Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ropa Vieja Tacos

Perhaps the coolest food-based tale ever comes from the amazing, over 500 year old history of Ropa Vieja. The story goes that a poor man had nothing left but his old beaten-up clothes, so he threw them in a pot and cooked them to feed his family. Miraculous, his love turned the unorthodox dish into a delicious stew.

Sadly despite my Cuban ancestry, I have not experienced much of this dish (aside from at El Rey Taqueria in Houston), so I had been wanting to to make some ever since I got my Cuban cookbook.  Following some pretty grueling work weeks for me and Robin, and the brilliant decision to work from home for the day (coding truly is a wonderful profession), I knew it was time to fill our stomachs with this dish based on love.

Ropa Vieja Tacos
Adapted from The Cuban Table by Ana Sofia Pelaez and Ellen Silverman
Time: 2.5 hours
Servings: ~8-12 tacos
Perfect blend of my cultures and spices

Braised Beef
Vegetable or canola oil
1.5 lbs flank steak, quartered
1 yellow onion, quartered
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1" chunks
1/2 red cabbage, quartered
2 sprigs fresh mint
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp cloves
1/2-1 tsp cayenne pepper
6 cups water
2 bay leaves
Braised but not yet done

Ropa Vieja
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Pinch of cloves
1 1/4 cups tomato puree
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1/2-1 cup roasted red peppers, sliced
Cilantro to garnish
Queso fresco to garnish
Jalapeños, chopped to garnish

  1. Brown all sides of the flank steak in a large pot over medium-high heat with a small amount of vegetable oil.
  2. Add the onion, carrot, red cabbage, mint, garlic, salt, black pepper, allspice, cloves, cayenne, water and bay leaves. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer. Then cook covered for 1.5-2 hours under tender enough to shred. Reserve 1/2 cup of the broth for the ropa vieja.
  3. Let the steak cool in the broth until it can be shredded. Start preparing the ropa vieja (below) while you wait to shred the beef. If you have a long wait before the ropa vieja is ready for the shredded beef then store it in some broth to maintain juiciness. 
  4. Prepare the ropa vieja by first sautéing the onion and bell pepper in olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until tender and translucent (6-8 minutes). 
  5. Crush the garlic together with the salt, pepper, allspice, cloves, and cayenne until a paste forms.
  6. Add the paste to the skillet and coat the veggies. Cook for another 2 minutes until fragrant.
  7. Mix in the tomato puree, reserved broth, white wine, and bay leaf. Bring to a light simmer.
  8. Stir in the shredded beef and cook covered on low for 15-20 minutes. 
  9. Evenly mix in the roasted red peppers then prepare for greatness.
  10. Make tacos by topping the ropa vieja with cilantro, queso fresco, jalapeños, and lime juice. Both corn and flour tortillas taste great with this, but flour or two stacked corn tortillas may be the best option since they will help absorb all that flavorful juice.
Also feel free to serve on top of rice because this tasty dish works with anything.
With apologies to the former champ, Dr. Pepper Braised Brisket Tacos, these Ropa Vieja Tacos quickly usurped the top spot in my taco power rankings. This was the perfect union of everything I love about Cuban, Cajun, and Mexican cooking as the Cuban flavors were empowered by the added spice to yield some of the most insanely juicy and delicious filling a tortilla was ever lucky enough to receive. The tomato, peppers, and spices led to some of the most unique and succulent beef I have ever made, while the decision to convert it to a taco added another layer of comfort to this ultimate comfort food. I really should work from home more often.

I want to go to there.

The Crawfish Boil: The Main Event

Once Spring comes around and Saints football and Mardi Gras have ended, the good people of Louisiana have to find something new to fill their weekends, and that something is typically attempting to eat your own weight (or usually at least 5 lbs per person) in delicious crawfish during the day-long gloriousness of a crawfish boil. It's not just about the star of the show, though, as all the wonderful veggies invited along to soak up all that marvelous spice can be just as big of an attraction for some folks as the mudbugs themselves. Hell, these feasts are so important to the culture that it's practically a rite of passage when kids back home finally perfect their peeling technique. So long as everyone is having a good time and the beer is flowing as freely as good conversations, there just might not be a wrong way to do a boil.

With the crack team I had assembled featuring crab boil master Jaime, kitchen rockstar Kevin, crawfish wrangler Dennis, official beer getter and Dennis whisperer Jackie, fellow Louisiana native (and closet crawfish hater) Brandon, guacamole master Laura, and the ready to let the babysitter handle things for the night power couple of Sacha and Maconda, our crawfish boil was sure to be one for the ages.

