BIRTHDAY THE SECOND: CEVICHE

It’s my blog’s birthday!  Happy birthday, blog!


In addition to being Blue Jean Gourmet’s birthday, today is also Cinco de Mayo: this is no accident.  Of course I started my blog on a day that serves as an excuse to eat and drink some of my favorite things.  That was good thinking on my part.  High five, self.  High five.

I’m amazed at how much can change in a year, or in two.  The length of my hair, the color of my dining room, the amount of time I spend on Twitter, my concerns and worries, my growth as a teacher, my skill as a cook, the intimacy and trust in my relationships, the new people I am blessed to know.  You know how folks will say “Oh, I would love to go back to…” and then insert “high school” or “college” or some other past period in their life?  Not me, thank you.  I have gained too much, am entirely too grateful to be the person I am now and not the person I was back then (shudder, cringe), and can’t imagine saying goodbye to even the smallest piece of that perspective, even if it meant getting to sleep really late on weekends.

To have had this blog (and you people out there!) as a constant over the last two years, meeting you here week after week, being able to look back on this archive of life’s ins and outs–it’s simply incredible.  Looking to the year ahead, I plan to keep telling stories, sharing food that I think is delicious, working with Sonya to deepen our craft, and breathing life into this toddler of a blog with some new ideas and a lot of guest posts.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Thank you for being part of this conversation and a very meaningful part of my life.  Your presence is humbling and cheering; I hope you will stick around!

BLOODY MICHELADA

If you’ve never had one of these Texan concoctions, you’re in for a treat.  Refreshing on the hottest of days, micheladas are a snap to throw together with things you probably already have in your pantry/fridge.  There’s no one “recipe” for this drink, though the consistent elements are similar to that of a Bloody Mary: salt, spice, & lime.

This weekend, I took things one step further and made micheladas using leftover, homemade Bloody Mary mix from last weekend’s brunch.  Of course, you can make them minus the tomato part and they will still be delicious!  Note: the drink is traditionally served over ice, but I prefer to freeze my glasses instead.

ingredients:

1 beer of your choice
2 fresh and ripe tomatoes
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. Tabasco or other hot sauce (adjust according to your heat tolerance)
juice of 6 limes, plus extra lime wedges/wheels for garnish
celery salt

Rim the edges of the glasses you’re using with celery salt, set aside.  Core the tomatoes and place in a blender along with the Worcestershire, Tabasco, & lime juice.  (I left the skins on for texture).  Whir until you’ve achieved a thick but still pourable liquid.

Fill your glasses with ice, if using.  Pour about a ¼-cup of the tomato mixture into the bottom of each glass, then pour the beer over and garnish with lime.

CEVICHE

Jill taught me to love ceviche–it’s one of her absolute favorite things to eat.  And though I had never made it before last weekend, I have eaten so much of it that I had a sense in my mind of the tastes and textures I was after.

Luckily for me and other Houstonians, knowledgeable fishmongers and the freshest, most beautiful fish abound around these parts.  Last Saturday, I bought myself some gorgeous mango snapper and wahoo from the man they call Professor Fish Heads, and went home excited to prepare ceviche in a way that would do the fish justice.  I dare say I was successful!

I’ve done my best to recreate how I made my ceviche, but bear in mind that it’s not a dish that requires precision or exactness.  Feel free to swap in citrus for the mango, thinly sliced carrot for the radish, or jalapeno for the serrano.  My only specific exhortation is this: fry your own chips!  I much prefer the flavor of a flour chip to store-bought corn, not to mention the former is much sturdier and can, quite literally, hold up to the fish.  Simply cut flour tortillas into wedges, heat up a pot of vegetable oil, and fry until lightly browned and puffy.  Super delicious.

ingredients:

approximately 1 lb. very fresh fish (snapper is the classic choice), cubed (1/2 inch is my preference)
½ cup fresh citrus juice (I used a combination of sweet & regular lime)
thinly sliced red onion
thinly sliced radish
Serrano pepper, seeded & very thinly sliced
diced ripe mango
plenty of cilantro
avocado for garnish
salt & pepper

Combine the fish and citrus juice in a shallow plastic container fitted with the lid.  Add the onion, radish, Serrano, mango, salt, and pepper, and stir gently to combine.  Cover and let sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours, popping in periodically to stir the mix, evenly exposing all of the fish pieces to the citrus juice.  Over time, the juices will “cook” the fish and you will see it change from pink and translucent to white and opaque.

