Archive for ‘Mexican food’

October 18th, 2011

One leftover meat, two dishes

You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto;
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let’s call the whole thing off.

Actually, my picky husband probably wouldn’t eat tomahtos either…

Our eating life was easier when we were dating, because I cooked what he liked–American comfort food.  He loved my cooking, which made me happy, of course, but as soon as I got home, I couldn’t wait to taste a few of my favorites from the world of Asian cuisine.  When dating turned into ‘living together, it became obvious that I would have to find a way to make food that both of us could enjoy without either one of us having to sacrifice.  They say necessity is the mother of invention, and creating a menu for two picky eaters that wouldn’t take up all of my time, turned out to be a mother of a task to perform. 

Here’s an example of how a few variations can satisfy two hungry lunchers using the same main ingredients; meat, lettuce, and rice.  On the left, with an egg, is MY lunch: a beef salad bowl with rice.  To create the flavor I love, but my husband will probably hate, I seasoned the meat with soy sauce, garlic and Sriracha.  For his sensitive palate,  on the right, you’ll find the same ingredients rolled into a familiar and comfortable burrito, with beans, salsa and sour cream on top.

How much extra time did it take for me to make two meals instead of only one?  Probably an extra three minutes.  Isn’t it worth 180 measly seconds to enjoy a rare lunch together where both parties are happy with their meals?

August 27th, 2011

The day I hosted my first taco party

All I needed was an excuse.  For what, you ask?  To make fish tacos as good as the ones that my fish-phobic husband ate multiple times a day during our trip to Hawaii.  Sure, the beautiful sunset probably had something to do with it, but when there’s any kind of momentum in the ongoing quest to turn my husband into a seafood lover, I’m going to do what I can.  Anything to help achieve my dream of enjoying seafood (and Asian food) with him everyday (I can already sense his fear as he reads this post).

How did I get fish back on his plate on the mainland?  Having our niece and nephew in town from Florida was the perfect excuse for a family meal.  I volunteered to cook as my menu was already planned out in my head–fish tacos.  Of course, I was going to make beef and chicken options as well, but if I could duplicate the taste of the fish tacos he ate on the big island, it would be easier to introduce more seafood into his diet later.  Now you have to understand, a taco ‘party’ is a pretty ambitious move for a girl who just discovered soft tacos in the first place, but when it comes to cooking, I have no fear.  Sure I had rookie questions, like: ‘Do I heat up the store bought tortillas first?’ but I wasn’t going to let those deter me from completing my quest.  As far as toppings go, my plan was to make regular tomato salsa, mother-in-law’s green sauce, and a spicy mayo just for the fish.  Once the actual cooking began, the chicken and steak were the easiest to prepare; just marinate and grill. Preparing the perfect fish taco, however, would require a bit more effort, starting with the shopping!

Finding the perfect kind of fresh fish would be a battle.  Mahi mahi is the ideal choice, as it’s a meaty white fish, whose texture is similar to that of swordfish, but where could I find it?  I have lots of childhood memories of my mother buying fish, and I could hear her advice in the back of my mind.  She NEVER bought fish from the supermarket, but rather, preferred the fish market.  Her philosophy was, “The fewer the middlemen, the fresher the product.”  But I don’t live in Tokyo anymore… This is Los Angeles, where there aren’t fish markets in every neighborhood.  Where could I find fresh mahi mahi without having to wake up at 4am and drive down to the docks?  Luckily, I happened to remember
Santa Monica Seafood, one of the few places in this town where you can find a good variety of fresh fish.

With fresh fish, spicy salsas and warm tortillas, everything was in place.  How did it go?  Well, if the reaction of picky teenagers is any indication, it went pretty well, as I saw them return more than once to assemble seconds, thirds and even fourths!  But the big test was watching my husband as he carefully looked over his three meat choices.  Would he go for the tried and true options of chicken and steak, or would he continue to expand his horizons?  He chose the fish!  Mission accomplished! As you can imagine, there is no one happier than I am…with the exception of you, with whom I’m now going to share the recipe.  And yes, if you’re wondering…you should heat the tortillas before serving.

