Monthly Archives: June 2011

(healthier) taco salad

When I crave Tex-Mex food, usually my craving is for a taco salad filled with beans (no meat) and taco toppings in a crispy, flaky fried tortilla shell.  The best purveyor of this guilty pleasure is Jalisco, a hole-in-the-wall in Campbell, California, that is run by a friendly native of Jalisco, Mexico, who sports a black handlebar mustache.  He charges me a different (cheap) price for my taco salad every time I go.  (I’m not sure how I qualified for this reduced, off-the-menu pricing, but I take it, say thank you and tip well!)  If you’re craving Tex-Mex like big plates of refried pinto beans, red rice, enchiladas, etc., then this is your place.

Unfortunately (thankfully?), I don’t have a deep fryer in my home.  I had Jaslico taco salads on my mind all week, and I decided to find a way to replicate the dish at home, but in a healthier way.  (Read: no deep-fried tortilla.)  I checked the interwebs for tips on making baked tortilla “bowls,” and this is the recipe and method that I came up with:

(healthier) taco salad

serves 4

Ingredients:

4 (8-inch) flour tortillas (This size makes small, just-the-right-size bowls.  I believe that 12-inch tortillas would make the larger restaurant-size bowls.)

canola cooking spray

1 lb. ground turkey

1 yellow onion, finely diced

1 jalepeño, seeded and finely diced

3 tablespoons cumin, or more, to taste

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

lettuce (any variety), shredded

1 ear of sweet corn, raw kernels cut from the cob

diced tomatoes or pico de gallo

guacamole (recipe coming soon)

Mexican crema, sour cream, or plain yogurt

Mexican cotija cheese, crumbled (I love to practice my Spanish and purchase Mexican dairy products at the dairy counter at the Mi Pueblo supermarket down the street.)

Method:

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Spray both sides of each tortilla with canola cooking spray (or lightly brush it with oil).  Press each tortilla into an oven-safe bowl (I used our Fiesta brand cereal bowls), and put the bowls on a baking sheet, like this:

Bake the tortillas for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned.  If the center of the bowls are not yet browned, re-set the oven to broil and broil for about 5 minutes.  (Keep a close eye on the tortillas so that they don’t burn!)  The final product will be non-greasy, crunchy taco bowls:


Meanwhile, prepare the taco meat.  (A tasty vegetarian alternative is to prepare pinto beans with the same seasonings.)  Heat a small amount of canola oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and jalepeño and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes.  Then, add the ground turkey, cumin, red pepper flakes, a good pinch of salt and a few cranks of black pepper.  Break up the turkey into pieces, combine it with the onions and other ingredients and cook until the meat is done and no longer pink.  Taste the meat and adjust the seasonings, if desired.

Prepare your own guacamole and/or tomato salsa.

Set out a buffet of serving bowls of the taco meat, shredded lettuce, corn kernels, tomatoes/salsa, guacamole, crema/sour cream/plain yogurt and cotija cheese.  Place the tortilla shells on plates and serve; let each person assemble his or her taco salad to taste.  Here’s what mine looked like after I first cut into it:

*Nom nom nom.*  And do make sure to enjoy every bite of the crispy, baked tortilla bowl!  No guilt here!  (But, seriously, I will need to go get my fix of Jalisco’s deep-fried version the next time my sister’s in town . . .)

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Vietnamese bamboo, chicken and rice noodle soup (bún măng gà)

Hubby was inspired to cook some delicious Vietnamese eats this weekend.  Love!

My husband was born in Vietnam, and his family immigrated to the United States in 1981 or 1982 (they’re not quite sure of the year), when he was about 3 years old.  His mother worked in a restaurant in Vietnam, and so she is an amazing home cook when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine.  I like to help her in the kitchen (when she doesn’t shoo me away!) so that I can watch her cooking methods.  I’ve encouraged Neah to talk to his mom about her recipes so that we can learn how to prepare them and enjoy this aspect of his Vietnamese culture with our children some day.  Like most cooks, however, his mother cooks without measuring, and so after asking her what goes into a given recipe, we look up the recipe in books and on the interwebs for a starting point for ingredient quantities.  We then adjust the amounts so that what we prepare more closely approximates what his mom makes.  It’s a learning process, and I’m very proud of Neah for making this effort.

We finally made our best version of bún măng gà, a big steaming bowl of rice vermicelli noodles, bamboo-infused chicken broth, fresh bamboo shoots, shredded chicken thighs and aromatics.

Vietnamese bamboo, chicken and rice noodle soup

(bún măng gà)

makes 4 large bowls

Ingredients:

2 quarts (8 cups) chicken stock (homemade, if available)

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1/2 of a 6-ounce package of dried bamboo strips

1 large piece of fresh bamboo, sliced and cut into 2-inch strips

1 tablespoon fish sauce, more or less to taste

1 16-ounce package of rice stick noodles (Neah always uses Bún Tháp Chùa brand, which comes in a red package with a picture of a Buddhist temple)

2 shallots, thinly sliced

olive oil

3 scallions, thinly sliced

fresh mint leaves

fresh cilantro leaves

fresh bean sprouts

lemon wedges

chile garlic sauce

Method:

Combine the chicken stock, chicken thighs, dried bamboo, fresh bamboo and fish sauce in a soup pot.  Bring the contents to a boil.  Then, reduce the heat and simmer the soup for about 30 minutes or until the chicken thighs are cooked through.  Remove the chicken thighs to a cutting board, shred the chicken and return the meat to the soup pot.

