Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tacos & tequila at the AZ Taco, the World's Best Beef Short Rib Taco Recipe!

Readers, I have learned many things in my twenty-nine years on this planet. More general lessons, like how to ride a bicycle, how to hold my breath underwater, how to appreciate the subtle genius that is Billy Joel. Also, more specific lessons, like not to put sriracha (wonder-sauce though it is) on everything, how to scorch a souffle or burn a roux, and how most effectively to ruin a nonstick pan. But perhaps the most important thing that I have learned is............when one is handed free tickets to a food/drink event of any kind, by golly, one goes.

So readers, despite my crippling dread of crowds, when we were recently handed two tickets (a $20 value!) to the Arizona Taco Festival, the good folks of Orange & Salt decided to take a little taco-tasting field trip.

After waiting in an entrance line that stretched a good quarter-mile through downtown Scottsdale--thus proving one of two points: that Arizonans have an inordinate love for either tacos or standing in long lines, perhaps both--we were admitted, and on this slightly-warmer-than-expected 90-degree October day made a beeline for the shady bar tent, like many other festivalgoers.

This blogger was only able to consume one small margarita, due to the combined effects of low tequila tolerance and the fact that 1 margarita = 3 tickets = $6, and funds were low. Mike and I wisely decided to pool our remaining resources for maximum taco enjoyment.

Waiting anxiously in line at Los Olivos's tent for our first taste of tacos.

We ordered a mixed seafood taco, two carnitas tacos, and a beef taco from our first stop at the Los Olivos tent. I unwisely chose the hotter of the two salsas available on the table, because I like spicy, not realizing that instead of being labeled 'Hot' (actually, they weren't labeled at all, so how was I to know?), it ought to have been labeled 'Insanity.' Silly gringa. My mouth burned, and I gulped my margarita a little faster than was probably advisable. Things began to get a bit blurry in the hot sunshine.

Delicious marinated pork carnitas, in taco form.

Mike is experiencing the painful-yet-pleasurable pangs of Taco Anticipation!

Whereas your girl here is in the throes of the pure pleasure of Taco Enjoyment.

The spread, in all its deliciousness. Truly these were outstanding, if simple, tacos. A paragon of the form. If only I hadn't made mine so damned spicy!

Apparently, one of the vendors was offering grasshoppers (traditionally known as chapulines), which we noticed after glancing across our picnic table at another munching festivalgoer, hunched over a paper tray full of what can only be described as bug taco. Mike spoke up, 'Are those really crickets, man? Grasshoppers? Are they any good?' At which point our slightly inebriated friend--who was posing merrily for photos with individual fried insects perched, quivering, on his tongue--starting waving the remains of a half-eaten bug taco around, saying, 'Here, try some! No, try some! Really!' Mike backed away, more from the 'drunk guy's half-eaten taco' aspect of the offer than the chapulines themselves. The guy seemed a little less than enthused with his taco, to be honest, based on his insistent attempts to give it away. Maybe the grasshoppers weren't fresh that day. Maybe--most likely--he'd lost a bet with friends. No matter, sensing an Andrew Zimmern-style opportunity, Mike and I went searching for the grasshopper tacos up and down the row of food stalls, to no avail. No chapulines for us, we'd have to be content with more succulent pork and beef short rib portions. Life can be so unfair*. ;)

(*It sounds like I'm being kinda flippant here, but really, I was pretty disappointed that we couldn't manage to find the stall serving grasshoppers. I mean, how many opportunities do you get to eat grasshoppers? I suspect it was the Barrio Cafe, which we didn't attempt because of an insanely long line. But I will keep trying, dear blog readers.)

Random happy taco festivalgoers, enjoying their tacos.

There were also luchadores! Here you see one flying through the air with the greatest of ease.............

Maybe it's hard to be menacing when you're also so tiny. Maybe the mask helps here?

