Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Rick Bayless is a Genius

I was able to squeeze one last cookbook adventure in before my surgery, this one out of a book I've loved since I first bought it 8 years ago, Mexico One Plate at a Time by Rick Bayless. For my little pre-surgery Fiesta, I made corn tortillas and the fillings for two types of tacos: Potato-Chorizo Tacos with Simple Avocado Salsa and Seared Steak Tacos with Blistered Serranos and Browned Onions.I originally thought this wouldn't be much of an "adventure," since I've been using this book for a years, and had even made the steak tacos before (or so I thought), but it was actually a menu full of learning experiences and surprises. Let's start with the dish that blew my mind first: the "Simple Avocado Salsa." I was actually pondering skipping this and just making guacamole to serve with the potato-chorizo tacos, but that would have been a serious mistake. Not only is the salsa absurdly easy to make, it's insanely delicious. Reminiscent of guacamole, but so much more bright and fresh. This was absolutely fantastic. The ingredients are this simple:Avocado, tomatillos, serrano, and garlic. That's it. (Picture below taken with my new lighting setup and after we lost the rest of the serranos and had to substitute two jalapeños (which happened after I made this first batch), for comparison...)
You rough-chop everything but the avocado
toss it all in the food processor, then add the avocado and pulse until smooth and awesome. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and prepare to be amazed when you try it on a yellow corn chip...The second component for these tacos is the potato-chorizo filling, which was the perfect chance to pull some of my homemade Mexican Chorizo out of the freezer and put it to good use.
The chorizo is squeezed out of the casing that it had been so skillfully stuffed into and added to a hot dutch oven
along with chopped onion, then sautéed until the onion is soft and the chorizo is fully cooked.Meanwhile, some diced Yukon Gold potatoes are boiled until soft
then added to the chorizo and onion mixture, where the potatoes can absorb the chorizo-y goodness.
The chorizo filling can be made ahead, so we did all of the cooking up to this point in the morning. After making the Simple Avocado Salsa, however, I read that it only stays fresh-tasting for an hour, so we had to have the first batch for brunch and make a second batch (as alluded to above) for dinner... On to the next tacos. As I mentioned, these are something I was sure I had made before, but upon closer inspection I determined that I had never actually read the recipe when making this dish in the past. How do I know for sure? The recipe calls for everything to be cooked in flavorful pork fat or bacon fat. I am not a woman who cooks things in non-bacon fat substances if bacon fat is recommended, so I must have never seen this brilliant, brilliant suggestion. The first component I prepped is your basic pico de gallo. (No recipe was included in the book, just a suggestion that salsa accompany... although I now see that Bayless's Roasted Tomato-Green Chile Salsa was recommended... Dammit. I am the world's worst recipe-reader...) Anyway... I made pico de gallo, and it was delicious. I'll have make the other salsa next time.
Next up were the Blistered Serranos and Browned Onions, aka The Coughing Onions. You start off with stemmed serrano chiles:These are quartered lengthwise with the stem end left intact, then added to a hot cast iron skillet containing some bacon fat.
The onions are added next, and the charring and browning commences.I always used to do this on the grill when I thought I was making this recipe before, which avoided a situation in which the air in my kitchen was completely filled with capsaicin. My exhaust fan is pretty much useless, so we had to run out for fresh air a couple times during the cooking. In the end it was worth it, though, with a result far more beautiful and flavorful than I ever got on the grill.
When the onions are finished, a bit more bacon fat goes into the pan (brilliant idea, Rick!) and the well-salted steaks are added to sear until cooked to your liking.
I went off-recipe one more time here, not wanting to leave that any charred goodness behind in the pan, and decided to deglaze with a bit of lime juice, then pour that liquid over the steaks. I can't be certain, but I think Rick Bayless would have approved of this step. The result was absolutely delicious.
That's a pretty cheap cut of steak right there (the amount you see above cost me about $3.50...) but it was ridiculously awesome when prepared this way. You could taste the beef, the bacon, the salt, and the lime... all distinct but in harmony. Awe. Some. The final component to pull this all together was the tortillas. This cookbook is the one that first taught me to make my own corn tortillas years ago, and I've never bought corn tortillas in a store since. As I mentioned before, my tortillas were great for years, but then stopped puffing up like they should. They were still OK, but not as good as I remembered. Finally last year I re-read the recipe and discovered that the mistake I'd made was no longer using two different heats for the cooking process, which makes all the difference. This time I also saw that I should be using hot water with my masa (I had been using warm), and they turned out even better. The process is super-simple. Combine masa with hot water and knead until you have a nice supple dough.Get out your tortilla press and plastic sheets to line it. (Cut-up garbage bags work best... Really. Everything else is too thick or too thin...) Roll a walnut-sized ball of the masa mixture in your hands and place it in the press,
then gently flatten and execute my patented 270°-flip-turn three times to get a nice round raw tortilla.
You can make several a little bit ahead and leave them between the plastic sheets to stay moist until a pan frees up to cook them in. I put my mom on tortilla-pressing duty and manned the cooking station myself. The first side should be cooked over medium-low to medium heat until just cooked enough to be flipped onto the other cast iron skillet, which is over medium to medium-high heat.
After about 45 seconds, the tortilla can be flipped and (if you did it right) will puff up all cool and pretty, like so:
With the tortillas made, we were all set. Here we have the Potato-Chorizo Tacos
and Seared Steak TacosThis was so good and was exactly what I was craving. I think I preferred the steak, just because the flavors were so clean and classic, but the chorizo was really unique and interesting and delicious in its own way. I've really missed quality Mexican food since leaving SoCal and, while I still wish there was an awesome trashy Mexican joint around here, getting back to cooking from this book should definitely be able to tide me over between trips to the west coast... I'm so glad I finally buckled down and did (mostly) what Rick Bayless told me to. The man obviously knows what he's talking about.

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