Crawfish Boil
Time: About 2 beers
Servings:  ~ 6-10 people

Still healthy at this point

Zatarain's Crawfish, Shrimp, and Crab Boil (about 1.5 16 oz. bags per round)
30+ lbs crawfish, live and rinsed well
Garlic, whole
Onions, halved
Brussels Sprouts
Green bell peppers, halved
Mounds of mushrooms
Celery, chopped in half
Red potatoes
Corn on the cob
Lemons, halved

All the inner boiled goodness will absorb a lot of the water, so make sure you have enough.

  1. Probably ask someone who has done this a few more times how to do it and skip the rest of the steps.
  2. Successfully purchase a massive bag of crawfish and manage to keep them alive until ready to boil (ice chest).
  3. Don't worry at all about being precise and crack open a beer.
  4. Season water with salt, pepper, cayenne, and Zatarain's in a large stockpot over a propane flame. The water should cover reach about halfway up the pot. It needs room for all the goodies that will be dropped in but also needs be enough for when the crawfish are added and absorb a good amount of the water. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the potatoes, garlic, onion, Brussels Sprouts, mushrooms, lemon, celery, and potatoes. by eyeballing how much you want. Return to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. 
  6. Pour in the crawfish, return to boil then turn off the flame and let sit for 15 minutes. 
  7. Remove the crawfish and start the next batch. Re-season and add additional water as needed. Subsequent batches will be spicier.
  8. Attempt to eat your weight in crawfish.
A very small portion of all the peeled deliciousness.
Again, the most important part of the crawfish boil is to have fun, and we sure did. Catching up while waiting for the suckers to boil was just as great as eating the finished product. These crawfish were absolutely bursting with the wonderful New Orleans heat and flavors (making sucking the heads and claws a must) that I've found to be lacking when I've bought crawfish elsewhere. Those flavors came through just as lip-scorching amazingly in the veggies, with the last minute Brussels sprouts being the surprise winner. Combined with the creamy nirvana of our Jambalaya and some choice sides, it was a night that our mouths and waist lines would not soon forget.

Dennis modeling with his new best friend while Jackie practices the drink running abilities she would later perfect at my wedding.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Crawfish Boil: Jambalaya

Prior to the wedding extravaganza, I found myself back in the two states that I have spent most of my life in- Louisiana and Texas. It was a bittersweet trip back as it started with my grandmother's funeral, but it was also a great chance to reflect on the awesome life she led. A tremendous part of that life was keeping her family happy and together with some truly amazing cooking. From the world's most spectacular okra gumbo to a chicken stew that the English language does not have words to adequately describe, everything she made was utter comfort and perfection. So, when I found myself back in Houston later that week, I decided to honor her memory with some great Louisiana cooking that would've made her and her famous Sunday dinners proud.

Adapted from Emeril
Servings: 8-10
Time: 45 minutes

It felt good to be doing prep in Kevin's kitchen again.
24 shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped
12 oz Andouille sausage, sliced
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, choppped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 small tomatoes, diced
2 bay leaves
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco to taste
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
5-6 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp Tony Chachere's Seasoning (at least but you'll want more)
At first, it will appear to be soup. Do not be concerned. Continue drinking beer whilst it gets deliciously absorbed.
  1. Sauté the sausage, onion, and green bell peppers together in a large pot over medium heat until the onion is tender and translucent. 
  2. Stir in the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, and tabasco. Let cook for another minute.
  3. Add in the rice, and slowly pour in the broth. Start with 4 cups. Stir occasionally and cook until the rice is tender and has absorbed the liquid. Add additional liquid until it the rice reaches the desired tenderness and consistency.
  4. Mix in the shrimp and let cook until orange and finished (3-5 minutes).
  5. Decide you can't wait to get a fork and start dipping tortilla chips in the pot until people start looking at you funny then join in.
The final delicious, risotto-y goodness.
This jambalaya was unbelievably delicious. Somehow, despite not trying to replicate my personal favorite Jambalaya Risotto, I managed to make a similarly creamy Cajun treat. This was less tomatoey than the typical jambalaya, but all those great Cajun spices and flavor really came through. People were seriously just dipping tortilla chips into the pot after a while because it was so good. This definitely would've made Maw-Maw and the family smile. But, no matter how hard I try,  I'm still not sure if I can ever live up to the legendary meals she crafted.

