Thursday, May 8, 2014

Waxing Nostalgic for Mexico: Quesadillas Fritas Con Ensaladita de Col & Agua de Pepino

Quesadillas Fritas con Ensaladita de Col;
Fried Quesadillas with Cabbage Salad
Some meals bring home the sunshine.  They make me smile, they make me lounge, they make me want to run in the clover barefooted like a little girl.  Some meals make me think of home - when home was mom and dad and sister, half-Spanish, half-English (NOT Spanglish), Texas sunshine, and the smell of lime, cilantro and onions.  In some ways, that still is home - in other ways, it isn't because now I'm the mom.  And it's my sons wreaking havoc and smelling the smells of Mexico that will, one day, bring nostalgia to them.

I made a trip back to Mexico in early April to see my ailing grandmother.  I didn't have much time - just a few days - but I took a moment to smell my grandfather's roses, his lime tree, to walk the market of Queretaro and eat some carnitas tacos at a stand on the street.  I am lucky that here in Denver we live very close to one of the major epicenters of Mexican culture in Colorado: Federal Ave.  There are enough panaderias (menudo on the weekends!), paleterias (they also sell esquites and corn on a stick!), and taco stands (as well as any other variation of Mexican street food) to keep my never-ending-nostalgia for Mexico at a reasonable level.  My son is growing up eating Mexican street food far more often than I ever did.  I can get fresh tortillas, queso Oaxaca (my favorite cheese growing up that my mother and aunts used to freeze and smuggle into the US in their suitcases), and all the Mexican cuts of meat that I need for a good taquiza (taco-grill-out).  Not to mention fresh Nopales.

In that spirit, I want to share a meal I made recently that takes me back to Mexico, to my childhood, but also contains a new Mexican food discovery - one that belongs to my kitchen now - not  my mom's - one that has become Roman's go-to Spring drink, and an indispensable part of my own repertoire of Mexican comfort foods.

the meal
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There is this one little taco place called Tacos Junior (it's a chain) near us that we go to almost every Tuesday night after Roman's soccer practice.  He always orders the Tacos de Carne Asada, a cheese quesadilla and rice.  Matt gets a Huarache with Carnitas.  And, besides the ever-rotating list of foods, I always get a fresh "Agua" de sabor - a fruit drink made by blending water, sugar and fresh fruit.

They make them fresh for you per-order and $4 will get you a giant Big-Gulp sized cup of whatever fruity-deliciousness you choose.  I've mentioned these before when I posted a recipe for Agua de Limon a few years back (did mention this Lime shorage is killing me?!).  I almost always get Lime or Watermelon.  Matt always gets Horchata.  But recently I went rogue and tried a new flavor I'd never heard of before but which, on hindsight, is painfully obvious.  Roman's favorite vegetable.  Agua de Pepino - Cucumber water. 

What a waste my life has been!  And no, non-hispanic-American-friends, I don't mean that trendy concoction pushed by the likes of Martha Stewart where you infuse plain water in a fancy dispenser by placing daintily cut cucumber slices and ice into it.  I mean taking a whole damn cucumber and blending it up with water and sugar and lime or lemon juice.  I mean DRINKING a cucumber.  It's freaking incredible.  DO IT.  Spring in a glass, I tell you.  It was the only thing I made for Roman's party last weekend that actually ran out.  People were mesmerized.  Hell, so was I . :)

Agua de Pepino
Makes 2 liters


Large pitcher
1 1/2 -2 cucumbers, washed & very roughly chopped (you can peel them if you want, but I don't)
2 limes or lemons (preferably limes)
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
~2 liters water
Optional variation: fresh mint


1. In a blender with 1 liter water and the cucumbers (and mint if you want it), liquefy until completely....well, liquified. :)  The mix will be somewhat pulpy (which I really like), but should not have "chunks" in it.

2. Meanwhile, combine the other liter of water and the sugar in the pitcher and mix until completely dissolved.  Do not be tempted to add the sugar after the cucumbers or the lime juice - my mother assures me the sugar will not dissolve as the water will already be saturated.

3. Add the lime / lemon juice and mix.

4. Add the cucumber mix to the pitcher (you can pass it through a strainer as you go, if you prefer, but I never do) and mix well.