Note:  It is important to use both dried and fresh bamboo for this dish.  The dried bamboo gives the broth depth of flavor, and the delicate, fresh bamboo is just delicious to eat.

Meanwhile, boil the rice noodles in water until done (they should be al dente, not mushy).  Drain the noodles and rinse them well with cool water so that they don’t stick together.  Set aside.

Prepare the “grass” (as Neah’s mom calls all the aromatics) while the soup simmers: rinse and spin dry the mint, cilantro and bean sprouts, and set them on table with the lemon wedges, thinly sliced scallions and chili garlic sauce.  Each person will add these elements to his or her bowl of soup, to taste.

Crispy shallots are another tasty add-in for this soup.  To prepare them, toss thinly sliced shallots with olive oil and put them under a broiler for a few minutes until browned and crispy.  Be sure to watch them so that they don’t burn!


To serve the soup: Use a large soup bowl for each person.  Put a handful of rice noodles in the bottom of the soup bowl and ladle the soup over the noodles.  Serve the soup bowls.  At the table, add fresh herbs, sprouts, a squeeze of lemon, garlic chili sauce and shallots, to taste.  Toss and stir the soup components using an Asian soup spoon and chop sticks, and enjoy!

mmm, a delicious bowl of bamboo soup

fish tacos with spicy avocado sauce

Fish tacos are very popular in California and are now my favorite kind of taco.  This recipe has become one of our go-tos for quick week-night dinners.  If you’ve never eaten fish tacos before, I encourage you to give them a try!

fish tacos with spicy avocado sauce

serves 2

[ adapted from Cooking Light, March 2011, “blackened tilapia baja tacos” ]

Ingredients:

2 (6-ounce) fillets of white fish, such as cod or tilapia

canola oil

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 ripe avocado, halved and scooped out

1/4 cup plain yogurt or sour cream

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 jalepeño, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

8 (6-inch) corn tortillas

shredded cabbage

diced tomatoes or pico de gallo

Method:

The fish cooks quickly; therefore, I recommend making the sauce first, preparing the tortillas second and then cooking the fish.

For the spicy avocado sauce:  Combine the avocado, yogurt (or sour cream), lime juice, jalepeño and cilantro in a food processor.  Process until smooth.  (Alternatively, combine the ingredients in a large measuring cup and process using a handheld stick blender.  I prefer this method because there are fewer parts to clean.)  Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and set aside.

spicy avocado sauce

For the tortillas:  Warm a skillet over medium-high heat.  Working in batches, spray the skillet with canola cooking spray and add as many tortillas as can fit without overlapping.  Heat the tortillas on each side until lightly browned.  Wrap the tortillas in a kitchen towel to keep them warm.

Heating tortillas: Chopsticks work well for this, as my Vietnamese husband demonstrates. Very authentic. 🙂


For the fish:  Combine all the seasonings, paprika through cayenne pepper, in a small bowl.  Rinse the fish fillets and pat them dry with a paper towel.  Use your fingers to spread and press the spice rub all over the fish.  Heat a small amount of canola oil in the skillet over medium-high heat and add the fish.  Sear (“blacken”) one side, turn the fish and reduce the heat to medium or medium-low heat to finish cooking the fish through.  The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.  Transfer the fish to a platter to serve.

blackened cod fillets

Spread out all the ingredients on the table: warmed tortillas, blackened fish, the spicy avocado sauce, shredded cabbage and tomatoes.  Assemble each taco as you go and enjoy the taste of Baja California.  Yum!  🙂

blackened fish tacos with spicy avocado sauce

musings on the Midwest “taco”

I believe a life-long Californian would be horrified to taste what passes as a “taco” in some parts of this country (read: places where there are no Mexicans).  In the Midwest, tacos are made with ground beef.  Period.  (It is cattle country.)  Every taco that I ever encountered, whether in my mother’s kitchen or at a friend’s house, started with browned ground beef, water and this key ingredient:

McCormick taco seasoning

That’s right, taco seasoning mix.  The Hamburger Helper of tacos.  “The Taste You Trust” (when you have no idea how authentic tacos should taste).

By my mid-teens, I was a master of preparing this meal.  Brown the hamburger.  Check.  Add water and taco seasoning; simmer until absorbed.  Check.  Meanwhile, put Old El Paso taco shells on a platter and shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, sliced black olives, shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream in bowls.  Oh yeah, taco night is awesome.  (And not too different from Taco Bell.)  If I still ate red meat today, these “Midwest tacos” would be one of those guilty-pleasure comfort foods that would make my husband raise his eyebrows.

