The Frugal Burrito

Odds and ends.  Bits and pieces.  Those little leftovers from previous meals that were too good to throw away but too small to make a meal, on their own.

Go ahead, take them out of the fridge and set them on the table.  Imagine how they can be used to make a brand new meal. 

The ingredients are like colors on a painter’s palette, or notes and chords, waiting to be arranged to make music.  These are the elements of creation!

Some of my favorite meals have started this way. 

Reinventing leftovers can be rewarding in many ways.  There is satisfaction in knowing that good food won’t be wasted and there is the feeling of exuberance that comes from self-expression and creative thinking.

I made this dish way back in April, 2020, during a time when I was sheltering at home, in an attempt to stem the tide of the pandemic.  If there was ever a time to think frugally, it was then.  People were hoarding toilet paper, disinfectants and many store shelves were empty.  What a time! 

Burritos with Cheese Sauce

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups leftover enchiladas (ground beef, corn tortillas, cheddar cheese, salsa)

½ cup cooked ground beef

1 cup sautéed vegetables (onions, tomatoes and mushrooms)

3 10” flour tortillas

1 Tbs olive oil

16 oz grated cheddar cheese

2 Tbs butter

2 Tbs flour,

1/3 cup milk

1 tsp hot sauce

¼ cup sliced, pickled jalapeños

¼ cup diced green onions

¼ cup chili-garlic sauce

½ cup sour cream

½ cup chopped iceberg lettuce

2 Roma tomatoes

Directions:

Chop the enchiladas into tiny pieces with a kitchen knife. 

Add the chopped enchiladas to a large mix bowl and add the cooked ground beef.

Chop the sautéed onions, tomatoes and mushrooms.

Add the chopped vegetables to the mixing bowl.

Mix everything together thoroughly.

Divide the mixture into thirds and assemble the burritos.

Add olive oil to a large skillet and set heat to low/medium.

Carefully lay the burritos in the pan, seam side down.

Sear the burritos on all sides until they are light, golden brown.

Remove the burritos to serving plates and keep in a warm place.

Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the skillet and set the heat to low.

Once the butter melts, add the flour and whisk, to form a paste.

Simmer the butter and flour, while whisking, for about one minute.

Add the milk and whisk to combine. 

Gently fold in the grated cheese and turn the heat off.  Mix until the cheese sauce is smooth.  Avoid over-mixing the sauce, to prevent the sauce from breaking.

Once the cheese sauce is warm and blended, cover each burrito with the sauce.

For a mild burrito, top with green onions. 

For a spicier burrito, top with chili-garlic sauce and jalapeños.

Serve with sliced tomato, chopped lettuce and sour cream.

Year End Tamales

2020 has been one heck of a ride and I can’t think of a more suitable way to wrap up the year than by wrapping it up in tamales.  Tamales might just be the perfect metaphor for 2020.  I was fully prepared to offer a long lament about the year 2020, now that the year has finally come to an end, but I feel a greater need to close the door to the past year and move on.

Anyone who has made tamales knows that it requires time, dedication and stamina, beyond the scope of preparing a typical meal.

There comes a point in the tamale making process where it seems like it will never end and I wonder why I chose to make them, in the first place.  The only thing that carries me beyond that moment of futility is a steadfast determination and a belief that I will find satisfaction, when the job is done.

I could go on and on about the agony and ecstasy of making tamales but, I don’t want to discourage anyone from making tamales.  Making tamales is a rite of passage.

My method for making tamales takes two days.  On the first day, I roast the meat and make the sauce.  On the second day, I prepare the masa dough, assemble the tamales and then steam them.

Day one:  Roast the meat and make the sauce.

Ingredients for the meat filling:

5 lb Pork butt (shoulder roast) (substitute with chicken or beef)

¼ cup cooking oil

1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

1 Tbs coarse salt

2 tsp cumin powder

2 tsp cracked black pepper

3 or 4 bay leaves

2 Tbs dried onion flakes

2 tsp red chile powder

2 tsp dried Mexican oregano

2 cups chicken stock (or beef stock)

2 Tbs rendered bacon fat or rendered beef fat

Directions:

Wash the roast in cool water and pat dry.  Add the oil to a large Dutch oven and set the heat to high.  Sear the roast on each side and then set it aside to cool.  Discard remaining oil from the Dutch oven.

Combine all of the spices (cinnamon stick, salt, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, dried onion, chile powder and oregano) and grind them in a mortar and pestle.

Coat the roast with the blended spices and return the roast to the Dutch oven.  Add 2 cups of stock.  Cover the Dutch oven and place in a 225° oven for six hours.

Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and let the roast rest for about 20 minutes. 

Shred the roast with forks and add some of the shredded meat to a large skillet.  Add a few teaspoons of rendered fat to the skillet and set the heat to medium/high.  Stir the meat for several minutes and remove to a large bowl. Repeat the process until all of the shredded meat has been fried quickly in the skillet. 

Ingredients for the sauce:

20 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded

3 chile de arbol, stemmed and seeded

3 allspice berries

1 tsp fennel seed

1 tsp sesame seed

2 tsp dried onion flakes

1 tsp garlic powder

1 ½ tsp salt

8 oz tomato sauce

Directions:

Stem and seed the chiles. 

Steep the chiles in hot water for at least 30 minutes. 

Remove the chiles and place them in a blender.  Add some of the water, used during the steeping process, to the blender. 

Puree the chiles and strain over a large mixing bowl to remove the pulp. 

Move the sauce from the bowl to a large skillet.  Set the heat to low and simmer. 

While the sauce simmers, toast the allspice berries, fennel seeds, sesame seeds and dried onion in a pan, at low heat.  Keep the different items apart in the skillet because the onion flake will toast quickly and will need to be removed first.  Continue toasting the other spices until they become fragrant.

Grind the toasted spices in a mortar and pestle and add the garlic powder and salt. Add the spices to the sauce.

Add 8 ounces of tomato sauce to the sauce.

Whisk and stir the sauce at low heat for about 15 minutes.  Remove the sauce to a large bowl.

Return the shredded meat to the pan and set heat to medium.  Add some of the sauce and mix.  Once the sauce is thoroughly mixed with the meat, remove the meat and allow to cool to room temperature.  Once the meat has cooled, place it in an airtight container or sealable storage bag and refrigerate.

Day two:  Prepare the masa and assemble the tamales.

For the masa:

1 package of corn masa (4 lbs)

Baking powder

Lard or vegetable shortening

Water or broth

Follow the directions on the bag of masa.  Most masa mixes call for the addition of baking powder, lard and water.  The general idea is to add baking powder, lard and water to the masa and then mix to produce a fluffy, wet dough.  I used water and added some chicken bouillon and dried Mexican safflower leaves, (azafran en flor), to give a warm color to the masa. I soaked the bullion and safflower in warm water before adding it to the masa mix.

Soften corn husks by soaking them in warm water for 45 minutes to an hour.  A clean sink full of hot tap water will do the trick.

Add some water to a tamale steamer and place the steamer on the stove top.  Set the heat to medium and cover the steamer with a lid.

Prepare a large area to assemble the tamales.  Arrange the work space so that others can help assemble tamales.  Each person will need to be able to easily access the corn husks, masa and filling, and a tray for the wrapped tamales.

Lay a corn husk down on the work surface. 

Apply about 2 tablespoons of masa to the center of the husk and smear the masa out toward the wide end of the husk.  Don’t spread the masa across the entire husk.  You will want to leave the edges of the husk clean.

Place about 2 tablespoons of the filling on top of the masa.

Roll the corn husk and finish by folding the pointed end over and placing the tamale on a staging tray or dish.

Once you have prepared a few dozen tamales, place them vertically in the steamer, with the folded ends pointed down.

Steam for an hour and then turn the heat off.  Carefully remove the tamales and stack them on a tray.

Continue steaming tamales until they are all cooked.

At this point they are ready to eat or, you might want to wrap them in aluminum foil, in sets of 3 or 4, to save for later, or to send as gifts for friends and family.

I like to take packs of tamales to work and give them to co-workers. 

You can freeze foil-wrapped tamales for weeks or months.  To reheat, remove the foil and place in a microwave oven for about 30 seconds, or keep them in foil and warm them in a conventional oven for about 20 minutes at 350°.

Tamales can be topped with enchilada sauce, smothered in a warm cheese sauce or they can be eaten just as they are, hot or cold.

Best wishes to all of you during the upcoming year!  Keep your family and friends fed with delicious food.

Chicken Flautas with Ricotta Cheese and Mushrooms

I’m convinced that one of the secrets to imaginative cooking is learning how to resist going to the store when you realize you are out of an essential ingredient for a dish.  If necessity is the mother of invention, adversity might be the father.

Lasagna just isn’t lasagna without the lasagna pasta.  That’s a fact.  So, if your heart is truly set on having lasagna and you don’t have the pasta, go to the store and get some.  But, if you’ve just come home from a long day at work, you might dread the thought of getting back into the car to face the teeming masses at the grocery store just to pick up a box of pasta.  That is the conundrum I faced today. 

