Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mexican dinner

Three guisado burritos— from San Miguel’s street vendors
  You can make these burritos separately or together for a single meal.  I like to put out all three to reproduce the feel of the burrito stand that inspired me in the recipes, the one at the corner of Calle Nueva and Ancha de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende.  I put out the guisados in clay pots, but you can leave them in the pots they cooked in or use corningware or whatever.
  A guisado is essentially a filling.  In Mexico you’ll find hundreds of varieties, from the exquisite to the disgusting.  I love cochinito in pibil, can’t even look at chicharron with onions.  You can use them to fill anything from tacos to burritos to sopes and huaraches. The following are three of my favorites.  I like to cook this meal when I invite vegetarian friends and meat eaters at the same time, since the rajas have no meat.
   Burritos are pretty much a meal unto themselves, but there are a few things that make good sides- a garden salad, guacamole, jicama salad, anything cool and crunchy.
   For me, the difference between beans cooked from dry beans and canned beans is negligible.  If you want to cook a lot, pressure cook dry beans for a couple hours, if you are cooking for a few people, open a can.  Refried beans are easy to apply to a burrito, but if you prefer whole beans, as I do, just make sure they aren’t wet and runny enough to ruin your tortilla.
   For tortillas, I use the ones you buy in the supermarket- flour tortillas, the burrito grande size.  I have noticed that Americans tend to eat these tortillas straight out of the package, half cooked.  Don’t do that.  Heat up a dry skillet or griddle and drop the tortillas onto it one at a time.  Heat for about 20 seconds more or less on one side, then flip it over.  As the tortilla heats, it will generally inflate like a balloon.  The fully cooked tortillas should be flexible and give off a smell like fresh bread.  Don’t scorch them or cook them till they are dry.
   The third ingredient for your burritos will be rice.  Regular long-grained rice cooked in a steamer or on the range is just fine.  I like to put a can of Rotel or homemade tomato sauce in to paint the rice orange and give it more flavor.
   Once you have your guisados prepared, heat the tortillas, slather a strip of beans on, make a row of rice and one of guisado, roll it up and eat it.  If you don’t have a tortilla dish to put on the table, just fold them into a tea towel.  Another option is to set out the ingredients and let everyone construct their own burritos as they go.  When I serve these to large groups of kids, I roll them myself to make sure they get plenty of bean and rice bulk to stretch the guisados.
v Chicken with Mole   Mole is a Mexican sauce made with chocolate and chilis.  It has a bitterness and heat that some find delicious and others find overpowering.  I generally prepare something else for guests to be an alternate dish if I’m making mole, since its an exotic flavor for so many people.  If I’m making the sauce from scratch, my favorite recipe is in the novel “Like Water For Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel.  The recipe at the beginning of chapter four makes a really delicious mole, and with only 19 ingredients, it is one of the simpler recipes you’ll find.
I generally just use a mole from the supermarket.  In Mexico I prefer the mole almendrada.  In the US you generally have fewer choices.  If you find yourself so culturally stranded that you are stuck with mole from a jar, I recommend that you take Tia Rosa mole and add a half teaspoon of almond extract as you cook it into the chicken.
   Begin cooking with a deep skillet (I use an iron skillet) and a bit of oil in the bottom.  Take two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and cook them, covered, at medium to low heat until cooked through.  Slice a large onion into quarter inch thick rounds and cook it together with the chicken. You want the chicken to be very thoroughly cooked, but without hard browned places. Once the initial cooking is done, begin to tear the chicken apart and create a pan full of shredded chicken.  It needs to still be moist and tender, but taken apart in such a way that the sauce can saturate it.  Take about a third of a cup of concentrated mole from the store or use about a cup of homemade mole sauce and add it to the  chicken and onion, stirring it through until it is fairly evenly distributed.  Add a third of a cup of water and keep mixing.  The sauce will still not be completely evenly distributed, but should pretty much coat everything.  Once most of that water has evaporated out, add a half cup of water, give a last stir to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom, and cover it at low heat.  Let it simmer together for 15 or twenty minutes, stirring and adding water as it cooks out.  With sweeter moles, add a quarter to a half cup of shredded almonds when the cooking is done, or, with more savory moles, add a quarter cup of sesame seeds to the mix.
   This guisado is like soup- it keeps well and improves when you warm it over and the flavors get a chance to mingle more.
v Beef in salsa de Chile Ancho
The main ingredient in this guisado is the sauce.  Take two chiles anchos (they come in a bag, dried) and cut off the stems.  Toss the stems, then cut the chiles down the side and shake and scrape the seeds out.  Put the dried chiles into a cup of warm water to soak.  Meanwhile, dice an onion and clean either a chile Serrano or a jalapeno.  The Serrano will be a bit spicier.  If you like a hot sauce, add a few, but I find that one is enough to add a bit of bite but not overpower the flavors.  Cleaning a fresh chile means taking off the stem and cutting it in half, then taking out the seeds and the white stuff from the inside.  Seeds add heat without adding flavor, so they are generally discarded. Don’t forget to wash your hands very thoroughly after handling chiles or you will get chemical burns when you reach up to touch your face, scratch an itch, or, heaven forbid, rub your eyes.
   Put the onion and the fresh chile into a blender with a cup and a half of water.  Add a single toe of garlic and two whole Roma tomatoes.  Purists may peel and seed the tomatoes.  I don’t. Add a third of a cup of vinegar, a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of black pepper, and a tablespoon of olive oil. By now, your dried chilis should be reconstituted enough to blend properly.  If they are still tough and semi-dry, wait a while until they soften up.  Drain them and add them to the mix in the blender.  Now blend the whole mess until it makes a puree about the consistency of apple sauce.  Put it in a covered sauce pan and cook over low heat for a minimum of twenty minutes. 
   In Mexico, I use beef that has been pounded by the butcher to make milanesa.  In the US, you can either buy cheap steaks and pound them flat with a mallet between pieces of wax paper or you can use cube steak.  Either way, use about a pound and take your beef and slice it into very thin strips. Brown it in a skillet, then add a sliced onion, cook for another few minutes, and cover it to cook slowly.  When the beef is cooked thoroughly and the onions have a reached a good consistency, add the salsa and allow to simmer for as long as you like, the longer the better.