When ready to serve, check again for salt & pepper and garnish with plenty of fresh cilantro and avocado and serve with chips.

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CHILAQUILES

Say it with me…chee-lah-KEE-lehs.

Being a book worm, English teacher, & general language nerd means I have a pretty decent vocabulary.  But there have been times—many an embarrassing time, in fact—when I have run across a word that I know the meaning of but have NO idea how to say aloud.  Like at a restaurant, for example.

I hate feeling like an ignorant dweeb when I want to order a dish but don’t know how to pronounce it.  Luckily, I find that a gentle shrug and point at the menu generally results in help from a good waiter or waitress.

Once I learned how to say “chilaquiles,” I was all over ‘em.  This simple and satisfying Mexican dish is a easy to make for a crowd on weekend , and it also makes an excellent breakfast-for-dinner.  You don’t have to top your chilaquiles off with a farm egg fried in bacon fat, but I did.

CHILAQUILES

This chilaquiles recipe is of my own making, and may or may not pass an authenticity test, but it’s damn tasty.


ingredients:

corn tortillas
red or green salsa

Cut tortillas into strips or wedges.  Heat a little vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet until very hot, almost smoking.  Add enough tortilla pieces to cover the bottom of the pan and cook on both sides until crisp.  If working in batches, keep cooked pieces warm in a low oven.  Set cooked tortilla strips aside while frying the rest of the rest in batches.

Once you’ve worked through all of your tortillas, return them all to the skillet over low heat and pour in salsa so it nearly covers the tortilla strips.  Simmer for a minute or two, then serve with as many extras as you see fit.

extras:

beans of your choice—black, pinto, refried
chopped bacon, chorizo, or veggie crumbles
queso fresco or other cheese
diced onions
cilantro
fried egg

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KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

I cut my hair short in high school, for many reasons and for no reason at all.  Convenience, defiance, sophistication, some combination thereof.  It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short until I buzzed it all off my freshman year of college.  Head-shaving was the social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned college roommate Rebecca. Bolder and defiant than I could conceive of being at that point in my life, Rebecca was my first true friend on campus (and remains one of my favorite people on the planet, I might add).  Shaving our heads was her idea.

Bless my poor father’s heart—he always harbored visions of me with long, flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch.  He was forever making remarks that he found funny but I found annoying, encouraging me to “grow it out!” and “not so short!”  But to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, he handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind.

Though I never shaved it again–

a) I’m not cut out to live a renegade lifestyle

b) my head is oddly shaped

c) lack of hair dampened my flirting potential, which truly affected my quality of life

–once my hair grew back, I continued to style it short.  I had no reason to wear it longer and plenty of reasons to keep it cropped: I lived in hot climates (Memphis, then Houston, then Tucson), I like a low-maintenance morning routine, I had been told once or twice that I looked like the Indian Halle Berry.  Why mess with a good thing?

In my first semester of graduate school, my parents proposed a trip to India for my cousin’s wedding.  She was three years my junior and had become engaged to a man that she met herself at another family wedding and secretly “dated” before coming home and suggesting to her parents that he might be a good match for her.  I rather liked this schema: it was spunky and made the prospect of braving a wedding (at which I would be the noticeably older, unmarried, American cousin) far more palatable.  Not to mention, I had not been to India, the country of my parents’ birth, in over a decade, and my father and I had only traveled there together once before, when I was an infant.

A few months before we were scheduled to leave for India, my father asked me to grow out my hair.

“Nito,” he said, after he had so cleverly taken me out to lunch in Memphis, plied me with pulled pork barbecue and worked me into quite the food coma, “What if you grew your hair for a little while?  Please don’t cut it before we go to India.  It will just look better, your relatives will like to see it, not so short.”

I knew that my relatives weren’t the only ones who would like to see my hair “not so short,” but refrained from saying so.

“But doesn’t the nose ring count for anything?” I asked him, mostly teasing since I had pierced it on a whim in college, not out of any deep-seated cultural agenda.

“Maybe a five-point bonus,” he said, keeping the joke.  “But your hair could look so nice!”

He said “could,” as in “doesn’t right now,” which I noticed but also choose to ignore.  Instead, I decided to leave my hair untouched.  After all, I had cut it for no particular reason, surely I could grow it out when it meant so much to my father?

“I’m going to cut it as soon as we get back, though, okay?”

“Okay,” he consented.  “It’s your hair.”