I reluctantly switched gears and started to think of alternatives for dinner.  I wanted to use the ricotta, because it had been in the refrigerator for a few weeks.  I rummaged through the refrigerator and found some chicken thighs that I had grilled, the previous weekend.  The needle of my culinary compass quickly swung from Italian to Tex-Mex, (who would have guessed?!)

I imagined how I could use cheese and mushrooms and chicken to make flautas (taquitos).  It’s during these kinds of moments of brilliance when I become convinced that I’m on the verge of making a brand new, never-seen-before creation.  I use the flash of inspiration and get to work.

This sort of inspiration is actually a façade, as any honest cook knows, but it is an excellent motivator!  Here is what the all-knowing internet has to say about the matter:  From hispanickitchen.com, “Requesón is a soft Mexican cheese similar in texture to ricotta cheese. It has a mild flavor that can be used for both sweet and savory dishes. Because this cheese doesn’t melt completely when in contact with heat, it is the perfect cheese for golden fried taquitos.”

Chicken Flautas with Ricotta Cheese and Mushrooms

Ingredients:

4 grilled chicken thighs (skin on)

1 cup of uncooked rice

1 Tbs olive oil

1 Tbs butter

3 Tbs cup diced onion

4 large white, button mushrooms, chopped

15 oz ricotta cheese (or queso requesón, if you’re lucky enough)

1 tsp Mexican oregano

¼ cup cooking oil

12 corn tortillas

For the garnish:

1 small white onion, sliced

1 large ripe tomato, sliced

1 orange, sliced

2 cups mixed greens (spinach, lettuce, etc.)

½ cup sour cream

½ cup salsa

Cilantro leaves (as much as you like)

Directions:

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and reserve one of the skins to flavor the rice.

Set the rice on the stove to boil.  Add one of the chicken skins and cook the rice according to the directions on the package. Remove the skin before serving.

Shred and chop the chicken. Set aside.

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet. 

Add the onions and sauté until the onions begin to brown.

Add the mushrooms and stir for one minute. 

Remove the onions and mushrooms to a bowl and set aside.

Add the ricotta cheese to the onions and mushrooms.  Mix to combine. 

Add the oregano and mix thoroughly.

Add the shredded chicken and mix.  Set aside.

Soften the tortillas by frying in hot cooking oil.  Set aside.

Prepare the flautas.  Lay a tortilla on a work surface and add about 3 tablespoons of the chicken mixture.  Form the chicken into a thick bead and roll the tortilla. 

Skewer the tortilla with a toothpick. *Yay for toothpicks*

Assemble the rest of the tortillas and skewer them in sets of three.

Fry the rolled flautas in hot oil, turning a few times, until they are crispy and golden.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.

Assemble the flautas on a large platter and adorn with the garnishes. 

Enjoy with a delicious red wine, which was intended to pair with the lasagna!

Ode to a Moonless Night

Years ago, my wife and I went on a cattle drive.  We played cowboy and cowgirl for a week, while moving cattle down from the Mugollon mountains of New Mexico to the dessert floor, near the town of  Alma. 

Keep in mind, prior to our cattle drive, my wife’s most memorable experience of horseback riding was being bucked from a horse, along with her sister, at her grandparent’s farm in Kansas.  My experience with horses was hardly better.  I spent three months on a ranch and occasionally moved cattle from one pasture to another.  Most of the time, I fixed fences and learned how to be a ranch hand from my uncle John, and my younger cousins, Shane and Hugh.  I was a city boy but I fell in love with the dessert Southwest. 

Many years later, I accepted an invitation from my uncle to join him on a cattle drive.  Cattle were grazing in the mountains during the summer and, as autumn approached, they needed to be driven down to the ranch for the winter.

We decided to join the drive, as long as we could make camp on the mountain, before the drive.  We bought a tent and sleeping bags and we were dead set on camping.  All of the ranchers, including my kind-hearted uncle, thought we were a little crazy, but we insisted on camping and, despite the bitter cold nights, I was glad we did.

We drove up to the mountain top, during the daytime and by late afternoon we made camp and started a campfire.  I set up a Dutch oven over a fire and started boiling some pinto beans.  How rustic!  Living like real cowboys!

Six hours later, the beans showed no signs of softening.  The sun dipped beneath the tops of the tall pine trees and, by early evening, the sky turned deep blue and the thin mountain air chilled quickly.  A few minutes later, we shivering and cold, under a moonless sky.

