Friday, October 28, 2016

My Guilty ‘Mexican’ Pleasures

A first for this new occasional series: today I’m writing about something I’m craving instead of something I’ve made. I quite like actual Mexican, from carts staffed by actual Mexicans to upscale small-plate taqueria Distrito (by Philadelphia’s own Jose Garces.) This post is not about that Mexican. I also have a great love for entirely inauthentic tex-mex vicinity stuff that I learned to love in my youth, and I want to talk about that today.

First, the essential ready-made elements: nacho-cheese Doritos and Ortega taco sauce. Doritos are crushed fine and sprinkled into tacos, burritos, or on top of bowls. Ortega taco sauce is delicious. I have nothing else to say. My pretentious foody self disdains my enjoyment of it, but that doesn’t stop it being really enjoyable to eat. For my family, it was always taco sauce in place of salsa for our Mexican attempts.

Refried beans are the other anchor of my nostalgia Mexican. I like to start with canned whole pinto beans. Pre-mashed are never as good, and starting from dry is more work and planning for no flavor benefit my palate can detect. This isn’t a pure nostalgia. We used to use a mix and re-hydrate it. This way is better. I start with some diced onion and pepper, cook them down until they’re soft, add spices: cumin, coriander, and cayenne, unless I’ve use a jalapeno. Deglaze with tomato when the spices inevitably stick, then add the beans. I drain 2/3 of the cans, or thereabouts, and leave the rest. Let the beans warm through and take up flavors, then mash with a potato masher and they’re done.

That’s the core of it. It needs something to complete the protein. Rice works, and lime-cilantro is the seasoning for that. I love chicken cooked with an achiote rub. The original was ground beef cooked with chili powder, no other seasoning except some salt. Traditional fixings are grated cheddar and some raw vegetables: bell-pepper, scallion, tomato, cucumber, lettuce. Wrap in a ten-inch tortilla, and if, like I was, you’re a boy growing both up and at the waist, eat two of them for dinner.

I’ll make some changes putting this together now. Eat less in a sitting, for one. I’ll also probably cook most of my vegetables, because it’s cold here. I may buy the hot Ortega taco sauce, instead of medium, to account for my increased spice tolerance. I’ll keep the lettuce. Romaine for preference, for the crunch.

It seems to be a theme here, but this food is all about how it makes you feel, how it makes me feel, more specifically. This three steps removed Mexican is all about satisfaction for me. It fills you up, sticks to your ribs, etc. The crunch, the acid, the spice all make things interesting while you chew through a solid core of stodge in rice and beans and beef. I’m looking forward to it.


I don’t know how useful or inspiring this entry is for anyone without my strong nostalgia for a particular of kind of Mexican-inspired Americana, but that’s what’s on my mind for food today, and it’s been too long since I posted something here. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The First Chili of the Season

The days are getting colder, here in Philadelphia, and the nights are drawing in, and that means the season for chili has arrived. I made the first pot of the season yesterday. Let’s talk about chili in general for a bit, and then about that pot.

I love chili, because it’s a process, not a recipe. Stew is always forgiving, but I find chili, more than anything else I regularly make, suffers nothing from cooking and cooking until the balance is just right. I can always sprinkle in a few spices and let them mellow for twenty minutes if things aren’t perfect yet. So, what is that balance? For me, chili is about darkness, spice and umami. I like a bit of tomato, but I don’t want that dominating. You need sweetness, but just the balance the acid of tomato, or the bitterness of dried chilies, too much and you wander into baked beans. Make sure it’s thick enough: tomato paste, flour and brown your meat beforehand, make a roux for something vegetarian. It needs to be rich. It needs to warm you up, from your stomach up through your cheeks and deep into your bones.

So, yesterday’s chili. It was ‘vegetarian’. I am a terrible vegetarian. Without a nutritional or ethical commitment to avoid animals, what I usually mean by vegetarian is “I used bacon, but nothing more substantial”, or “The primary protein isn’t animal.” This was one of those: a sweet potato chili with three kinds of beans.

