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una Casserole...extraordinaire

Tuna Casserole…extraordinaire

January always ushers in a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy after all the excesses of the holidays. Cooking everyday meals again somehow feels fresh and interesting with all kinds of new ideas floating around about how to turn ordinary meals into extraordinary meals.

Tuna Casserole...extraordinaire

Tuna Casserole…extraordinaire

Take for example the tuna casserole, a baked concoction topped with potato chips that was popularized back in the 50’s in America. The formula couldn’t be simpler. Canned tuna, a can of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup, milk, cooked noodles, frozen peas, and grated cheese tossed into a casserole dish, topped with potato chips, and baked off in the oven. It was quick, easy, and cheap! That 50’s recipe has somehow managed to weather the test of time and has inspired endless reinterpretations along the way, including one of my own that follows.

What I propose is not the 30 minute tuna casserole of the 50’s. But with an investment of a few more ingredients and more time spent in the kitchen will produce, and I say this with complete confidence, a tuna casserole…extraordinaire. This is a tuna casserole you would be proud to serve for a dinner party.

Reinterpreting tried and true everyday recipes, especially over the long winter months, is both fun and productive. Just give your creative self free reign in the kitchen and turn those old standbys into some extraordinary meals that everyone is going to love!

 

Tuna Casserole…extraordinaire serves 4 to 6

As there are multiple components required I have arranged the recipe in an easy to follow step by step format.

Step 1:

  • 1 head of broccoli, florets divided
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 F/ 220 C

Place the broccoli florets and garlic in a bowl, drizzle with the olive oil, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Toss until the ingredients are evenly coated with oil and transfer to a baking sheet in a single layer. Place in the oven and roast until the broccoli is tender and nicely colored, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Step 2:

  • 1 jalapeno chile
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 onion, peeled and halved

Roast the jalapeno, red pepper, and the halved onion over an open flame on the stove top or grill until all are evenly charred. Transfer the jalapeno and red bell pepper to a bowl, seal with cling film, and set aside to sweat. Once cool slip off the charred skins and discard. Open both lengthwise, remove the seeds, and cut into thin strips. Reserve several strips of red pepper for garnishing, as pictured, and dice the remaining strips and set aside.

Remove the charred outer layer of the onion halves and discard. Dice the onions and set aside.

Step 3:

  • 6 medium sized white button mushrooms (or 10 smaller shiitake), thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a medium size saute pan set over medium heat. Swirl in the olive oil and add the sliced mushrooms and reserved roasted diced onions. Saute until the mushrooms have wilted, given up their liquid, and are just beginning to color. Season lightly with salt and pepper and toss.

Once most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated add the wine and turn up the heat. Saute until the wine has evaporated and the mushrooms are tender and nicely colored. Set aside to cool.

Step 4: For the sauce mornay:

  • 2 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 ½ cups whole milk, heated
  • 2 strips lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ cup grated pecorino cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a saucepan and when bubbling add the flour. Stir continuously for about 2 minutes. Then begin slowly adding the heated milk while continuing to stir. Once all the milk has been added toss in the the lemon zest and continue stirring until the mixture comes to a boil. Adjust the heat to a gentle boil and cook, stirring continuously as the sauce thickens, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the thyme and grated pecarino. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside. Remove the lemon zest before adding the sauce to the casserole.

Step 5

  • 1/2  cup dry macaroni noodles
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Bring a pot of water to a rolling broil and add the salt. Add the noodles and stir. Boil the noodles until al dente. Strain and set the noodles aside until you are ready to assemble the casserole.

Step 6: For the bread crumb topping:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup bread crumbs or panko
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Melt the butter in a medium saute pan and when bubbling add the bread crumbs and saute until the butter is absorbed and the crumbs are lightly browned. Season with salt, toss, and Set aside to cool.

Step 7:

Preheat the oven to 350 F/ 180 C with the rack in the middle position.

Prepare a buttered casserole dish large enough to hold all the ingredients.