My father died six weeks after we returned from India.  Except for the occasional trim, I haven’t cut my hair since.  I grow my hair for a dead man who carried his hair on his arms and his legs and his chest and his back, but not his head, curling and dark. He would be so pleased if he could see this hair.  This hair, my hair, all the way down my back, long and flowing the way he always wanted.

Tomorrow, I’m having my first hair cut in nearly four years.  Not an arbitrary cut, but one that will help mark my twenty-seventh birthday and which will result in an envelope full of my hair being mailed here.  You see, my friend Rebecca and I have many things in common: we’re giant nerds, know more Disney song lyrics than we really ought to admit, have serious sweet tooths, and love to craft things with our hands.  But the most powerful thing we share is the one we never counted on; losing a parent within nine months of each other.

Rebecca’s mom Karen fought an exhausting battle against cancer for two-and-a-half years, one of those terrifying up-and-down rides full of uncertainty and pain, loss and hope.  My friend put her life on hold to tend her mother’s every need, exhibiting the kind of courage and relentlessness that humbles one who witnesses it.  By the time Karen was diagnosed, right in the middle of our senior year of college, Rebecca had become my family and I, part of hers.  My own father’s death very surprisingly interrupted the trajectory of things; who could have guessed that I would be the one to lose a parent first?

To this day it stuns me, how in the midst of their own sadness and grief, Rebecca and her parents tended to me so unselfishly.  I remember spending part of an afternoon at the hospital with them, not long after my father had died and during a time along the cancer roller-coaster when chemo had stripped Karen’s head completely clean of hair.  She had wigs, but they didn’t come close to recreating her.  The most realistic ones are, of course, the most expensive.

“Your hair is so beautiful, Nishta,” she told me, in a voice I’ll always be able to hear.  “I wish I could wear it.”

“I’ll grow it out for you,” I told her.  “I promise.”

Tomorrow I’ll be making good on my promise at the same time I let go of the hair that feels so connected to my father.  I’m nervous, excited, and proud, and I promise to post some before-and-after pictures on Friday, provided that I don’t become totally incapacitated by all of the food I’m planning to eat between now and then (with a birthday today & Thanksgiving tomorrow, let’s hope I can even fit into my pants on Friday!)

I’m wishing all of you very festive and delicious Thanksgivings, full of people you love and lots of linger-worthy moments.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

Rebecca’s mama made the world’s best home-cooked Mexican rice, and she generously passed on her secret to me through her daughter: 1 ¾ cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. Her ratio yields flavorful rice with the ideal texture and every time I make it (which is often), I picture her in my kitchen, proud that I’m working her recipe.

This rice makes an excellent accompaniment to so many things, but my favorite pairing is with a big pot of simple, vegetable-laced black beans.  “Grad school food,” I call it, given how cheap it is to make, while at the same time being comforting and tasty.  Feel free to swap in or out other vegetables such as chayote, fresh spinach, mushrooms, etc.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE

1 cup long-grain rice
1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 T cumin
½ T chili powder
salt
vegetable oil

optional: sliced onion

In a large skillet with a fitted lid, sauté the garlic (plus onion, if you’re using it) in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat.  After two minutes, up the heat to medium-high and add the rice, toasting in the oil until the rice begins to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, then stir in the spices.  Cover the mixture with the lid and allow it to come to a boil.  Once the mixture boils, dial back he heat to medium-low, stirring periodically until the liquid is nearly gone and the rice is fully cooked.

Toss in the tomatoes and check the rice for salt, seasoning to your liking before serving hot.

“GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

2 cans black beans, fully or partially drained*
1 can corn (or 2 ears’ worth of fresh corn, off the cob)
2 carrots, peeled & sliced ½-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 ½ T cumin
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
vegetable oil

optional: ½ or a whole jalapeño, minced
potential garnishes: grated cheese, sour cream, cilantro, salsa, raw onion, shredded cabbage

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bell peppers (jalapeño, if you’re using it) and carrots in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Add the black beans, corn, & spices, then mix well.

Cover and turn down the heat to low.  After 10-12 minutes, the beans should be heated through.  Check for salt, then serve over rice.

*If you want drier beans, drain all the way.  For a soupier effect, drain only one of the two cans.

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TORTILLA ROLLS

My apologies, dear reader.  I am so very behind.