As a preliminary, I peeled the sweet potatoes and dropped some of the peel into the blender with dried chilies, ancho and costeño, to soak in hot water until I could blend them up. Pureeing some skin’s a great way to use sweet potato without making things too bright, and dried chilies build a depth of flavor for a chili without beef. I rendered out some bacon in the Dutch oven first. It takes a lot to convince me not to put bacon in my chili these days. Pulled out the bacon and drop in onion and pepper I chopped while it rendered. Since everything stews, I didn’t need to cook them all the way, just to get some color. I crushed in some garlic, my initial spices (chili powder, smoked paprika and oregano), then a bit of flour to take up the extra bacon fat and thicken things. I took up the roux and deglazed with the pureed pepper and sweet potato skin, and a little can of diced tomato. Some tomato paste to thicken and deepen the flavor, a few chipotles in adobo for the spice. I used pinto, pink and black beans for this chili, and I left the liquid from one can in as well, to have enough for the sweet potato. I left the sweet potato out so it wouldn’t get too soft, though I didn’t really need to, it turned out.


Checked back after twenty minutes and the veggies were pretty soft, so dropped in sweet potato in little cubes and just let it keep simmering. The sweet potatoes weren’t cutting the bitterness of the dried chilies enough at first check, so I put in some honey, and some coriander to brighten things a tad. On the last taste, I needed more spice, so I put in some ground chipotle. That was that. Simmered it until the potatoes were perfect and let it be. One of my best, I think, and I’m pretty proud of my chili.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Cheese Sauce and a Moment of Calm

Disclaimer: this is an experiment in writing about food and cooking, so I’m still finding my feet. There’s nothing like a recipe, but I don’t use them anyway, these days. I’ve tried to list all my ingredients and steps and I hope it’s interesting and pleasant, even if it’s not much of a guide. I’m trying to write about how food feels as much as how it’s made, so, please enjoy.


There is something particularly satisfying to me about making, about being able to make a good cheese sauce, smooth, thick, creamy and unbroken. Mom’s from-scratch mac-and-cheese was a delight of childhood, and then for years I made do with Hamburger Helper or other substitutes, afraid to attempt béchamel, since I had heard somewhere and assimilated a misconception that it was very hard. It isn’t, and learning that was a revelation that returned nostalgic comfort to my life as a regular feature. There is very little in this world as comforting as a good cheese sauce, clinging to the same pasta you remember as far back as you remember. So, being able to make that cheese sauce is comforting in the abstract, because it means I can conjure that nostalgia whenever I need to.

The act itself is also powerfully centering, because the key to a good cheese sauce is mindfulness. Making it properly requires being fully in the moment. Cooking can be hectic, and when you’re cooking for a household, even just two, by yourself, it’s easy to have three or four things happening at once, all needing periodic checks to keep them running properly. I know that’s what happens to me, cooking for Amanda and myself. Cheese sauce requires a moment of its own. Everything else must be put off and ignored while things come together. First the roux, fat and flour and stir until it colors. Then the first liquid, nothing hot. You stir until the roux is taken up and whatever you poured in has thickened with it to something like a batter, then thin until it seems correct to add the cheese. The heat must be just so: not low enough that things slow to a crawl, not high enough to break it. You drop in your cheese and stir and let it melt, and for a moment, you can do nothing else.


Today, I made taco mac-and-cheese. I sautéed some ground beef in my dutch oven and seasoned it with chili-powder (another imitation of what mom did when I was young). I pulled the beef out when it was brown and left as much grease as I could. With that and butter I browned and softened onion and bell-pepper and some garlic, at the end. I cooked my pasta (tri-color rotini) and left it draining in the sink. A little more butter and I made my roux, then took it up with a can of diced tomato. I thinned with milk and a little cream, and seasoned with cumin, coriander and some of the adobo sauce from a can of chipotles. I use cheddar cheese, the good stuff from Trader Joe’s and a little cream cheese (always Philadelphia) for creaminess. Once everything was melted, I dropped in the noodles, the beef, and a can of black beans (drained), mixed it up and called it a day. I’ll add some fresh cilantro when I’m ready to eat it.