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Posts Tagged ‘onions’

I must have driven my mom nuts with my quest to find the ultimate Queso Fundido in Merida. I was first turned on to the dish from a Rick Bayless “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” episode. He was on scene in Merida at a restaurant I couldn’t find and they served him this big dish of Dutch cheese stuffed with chorizo and drowned in a spicy tomato sauce. Somehow I got the name of the dish screwed up. I had first thought it was called Queso Relleno, then, for whatever reason I thought it was Queso Fundido. Credit that to me mis-browsing Bayless’s website. In season 4 he featured Queso Fundido, in season 5 it was the Queso Relleno that I was really after.

At any rate, I asked a couple of Meridaians (is that a word?) where they go for Queso Fundido. A waiter at one restaurant mentioned a place that my mom and step-dad have been to. Then, when we were at Mayapan, there was a small group of college students touring archeological sites and their local guide was from Merida. So, I asked him and he said, “go to El Fogoncito“. So, that’s where we headed.

Turns out that there are two El Fogoncito’s in Merida, so we went to the one closest to my mom’s house. Much to our disappointment it was located in a brand new modern mall. The atmosphere was so generic we could have been at a TGI Friday’s (turns out that it’s also a major food worldwide food chain, no surprise). No culture whatsoever. But, they do have Queso Fundido con chorizo.

I was a little worried because it was priced about half of what everyone elses entrees were. Was this a meal or an appetizer? When it showed up it was a small earthenware dish filled with melted cheese, chunks of chorizo, and a couple of flour tortillas. It was definitely not a main dish. It was, however, absolutely delicious! I mean, let’s be honest here, it was melted cheese and chorizo. I scarfed that thing down like it was nothing. Since it was an appetizer I was still hungry afterwords.

Seeing that they served Tacos al Pastor, I really had no choice but to order a couple. Not quite as good as the one I ate at the San Benito Market, but still pretty good. These were served more traditionally with onions, jalapeno, cilantro, and a slice of pineapple.

With plenty of room in my belly for dessert I also had to order the flan. This one was clearly not as good as the flan I had in Cozumel’s Sabores. You could definitely taste the love put into that homemade flan that this one lacked as this one was more mass-produced. The texture was a little more jelloey than flan should be and I’m not a big fan of the maraschino cherry on top (save that for lame cocktails), but overall it wasn’t that bad.

I didn’t get the dish I was after, but that was no one’s fault but my own. I guess I’ll have to bother the hell out of my mom about it again next time I’m in Merida. Sorry mom.

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I thought we were done with Restaurant Week, well, I thought wrong! A couple friends of ours had invited us to join them for dinner Saturday night at Salpicon. I’ve been there once before with  my sister and brother-in-law, maybe 5 years ago. I remember walking away fully satisfied both in my belly as well as my taste buds. So, the opportunity to dine there again, at the discounted restaurant week price, was too good to pass up as we’re not ones to miss out on top-notch Mexican food at a discount. Hanging out with Tony and Sandra was also a nice proposition which certainly didn’t hurt the matter.

I must warn you that I did use my cell phone camera again. The pics do not do the food the justice they deserve, but what can you do? Also, since there were four of us I have a lot of pics to show. They offered 5 different appetizers as well as 5 different entrees. What we did was order the 4 most interesting of each and shared them all. I’ll try to keep this post short, but no guarantees.

Ceviche of Blue Marlin. Very typical with onions, tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro. Served with tortillas it always makes a great starter.

Gorditas Divorciadas. Thick tortillas stuffed with black beans and shredded beef (I think brisket, which completely satisfies the Jew in me). They each had a different salsa. One was a guajillo and the other was serrano-tomatillo, both had Mexican crema drizzled on top.

This was the Trio de Tamalitos. Three little tamales, one with queso fresco and serrano chiles that had a spicy molcajete salsa and crema, another with black beans, rajas (a saute of chilis and onions), and chihuahua cheese with a black been puree, the last had zucchini and chipotles.

The last appetizer was Sopa de Lentejas, lentil soup. It was garnished with grilled pineapple, smoked bacon (YUM!!!), chile pasilla, and queso anejo.