My commitment is to blog every Tuesday and Friday, but today I find myself running rather late: to post this, to meet friends for drinks, to clean up my house before company comes.  It’s been a heckuvaweek for this tired teacher, but I feel encouraged knowing that I can present you with these:

tortilla rolls with salsa

My mom’s famous tortilla rolls, adapted by yours truly.  When you read over the ingredient list, you may think “Uh, that sounds weird.”  But rest assured, they are CRAZY DELICIOUS.  Never a one left behind.

These are infinitely adaptable (olives? ham? fresh herbs?) and perfect for football watching.  It’s just so satisfying to dunk things, like fries into ketchup, chicken nuggets into honey mustard, tortilla rolls into salsa.

Since I work in a Jewish school and we’re off Monday for Yom Kippur, day of atonement, consider my tortilla rolls an offering of repentance.  Once you try them, I bet I’ll be forgiven.

PS: We’re reading Fahrenheit 451 in class right now, Ray Bradbury’s classic vision of a futuristic, television-addicted society in which books have been banned to protect citizens from the “danger” of ideas.

As part of our fantastic class discussions, students have been batting around the idea of banned books and the power of reading, how society controls and shares information, etc.  So, we’re curious: what book has had the biggest influence on you, made an impact, changed you in some way, made you think? It can be from middle/high school, college, or more recently.  Any book works!  We’re compiling a list and would love to add yours.

TORTILLA ROLLS

Buy the freshest tortillas you can; they’ll be softer and more pliable, thereby rolling easier.  If you’ve never bought corn relish before (and really, why would you have?), grocery stores tend to stock it in one of two places: with the marinated artichoke hearts or with the olives, usually on the highest shelf.  You won’t need the whole jar, but fear not, the stuff will keep forever in the fridge.

ingredients: tortilla rolls platter

8 oz. cream cheese, softened (use reduced fat if you wish)
½ cup chopped pecans
1/3 cup corn relish
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried parsley (if using fresh, increase to 1 T)
fresh flour tortillas

accompaniments: salsa of your choice

Combine the first five ingredients in a small bowl, blending thoroughly (you can easily do this a day or two ahead).  Smear a large spoonful or two of the mixture onto a tortilla, spreading thinly and leaving a border around the edge.  Roll up the tortilla tightly; place on a platter.

Repeat until all of the cream cheese mixture is gone.  Cover the plate of tortillas with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 10-15 minutes to firm them up, making them easier to cut.  You can also leave them longer like this, just make sure they are covered well.

When it’s time, slice each tortilla roll-up into half-inch rounds with a sharp serrated knife.  Re-arrange on the platter and serve with a bowl of salsa.

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MEXICAN-STYLE PORK TENDERLOIN SANDWICH

This may be my favorite sandwich of all time.

torta al pastor

I mean, come on.  Chipotle-and-honey-marinated pork tenderloin with spicy mayonnaise, melted cheese, pineapple, avocado, & cilantro clearly equals heaven.

Of course, I’m biased in favor of all things Mexican and Tex-Mex.  It’s in my blood.  My mother perfected the Blue Jean Gourmet margarita recipe while bartending in a Mexican restaurant in the seventies.  My father, who worked for that chain of Mexican restaurants, took the three of us on a Texas road-trip for research purposes when I was a pre-teen; we ate our way through Dallas, Houston, & San Antonio, consuming tortilla after tortilla, trying salsa after salsa, and the night we arrived home in Memphis, decided to make—you guessed it!—Mexican food for dinner.

Now I live in Houston, where I’m lucky to have the chance to taste-test all kinds of Mexican and Tex-Mex food, from high-end, award-winning places to less-fancy-but-still-delicious taco trucks that line the city.  And it was here in Houston, during college, that I fell in love with the cheap-but-filling tortas served up at this restaurant.

The torta is a Mexican-style sandwich, typically made on a crusty, baguette-type roll called a bolillo, with myriad possible fillings, including al pastor, or pork, which I did my best to recreate at home a few weeks ago.

Personally, I think this would make an excellent weekend sandwich, because it’s incredibly satisfying but not very fussy. Marinate the pork tenderloin ahead of time, grill it up outside and you won’t even have to heat up your house (bonus!)

sliced pork tenderloin

While it’s cooking, prep your accoutrement and lay it all out so everyone can make his/her own sandwich.  For an authentic accompaniment, try making elote with the last of sweet-summer corn.  Mexico City without the plane ticket, my friends!  Enjoy.