I enjoy yet another tasty, corn tortilla-wrapped treat, in the company of my husband & best adventurous eater pal, Mike......

.......who fears no taco ever created by man!

A truly inspirational beef short rib taco, provided by Z-lantro (or Blanco? Sorry guys, didn't take notes). We shared this, somehow, although it was difficult not to nibble one another's fingers off for that last bite, so tasty was this taco.

Mike watches as our final taco is expertly prepared by the good folks at La Hacienda.

What looks like melted cheese on top was actually, I believe, some kind of blended mango salsa. The hint of sweetness blended with the smoky spiciness of the meat perfectly, and was the perfect note on which to leave the AZ Taco Festival. We staggered out, bellies full of meat & cabbage & spice, vowing not to eat another taco again for a long, long time.

Until about two days later, when we decided that we had to make the perfect beef short rib taco, just like that one, sublime, juicy one we'd tasted at the festival. You know how these things go.

And so we purchased an insane four pounds of beef short ribs, fired up Betty*, and proceeded to eat tacos for the next six meals. You know. Everything in moderation.

('Betty' is the name of our slow cooker, named for Betty Draper of the excellent & fantastic television show 'Mad Men.' She cooks all day long while we gallivant around doing other exciting things. Now if only she'd fix us a martini when dinner was ready, she'd be the perfect kitchen appliance.)

Short ribs, briefly browned for maximum flavor and rubbed with spices and garlic, ready to be bathed in beer, onions, and chipotle peppers for the next 6-8 hours. You can start this in the morning and relax all day long, knowing that Betty is taking care of dinner for you. Recipe follows below, feel free to use it to start your very own at-home Taco Festival. Luchadores and margaritas, however, not provided. ;)

World's Best Beef Short Rib Slow Cooker Tacos

(The two of us ate this for the next six meals, at an average of about three small tacos each per meal, this amounts to about 36 servings? Your mileage may vary)

4 lbs beef short ribs
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 can of chipotle peppers (we had these left over from a previous meal, and they add tremendous heat and a smoky flavor that I just love. If you don't have these on hand or want to use them--they are spicy!!--add hot sauce or cayenne pepper to taste, instead)
1 whole white onion, finely chopped
6 oz. beer (about half a bottle.......go with something light in color and flavor. We used our favorite Russian lager, which seemed just right)
juice of 2 limes, or equivalent amount of vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar

small corn tortillas
queso fresco (crumbly white Mexican cheese, try hard to find this if you can!)
salsa (Mike makes his own fresh salsa, which is delicious......use your preferred salsa)
ripe avocado slices

Heat skillet to medium-high heat. Season short ribs with seasoned salt only, place in skillet in batches so you don't crowd the pan, brown on all sides and set aside to let cool on a plate. Combine minced garlic with remaining spices to form a paste. Once short ribs are cool enough to handle, rub each generously with spice paste.

Add meat to slow cooker along with onions and chipotle peppers, place slow cooker on 'Low.' In a separate bowl, whisk together beer, lime juice or vinegar, and sugar. Pour over mixture in slow cooker, mix gently to combine.

Place lid on slow cooker and try to forget about it for the next 6-8 hours (this will be difficult once your house starts smelling amazing, trust me).

About an hour before we planned to eat these (after maybe 6 or 7 hours of slow cooking), we removed the meat and gently shredded it with a fork--an easy task at this point. Place it back in the braising liquid to soak up the remaining goodness for the next hour or so. If you're making fresh salsa, this is a good time to do it, to allow it a little time to marinate.

Serve on corn tortillas (best when toasted slightly on either side in a hot skillet and a tiny amount of vegetable oil just before serving), with fresh salsa, ripe avocado slices, and crumbly queso fresco. Congratulations, you have just made the World's Best Beef Short Rib Taco, and are now holding it in your hand. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Here's a little 'DVD extra bonus feature' from our last Spanish-style dinner party.......dancing baby octopi!! ;)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Attempted Murder in the Suburbs.