Stay tuned for the main event of the evening- the crawfish!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Wedding and Honeymoon Spectacular: Homemade Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes, Garlic and Olive Oil

Getting married is pretty awesome. Aside from the whole getting to spend the rest of your life with your favorite person, it also comes with tons of awesome kitchen gadgets for free!
Yeah, the wedding was kind of perfect.

Following a truly epic wedding featuring some of the best food and greatest dance moves of my life, Robin and I embarked on a perfect relaxing and delicious honeymoon in Napa. Sadly, we were forced to eventually return to work and the real world, but this weekend we decided to at least briefly relive the awesomeness by busting out our shiny new KitchenAid Pasta Maker and uncorking a bottle from our favorite winery of the trip- Silver Trident (Seriously, the food pairing, wine tasting, and people were so amazing that we joined the Wine Club).

Egg Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes, Garlic, and Olive Oil
Recipe from Serious Eats
Time: 75 minutes
Servings: 4

10 oz (2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 whole large eggs
4 yolks from large eggs
1 tsp salt
Water, if necessary

Whole tomatoes
4-6 cloves garlic, whole
Basil, chopped
Olive Oil
Pecorino cheese, grated

I'm amazed that something so tasty could come from something so simple.
  1. Get married and receive lots of cool wedding kitchen gifts like a pasta maker. 
  2. Open a bottle of your tastiest red wine and get ready for some fun.
  3. Roast the tomatoes and garlic in the oven at 425 F for 30-60 minutes until roasted to your liking.
  4. I highly recommend reading the full Serious Eats article and the accompanying experimental pasta making article for a far better description of how everything should look than I will ever be able to give.
  5. Pour flour into a large mound on a clean work surface. Make a large well in the center and fill it with the eggs, yolks, and salt. 
  6. Beat the egg components together well with a fork. Then slowly combine with the flour until a sticky dough begins to form.
  7. Use a bench knife to scrape excess dough and fold additional flour into the dough until a dry ball begins to form (2-5 minutes).
  8. Knead the dough with the heel of your hand, rotating 45 degrees each time. Continue until the dough becomes smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes). If the dough is too wet, add extra flour 1 tsp at a time, or if it is too dry, lightly mist it with water.
    Our ball of pasta dough after Robin demonstrated her master kneading technique.
  9. Tightly wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes.
  10. Cut the dough into 4 quarters, keeping unused portions wrapped until they are ready.
  11. Roll the dough out onto lightly floured parchment paper into an oblong shape ~1/2 inch thick.
  12. Place the pasta maker on its widest setting and pass the dough through 3 times.
    Pasta Maker!
  13. Fold the ends of the dough in so they meet, then fold the dough in half at the point where they touch. Roll back to 1/2 inch thick and pass through at the widest setting again 3 times.
    Pretend you're making the tastiest but least exciting origami
  14. Repeat the folding step, pass through the next smaller setting 3 times, and repeat as necessary until you reach the desired thickness (we stopped at setting 4). If the dough gets holes in it, just repeat the folding and run it through the setting again.
  15. Repeat with the remaining quarters. Be sure to cover the stretched out pasta with parchment paper to prevent it from drying out. 
    Robin made the perfect looking noodle up top, while I made the special, lovable one below...
  16. Pass the dough through a pasta cutter if desired. This cut pasta is much trickier to catch. Lightly dust the pasta with flour and roll into nests.
  17. Boil in salted water with a touch of olive oil for 60-90 seconds.
  18. Drain the pasta and serve with the roasted tomatoes, garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, basil, and cheese.
  19. Refill wine glass as needed.
The finished product. It somehow tasted even better than it looks.
Everything about this meal perfectly transported us back to the complete and total utter bliss of the honeymoon. Making pasta by itself is a whole lot of fun. While there may be a lot of steps, none of them are all that complicated, and the results speak for themselves. The egg-packed noodles were full of flavor on their own and had an amazing texture. Robin's decision to top them with simple roasted tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, and cheese (with Pecorino providing a nice bolder alternative to parmesan) instead of a complex sauce was truly inspired. The result was a light and refreshing dish that I could've spent the entire weekend eating. Our bottle of Silver Trident's Playing with Fire red blend was the perfect compliment to our pasta and made us even more excited for an anniversary to finally get here so we can travel back to Napa.
The perfect companion to our pasta- Silver Trident's Playing with Fire Red Wine Blend
Like I said, it was perfect. You can check at more at the amazing photographer's blog.