MEXICAN-STYLE PORK TENDERLOIN SANDWICH avocado cilantro pineapple
serves 4

components:

bread (bolillo roll or baguette)

pork tenderloin (1 lb- 1 ½ lb)*

chipotle mayonnaise*

sliced cheese (Mexican-style cheeses with a sharp flavor that will melt well include queso quesadilla, asadero, or chihuahua.  Substitute mild cheddar if you can’t find any of these)

sliced avocado

cubed pineapple

quick-pickled onions*

To assemble, lay the split rolls on a baking sheet and place cheese on one side of each.  Place under a low broiler or on the grill you just used to cook the pork until the cheese melts.

Slice up tenderloin to desired thickness & let everyone “have at” the sandwich making!

*PORK TENDERLOIN

If you’ve never used chipotle peppers in adobo sauce before, PLEASE go out and buy a jar now (they’re cheap!)  Chipotle peppers are simply smoked jalapeños but their flavor is amazing.
chipotle in adobo
marinade:

1 cup chipotle-flavored barbecue sauce
2 T honey
1 T chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

optional: I had an over-ripe peach which I peeled, pureed, & added to the marinade.

If you don’t have one on hand, throwing in some apricot preserves might make a nice counterpoint to the spice.

Grilling the tenderloin is easiest, searing it first on all sides over a medium-high flame, then moving it off the heat and letting it cook, grill cover down, for about 15 minutes.  Bring the tenderloin inside and let it rest, covered in foil, before cutting into it.

If grilling is not an option, your best bet is to sear the tenderloin on your stovetop, in either a grill pan or other heavy-bottomed pan, then transfer the whole thing to a 425° oven for about 15-20 minutes.

*CHIPOTLE MAYONNAISE

This isn’t rocket science, really.  Mayonnaise + fresh lime juice + a spoonful or two (depending on your heat tolerance) of chipotles in adobo.  Annnnnnd done!

*QUICK-PICKLED ONIONS

quick-pickled onions

I’m an onion lover.  Absolutely adore them any way they’re offered up, raw, grilled, pickled, fried.  In fact, my mom used to tell me when I was little that I’d better marry someone who loved onions and garlic as much as I do, otherwise I’d have a problem.  Thank goodness for Jill or I’d never get any kisses!

I know most people do not share my love of the onion.  However, pickling red onion is a great way to take the “edge” off of the taste but add flavor & crunch to your sandwich.  Pickled carrots, which you can also find pre-made on the same aisle as the chipotles in adobo, are a good alternative if you really just aren’t an onion fan.

Slice the desired amount of red onion thinly.  Bring between ½ cup to 1 cup of white vinegar to a boil, then add an equal amount of white sugar and a pinch of salt.  Add onions and remove from the heat.  Toss in a little cilantro & a pinch of cumin.  Let the onions sit in the liquid until ready to serve.

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COLESLAW

You know those recipes you would beg, borrow, or steal for? Yeah, this is definitely one of them.

coleslaw

Take this coleslaw to a potluck, grill-out, or summer picnic, and I guarantee you’ll have people clambering not only to lick the bowl clean, but also to ask you for the recipe.

I actually didn’t have to beg terribly hard to get this recipe myself—lucky for me, my friend Kathy is a generous recipe-sharer. She’s also responsible for broadening my culinary horizons and know-how when I was just wee college student some half-a-dozen years ago!

This crunchy, spicy slaw goes well with just about any grilled meat or burger. Feel free to adjust the proportions in the dressing to suit your tastes. Coleslaw definitely qualifies as a summer classic, and I’ll eat it in pretty much any incarnation. How do you like yours?

COWBOY KICKOFF COLESLAW
adapted from the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas (via K. Glenney)

This recipe makes a LOT of slaw, so feel free to halve it.

vegetables: yellow bell pepper

4 cups shredded cabbage
(I used both green & half red)

2 cups shredded carrots

2 bell peppers, julienned
(I used one orange & one yellow)

2 chopped jalapeños
(just 1 if you’re heat-shy)

½ bunch cilantro,
picked off the stem & rough-chopped

slaw vegetables dressing:

1 cup mayonnaise

2 T maple syrup

2 T vinegar

2 T Dijon mustard

1 T Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin powder

1 tsp. coriander powder (if you don’t have it/can’t find it, not a dealbreaker)

1 clove garlic, minced

juice of ½ a lime

salt, to taste

Combine all the raw vegetables in a bowl. Whisk the rest of the ingredients together in a separate bowl, then pour over the vegetables. Toss to coat & refrigerate until time to serve. Best if made ahead! Those are four of the sweetest words in the English language: best if made ahead.  Sigh.

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