Serve with ice on a sunny day.

NB: I keep a wooden mixing spoon in my pitcher at all times as the pulp will separate from the water after just sitting for 2 minutes.  You need to mix it each time before serving.  Keep refrigerated and it will last 2-3 days.

 *  *  *

The other half of the meal I want to share is a dish my mother used to make for us.  Fried quesadillas with ground beef, served with a simple lime & cabbage slaw.  You can change the filling for these as you wish, but some typical versions are: chorizo and potatoes, sauteed mushrooms or picadillo.  I took some liberties with my spicing for the ground beef  filling (for example, I like cumin - and coriander - a lot, and my mom hates it), though, technically speaking otherwise, this is my mom's recipe.  The only thing I will say is non-negotiable is the insane, almost-excessive amount of lime and black pepper that goes into the slaw.  I promise you it does not disappoint, especially when eaten with such a rich, fried food.  You can add diced, cooked potatoes to the filling as well.

Quesadillas Fritas & Ensaladita de Col
Serves ~4; Makes 20 Quesadillas


Canola or Corn oil (for frying)
20 Corn tortillas
1/2 lb queso oaxaca or shredded mozzarella

1/2 lb ground beef or pork
splash of red wine vinegar
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1/4 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
dash or two of garlic powder
dash of cinnamon (optional)
1 tsp coriander, crushed (optional)
1/2 small onion (white or yellow) chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 1 serrano pepper, chopped (or to taste)
salt to taste

Lime-Pepper Cabbage Slaw
1/2 - 3/4 head of cabbage, sliced thinly into long, fine strings
3-4 limes, juiced
1-2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste


1.  Assemble the cabbage salad and set aside at room temp: Slice cabbage finely into long little strings (not squares or it will be very hard to handle) and place into a serving bowl.  Dress with lime juice and lots and lots of pepper.  The quantity given above is an approximation.  Basically: just a lot of pepper.  Add salt to taste and toss.

2. For the quesadillas: With 1 tbsp oil sautee onions, garlic, pepper.  Add red wine vinegar and deglaze pan.  Add ground beef and all spices and cook-through. Set aside.

3. Heat your oil (about 1-inch high) in a frying pan over medium-high heat (not high eat or the quesadillas will burn).  Meanwhile, microwave the tortillas (wrapped in a paper towel) in batches as you make the quesadillas (about 5 at a time, or however many you think will fit in your frying pan as a batch), for 30-45 seconds, to soften them.  Throw a crumb of cheese or tortilla into the oil and when you see it frying you'll know the oil is ready.

4. You need to work quickly here or your oil will start to burn: Take the first batch of tortillas and, laying them out flat, add some cheese (about 1-2 tbsp worth) plus about 1-2 tbsp of the meat mixture to one half of each tortilla.  When you've assembled them, gently fold the tortilla over and immediately place into the oil.  Be very gentle or the tortilla will break and/or the fillings will fall out of the quesadilla into the oil causing a frenzy of flying hot oil.  Not good.

5.  The oil should be bubbling vigorously around each quesadilla.  (If it isn't, the oil is too cold and you should turn up the heat or your quesadillas will be oil-logged-nastiness.)  Use a spatula to gently press the quesadillas down.  Cook about 1-2 minutes on each side or until golden brown, turning carefully so filling does not spill out.  Remove crispy quesadillas to a paper-towel lined plate and start over by heating the next batch of tortillas in the microwave.

Serve the quesadillas warm or at room temp with a side of cabbage slaw.  I like to also serve with a basic homemade salsa, avocado slices, and extra limes.  I also stuff the quesadillas with the slaw.  Oh, and don't forget the glass of Agua de Pepino.

NB: Do not place quesadillas in an oven to keep warm or they will get tough!  I learned this the hard way! 

¡Buen Provecho!

This post is brought to you by the cheesy throw-back online Spanish-music radio station Matt found and I am addicted to: Rey de Corazones.  And also the hilarious Spanish song from my childhood by Miguel Bose I heard on Rey de Corazones a few weeks back; it's like a hispanic power-ballad about a bandit lover: Amante Bandido.
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Homemade Porchetta Sandwiches with Salsa Verde: Crack(ling) for Foodies

Porchetta Panini with Salsa Verde: highly addictive, but legal.