Nearly a week ago today, I attempted murder. I stalked my victims, desperately, in two separate locations across town, only to be thwarted at every turn. And I'm not sorry. In fact, I plan to try again, and the next time, I will be successful. There will be blood on my hands, as well as on my conscience.

Put down your phone. Before you call the police, you should know that it will be the clear blood of crustaceans that I will have on my hands. And if all goes deliciously, all over my plate and my happy, smiling face as well.

This post, however, isn't just about failed attempts, but also about an eventual major kitchen success. Let me back up and explain a little. You see, last week I was eliminated from the online cooking challenge known as Project Food Blog, and while I'm proud of the efforts I put forth and satisfied to have made it through several eliminations, on the day I was cut from the contest I was feeling..........a little less than zen about the whole thing. Emotional, shall we say. Turbulent. Murderous.

I wanted to kill something for my dinner.

An image swam up suddenly in my memory. I recalled the plastic bucket of lively, crawling crawfish--crayfish?--that I'd seen just a few days' previously at the local Asian market when I was stocking up on tiny baby octopus. They look like sweet little wee baby lobsters, crawfish, and I have a major weakness for anything that crawls or wriggles forth from the sea in a shell. I'd already been somewhat prepared to do some Major Cooking that evening, just in case I made it through the latest round of PFB eliminations, and I'd had crustaceans on my mind. Surely fate had decreed these tiny lobsters to die for my supper. Yeah, fate, that's it. Fate. I headed to the Mekong Market, fork in hand and crustacean bib in place. But the crawfish, they were gone! Not a single claw left behind. Undeterred, I chased my intended victims south to my old favorite haunt, Lee Lee Market, usually the home of many still-living sea delights. And found.........nothing. Not one crawfish. I cursed and raged at having, apparently, missed crawfish season by a few poorly-timed days. Nothing would die for my dinner that evening, at least, not by my own hand. I settled, grumbling something about bloodlust, for a pound of truly tasty-looking giant whole prawns instead. I had some serious shrimp and grits on my mind.

'You were supposed to be a wriggling, living, sacrificial crawfish! My bloodlust must be satisfied!'

Just look at him. He's speechless with fright.

Classic shrimp and grits in a bowl are a fine thing, and I've been served more than one outstanding bowl of them in my lifetime. I remembered one version in particular that was sweetly smoky and spicy, flavored gently with bacon and possessing subtle heat. That was the taste I was after. Still I wanted to try something I'd never seen before, to see how far I could change up the form without getting too far away from the fact that this was, in essence, delicious shrimp and simple sweet ground corn on a plate. I decided to go with an uptown cousin of 'cheese grits,' a smooth slab of polenta infused with smoked provolone cheese. Sliced, baked until crispy-edged and stacked with a creamy shrimp filling in between each layer, towering high above the plate with a whole cooked creature perched on top, this is what I was picturing. Surrounded by a sprinkling of whole corn kernels browned lightly in butter, dressed with a smoky roasted tomato, chipotle & bacon concoction. Are you racing to the kitchen? Are you cooking this yet?? You should be.

Start with a few oven-roasted whole tomatoes. I baked a few pieces of bacon right alongside these, at 350, because I love the way bacon turns out in the oven instead of the stovetop. Press tomatoes through a wire mesh sieve to leave behind skins and seeds. Add a few chipotle peppers (your level of heat preference may vary) and the crumbled bacon, pulse briefly in food processor until sauce is combined but still chunky. Set aside.

Make polenta, adding plenty of grated smoked provolone cheese (smoked Gouda would also be amazing here). Pour into a pan, making sure that you get a layer at least 3/4" deep, for maximum interior-creaminess-to-exterior-crispiness ratio. Cool polenta. Slice polenta. Bake polenta at 425 degrees on a pan well coated in olive oil, for 40 minutes or until both sides are lightly browned (turn once, halfway through). This step takes the longest, but you can do everything else while waiting on the polenta to get crispy.

