By the time of my birthday, in the first week of April, all signs of spring had vanished and the temperature had plummeted to a high of 1º C. We decided to soldier on regardless, turning South of the Border for strength (actually, south of a couple of borders), to Mexico. Our menu and our approach to Mexican this time around was going to have some California flavor to it, though, so when we came up with the name for our night, we called it "Mexicali Madness." We got so inspired it really didn't take long to draw up our menu/shopping list
and then we designed our invitations, with a little help from J.G. Posada.
I knew I wanted a roast pork dish that'd be falling off the bone and just begging to get scooped up in a fresh, hot tortilla as the centerpiece. I also knew I wanted fish tacos. More than anything, though, I wanted the table to be a tribute to those extraordinary condiments trays you find in Baja when you go to a fish taco joint and place your order, the ones with a dizzying array of toppings, from freshly prepared guacamole and salsa, to pickled onions, carrots, and jalapeños, to crema and those ubiquitous bottles of Tapatío, each of these assortments unique to that particular establishment. The idea here was to have a celebration of bounty, one not unlike this vision of cornucopia, but spicier, hotter, more savory (if you can believe that).
The menu that we settled on included queso fundido, asado de puerco a la Veracruzana, tacos de pescado a la A.J., guacamole, salsa ranchero a la A.J., frijoles negros, and a whole whack of fixin's, and mostly we turned to our friends Diana Kennedy, Philippe de Vienne and John Thorne for assistance.
Mexican queso, Monterey Jack, or medium cheddar
Preheat your oven to 325º F. Grate the cheese and place it in an ovenproof dish. Add sliced mushrooms, chorizo sausage slices, or strips of grilled peppers, if you like. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes, or until the cheese has fully melted. Serve hot accompanied with hot corn tortillas.
[from Philippe de Vienne]
Simple, elemental, gooey, delicious.
Asado de Puerco a la Veracruzana
5 lb pork roast on the bone, preferably pork butt
6 garlic cloves
1 tbsp salt
5 tbsp fresh lime juice
6 ancho chiles, seeds and veins removed
4 morita chiles, or 1 chipotle or mora
1/2 cup water, approximately
4 whole allspice, crushed
frozen banana leaves sufficient to wrap the roast in a double layer, thawed and wiped clean
Pierce the meat all over with the point of a sharp knife. Mash the garlic with the salt and moisten with the lime juice. Rub this mixture thoroughly into the roast and set aside to season while you prepare the chile mixture.
Lightly toast the ancho chiles on a hot griddle. Cover them with hot water, add the whole, untoasted morita chiles, and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chiles soak another 5 minutes.
Transfer the chiles to a blender with the water. Add the allspice and blend until smooth. Add a little more water only if the paste remains too thick and doesn't blend properly.
Coat the pork liberally with the chile paste. Hold the banana leaf over a hot heat until it softens and wrap it around the meat. Let the meat season overnight in the refrigerator.
The next day, preheat the oven to 325º F.
Place the banana-leaf-wrapped meat in a Dutch oven or casserole with a tightly fitting lid (or seal it tightly in a large roasting pan with aluminum foil, like we did) and bake for 2 hours, by the end of which time there should be plenty of juices at the bottom of the casserole. Remove the lid, discard the banana leaves, and continue cooking the meat uncovered, basting it from time to time, for about 2 hours longer, or until the meat is soft and falls away from the bone with ease.
Serve hot, with fresh corn tortillas.
[from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy]
As soon as I saw this recipe I knew it was The One for this occasion. As soon as I saw that marinade, that chile paste, and those banana leaves I could visualize the end result. I'd love to do a slow-cooked version of this sometime, but this time around we followed Kennedy's specifications to a tee, and, believe me, it didn't disappoint. Kennedy mentions that this dish is much better the day of than it is the day after, but we threw all caution into the wind and did a double recipe anyway, because we knew we were going to have a hungry crowd. We were pretty pleased when it turned out we had some leftover pork at the end of the evening, and we managed to revive those leftovers just fine the next day when we recreated our pork taco feast all over again.
Tacos de pescado a la A.J.
In Baja, the chunks of fish that you get with our fish tacos are always batter-fried--they're batter-fried with finesse, but they're still batter-fried. Sometimes I prefer to just sauté my fish for my home version. I get a couple generous hunks of a fish that's got some body to it, but that won't break the bank, something like Opah (or Moonfish). Then I cut them up into 1-1 1/2 inch cubes and I marinate them in a combination of lime juice and tequila in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes. When they're ready to go, I heat a few tablespoons of flavorless oil (like Canola or grapeseed) in a skillet or wok until it's smoking. I take the fish out of the marinade with a slotted spoon, place them in the hot pan, and stir-fry them until they're just done, no more than 3 minutes or so. Serve with hot corn tortillas.
1 serrano pepper, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 onion, minced
1 medium-size ripe tomato, diced
2 avocados, just ripe
minced cilantro to taste
juice of 1/2 lime (optional)
Whether you add lime juice or not is going to have a lot to do with how good and ripe your avocados are. I'm kind of partial to lime juice, but that's mainly because I can't get the kind of avocados up here that I became accustomed to in Orange County, CA one summer. Frankly, I feel the same way about the tomato. If you can't find a really nice, ripe one, it might pay to just leave it out. Nothing ruins a guacamole faster than a mealy, previously frozen supermarket tomato.
[This recipe's mostly Kennedy's classic version with a little de Vienne thrown in for good measure.]
Fast Frijoles Negros
1 onion, chopped
1 head of garlic, broken into cloves, peeled, and minced
1/4 cup olive oil
4 19-oz cans black beans, drained
1 tablespoon chipotle purée
juice of 1 lime
salt and pepper to taste
minced cilantro (optional)
In a medium-size pot, heat the oil and sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is soft. Add the beans, stir, fill up one of the empty cans of beans with water and add that, too. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low for 20-30 minutes, making sure to stir from time to time to make sure the beans aren't getting scorched, and adding additional water if necessary. Add the chipotle purée, the lime juice, and adjust the seasonings. Garnish with cilantro if you like.
[Adapted from a Cuban black beans recipe in John Thorne's Serious Pig]
What's getting left out in all of this is Michelle's fantastic dessert. She asked me what I wanted and I was honest: cookies and ice cream. Not some big cake (as much as I love big cakes), something simple and somewhat lighter, something befitting a Mexican fiesta. So she made Mexican vanilla ice cream with dark caramel brittle and Mexican chocolate cookies to go with it.
Documenting the evening's festivities with his impressionistic photographic eye was none other than Mr. S., but somehow he managed to miss the piñata, the Mexican hat dance, and the all-human, cruelty-free bullfight that we organized as entertainment. He did manage to capture the following photographs, though. L-R: Michelle, LPs, Julie, Alina, Seth, A.J., Nick, Mexican chocolate cookies, Susan.
Thanks to T., A., A., C., V., H., M., S., J., N., J., C., S. and M.
By popular demand (top L-R: Seth, Camilla, Susan, Nick; middle L-R: Seth, Juliet, A.J., Tim; bottom L-R: Hermine, Python, Adam, Nick):