Sunday, February 20, 2011

Taking Tacos to a New Level

The idea of a taco, even a shrimp taco may not conjure up Mexican haute cuisine, but recently, at the Hacienda de Guadalupe in San Miguel de Allende, my husband and I were treated to a regal plate of shrimp tacos.
Tostadas de Camarón

The evening had started out a bit disappointingly. We had expected to meet a friend at the busy, noisy and well-known hang-out next door to the Hacienda de Guadalupe. Getting an earful of the clamor within, we instinctively ran for the door, away from the noise. But we were hungry and didn't want to walk far to look for a quiet place to eat.

Just one doorway away, at the Hacienda de Guadalupe, we found ourselves lured into this combination boutique hotel/restaurant, an eclectic but somehow congruent mix of twenty-fifth century modern and seventeenth century colonial design. The ambiance, in fact, is very peaceful and inviting. On the menu, we ordered the shrimp tacos. But...if you are thinking of pedestrian tacos, plain old tacos de la calle, forget it. What came was something that was arranged on the plate with an artistry that brought Asian fusion cuisine to mind. Chef Montserrat had turned plain old street food into an art form.

The way I've made them at home is without folding the tortilla when I fry it and I've made it with blue tortillas, but, naturally, it can be made with regular tortillas as well. So, my version, should be called:

Tostadas de Camarón

15 raw medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 tablespoons flour, approximately
salt to taste
½ cup canola or grapeseed oil for frying tortillas
½ cup canola or grapeseed oil for cooking the powdered shrimp
freshly ground red pepper (I use Drogheria Alimentari that you grind from the bottle)
1 package good quality corn tortillas
6 -7 limes cut in half

For the pico de gallo sauce:
2 large tomatos, chopped finely
1 large yellow onion, chopped finely
1 serrano pepper, minced finely
1 cup cilantro chopped roughly
1 teaspoon salt, preferably rock salt

Combine the ingredients of the pico de gallo ahead of time and set aside in the refrigerator, but not more than a few hours ahead of time.

Fry the tortillas in a pan with the hot oil. Turn them on both sides until they are crispy. Set aside on paper towels.

Place the flour on a plate and dust the shrimp on all sides. It should not look like a heavy breading. Add salt and a few grindings of red pepper.

Cook the shrimp on a pan with low sides on medium heat. When the shrimp is cooked, looking a golden color on all sides (about five minutes), place on paper toweling.

Just before serving, arrange the cooked shrimp on the tostada and top with the pico de gallo. The lime should be squeezed over the tostada just before the first bite.

Note: Shrimp come in different sizes, and the large ones are delectable, but if you use them, you should chop them before breading and cooking them, just so they can be eaten easily on your tostada.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cooking with Chef Gray and St. Albans Boys

Living in the Nation’s Capital has its perks.  Among them, the springtime.   A variegated season whose spectrum of color is highlighted for a few weeks by cherry blossoms that sprout across reaching branches and then blanket entire neighborhoods in cupcake pink as the blossoms flutter to the ground.  There is also the magnificence of the historic monuments scattered around the city.  Especially notable at night is the Washington Monument, a chalky-white obelisk rising to the heavens to pierce a midnight-blue sky.

But, as the seat of American government, Washington can be a formidable place to live and work.  Lobbyists work lengthy hours when Congress is in session and working parents remain “plugged in” while they read nighttime stories to their kids.  During rush hour the collective mood on the Metro can be dour, as worker bees make their way to windowless offices in numerous and vast government buildings.

Yet, lying beneath Washington D.C.’s austerity is a bedrock of magnanimity.  Tireless advocates routinely descend on the various branches of government, steadfast in their quest to effect change for the greater good.  Countless non-profit organizations are headquartered here and serve citizens in need of clothing, shelter, food and much more.  If there are any per capita statistics, I’d like to know, but it seems there is also an abundance of successful entrepreneurs who endeavor to give back to the local community.  Though I suspect few do it quite like Chef Todd and Ellen Kassoff Gray, a dynamic husband and wife team who, among other things, own a sparkly gem of a restaurant called Equinox.

Located just a stone’s throw from the White House, the restaurant caters to a clientele consisting of Washington insiders and K Street lobbyists.  When they are not seating and serving diplomats, the Grays are busy giving back to the community in a myriad of ways. Since they opened Equinox in 1999, the Gray’s have held cooking demonstrations at local schools, teaching young people about where food comes from and instilling in them the notion that we are what we eat.  Chef Gray also collaborates with White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass to broaden the reach of the Chefs to Schools Program, an initiative to partner interested chefs around the country with elementary schools in an effort to combat childhood obesity.  The Grays have adopted D.C.’s Murch Elementary School, for example.