We scooted closer and closer to the fire and were mesmerized by the glowing flames.  We gave up on the beans and decided to eat granola.

We sat in silence for a long time, staring at the fire, and then we awoke from our trance and talked and laughed and told stories.  It wasn’t long before the campfire was the only thing we could see.  The mountain was quiet, except for the crackling fire and, even though we could see each other’s faces in the flickering light, we couldn’t see anything outside of the fire ring.

As the fire dwindled, the chill crept in and my wife grabbed a fresh piece of wood and jabbed it into the heart of the fire ring.  Thousands of wild embers spiraled upward, into the black sky, crisscrossing and swimming upward, like tiny, weightless fairies, searching for the heavens.  We watched the display, in awe.  She jabbed at the fire again, and a new salvo of embers erupted.  Again and again, we poked at the fire and watched as newborn embers whizzed into the black night.  Each tiny ember followed its own trajectory and moved toward its own destiny.   Some embers flickered and sputtered.  Some embers sailed up high, beyond the dark treetops.  Some embers sizzled and popped but every ember rode together on a whirling vortex that seemed chaotic but beautifully composed.

We received the U.S. presidential election results today and I am still buzzing. 

My late night snack is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with fresh apple slices.  It’s a meal that keeps me young at heart and gives me unexplainable joy.  Simple food for a simple person, I suppose.

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Ingredients:

Two slices of bread

A copious amount of peanut butter

A generous splotch of jam or jelly

One crisp apple, cored and sliced.

Directions:

Really?  I think you can figure this one out on your own.

On a serious note, I am grateful be an American.  It’s a complicated mess, at times, but I love the complicated messy people that I live with.  We can achieve anything as long as we are compassionate to each other and as long as we are willing to work together.  We are the embers that fly into the night sky, giving warmth and joy to each other, while we spiral upward.

Chicken Satay Salad

A Labor Day celebration, like no other.

Today’s recipe is a shout out to the many hard working people who continue to persevere as we face the Covid-19 pandemic.  Two people in particular are on my mind tonight.  My colleagues and I are not only putting ourselves at risk every day as we work during the pandemic but we have the added challenge of dealing with a poorly developed and prematurely deployed warehouse management system.  We are flying without a net as we attempt to train employees on a system we barely know and yet, we somehow find a way to maintain our “game faces” as we strive to maintain our sanity during this absurd circus.

Happy Labor Day, guys…thanks for your strength, wisdom and humor.  I’m honored and humbled to be on your team.

Okay, let’s get busy… Chicken Satay Salad

I don’t remember the first time I had chicken satay but I do remember how quickly I took to it!  Grilled chicken on a skewer smothered in a sweet, peanut buttery, soy sauce…wow!  I don’t know how or why Indonesians got their hands on peanut butter but they won me over with this!

I’ve made chicken satay several times and I have received mixed reviews, which is a polite way of saying that it wasn’t received well.  Maybe it’s the peanut butter flavor that people don’t get, I don’t know.  This recipe expands on the traditional satay by adding fresh vegetables and rice noodles.  The satay sauce takes a backseat to the textures and flavors that the salad and noodles bring.

For the Marinade:

1/3 cup dark soy sauce

Juice of 1 lime

2 Tbs peanut butter

1 tsp Maggi sauce (it’s like soy sauce on steroids!)

1 Tbs chopped fresh ginger

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro (stems included)

2 small, fresh red chilies, chopped (jalapeño, cayenne or Thai chilis) – optional

1 clove garlic, smashed

Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and mash with a spoon.  Crushing the ingredients is an important step because it releases the oils and flavors and produces a very potent marinade!

Marinate the chicken breasts for one hour.

While the chicken marinates, make the sauce for the noodles and prep the rice noodles.

Ingredients for the sauce:

1/3 cup dark soy sauce

2 Tbs honey

½ cup warm water

3 Tbs peanut butter

Juice of two limes

3 Tbs cooking oil (I used olive oil)

1 clove garlic, mashed and minced

Add the dark soy sauce and honey to a mixing bowl.  Add warm water and mix thoroughly.  Add the peanut butter and mix to combine.  Drizzle the oil into the mixture and whisk.  Add lime juice and minced garlic and mix.  Set aside.

Prepare the rice noodles:

Ingredients:

8 oz rice noodles (Vietnamese-style rice Vermicelli noodles)

Soak the rice noodles in warm water for about 30 minutes.  Strain the water and set the noodles aside.  Start a large pot of water to boil on the stove.  Boil the noodles for about 1 minute, or until the noodles are soft (al dente).  Remove the noodles and strain.  Rinse with cool water.  Set the noodles aside.

