Friday, March 27, 2020

In Defense of the Crispy Taco

Crispy tacos have long been a Tex-Mex staple. However, in recent years with the widespread blandness of Taco Bell, sub-par Mexican restaurant chains, and store-bought "taco kits," they seem to have lost their favor, with the exception of the 2 am drunken crowd. In addition, who decided that crispy tacos don't have their roots in authentic Mexican? In fact, in Mexico they are called "tacos dorados" (golden tacos), and are filled with meat and fried. "Flautas" (flutes) are usually flour tortillas rolled up around the filling and fried. "Taquitos" are usually corn tortillas rolled up around the filling and fried. Both are considered tacos dorados. I've even seen taco dorados made by closing the tortilla in half with the filling inside and fried that way.

According to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, via Julia Moskin of The New York Times, the crispy taco began at Mitla Cafe, east of Los Angelos. Mitla Cafe was established in 1937 by Vicente and Lucia Montano, and is still family owned today. Their signature dish is "tacos dorados con carne molida," golden taco shells filled with seasoned ground beef, iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. Here is where the story gets interesting! "In 1950, one Glen Bell, an entrepreneur possessed by envy of the McDonald brothers' success, opened a burger stand across the street from Mitla." "According to Mr. Arellano's research, Mr. Bell ate often at Mitla and watched long lines form at its walk-up window; later, having persuaded the Montanos to show him how the tacos were made, he experimented after hours with a tool that would streamline the process of frying the tortillas."

Mr. Bell started serving his own tacos in 1951." The business went through several name changes (Taco Tia, El Taco) before starting as Taco Bell in 1962." "On the Taco Bell website, Mr. Bell is cited as the creator of the 'fast-food crunchy taco.'" Hmph! What do you think? Either way, the only way to make truly delicious crispy tacos is to make the beef seasoning yourself, instead of using those mystery packets from the store. In addition, either buy the best taco shells you can find (I like La Tiara brand, not Old El Paso or that blasted Taco Bell brand!) or fry up your own. Heat a couple inches of oil in a pot, drop in a corn tortilla (home-made or store-bought), shape with a spatula and tongs until golden, a few minutes. Drain and voila! These tacos are an easy and delicious week-night dinner that you and your family will love!

Awesome Crispy Tacos

1 lb ground beef chuck
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 Tablespoon chili powder (like Gebhardt, if possible)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1- 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt

Mix the dry ingredients together, set aside. Brown the meat in a large saute pan over medium-high heat, breaking it into pieces with a wooden spoon. When browned, drain the excess fat. Add the onion, spices, and 1/2 cup water. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Serve with crispy tortilla shells, avocado slices, your favorite salsa from my site! (or your favorite store-bought salsa), shredded iceberg lettuce dressed with a dash of cider vinegar and pinch of salt, diced tomato, chopped cilantro, Mexican crema or sour cream, and top it all off with some freshly grated cheddar cheese (the store-bought pre-shredded stuff taste nothing like freshly grated)! Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Remember the Alamo!

I think everyone has a place where they instinctually feel at home, for me that is central and south Texas. The kindness and generosity of the people is truly infectious, and not surprising due to the long history of the area! Let's start with the beautiful city of San Antonio! In 1691, a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries came upon the river and Native American settlement on June 13, the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padova, Italy, and named the place and river "San Antonio" in his honor. Following several Spanish missions established in the area, from 1718 through 1731, sixteen families who had been colonists in the Canary Islands, arrived in San Antonio, by royal decree of the King of Spain, and founded La Villa de San Fernando, and established the first civil government in Texas and the San Fernando Cathedral (built between 1738-1750). The San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in the United States, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the Cathedral is the resting place of the fallen heroes of the Alamo, including Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie. If you ever find yourself in San Antonio, besides visiting the Alamo, the San Fernando Cathedral should be on your list!

View of the San Fernando Cathedral from my amazing terrace at the Drury Plaza - San Antonio Riverwalk located in the restored Alamo National Bank Building, Room 971, in the San Fernando Tower! (Great Hotel Room!) 

My favorite part of San Antonio is the enchanting San Antonio Riverwalk, aka., Paseo Del Rio. The San Antonio Riverwalk was transformed in the 1920s, diverting the river's flow and paving over the riverbanks, creating a pedestrian mall, home to galleries, shops, and restaurants, it is a must-see! The oldest restaurant along the Riverwalk is Casa Rio. The restaurant founded in 1946, sits on land first granted title in 1777 by the King of Spain. The existing Spanish Colonial hacienda became the core of Casa Rio, where the huge cedar door and window lintels, the fireplace, and the thick rock walls, are still evident. Although the food is typical, sub-par tourist faire, like most along the Riverwalk, Casa Rio is definitely a place to visit.

View of Casa Rio from the Commerce Street Bridge, the first bridge built to span the river!

