Sunday, December 6, 2009

Making Leftovers: Fried Tacos with Mole Negro

Here is a simple way to make use of some good leftovers. A few days after I made pork loin and mole negro, I still had quite a bit of mole left over. What to do with it? Why not try something interesting, such as beef tacos with mole? Hmm . . . might as well give it a try.

This recipe is simple. First, take a protein of your choosing and cook it 90% or so. Then add as much mole as you'd like to the protein (potatoes would work well for this too). Stir in the mole, then add the meat and mole mixture to a taco shell (I prefer corn, but flour works too). Once the tacos are stuffed, seal the taco top together with a toothpick—this will keep the tacos together when fried. Once stuffed, heat some canola or other oil in a pan, and fry tacos until golden. Serve with toppings of your choosing. It's that easy . . . delicious tacos, using leftovers, and very inexpensive.

I chose to use ground beef, and made half of my tacos with mole, and half without. Both were delicious, especially with fresh guacamole, grilled onions, and heirloom tomatoes. Santé.

Spiced-Crusted Duck Breast with Orange-Honey Glaze and Cumin-Scented Carrots

This recipe comes from Eric Ripert's PBS show, Avec Eric. It's a great, informative show, providing easy and delicious at-home recipes at the end of each episode. Because it's game season, and I love me some delicious birds, I decided to give this recipe a go.

I followed the recipe verbatim, and everything turned out wonderfully. My only minor adjustment would be to cook the skin side of the duck breast for slightly longer than is suggested, maybe closer to 12-14 minutes, rather than 8-10. For both breasts that I cooked, the fat was a little too chewy, and not quite crispy enough. It was really close, but not there. The meat, however, was a perfect medium-rare, as the recipe suggested. Here's my review of each component. . . .

Duck Breast: I bought two duck breasts (Mary's 100% Organic, California grown) at Whole Foods. As I mentioned earlier, the fat could have been cooked a little more. Aside for this, the seasoning of the fat was mild and just lent a hint of its flavor to the meat. The meat was very ducky, which I love.If you don't love duck, you will not love this dish—it definitely showcases the unique flavor of the duck. Luckily, it was not chewy at all.

Orange-Honey Glaze: I really enjoyed this glaze, both by itself and atop the duck breast. I mean, what's not to love? Duck fat as a base? Ok, great. Honey as a sweetener—plus fresh orange juice! Alright! Add some shallot in there for extra flavor . . . what a wonderful glaze. 'Nuff said. Recipe was perfect, but it takes a little while to cook (20+minutes).

Cumin-Scented Carrots: These cooked up perfectly, still retaining some firmness, but with a rich honey and butter glaze. The cumin also really comes through, and brings out the cumin in the crust of the duck breast. I used baby carrots for this recipe, and I thought they were great.

All in all, this recipe was easy, delicious, fast, and unique. It's always refreshing to realize how simple recipes can be both delicious and sophisticated.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taza Chocolate: 2009 Limited Edition Chiapas Bar

Yes, it's that wonderful time of the year again, the what seems like is going to be a wonderful annual tradition—a limited edition chocolate bar from Chiapas.

A little background: Taza is one of these modern eco-minded food companies, and one of a handful of American eco-friendly / world-friendly / conscience-minded chocolate companies that have sprung up over the last few years. A what a joy they are, each of them with their own distinguishing points, yet all focused on the same thing: making the best chocolate possible.

Now, before I get into a review of this particular bar, there are a few things I'd like to get out of the way about chocolate (I'll put this in its own post too, to serve as some sort of chocolate creed, if you will . . .). Keeping these things in mind will help to clarify my feelings about chocolate in general, which bars I like, which bars I don't, and why:

1. European chocolate is not the best in the world. In fact, most of it is low quality, tasteless, and mass produced from under-developed plants from Africa.
1a. Do not assume greatness because a bar is from Europe
1b. Overall, American chocolate makers, today, are making the best chocolate bars in the world, despite strong competitors from around the world (yes, I said it . . . Belgian chocolate can take a smelly back seat or something, because, in all honesty, most of it sucks). Yes, and I'll say this again and again: American's are leading the chocolate revolution; and, lucky for us, we live just across the bay from where the best chocolate is grown.

2. Bean-to-bar chocolate making is as essential to fine chocolate and chocolate purchasing, as estate wine-making or olive-oil making is to their respective industries.

3. Terroir is important when considering chocolate beans.

4. Fair trade agreements with farmers does make better chocolate—there is no substitute for poorly or improperly fermented beans, akin to (imagine) poorly fermented wine grapes, and fair agreements help to ensure that the farmers put care into their work.

5. Learn about percentages of cacao, the type of bean used in a bar, and the region the beans come from when making a purchase—you'll quickly find out what you like, and how to separate the higher quality items from the marketing ploys and corporate names.

6. Seek out good chocolate, which your local grocery store probably doesn't carry—it's worth it (and I can help . . . I've had pretty much everything).

On to this Taza bar. . . .

