The Process

Sometimes creating a fantastic dish is a simple thing. But sometimes it’s a process. A recent potluck birthday party inspired such a process, for I knew my dear foodie cohorts Akbar and Hamilton would be in attendance, and any old schlocky potluck staple wouldn’t do. No, sir. This dish would have to impress. And the guest of honor, Mick, was certainly worthy of something spectacular. Indeed, I’d have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Braised rabbit? No, too rich. Something light and tasty.

Hmmm, let’s see what’s in the fridge? Lemon confit. Flour tortillas. Chile-herb oil made from the balcony garden’s bounty. Lots of cilantro. Green onions. A few red fresno and cayenne peppers from the balcony garden. Ah-ha! An idea was forming. Settle in and let me walk you through it…

I decided on a fantastic fish taco. Why? Several reasons. Finger foods are nice at a potluck. Fish tacos look festive. I had recently bought a nice ceramic tray that would display them in a delightful manner. The stars were aligning. I put up a message on Facebook inquiring as to where the best place to buy fresh fish was. Lo and behold, several friends pointed me in the direction of the Maine Avenue Fish Market here in DC. Rwah? (Insert Scooby Doo ears here.) Why had I never heard of this place? Right on the waterfront, it’s only like seven minutes from where I live, and it’s stocked with the most amazing assortment of fresh fish and shellfish I’ve ever seen!

I know it sounds kind of mundane, but after admiring the incredible abundance of fresh fish, I decided upon cod for the tacos. Cod is a great fish for tacos, because it takes on a marinade well, and it flakes just right, two characteristics that, for me, make it the perfect choice. I couldn’t resist picking up a dozen oysters while I was there (a half dozen from Chincoteague Island and a half dozen labeled “Virginia”). I couldn’t resist! I also had a relatively new oyster knife at home waiting to be broken in. And believe me, when it comes to shucking, I need the practice. And I love love LOVE oysters (you may not be able to tell, but the pic below is a bunch of delicious oyster on ice).

But on to the project at hand. I mentioned a marinade. I decided on a smoky and spicy charmoula, having recently read a recipe in the May ’10 issue of Saveur. From our friends at Wikipedia: “Chermoula or charmoula is a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian cooking. It is usually used to flavor fish or seafood, but it can be used on other meats or vegetables.” Here’s the recipe (I made a couple of additions, which are noted with asterisks):

Charmoula

3/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp fresh lime juice

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp hot smoked paprika

10 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped

*10 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 red fresno chile

1 shallot, halved and thinly sliced

*1 tsp kosher salt

* pinch of saffron

Puree all ingredients in a food processor. Cover and let sit for at least an hour for flavors to blend.

So let’s get started on these tacos, shall we? I used a 5-inch bowl to cut down the tortillas into a finger-food size. I cut the cod into taco-sized chunks and marinated it in the charmoula for thirty minutes at room temperature before sauteeing it in chile oil. Oh right, the chile oil! I had made that a few days prior, using chiles and herbs from the balcony garden.

This was also inspired by the May ’10 Saveur, but here’s my version:

Herb and Chile Oil

1 Cup extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, halved

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh oregano

1 bay leaf

1 fresh cayenne pepper, whole

2 fresh red fresno peppers, sliced into rings

Combine the ingredients in a 1-qt saucepan. Heat over medium heat until an instant-read thermometer reads 200 degrees. Remove from heat and let cool. Oil will keep refrigerated and covered for up to two weeks.

To finish the taco, I made a “salsa” out of candied lemon and chile, again using chiles from the balcony garden. I mentioned that I had some leftover lemon confit in the fridge. Lemon confit is basically fresh lemon slices simmered in simple syrup until they are translucent, or candied. I chopped up a few slices and then sliced some chiles and simmered them in the lemony simple syrup for about ten minutes, until the chile was candied as well. Then I drained the chile and mixed it with the chopped lemon to make a sweet and hot “salsa” to complement to the fish. Clever, huh?

To add some crunch, I julienne sliced some pancetta and crisped it up in a saucepan and then mixed it with some fried capers. After assembling the tacos, I added some final color and crunch by scattering over some fresh cilantro, minced red onion, and sliced green onion. Here’s the result:

Don’t they look festive? Not to brag, but I think they were a hit. here’s the “after” photo:

Oh, a quick confession before I go. Remember those oysters I bought at the seafood market? While the cod was sauteeing, I stood there at the counter and shucked six in a row and downed them right there at the counter. For breakfast. It was only 10 am, so I can’t even call it brunch. It wasn’t easy either. Those suckers from Virginia have tough shells, and they don’t let you in easy! (You shouldn’t read too much into that last statement — or should you?)

There will be more on oysters soon – October is oyster month. But I should mention for those of you that get a bit squeamish at the thought of those slippery little suckers sliding down my throat in all their raw glory: Enjoying oysters is a bit of a process, too. It takes time. I used to date an opera singer in Santa Fe who introduced me to oysters when I was in my early twenties. I tried them, I didn’t particularly like them, but I didn’t dislike them either. Little did I know: the process had started. Over the years I would try them again and again, and then one day it would just hit me: I loved oysters, I craved their brininess, their sweetness, their pure ocean taste. For you, the process may start with oysters Rockafeller, or enjoying a fried oyster here and there, or sampling a raw oyster and shrugging and thinking “I don’t get it.” One day, you’ll be just like me, craving these little buggers and seeking them out. The process has begun.

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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!