Friday, November 6, 2015

Seattle - the Land Devoid of Good Tex-Mex Food

I suppose I could edit that title to say: "The Pacific Northwest - the Land Devoid of Good Tex-Mex Food" and it would still be true.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest - around Eugene, Portland, and then the Seattle area - I missed my comfort Tex-Mex food.  I didn't even realize how much it was a comfort food for me until I couldn't find it anymore!  It quickly became clear that I had to find a way to make my favorite foods for myself.

Growing up in south Texas, my family could afford to dine out one night a week.  Every Friday, almost like clockwork, you could find my family at a local Mexican restaurant named El Corral in Kingsville, Texas.  Of course it wasn't called a Tex-Mex restaurant; it was just called a Mexican restaurant!  When you are in Texas, there aren't any restaurants that advertise themselves as Tex-Mex.  Sure, if you strike up a conversation with the owners or other enthusiasts, they'll agree they are serving Tex-Mex food and not authentic Mexican food.  There are restaurants that tout themselves as "Authentic Mexican Restaurants" in Texas, and of course the food is very different than the Mexican food most Texans have grown to know and love.  Black beans and mole sauce, anyone?

I cried out for good Tex-Mex food in Oregon and Washington, and people would point me to a few restaurants.  I would leave utterly disappointed.

First of all, why don't these places have a simple staple appetizer on their menu - queso dip?!  Sure, some of them have queso dip on the menu, but much like certain droids, it is not the queso dip you are looking for.  Queso dip shouldn't be made with a stringy cheese; queso dip should melt beautifully!

American cheese is the way, and I'm not talking about Velveeta or Kraft singles.  Sure, we might have a special nostalgic place in our heart for those Kraft singles and Velveeta melted with a can of Rotel, but you know what?  We can have nice things now.  Velveeta and Kraft singles are perfectly acceptable in a pinch or when finances are tight, but you can indulge yourself now.  You've earned it.  Go to your deli counter and ask for yellow (or white) American cheese.  Boar's head, Land O'Lakes, Kroger brand - whatever you can get your hands on - will all work!  Deli yellow American cheese is made of a blend of cheddar and colby cheese, and white American cheese is a blend of white cheddar and jack cheese.  Both are perfectly acceptable choices when making a queso dip!

During my time in Austin, I found a Mexican restaurant called Matt's el Rancho.  While they did not have my favorite cheese enchiladas in town (that honor belongs to a restaurant called Maudie's - the Josie's enchiladas, without onions on top) they did have some amazing beef fajitas and a queso dip called the Bob Armstrong dip.

That dip was named after a friend of Matt Martinez, a man named Bob Armstrong.  They met each other through wrestling, and Bob is still a frequent visitor of Matt's el Rancho.  In fact, I had the honor of meeting him one day!  I ordered the famous queso dip (it's almost sacrilege not to...), and he walked up to my table and several others and asked: "Is that the Bob Armstrong dip?"  "Yes it is."  "Well, hi!  I'm Bob Armstrong!"  He was a charming, affable man, and you could tell he was immensely proud of that dip and its ability to strike up a great conversation.  Texans have a reputation for being friendly, and Bob Armstrong keeps that reputation going!

I've sent many friends to Matt's el Rancho for beef fajitas, and they have all agreed they are some of the best they've ever had!  One Mexican friend I grew up with is pretty loyal to her family recipes.  I told her: "Just try them out!"  She's hooked now.

The best part about Matt's el Rancho is that a lot of their recipes are available through their cookbooks!  Unfortunately they are out of print, but you can find them through used book stores and the like.  I have all three of Matt's books, but my favorite by far is the first one listed here:

Go.  Buy it now.

If you can't wait for it to arrive or if you can't find the book, here are a couple favorite recipes of his that I have tweaked to my own taste.  Once you get the hang of making beef fajitas and you have the Texas Sprinkle & Black Magic Finishing sauce on hand in your pantry, it will take you a total of 30 minutes or less to make fantastic fajitas for dinner!