Assembling the casserole:

  • 1 can of well drained tuna
  • reserved red bell pepper strips for garnishing the top of the casserole as pictured

In a large bowl combine the roasted broccoli florets, the diced roasted jalapenos and bell peppers , the mushroom onion mixture, cooked noodles, and the tuna. Toss until well combined. Then add several ladles full of the sauce and toss until all the ingredients are evenly coated with the sauce.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole dish. Even out the contents in the dish and ladle sauce over all, jiggling the dish so the sauce fills the dish evenly to within a half inch of the top of the casserole dish. Distribute the bread crumbs evenly over the surface and garnish with the reserved red pepper strips.

Transfer the casserole to the oven. Bake for about 35 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the bread crumbs are nicely browned.

Serving:

Serve straight out of the oven! A beautiful simple mixed greens salad pairs well with this casserole and rounds out the meal perfectly!

Chili con Carne

 

I can’t think of any dish more satisfying than a steaming bowl of earthy chili when winter’s grip bears down in earnest. Not that that happens here in Thailand, but vivid memories of winter’s bite are forever embedded in my psyche none the less. Chili’s colorful cultural past adds an almost palatable celebratory air that makes it an ideal choice for those informal holidays meals that lie ahead. Chili does freeze beautifully so why not get a head start and have chili essentially ready on demand.

Whenever I sit down to write about chiles there is that lingering conundrum about spelling and usage of the words that always comes to mind. When to use Chile and when to use Chili? Having lived among both Spanish and Mexican communities in the American Southwest and in Los Angeles for some time I have have sorted out the usage, but there are still ongoing heated debates about the correct spelling, definition, and usage of the words chile and chili.

In short chile is the Spanish word for all varieties of peppers (capsicums) that they discovered when they arrived in the new world. In Mexico however the word chili stems from the Nahuatl/ Aztec language dating back to at least the 7th century which describes the plants that produce all varieties chilis (capsicums).

Of course today both words have garnered various meanings not only for the peppers themselves but also for dishes that are made with them.

For example, in the North American southwest the word chile is used to describe varieties of capsicums associated with various levels of scoville heat as well as dishes made with the them. In the rest of North America the word chili (chili con carne) describes the popular spicy Tex Mex stew like dish that contains ground meat in a chile and tomato based sauce that often includes beans. South of the border chili con Carne is a chunky meat stew in a spicy chili based sauce without the addition of beans.

Confused? Just to make the differentiation even a little more complicated the Nahuatl language is still widely used in rural central Mexico as is the word chili. So in Mexican communities living on both sides of the border use both words interchangeably.

Generally speaking, it is safe to say that chile is the appropriate word to reference all varieties of capsicums with heat. Chili is reserved for describing the popular dish chili con carne as well as the seasoning mixture of ground dried chile powder mixed with other seasoning spices. Pure ground chiles without other seasonings would be called chile powder.

For more tasty information on this spicy subject (click here) for Chili (Basics).

The recipe that follows more closely follows a Mexican chili con carne that includes dried chiles to deeply flavor the sauce. However I have used ground beef instead of chunks of beef, and included beans in the chili which are served separately in Mexico. For me, including the beans in the chili makes a more complex and richly flavorsome Mexican meal in a single bowl. But maybe I’m just biased having grown up eating Tex Mex chile.

 

Chili con Carne    serves 6

  • 12 dried guajillo chiles, split lengthwise, seeds removed
  • 1 or 2 dried chipotle chiles (or canned chipotles in adobo)
  • 6 garlic cloves, skin on
  • 3 tablespoons lard or cold pressed peanut oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano (Mexican if available) 
  • 4 vine ripe tomatoes (or canned Italian plum tomatoes)
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon pure ground red chile powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt + more to taste
  • 1 quart beef or chicken stock + more as needed, preheated
  • 2 cups cooked beans (pinto, kidney, or black)
  • salsa fresca
  • crema or sour cream 
  • warm corn and flour tortillas

Warm a heavy bottom skillet over medium heat. Place the guahillo chiles in the skillet. Using a spatula press the chiles against the bottom of he pan. Let them toast for a minute or so and then flip them over, again pressing them against the bottom of the skillet and toasting another minute. Remove them and set them aside to cool briefly. Then remove the stems, tear the chiles into pieces, and place them in a sauce pan. Add the whole dried chipotle chiles and add just enough water to cover all the chiles and place the pan over low heat. Bring to a low simmer and cook until the chiles are soft and pliable, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool. Remove the stems from the chipotle chiles and transfer all the chiles to a blender jar and add enough cooking liquid to cover. Reserve the remaining cooking liquid to use later as needed,

Using the same skillet toast the unpeeled garlic cloves until they are lightly colored on all sides. Remove them and set them aside to cool. Then peel off the skin, mince the garlic, and set aside.