August 25th, 2011

The day I became a fan of tacos

Growing up in Japan, when I heard the word ‘taco’, I knew a good meal was coming.  No, it’s not what you’re thinking, because sadly, there’s no good Mexican place in Tokyo.  When a Japanese diner hears the Japanese word ‘taco’, he or she knows they’re not going to be served a Mexican classic, but instead, about to enjoy…octopus, tako.   Most Japanese people wouldn’t know what a Mexican taco even looks like.  I, however, was different. Thanks to a fancy grocery store that sold imported luxury items, I was familiar with the western version, having once seen a festive yellow box with some mysteriously shaped item inside.  In the dark recesses of my mind, I wondered what this taco thing was all about.  Can you imagine my excitement when I finally got my hands around a real taco?  It was my turn, as now I was invited to this party of ground beef, shredded lettuce, and salsa.
Wouldn’t a place with the word ‘taco’ in its name, be the perfect restaurant to sample this Mexican delight?  One of my college friends believed that theory and convinced me that my ‘introduction’ to tacos, be at Taco Bell.  Unfortunately, the excitement transformed into annoyance upon my first bite.  The sensation to hit my lips was salty, and the first chew led to crumble.  I guess it happens to all rookie taco eaters at least once in their lifetimes — taco shell shatter.  After one bite, my mighty taco had turned into a messy taco salad.  The experience was so disappointing, that it derailed any curiosity I might have had about Mexican food for years to come. Until…

…about 10 years ago, I was sent on assignment to Los Angeles to study the culture of…low riders.  Looking back, maybe they just wanted me killed?  Anyway, I was happy that finally, my anthropology degree would pay off!   During our lunch break, one of the coordinators took me to a Mexican place for lunch; an unassuming little taco stand in some industrial area of East Los Angeles that was equipped with metal bars that separated customers from cashier.  In addition to that comforting scene, I noticed that all the menus were in Spanish.  Feeling awkward, I was about to ask him if we could change our lunch plan.  Surely there must be a sushi place somewhere nearby, right?  Well, somehow we found the only block in Los Angeles without one.  At that point, I would’ve settled for even a Yoshinoya, but all I could see around me were car repair shops and factories.  ‘Ok’, I though, I would just have to dig in my heels and try to enjoy the experience.

Finally, the food came.  I was shocked.  I ordered tacos but there were no shatter-prone yellow shells.  Instead, I found flour tortillas wrapped around delicious smelling grilled meat.  I was then led to the topping bar, where before my eyes, lay salsas the color of the rainbow, alongside cilantro and onion.  This time, my first bite was a colorful explosion of flavors with a spicy kick.  And more important, thanks to the soft tortilla…no crumble!  This experience left me a couple of questions.  Why there’re two pieces of tortillas come as one taco?   How will I find my way back to this taco stand my own?

August 19th, 2011

Friday night munchies

I know you’ve been there.  It was Friday night, 10:45pm, and I had a certain yearning.  I walked over to my husband, seductively, and whispered in his ear, “I want something…deep fried.”

While he was most likely disappointed, fried food is still a pretty close second. Why this craving?   Thinking back, I blame the Man Vs. Food episode I watched yesterday, where ‘Man’ was eating heart-clogging-ly disgusting state fair food. Like everyone else, I understand that fried food is terrible for you so I do my best to stay away, but I’m only human.  French fries and tempura (my national dish) are just too tasty, which coincidentally, is the same explanation my Jewish husband gives me, when I see him eating bacon.

Of the delicious variety of fried goodies available to Americans, why was I particularly craving a chimichanga?  And more importantly, why is this particular dish so hard to find?  Don’t all Mexican restaurants have a deep fryers and burritos in the same kitchen?  With most of the restaurants nearby, either closed, or non-chimichanga-carrying, we started to console ourselves, with, “At least we saved a lot of calories!”  While it’s a nice thought, it’s no chimichanga.  I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I began roaming around the kitchen to see if there was something I could put together to satisfy my craving.  Right there in front of me were seasonal peaches and celery, but those healthy snacks were for another day.  I had to dig deeper.  Finally, with nowhere else to go, at the bottom of the freezer, I found a Trader Joe’s frozen burrito that my husband forgot about, roughly 3 months ago.  I was halfway there, right?  I’m pretty handy in the kitchen; I could fry a burrito.

The Trader Joe’s 99% Fat Free Bean & Rice Burrito was my husband’s go-to dinner of choice back in his bachelor days.  He had graduated from the regular supermarket to T.J.’s, but still couldn’t leave behind the foods of his youth.  When we were dating, there was a tower of frozen burrito packages, standing watch, in his freezer.  He explained that they didn’t always have them, so he had to stock up.   When we got married, the tower shrank into a duplex, then into a shed, and finally, into nothingness.  I know he loves them, but I’d just rather not eat store bought, frozen food when twice a week, we could shop at farmers markets near us, and cook with fresh ingredients.  When I was out of town for a few days, he became the food shopper.  I think you know what happened.  I got home. I opened the freezer.  You guessed it.  They were back.  It was the return of The Trader Joe’s 99% Fat Free Bean & Rice Burrito.