For the entrees we got the Camarones al Mojo de Ajo. Big, plump, juicy grilled shrimp in a sweet garlic and olive oil sauce with avocado chunks, guajillo chiles, and white rice. Not too garlicky at all.

Chiles Rellenos. Two battered poblanos deep-fried and swimming in a roasted tomato sauce. One was stuffed with minced pork picadillo, the other with chihuahua cheese. There was a side dish of frijoles borrachos, but I forgot to get a pic of that. Deal with it!

Pollo en Mole Poblano. Two chicken breasted smothered in a rich, spicy mole and served with Mexican rice. It really was kind of spicy. My first bite gave me a couple of little hiccups.

Tinga Poblana. Pork tenderloin on top of a roasted tomato-chipotle sauce with chorizo and potatoes, surrounded by an avocado-tomatillo sauce. This was hands down the best in show! Nice soft tenderloin and chorizo….how could that go wrong?

Alright, time for dessert. We got a flan that was covered in a sugar dome.

Tres Leches.

A crepe filled with berries and a caramel sauce.

My personal favorite was the mango and pear cobbler. Not sure what it’s actually called, but it sure was delicious with the cajeta ice cream on top!

All in all it was a delicious dinner. It’s every bit on par with Rick Bayless as far as creativity and quality. While I just found out that they offer a $29 pre fix every Monday and Tuesday this restaurant week deal might not have been the best offer. However, on a weekend night it was. I would recommend to everyone that they check Salpicon out for the pre fix deals. If you don’t want a limited menu, it’s also definitely worth paying full price for.

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After spending a couple of hours walking around the magnificent ruins of Uxmal, and before hanging out to the kick ass Cenote San Ignacio, we stopped in a small town for some lunch. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what the town is called. It’s just a cute little town in the Yucatan. While driving through it we saw the sign for Cocina Economica and decided that cheap food in a hole-in-the-wall in the middle of nowhere sounded just about right. Mayra surely fit the bill.

Typically, cocina economica places only serve a couple of different items a day. It depends on what they can get their hands on to serve up at a cheap price. Seeing that cocina economica literally means “economical food”, how could we go wrong? If we didn’t like it we’d only be out about $2-3 per person.

When the lady described the day’s menu to us about the only word we could pick up with our limited knowledge of Spanish was “pollo”. Ok, chicken it is! Turns out we each got a big plate of chicken fajitas. An old woman diligently whipped up our plates in a room about the size of a coat closet. I think the chickens were probably slaughtered that day as it actually tasted really damn good. Simple enough, it was just chopped up chicken cooked with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers. A big heaping pile of smooth refried beans, a small salad, a wedge of lime, and some warm tortillas rounded out the grub.

I do have to say, it far exceeded my expectations. The food was fresh, cooked properly, not overly seasoned, and there was more than enough to fill you up. I still can’t believe we got plates like that for no more than $3 a person. Too bad cheap food in the States consists of McDonald’s shitty dollar menu made up of artificial, processed food. I’ll take a $3 fresh chicken fajita plate any day!

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Alright, Restaurant Week restaurant number 2…Cafe Spiaggia. I’ve long thought that Italian food in Chicago was sub par with only a couple of good restaurants around. Most Italian joints here serve big heavy sauces and overcooked pasta. Even some of the higher end ones I’ve been to were extremely disappointing. I’ve always wanted to hit up Spiaggia, but it’s a little out of my normal budget. By a little I mean a lot. When special occasions come along I’ve always opted to go to other places instead. However, the $22 pre fix lunch deal at Cafe Spiaggia this week is too good to pass up. I know it’s not quite the haute that the main room of Spiaggia is, but it did give me a very good idea of what it’s all about. Good things, all good things.

We started with two salads. This one is the PERA; Baby arugula with toasted pear chips, Alto Adige I.G.P speck (a ham from northern Italy), goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. The pears were a little under-ripe, but otherwise everything was light, clean, and fresh.

This salad is the ITALIANA; Escarole, treviso, and frisee with Parmigiano Reggiano and Chianti vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was outstanding! Otherwise, it was a very simple salad that was not overdone, exactly what a salad should be.