I love the idea behind this bar. First off, I really enjoy Taza's chocolate. Their philosophy is great (see link to website above), and their dedication to maintaining Mexican grinding practices when producing their chocolate lends and unforgettable flavor and texture to their bars. And, unlike traditional Mexican chocolate (Ibarra—also the Italian don Puglisi . . . reviews to come), Taza's bars do not have the sugar crystals throughout.

So here's what excites me about this bar, a special edition bar with beans from Chiapas, besides the fact that it's limited edition, something new to try from this brand: the beans are from Chiapas. In truth, of the over 150 chocolate bars I've tasted, there have only been a few crafted from Mexican beans, and even less with beans from Chiapas. I mean, these bars made from Venezuelan beans are a dime a dozen, or thereabout . . . but beans from Chiapas? A true rarity.

There is the easy ones to find, like Askninosie's Soconusco bar (Soconusco is a region in Chiapas). There are the more difficult ones, like bars from Mexico or Cacao Sampaka in Spain (reviews of both to come). And there is also the 2008 Chiapas bar from Taza, which is long gone now, only 1392 being produced. It's only natural, then, that the 2009 Chiapas bar from Taza is of great interest to me. I placed my order for two bars as soon as they became available, and waited patiently for their arrival. And, soon enough, they were on my doorstep, fresh and ready to eat.

On to the bar. Same packaging as last year, looks and smells similar to other Taza bars, but very different from last year's bar . . . this one smells very chocolately, fruity, and very deep. Upon tasting, I really enjoyed this bar. It has deep fruity notes, which are dark and resonating berry-like. It also that wonderful Taza texture that I love—that slight grit which prevents any waxiness—and has a great finish.

Overall, I like this bar. It's good. I wouldn't say that it is great however, nor does it possess any truly unique flavor profiles that I haven't tasted before (contrary to the company's twitter, which suggested flavors yet unknown). Check out Taza's website for more info on the bar. Sadly, to again disagree with them, I do not taste pound cake or pine on the finish. C'est la vie, I suppose.

If I had to rank the bar, I suppose it would be somewhere between the middle and the top. In reference to other bars with Mexican beans, I like Cacao Sampaka's bars much more, and last year's bar better as well. I do think, however, that this bar is better than Askinosie's bar.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Update: Bellwether Farms

Update on the Bellwether Farms Crescenza cheese:

I bought two packages of this cheese, and decided to open up the second one today to give it another taste. Upon second tasting, with a clean palate, I found this cheese to be quite extraordinary. It's like mozzarella, but better . . . it has a little more tang or tartness, with more sweetness to, but that same soft-ripened taste and velvety texture. All around, I like the taste of this cheese even more than fresh mozzarella.

Here's the true essence of this update, though: crescenza grilled cheese. How had I not thought of this before? I think this cheese is really excellent for grilled cheese sandwiches: take already mildly toasted bread, lather some crescenza on, which will melt in no time, and have yourself a delicious sandwich!


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pork Loin and Mole Negro

With an ardent love for all moles, and a love (maybe not ardent) for Rick Bayless (especially after Top Chef Masters), I decided today to try and make Bayless' recipe for Puerco en Mole Negro from his restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago. I think, if I'm not mistaken, this is the fabled recipe Bayless used to secure his spot as the Top Chef Master . . . he claimed in took him 20 years to make a satisfactory mole—hopefully I can do his recipe (at least) some justice.

I started out by walking to Vallarta, a Mexican supermakret just a few blocks from my house, to pick up most of the ingredients. The list was long and extensive, taking me to parts of the market I'd never been to (see recipe for complete list).

All the ingredients in place, time to get cooking. . . .

First step: making the marinade for the pork loin. The marinade is fairly straight-forward. Blend a bunch of ingredients together and let the pork marinade overnight. To make the marinade, I used one can of Chipoltle peppers in adobo sauce, reserving 3 tablespoons of the liquid they were in (in the can). I then combined corn oil, apple cider vinegar, dried oregano, ancho chili powder, and honey. All of these ingredients were then blended thoroughly, poured into a bag I had already set the bag into, which I then put in the refrigerator.

So far so good.
Next step: roast onion, tomatillo, and tomato mixture, then set aside. Then de-stem and de-seed 6 dried pasilla peppers, roast, and set aside.

Now comes the difficult part: making the mole. Before I began the process, I had this feeling that mole isn't something easily translated into words, both hard to describe how to make and what it tastes like. I figured it would be one of this dishes that eludes me for some time, like a great paella, until finally, one day, after 10 or more average attempts, something just clicks and mole becomes my go-to dish. But you have to start somewhere with these things, right? I mean, if it took Rick Bayless 20 years I'd be happy to accomplish it in my lifetime.

First step: fry bananas? Then add sesame seeds and peanuts? Stir everything frequently until evenly browned? Ok . . . I feel like this is the mole's soul, its sofrito, and I feel a little out of sync with what it's exactly supposed to be like. I mean, I've never really tasted these three ingredients in mole before. Nevertheless, I cook until browned, then add the rest of the ingredients, not sure if I browned them enough, too much . . . who knows?

The next step is too add the rest of the ingredients: raisins, oregano, dried and roasted pasilla peppers, tomatillo mixture, chocolate, chicken stock . . . Let all of this come to a boil, then remove from heat.

