Entries from October 26th, 2014

Agua de Jamaica

Sunday, October 26, 2014


What a week! Did you guys see the solar eclipse? Niki brought over a homemade viewer she fashioned from an old Riedel glass tube and some tinfoil. If you positioned it just right, with the tinfoil end pointed at the sun, and peeked through the square cut from one side to the inside of the other, you could catch a glimpse of a tiny crescent shaped sun under the thumb of the moon.

solar eclipse

My brother turned 29 this week, and next week my dad will turn 79. It has been years since we’ve celebrated either of their birthdays together, as we’re rarely in the same city at the same time. John is in Phoenix now, but my dad and I will go out to dinner in a few days with John in spirit. My dad’ll want to go to his favorite sports bar so he can hit on the prettiest female staff members while sharing a plate of loaded nachos. He’ll drink three, maybe four, frosted mugs of Michelob Golden Light. Depending on how busy they are, the ladies will either humor him or give a rushed hello, leaving him chuckling and me shaking my head, still wondering if I’ll ever reach a point where I won’t feel like bolting when he does this. He is a young 79, I remind myself, and that’s a very lucky thing.

I promised you the recipe for the Margarita of the Year, and today is the day. But first, we need to talk about agua frescas, the Mexican alternative to a lemonade stand on a sweltering afternoon. There are limitless combinations of agua fresca flavors: pineapple, cucumber, spinach and lime, watermelon, strawberry, various herbs and edible flowers. Agua de Jamaica is made with dried hibiscus flowers, sugar, and water. So simple. You steep the hibiscus flowers in water for about twenty or thirty minutes, and then you strain out the flowers and mix in some sugar so that you’re left with a tangy, concentrated syrup that looks like wine.

aguadejamaica1To make a hibiscus margarita, you make the syrup first. Then, you pour a glug of silver tequila, some Cointreau and fresh lime juice with some of the syrup over ice. Both recipes are from Roberto Santibanez’s book Taco’s, Tortas, and Tamales, which takes inspiration from Mexico’s streetside kitchens. People keep talking about hot cider and other spiced, wintry drinks, but as long as the weather holds out like it’s been doing in Minneapolis, so will I.

Agua de Jamaica (makes 8 tall glasses) from Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales
2 cups (about 3 ounces) dried hibiscus flowers
3/4 to 1 cup sugar

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the hibiscus flowers, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the flowers steep for 20 or 30 minutes. Then strain the liquid through a sieve into a large pitcher, pressing the flowers to extract as much juice as possible. Discard the flowers, or save them to float in the pitcher when serving. Add the sugar and stir until it dissolves. **Stop here and chill the syrup for margaritas if making them. The syrup will keep for a week in the fridge.** Pour in 5 cups of water, stir, and season to taste with sugar. My friend Rocio suggested using sparkling water instead of flat, and less sugar (just 3/4 of a cup), and I liked it best this way.

Chill the pitcher in the fridge, then pour the agua fresca into ice-filled glasses or refrigerate for up to three days.

Margarita de Jamaica (Hibiscus Margarita) adapted from Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales
Hibiscus syrup  (see recipe above)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons silver tequila
1/2 cup Cointreau (or triple sec)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
ice cubes

Combine the tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, 1 1/2 cups of the hibiscus syrup, and 2 cups of ice in a pitcher. Stir well. Roberto recommends stirring for a full minute, and says it’s important that some of the ice dissolves in the drink. Then pour immediately into 6 glasses full of ice and rimmed with salt, if desired. Top with a few of the reserved hibiscus flowers.
aguadejamaica2 aguadejamaica4

Tangy Guacamole Enchiladas

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Roberto Santibanez Truly Mexican Guacamole

Like many Midwestern Americans, I’d venture to guess, my first exposure to Mexican food was convenient, bastardized, and required no cooking at all, unlike the seventy-nine cent frozen burritos we’d zap for dinner once a week. Then, you might ask, could it even be called Mexican food? Probably not. But these were the late eighties, when microwavable TV dinners, velour, and Zubas were all the rage. Tastes were questionable, bad decisions forgivable. Taco John’s was somewhere between the hundred miles of road from our house to the town where my grandparents raised my mom and her sisters. Every single time we made the trip, we’d stop there for hard shell beef tacos and Potato Olés®, those crispy euphoric hashbrown rounds.

Somewhere along the way, thank Christ, I learned the difference between a real taco and a taco that is not. How to make good guacamole. How to ruin a pair of contact lenses while mincing a jalapeño. Sometimes, I wish I had never acquired a taste for fast food, but the seed was planted early. Even if I know better now, sometimes I want to rebel.

Cooking curbs those cravings, in part because it gives me time to reassess what I love about food. It keeps me present, or it transports me, depending on what’s on the stove. Cooking connects us, too, like collective projects tend to do. My new friend Rocio and I met a few weeks ago, while prepping for a big farm dinner in Ham Lake. Rocio is from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and she’s an avid home cook, so it didn’t take us long to land on the topic of food. Pretty soon, we got to talking about our mutual love for the recipes in Truly Mexican. We made plans to fix dinner together, and last week, she came over with her husband Matt to make enchiladas from the book. They brought a homemade hibiscus syrup, which Matt stirred with tequila and triple for the best margarita Annie said she’s had in years. Rocio got to work on the guacamole, and I pureed our tomatillos and chiles for sauce. About three hours later, dinner was ready.

