The Perfect Taco

Ahh, the perfect taco. Filled with rich, mouth-watering meat and flavorful salsa, fixins that spill down your face… Napkin? Bah, who needs it! The perfect taco winks at you from across the table and and taunts you. It’s says, Let’s get messy.

I don’t know what kind of freak doesn’t like a taco, but I’m not sure I’d like to meet him or her.

Tacos are so easy to love because you can personalize them and heap that tortilla full of whatever you like. That’s why homemade tacos are great for a crowd. Recently, we decided to throw a taco party to celebrate my dear friend Scotty’s birthday. I created the picture below for the invitation, taking special care to prominently feature the birthday boy’s face, and to establish an appropriate theme: “Viva el Scotty!”

I sent him the picture in an email one weekday afternoon and asked him what he thought. I was expecting to be showered with accolades for my creativity.

His response? “Don’t you ever work?”

No time to be disappointed, it was time to plan the menu. First, the meats had to be chosen: 1) Pork Carnitas with Fresh Orange and Tequila, 2) Ground Beef with Chipotle, and 3) New Mexico Red Chile Chicken.

Then, a couple of fresh, homemade salsas would be necessary: 1) Traditional Salsa Fresca, and 2) Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa.

And of course, corn and flour tortillas and the fixins: shredded lettuce, farmers market tomatoes, and sour cream. A pot of black beans studded with Mexican chorizo sausage on the side couldn’t hurt.

Any taco party of mine is going to feature two of my very favorite tried-and-true recipes, which (in my opinion) are necessary to make a perfect taco: Pork Carnitas and Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa. Both of these recipes are adapted from The Best American Recipes 2004-2005, and I’ve been making them for years.

What are Carnitas?

From the Epicurious food dictionary: Carnitas  pronounced “kahr-NEE-tahz” is Mexican for “little meats,” this dish is simply small bits or shreds of well browned pork. It’s made from an inexpensive cut of pork that’s simmered in a small amount of water until tender, then finished by cooking the pieces in pork fat until nicely browned all over.

Pork cooked in pork fat? What could possibly go wrong? This recipe is great and it serves a crowd, but it can be easily pared down to feed just a few folks.

Pork Carnitas with Fresh Orange and Tequila

4 lbs pork (boneless country ribs, chops, bone-in chops, or just about whatever is on sale – use your best judgement)

2 cups water, plus more as needed

grated zest of 1 orange plus peeled outer zest of another

juice of 4 oranges (about 1 – 1 1/2 cups)

6 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tsp sea salt

2 tsp black pepper

1/2 cup tequila

Cut the pork into large chunks. Cut off any large chunks of fat and reserve; leave any small pieces of fat on the pork. Combine the pork, reserved fat, 2 cups of water, orange juice, grated and peeled zest, garlic cloves, and salt & pepper in a deep 12-inch skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until pork is tender, about 1 3/4 hours, adding more water as necessary, to keep the meat partially submerged.

Uncover the skillet and boil until the liquid is reduced by 1/2, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tequila and boil, stirring often until all the liquid evaporates and the meat begins to brown and gets crisp, about 15 minutes. This is when the pork starts to get the classic “carnitas” appearance; those chunks of pork fat have rendered and they are now crisping up the meat. Let cool slightly. Discard any loose pieces of fat, and if you used bone-in pork, remove the bones. Tear the meat into strips.

When you are ready to serve, return the meat to the skillet, along with a couple tablespoons of water, over medium-low heat, and rewarm, stirring. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

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The recipe is also kick-ass made with blood oranges when they’re available. Pork carnitas pair wonderfully with Avocado-tomatillo salsa. Tomatillos look like unripe tomatoes, but they are not; they’re a whole other beast. They’re related to the gooseberry and likewise come in papery husks. In my experience, they’re pretty easy to find in most supermarkets. They have a tangy, fresh flavor.