Now, after coming to a boil, the mixture smells like mole although it doesn't look like it yet. I can already see that my mole isn't quite as dark as ones I've had before. But, I pressed on, pureeing the mole in batches in a food processor. I blended each batch for about 5 minutes, but the mole still did not look completely smooth or pureed. I think I should have strained it at this point, but the instructions didn't say to do so, and I didn't want to mess with the recipe the first time through. After pureeing all of the mole, I poured it back into the pan, and whisked it for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until it thickened slightly.

Within a half hour or so the pork was fully cooked and the mole ready to go . . . sante.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chocolate, Part 1: Scharffen Berger

Scharffen Berger—almost a ubiquitous name these days in the chocolate world . . . but amongst whom? For who? Ah, this seems like it should always be the question, doesn't it? But is it ever?

To this end, I think the chocolate buying populace, and maybe even the food buying populace, can be summed up with jsut a few generalizations about who people are, and how and why they eat . . . think of it as a scale, a way to equalize a person's choices based on their exposure, socio-ecomonic status . . . ok, let's just get to it.

To the madding crowd, the flocks of masses who are the majority of those buying chocolate, Hershey's, or Snicker's or maybe Ghiradelli or Lindt, are the best chocolates in the world. To this large subsection of the world, chocolate is confined, and will probably always be confined, to what 7-Elevens, Walmarts, or Safeways stock on their shelves. But we must forgive these people for their ignorance. Consider what they know as all they know, as they can now, given their environments. That is, that what they buy and what they know is and has been defined by what has surrounded them for years, perhaps much of their life. For whatever reason, I feel like this group, while hopeless in ever really changing their habits, is fine with their place in my chocosphere.

To counteract this group, there is ultra-informed, well-versed chocolate buyer—someone who truly knows what the best products, where to buy them, and how to enjoy them. Sometimes snotty, snobby, sickeningly aware and proud of their self-endowed superiority. But this is not always the case. I like to this of this group as a solid group of individuals concerned with the best of the best, whatever the best may be. Independent of brand names, godawful non-sequiturs about chocolate in general, this crowd of gourmands knows about chocolate, and they're not afraid to show it. Just go ahead and ask one . . . I'm sure you'll learn more than you ever thought there was to know. Knowledge: how refreshing.

There is, of course, a group somewhere in the middle. This, for me, is the worst group. Unlike the first group of ignoramuses, this group doesn't really have the excuse of socio-economics, or environment, which, as we're led to believe, are always (or at least should be) forgivable. But this group of mediocres and moderates (which always seem to be the worst, don't they?) has no excuse for their ignorance. In fact, and I feel strongly about this, most of these people think they know a ton about that which they know nothing. So the moderate, the uninformed, plagued with pseudosis, knows little because of their own mental incompetence, their ignorance far more psychiatric than environmental.

So where does Scharffen-Berger fit into this mess of ignoramuses, pseudopods, and champions? Well, it's sort of tough to say. The company seems to strattle both sides, selling chocolate in markets and stores all over the country in mass quanities, owned by Hershey's . . . yet they also have an artist series, and limited edition blends from exotic and rare beans, which all seem to point to, well, a great chocolate company. Have they somehow done it all?

Judging by these bars below, the mainstays, I'd say possibly. These bars are good, and better than pretty much anything else you'd find at the supermarket. Are they amazing? No, not really. But they're good. Really good.

P.S. Reviews of limited edition bars to come.

Bellwether Farms

I was watching Emeril on the Planet Green channel, and he was cooking a variety of dishes using Bellwether Farms yogurt and cheese. I recognized the logo—I've seen their sheep's milk yogurt at Whole Foods, but never tried it. I was a little wary of sheep's milk products, to be honest . . . I mean, I didn't even know sheep were milked for human consumption. Apparently they are.

Anyways, I decided to give the yogurts a try, as well as look for their elusive cheese, crescenza. I went to Whole Foods in Woodland Hills—they had the yogurt in all five flavors, but I had to order the cheese. It came in about a week later . . . all three pounds of it.


I bought all four flavored yogurts (vanilla, strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry), and they were all delicious.

There's a certain sharpness, or tang, to the sheep's milk yogurt, and it's a bit more liquidy than the cow's milk yogurt I'm used to. But, after getting adjusted to the differences, I found this yogurt to be smooth, creamy, and full of unique flavor. And, like Emeril suggests, lamb marinated in this yogurt must be divine. Final thoughts: vanilla is my favorite flavor, with the little black specks distributed throughout, and the yogurts, overall, are definitely of the best on the market.

On to the cheese. Crescenza . . . this is the first time I've tried this cheese. It is a soft, cow's milk cheese, barely stiff enough to be packaged. I almost had to squeeze it out of its shrinkwrap to use it. Nonetheless, I found the cheese smooth, mild, and milky. And again, like the yogurts, the cheese is very unique, especially texturally. I've never really had any cheese that I can compare it to. I think it would be an excellent choice for a grilled cheese sandwich, especially due to its meltability. Recipe to come?

Availability and pricing: available at Whole Foods (possible special order), $2.79/each for yogurt, $8 for 1/2 lb. of cheese.