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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

Spices:

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.

Spanakopita

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Last weekend, Mary Jo and her parents Mark and Diane invited me sailing. We drove up to Bayfield, Wisconsin on Thursday afternoon, and at twilight, all was tense as we kept a lookout for wild pairs of iridescent eyes. Diane sat shotgun, and she was the first to see the doe on the shoulder before we all shrieked and Mark turned the wheel while she stood frozen, flicking her ears.

Since it was dark when we arrived, we spent the first night in the slip.

We sailed and stopped at Otter Island, then Outer Island where we docked and had dinner and played 500, the game of 500 rules. We had gin and tonics when the sun set, mochas when the sun rose, and all the snacks Diane brought in between.

The smooth, flat rocks we plucked and flung across the water.

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Rippled water like panes of wavy glass from the days of a hundred years ago.

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Triplet sailboats. A sky to match a lake.

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Superior’s invigorating sting, our morning shower, and the quickest swim back to the boat.

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Ropes with purpose and their own names to prove it. Like this one. Blue dot. (Not really)

A boat named Peregrine. Islands named Raspberry, Cat, and Rocky.

Diane brought spanakopita for dinner on our last night, and it was so good that I asked her for the recipe as soon as we were home and made it a few days later. Spanakopita is a savory Greek pie traditionally made with airy layers of phyllo pastry, feta, cooked spinach and egg, but Diane swapped the feta with goat cheese and spinach with chard from her garden. The original recipe comes from Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook. I used kale instead of spinach (or chard) because I had it, and an equal mix of crumbled feta and goat cheese.

Spanakopita

Spanakopita adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
1 1/2 cups crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chopped onion
2 pounds lacinato kale (or spinach, or chard)
5 eggs
1/2 teaspoon oregano
3 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
1 package of 1 pound phyllo dough
1/2 pound melted butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Clean, stem, and chop the greens. Salt them lightly and cook, adding no water, for five minutes. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, cook the onions in butter. Salt lightly. When soft, remove from heat and combine with cheeses, flour, oregano, 3 tablespoons butter, a bit of salt and pepper, and greens. When these have cooled a bit, add eggs and mix thoroughly.

To assemble:

In a 9×13″ pan, spread a bit of the melted butter. Place a layer of phyllo dough in the pan. It’ll outsize the pan–let the edges climb the sides and lay over the edges. Brush butter generously over the top of that first layer. Keep layers of dough coming, one on top of the other, brushing each with butter. After 8 layers of dough, take half of the filling and spread it on gently and evenly. Continue with another 8 layers of dough, spreading butter between each one. Then apply the remaining filling, spreading it evenly to the edges. Fold in the excess phyllo along the edges, making tidy little corners. (I skipped this step because it was late and I was delirious and didn’t understand what tidy little corners should look like. Fold them in toward the center of the pan, as if you were wrapping a gift.)

Pile as many more layers of phyllo and butter as your baking pan will accommodate. Butter the top layer and sprinkle with fennel seeds if you have some (“if you have some,” says Mollie. I love that).

Bake uncovered, about 45 minutes, until golden.

Tomatillo Salsa

Thursday, August 28, 2014

tomatillo salsa

I started writing this post from Annie’s couch in Harlem. A breeze would pass through the apartment, carrying the sound of someone’s saxophone or the distant wail of a siren, and if you folded yourself into her living room windowsill, you could gaze down on her neighbors’ plant-filled, walled-in urban retreat of a patio. We hadn’t started packing her things yet, and she was all knotted up over her decision to leave New York. On the inside, I was pitching a fit over the possibility of returning to Minnesota alone, with the deposit on our apartment already paid. Those eight days were tough. Toss together two longtime friends, both of whom have their own complicated relationship with New York, as anyone with New York history does, add in the weight of moving, quitting jobs, saying goodbye, starting over, seeking closure, and the probability of a blowup is all but marked in stone. Today that trip seems part of a past life, which makes it all the harder to believe that I’m writing this now from our new apartment in Minneapolis.

