Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Colors of The Flag

Big, imperfect tomatoes, fresh, mild onions, and little hot peppers poked through piles of zucchini, kale, and green beans all over the farmers’ markets this week. The red, green, and white mean Italian done one way, and Mexican done another.

When Blanca and I first met, she blew me away by making perfect rice every time, completely “by guess and by golly” as she calls it. “How can you mess up rice”? she asked me. Just like that, with little black rice-marks all over the bottom of the pan, when it wasn’t some kind of gloppy mush. But one day, I asked her to get the pasta going for me and she asked, “how?” It hadn’t even occurred to me that there was a “how” to making pasta.

Twelve years later, she throws on the pasta on a regular basis, I measure but my rice comes out perfect every time, and there are a few whole meals from her family repertoire that I can make on my own and even her mother approves. What’s incredible is that other than the differences of rice versus pasta and tortillas versus bread, a great number of Mexican and Italian staples are made from almost the exact same ingredients.

TACOS
Serves: 4 Prep Time: 30-40 minutes Cook Time: 1-8 hours
A wonderful self-service meal that is ideal for finicky guests, picky kids, and hungry hounds. Tacos consist of warmed tortillas and a variety of fillings that are assembled at the table.

Carne Deshebrada
1 pound flank or skirt steak
1 garlic clove, whole
2 T dried or 2 sprigs fresh oregano
2 T salt
1 T pepper

Put the meat and spices in a large pot of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer, gently, 1-3 hours. Can also be done in the crock pot on high for 6-8 hours. When the meat is very tender, lift it out of the pot and place it in a bowl or colander. Pull off little sections of the meat and then, using your fingers or two forks, pull it apart. It will easily turn into what looks like a pile of strings. You need to cool the meat to pull it apart, but you want it warm to eat. The best solution is to hang a sieve or colander over the still very hot pot of water, and to drop the meat strings into it. Then you can transfer them to a serving bowl at the last minute. Incidentally, you now have a big pot of beef broth to save for some other time.

Pico de gallo
As far as I’m concerned, the centerpiece of the meal
1 large tomato, diced, with all of its juices
½ onion, diced
½ bunch of cilantro, washed and finely chopped
juice of 2 limes
salt and pepper to taste
½ jalapeno pepper, finely chopped

Chop and dice so that the tomato and onion pieces are the same size. If you want the pico extra mild, remove the seeds from the jalepeno before chopping. If you want it a little more picante, leave the seeds in and use the whole pepper. Mix together all of the ingredients and set aside.

Other Accompaniments
Serve also with, in separate bowls: 6 oz. grated jack or cheddar cheese; ½ head of boston or iceberg lettuce, cut into thin shreds about the length of the meat threads; sour cream.

Corn tortillas are relatively easy to make from scratch following the directions on the Maseca (a special preparation of corn meal flour). If you make your own, you’ll want to cook them on a cast iron pan. To heat store-bought tortillas, place them in pairs directly on the gas flame, turn just as they start to brown (less than 1 minute), and then stack and fold them into a dish towel to keep them warm. If you have a tortilla warmer (a tortilla-sized lidded basket), of course place the dishtowel inside of that.

PASTA WITH QUICK TOMATO-MEAT SAUCE
Serves: 4 Prep Time: 10 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes
My mom makes a version of my great-grandmother’s tomato-meat sauce. It is delicious, and I’m sure will make its way onto the blog. This one is, especially in its basic mode, wonderfully quick and surprisingly complex.

1 lb ground beef (optional; can be replaced with ground turkey)
1 clove garlic
6-8 large tomatoes, diced
1 can tomato paste
1 Chinese hot pepper (the long thin red ones, fresh or dried)
1 tsp sugar
A few grates of nutmeg
2 sprigs thyme
1 dash cream

In a large pan, brown the meat. Add 1 whole clove of garlic and stir for a few minutes. Then add all of the other ingredients, stirring well. Cover and let simmer on low heat for at least 10 minutes, and up to 45 minutes. Just before serving, turn off heat and stir in one dash of cream.

Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water. 10 minutes before you are ready to eat, cook the pasta. Rotini, orecchietti, fiori, or some other medium-sized pasta with some kind of way to catch the sauce works best.

Serve with grated romano or parmesan cheese.

Variations: Add 1 small zucchini, 1-2 carrots, and/or 1 green or red pepper, chopped, at the same time as the other ingredients. You can also sauté an onion before adding the meat, then leave it in the pan for the duration.