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!

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Food bank gourmet

Last Sunday, FamilyWorks, my neighborhood’s food bank, threw a semi-“iron chef” event! Two top local chefs each prepared a three-course meal using ingredients typically found on the food bank’s shelves. Emceed by local celebrity chef Kathy Casey, the event featured Rachel Yang of Joule Restaurant and Amy McCray of Eva Restaurant, who both cooked us up a treat of a meal.

(Why semi-”iron chef?” Neither of these pro’s showed the least trace of a killer instinct!–More like “tofu chef.” But their food was great!)

Using just a small table for a workspace and two gas-canister-fueled hotplates, Rachel and Amy each came up with a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. And as each course got done, volunteers divvied it up for the dozens of us to sample. We also had a wine-tasting going on in the corner and a spread of hors d’oeuvres laid out on a side table so we wouldn’t get too restive. Sozo Wine was a sponsor of the event. Interesting organization! Check them out: http://www.sozoplanet.com)

Rachel opened with an Asian-accented pancake (a specialty of her newest restaurant, Revel) made with canned peas and fresh spinach.

Next, she went with a stew made with chicken thighs, mushrooms, veg, and–I suspect, not an ingredient she’s used to working with!–Top Ramen. Delicious.

What could be better for dessert than rice pudding? She made hers with sauted apple slices, “left-over” rice (“who doesn’t have left-over rice?”), and canned coconut milk. (The exact brand I have on my own pantry shelf. Yes, I saw it on the shelf in the food bank too. This is Seattle.)

Amy went in a different direction for the starter–a fresh salad with shredded sweet peppers and a citrus vinaigrette. (Like most neighborhood food banks, FamilyWorks gets fresh produce from Northwest Harvest and other large distributors. Stay tuned for a posting on how food distribution works in urban America.)

Next, she went with a chicken curry with carrots. Here, she worked in a “mystery ingredient”–a packet of nasi goreng flavoring. (Yes, from the food bank shelves. Again, this is Seattle.) The curry also incorporated coconut milk and canned peas. This stew may have shared some ingredients with Rachel’s, but tasted totally different! Also delicious.

(The volunteer who gave us our tour of the food bank showed us the substantial range of food products they offer to their clients. Many, many plastic bins of canned goods, peanut butter, fruit, produce, breads and other starches marched along a long table, each labeled with how many of each item could be taken by a family on each visit.)

For dessert, Amy also made rice pudding!–but again, a very different dish from Rachel’s. Amy started her rice in coconut milk, then zested several oranges (remember that citrus vinaigrette?–nothing going to waste here) and threw it all in. A lot of it! And we were glad she did–lovely fresh taste.

Great food!–And a fun event. Hats off to FamilyWorks for a creative fundraiser that was also an eye-opening introduction to the work they are doing to make good food accessible to every family. Do you have a similar effort in your neighborhood? Give us a snapshot of what it does.

EAT! Week in the rear view mirror

My one-week, 21-meal “plan-prepare-&-eat-a-thon” hit me with some big realities. First, eating this way is work; I couldn’t have done it (at least, the way I did it) had I not been on spring break. My respect has zoomed off the charts for the millions of parents out there who put food on the table every day for their families!

Also, cooking for one person has its challenges, and across the whole week, I constantly found that my planning/preparing eyes were bigger than my stomach. Most of the overage ended up in the freezer (in fact, I just had another bowl of that tasty squash soup). Some of it ended up in a second serving that I didn’t really need. (I suspect that I gained a few pounds across this little venture.) Some of it went straight from pan to freezer when I got a better offer from a friend. And some (too much!) of it ended up as worm food.

But let’s look at the up side. I definitely ate more fruits, nuts, and vegetables and less meat than usual. I had a very nice bit of fish. And the leftovers fed me almost every meal this week too, and will still be going strong next week.