I wrote this post over a month ago - life is so busy I didn't get to finish it and publish it till May, but I am retroactively publishing it :)

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I'm struggling a little bit, as I usually do at this time of year, with the fact that it snowed again a few days ago.  In April.  And it's not easy to face the fact that it will probably keep doing that sporadically until mid May.  High desert.  Yep - sometimes I think you seriously do need to be high to put up with this shite with a smile on your face!  Freaking Denver.  Good thing I had these pictures and my porchetta adventure in the archives ready for a post that warms.

Not cool, Nature.  Not cool.

I'm not sure where the idea came from exactly but at a certain point in 2013 I became completely obsessed with making porchetta.  I suppose it might have been my subconscious harkening back to the market in Rome's Campo dei Fiori and the porchetta stand we'd passed by on our trip in 2010.  The regret of not buying a sandwich that day clung tightly to my capricious culinary heart.  I'd tried porchetta before - I'm not sure where - and the taste of it, crunchy-salty-deliciousness, lingered, like an unattainable sensory high, in my memory.  It could also be that since then I've been victim to what seems to be nothing short of a porchetta-centric-campaign of cooking shows aimed at me only, pedaling that legalized and quite addictive substance and how to make it yourself, featuring food trucks and restaurants alike showcasing kick-ass porchetta.  I was truly convinced I'd become the unwitting victim of a universal conspiracy to entice me to death with crackling, herbs and lemon juice.  Something had to be done. 

Porchetta in Campo dei Fiori; be still my beating heart!

A couple of months ago I happened to land on an episode of Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" (a show and celebrity chef I love to hate but can't stop watching) and was sucked into an episode on a sandwich joint that made what can only be described as the most tasty thing I'd ever seen (again): their own homemade porchetta sandwiches.  The place was called Meat and Bread in Vancouver, BC, and their purposely-simple approach to sandwiches (meat and bread, literally) drew me in.  Well, and I simply couldn't take it anymore.  I had to get out and finally commence that delicious hunt for the ingredients that would ensure that the most delicious of roasted pork belly sandwiches would be mine at last.

*  *  *


Crackling Heaven.

Porchetta is traditionally from Lazio, the region in Italy where Rome is located.  As if that is not already appealing enough to me, It's also considered something of a celebratory food in the sense that it's usually sold out of food stands, trucks or markets during festivals, and most people consider it a picnic or holiday food in Italy.  It was, not surprisingly, introduced to the US by Italian immigrants and has been adopted and adapted around the country.  It is wonderful served as a main dish (like a pork roast) but truly shines, in my humble opinion, when served as part of a "panino" or sandwich, along with Italian salsa verde - a divinely acidic and earthy sauce that perfectly cuts the fat of the pork belly.

And what is this salsa verde of which I speak?  It has nothing to do with tomatillos and onions.  Nothing new-world about it, really.  It's a sauce rumored to have been brought back from the near east by Roman soldiers to Italy where it was then exported to France and Germany and theoretically also the new world - which is where we get things like Argentina's Chimichurri.  Admittedly, there is some question in my mind as to whether salsa verde is always traditionally served with porchetta in Italy as most of the recipes for porchetta with salsa verde I've encountered tend to be found in modern American publications, but, frankly, at this point, I truly do not care about authenticity.  Salsa Verde is one of the few foods that makes me salivate on command.  At this very moment I have visions of fresh herbs, garlic, peperoncino, lemon juice, olive oil and anchovies dancing through my head.  Those six things may very well be my favorite ingredients of all time.  Ok, plus salt.  I can't imagine anything savory they wouldn't make taste better.  No, really. :)

I figured it would be pretty easy to find what I needed to make the porchetta.  Who doesn't like pork belly?!  Well, apparently nobody in Denver likes it enough to demand it be sold at their local grocery store.  I went to at least 5 different grocery stores.  I tried the regular suspects in addition to my two favorite ethnic Mexican grocery stores, but it wasn't until I entered the meat section at Pacific Ocean Int'l Market (my go-to Asian market here in Denver) that I found what I was looking for.  Amidst the smells of fermented bean curd, dried shrimp and science-experiment-looking tapioca puddings, I found a large selection of pork bellies, none of which had the loin still attached as is generally used in Italy - but no matter.  The vast availability of pork loins - the least flavorful part of the pig - is a testament to the boring culinary lives most of us lead.  I picked one up at King Soopers - and I swear I left my judgments at the meat cooler - and moved on with my life and recipe.