The Gray’s are also known for opening and managing farmers’ markets in Washington, D.C., supporting the humane treatment and slaughter of animals, and serving as volunteers on boards, including the Washington Humane Society and the Northwest Little League.  They do all this while raising their son, running Equinox, and starting up new business ventures (e.g. a catering business and a second restaurant called Watershed that is scheduled to open in April 2011.)

Gilda and I have had the privilege of observing Chef Gray cooking with elementary school children in Equinox’s bustling kitchen.

Recently, he graciously taught the children how to make a Dos Gildas recipe (guacamole and totopos) and also showed them how to grill chicken on the line, side-by-side seasoned chefs during a busy lunch hour.   And while we waited for the students to finish their lesson, Ellen Kassoff Gray (who manages the “front of the house” operations) treated us to a plate of delectable risotto arancini and eggplant frites with a spicy rémoulade.

We then sampled the children’s cooking: grilled chicken served atop mascarpone cheese grits infused with adobo chiles and served with haricot verts.  For dessert, a nibble of vanilla bean brioche bread pudding topped with toffee sauce.

Like I said, there are many benefits to living in Washington, D.C.;  namely, good food and good people.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

For the Love of San Miguel de Allende

It would be easy to be selfish and keep the secret of San Miguel de Allende to myself.   But what the heck, Martha Stewart "discovered" it several months ago.  Granted, American GIs started going in droves to this colonial town in central Mexico in the late 40's when Stirling Dickinson, the larger-than-life American expatriate impacted the life of this town forever after.  In 1948, Life Magazine published a three-page spread entitled “GI Paradise: Veterans go to Mexico to study art, live cheaply and have a good time.” This was Stirling Dickinson's legacy.

In the intervening years, this sleepy town—and the cradle of Mexican independence—grew and became flooded with expats from all over the world, especially Americans.  It also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unfortunately, in 2009, stories of the spread of swine flu discouraged tourism.  This was compounded by the astounding stories of how large swaths of Mexico have been taken over by drug cartels, reversing the prosperity the town had enjoyed since those heady days of Stirling Dickinson. The irony is that San Miguel is safer than most American towns and life on the main square is lived almost as it was a hundred years ago.

I am a teacher and several years ago,  with the collaboration of colleagues in my school, we created a program for our middle school students in San Miguel. This is how I ended up in a cooking class with Paco Cárdenas Báez, a pastry chef who owns Petit Four.  Paco's class is foodie heaven.  He takes his students to the market to meet the "real" people of San Miguel: women who sell nopales, blue handmade tortillas, huitlacoche, and roasted corn.

He invites his pupils into his home to cook in a kitchen that is al fresco, the chef and his eager protégés bathed in the golden light of San Miguel.

The Aztecs knew what chocolate was about. So does Paco.   Here is his decadent chocolate mousse with tequila for you to enjoy this Dia del Amor, Valentine's Day.

Chocolate Mousse a la Mexicana Recipe by Chef Paco Cárdenas from El Petit Four M.R.

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¼ cup tequila reposado (aged)
1 cup fresh mixed berries
Optional: ½ cup bittersweet chocolate for decorative flakes; pour on a granite top and scrape with spatula

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the cream to soft peaks.
Pour the tequila on top of the cream and mix well.
Melt the chopped chocolate and pour it on top of the tequila cream.
Whisk together until smooth.

To serve:
Place the mousse in a pastry bag with a striped nozzle and pipe the mousse  (or spoon it) in martini glasses, garnish with fresh mixed berries and dark chocolate flakes.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Beans for the Young and Restless

I have a friend, Liz, who is a half-Egyptian, half-Cuban beauty.  Tall and fit, she more like glides when she walks, ever mellow but always in step with the world around her.  The color of her eyes exactly matches her burnt-caramel skin.  The corona of springy, black curls that frames her face is her signature feature. She is blithe, guarded and possesses a disarming, sardonic wit.
And she reminds me of beans, so hard and stoic until you cook them down, slowly.  Patiently.  What is impenetrable at first eventually becomes velvety smooth, full of texture, hearty and dependable.  Also, we ate a lot of black beans and rice together when we were low-budget law students living in Baltimore.

It was 1995.  Our first year of law school.  We spent time on campus feigning self-confidence, eating free pizza and drinking cheap beer in the student lounge, and surreptitiously stalking the cutest boys.  Sure, we studied.  But we had a hell of a lot of fun—probably more than law students are supposed to have—running around Charm City.   And in between the parties and the lawyer preparation, we cooked.

Liz, a vegetarian, introduced me to lentils and Cuban-style black beans, soaked and simmered in hand-me-down pots on her microscopic gas stove.   We might spend an entire Sunday in her small Mt. Vernon apartment, complete with a rectangle kitchen reminiscent of the vintage, die-cast-toy variety.  We were two young women, gossiping and listening to Wu-Tang Clan, Albita and the Fugees playing in the other room, the boombox too big for the kitchen counter.  Without an island on which to alternately strand ourselves, we took turns chopping, stirring and leaning against the one-door jamb.  We drank red wine, feeling too hip to play the role of a stereotypical 1L.  In the next room, Liz would insert an incense stick into the soil of a lonely houseplant.  Its coco-mango smoke swirling into the air, mixing with the aroma of stewing legumes and carrying away our twenty-something laughter.