Prepare a pot of boiling water, salted lightly. If you've got a glug of white wine and a bayleaf handy, so much the better, get them in there. Take your giant prawns--wait, you bought those suckers in Chinatown with the heads on, right?? I sure hope so, fella, because there's nothing better than sucking the scalding hot head fat and brains out of these once they're cooked, believe me. You're going to suck on those things like something out of a George Romero movie. Say it with me now.......Fat Is Flavor. Good. Now take your giant, whole prawns and boil them briefly until cooked. Reserve one whole prawn per serving, then shell the rest and add to food processor along with softened cream cheese, making sure to squeeze the contents of each head into the mixture. Add a small amount of chipotle (I used one half of one pepper, subtle heat is what you're after here), pulse to combine but don't over-blend ('shellfish mousse' is not what you're after here), make sure there are still decent-sized pieces of shrimp visible in the mixture. Set aside.

Once your polenta squares have browned up nicely in the oven, lower heat to 350, then smear a little of the shrimp mixture on each square and stack to your desired height. Crown each stack with a very dignified-looking whole boiled prawn. Hint: a well-placed bamboo skewer applied here is an amateur food stylist's best friend. Place in warm oven for about a minute or two to re-warm everything and let flavors combine. While this is happening, quickly brown a small amount of butter in a skillet, place corn in butter and saute until done. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove plates from oven and place a ring of caramelized corn around each stack. Drizzle lightly with tomato-chipotle-bacon dressing. A handful of fresh, barely chopped basil is essential for finishing this off--the bright green herbal zing balances the heavier flavors perfectly.

A sprig of fresh basil also makes an ideal garnish. When I first dreamed up making this dish with a whole crawfish perched on top, I imagined him clutching a mini sprig of fresh herbs in one stiff, reddened claw, bouquet-style. Because really, what's more inviting than a dinner that says, 'Eat me! And here....I also brought you some flowers'? Shrimp not having claws and all, you'll kind of have to use your imagination here, but I think the effect is still charming.

Enjoy with the one you love, or at least the one you love well enough to share some reasonably expensive shellfish products with, and some nicely chilled white wine. Before long, your plates will look like this:

This was an amazing meal, a lot of work, certainly, but perfect for those time when you feel like doing some Major Cooking indeed. And it's proof of two things. One, that it's possible to elevate a relatively lowly or simple concept to something much more artistic and delicious without destroying it completely--in fact in this case, I think it's better than the original. And second, it's possible to dream up a meal and execute it more or less perfectly, even when your original plans go somewhat awry. Often times, it all works out in the eating.

And speaking of 'execute.' Hmmmm.

I may have missed crawfish season by a narrow margin, and my fever may have been temporarily quenched by this wonderful, satisfyingly pretty meal. But. But. This bloodlust never sleeps. Sooner or later, I will have the chance to murder again, and I'm planning it now. I saw some lively crabs scrambling around in a bucket at the market, after all, and it just might be their turn.............

Muaah hahh hahh haaaaaaahh.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

'Please pack your knives and go......'

Well, it was a great ride while it lasted.......but Orange & Salt did not advance to Round #4 of Project Food Blog. I really want to thank all of you for voting and coming along with me on all of this--I have had so many wonderful comments from so many of you during the last few weeks of the contest, I really appreciated every single one! This moment is kind of bittersweet, I'm not gonna lie to you, readers. On the one hand, it will be nice to get my blog back, so to speak, and to have time to post non-contest-related entries again. But on the other hand, I'm a pretty fiercely competitive person (to my own downfall, sometimes), and my inner Olympian is sobbing like a little girl and clutching her chest. Woe.

When she's done crying her eyes out (soon, I promise!), there will be recipes from the famous Spanish dinner party posted! And I made a kick-ass dinner last night--ask me about it. Go on, ask me about it! Well, there'll be a post about that, too. So stay tuned. :)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Project Food Blog has taken over my life!

