Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Buenas Dias! Donde Esta La Biblioteque?

Okay, so I don't know very much Spanish.  But...this week we are in Mexico, so I thought that something would be better than nothing.

This has been a hard country to work with, actually.  Harder than the previous two countries -- they were hard in the sense of, "Do you want to eat knuckles and sauerkraut stew?"  This time, things are hard for two big reasons.  First, everything looks good!!  It's been a bear of a time whittling down all of the yummy-looking recipes into seven nights of dinners.  Honestly, I wish we had this problem every week.

The second problem, though, is stickier.  Mexican food has been integrated into American life to such a degree that it's hard finding authentic Mexican recipes.  We dismissed any "Mexican" recipe that contained Velveeta, for starters.  I mean, that's just common sense.  Next, after gleaning information from the few books we could find that were helpful -- finding that chicken and pork are much more common than beef, say -- we could discern the recipes that were almost authentic, or "adapted for our modern life."  Phrases like "use 1lb of hamburger...chicken can be substituted if desired"  are a clue.  Still, "Mexican" food is so prevalent even in Northern Michigan that finding the real stuff is hard.  Kind of like hiding something in plain sight, I guess.

Handy's Market

Naturally, we had the hunt for obscure ingredients.  I took a tour through the "interesting" part of Lansing in search of queso fresco cheese and epazote leaves.  I found "Handy's Market," which is touted as small, but carrying everything Mexican...which is totally true.  I also picked up a carton of salsa "hand-made by Carol."  And it was awesome!!  As an aside...is "Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd" in the bad part of town in every city that has one?

Anyway, we started out our week with tortilla soup, portobella empanadas and  Mexican rice, on a 95-degree day in Northern Michigan.  When I got home from work, Angel had had the soup simmering, and the kitchen was like a sauna -- the Eating Like The World Kitchens do not have air conditioning, you see, so we got a glimpse of what it probably feels like to cook a full dinner on a hot Mexican evening.  At least, it felt like we did.

As the chef's prep cook, I was tasked with simple things like scalding and peeling tomatoes, and dicing an avocado.  And...I got to make the tortillas for the empanadas from scratch.  Masa harina, water and salt...that's it.  No utensils, even...my childhood joys were revisited as I squooshed my fingers through the dough.

Empanada, Mexican Rice, Tortilla Soup

The soup was a beautiful thing -- almost nothing was in the broth, a seasoned chicken broth, more or less -- but you pour it over a bowl full of chicken, avocado, tortilla strips and (for us but not the kids) a single hot chipotle pepper.  It was delicious.  The kids thought it was delicious.  My wife deemed it the best Mexican tortilla soup she's ever had, bar none.  The pepper, from a can of "chipotles en adobo sauce," added a wonderful smoky flavor and a growing sense of heat as it steeped in the broth.  I was dubious about the avocado, but they merely added creaminess.

On the other hand, the Mexican rice was a bust.  Unlike the Mexican rice or Spanish rice I've had before, this was just white rice that was simmered in a tomato puree and water.  It was bland, it was sticky, it was -- to quote a mushroom field guide -- edible but not choice.  The kids, on the other hand, liked it and had seconds.  Go figure...but at least they ate it.

The main course was a toss up among the family members.  With portabella and epazote leaves, we didn't really think the kids would like the empanadas, and we were correct.  Angel and I thought they were crispy and delicious, though.  The gouda inside them melted into the mushrooms, and mixed really nicely.  I had one later at night, and it was darned good cold...and I had them them for lunch the next day and they were just as good.


Recipes:

Mushroom Empanadas (Empanadas de Nanacates)
2 Tbs butter or oil
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1/2 lb nanacates or portobello mushrooms, finely chopped
7 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 Tbs finely chopped epazote leaves
Salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 lbs prepared masa for tortillas, or 3 cups masa harina for tortillas
10 oz quesillo, manchego, Gouda or Muenster cheese, shredded or grated.

In an 8 inch cast iron frying pan, heat the butter or oil over medium heat and fry the onion until transparent, about 5 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and garlic and continue to fry 10 to 15 minutes over low heat.  If you need to , add a bit more butter or oil to the pan to keep the mushrooms from sticking.  Add the epazote, 1/2 tsp salt, and the pepper and stir well.  When the mixture is dry, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Preheat a 10-inch clay comal, griddle or cast-iron frying pan over medium heat.

If using prepared masa, place in a mixing bowl, add 1 Tbs salt and a few sprinkles of water, and knead to a soft dough.  If using masa harina, place in a large mixing bowl and ad 1Tbs salt and 2-3/4 cups water.  Knead until the dough is soft, about 1 minute.  Allow dough to rest for 15 minutes.  Divide the masa into 10 balls.  Roll into a ball, then shape into a log 5 inches long and 1-1/2 inches wide.