Notes for next time:  Scale it down!–Plan most of your meals, not all of them. I’ll focus mainly on dinner, so that I pull things out of the freezer soon enough to defrost. And I’ll target amounts that will give me a couple of extra servings for lunch during the week, so that I don’t keep blowing my money at the taco truck–but not too much more. Beyond that, I’ll rely on my usual habits: keep some breakfast stuff around, and pantry staples like broth, pasta, grains, and canned tomatoes that let you improvise the rest. The strategy for fruits and vegetables?–Buy small amounts and then use them!–No more compost farming in the fridge.

So we arrive at the end of EAT!week! Two open questions that I continue to chew on: How local and how fresh? And where does it comes from and what’s in it? Stay tuned for more on these topics!

EAT! Week day seven

The last day of my reality show!

Breakfast

I had planned on a Saturday frittata, but opted instead to go with an omelette (after last night’s marathon with the moussaka, fewer steps is good!) I sliced up and sauted my last mushrooms, then moved them to a paper towel. I threw some spinach leaves into the pan for a couple of minutes, then added them to the paper towel. Then, in the same pan, I made a two-egg omelette, with some filling inside and the rest on top. (No toast and jam; too much food!) Very nice.

Lunch

I made a panini sandwich for (a very late!) lunch: a meat patty made out of the rest of the Lefever Holbrook ground lamb that I had defrosted for the moussaka, a Grand Central Bakery hamburger bun, some spinach leaves and tomato slices, and a horseradish/mayo dressing. Somewhere along the way I’ve actually acquired a panini press; it’s fun to use and gives you those cool ridges in the bread.

Dinner

The twenty-first meal of EAT! week! Most of my groceries are cooked (if not actually consumed), my fridge and freezer are full of leftovers that will take me through next week (and, for the now-frozen moussaka, much longer!), and I am stuffed, sated, and  . . . overfed.  So this is what I am going to have for dinner tonight. If I can eat it all.

Overall Score for Day Seven:  A-. Points for finishing with restraint.

EAT! Week day six

We are heading into the home stretch!

Breakfast

No news here–just cereal with my last banana sliced on top. (My last banana for now; I’ve resolved my banana issue. The votes are in and the verdict is, eat them whenever you want. Bueno apetito.)

Lunch

Remember the stir-fry earlier in the week that didn’t happen? It happened for lunch today. The recipe is: see what’s in the fridge and throw it in. Not an elegant dish, but crunchy-good! Here’s what I did this time.

Make rice. I use my trusty rice cooker.

Get everything that’s going in the stir-fry totally ready ahead of time because once you fire up the wok, things go FAST. Prep all the veg by cutting them into pieces about the same size. (This time I used an onion, two stalks of celery, two carrots, and a red bell pepper. In a different bowl, I sliced up almost all my mushrooms–regular white ones as well as a couple of portobellos–and tore up the rest of the Thai basil.) Slice some garlic. Measure out your sauce: for this amount of veg, one tablespoon of soy sauce and two tablespoons of fish sauce with a dash of sugar will do.

Then heat the wok on high. When it starts to smoke, add about a tablespoon of peanut oil, swirl it, and let it get super-hot. (If I’m not  scared, I know my wok isn’t hot enough.) Then throw in the garlic, followed instantly by the cut-up vegetables. (This is so that you don’t incinerate your garlic.) Toss the whole time; I use two spatulas to do it. Once the veg start to glisten and maybe show a little color, add the sauce, toss again, and finally add the mushrooms and basil. If the heat isn’t turned up as high as it will go, do it now. (This is so that you don’t end up with mushroom soup.) Toss like crazy. (It feels like you are playing the cymbals.)

Now dump it into a serving bowl. I sprinkled it with some sriracha (do you know this hot sauce? I LOVE it.) It looks more carroty in the photo than it was; actually the mushrooms were the big deal. But go ahead and EAT!

Dinner

I decided to go ambitious for dinner: moussaka, which I have never made.

As I read the recipe, I got the beginnings of a bad feeling. Prepping the vegetables is going to take an hour? Well, you have to partly-peel, slice, salt, drain (this is where the hour comes in), rinse, and dry the eggplants, and boil the  potatoes. Okay, I’ll get all that going, then watch the news.

