Panza verde on Cinco de Mayo

So the buzz-kill commentariat has spent all week making sure that we understand that in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn’t really that big of a deal. But people, let’s focus on the real meaning of the holiday:  a ready-made excuse to INDULGE for every panza verde–lover of the avocado! I decided to celebrate by making a meal out of the Big Three–guacamole, sopa Azteca, and mango-avocado salsa.

Guacamole

Everybody has a guac recipe! Mine actually focuses more on technique, since the ingredients are pretty much standard. How to get the meat out of the avocado?–After cutting the avocado in half and twisting the halves apart, I thwack my (very sharp) knife into the pit and give it a quarter-turn. Out it comes. Then I dice the fruit still in the skin, and use a spoon to scoop it out. Sprinkle with some lime juice so it doesn’t darken. Done.

While that’s going on, I roast the tomatoes, garlic, and peppers (hot!–about 450 for 15 minutes or so, until I’m getting some char). This time I used a serrano pepper; not hot enough. Next time, back to jalapeno (or ratchet up to a habanero?–try a small one). Chop all that up. Dice some onion, chop some cilantro, juice a lime. Add some salt.

Stir it all together with a fork, mashing the avocado as you go, until you get the texture you want. (I like chunky.) If you roast the tomatoes, you trade off the texture of fresh for the flavor of roasted. I go back and forth; both are good!

Then you eat it!–And in the process, maybe you use up the whole first batch of fried corn tortilla chips that you made for the sopa Azteca.

Sopa Azteca

Do not let people tell you this is tortilla soup!–So much tastier! I found my recipe in Oaxaca back in 2006; it’s in Spanish, so some interpretive maneuvers come into play. To start, “muela y fria el tomate”–”grind and fry”? Okay, make that “chop and fry.” So, take a couple of pounds of ripe tomatoes, chop them up, and fry them in hot oil with a chopped onion and a couple of garlic cloves (“dientes” or “teeth” in Spanish). You end up with a very fragrant thick tomato slurry.

Add a handful of epazote leaves (nature’s beano), some salt, and a little water (“un poco”–I add about a quart and a half. Decide by the thickness you want). Some recipes go for chicken stock instead.

While that’s simmering, remove the seeds, veins, and stems from about three dried chiles guajillos (find them in the ethnic aisle). Toast them in a dry pan until they are fragrant and your throat is catching a little from the vapors. Cool them and cut them into little strips or squares. Add them to the soup and continue simmering for say 15 minutes minimum.

Cut four fresh corn tortillas into wedges (or strips, if you want more crunch per spoonful). Heat one or two inches of oil until it’s hot. (I’m afraid of hot oil!–I use a candy thermometer and go for no less than 350.) Add the pieces of tortilla in batches; they should foam and bounce exuberantly. Stir them until they are getting golden, then skim them out and drain them on a brown paper grocery bag. (I don’t know why either, but that’s how it’s done.)

Then dice some avocado and some queso fresco (use mozzarella if you can’t find it). Put the tortilla bits, avocado, and cheese, as well as some chopped cilantro and lime wedges, each in its own dish on the table. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and let everybody garnish it the way they like. For me, it’s always all the way!

Mango-avocado salsa

I don’t remember where I got my recipe for mango-avocado salsa, but it’s probably a lot like yours. Diced avocado, diced mango, diced red onion. Add chopped cilantro and lime juice. A little salt. All this talk about habaneros!–I seeded one and minced the flesh. Never going back!

A salsa goes on something; in this case, a little halibut steak. Salt, pepper, a dusting of flour. Fry it until it is almost completely opaque, then let it sit there on the plate for a minute or so–it’ll finish cooking through.

After the sopa Azteca, I was way too far into hot oil! My steak picked up more of a crunchy skin than I really wanted. Note to self: take it easy (and maybe skip the dusting of flour). But very moist and tasty nonetheless! Bueno apetito!

Pocket Granny

I didn’t grow up in a bustling kitchen with a plump mother and grandmother teaching me to cook to exacting family standards. In our house we inclined more to canned ham and Potato Buds. So my cooking imagination can be let’s say a bit on the arid side.