Add 1  tablespoons lard or oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot add the onions and saute until they are soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, ground cumin, and oregano and saute another couple of minute. Then transfer the contents of the pan to the blender jar.

Add 1  tablespoons of the lard or oil to the same skillet set over medium heat. When hot add the tomatoes (fresh or canned) and fry them until they are soft and lightly caramelized. Break them up and continue to cook until very soft. Then transfer them to the blender jar including the juices.

Add enough reserved chile liquid to to fill the blender jar to about half full. Begin pulsing until the ingredients are broken down and then increase the speed to high until the mixture is very smooth. If it is very thick thin with the remaining reserved chile liquid or stock.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of lard or oil in a soup or stock pot set over medium heat. When hot add the ground beef and cook until the meat is evenly browned, stirring from time to time. Add the clove, bay leaves, cocoa powder, red chile powder, and salt. Stir until well combined. Then pour in the hot stock and stir. When the contents reach a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
Add the beans and continue to cook another 30 minutes. The consistency of the chili should be very thick, but add a little stock to thin it out a bit if needed. Taste and add additional salt to taste. Skim off excess fat floating on the surface of the chili and discard.

At this point the chili is ready to serve. Otherwise transfer the chili to containers and cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating or freezing.

Serving:

This chili is so rich and flavorsome it needs very little embellishment other than a dollop of sala fresca and a swirl of sour cream or crema with each serving. Be sure to have a basket full of warm corn and flour tortillas and a bowl of salasa fresca placed on the table.

Crema is a Mexican sour cream that you can make by simply stirring a small amount of whole milk into a bowl of sour cream. 

Buen provecho!

Beef Barbacoa

Beef Barbacoa

 

Watching Christina Martinez making barbacoa in her South Philly Barbacoa restaurant (Chef’s Table, Se 5 Eps 1, Netflix) was, for me, the next best thing to being back in Mexico where food celebrates the very heart and soul of the country and its people.

Barbacoa originates from the central plains east of Mexico City where traditionally a lamb or a goat is slowly steamed in a deep pit lined with rocks preheated by a wood fire. The meat is marinated and wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and steamed underground overnight. Cooking a barbacoa in Mexico is all about having a special meal for large family gatherings on weekends and for special holidays and fiestas.

Beef Barbacoa

Beef Barbacoa

A deeply flavored succulent Barbacoa is built around using a variety of locally grown sun dried chiles, traditional herbs and spices, and a seasoned cook’s attention to the nuances of slow cookery and taste. Most Ingredients can be found in Mexican shops and markets, in some super markets, or online. Once you have your sourcing resolved, you will find yourself making barbacoa on a regular basis. This is the kind of authentic Mexican food everyone loves to eat!

That said, home cooks can replicate a traditional barbacoa with a few adaptations in their own kitchen oven. No pit required.

I would suggest using beef or pork in lieu of lamb or goat unless you and your friends and family are seasoned regional Mexican food enthusiasts. Goat in particular is definitely an acquired taste and best cooked outside.

Making a barbacoa requires both time and effort, but you will will be abundantly rewarded with a truly authentic taste of Mexico. If time is a real issue you may want to speed up the cooking time using a pressure cooker or instant pot. Another tip, barbacoa freezes beautifully so you may want to double or triple the recipe and have barbacoa nearly ready on demand.

Beef Barbacoa   serves 6

Meat:

  • 2.2 pounds/ 1 kilo beef brisket or chuck roast (or pork shoulder) cut into 3 equal size pieces, trimming off excess fat and skin

Marinade:

  • juice of 1 orange 
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • ¼ cup cider or white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a non-reactive bowl just large enough to hold the meat. Stir the marinade and add the meat, pressing the meat firmly down into the marinade to cover.