So, in honor of San Antonio, I made a classic "Chiles Rellenos," found on any self-respecting Mexican menu! Chiles Rellenos, or stuffed chiles, are one of the most emblematic dishes in Mexican cuisine, with origins dating back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. It consists of roasted poblano chiles stuffed with cheese or meats and covered in an egg batter, fried, and served with a light tomato broth. Because the chiles relleno is traditionally made with poblano chiles, a term used to refer to people and things from the city and state of Puebla, it is widely considered to have originated in Puebla, and is rumored to have been created by the local nuns! This delicious cheese stuffed version is truly simple, no toothpicks, no dipping, no freezing, if you've never made chiles rellenos before, this is your recipe! You'll love it!

Chiles Rellenos

Serves 4

For the Salsa
1 pound Roma tomatoes, cored and halved
1/2 medium white onion, cut into 1/2" slices
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 medium serrano chile, stemmed
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice, or more to taste
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, or more to taste

For the Chiles Rellenos
5 medium poblano chiles (I always make an extra one, just in case one tears beyond repair)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to season chiles
8 ounces (about 3 cups) shredded Monterey Jack, Chihuahua, or queso Oaxaca cheese
Flour for dusting stuffed pobanos
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, for the egg whites
1 cup canola oil

For the Salsa
Preheat your broiler and arrange a rack in the upper third of the oven.

Place the tomato halves, (skin-side up), onion slices, garlic, and serrano on a baking sheet. Broil until the tomato skins start to blacken and blister, about 7 minutes. Remove from the broiler and transfer the ingredients to a blender. Add the lime juice and salt, and blend into a smooth puree. Taste and season with additional salt or lime to taste.

Transfer to a small saucepan and keep warm over very low heat.

For the Chiles Rellenos
Lay 1 chile on a cutting board so that it sits flat naturally without rolling. Using a sharp pairing knife, make two cuts forming a "T" by first slicing down the middle of the chile lengthwise from stem to tip, them making a second cut perpendicular to the first about 1/2" from the stem, slicing only halfway through the chile. Don't cut the stem end completely off! Carefully open the flaps to expose the interior of the chile, and using a pairing knife and/or kitchen shears, carefully remove all the seeds, ribs, and any core. You can rinse the chile under cold water to flush out any extra seeds. Dry thoroughly with paper towels, inside and out. Repeat with the remaining chiles.

Turn 2 gas burners to medium-high heat. Place 1 chile directly on each burner and roast, turning occasionally with tongs, until blackened and blistered on all sides. Repeat with the remaining chiles. Check my "Techniques" tab for additional guidance on How to Roast a Chile. If you don't have a gas stove, place all the chiles directly on a high oven rack under the broiler, turning occasionally with tongs, until the chiles blacken and blister on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. When the chiles are blackened, place in a large, heatproof bowl, and tightly cover with plastic wrap. Let cool about 15 minutes.

Using the side a knife, can use a butter knife to prevent tearing, scrape away and discard the charred skins. Try not to tear the chiles! Season the inside and outside of the chiles with salt and pepper. Stuff each chile, trying not to tear them, with a quarter of the cheese (about 2/3 cup) and close the flaps over the cheese. Dust lightly with flour to help batter adhere. Set aside.

Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until lightened in color and frothy, about 2 minutes, set aside. Place the egg whites and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high until stiff peaks form, about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove the bowl from the mixer and gently fold in the egg yolks with a rubber spatula until just combined. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until hot, about 4 minutes. Check to see if the oil is hot by submerging the handle of a wooden spoon until it touches the bottom of the pan, the oil is ready if bubbles form around the handle.

Working with 1 chile at a time, drop about 1/2 cup of the egg batter into the oil using a rubber spatula to spread it to about the same size as the stuffed chile. The batter will puff up considerably, it's supposed to! 

Lay the chile, seam-side down on top of the mound of batter.

Drop another 1/2 cup of the batter on top of the chile, spreading it with the rubber spatula to cover the sides and encase the chile.

Cook without disturbing until the bottom of the chile relleno is golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Using a spatula and a fork, carefully flip the chile relleno over and cook until the other side is golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. (If the sides of the chile aren't browned, using a spatula or tongs, carefully turn it onto each side to brown.)

When done, transfer the chiles rellenos to a cooling rack and season with a pinch of salt. You can place them in a low oven to keep warm, while finishing the remaining chiles.

Plating the Dish
Place about 1/4 of the salsa into four individual wide bowls or plates, top each with a chile relleno, garnish with a sprig of cilantro. Serve immediately, passing any remaining sauce on the side. Delicioso!

***You may also be interested in Chorizo Stuffed Poblano Peppers!

Friday, March 20, 2020

French Onion Soup!