While the potatoes are cooling, you preheat the oven, line two (two??) sheet pans with foil, and oil them. Next, you separate your eggs, lightly beat the whites, and spread bread crumbs on a plate. So this is all leading up to Step One:  get your eggplant in the oven. You dip each slice in the egg whites, dredge it in the bread crumbs, and put it in one layer on the pans. This takes a while.

Now we are ready to make the meat sauce. Finely chop two onions (then hold your face under the cold-water faucet until you can see again), mince the garlic, and chop the parsley. Measure out everything else. Then saute the ground lamb, add the onion and garlic, and keep sauteing; add the wine and simmer a while; add your spices, tomato paste and puree, and sugar. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes. All of this adds up to Step Two.

Pull the eggplant out of the oven and set it over there to cool. On to Step Three:  make the bechamel sauce. Lightly beat your egg yolks. Warm the milk. Now, melt the butter and whisk in the flour; let it cook for a bit. Add the warm milk in a steady stream, whisking away. Simmer until it thickens a bit. Take it off the heat, stir in the egg yolks and nutmeg, and put it back on the fire to thicken.

This is all just prep for the main event: Step Four, assemble the moussaka. Grease the biggest baking dish you own, sprinkle the bottom with (more!) bread crumbs, and cover it with a layer of sliced potatoes. (Leave a small moat around the edges.) Top that with a layer of eggplant slices, then the meat sauce. Sprinkle with a quarter of the grated cheese. Add another layer of eggplant splices and top that with another quarter of the cheese. Now, pour the bechamel sauce over the whole thing, making sure the sauce fills up that moat. Put the rest of the cheese on top. Now heave a sigh of relief and put it in the oven!

Okay, let’s assess our situation here. It’s 9:00 at night, I still haven’t eaten supper, and my kitchen is a horrendous effing mess. But on the up side (unless, when I ran out of breadcrumbs, it was a fatal mistake to sub in the panko breading), in about an hour I will have a nice piece of homemade moussaka.

And here it is!

Overall Score for Day Six:  B. Extra credit for effort. (What was I thinking??)

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)

EAT! Week day four

Oh good!–Today we get to do chemistry!

Breakfast

I started the day with pretty much the breakfast I had planned–cottage cheese with dried fruit and toast (no jam; the fruit was sweet enough).Those dried apricots were so plump and bright! I glanced at the package. You guessed it–sulfur dioxide. So, what is this stuff? I checked it out on Wikipedia, AltMedAngel, Yahoo Answers, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest CSPI).

Wikipedia defines it as a chemical compound with the formula SO2 (not big news, given its name) produced by volcanoes and some industrial processes. (I’m eating volcano poop?!?) It is a major contributor to acid rain; inhaling it is tied to respiratory disease, difficulty breathing, and premature death. (Death? Great.) CSPI agrees that it can cause severe allergic reactions in some people, but concludes that, for non-sensitive people, sulfites (of which sulfur dioxide is one) are safe. (I must be non-sensitive, since here I am, typing away.) Nevertheless, AltMedAngel lists it among the Top 20 Food Additives to Avoid.

So naturally, it’s used as a food preservative! Especially apricots. Yahoo Answers informs us that dried apricots without it are darker and drier. Well, I’m too cheap to throw out the rest of my chemically enhanced apricots, but now I know what to look for in my next batch–pick the ones the color and texture of ancient sandal soles!

Lunch

Too much food! The lunch I planned for today (leftover lamb shank, spinach) seemed like overkill, so I just had another bowl of yesterday’s squash soup with baguette croutons. Just right!

Dinner

And my calendar tells me that I’m signed up for a Bon Vivant cooking class tonight! Vegetable Paradise. I’ll see if they’ll let me take a pix or two. Before I go, I’ll have some cheese and crackers or grapes or both; the class doesn’t start until 7:00, and it takes a while to crank out the first dish.

Maybe later in the week I’ll cook the dinner I had planned for tonight. But in any case, on to Day Five!

Overall Score for Day Four:  Incomplete