But that Friday night, craving chimichangas, with no late night restaurant options, I not only absolved my husband of his burrito buying sins, but nominated him for sainthood, as now, I had the foundation for my deep fried (almost) midnight snack.

Frying it in olive oil, I managed to get that perfect, brown flaky crust.  Believe it or not, it was pretty good.  Nicely done, Joe.  While my McGuyver-ed chimichanga was satisfying, my quest is far from over.  Only a real, restaurant chimichanga will satisfy my current obsession.

The question remains: Why don’t more places have this ‘traditional’ Mexican dish?  They have the technology and the ingredients.  Maybe for the same reason I can’t get a grilled cheese sandwich at McDonald’s.  Ooh, a grilled cheese sandwich… be right back…

August 1st, 2011

Mexican rice

As a Japanese person who only grew up with one kind of rice, short grain Japonica, it was an eye opening experience to see so many other varieties from around the world. I quickly learned that rice is not interchangeable.  For example, Indian rice is completely different from Chinese rice.  And while I love Japanese rice the most, I sadly learned that it doesn’t go well with Thai curry. As I’ve slowly begun to acquire a taste for Mexican food, I have to add another variety of rice to my plate.  Until recently, my only opinion of rice from south of the border was that it looked orange and had a saltier taste than I was used to.  Who would have thought a single visit to a Mexican restaurant in a questionable part of town would completely change my mind on the subject.

Salsa and Beer in Los Angeles is that restaurant.  Like most Mexican places, the menu includes  the traditional staples, like tacos, fajitas, and chimichangas, served in big portions with not so big prices. Thought the food is great, the service is sometimes slow, which isn’t a bad thing, as their large menu takes a good half an hour to get through.  On our first visit, I finally got to understand what my husband went through in Japan, as I asked him what practically every dish was on the menu.  I’m still not fluent in Mexican food, but luckily for my husband, I know exactly what I want: a side order of Mexican rice (which comes on a huge entree plate) and a green salad.  When I place my order, I know deep down that the server is really thinking, “Just because you’re Asian, you don’t have to order rice you know…we have lots of good food!” Maybe that’s the reason I feel compelled to mention each time that, “you have the BEST Mexican rice!”

My usual complaint regarding Mexican rice is the texture.  For some reason, it always reminded me of the prune-like fingers you get after staying in the bathtub too long. On a personal note, I never was a big fan of peas in a rice dish either, so I had my reservations on that first visit. But from the first taste of Salsa and Beer’s rice, I had to stop and think, what makes this rice so delicious?  I knew it wasn’t just me wondering that, because even my rice hating husband was cleaning his plate. What makes it so special? It looks perfectly cooked because it is perfectly cooked.  By itself, it’s a tiny bit salty, but when mixed with green salad and creamy habenero salsa, it becomes a savory explosion.  I’m so obsessed with this rice, I literally want to eat it every day.  And, as usual, I’ve been trying to duplicate this dish.  Have I been successful in finding the secret to its great taste? That’s a story for another day.

July 22nd, 2011

Dora’s enchiladas

Until recently, the only Mexican dishes I knew were burritos and tacos.  Whenever I would see a commercial for Mexican fast food on TV (and there are a lot in Los Angeles), I’d ask my husband “What is a quesadilla?” “What are flautas?” “What’s the difference between a chalupa and a tostada?”  By now, I’ve probably asked at least 3 times about each dish.  They’re hard to tell apart for someone who hasn’t grown up with them since their descriptions seem pretty much the same on the surface.  But, I was soon to learn about one Mexican dish, intimately.

One day, we were at my sister-in-law’s house eating a buffet style dinner. My husband pointed at one of the dishes on the counter and told me “That’s an enchilada.”  Although I had to say, “Tell me again what an enchilada is?” I tried it and LOVED it!   It was light, moist, and little spicy with a very unique flavor.  It wasn’t anything like my pre-conceived image of  Mexican food, which to me, seemed dense from beans, cheese, and sour cream, drenched in heavy sauces.

One of my hobbies is to try to duplicate restaurant dishes that I enjoy.  My husband always jokes that he can see the wheels turning in my brain as I take each bite, analyzing, rating and comparing flavors and textures.  With that in mind, I think you can understand what was coming next… I HAD to duplicate that enchilada.  For starters, the ingredients: They weren’t overwhelming in number, just chicken, sour cream, tortillas and my mother-in-law’s green sauce,  however the recipe turned out to be more complex than I had imagined, as I learned after my first few unsuccessful attempts. What went wrong? Well, I managed to capture the lightness, but for some reason, not the moistness.