Onion soup has been around since the ancient Romans and Greeks, but it took the French to add the bread and cheese to make it the much desired "French Onion Soup," or "Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee." French onion soup has been around since the 17th century and was peasant food, specifically from the silk laborers known as the canuts, and was thought to have medicinal properties. At the time, people thought that eating raw onions caused headaches. The tradition was carried on to local french bistros in the Lyonnaise region of France, called "bouchons." Onions were caramelized to perfection, simmered with water, then topped with a crisp slice of bread (croute), Comte or Gruyere cheese, then baked or broiled until the cheese was melted and slightly browned. Beef stock would have been too time-consuming and expensive to "waste" on a simple onion soup. Sometimes red wine would be added to the broth, an ancient tradition known as "faire chabrot" ("to drink like a little goat"), which is why many modern recipes call for the addition of red wine, port, cognac, white wine, and even sherry. Legend has it that French onion soup was created by King Louis XV (or perhaps XIV) of France? After a long day of hunting, apparently unsuccessfully, he created the dish using stale bread, onions, and champagne that he had on hand... I find that extremely hard to believe that a King, with servants, would have the knowledge or patience to properly sweat and caramelize onions.

I adore a nice bowl of French onion soup and have spent many a day trying to find the version I like best. I've consulted all the greats: James Beard, Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, Julia Childs, Jacques Pepin, Laura Calder, Michael Ruhlman, and even Balthazar's, just to name of few! (I'm not kidding!) They all have different convictions about what is best, and what I have concluded is I like mine the best! Although my recipe has a few additions not regularly seen, like the addition of a leek and shallot - technically in the onion family, which I feel rounds out the flavor, giving it that "je ne sais quoi." In addition, I like using beef stock even though I know Ruhlman would gasp in horror! Either way, if you love French onion soup and you don't want to make just any recipe on a whim, I think you'll find this very satisfying and adaptable to your taste. It makes a fine French onion soup indeed!

French Onion Soup (Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee)

Serves 4, generously!


1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 LARGE yellow onions, thinly sliced*
1 leek, sliced thinly and washed (see how do you cut and wash leeks?, if needed)
1 shallot, trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 cups beef stock (home-made or low-sodium is the best)
1/2 cup red wine, or port, or white wine, or sherry, or 1/4 cup cognac to deglaze (optional, in fact, sometimes I prefer it without)
2 bay leaves
1/2 lb Comte or Gruyere cheese (**use cave-aged, or it won't melt properly!), shredded
8, 1/2" thick slices French baguette, toasted golden brown (the dry bread makes the cheese float and not sink to the bottom, toast it well!)


In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over low heat. Add the onions, leek, and shallot, sprinkle to taste with salt. (Careful if your using store-bought stock, less is more here.) Stir to coat well with the butter, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until very tender, 20-30 minutes.

Remove the cover, raise the heat slightly and saute, stirring frequently, until the onions turn a deep caramel brown, about 1-1 1/2 hours, or so! Be patient! Do Not Let them Burn, or the soup will be bitter.

Add the stock, 1/2 cup red wine or port or cognac, etc. (you choose), and bay leaves, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer about 30 minutes more. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

When ready, discard the bay leaves. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into heavy flameproof serving crocks or bowls placed on a baking sheet or broiler tray. Sprinkle a little of the cheese into each bowl, then place 2 toasted bread slices or croutes onto each bowl. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining cheese.

Place the tray with the bowls in the oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Crank up the broiler to brown the cheese slightly, or use a blow torch. Serve immediately. CAREFUL, IT'S HOT, but very delicious!

*To thinly slice onions for French onion soup, remove the tops and skins from the onions, leaving the root ends attached. (That gives you something to hold on to.) Cut the onions in half from root to tip. Cut each half the same way. Then, holding the root section, slice the onions crosswise, creating the perfect size to fit in spoon!

Friday, March 6, 2020

Does My Butt Look Big?

Too bad that some of the best things in life are fattening, like Fettuccine Alfredo. I know I shouldn't, but I want it anyway. Guilty pleasure? Perhaps. Delicious? Definitely! So if you're going to give in, at least do it right.  You need fresh fettuccine (which can be bought at most stores) and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (the real stuff). Feel free to top it off with freshly ground black pepper, grated nutmeg, or if you really want to be bad - a nice drizzle of truffle oil!

Fettuccine Alfredo

Serves 4-6


12 oz fresh fettuccine pasta
3 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more for the pasta water


Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add about 2 tablespoons of salt.

In a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat.  When the butter is melted, add the cream and salt and heat until small bubbles start to form, then let it simmer until it is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. (This thickening step is critical; if the sauce is too thin, it won't coat the pasta nicely.) Remove from the heat.

Cook the pasta in the water until it is tender but still al dente. Reserve about a cup of the pasta water to thin the sauce later, if necessary.

Reheat the sauce and add the pasta to the sauce, then add the cheese. Toss well to coat each strand evenly. If it looks dry as you toss, add a little at a time, of the reserved pasta water. Serve in warmed bowls. Enjoy!

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma's Pasta.