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa

Serves a crowd

4 ripe avocados, peeled and chopped

1 dozen tomatillos, husked and chopped

1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped

1 onion, chopped

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt to taste

Mix all ingredients, being careful not to crush up the avocado too much – you want a salsa texture rather than a guacamole. Lightly press plastic wrap over the surface of the salsa so the avocado won’t turn brown. Refrigerate until it’s time to serve. Stir again before serving and taste for seasoning. Add more sea salt, lime, and/or cilantro as desired.

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My perfect homemade taco requires the following: A warm tortilla (corn preferred, but flour is pictured here), pork carnitas, a squeeze of lime, Colby-jack or manchego cheese, avocado-tomatillo salsa, fresh tomato, and crunchy iceberg lettuce. Mmmm, give me a minute.

I can’t very well write about a quest for the perfect taco without mentioning one of my very favorite restaurants in Washington, DC:

Oyamel Cochina Mexicana

401 7th St NW, 20004

202.628.1005

www.oyamel.com

The concept of Oyamel is Mexico City-style street food, transformed to elegant small plates (called “antojitos” – think Mexican tapas). With celebrity chef José Andrés at the helm, creative touches and attention to detail absolutely abound. Andrés is an esteemed cookbook author who has his own PBS series, Made in Spain. He has also been featured several times on Bravo TV’s Top Chef as a guest judge. With Andrés’ magic at work, the taco is heightened to something artful and fancy, like the below fish taco, “Pescado Mexicano” ($4.00) starring a perfect rectangle of seared white fish, adorned with a rich cilantro pesto. Look how cute:

Speaking of cute and fancy, have a look at my dining companion, Rochelle, whom I recently had the pleasure of introducing to Oyamel. Isn’t she the cutest? Don’t you just want to pick her up and take her home?

Now, the menu at Oyamel offers a lot of variety, but it can be a bit daunting for the first-time diner. If you find yourself scratching your head, I suggest choosing a few tacos for your first visit. You can hardly go wrong, with a multitude of filling choices from stewed chicken to pork carnitas to local goat. More adventurous palates will be delighted to find taco fillings like pork belly, beef tongue, and even sautéed grasshoppers (“chapulines,” a specialty from Oaxaca, Mexico).  Another plus for the budget-minded chow-hound: Three tacos and an iced tea will have you walking out of there for about $15.00, with a full belly and a smile on your face.

If you’re dining midday, you might also opt for the $20.00 lunch special, which includes two antojitos and one taco. It’s a great introduction to a fantastic restaurant. A few things to keep in mind: orders come straight out from the kitchen as they are ready, so your food is hot and fresh, but the downside is that your tacos might arrive a few minutes prior to your dining companion’s. Also, your chips and salsa won’t arrive until after you place your order, and service can sometimes be a little slow and/or scattered, so be patient – it’s worth it.

On subsequent visits (because I wager that you will be back), you’ll delight in sampling the array of antijitos, super-fresh ceviches, ensaladas (salads), and mariscos (seafoods). As a starter, may I highly recommend the “papas al mole,” (pictured) a basket of french fries covered in mole poblano (a complex, mildly spicy sauce flavored with chile, almonds, and chololate), Mexican crema, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. It’s a delight!

¡Viva México!

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Notes from Costa Rica

What we’re exploring: Costa Rica

What we found:

  • Abundant wildlife and gorgeous scenery
  • Great recipe ideas

A couple weeks back, my sister, Tree, and I took my mother to Costa Rica for Mother’s Day. A lot of families take vacations in order to GET AWAY from each other, but my sister, my Mom and I get along really well and we travel well together. Tree and I have been all over Europe together, and Mom and I traveled to Amsterdam a couple years back. (We must get along well – I mean, who the hell goes to Amsterdam with their MOM?). As a trio, we’ve ventured to Ireland and several U.S. destinations.

Few moments in my life have been as special as Mother’s Day of this year, when we took Mom to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, where we enjoyed the splendor of the Costa Rican rainforest from up in the treetops. Not a bad way to celebrate your 68-year-old Mom!

Yes, Mother is quite spry, but after the hanging bridges, the rough ride to Monteverde on the largely-unpaved roads nearly turned  into Complain-fest 2010 (could this have been payback for all my childhood road-trip whinings of “Are we there yet?”)