Those were the days.

Hipster Black Beans Inspired by Memories of Being Cool

Recipe Type: Side Dish

Author: Gilda Claudine

Prep time: 2 hours

Cook time: 45 mins

Total time: 2 hours 45 mins

Serves: 4 - 6

  • 1 lb black beans

  • 3 tbs olive oil

  • 3 to 4 slices bacon

  • 2 cloves garlic

  • 1 small onion

  • 2 or 3 serrano peppers (optional)

  • 1 or 2 tomatoes

  • 4 cups of chicken (Vegetarian option:  use vegetable stock or water)

  • Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste

  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin

  • 1 tsp ancho chili powder

  1. Use fresh beans.

  2. Sift through the beans and remove any broken pieces or sediment.

  3. Soak them in water either overnight in a pot or cover beans in 2 to 4 cups of water (allow enough liquid for the beans to be completely cover and then some), bring to a boil and then allow to soak for 2 hours.

  4. Once the beans have absorbed most of the water, drain and rinse in a colander. Set aside.

  5. In a medium or large-sized pot, heat the oil, add the bacon and cook over medium-high heat until softened.

  6. Add the onions, garlic, serrano peppers.

  7. When the onions are translucent, add the tomatoes and cook for another few minutes.

  8. Add the beans to the mixture, coating with the oil and bacon fat.

  9. Add 2 cups of chicken stock, cumin, ancho chili powder, salt and pepper.  Cover and cook over medium-low heat.

  10. Check on the beans and stir from time to time.  If the beans absorb most of the stock, add the remaining amount.  Taste for flavor.

  11. Cook for several hours until the beans have become velvety smooth.

  12. Serve over brown rice and top with some chopped red pepper, onions or nothing at all.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Never a Year Without Tamales

On this day a year ago, my mother, Floria Valdez, became suddenly and unexpectedly ill.  I managed to leave Washington in the midst of the worst snow storm in years and was there at her side until she departed on her birthday, February 8. It is still difficult to think about what this loss has meant to me. At the most unexpected moments, I remember her...when I hear a special song, when I want to brag about a personal achievement, when I want to talk about the funny things my students do, when I need to talk about my son. But most of all I think of her...when I'm in the kitchen. My mother loved to cook and was a purist about the things she made, for example, her tamales. She was a stickler for making them just like her own mother had made them. Recently, my paternal cousin, Cotis, from Monterrey, Mexico, sent me a message on Facebook asking me if my tamales recipe came from her mother's mother, our grandmother, Manuelita. Actually, no. Recipes for tamales are matriarcal, in my opinion, although Cotis' mother's tamales were delicious too. So, my family's way of making tamales comes from my maternal grandmother, Maria Garza Hernandez, my mother's mother who, during the season, had to make enough tamales for a family of twelve...a few hundred tamales. Hard to imagine.

When it was time to make tamales, everyone got into the act, in a noisy conveyor-belt style. Even though we had our mother doing very strict quality control, each tamal was a funny reminder of the person who had wrapped it. Some were skinny, some were fat, some had too much meat, too many raisins, but you could recognize the person who had made it, somehow, when you unwrapped it. My mother liked 'delicate' tamales, in other words, tamales that were not heavy with dough but that were slightly thicker than a small sausage and she wanted just the right mixture of venison to pork meat. Our family's recipe called for raisins, and peeled chiles, turning the meat mixture a beautiful rust color and leaking the color slightly into the dough. We never bought our tamales. Heaven forbid! The making of tamales was a two-day undertaking, but my mother dropped everything to begin the process in the winter. We have never spent a year without my mother's tamales. This year, in fact, my sister, Laura, took up the tradition and made the Christmas tamales.

These days leading up to La Candelaria, the February 2 holiday celebrated in Mexico when tamales and champurrado are served, Gilda Claudine and I have been discussing whether we would make our tamales. After all, on January 6, we both, in the most unlikely coincidence, got the baby Jesus figurine in our slice of rosca cake (at two separate parties!). As the tradition goes, in the true spirit of Epiphany, we must provide the tamales and chocolate for La Candelaria. I have hemmed and hawed...knowing full well my schedule and her schedule and now the day has sneaked upon us! What to do? There are times one must adapt and adjust to what comes down. This year, Gilda Claudine, we will not be making tamales. We'll have to live with that and our friends will have to accept the chocolate or champurrado we serve with...panettone? My mother would have understood. I will post the family recipe as soon as my sister parts with it.