And I came to a conclusion: Mexican food was never meant to be fast. It was meant to be cooked cooperatively. Make this fun. Pull some friends into it and make it an evening. Don’t forget the margaritas (I’ll be back with that recipe for Matt’s, if he’s willing to give it up).

Roberto Santibanez Truly Mexican Guacamole Enchiladas

Guacamole Enchiladas with Guajillo-Tomatillo Beef Sauce (from Truly Mexican)
1 pound tomatillos (10-12), husked and rinsed
3 ounces guajillo chiles (about 12), wiped clean, stemmed, slit open, seeded, and deveined (find these at any Mexican market)
4 cups water, or more
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 teaspoon aniseed
1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon fine salt)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground beef (or 1 1/4 pounds finely chopped beef sirloin or chuck, trimmed)
12 corn tortillas
guacamole (recipe below)
1/4 cup oil for frying (sunflower, coconut, or vegetable)

Put the tomatillos and chiles in a medium heavy-bottomed pot, add 4 cups of water (enough to cover the tomatillos), and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Lower the heat and simmer gently, turning the tomatillos and chiles occasionally, until the tomatillos have turned tender, and from lime green to khaki-green in color, about fifteen minutes. They should still be in tact. Gently drain the tomatillos and chiles with a sieve and large pot. (Take care to keep the tomatillos in tact). Also, reserve the cooking liquid.

Put the tomatillos and chiles in a blender. Add the garlic, aniseed, oregano, salt, and about 1/4 cup of cooking liquid. Don’t fill the blender; instead, work in batches. Cover the blender jar with its top, and cover its top with a towel. Hold firmly and blend. Strain the sauce through a sieve to catch the chile skins and seeds (as the photos will show, I forgot this step).

Wipe the original pot clean, and heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in it. Gently pour the sauce into the oil, and let the sauce simmer, stirring often, until it’s thickened slightly, 5-7 minutes.

Add the rest of the reserved cooking liquid and return the sauce to a boil. Add the beef, stirring to break up the meat, and simmer hard. Simmer and stir until the sauce has just thickened to the consistency of a thin Bolognese, or Sloppy Joe mixture. Season with salt, and keep the sauce warm.

Soften the tortillas by heating a few tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a frying pan. Place one tortilla in the oil let it hang out for about 8 seconds. Carefully, with tongs, flip and let the other side fry for a few more seconds. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel, then roll each tortilla with 2 tablespoons of guacamole. Spoon the beef sauce generously over each plate of enchiladas.

Guacamole (from Truly Mexican)
2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
1 tablespoon minced fresh jalapeño, including seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon fine salt)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 ripe Hass avocados, halved, pitted, and chopped (skins removed)
a squeeze of lime

Mash the onion, chile, salt, and half the cilantro into a paste. Add avocados, lime, and the rest of the cilantro. Toss, then mash it all, and add additional salt or chile to taste.

Gypsy Soup

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

GypsySoup2Fall always sneaks up like a ninja attack, and here in Minnesota, we never know how long it’s going to last. I’m hoping we’ll get to December before our first snowfall, but stranger things have never happened. At least there’s soup. I like to make a big pot on Sunday and eat it throughout the week. Hypothetically. In reality, Sunday’s soup is typically gone by Tuesday.

When we all got back from sailing a few weeks ago, Mary Jo’s mom reheated bowls of leftover soup for us, and I marked down the recipe to make again later. Another diamond from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, it was earthy and warm, spiked with cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne, and packed with silky chunks of vegetables and soft chickpeas. Diane’s copy of Moosewood is sauce-spattered and dog-eared, like it’s been a few places since it was first published in the seventies. So when I came across a lone copy at a used bookstore last week, I couldn’t leave without it.

If the list of spices below makes you want to run for the hills, don’t. Stay. Use what you have, leave out what you do not, and keep tasting and adding until your soup is good to you. Also, Mollie’s advice is to swap any same colored vegetables you have, so for example, if you don’t have green peppers, use peas or green beans. Or swap carrots for squash or sweet potatoes. “Any orange vegetable can be combined with green.” Annie and I used red peppers when we made this last night, throwing all caution to the wind. And as of ten minutes ago tonight, a Monday, the entire batch has disappeared.

GypsySoup Gypsy Soup (adapted from Moosewood Cookbook)

3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves crushed garlic
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cups peeled and chopped butternut squash (recipe calls for sweet potatoes or other winter squash)
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 12 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes (recipe calls for 1 cup chopped, fresh tomatoes)
3/4 cup red peppers
1 25 oz can chickpeas (recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas)
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock, or water


2 teaspoons hot paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon salt
dash of cinnamon
dash of red pepper flakes (recipe calls for cayenne)
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon soy sauce (recipe calls for Tamari)

In a large soup pot, saute onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and squash in olive oil for around 5 minutes. Add spices and bay leaf (leave out the soy sauce for now) and stock/water. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add remaining vegetables and chickpeas. Simmer for another 10 minutes until vegetables are tender, or as tender as you like them. Scatter chopped fresh parsley over the top.