Start the grill.  Allow the coals to reach their peak before putting the chicken on the grill.  The goal is succulent, smoked chicken, without charring the chicken.  Pile the hot coals in the center of the grill and lay the chicken on the edges of the grill.  Cook time will be about 40 minutes and the chicken should be turned every 10 minutes.  Be patient.  All good things happen in due time!

Grill the chicken until the internal temperature is at least 165°.  To be honest, I rarely use a thermometer to check for doneness.  I press my thumb on the chicken and when it feels firm, it’s done but, checking the temperature is a sure way to make sure the chicken is fully cooked.

While the chicken is on the grill, go back to the kitchen to chop some vegetables.

Ingredients for the salad:

1 cup fresh spinach, sliced thin

3/4 cup carrots, cut in thin strips

3 green onions, sliced in long strips

½ cup cilantro, chopped

Combine the vegetables in a bowl and set aside.  While you’re at it, measure out the peanuts and set them aside.

Pull the chicken from the grill and let it rest for several minutes before slicing.  Slice the chicken in ¼” slices and set aside.

Add the prepared noodles to a large mixing bowl.  Heat the sauce in a pan until it begins to bubble and boil.  Turn the heat off and add the sauce to the noodles.  Mix until the noodles are coated.

Prepare the finished dish by adding some noodles to individual serving bowls.  Top with sliced chicken and then top that with the vegetables and peanuts.

Serve at room temperature or chilled, for a refreshing summertime meal.

Power Outage Pizza

Yes, it’s another pizza post.  I swear I’m not making pizza every day…really!  The last post, Shrimp Pizza, was actually from last May.  I just now got around to posting it.

This post is from Sunday, August 9.  I had no intention of submitting a post because there was nothing novel about my approach to the pizzas – – until the power went out.

I have been dubbed an “essential worker” during this pandemic and I’m not entirely convinced that my work is essential but apparently, others do.  Many of my fellow employees have either contracted the virus or have been exposed to people who have tested positive which has resulted in several employees being asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.  On top of that hardship, we recently replaced our old operating system with a new one and we’ve spent the last several weeks learning how to operate the new system.  Needless to say, It’s been a stressful time. 

I’ve been working long hours and six day work weeks for the last few months and I don’t foresee that changing in the foreseeable future.

I say all of this to illustrate how important Sundays have become.  Some of my Sundays are spent decompressing, as I try to forget about all of the craziness and other Sundays are filled with lots of domestic chores that I have ignored because of previous decompression Sundays.  This last Sunday was a mixture of work and relaxation.  Yard work filled the first part of the day, before the temperature crested 95° and became too hot to work outdoors, and that was followed by making pizza dough, followed by a short nap, while the dough was rising. 

There was a beautiful balance to the day, until the power went off.  An electrical power transformer in our neighborhood failed and several houses lost power for about six hours.  Of course, I didn’t know how long the power would be out so I decided to finish the pizza-making process on the outdoor grill.  I prepared the grill while there was still some sunlight.  I prepped the ingredients for the pizza and made my tools handy, a la mise en place. 

By the time the coals were hot, I had about 30 minutes of sunlight remaining.  I rolled out the dough and took them to the grill to bake. 

Back in the house, the last shafts of sunlight faded and candles were lit.  Baked pizzas were carried inside, one by one, to be sliced on a dimly lit cutting board.  And, just as we all settled down to eat, the power came back on. 

We turned the lights off and ate by candlelight.

Now that’s a great Sunday! 

Bon appétit!

Ingredients:

5 cups flour

2 cups water

1 Tbs olive oil

¼ cup pitted Kalamata olives

¼ cup pitted black olives

¼ cup julienne sliced onions

2 oz sliced capocollo

2 oz sliced hot calabrese

2 oz can of anchovies, packed in oil

12 oz mozzarella, horridly crumbled by hand

6 slices of sun dried tomatoes, probably less than 1 oz

¾ cup marinara (I used a thin, homemade marinara sauce)

I made three pizzas.  Each pizza started with a base of marinara and Mozzarella.

Pizza Uno:  Anchovy, onion and olives

Pizza Due:  capocollo, onion, olives and sun dried tomatoes

Pizza Tre:  hot calabrese

Directions:

Prepare the pizza dough, using the flour, water an olive oil.  If you want to see one of my pizza dough recipes, check it out here.

Let the dough rest and rise for at least one hour.