Just a reminder, voting for Round 3 of Project Food Blog ends TOMORROW, October 7th, at 6 pm PDT.

Pleeeeeeease, Orange & Salt readers, if you haven't had a chance to already, click this link and vote for me by pressing the little red heart. That's it! Easy. I'm a little nervous with the competition getting steeper this round and am hoping not to be knocked out of the race by someone who has a prettier blog font than me, or who decorated a fancier table than I did. If I lose, I at least want to lose on FOOD. And the food, let me tell you, was pretty spectacular. Oops, may I say so myself? Ha ha.

So, if you want to see more PFB2010 posts in this space, vote vote vote!!!

I'm Laurel Morley and I approve this message. Thank you for your support. ;)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Project Food Blog Entry #3: 'Well I've never been to Spain.....But I kinda like the food there!'

So, 'luxury.'

It is a funny thing, isn’t it?

After all, one man’s seared foie gras is likely another man’s ballpark-dog-with-everything. When asked by Project Food Blog’s Challenge #3 to approach a luxury meal for a dinner party, I decided after some thought that what matters most is the way it makes everyone in the room feel, the elevation from everyday meal status to something higher. Using ingredients you wouldn’t normally use, spending amounts of time you wouldn’t normally spend, all these things contribute to the creation of a truly special meal.

Coco Chanel once declared, famously, that ‘luxury must be comfortable, or else it is not luxury.’ Ol' CC might not have been facing down the prospect of hosting a dinner party, but it's a wise approach. She was talking about ladies’ fashion, of course, and urging women of the early-to-mid 20th century to shed the outdated notions of modern corsets and other binding fashions and step into stylish clothes that truly fit their bodies and their lifestyles. Still, it’s one of my favorite quotes about luxury in general.

After all, what’s a $1,000 dollar meal with white tablecloth service if you don’t enjoy it? What’s luxury if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle?

Around here, chez Orange & Salt, we are emphatically not white tablecloth service people. If you come for a meal in this household, be prepared to put your elbows up on the scarred wooden table, drink from our recycled-glass glassware, and maybe even share footspace with a dog or two. You will, however, be treated like absolute royalty in terms of what comes to you from my kitchen on your plate. Hours will have been spent behind the scenes in a happy, steamy kitchen, crafting each course. Good music emanating from somewhere in the background. People are laughing, eating. Everyone sighing, relaxed, pouring a little more wine and anticipating the next round of plates. You can leave your tie at home.

Sounds like serious luxury to me.

First piece of advice when planning a dinner party of any kind? Have a clear idea in mind of the kind of event you want, and plan your guest list accordingly—sounds a bit simple, but it’s true, and an often-overlooked part of planning. Some folks wouldn't dream of hosting a dinner event without a centerpiece and adorable decorations on the table; I wouldn't dream of having anyone over without some really excellent music playing in the background (another quick dinner party tip: think internet radio! There are a few services that are offered completely free, and will keep a constant soundtrack of the music of your choice playing in the background for hours--because no one should have to fumble around with CDs while she's also trying to sort out her Romesco sauce!) If it should turn out you are a white tablecloth kind of person after all, that’s wonderful. Make sure to invite a group of people who love white tablecloth dining. For my event, I invited a handful of some of my best food friends, the ones I like to think of as my Adventurous Eaters Club. These guys make complicated soups, desserts, and homemade bacon at the drop of a hat, and we're all used to sitting down to dinner together. I knew I could feed them anything, even baby octopus, and no one would so much as blink an eye.