Queso Dip
For Matt Martinez's Tex-Mex Spice:
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon coarse ground black pepper

For taco meat layer:
1/4 cup finely chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped white onion
2 tablespoons Tex-Mex Spice
1 pound lean ground beef

For chile con queso layer:
1 1/2 cups canned chopped green chiles or fresh chiles, peeled and finely diced
1/2 cup diced fresh tomato
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
4 teaspoons Tex-Mex Spice
1 cup chicken broth
2 pounds American cheese or more if needed, cubed, or if sliced, torn into 4 pieces

For guacamole layer:
2 large Haas avocados
1/4 of a package of Concord Foods Guacamole season (regular or spicy, your preference)
2 teaspoon King Cajun cream spice
1 teaspoon dried onions
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Tex-Mex spice
2 teaspoon Salt Grass spice
Juice of 1/2 a lime

Additional serving requirements:
Tortilla chips for dipping
A glass baking dish & hot serving tray or Crock pot for serving warm, possibly an additional smaller one for serving a separate version without avocado.
  1. Prepare the Tex-Mex spice by mixing together the above 4 spices.  Store in an airtight container, and be sure to label it for future use in other Tex-Mex cuisine.  
  2. Prepare taco meat layer. In a cold skillet, stir together bell pepper, celery, onion and Tex-Mex spice. Spread the uncooked meat on top.  You can leave it in one solid piece. Place over medium heat. When meat starts to simmer, stir and break up the meat. Simmer on low for 20 minutes or until the meat is cooked throughout. Remove from heat; drain and discard any fat. Cover to keep warm, and set aside. 
  3. Prepare chile con queso layer. In a saucepan, combine chiles, tomato, onion, celery, Tex-Mex spice and chicken broth. Bring to a light simmer; gently cook for about 5 minutes. Reduce heat; add cheese. Simmer and stir periodically until cheese melts. (If mixture is too thick, add water; if it's too thin, add more cheese.) Remove from heat.
  4. Prepare the guacamole layer.  Halve avocados and scoop flesh into a mixing bowl; discard pits and skin. Add lime juice; mash together until mixture reaches a chunky texture. Add the other seasonings and stir to combine.  Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap touches the surface of the guacamole. Set aside. 
  5. In either a large glass baking dish with a hot serving tray underneath, a Crock pot set on low, or other warm serving dish, combine the taco meat layer, chile con queso layer, and the guacamole layer.  Personally, I combine the chile con queso layer and the taco meat layer into one giant crock pot, stir, and then I pull put a smaller serving and put it into a 1 qt crock pot where I then add some of the guacamole to the mix.  Several people (read: non-Texans) in my circle don't like avocados, so I always serve the guacamole queso dip in a smaller dish.  It's easier to make more of that vs. removing avocado!  Plus if someone wants guacamole, they can just eat some guacamole with their chips!  Alternatively, you can warm the queso dip in a glass baking dish in the oven and pop it back in when it needs to be reheated.
  6. Also note that this recipe can be easily doubled.  Just make sure your pans and crock pot can handle a double amount!  This dish is always available at my house for Superbowl parties and the like.

Beef Fajitas (chicken, shrimp & veggie too - but choose wisely & make beef!)

For Texas Sprinkle:
4 tablespoons cracker meal or finely ground, unflavored bread crumbs
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
3 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
  1. Combine & store in an airtight container and label.  Rule of thumb for meat, chicken and seafood: Use 1 teaspoon per 4 ounces.  For veggies: Use 1 teaspoon per 2 cups.
For Black Magic Finishing Sauce:
1 bottle (10 ounces) light soy sauce
1/3 cup red wine vinegar (not balsamic)
1/3 cup red wine (recommended: Cabernet Sauvignon)
  1. Combine & store in an airtight bottle and label it.  This pairs well with fire-grilled and skillet-grilled foods.  Rule of Thumb: Use 1 teaspoon per 4 ounces of veggies, meats, chicken or seafood.  
  2. Black Magic should be added at the end of the cooking process.  When the product is cooked the way you want it, add the sauce, stir, flip, and coat evenly.  Let the sauce meet the heat to do its work.  Black Magic will react to a hot skillet or open flame and make lots of sizzle!  When cooking indoors, it may cause a little smoke, so turn your overhead vent on high.
For Meat Fajitas:
1 pounds beef sirloin or tenderloin (sirloin preferred), cut against the grain, on a bias; or boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs; or 16-20 count shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 teaspoons Texas Sprinkle (recipe above, portioned according to the weight of your meat)
3 tablespoons cooking oil
2 cups sliced onions
2 cups sliced bell peppers
Black magic Finishing Sauce (recipe above, portioned according to the weight of your meat)
8 to 12 flour or corn tortillas, warmed
Shredded cheddar cheese or a tablespoon or so of queso dip (above)