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minneapolis apartment_3

minneapolis apartment_4

When Annie and I decided to live together, I wasn’t positive it was the best move. I’d been living with people my whole life, and I was very much ready to have my own space. Annie, on the other hand, was used to living alone. Above all, though, we both saw it as a now-or-never type of chance, a challenge, for sure, but one that we both wanted to risk taking rather than missing. I’d stalk Craigslist for apartments, she’d send me links to places she’d found and I’d make appointments to view them. On Google Chat one day, we sent each other the same link at the same time for a duplex in South Minneapolis. Six weeks later, we moved in.

First we had to get her out of the clutches of New York. And what the hell, I thought, why not make a trip out of it? I booked a one-way ticket and flew out on a Tuesday, the first of eight consecutive days of summer perfection. She met me at the corner of 125th and Lenox, and when I saw her standing there, she was a woman who’d melded to the city’s pace.

One night at dusk, we crossed the Triborough Bridge in her friend Bri’s car to eat Peruvian while Bri called every fifth driver a motherfucker for driving like one. I liked her immediately. Bri is all heart, tough as nails, and just shy of a hundred pounds. She came over the next night and taught us how to fry cabbage the Deep South way with bacon and onions. Cal and Brandon came too, and Cal made his mother’s famous fried chicken, a recipe he’s known how to cook since he could reach the counter to season the flour. We piled on Annie’s couch and chowed until it was time to fry a second batch. Annie and I got dressed up on Sunday morning and loped to Abyssinian Baptist Church, craving gospel music and ice water and sweating buckets in the heat before we’d even arrived. When we finally did, a straight-faced woman wearing pantyhose and bifocals told us services were finished for the day, so we hailed a taxi for Bloody Marys at Vinateria instead.

At the end of the week, we celebrated our survival at Red Rooster over shredded lamb tostadas topped with rosy pickled onion and dabs of grainy mustard. We drank a Savoy and a PYT and watched a wave of characters pass through the doors. The food was good, not great, but you felt the place come alive as the night wore on, and when Annie asked, “How can I leave this?” I had no answer. New York is panoptic, hypnotic, and much sexier when you’re away or on your way out. Like any love/hate relationship, New York is a place you can’t fully appreciate until you no longer wake up to it everyday.   

minneapolis apartment_2Annie wavered between staying and going up until the very morning we left. I told her I’d be okay if she changed her mind, and that was mostly true, or would have been eventually. She told me she’d made a commitment to me. That meant something, even if it felt heavier than what I’d bargained for. In the end, we packed up the moving truck with the help of Bri and three guys from Bri’s security staff. With Annie at the wheel, we pulled away from the curb and sailed down Seventh Avenue to Iggy Azalea like the whole trip was already in the bag. Ten minutes later we were in a tunnel, then a bridge four or forty lanes across when the first of several truck drivers honked and yelled that our back ramp was down. Within seconds, we were protected on all sides by a fleet of semis until we could exit, pull off to the shoulder and assess the situation, first panicking, later cackling like a couple of once-wild grandmothers with stories of skirting the law. After nine hours of driving, we stopped somewhere in northern Ohio, checked into a Super 8, and walked to the Lone Tree Tavern next door through a field of grass with a walking path carved for truck drivers who likely kept both places in business. Tom was the front desk manager and a retired principal with a few opinions on migrating west, all of them favorable. At that hour, whether or not Annie found them comforting was moot.

It took another fifteen hours to reach home, and it was after midnight at the start of the third day when we did. I told Annie I felt like I’d left a critical piece of my heart behind. She said she thought she’d made a mistake, and we laid in bed staring at the ceiling, exhausted, dejected, and confused. We slept hard, woke up early, and drove the truck to the new apartment to meet a crew of family and friends who gave up their Saturday morning to help us move. My brothers got straight to work by opening all the windows in the house for fresh air. My dad pulled the refrigerator from the wall to plug it in and tore two holes in the vinyl floor, battle scars that are going to remind us of that day every time we see them. Annie’s friend Jessie did most of the heavy lifting, while her dad loaded up his car with bags to donate and came over later to hang curtains and put together chairs. We unloaded Annie’s stuff, drove to my youngest brother’s apartment to pick up some of the stuff we’ll store while he lives in Phoenix, then drove back to Mary Ellen’s to load up the truck with my stuff. Brian bought us welcome back burgers and beers at Pat’s Tap when it was time for a break. Brad and Megan brought their baby over in the afternoon, Tony and Niki came with felt pads, a power drill, and a reading chair, and Tippy brought us our first plant. Long after the sun had set, we spread out at the front of the house and ordered delivery for dinner. That all of these people were so happy we were home was impossible to ignore, and I think we both fell asleep feeling lighter, protected even, which makes a hell of a difference in any sort of big life change.