Cover the bowl with cling film and marinate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Adobo Sauce:

  • 8 dried New Mexico Red or Mexican Guajillo chiles
  • 3 dried ancho chiles
  • 2 dried smoked chipotle chiles
  • 4 large garlic cloves, dry roasted and peeled
  • 1 small onion, peeled, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt or to taste

Heat a skillet over medium heat. When hot place some of the dried chiles in the skillet without crowding. Using a spatula, press the chiles against the bottom of the skillet and toast them for 30 to 45 seconds. Turn the chiles and repeat, remove them, and set aside. This dry toasting intensifies the flavor of the chiles.

When the dry toasted chiles are cool enough to handle remove the stems, slit them open lengthwise, remove all the seeds and discard. Then tear the chiles into pieces and place them in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover and bring the pot to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes and then set aside to cool. Drain the chiles, discard the cooking water, and set the chiles aside.

Using a blender, add the prepared softened dried chiles, sauteed onions, cumin, marjoram, black pepper, clove, sugar, cider vinegar, and salt. Blend all the ingredients together, scraping down the sides of the blender jar as needed, adding water as needed, until the sauce is very smooth. This may take several minutes.

Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and, using a silicon spatula, press the pureed sauce through the strainer until all the liquid has been extracted. Be sure to scrape off the residual sauce on the underside of the mesh strainer into the sauce. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed.

Transfer the adobo sauce to a container, cover, and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 275 F/  135 C

For roasting/steaming:

  • 1 small onion, peeled, quartered and separated
  • 4 garlic cloves peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 6 whole cloves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tomato blanched, skin removed and quartered, core removed
  • 2 jalapeno or fresh red chiles, quartered and seeds removed

Select a Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid or a roasting pan. Place a shallow rack in the bottom of the pan of choice.

Remove the meat from the marinade and place it on the rack in the pan and add the marinade. Add  just enough water to the pan to raise the level of liquid in the pan to about half way up the side of the meat.

Distribute the onions over the meat and tuck in garlic, bay leaves, and cloves. Season with salt and pepper, and top with tomatoes and jalapeno slices.

Cover the pan with a lid or tightly secured foil and transfer to the oven. Set the timer for 4 hours. Then check to see if there is  sufficient liquid in the pan. If not replenish as needed. Repeat this every 2 hour until the beef is very tender and easily separated with a fork. Total cooking time will be between 7 and 9 hours. The longer the cooking time the more tender and flavorful the meat!

Once the meat is fully cooked set it aside covered until you are ready to serve.

Before serving you will want to remove the excess rendered fat gathered on top of the pan juices. Discard the fat or save for another purpose, like frying beans.

Before serving pull the beef apart using and reheat the reserved adobo sauce. The adobo should be the consistency of cream. If needed thin with pan juices. Spoon some adobo sauce over the pulled meat and serve the remaining adobo sauce in a bowl on the tables.

Serving:

  • corn and flour tortillas, warmed in a hot dry skillet (or comal, pictured) 
  • Salsa fresca  
  • salsa verde
  • quesso fresca or mild feta

Place the Barbacoa in the cooking pan on the  table along with corn and flour tortillas. Set out salsa and the quesso fresca for those who want to make barbacoa tacos.

 


Thai Tamarind Baby Back Pork Ribs

Thai Tamarind Baby Back Pork Ribs

 

Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crispy, sticky, tender succulent, and aromatic….

These Thai baby back ribs explode with all the elements that make Thai food so popular the world over.

Tamarind Pod

Tamarind Pod

Tamarind? The tamarind tree originates from Africa, but now found across the tropics including South and Southeast Asia. India is now the largest producer of tamarind.  Tamarind is used in many Thai dishes and available fresh or in paste form. Here in Thailand tamarind is available in fresh clusters of pods or in blocks of the sticky contents of the  pods that include the seeds.  The flesh and seeds from the pods are boiled until vary soft. The seeds are then removed and sticky flesh is passed through a fine mesh strainer. The resulting tamarind paste has a unique tart, sweet, and slightly fruity flavor.