Other optional garnishes:
Sour cream
Pico de gallo
hot sauce/taco sauce
  1. Set aside your Texas Sprinkle, Black Magic, and other ingredients mise en place so you can quickly combine ingredients.
  2. In a 10- or 12-inch (cast iron, preferred) skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of oil to medium-high.  Turn heat down to medium and cook meat 1 pound at a time:  For beef, cook for 1 minute first, then add onions and peppers to cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until redness is gone from the meat.  For chicken and shrimp, put down at the same time as the onions and peppers, and sauté for about 3 to 4 minutes
  3. Once meat is cooked, drizzle Black Magic over skillet and toss to coat evenly for 15 to 20 seconds and listen to that sizzle!  Place on a family style platter or in the warm cast iron skillet and serve immediately with tortillas, hot sauce, garnishes, and sides such as my borracho beans!
For Veggie Fajitas (no meat): 
  1. Use a combination of corn, chopped broccoli, and sliced onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash.  Allow 1 cup of veggies per serving.
  2. Cook 2 cups of veggies at a time: Use 4 teaspoons of Texas Sprinkle and 3 tablespoons oil.  Saute for 3 to 4 minutes on medium-high.  When veggies are cooked, drizzle with Black Magic and toss for 15 to 20 seconds. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

We Have Pork Leg Steaks - What Now?

A few months ago, we went "halfsies" with a friend on a half of a pig.  For the most part, a lot of the pig has been sitting in the freezer without many ideas on what to do with it.  Sure, we know what to do with pork chops, ribs, ground pork, pork belly, etc.  Some of the cuts are a bit unfamiliar to us, so we have to get creative with them!

Fast forward to tonight, and we had a pork leg steak that we needed to use.  Chance pulled it out of the freezer the other day, and I was left with the responsibility of cooking dinner tonight.  He told me it was pork chops (and essentially, it is), so I looked up a recipe for pork chops.

Plus I needed to cook those fiddlehead ferns that were sitting in my fridge before they went bad.  It would be tragic if I let them go to waste!  Of course the real tragedy is their short availability season - late March through mid to late May.  They're my favorite side dish!  Sometimes I will just saute them with bacon, butter, garlic, salt and pepper.  I know, I know - it's cheating.  Of COURSE any vegetable would taste great that way!

I saw the label on this cut of meat and began to doubt myself.  He explained that I should just cook it like a pork chop and we will cut it in half after it is done.  So off I went!

I found a pork recipe that sounded good - mostly because I knew I had all of the ingredients in the kitchen and I wouldn't have to run to the store - and tweaked it.  So here is my entire dinner recipe, folks!

Balsamic Pork Chops/Leg Steaks

3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of chopped rosemary (dried is fine)
1 pork leg steak
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 2/3 cup chicken broth
1/3 cup fig balsamic vinegar (or whatever other balsamic vinegar you have in your pantry)
Salt & pepper, to taste

  1. Stir the flour, rosemary, and some salt and pepper together on a large plate to make a nice dredging flour.  
  2. Place the leg steak in the flour, and use a spoon to get some of the flour mixture in all of the little crevices.  Flour both sides of the leg steak.
  3. In a large skillet on medium-high heat, melt the butter together with the olive oil.  Put the crushed garlic cloves in the oil and let it simmer in the oil for about 1 minute.
  4. Place the flour-coated leg steak into the skillet and cook each side for about 4 minutes per side, or until golden.
  5. Remove the leg steak after cooking for 4 minutes on each side and set it on a plate.
  6. Pour the chicken broth and vinegar into the same skillet and use a whisk to scrape up any stuck on bits.  Reduce the mixture until about half of the liquid is gone - about 5 minutes.
  7. After the liquid has reduced, put the leg steak back into the skillet with the balsamic reduction and cook it for about another 6 minutes total.  You can flip the steak about halfway through so the liquid nicely coats both sides of the meat.
  8. Remove the leg steak from the skillet and cut it in half.  One leg steak should be two servings.
  9. Serve with a tablespoon or so of the balsamic sauce on top.