Sprinkle an ample amount of cornmeal on three baking sheets.

Separate the dough into three equally sized balls.  Roll them out with a rolling pin and transfer them to the baking sheets.

Bake one pizza at a time by sliding the pizza dough onto the hot grill.  Add tomato sauce (marinara) and add cheese and toppings of your choice.

Close the cover of the grill and bake for about 10 minutes.  Lift the cover of the grill and inspect the quality of the pizza by carefully prying up a portion of the pizza and checking the crispness of the bottom.  You’ll know when the pizza is done.  Pull it off and place the next pizza dough on the grill.  Repeat until all of the pizzas are done.

I used a very thin homemade marinara, made with just a hint of anchovy… Shhh!…don’t tell anyone!

As I mentioned above, in the Ingredients section, I crumbled the mozzarella, rather than grating or slicing it.  The sun was setting and I needed to get the pizzas on the grill, pronto!  But, there’s more to it than that.  Random chunks of mozzarella are perfect for grilled pizza.  The pizza has a marvelous haphazard, spontaneous look, texture and taste.  I suppose I could say that it is “rustic”.  Yeah, that’s it.

Don’t forget to thank the service crew members that come out to replace your transformer in the unrelenting August heat.  Sure, they are getting paid for their work, but take a moment to realize that while you are sweating over a hot grill, they are sweating twice as much.  And don’t forget, they are the real essential workers!

Shrimp Pizza (Extraordinaire)

When I think about making pizza I first consider the taste that I want.  Do I want something spicy, like pepperoni, or perhaps something more subdued, like ground beef?  Do I want a thick, rich, tomato sauce, or a thin whisper of tomato sauce?  Do I want bold herbs and spices?

After I decide on the taste, I start to think about the flavor.  Taste and flavor are not synonymous, even though we sometimes use taste and flavor interchangeably when describing food.  Flavor includes taste, texture and aroma, among other sensory experiences, like sight and sound.  Taste is like listening to a musical instrument and flavor is like listening to an orchestra.

I have made pizzas with shrimp before but none of them had the flavor I wanted, until now.  Charring yellow bell peppers provided a slightly sweet taste that green peppers can’t provide.  The garlic and onion, along with butter and oil made a fantastic sauce.  The overall flavor of the pizza was reminiscent of shrimp scampi, complete with a spritz of lemon juice.  Subtle use of herbs and spices rounded out the flavor nicely.  And of course, Parmesan cheese and mozzarella was the perfect choice to go with shrimp and the vegetables. 

This was a pizza symphony!

Ingredients:

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp red chili flakes

½ tsp salt

1 cup raw medium sized shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 Tbs butter

3 Tbs olive oil

5 cloves garlic, mashed

1 orange bell pepper

1 white onion

1 medium sized tomato, chopped

Juice of ¼ lemon

¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

4 oz sliced mozzarella cheese

Directions:

Crush the oregano, chile flakes and salt in mortis and pestle.  Set aside.

Butterfly the shrimp and flatten them with the broad side of a chef’s knife.  Set aside.

Add butter and oil to a skillet.  Set the burner to very low heat.

Mash the garlic cloves and add them to the skillet.  Simmer at very low heat for 3 to 4 minutes.  The garlic should be soft, but not browned.  Remove the garlic to a cutting board.  Mash the garlic into a paste. Set the garlic aside.

Turn the heat up to medium and add the shrimp to skillet and simmer, while stirring.  Cook the shrimp until they just begin to turn pink.  Remove the shrimp from the skillet and keep warm.

Pour the hot butter and oil from the pan into a small bowl and set aside.  Return the skillet to the stove and set the heat to high.

Add the bell pepper and onion to the skillet and sauté at high heat until they begin to char. 

Add the chopped tomato and stir briefly.  Remove everything from the skillet and set aside.

Prebake the pizza dough in a 400° oven for about 5 minutes.  Remove the pizza and place on a heat proof surface.

Pour the butter/oil mixture on prebaked pizza dough.  Use a brush to thoroughly coat the dough.

Blot excess oil from the pizza with a paper towel.

Sprinkle ½ cup of the grated Parmesan cheese onto the dough.

Add charred bell peppers and onion.  Add the garlic paste.

Top with the shrimp.

Squeeze a little lemon juice over the pizza.

Add ¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese. 

Layer with slices of mozzarella.

Scatter the crushed oregano, chile flake and salt across the top of the pizza.

Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes at 400°, or until the cheese bubbles and begins to brown.