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Delishness from above.

I read an article recently in Food & Wine written by a woman who grew up in Soviet Russia, living through food shortages and her mother's creative ways of making the government issued rations of nast palatable (see "Russian Food: A Love Story").  Apart from contemplating the oft-discussed reality that when there is none around, everything becomes about food, she also recalled her mother as having (maybe because of the food shortage, maybe in spite of it) "compulsive hospitality syndrome" - the compulsive love of sharing food with those you care about.  She would prepare dinner parties from tinned meat and half-rotting potatoes.  She coveted the neighbor's black-market bananas.  There was also a kettle ready to brew tea for a passing friend or neighbor.  I suppose this is akin to being called a "feeder," which is what my sister calls me.  I can't stand not feeding people, and, most of the time, if I am excited about making a recipe, it's at least in part because I can't wait to share it with someone I love. 

Which is why, one snowy weekend in February I invited our good friends and old neighbors over for a porchetta dinner after Matt and Tony went off to watch a Monster Truck Rally with the boys.  It left me ample time to make the salsa verde, make the salt rub for the porchetta with my friend Gaea, a recent convert to meat.  We rubbed the salt and lemon zest spice mix on the slotted pork belly skin.  We filled it with herbs.  We rolled it.  And then we roasted it low and slow in the oven, so that the skin on the pork belly became the crunchiest, saltiest of crackling, breaking off in chips as you sliced the roast, crushed onto the sandwich in an infinitely more sophisticated version of the ham-sandwich-with-Lays-potato-chips.

That night we feasted.  We served the sandwiches on ciabatta slathered in salsa verde, piled high with pork and crackling, and topped with more salsa verde.  A brisk white wine for me and beer for the rest finished it off quite nicely.  I'm certain I was in a salt and meat coma after the first three bites, my former vegetarian friend sitting across from me, smiling, licking her fingers - the best and realest testament to the transformative power of food - and the fact that Porchetta is crack for foodies.

*  *  *

Porchetta Sandwiches with Salsa Verde
Recipe from Meat & Bread in Vancouver
Serves 8-10


Salsa Verde
1 bunch parsley
1 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons toasted fennel seeds ground
2 teaspoons toasted coriander ground
2 teaspoons chili flakes
small handful of fresh fennel fronds, chopped (optional)
2 anchovy fillets (optional)
2 cloves garlic
zest of 1 lemon
lemon juice from 2 lemons

Salt & Herb Rub
2 tbsp coarse salt
2 tsp toasted fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tsp toasted fennel seed, crushed
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
zest of 1 lemon
small handful of fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Other Ingredients
2-3lbs (combined weight) Pork Belly with loin still attached (or buy them separately)
kitchen twine
extra canola oil
ciabatta rolls, sliced lengthwise for sandwiches


1. Preheat the oven to 275F.

2. Make the salsa verde in a blender (or chop by hand if you're feeling it), set aside.

3. Make the salt & herb rub in a small bowl and set aside.

4. Score the pork belly skin in a hatch pattern so it will roast and crisp up nicely (see pic above).  Spread some (about half) salt & herb rub on the inside of the belly and loin.  Roll the pork belly and loin (with the loin in the center) into a cylinder and tie tightlywith kitchen twine.  Rub the rest of the salt & herb rub and a generous amount of oil all over the outside.

5. Place porchetta in a roasting pan (relatively deep as lots of fat will be coming off this baby) and roast in the oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours.

6. Turn the heat up to 450F and roast for a further 25-30 minutes or until the skin is completely golden and crispy (as in the pictures above).

Serve on ciabatta rolls smeared with the salsa verde, with chopped up meat, sprinkled with the crispy crackling on top and more salsa verde.  Enjoy!

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