Grandpa's cactus

Now that we are here, a new brand of culture shock is settling in, and that’s the kind related to stuff. Buying a sofa last week, you see, felt major. Annie keeps telling me I’ve been able to wait 31 years without buying any furniture, as if this is some stroke of good fortune! At IKEA, it was my turn to panic, and if she hadn’t have been there, I might’ve left a full cart in the checkout lane and bolted for the horizon. At this rate, I guess I should be ready for marriage by age 62?

Speaking of commitments, I walked forty-five blocks from Annie’s stoop on 133rd and Lenox to Kitchen Arts and Letters one day, and that’s where I found this recipe for tomatillo salsa. More specifically, where I found the book with this recipe, and where I decided it would be our kitchen’s bible for the upcoming winter. Annie loves Mexican, and so do I. All this late blooming must have put me in the mood to start something early, as I assure you I’m not at all ready to think about colder days. Salsas are great because you really can’t fuck them up, so long as you use prime ingredients. It never hurts to have a recipe to reference, however, and this one’s a definite keeper.

Tomatillo Salsa (makes 1 1/2 cups) from Truly Mexican
1/2 pound tomatillos (5 or 6), husked, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles, coarsely chopped, including seeds
2 tablespoons chopped white onion
1 good sized garlic clove, peeled
3/4 teaspoon fine salt, or 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Add the tomatillos to a food processor or blender, then add the rest of the ingredients. Blend until salsa is very smooth (you’ll still see the tomatillo seeds, and that’s good), at least a minute. Season to taste with additional chile and salt, and blend again. If you can make this ahead of time to let the flavors meld, do it–a few hours or an overnight makes a big difference. Serve with tortilla chips, black beans and rice, salmon, pork, chicken, roasted vegetables, or an omelette with cilantro and goat cheese.

Blueberry Pie

Sunday, August 3, 2014

blueberries box

Summer in Minnesota is a burst of perfection, and I am clinging to it with a white-knuckled grip and a pining for summers of the past. All seasons remind me of New Ulm, a small town in southeastern Minnesota where my grandmother lived in the same house until she couldn’t live alone anymore. My mom and her sisters grew up in that house, and sometimes I fantasize about knocking on the door and asking the current owners if I can take a quick walk through, just to see if I can still smell it. I’d bury my head in the coat closet and wait for the scent of mothballs and fur coats I only saw her wear in photos until the owners, reluctant but obliged, tapped me on the shoulder and said ok now, time to go. But summer, especially, is the time I miss it, her, the most. Even if she didn’t like to cook, she loved to feed, and her attention to small details at meals left an impression that rooted deep. In fact, we spent more time around my grandmother’s kitchen table than anywhere else in her house, towed back by an unseen force after too much time away. We didn’t know it then, but we were building traditions there that lately I am seeing in pieces as they surface in a flashback, a story, or a keepsake that’ll spark a memory long forgotten.

Rush-River-Pie

Tippy’s kitchen is built and maintained with the same traits. Petite as it is, there’s always room for everyone, and even with two people in the corner at the stove, one person at the sink, another with a chopping knife at the counter and three on chairs around her red wooden table, somehow you never feel the old, no good adage of too many cooks. No task is too grand. This speaks more to Tippy’s circuitry than the layout of her kitchen, and I can only hope to give people the same fortifying sense in my own kitchen, come the day. We make sense of our lives by building up from the foundations we were given, adding our own twists, but leaving space, always, for the traditions that were laid before us, for us. So that when the time comes, we can hand them down, and ultimately, let them live.