Quick Chicken Enchiladas

Sometimes we just have to throw something together in a hurry.  This happens to the best of us, especially now.  It feels like the whole world is closing down on us and we have so little time to find joy.  So little time to give comfort to others.  So little time for ourselves.    

Yes, times are strange, but one thing remains.  We must eat, and eat, we will.

Many people have influenced the way I cook.  One of the many cast of characters was the mother of my friend, Barry.  

Ginger Hornburg was a sweet and feisty, pint-sized woman.  Her husband, Jack, was a giant, in stature and in heart.  The two were mismatched, when seen side by side, but it was clear that they were made for each other.  There was love there, and it was plain to see. 

On one occasion, I watched Ginger make dinner.  Her recipe for chicken enchiladas was typical for the time…shredded chicken, cream of mushroom soup, shredded cheese and corn tortillas.  Bake and serve.  Done!

When she realized that I was interested in watching her cook she made a point to tell me that the key ingredient was green chilis.  To prove the point she showed me a small can of Old El Paso diced green chiles (mild).  I’ve never forgotten that.  Green chilis are essential for chicken enchiladas.

I’ve grown and changed as a cook but I haven’t forgotten essential truths.  Green chilis are the defining touch to Tex-Mex chicken enchiladas and I have Ginger to thank for that!

Let’s make a fast and furious enchilada dinner.

I made these enchiladas while having a Zoom meeting with distant family members and then I followed that with a phone conservation with another friend. 

Start to finish time for this meal was about 45 minutes.  I remember when I could crank out a meal in 30 minutes.  Oh, those were the days.  I must be getting slower in my old age.  Or, maybe I’m learning to savor life’s little moments.  Yah… whatever!

I was lucky to have some grilled chicken in the refrigerator. 

Chicken Enchiladas – mas rapido!

I intentionally overstuffed these enchiladas because I wanted to use all of my left over chicken and I wasn’t working from a recipe.  I was doing the thing I do best…pulling things out of the refrigerator and pantry  and whipping up a quick meal. 

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As I mentioned previously, the key to this dish is pickled jalapeños.  Seriously, the pickled tanginess of the chilis is the defining element of true Tex-Mex chicken enchiladas.  No exceptions.  Don’t mess with Texas and don’t mess with Ginger!

No walk-through photos on this one.  I was too busy Zooming and talking to people on the phone!  Scroll down to see a photo of the finished dish.

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups water

2 chicken bouillon cubes

1 Tbs butter

1 Tbs flour

2 cups grilled chicken, shredded and chopped

2 green onions, chopped

3 whole pickled jalapeños, chopped

1 cup fresh spinach, roughly chopped

1 ½ Tbs cumin powder

1 Tbs red chili powder

2 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp dried oregano

6 corn tortillas

8 oz Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded

¼ cup sour cream

½ cup fresh cilantro

Directions:

Add the chicken bouillon cubes to the water and heat in the microwave for 2 minutes.  Remove and set aside.

Prepare a roux by heating butter in a skillet.  Add the flour and whisk.  Add the water and whisk until the sauce thickens.  Remove the skillet from the heat set aside. 

Prepare a round 9 inch casserole dish.  Smear a little of the sauce on the bottom of the dish.

In a mixing bowl, combine the shredded chicken, green onions, jalapeños, spinach, cumin, chili powder, garlic powder and oregano.  Mix with a spatula or wooden spoon. 

Soften the corn tortillas in hot oil and set aside.

Apply a heavy portion of the chicken mixture to each of the tortillas and roll the tortillas.  Place the rolled enchiladas in the casserole dish.  Rotate the enchiladas to coat all sides with the sauce.

Top with cheese and bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the top is bubbling and golden brown.

Serve with sour cream and cilantro.

And please, take time to show young people how you cook, even if they are wild-eyed, scraggly teenagers!

Shrimp Crostini with Blackened Tilapia

Recently, on my way home from work, I had a sudden craving for shrimp toast, you know, the classic Chinese takeout appetizer.  I wanted to try making it at home, even though I’d never attempted it. 

There’s always that moment, during the drive home, when I consider whether I know exactly how to make the thing I am thinking of, or if I will need to improvise.  This was definitely going to require some improvisation.   

I imagined how shrimp toast tastes as it’s pulled out of the fryer.  Hot and crunchy on the outside and soft and creamy shrimpiness on the inside.  And then, as I waited at a red light, I came to a sad realization.  Shrimp toast is great when it’s hot and fresh but given time, it cools and becomes a squishy, oily, shrimp-flavored sponge.  The craving for takeout-style shrimp toast was gone.