But so what! These days, we have “virtual grannies” of every ethnicity, region, and cuisine clamoring to teach us their kitchen secrets. Cookbooks! Cooking classes! TV shows! Sites! Blogs! Mobile apps! There’s a whole world of food knowledge out there to draw on.

In fact, just this weekend, I found myself pulling together what was probably my most “informated” meal so far.

I recently got Becky Selengut’s beautiful new cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, and decided to make her recipe for fried rainbow trout. (For each of 15 types of seafood, Becky offers five recipes ranging from easy to hard; the fried trout is the first in its section. No need to get ahead of ourselves here.)

So I headed off to buy my fish. But the whole point of Becky’s cookbook is that we should buy sustainable fish!–Very much in keeping with my commitment to mindful munching. And here I am at the fish counter, looking at the one choice of “farmed rainbow trout.” The cookbook is at home; so, where are we on farmed fish, again?

Then I remember that just last week I downloaded the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to my phone: “Trout, rainbow, US farmed. Best choice.” Excellent! I buy it. All of it–it comes with head and tail intact. (But mercifully, no scales.)

Back at home, I go to Becky’s book’s companion site, www.goodfishbook.com, to watch the how-to video on how to fillet a fish. Oops!–The videos aren’t up yet. (This cookbook is hot off the press.)

No problem!–I go to Videojug (“get good at life”) http://www.videojug.com/film/how-to-fillet-a-fish-4, where I get a reasonable idea of how to proceed. I decide that it will be enough to get rid of the head and tail and get the fillets off the bone–I’ll cook it skin-on. (I should have taken some “process” pictures, but at this point no sane person would put these gunked-out hands on a camera.)

The recipe calls for a garnish of fried bacon (diced), mushrooms, and sage leaves. I bought some bacon when I got the fish. I already had a little package of dried chanterelles, so I reconstituted them to use, and I have a sage plant out in my garden plot where I got some leaves. To make it a meal, I got some nice fat asparagus (to me, much better than those skinny spears), which seemed like a perfect match for the bacon-y garnish.

(I see this morning in the New York Times that Mark Bittman also likes bacon with fat asparagus. He says this in his occasional column named “EAT.” Mark, you are so annoying.)

Add a little green salad with a simple vinaigrette. Satisfying! And prepared under the guiding hands of my pocket Granny! Do you have a similar knowledgeable online tribe that you consult for your cooking?–Share your favorites!

Update:  Becky’s videos are up!–and they’re excellent!:

http://www.goodfishbook.com/gfb/index.asp

Everybody’s talking about nettles

The stinging nettle! Nobody ever forgets that first brush with it. Especially not the poets, it turns out; for literary legs, the stinging nettle ranks right up there with the rose. But of course it plays all the bad-boy parts:

“In dreams, again, I plucked a flower That clung with pain and stung with power, Yea, nettled me, body and mind.” How Love Looked for Hell,  Sidney Lanier

“Fame blowing out from her golden trumpet a jubilant challenge to Time and to Fate; Slander, her shadow, sowing the nettle on all the laurell’d graves of the Great.” Vastness. Alfred Lord Tennyson

“But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Hotspur, in Henry the Fourth  Part I, Act II. Scene III. Shakespeare

And people figured out early on that where you find nettles, you are likely to find dock:

Of the old house, only a few crumbled  Courses of brick, smothered in nettle and dock. The House That Was. Laurence Binyon.

Which is a big mercy, because a crushed dock leaf can rub away the  nettle’s sting:

My pity bids the dock-leaves grow Large, that a little child may know Where he shall heal the nettle’s sting. Hertha. Nora Chesson

Even Chaucer was on to this–he quotes an “old charm” for curing the sting of a nettle:

“Netle in, dokke out”: ‘Nettle in, dock out.