While I’m on this tangent, I need to raise the issue of Taco Pizza, another Midwest classic.  The first time I had this was during my senior year of high school, when my Spanish class (all white kids, naturally) celebrated Cinco de Mayo by scarfing down three large taco pizzas from Godfather’s.

Godfather's makes the best taco pizza

Ah, the authentic south-of-the-border flavors of hamburger and mozzarella pizza topped (after baking) with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese.  My husband never heard of this.  No Californian has ever heard of this.

My point is this: the Midwest hamburger “taco” concoctions are delicious, but they are not authentic (hopefully no one believes that they are).  Once you try authentic tacos, all that stuff looks like Taco Bell and you can’t go back.  (Unless you want guilty-pleasure comfort food.  See above.)  I’ve seen so many kinds of tacos in California: shredded chicken, shredded pork, shredded beef, carnitas, lengua (beef tongue) and fish.  I had no idea what I had been missing!

Buen provecho!

rustic mash of roasted root vegetables

A mashed medley of root vegetables is a tasty alternative to mashed potatoes.  (Try it at Thanksgiving.)  This recipe is highly variable in that you can use any combination of root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabegas and potatoes.  This week, I had sweet orange carrots and spicy white “Tokyo Market Turnips” on hand, and so I used this duo of veggies for my mash.

white "Tokyo Market Turnips" and carrots

Roasting is my favorite way to prepare “fun” root vegetables like parsnips and turnips because it intensifies the flavors and coaxes out their natural sweetness.  I found plenty of “root vegetable mash” recipes, but none that called for roasting the veggies first (they all called for boiling them).  So I used a recipe that I found but roasted the turnips and carrots instead of boiling them.

Did I notice a difference?  Yes.  I used an electric hand mixer to mash/whip the vegetables, and I discovered that the outer roasted parts of the turnips and carrots did not blend in with the softer, inner parts of the vegetable pieces.  The result was a smooth mash base with lumps of roasted veggie goodness.  A “rustic” mash, if you will.  To me, this was the best of both worlds: small chunks of roasted carrots and turnips enrobed in a carrot-turnip purée.   If you would prefer a smoother mash, then, by all means, boil the root vegetables.  But if a mash with rustic lumps of roasted veggies sounds good to you, then please try my variation!

rustic mash of roasted root vegetables

serves 6 – 8 as a side dish

( adapted from Tyler Florence’s recipe, “savory mashed root vegetables” )

Ingredients:

8 cups chopped root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, etc.)

olive oil

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup half-and-half or heavy cream

3 tablespoons butter

a few sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

Method:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Chop the medley of root vegetables into uniformly sized pieces.  In a large mixing bowl, toss the veggies with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.   Spread the veggies onto a baking sheet and bake them for 35 minutes or until the edges appear caramelized and the flesh pierces easily with a fork.

before roasting . . .

roasted carrots and turnips

Meanwhile, combine the cream, butter, thyme and bay leaf in a small saucepan.  Cook over medium-high heat until the butter melts.  Then, lower the heat to keep the liquid warm and to infuse it with the thyme and bay leaf flavors.  (Stir frequently to prevent scorching.)

Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs from the heated cream with a slotted spoon.  Transfer the roasted root vegetables to a large mixing bowl and add the warm cream mixture.

Then, use an electric hand mixer or potato masher to mash the veggies and combine them with the cream.  The result will be lumpy in a delightfully rustic, delicious way!

rustic mash of roasted turnips and carrots

I paired the rustic mash with sautéed shitake mushrooms for a delicious vegetarian dinner.

simple sautéed mushrooms

Aren’t mushrooms great?  I agree with my father: “I never met a mushroom I didn’t like.”  What’s even better is when it’s not just button or crimini mushrooms on hand, but more exciting varieties like oyster mushrooms or fresh shitakes.

We received a paper bag full of fresh shitake mushrooms in our CSA share this week, and this intrigued me because I had never encountered nor cooked with fresh shitakes.  These were not the shriveled, dried ones that you find at the store!  They were beautiful, and I decided that they needed to be the star of their own dish, not one of many ingredients in a stir-fry.

In this simple recipe, the fresh, woodsy rosemary perfectly compliments the earthy, forest-y flavors of the fresh mushrooms.

simple sautéed mushrooms

serves 1 as an entrée or 2 as a side dish

Ingredients:

2 cups fresh mushrooms, any variety, chopped (here, I used fresh shitakes)

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

olive oil

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

fresh shitake mushrooms and fresh rosemary

Method:

Rinse and roughly chop the mushrooms.  Sautée the mushrooms over medium-high heat with olive oil and rosemary until the mushrooms brown, reduce and release their liquid.  (This takes about 5 minutes with a hot pan.)

Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper to taste, and serve them with their juices as an entrée or side dish.  (I like to prepare a big batch of a mix of button, crimini and oyster mushrooms as a side dish for Thanksgiving.)  Delish!