(Click menu to enlarge)

Second piece of advice when planning a dinner party of any kind? Plan the menu, silly. Oh, I know this seems as though it should be obvious, but I really mean it. Do you want to highlight seasonal dishes? Regional cuisine? And how much work do you actually want to do? The commonly held wisdom I was always given on dinner parties is that everything should be more or less ready to go when guests arrive so that you, the gracious hostess, may spend the maximum amount of time sitting down with your guests and presumably charming them all (if you figure out how to actually do this, by the way, please share the secret with me). I knew I wanted to do some serious cooking, and because our kitchen and dining room flow openly right into one another, I felt comfortable 'breaking' this classic rule to spend more time in the kitchen. I'm personally more comfortable holding court from the kitchen than from the table, anyway, chatting with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, a dishtowel wrapped around my waist, calling out to the dining room and occasionally delivering steaming hot plates of treats to the gathered guests. Your mileage on this, it goes without saying, will vary. But know yourself.

For this challenge, I opted to go with a Spanish-influenced menu. I’ve never been to Spain, as the classic song goes, but I’ve always loved the dishes, the ingredients, the photos, the food stories and everything else I’ve ever seen relating to their culture. One of my favorite ideas to borrow from Spanish culture is tapas: the serving and sharing of a variety of ‘tiny bites’ courses on many plates, usually with wine. A tapas course seemed the perfect way to kick off my Spanish meal, and I knew I’d have to have one at this casual but luxurious meal, centered around close friends sitting down together and sharing.

It was a great reason to buy up a pile of tiny whole anchovies and lightly dredge in flour and quick-fry them, as I've seen done before but never tried. It's a classic Mediterranean snack, and I'm happy to report that they are delicious. Crispy, paprika-seasoned chickpeas, also a major tapas revelation--they're tiny and easy to share, but they won't last long! Everyone loved these.

Following this was a course of baby octopus simmered in rich, almond-and-tomato-based Romesco sauce and served over a golden bed of crispy roasted potatoes, then a sweet, tangy salad of shaved fennel and carrot, and a dish of braised chicken thighs (heavily adapted from of of the Great Thomas Keller's recipes from the Ad Hoc at Home cookbook) smothered in onions, fennel and olives. The octopus was amazingly tender (recipes for all these courses will be posted separately here on Orange & Salt), a treat for anyone who's ever suffered through a plate of rubbery tentacles, and the sauce was wonderfully nutty and rich. The raw fennel followed by braised fennel thing is a little trick I like to pull every now and again--it's really nice to have two versions of something so close together to contrast the flavors & textures between the raw and the cooked.

And then the dessert, oh my goodness......the dessert! Airy golden brown pillows of pastry, still warm and slightly chewy at the center and scented with cinnamon, soaked with honey, oozily melting together with a scoop of sweet vanilla ice cream and topped with ground pistachios. I think it goes without saying that I'll be making this one again sometime soon. Thank you, Spain, for the inspiration for this wonderful, wonderful meal. I thank you, and my guests thank you. Another borrowed Spanish idea to keep handy, by the way, is the late, late dinner......useful when things don't go quite as planned. When you forget some vital piece of prepwork and dinner is delayed an extra hour (not that this has ever happened to me, of course), you can just tell everyone you're eating at ten o'clock because it's the authentic Spanish way! Better living through cultural awareness.

Dinner parties are tricky, I’ll just throw that out there. In the case of this one, everything seemed to come together at the same time……..but not exactly in that hoped-for, ‘every dish is perfectly timed’ way. It went something more like this: my last-minute grocery shopping, needing to pick my husband up from the train station, still be home to greet early arrivals, and somehow finely dice the onion and the garlic and prep the chicken, well, they all seemed to need to happen simultaneously. What’s a hostess to do? What can you do, except get through it, put on a smile, get someone to pour you a nice glass of red wine, and keep stirring the octopus. Accept help when it's offered! Have someone set out the olive plate for you, designate someone to shred the carrots for you, and just keep going. And when it's all over, leave the dishes, kick off your shoes, and make sure to cozy up with a nice portion of the dessert plate.

Even Coco Chanel couldn't resist luxury like that.