, but I was desperate last night for something, anything other than old reliable pasta, and as I stood in front of the open freezer, a plan began to form. I pulled out two little zip-top bags of previously cooked Rancho Gordo posole and some homemade red chile sauce. From the fridge, I gathered homemade stock and a big bunch of beet greens, which I stemmed, chopped and rinsed. I chopped up some red onion and a hefty amount of garlic, and sauteed them until soft before adding the chile sauce to the pan to warm. The stock went in next, then the hominy, and I brought the whole thing to a boil before reducing the heat and adding the greens. When the greens were tender, I turned off the heat, tasted it for seasoning, and brightened the flavor with the addition of plenty of fresh lime juice. To dress our plates up a little, I added shavings of a tangy sheep’s milk cheese, sliced radishes, chunks of creamy avocado, and a scattering of chopped cilantro.

And that was dinner. And it was good – better, in fact, than this mishmash of leftovers had any right to be. Take that, Mother Nature.

And then…

Dinner:  May 27, 2009

And then there are weeknights when I come home, tired and achey, but too stubborn to let Mike cook, or help, or do anything more than mix us a round and keep me company while I stand at the stove. And on those nights, I turn to the familiar, the things that, while they may require a few extra pots and pans, I can almost turn out in my sleep. The chicken, mole sauce and beans were all left over from previous dinners, and last night, they got remixed into a meal of enchiladas, refried beans, and Mexican rice, as comfortable and comforting as an old sweater. Sometimes, that’s just what you need.