v Rajas con queso
     Rajas are strips of chiles.  The best chiles to use to make this recipe are chiles poblanos, a fresh chile that you can buy seasonally in the grocery store.  There are a bit bigger than bell peppers, pointed on the end, green tending toward red as they over-ripen. 
    To prepare the chiles poblanos, take six of them and roast them.  You can put them on the grill and turn them as they blacken and the skins stretch and curl, or you can do what I do, which is to use a blow torch on them.  I have heard of other ways to skin a chile, from baking them in a paper bag to scalding them, but to get the best taste, I like them to be roasted.  Once the skin is loosened and burnt, cut out the stem and then open up the peppers.  Scrape the seeds and webs from inside and the skin off the outside, then cut the pieces into long, 1/3 inch wide strips.
   Take a large onion and cut it into 1/3 inch wide slices.  Mix the onion together with the rajas and simmer them in a skillet. Cook them down until they are tender but not mushy, like a thick pasta al dente.  Add a half package of cream cheese (4 oz.) and followed quickly by 1/3 cup of ½ & ½ or cream.  Cook together with the vegetables until they are coated, adding a bit more ½ & ½ if needed to smooth it out.  Now mix in 2/3 cup of fresh grated parmesan cheese.  This dish is best served fresh and hot after cooking, but is not bad warmed over.
v Alternate/bonus guisado!!
This is the quickest, easiest guisado I know.  I suspect it is the “I don’t feel like cooking” default in most Mexican households.  Brown a pound of ground beef.  Add some onions and salt and pepper as it cooks.  Drain the fat.  Add a can of mixed vegetables.  That’s it.

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