Fiddlehead Ferns and Yellow Squash

1 yellow squash, cut on a bias in 1/3 inch thick slices
1 lb fiddlehead ferns, washed to get the darker leaves off and end pieces trimmed
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup chicken broth
2 tbsp "Dirt" brand Creole blend seasoning
Salt & pepper, to taste

  1. Put the butter and olive oil in a medium size skillet on medium heat.
  2. Stir the squash and fiddlehead ferns together in a bowl with the Dirt seasoning.
  3. Place the garlic, squash, and fiddlehead ferns in the skillet and stir.  
  4. About 10 minutes into the cooking process, add the chicken broth and stir.  If you prefer, you can add more dirt seasoning, salt and pepper, at this time.
  5. Cook for another 5 minutes, or until ferns are softened yet still a little crisp and the chicken broth has mostly boiled down.  I put the vegetables in the pan at the same time I put the leg steak in, and the vegetables took almost the same amount of time as the leg steak.  I just turned the heat down when the chicken broth had mostly boiled down.

Steamed rice

2 cups steamed rice, cooked per your rice cooker's instructions

Seriously, go buy a Zojirushi rice maker.  It will CHANGE you.  It keeps cooked rice perfect for almost 2 entire days!  Nope, I am not going to list instructions on how to cook rice!  Just pour some of that balsamic sauce on the rice, and serve with the rest of the above dinner items.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sous Vide Tomatoes Confit and Other Cute Christmas Food

Aah, sous vide.  It is the technology that has been around for several decades now, and you probably only recently heard of it through Kickstarter.

My partner and I attended a special Sous Vide cooking class hosted by Chef Jason Wilson at Crush a little over a year ago.  What a treat!

Sous vide is a beautiful way to infuse flavors together with slow, gentle, and consistent cooking throughout the entire food.  Jason talked about how different foods require different temperatures and cooking times through sous vide and how you have to bring food back to room temp with an ice bath to prevent harboring food pathogen growth (especially when it comes to animal proteins).  It is also much better to use some sort of vacuum sealed bag when using sous vide.  For one, the water is then able to form a better surface area to the food which allows for a more consistent cooking.  The pressure also helps the flavors infuse a lot better.

One of my favorite parts of the evening was when Jason demonstrated a compressed watermelon recipe.  First, he sealed the watermelon and other ingredients in a Food Saver bag and vacuumed it.  Then he showed us a pressure chamber sealed bag with the same ingredients.  What a difference it made!  The chamber sealer was able to form a much stronger vacuum than the Food Saver, so the watermelon was much darker (crushed slightly better, though not very different in size) in the chamber sealed bag vs. the Food Saver bag.  We already had a Food Saver machine at home, but about six months later, my partner dropped the hammer and bought a chamber sealer.  We love it!  That chamber sealer is great at sealing liquids.  The Food Saver tried to suck air out of the bag, whereas the chamber sealer created a negative pressure chamber to pressurize the bag.  Minimal air is left in the chamber sealed bags, and the Food Saver machines suck so much air - and liquid! - out of the bags, it can even cause itself to shut off due to overflowing the liquid catch tray.  It was very annoying.

We tried to thaw some frozen fish that had been sealed in Food Saver bags, and there was freezer burn on them.  This is almost never the case with our chamber sealed bags (within reason, of course).  It definitely has saved us quite a bit of money in the long run!

Since I know so many of you have purchased an Anova sous vide cooker through Kickstarter, I decided it would be a good time to share one of my favorite sous vide recipes.  One of my go-to recipes that I took away from Jason's class was a Sous Vide Tomato Confit.  It is so cheap, easy, and quick!  Our guests love it!  I serve it year round.  It's crazy to take a bite of a perfectly sealed cherry or grape tomato and you get a burst of basil, garlic, and chili flake flavor inside the tomato!  I sometimes serve it with some cherry size mozzarella balls.  It makes a beautiful "wreath" display when you put them on a stick - cherry tomato, basil leaf, and mozzarella ball.

With Jason's permission, I am posting this recipe for everyone out there.