No need to worry, awaiting us in Costa Rica’s Northern Zone was not only the misty, majestic Cloud Forest reserve, but some really good chow, too.

The Monteverde area is known for producing great coffee, and a great cup is easy to find, much to Mom’s delight – she’s a true coffee lover. We even took a tour of the relatively new family-run San Luis Coffee Growers. A few years back on another trip, Tree and I explored a much larger local outfit, the Don Juan coffee plantation. On that previous trip, Tree and I also fell in love with the restaurant Chimera (Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde), a Latin-fusion tapas restaurant. Their small dishes are lovely and highlight fresh, local flavors while bringing in some excitement with a variety of sauces, garnishes, and special touches. This time, we made it a point to also try the other restaurant in town owned by the same folks, called Sofia (just off Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde).

Sofia is a bit fancier, with a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style dining room and a fusion menu that calls upon Latin, Asian and Caribbean influences. I had a wonderful dish of pork loin with figs, which I have since been working to recreate. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly how I’d like it, but here’s my version:

Pork Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Fig Glaze

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 pork loin chops

1 Tablespoon butter

10 dried figs, stemmed and cut in half

1 T minced shallot

1 clove garlic, minced

1/3 C balsamic vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider, or apple juice

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1. Soak the figs in very hot water. Season the pork chops liberally with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and add pork chops. Sauté the chops until they are almost cooked through, about 4 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Set aside.

2. Add the shallot and garlic to pan and sauté for a minute (adding a tad more butter or olive oil if necessary). Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to combine and to release any browned bits from the pan. Boil until the liquid begins to thicken and reduce slightly. Drain the figs, discarding the soaking liquid, and add them to the pan, along with the pork chops. Simmer until the pork is cooked through, coating the pork with the glaze.

At Sofia, the pork was served with fufu, a side dish of mashed plantains with bacon and onion. In my research, I learned that fufu (with alternate spellings including foufou and foofoo) originated in Africa as a word to describe a variety of dishes that are starchy and mashed, sometimes made from yams, cassava, or even rice or flour. Fufu traveled to the Caribbean along with West African immigrants, and transformed along the way to use available vegetables and flavorings. Hence the Caribbean-style fufu I enjoyed in Costa Rica. Here’s a version I found on the web and played with a little:

Fufu

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

4 sweet plantains (peeled and cut into uniform pieces)

1/4 pound of bacon (cut into small pieces)

1 medium onion (diced)

4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

1. In a saucepan, cover plantains with cold, salted water and bring to a boil.

2. Cook until plantains are soft (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, sauté the bacon until slightly cooked and some fat is rendered. Add the onion and continue to sauté until the bacon is cooked and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes more.

3. Drain the plantains (reserving some of the water) and mash.

4. Fold the bacon, onion, and about 2 Tablespoons bacon fat into the plantains. Discard any additional grease. If the mixture is dry, add some of the reserved cooking water. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

The pork and fufu go together marvelously. If you’d like a little heat to offset the sweetness of the dish, you can prepare a simple jalapeno salsa to garnish the fufu. Just mix 1/2 of a jalapeño pepper with 2 chopped scallions and a little fresh cilantro. Mix in the juice of 1/2 a lime and a pinch of salt and allow it to sit for 15 minutes or so for the flavors to blend. The heat and acid will balance nicely with the sweetness of the plantains and the sweet-and-sour glaze.

Our meal at Sofia was likely the gastronomical high point of the Costa Rican journey. However, great food was easily found elsewhere, too. Gorgeous, fresh fruit was in abundance everywhere we went – Tree made a sport of taste-testing mango smoothies in each of the towns and villages we visited. Furthermore, I love the Costa Rican take on breakfast, where black beans and rice, and sauteed sweet plantains are staples on the morning table. Though Costa Rica is not exactly a culinary travel destination, one could certainly do a lot worse. Go for the wildlife and scenery, but be sure to enjoy a few good bites along the way!