Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tastes and Smells of Home......

Since we spent a fair amount of time living in Mexico, the last thing we were in "the mood" for when we touched US soil was more Mexican Food (even though we do have it fairly often), so we've been sampling everything under the sun instead, yet after talking to a good friend of mine this afternoon reminiscing about Mexico, especially Puerto Vallarta, talking about Mexican Food and after when I repeated my conversation to Ricardo the obvious result was a mini-memory tour of some of our favorite regional foods, yet again, which put me in a Mexico state of mind. Phew! That was a long sentence....

Anyway, you get the gist of my afternoon's conversation and naturally my foodies and main critic's (Rene and Tarita) chime in with their opinions and pretty soon images and flavors of heavy duty comfort food are swimming in my mind and I decide today will be a Mexican Food Day. I haven't planned out lunch nor dinner yet, but after talking to my friend the inevitable result was recalling one of his favorite dishes "Asado de Boda Zacatecano" and the retelling of some anecdotes from our original "Quinta Belina" Fonda in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco...... a lifetime ago. This was the original restaurant that started it all and got me on this food road on which I'm still on..... It was a small restaurant only seating about 50 people (but when the tables are full and everyone wants food, that's a lot of people!) set in my house which was in the old section "The Romantic Zone" of Puerto Vallarta, at the end of the Malecon. A very picturesque little cottage full of archways and red floor and roof tiles with lush vegetation all over and a fountain in the little grotto in the sunken living room with wood ceiling beams. A very nice place.

You would have thought that being in Jalisco which is in the heart of Mexico and known for it's traditions and food that having a Mexican Restaurant would spell disaster with all the competition, yet it turned out that most places weren't interested in heavy duty Mexican and opted for more International Food for the tourists so you miss out on the food that made Mexico famous; those long cooking dishes with a large quantity of ingredients, cooked in cazuelas and simmering all day. Too bad, I thought, and proceeded to make my own, having people who where looking for the same stuff come over and pretty soon it made sense to open up and charge for the food. And so "Quinta Belina" was born.....

I've had many "Quinta Belina's" since then in several cities, in Mexico and the US, but the last one (so far) in Las Vegas really put us on the map- as you say. I followed my same pattern as before making heavy duty food, the old fashioned way, paying attention to quality and after 4 months we were named #8 of the Top 10 Restaurants of Las Vegas (including the Strip) and #1 for Best Mexican Restaurant. (Lots of other awards too after those...) The day the mention appeared in the most prominent newspaper in town we had over 250 people lined up outside the door of the restaurant when I went to open. OMG, what do we do now? We started having people call from as far as New York, Canada, Chicago, Hollywood and even Europe to get reservations so they would be assured a seat during their Vegas vacations; gone were the sleepy afternoon's when we could take a nap in the office and all of a sudden seven day workweeks where "de rigueur"..... It wasn't fun anymore, it was truly hard work and I needed to work even harder to sustain the rep, at least until we sold it and moved away. (That's Rene on the right, at the end of a busy workday....)

But you remember the beginnings which are the sweetest and sometimes I get surprised when I run into people that went to one of our restaurants and remember the ambiance and the food. That's always great. But while we remember, I'm in the kitchen with the makings of our meal and I'll include the recipe's of what I am about to make so you can follow along.

I'm including two "Sopas", one dry (seca) and another regular one, liquid with broth. The sauce for the dry one is tomato based and doesn't include heat but you're free to chance the sauce to any other, like a Chipotle based one or any of the hundred of salsas available to suit your taste. You can also add any type of meat you'd like or leave off. A very flexible, economical dish that everyone will like.

Sopa Seca de Tortilla.- It's been a while since I made this family favorite that can serve for breakfast, lunch or dinner side dish. Full of flavor, easy to do and very satisfying. You can also dress it up or leave it simple, it's great!

For the sauce:
1 can tomato paste
1 can tomato sauce
1 tsp black pepper
1 tbl olive oil
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried basil leaves
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1-2 cups chicken broth

In a sauce pan heat the olive oil and add the spices. Stir fry them until fragrant, then add the tomato paste and sauce and stir fry this for a minute or two. Add a cup of the broth and depending on the thickness, add the other cup. Add the sugar. Allow to come to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 5-10 min and let rest while you prepare the rest.