We ordered one each of the two entrée’s that are offered on the Restaurant Week Menu. First is the CAPPELLACCI; Hand crafted butternut squash filled pasta with amaretti, Parmigiano Reggiano, brown butter, and sage. You see this dish on a lot of Italian menus and in a lot of cookbooks, so it’s nothing creative or off the wall. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone execute the dish to this level. The pasta was perfectly al dente, there was just the right amount squash seasonings (I think cinnamon), and the brown butter wasn’t greasy at all.

The other entrée offered is BATTUTA; Pounded chicken breast with sautéed Swiss chard, fingerling potatoes, cipollini onions, and Pecorino Siciliano. Again, nothing off the wall. Just simple, fresh, top quality ingredients prepared perfectly to allow each other to compliment one another.

For dessert you’re given three choices out of the Gelati and Sorbeti menu. Yuki ordered the passion fruit, vanilla, and pineapple-basil.

I ordered the red raspberry, grapefruit and stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings). They were all great, but out of the six I think the pineapple-basil was the best. It wasn’t too sweet and had just the right amount of herby basil in it. The grapefruit was also great as it tasted just like eating a slice of grapefruit.

Service at Cafe Spiaggia was fluid and attentive. That’s pretty much to be expected of such a high quality restaurant. The interior was also nice and laid back. It had the feel of an outdoor cafe in Italy with views of Lake Michigan. One of these days we’ll dine in the formal restaurant to get the full on experience. I will tell you this though, there is no doubt that Chef Mantuano is one of the few chefs in Chicago who truly understand what Italian food is all about. No need for heavy red sauces or huge plates of gut-busting, overcooked pasta. Keep it simple, light, and fresh while letting the ingredients themselves do the talking. I can’t wait for the full-on experience!

Side note, there is a bit of irony for me to finally dine at Cafe Spiaggia. About 5 years ago when I was looking to get back into the restaurant biz I interviewed to become the manager of the cafe. I was called in for a total of 3 interviews and turned out to be the runner-up in their search. I lost out to a long-time server of theirs. I wonder what life would have been like had she not gone after the position……hmmmmm?

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The other night I tried my hand at making a classic home-cooking dish from Japan, Nikujaga. It is a stewed meat and potato dish that is the definition of Japanese comfort food. There are about as many different ways to make it as there are Japanese mothers (and Jewish husbands who cook for their Japanese wives).

The basics of Nikujaga are thin slices of beef (can use pork for variation), potatoes, and onions that are simmered in a sweetened soy broth. Frequently there are other veggies added such as carrots and peas or green beans. It’s really very easy to make as well as being healthy and delicious. It’s the perfect meal for a winter’s eve when served with white rice.

I made it using about 2 cups of water, 1/3 cup of soy sauce, 1/3 cup of mirin, and a couple tablespoons of sugar as the broth. I threw that all into my pot with about a pound of large chopped Yukon Gold potatoes. I brought that to a boil and let the potatoes soften for about 20 minutes. It’s best to put all of that in the pot with the potatoes cold and bring to a boil together so that the potatoes absorb more of the flavor.

Once the potatoes were partially cooked I added about 2/3’s of a pound of thinly sliced beef. After that boils for a few minutes I skimmed off the foam that forms from boiling raw meat, much like I do when making chicken soup. The foam isn’t bad for you or anything, but by skimming it off you get a clear broth.

After the meat simmered for about 5 minutes or so I added a thinly sliced onion along with a sliced carrot. I simmered those for about 10 minutes. I just wanted them softened, not fully cooked, so that there was still some texture left in them.

Then I threw in a bunch of shelled edamame. Those don’t need to cook since they’re small and already cooked when you buy them. They just need to be heated through so they go in towards the end. After they’re cooked through I thought I was finished and proceeded to serve up the meal.

However, I forgot the last ingredient that I wanted to put in, shirataki. These are clearish-white “noodles” that are made from the starch of a yam-like vegetable. It’s the same substance as konnyaku, but in noodle form. They don’t need to be cooked, just heated through. They come in a package in liquid. Drain the liquid, rinse them off, cut them into smaller pieces, and throw them in to the stew for a few minutes. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a pic with the shirataki in the Nikujaga. Just imagine some opaque noodles in the stew and you’ll get the idea.

