Monday, May 5, 2014

OMG a Recipe: Celebrating True Southern Comfort

It's Cinco de Mayo, but this Americanized/commercialized holiday has become more like Cinco de Drinko, since it's more heavily associated with drinking as much lime-plugged Coronas and sickly-sweet margaritas as you can chug. I don't think that's what the Mexican army had in mind when they defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. It's better to think of this holiday as a recognition of cultural pride for Mexican Americans. And rightly so. If food is a cultural ambassador, the influence of Mexico reaches across the nation -- tacos are as ubiquitous as hot dogs and hamburgers. While not specific to Mexico, salsa has long surpassed ketchup as a favorite condiment. It's not just Mexico -- the flavors and seasonings of Latin America as a whole have been embraced; their food has become part of our Comfort Food vocabulary, and I think a blended heritage is worth celebrating, every day.

Viva la Pupusa - El Salvador's national snack made at home - Photo by Wasabi Prime

My lead-in photo is not Mexican at all -- it's a Salvadoran stuffed corn cake called a pupusa. But that's the point, this post isn't about Cinco de Mayo, it's about the melting pot of cuisine that is America's Appetite. I love that we're a country fortunate to be exposed to so many immigrant cultures, be it Korean or Brazilian, and so often, the food comes with them, and everyone benefits. Remove all the fast food mega-chains, and you'll still be left with little shops serving sushi, gyros/kebabs, teriyaki, pho, tacos and burritos, and we don't think twice about grabbing a quick bite at these places. They feel familiar and are as crave-worthy as a plate of mac n' cheese.

Pupusa-making process - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I tried my hand at making pupusas at home after having some at a Salvadoran restaurant. Dishes from El Salvador use ingredients and methods familiar to the Central American region, but their cuisine is still unique. Fried plantains are popular starches, they have tamales, but they're usually wrapped in plantain leaves versus corn husks. I always hone in on snack food, and pupusas were the ideal dish. It's a masa dough, similar to making tortillas, made into flat cakes that surround fillings that can include cheese, beans, finely minced pork, or a combination of the three. The cakes are seared until fully cooked and the surface is browned, and they're typically served with a pickled cabbage called curtido, which nicely cuts through the richness of the dough and filling. I used the basics of this recipe from The Kitchn -- I think their instructions and photos for filling methods is helpful, so even if you switch up the pupusa filling, it's a good how-to resource. My at-home version had shredded cheddar, because it melts so easily, and chopped cilantro -- very simple and very delicious. You could fill the masa dough with anything you want, it's all about the joy of having this little parcel of pan-fried dough filled with something wonderful inside. I skipped the curtido and just had these with some hot sauce -- they were a fantastic meal on their own.

Avocado, we should have just called you Guacamole Fruit - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The Food Inception of Latin American cuisine definitely comes into play when I have avocados. Sure, I could eat them in salads, maybe even in a sandwich or burger... but not, I'm always going to make guacamole. Avocados are like food geodes. You know there's going to be magic inside when you crack it open, you just hope it looks pretty. When you cut open a perfectly ripe avocado -- light green, butter texture, and zero brown spots, it's like hitting the jackpot. Even more reason to mash the hell out of it with some chopped cilantro, tomato, and fresh lime juice. Great on its own with tortillas, even better when topping a pile of vegetables cooked with chorizo, atop toasted tortillas -- simple, delicious dinner. If I have an avocado in the kitchen, guacamole is happening. Period.

Chilaquiles, the most epic of Brinners - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The one Mexican dish that has become a favorite at home is probably one that hasn't quite hit the Popular Kids list the way tacos and burritos have -- meet chilaquiles. It's the simplest dish to make -- toss fried tortillas in a red chili or mole sauce, then serve with a fried egg on top, a sprinkle of queso fresco and a drizzle of crema. There's variations of this -- TexMex style uses tortilla chips, sometimes the tortillas are served crunchy, and sometimes they're left to soak in the sauce and get soft. My at-home version of chilaquiles has me using a bag of tortilla chips tossed in a red sauce thickened with chopped vegetables and chorizo, baking it until a little softened, and then doing the egg/cheese/crema topping. Sliced fresh radishes add a nice crunch.

However you chilaquile-it, the key ingredient is the sauce. Canned enchilada sauce works in a pinch, but once you realize how easy and fast it is to make your own sauce, you'll probably never buy the canned stuff again. This is my stovetop red sauce, which is a combination of several recipes I've looked at online -- my main addition is the chipotle peppers in adobo, which adds a super-smoky richness and pleasant slow-burn heat.

Smoky Red Chili Sauce

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 15 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup of all purpose flour (can use masa)
1/4 cup plain white vinegar
1 cup chicken stock (water is fine)
2 whole canned chipotle peppers, plus a tablespoon of the adobo sauce
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano (regular oregano is fine)
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

*Note: you'll need a stick blender

Bring a medium sized pot or saucepan to medium high heat over the stove. Add the vegetable oil and heat until shimmering, and then add the flour, whisking to combine and cook for about a minute or two, to cook the rawness from the flour. Add all the remaining ingredients and bring back up to a low boil. Check the flavor and add salt and pepper to your taste. Use a stick blender to give the sauce a smooth consistency. Add more water if you want a more loose consistency, or if you need to thicken, let the sauce simmer over a low heat until it's the consistency you want. Adjust for flavor and spice -- vinegar adds a sharpness, cumin will give it a smoky flavor. 

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