I took a moment to think about what I was actually craving.  In my mind, I imagined a baked, creamy shrimp spread on top of thick slices of toasted French bread.  I couldn’t recall what the dish was actually called but I was evoking crostini.  I kept referring to it as “shrimp toast” as I drove home and, in truth, that’s really all it is…it’s just not the deep fried Chinese takeout variety.

Since I was already in a seafood frame of mind I decided to pair the crostini with New Orleans-style blackened fish.

Shrimp Crostini with Blackened Tilapia

Ingredients for the Shrimp Crostini:

½ lb fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined and finely chopped

¼ cup diced green onions, chopped fine

3 Tbs mayonnaise

3 Tbs cream cheese

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp Cajun seasoning

½ tsp salt

9 slices of good quality, fresh French bread (1” thick)

2 Tbs butter

Directions:

Peel and devein the shrimp.  Rinse thoroughly under cool water.  Chop into small pieces.

Add the shrimp and remaining ingredients, (excluding the bread!) to a large mix bowl.  Beat the heck out everything with a whisk, fork or any other suitable weapon. 

Prepare a 9” round ceramic backing dish by spreading 2 tablespoons of oil across the bottom and sides of the dish.  Wipe away excess with a paper towel.

Add the shrimp mixture to the dish and press the mixture down firmly with your fingers, spreading it to the edges of the dish. 

Bake in a 400° oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the top begins to brown.  Remove and cool on a wire rack.

While the shrimp cools, prepare the French bread.

Slice the bread into 1” thick pieces. 

Melt the butter and brush over both sides of the bread slices.

Place the pieces of bread in a 9” glass pie plate.

Using a spoon, or a small spatula, add dollops of the baked shrimp mixture to the toast.  Press the toast together as tightly as possible.

Put the pie plate in a 400° oven for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the sides of the toast are crisp.  Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Ingredients for the Blackened Tilapia:

3 Tbs Cajun seasoning

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp dried onion flake, ground fine

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp cayenne powder

1 tsp dried thyme

4 tilapia filets (about 1 lb)

Directions:

Mix all of the dried seasonings together.

Spread the seasonings across a large platter.

Lay the tilapia filets on the seasoning and press down firmly with your hands to coat the fish.  Turn the fish over and repeat. 

Heat a heavy steel skillet or cast iron skillet to high heat. 

Once the skillet is screaming hot, add the butter.  Just as soon as the butter is almost completely melted, which will happen quickly, add the filets.

Stand back.  Don’t mess with the fish.  After about two minutes, the butter will brown.  Carefully turn the fish over with a large flat spatula and let the fish fry for another two minutes.  Press the fish with the side of your thumb.  If it feels firm, it’s done.  If it doesn’t feel firm, it will in about another 30 seconds.

Carefully remove the fish with a spatula and place on a serving dish. 

Serve on a bed of steamed rice and steamed broccoli. 

Louisiana hot sauce is the preferred condiment for the Shrimp Crostini and Blackened Fish.  Use as directed.

Guest Chef

My son came by a few weeks ago to make dinner for the family.  It was an honor (and a pleasure) to watch him work.  He has a keen, creative mind and a clever palate.  The young man is a crafty chef in sheep’s clothing and he’s not afraid to attempt challenging culinary feats in front of an audience. 

When I came home from work he had already made the dough for the ramen noodles.  Yes, he was making ramen noodles from scratch.  The dough had been set aside and he was in the process of prepping the vegetables.  I watched how he worked the kitchen knife.  Stern, decisive chops and slices.  He worked quickly and with intensity and purpose. 

He soft boiled the eggs and removed them to cool while he prepared the rest of the dish. 

Several minutes passed and then he stared long and hard at the eggs, still in their shells. I had to bite my tongue when I realized what he was about to do. He put the eggs back on to boil a little longer. I remembered thinking that re-boiling the eggs was probably a mistake but when he pulled the eggs out and sliced them in half they were absolutely, perfectly soft-boiled! That was either a stroke of luck or a stroke of genius, either way, it was a win!

I didn’t ask for the recipe but it was easy to see what he was throwing into the pot.  And, since I wasn’t there when he made the dough for the noodles, I can’t elaborate on that either except to say it was a simple mixture of flour, baking soda and water. 

Ramen

Hand-made ramen noodles

Ginger, chopped

Minced garlic

Leeks, sliced in rings

Tofu (firm)

Nori, sliced

Carrot (grated)

Soy sauce

Chicken broth

Soft boiled eggs