 

Tamarind Paste

Tamarind Paste

The methods used for this recipe are adapted for the home kitchen. Some of the ingredients may be somewhat unfamiliar, but most can be found in Asian markets or in the Asian foods section of you local supermarket.

Keep in mind that cooking is always an adventure! Discovering new and unfamiliar ingredients and flavors are all part of the fun and open up new windows of possibilities. Tamarind is a subtle flavor enhancer you will find yourself using  again and again when cooking Thai or other Asian dishes. 

 

 

Thai Tamarind Baby Back Pork Ribs    Serves 4 to 6

Ribs:

  • 1 kilo/ 2.2 pounds baby back pork ribs

Separate the ribs and remove the silver skin membrane  from the underside of each rib using a very sharp knife. Rinse the ribs and pat dry with paper towels, and transfer the ribs to a bowl.

Seasoning rub:

  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon back peppercorns 
  • 1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds

Place all the rub ingredients in a spice mill and pulse until finely ground.

Then sprinkle the seasoning rub over the ribs. Using your hands, rub the seasonings evenly over all the ribs. Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside.

Basting sauce: makes 1 ½ cups

  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely grated
  • 2 inch knob ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 medium size shallot, finely minced
  • 1 bunch of coriander, leaves and roots chopped
  • ¼ cup light soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoon dark sweet soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 4 tablespoons tamarind paste (available at Asian markets)
  • 3 tablespoons palm sugar or light brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons rum or brandy
  • ½ teaspoon red Thai chile powder, or ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon cold pressed peanut oil
  • 6 kaffir lime leaves, fresh or frozen (optional)

Using a mini processor or mortar and pestle, combine the grated garlic, grated ginger, minced shallot, and coriander leaves and roots and pulse or grind into a coarse paste.

Transfer the paste to a non reactive bowl. Add the soy sauce, sweet dark soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind paste, palm sugar (or light brown sugar), rum or brandy, Thai chile powder, and the peanut oil and mix until well combined.

Select a rectangular baking pan and fit the pan with a shallow baking rack. Lightly oil the bottom of the pan as well as the rack.

Preheat the oven to 325 f/170 c

Place the seasoned ribs on the rack, bone side down and flesh side upward in a single layer, tucking the kaffir lime leaves here and there between ribs. Pour about an inch of water into the baking pan, generously brush the ribs with the basting sauce, seal the pan tightly with foil, and transfer to the preheated oven.

hai Tamarind Baby Back Pork Ribs

Thai Tamarind Baby Back Pork Ribs

Total cooking time will be about 1 ½ to 2 hours. At 20 minute intervals brush the ribs with more basting sauce. Add water to the bottom of the pan if needed, re-seal the pan, and return the pan to the oven front to back to insure even cooking.

After 1 hour check the meat for tenderness. The finished meat should be very soft, but just short of falling off the bone. So continue checking and roasting the meat until tender as described.

Once the meat is sufficiently tender you want to raise the heat to 400 F/ 200 c.

Remove the foil and brush the ribs generously with more basting sauce. Pour the remaining basting sauce into the bottom of the pan and add more water as needed. Move the oven rack to the upper position, return the ribs to the oven uncovered and cook until the tops of the ribs are deeply colored, sizzling, and crisp on the top surface.

Promptly remove the pan from the oven and, using tongs, transfer the ribs to a platter and cover lightly with foil. Remove the roasting rack and skim the fat off the surface of the pan juices and pour the pan juices through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan.

Place the saucepan over medium flame, bring to a boil, and if the juices are looking very thin boil until reduced to the consistency of a thin sauce.

Alternatively, mix a couple of teaspoons of corn starch mixed with an equal part of cold water, and stir it into the simmering pan juices while stirring until the sauce thickens to a thin sauce.

Dipping sauce: 

  • 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce 
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon finely sliced green onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely sliced coriander leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red hot chile flakes

Place all of the ingredients in a small bowl and stir. Chill until ready to serve.

Serving:

Serve the ribs on individual plates or on a large platter. Drizzle some pan juices over the ribs and, if serving on individual plates, add a small pool of pan sauce to each plate, or place a bowl of pan juices on the table.

Serve with a bowl of the tamarind dipping sauce and Thai jasmine rice as pictured.

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