Laurel

Last weekend, with our ticking time bomb of blueberry loot, Tippy, Laurel, and I took root in their kitchen and didn’t much move until we’d made our way through twelve and three-quarters of the thirteen pounds Laurel and I had picked days before. We chopped red pepper and minced ginger and squeezed lime for blueberry salsa. We picked lavender and steeped vanilla bean to pour over blueberries in jars for an infused, sweet and floral syrup. We folded warm blueberry sauce into wonton wrappers and fried them until they turned bubbly and crisp, then tore them apart too soon, too hungry to wait. Mike, Tippy’s oldest son, left a box of homebrewed ale in the basement, and that saved the Sunday when liquor stores are closed in Minnesota. We upended four bottles in a stockpot with sugar, lemon, allspice, and star anise, then mixed in red onion and whole berries and boiled it all until it gleamed to a thick, textured jam. We made our grandma’s strawberry honey, sub blueberries, and a hot chutney with curry, dried currants, and jalapeno. We made pies that we took breaks to eat by the forkful straight from the pan.

blueberry wash

The two pie recipes we used were about as different as they could be. Rush River’s version is mostly uncooked and totally uncovered, so that the whole berries maintain their shape and texture, and pop with each bite–sweet, tart, uncompromised. First you make a sauce with sugar, water, and a cup of blueberries that you let simmer away for what seems like eternity until the berries break down and the color turns definitively purple. The Gold Standard of Purple, it is a vision worth waiting for. Then you let it cool, fold in the rest of the blueberries, pour it all into a prebaked 9-inch pie shell, and let it chill (if you can stand waiting). We used a crust recipe aptly named, “Mom’s Pie Crust,” which has been handed down from mothers to daughters in our family, and of whose original identity is unknown. It is a dump crust that calls for corn oil, because that’s what Tippy’s mom uses, and what our grandmother used, what her mother used, and so on, and it just never occurred to anybody to write in an alternative suggestion.

The second pie is from Lan, who I’ve met virtually by way of her captivating, redolent photos. Her interpretation of food is striking, both the recipes she chooses and the way she presents them through her lens, and so when she endorsed her husband’s go-to recipe for pie, I knew it was going to be good. With this recipe, you pulse together a crust of flour, orange zest, pecans, butter (or a vegan alternative) and sugar, and then you dribble in cold vodka and pulse again. Vodka evaporates quickly, resulting in a very flaky, tender crust, and leaves no trace of itself behind. Once you’ve chilled and rolled out the crust in a deep dish pan, you mix together some cornstarch, orange juice, flour, sugar, and blueberries and pour that on top of the crust. You top it with a crumbly sprinkle of oats, cinnamon, sugar, and fat (she uses coconut oil, we used butter) and bake it until the top is golden. A slice of warm pie she told me, is excellent with coconut cream or vanilla ice cream. She was right about that, too. See the full recipe here, and her blog, More Stomach, here.

Now go get yourself some blueberries, and hurry.

Blueberry Pie (from Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, where we also picked all our berries)

9″ Pie Crust**
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup sugar
5 tablespoons all purpose flour, unbleached
4 cups fresh blueberries
Pinch of salt

Mix the cold 1/4 cup of water with the flour and salt to make a smooth batter. Boil 1 cup of blueberries with the 1/2 cup of water and all the sugar. Add batter and stir with a whisk until it thickens. Remove from heat and let cool. Once it’s cool, fold in the remaining 3 cups of fresh blueberries and pour into the pre-baked pie shell.** Chill.

**Mom’s Pie Crust recipe:
Sift these into a pie tin:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, unbleached
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl, mix 1/2 cup corn oil (or a different neutral oil of your choice) with 2 tablespoons of milk. Pour liquid into the center of the flour mix. Mix with a fork. Spread with your fingers across the bottom and up the sides of the pie pan. Prick with a fork all around. For pre-bakes, bake at 425 degrees F for 12-15 minutes.