If you follow my recipe you’ll end up with about 4 servings. The only suggestion I would make, and it’s something that I’ll do the next time I make it, is to use Russets instead of Yukon Gold. Russets will stand up to the long stewing a little better as their a little more dense.

After Yuki ate the Nikujaga she gave me probably the best compliment I could have received. She said that her mother would definitely enjoy eating it. Knowing her mom and what a great home cook she is, that’s pretty high praise. I am now officially a Japanese mother! I may be the only Japanese mother in the world who is actually a Jewish husband without any children. That’s all part of my charm.

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So, Yuki made dinner for Meatless Monday this week. As you can see from the pic, she cooks a totally different style than me. She prefers numerous different plates with different items while I usually cook more of a one-pot gig. But, with it being Presidents Day and a day off work it was her turn.

Starting with the top left dish, she simmered some daikon radish. For the broth, she boiled niboshi (small dried sardines) in water to extract that flavor into a deliciously light dashi. Then she simmered the daikon until they were softened, but still retained some texture. She topped the daikon with yuzu-miso and some sliced green onion.

The top right dish is sato imo, a hairy potato that made my fingers itch when I peeled it. It’s worth it though as it has a more pronounced earthiness in its flavor than the potatoes we’re used to here in the States. She first had boil them in some vinegar. These potatoes are very slimy and by boiling them in vinegar the slime is removed. After they were boiled she sautéed them in olive oil with some onions and garlic. Then she added some ponzu and a little mayonnaise.

The bottom bowl is harusame soup. She used konbu dashi for the broth, a very typical broth for Japanese soups. The noodles are harusame, made from mung bean starch. Also in it were some enoki mushrooms, shiitake, wakame seaweed, sliced aburage (deep fried tofu skin), baby bok choy, and an egg that was poached in the dashi.

She also made dessert, shiratama dango. They’re little dumplings made out of mochi rice flour. Simply add water to the flour, roll the dough into little balls, and boil them till they float. They’re usually grilled afterword to make them a little more savory before adding various sweet sauces. We used three of the more common sauces. On the left is azuki bean paste, the middle is mitarashi (a sweetened and thickened soy sauce with mirin, sugar, and corn starch), and the right is kinako (soy flour mixed with sugar).

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So, this past Monday night was the first Monday I really had a chance to cook since coming back from Japan. That meant it was my first Meatless Monday in a long time. After watching an episode of “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” with Rick Bayless that featured Chiles Rellenos I was inspired. Renowned chef from Mexico City, Ricardo Muñoz-Zurita, demonstrated his plantain stuffed ancho chile. I couldn’t find the recipe online, so I thought I’d improvise on that a bit.

First, I roasted some ripe plantains at 400 degrees for about a half hour. While they were roasting I blistered the skin on 4 poblano chiles directly on my stove top burners. I kept turning them so the entire surface was charred. Then I set them in a bowl and covered them with plastic to cool in their own steam for about a half hour.

I sautéed some onions and garlic in olive oil then added the roasted plantain (I diced them first). Once they plantains carmelized a little I added some chili powder, salt, pepper, and about a half cup of orange juice. I covered it and let everything soften for 7 minutes. Once the plantains were soft enough to mash I turned off the heat and kept them covered.

While they were covered and cooling I carefully peeled the skin off the poblanos and then cut a slit up along one side of each. Without tearing the chiles, I pulled out all of the seeds and the ribs along the inside. Once I was finished with that I stuffed them with the mashed plantains. I cooked them at 400 for another 12 minutes.

While they were in the oven I sautéed some green onions and one diced serrano chile, seeds removed. Then I added a drained can of black beans and dumped in a quarter cup of water. I brought that up to a boil, let the water evaporate, seasoned with salt and pepper, then turned off the heat.

To serve, I put one pepper on each plate next to an arugula salad with tomatoes. I covered the pepper with the black bean salsa and then topped everything with cilantro and crumbled ricotta salata cheese. White rice on the side of course.

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