Dock rub nettle out! ‘Troilus and Crisseda. Chaucer

So, you are thinking, where does this take us with the whole food blog idea?–Well, I went off on a foraging expedition to Vashon Island, and we bagged heaps of nettles! (And did find a use for a few leaves of dock while we were at it.) Apres foraging, trip leader Becky boiled up a huge vat of nettles, and we all had some of the broth as nettle tea. (Do you love spinach? You will love nettle tea.)

Trip leader Becky is chef and cookbook author Becky Selengut (www.CornucopiaCuisine.com) who organized the trip with Jeanette Smith, ecologist and outdoor adventure leader (http://www.backroads.com/). Also along to share her expertise was environmental anthropologist Melissa Poe (Institute for Culture and Ecology, www.ifcae.org). These people know their stuff!–We learned tons. Other parts of the landscape we munched on: sheep sorrel, dandelions, salmonberry flowers, chickweed, peppercress, Douglas fir (!–Doug fir tea, anyone?–delicious.)

Then, after a quick stop at Hogsback Farm for still more salad greens, a ferry ride back across the Sound, and a huge lunch at Spring Hill Restaurant in West Seattle, we made a quick stop at Mutual Fish to buy some halibut and went back to Becky’s condo.

While Jet and Melissa brewed still more teas and made a huge salad out of our foraged goodies and salad greens, Becky took us through making our first dish for dinner, nettle ravioli. Homemade pasta with a filling of our nettles (blanched and refreshed), goat cheese, ricotta, and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Plus a brown butter shallot sauce. Plus (here’s Becky’s poetry!) dress the dish with mint leaves and salmonberry flower petals.

On to the halibut. Portion the fish (I could spend a couple of pages on Becky’s technique), fire up a wok dedicated to smoking (as Becky says, her ghetto wok), and put some wood chips in there over high heat. Float a wire-mesh grill at the top third or so of the wok, place the halibut portions on it, and cover. Smoking ensues. (Suggestion!: put large fans at all your windows, pointing out.)

Now, you want to pull together the components to finish the halibut dish–nettle sauce, morel mushrooms, fried nettle garnish. So timing is everything. (Luckily, Becky and team were on it, because by this time I was having a glass of wine and reading Becky’s fish cookbook. Stay tuned for a review.)

But let’s focus on that nettle sauce. Basically, you put some of the blanched nettles, some parsley, and some yogurt into a blender and zap it until smooth.

Assembly time. The sauced fish would have been fantastic all by itself. But these folks are also poets of presentation!–beautiful fish, beautiful sauce, beautiful garnish of morels and fried nettle leaves.

And a big finish with Jet’s rhubarb star anise crumble. None of us wanted ice cream on top until we all did.

See some pictures by an actual photographer, Jennifer Durham, fellow forager (http://gallery.me.com/tennjd#101059). Also visit her company site: http://www.jenniferdurhamphotography.com/

Read more than you ever wanted to know about the botany of nettles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinging_nettle

EAT! Week day five

Breakfast

I finished off my ancient oatmeal today with a nice handful of blueberries on top. Then I went out and bought another box!–This is a very tasty hot cereal.

Lunch

I must admit that by now I was suffering from a slight case of food fatigue. For lunch, I had a simple bowl of leftover bean and vegetable soup. No bread, no fruit, no cheese. Just right.

Dinner

My friend Mary and I were booked to take in a movie this afternoon, so I invited her over here afterwards  for halibut tacos.

Growing up in Texas, I ate more than my share of the classic Tex-Mex taco: crisp corn taco shell, seasoned ground beef, lettuce tomato onion, jalapeno slices, and grated yellow cheese on top. I still love it.

But I’ve branched out. Tonight I pan-grilled a halibut steak and flaked it into good-size chunks to go into soft flour tortillas. On top went lettuce, tomato, cilantro, thin-sliced radishes, shredded red cabbage, and cotija cheese. And the pieza de resistencia, pico de gallo. I make mine with onion and tomato diced small, cilantro, minced jalapeno, and lots of lime juice. (Tonight’s version would have been improved with more lime juice; unfortunately it turned out that I had bought the Bartleby of limes.)

Overall Score for Day Five:  B+ (sense enough to scale down lunch, plus a pretty good taco)