Chef Jason Wilson's Tomato Confit

Oven bath temperature: 135F

1 pint cherry or baby heirloom tomatoes (or similar sized tomatoes)
10 leaves of fresh basil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 tsp red chili flakes
5 cloves peeled garlic
Optional ingredient: 1 package of cherry size mozzarella balls


  1. In a small pan, simmer the garlic in olive oil for 2-3 minutes and remove just before they brown.
  2. Add all the ingredients to a vacuum bag and remove all air by pressing against a sink ledge or counter and expel the air.  
  3. "SEAL ONLY" the bag and place into the 135G water bath for 1 hour.
  4. Serve or preserve when timer sounds.

Optional steps:

  • Add some strained cherry size mozzarella balls and gently stir to coat the mozzarella with the confit juices.  
  • Drain the excess olive oil and refrigerate to serve cold or serve immediately.
  • For a cute "wreath" presentation, put a single cherry on a toothpick, then a small basil leaf, and then a cherry size mozzarella ball, and alternate the placement of the toothpick (cherry side next to the cheese side on the next stick, as pictured to the right).  Since some of the sous vide tomatoes will burst during the cooking process, be sure to double the amount of cherries for this recipe and try to use the soft but still-sealed cherry tomatoes on the toothpicks.  Sometimes they would ooze a little bit once they were pierced, and that was fine.  Just be gentle and pierce the tomatoes slowly; don't jab them or else you will send tomato juice flying across the table. For the rest of the tomatoes that didn't make the skewer cut, just eat them! 

I decided to get extra cute with it during the Christmas holiday time.  I made a cream cheese snowman as the centerpiece to an appetizer tray, and adorned the side with a wreath of sous vide tomatoes and mozzarella!  That was one delicious tray!

I wasn't fully prepared to make a snowman that day.  It was sort of a last minute thought.  I stood there in my kitchen asking myself "I do want to build a snowman, but what should I use to make the snowman's face?"  I wandered over to my spice rack and found some inspiration.  

Cream Cheese Snowman

2 8-oz packages of cream cheese
3 capers
1 apple (any reddish skinned apple will do)
7 pink peppercorns
1 japones chili pepper
2 black peppercorns
2 sleeves of Ritz crackers
2 sprigs of fresh dill
Robert Rothschild's sauce of your choice (pomegranate, raspberry, cherry, or mango flavors will suffice)

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly, but do not dry them.
  2. Take both packages of cream cheese out of the wrapper.
  3. With your hands wet, take one of the packages of cream cheese and try to form a ball shape as best as you can.  You can put it on the center of your serving tray and turn it like it is a pottery wheel, using your hand to shape it.
  4. For the second package of cream cheese, separate a wad of cream cheese that is about the size of a golf ball.  This will be for the snowman's head.
  5. Take the remaining cream cheese and form a second ball, slightly smaller than the base of your snowman.  This will be for his/her belly.  Make sure you keep your hands wet while trying to form the ball.
  6. Place the snowman's belly on top of the base and make sure they stick together nicely.  If necessary, you can sprinkle a little bit of water on it with your fingers and mold them together.
  7. Form the snowman's head with the remaining golf ball size cream cheese and place it on top of the snowman.  Make sure they stick together nicely.
  8. For the snowman's buttons, push 3 capers firmly in the snowman's belly.
  9. For the snowman's smile, push 7 pink peppercorns firmly in the snowman's face, but be careful not to push in too far.
  10. For the snowman's eyes, push 2 black peppercorns firmly in the snowman's face, again, be careful not to push in too far.
  11. For the snowman's nose, cut off the tip of a japones pepper and push it firmly into his face, again, be careful not to push it in too far.
  12. For the snowman's arms, push 1 sprig of fresh dill into each side of the upper part of the showman's belly.
  13. For the snowman's scarf, use a vegetable peeler to peel a long, continuous skin along the apple - about 1 & 1/2 to 2 times around the apple.  Wrap the skin around the snowman's neck.
  14. Place two sleeves of Ritz crackers around the circumference of the snowman base.
  15. Put a small ramekin of dipping sauce at the base of the snowman.
  16. Provide a small cheese knife or spreader to allow guests to scoop away at the snowman.
  17. Enjoy!