10-20 corn tortillas, cut in 2 inch squares
1/2 - 1 cup oil for frying
1-2 cups shredded cheese (Mozarella, Jack, cheddar, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, etc.)
1 onion, cut in plumes
1 cup chicken, shredded or chopped (optional)
1/2 cup sour cream or Mexican Crema
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves

In a frypan, fry the tortilla squares until they are crisp and put in a colander to drain off any excess fat. Fry enough to fill the dish you have selected to use (should be an oven safe dish, like a casserole pan). Put the fried tortilla "chips" in the pan and top with the sauce. Add the chicken or meat you have selected and top with the onion. Cover with the cheese and bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 min or until the cheese is melted.
Serve with a dollop of sour cream or crema and top with the cilantro leaves.

Sopa de Tortilla.- One of the most beloved soups around and a great one! You can make this simple or really complex by the addition of as many ingredients as you'd like from a vegetarian version to a meat based one, your choice.

Oil for frying
10-20 corn tortillas, cut in strips 1 inch by 3 inches
3-4 cups really good chicken stock (preferably made from fresh chicken)
3 chile anchos, deveined and lightly fried, cut in thin strips
2-3 garlic cloves, cut in thin slices
1 onion, cut in plumes
4 tomatoes, cut in small squares
1 tbl cilantro leaves, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tbl chipotle pepper sauce
2 avocados, cut in slices (but don't slice until ready to serve)
sour cream or Mexican Crema
1 cup shredded chicken, pork or beef (optional)

Put some oil in a large pot and sweat the onions for 3-4 min. Add the garlic, tomatoes and chipotle sauce (from the can, be careful, it's spicy). Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Fry the tortilla strips and have them ready, same for the ancho chile strips.

When ready to serve, put the meat on the bottom of the soup bowl, cover with some tortilla strips and then the stock. Put some avocado slices and top with the sour cream.
NOTE: You could also add tomato sauce to the stock to get a different taste, if desired. Additional vegetables or chiles can also be added to taste.

Asado de Boda Zacatecano.- A traditional wedding banquet dish used for celebrations in the lovely state of Zacatecas and one of the dishes that seems to be disappearing from use. One of my family's favorite and one that holds special memories for us.

2-3 lbs pork leg or loin, cut in 1 inch cubes
5 chile pasillas, cleaned, deveined
3 chile anchos, cleaned, deveined
1 cup orange juice
3-4 garlic cloves
1 onion, cut in quarters
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of ground clove
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
1-2 cups tomato sauce (fresh or canned)

Take the chiles and lightly roast on a dry pan. They will change color and become soft. Place in a small sauce pan, cover with water, add the onion & garlic, bring to a boil and turn the heat off. Let them sit in the hot water for 10-20min.

Put the chiles in the blender glass along with half of the soaking liquid, do not discard the rest just in case you need it. Add the onion and garlic and process. Add the tomato sauce and the clove and cinnamon. Continue processing. Add the orange juice, sugar, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Once the flavor is to your liking (should be smoky and slightly sweet and thick.) Use a med fine colander and filter the sauce so all pieces of the dried chiles are removed and the sauce is velvety smooth.

In a large pot, add some lard or oil and sear the pork meat on all sides on med-high heat. Pour the sauce over the meat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is tender. About 1 hour or if you're using a pressure cooker, about 30 min. If the sauce is not thick at the end of the cooking period, cook additional time so it reduces but be careful it doesn't stick to the pan or burn.

Guayabas en Almibar con Nieve.- Guavas in syrup over ice cream. A popular dessert in Zacatecas. Guayabas have anti-parasite properties as well so it does double duty.

2-3 lbs guayabas, cut the ends off (they can be peeled or left unpeeled), cut in half, wash well
1-3 cups sugar
1-2 cinnamon sticks
1-2 whole cloves
ice cream (usually Vanilla)
1 cup whipped cream

In a large pot put the guayabas and cover with water. Add the sugar and spices and bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer about 1/2 hour. Test them to insure they are soft and the liquid has turned into a syrup, if not, cook in 1/2 hour increments until done.
Serve warm over ice cream and top with the whipped cream.

The Asado is typically served with white rice and refried beans, corn tortillas of course! This is one of those dishes that tastes better reheated too so any leftovers will be really appreciated. Makes really great tortas or tacos. Go ahead and serve a couple of avocado slices on the side with this too, you'll be glad you did.
Next time you feel like being in Spain but can't make it across the pond consider visiting Zacatecas, one of the most beautiful states in Mexico, a colonial jewel and Unesco world heritage site. Talk soon!......

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