Place a log between two sheets of plastic placed inside a tortilla press** and press down.  An oval shape will appear.  Rotate the oval and press again.  Remove the plastic from the top and place 3 to 4 tablespoons of cheese in the middle.  Top with 2 Tbs of the filling.  Place a little bit of water around the edge of the tortilla with your finger, fold the empanada over, and press to seal it closed.

Lift the empanada from the plastic and place in the middle of the heated comal, griddle or crying pan.  Cook about 3 to 5 minutes on each side, or until it starts to brown and removes easily from the comal without breaking.  Turn it over and cook on the second side.  Serve at once or continue with all the balls until all the masa is gone.  If you must, keep the empanadas warm, wrapped well in a cloth napkin, until serving time.

** since we don't own a tortilla press, I used the bottom of a large, metal mixing bowl to press on the masa, and a light once-over with a rolling pin to smooth out the divots from the edge of the bowl's flat bottom.  Worked like a charm without spending $40 on a kitchen tool that'll gather dust after this week.

Country-Style Tortilla Soup (Sopa de Tortilla)

1-1/4 lbs tomatoes (3 medium-large round or 10-13 plum)
1/2 cup peanut, sunflower, or vegetable oil
4-6 tortillas, cut into strips (about 2 cups)
1 medium white onion, chopped
1/2 head of garlic, cloves separated and finely chopped
12 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
10 chiles chipotles en adobo
1 avacado, peeled and cut into chunks
1/4 lb queso fresco, cut into 1/2 inch chunks.  manchego or Muenster may be substituted
1 cup shredded, poached chicken
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves

On a 10-inch dry comal, griddle, or a cast-iron frying pan, roast the tomatoes over medium heat 10 to 12 minutes until soft and the skin starts to slough off. Allow to cool, then peel and discard the skins.  Puree the tomatoes in the blender until smooth.

Heat the oil in an 8-inch cast-iron frying pan until it smokes.  Add the tortilla strips.  Fry for 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat or until brown, and drain on paper towels.  Remove the remaining oil, reserving 2 Tbs.

Put the 2 Tbs oil in a heavy 4-qt stockpot and saute the onion in the oil until clear, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and continue to cook 2 minutes longer.  Add the tomato puree and fry well, about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 1/2 hour.  Add salt and pepper.

Put chile chipotle, a few avocado chunks, some cheese cubes, shredded chicken, chopped cilantro and fried tortilla strips in each bowl, add the soup and serve.
-- Both recipes from "Seasons of My Heart," by Susana Trilling

Arroz A La Mexicana (Traditional Mexican Rice)

The traditional preparation of Mexican style rice flavored with tomatoes, onion, garlic and simmered in broth. This recipe is from The Art Of Mexican Cooking, Diana Kennedy.

1 1/2 cups (375 ml) long-grain white rice or medium-grained rice.
1 cup (1/2 lb) tomatoes, un-skinned, finely chopped
1/4 small white onion, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1/3 cup safflower oil, melted chicken fat or melted lard
3 1/2 cups chicken broth (fresh is best)
1/3 cup carrot rounds (optional)
1/2 cup fresh peas or diced zucchini (optional)
1/2 cup chopped giblets (optional)
salt to taste

Pour hot water to cover over the rice and let it stand for about 10 minutes. Drain the rice and rinse well in cold water, then shake the colander well and leave the rice to drain again.

Put the tomatoes, onion, and garlic into a blender jar and blend until smooth. Set aside.

Heat the oil. Give the rice a final shake and stir it into the oil until the grains are well covered, then fry until just the grains turn a light brown color. This process should take about 10 minutes. Tip the pan to one side and drain off any excess oil.

Stir in the tomato puree and fry, scraping the bottom of the dish to prevent sticking, until the puree has been absorbed--about 8 minutes.

Stir in the broth, vegetables and giblets (if used) add salt to taste and cook over fairly high heat, uncovered until all the both has been absorbed and air holes appear in the surface.

Cover the surface of the rice with a towel and lid and continue cooking over very low heat for about 5 minutes longer.

Remove from the heat and set aside in a warm place to allow the rice to absorb the rest of the moisture in the steam and swell--about 15 minutes. Dig gently to the bottom and test a grain of rice. If it is still damp, cook for a few minutes longer. If the top grains are not quite soft, sprinkle with a little hot broth, cover and cook for a few minutes longer.

Before serving, turn the rice over carefully from the bottom so that the flavored juices will be distributed evenly.
-- From the Gourmet Sleuth website

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