No tortilla needed: crispy carnitas find happy home in butter lettuce

    Crispy carnitas wrapped in Bibb lettuce with avocado and cherry tomatoes

Crispy carnitas wrapped in Bibb butter  lettuce, topped with avocado and cherry tomatoes — positively magical.

Sometimes I make life harder than it needs to be.

For the past few months, I’ve been stressed out about work and life and instead of opting to make things easier on myself, I decided to dedicate a few weeks to the Whole 30 — which meant eliminating sugar, grains, legumes, dairy and alcohol from my diet. It’s certainly not something I can sustain for a lifetime (nor do its creators expect people to) but it was a great way to get my eating habits back on track after too many weeks of packaged meals.

While I’ve been successful at the Whole 30 before, my downfall this time was poor calendar planning. I got side tracked by my dad visiting (cocktails), Memorial Day (beer flights and fish ‘n’ chips) and a girls night (pink wine and pasta), so while I managed the first 14 days just fine, things slipped after that. Sadly, water will never taste as good as beer and fried rice is tastier when it’s not made with cauliflower. It’s just the way things are.

I do intend to give the Whole 30 another real run again in Junly after my husband and I are back from (gorging ourselves on) vacation and summer produce is at its prime. I just need to keep repeating to myself, “Water is delicious. Water is delicious…”

Even though I didn’t last past two weeks, I did at least make some dinners that were lovely enough to revive my desire to spend some time in the kitchen doing more than heating up frozen Amy’s burritos — which is what my diet consisted of for the month of April. It was a dark time.

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Homemade Tamales: Good things come to those who wait

Homemade tamales with chicken, queso fresco & pico de gallo

Homemade tamales with chicken, queso fresco & pico de gallo

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly trying my hand at making some of my favorite Mexican dishes at home. My homemade tortillas and sopes were so successful that I soon started dreaming about tamales, something I had never considered making from scratch.

Just as I was thinking about them, my husband (who must have been reading my mind) brought me home two bags of fresh masa from Three Sisters Nixtamal, a Portland company that specializes in masa and tortillas. We had some leftover chicken, a wheel of queso fresco and all the makings for pico de gallo so I figured my project would come together lickety split.

However, this is one of those times when taking a few minutes to do some research really pays off — it turns out I was woefully unprepared for the project I was about to begin! Luckily I found this article, which had oodles of helpful advice and saved me from certain tamale doom.

First off, I had no idea that (unlike when making tortillas, pupusas or sopes), the dough for tamales is not straight masa mixed with water. Instead you need to whip the masa with a fat, most often lard, resulting in a fluffy aerated mixture.

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Adios breakfast burritos, hola sopes benedicts!

Breakfast Sopes topped with chorizo, a fried egg and salsa

Breakfast Sopes topped with chorizo, a fried egg and salsa

Like most of Portland, I love brunch. Unlike most Portlanders, ninety percent of the time I am unwilling to wait for two hours to eat it. And while I wish my husband and I went to brunch more often, it’s just a huge time waster: wait forever, suck down a few cocktails at a nearby bar while waiting, finally get seated, stuff your face for 15 minutes because you are so hungry and then go home and nap the Bloody Marys off.

Going to brunch basically means that will be my only accomplishment of the day (which is not necessarily a bad thing, I admit).

But I’ve found cooking brunch at home is so more rewarding. My husband is usually still sleeping or just waking up when I start cooking, giving me free reign to make whatever I want.

Usually I go fairly standard — eggs and a veg-heavy hash for instance, but a few weeks ago I was feeling the need to mix it up. I had leftover masa dough from the night before and the idea of making breakfast sopes was too enticing to pass up.

I made the shells just like I did in this post and then focused on the toppings. I cooked up some chorizo, adding in some leftover carmelized onions and black beans. Garnished with a bit of queso fresco and paired with a cabbage slaw, they looked tasty enough…

Breakfast Sopes - chorizo and queso

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Sopes Fabulous!

Homemade Sopes

Sopes with seasoned ground turkey, black beans, tomatoes and cilantro.

I have been trying to put a dent in the giant bag of masa I bought and so far I’ve been pretty successful. I used the tortilla press my husband brought home ages ago and made a dozen or so homemade tortillas, which were crazy good. I also went on a bit of a sopes bender.

Sopes, pronounced so-pez in case you’re unfamiliar, are like little masa bowls — ready to be filled with whatever delicious things you want. I discovered the magic of sopes fairly recently. I had eaten them before but it was the chicken and chile sopes at Portland’s La Taq that really haunted me. I’ll admit, mine were not quite that good but they were still pretty awesome for a first attempt!

I started by making a dough from the masa by blending it with warm water and a bit of salt. Once the mixture came together and was moist but not tacky, I divided it into eight pieces. Those pieces were then rolled into ball and flattened into disks, resembling thick tortillas.

In a hot pan with no oil, I heated the sopes on one side until brown spots started to appear. Then one at a time, I removed them and crimped the edges up to form a small shallow bowl. Once I had them crimped, it was time to fry them. While I’m fairly certain you can deep fry these guys (and I’m sure that makes them even tastier), I went for just enough oil to get them all brown and crispy.

Bottoms up! I did think the masa was a bit bland so I sprinkled salt on each shell after it was fried.

Bottoms up! I thought my masa dough was a bit bland so I sprinkled salt on each shell after it was fried.

Then the hard work is done! Seriously, you are already half-way to eating.

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Baked Taquitos and Misadventures with DayQuil

Baked Carnitas Taquitos

Corn tortillas stuffed with beer-braised pork, 3 cheeses and green onions. Served with sour cream and a Brussels sprout, radish and sprouted mung bean slaw

I have no problem admitting that I only watch the Superbowl for the commercials and the food. This year the hitch in that giddy up was that I’ve been sick for more than a week and didn’t feel like going anywhere. I also didn’t feel like inviting anyone over — that would prevent my husband and I from spending all day on the couch in pajamas under a pile of blankets and kitties (which basically describes all of my favorite Sundays, sick or not).

So I took the anti-social and lazy way out. I planned an easy all-day menu for two based around a Mexican theme and starring one main protein — beer-braised carnitas.

A petite pork butt (around 1.5 pounds) came into play and using this super simple recipe from Bon Appetite, I braised it with dried chiles, beer and garlic. It was pretty much all I could handle in my cold medicine haze.

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The midnight torta comes home for brunch…

I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine.

If your mouth didn’t immediately water upon seeing that picture, I’m not so sure we can ever be friends…

That was harsh I know, but it’s how I feel. It’s been more than a year since I was eating this delicious sandwich and honestly, I can’t believe it’s been 12 months since it was in my mouth. It kind of makes me want to cry, because simply put, this is one of the best (and easiest) brunch dishes I have ever eaten.

Here’s the back story to my love affair: I spotted the ‘Midnight Torta’ in an issue of Food & Wine and was immediately obsessed with it. It was constantly at the front of my “must make” stack of recipes, yet it kept being pushed aside because I never seemed to have all of the ingredients, particularly the main one — the torta rolls. And yet I couldn’t let go. I was determined to one day make this glorious-looking sandwich, especially since it is so named because it’s the perfect thing to eat after a night out drinking.

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