I had to go to the expert, my mother-in-law, for advice.  It turns out that the fantastic flavor of the dish comes from not just adding the green sauce externally, but internally as well.  She told me I needed to soak the tortillas in the green sauce to give the dish that extra bit of flavor.  Thanks to that tip, I finally have a perfectly light and moist green chicken enchilada recipe, in my arsenal, that wins my husband’s approval.  Even more importantly, I have taken one more step in the incredibly challenging quest of introducing Mexican flavors to a discriminating Japanese palate.

July 13th, 2011

Lina’s green sauce

My mother-in-law, Lina, makes the best salsa verde!  It is so good in fact, it was  one of the main reasons I began to change my opinion on Mexican food.  Like I have mentioned before, Mexican food had always been at the bottom of my list of cravings, but once I married my husband, it became a necessity to find a way to bring it into my life; he grew up with it, and more importantly, he loves it.  Also, living in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Mexican populations in America, why not expose myself to the culture?  Ongoing trial and error tastings have led me to a few fantastic foods.  Lina’s “green sauce”, as my husband calls it, is one of my favorite discoveries.I didn’t know anything about salsa or Mexican food before I came to America in the late 80’s.  This is how my (American) Mexican food knowledge progressed.  The first traditional Mexican ‘dish’ I was exposed to was tortilla chips; the building block of my newly discovered favorite snack, nachos.  These were not the good restaurant style nachos though, but rather their disgusting dorm cousin, made with microwaved cheese.  I remember being so excited to be a part of the nacho culture, that when I went home for the summer, I brought a jar of Tostitos salsa with me so that my Japanese friends could taste a part of what they were missing.  Their response, “Interesting…” Until about 5 years ago, I thought all salsa was red and came in a jar.  Now, thanks to my mother-in-law, my world has expanded, and I can make both red AND green salsa.

The main ingredients in Lina’s green sauce are tomatillos–lots of them.  I had never eaten a tomatillo, so when I first tried this sauce, it was a multi-sensory experience.  Visually, it is a beautiful green color, and the cilantro gives it a fresh from the garden aroma.  And the taste–Tomatillos retain their crunchness, so a little heat and garlic turns them almost into a spicy soup.  As a matter of fact, my first few times trying it, I ate a half bowl of pure sauce, like soup, with nothing in it, just trying to figure out what made it so good.  When Lina makes her sauce, it’s usually in a big batch, and we are always lucky enough to get one or two Tupperware containers full.  Even though it’s good with pretty much everything, my husband uses it almost exclusively on eggs; replacing his normal ketchup.  As for me, I still like eating it as a soup.  Lina giving me her recipe was a delicious way of welcoming me into the family!  Thanks Lina!

June 13th, 2011

Mexican food

They are big, fatty, and one dimensionally flavored.  These are the ingredients to pretty much every Mexican dish:  Meat, cheese, beans, rice, salsa, sauce, and tortilla & tortilla chips.  Sure each item has them in different combinations, but still not much variety.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the cuisine until about 6 months ago.  What changed?   Probably a combination of mother-in-law’s fabulous salsa, Dora’s enchiladas and compromises.

Let’s talk about compromises.  Upon getting married, my worldy palate (read: variety) became limited  to the “humorously picky” description my husband gives to his food preferences. Born and raised in Los Angeles, it is almost impossible to find that one Mexican dish or corner place that isn’t amazing (for him). Being easy, cheap and quick (the food, not my husband) it has become kind of fun trying to try them all.  My latest obsession, finding the best tamale in town.  While the search continues, here is a great find.

Hugo’s Tacos has healthier versions of Mexican foods and a cool half price burrito night on Wednesdays (after 7PM–Its added entertainment to watch patrons whisper the secret word to the cashier as if they’re James Bond, trying to save the world, instead of some hipster just saving a couple of bucks on a burrito from a word they read on their Twitter feed).  There are many choices, from salsas, to proteins (Including tofu–it’s L.A.) to style: tacos, burrito, bowl, etc.  So I risk the curious looks by choosing NOT to add sour cream, cheese, and beans to my dish and avoiding a huge tortilla.  It may not be healthy, but it’s the illusion of being healthy!

Since both Japanese and Mexican diets depend on rice and beans, I’ve always wondered why Mexican food is not popular in Japan.  There are many, many KFCs, but no Taco Bells in Japan.  I don’t think my parents (both in mid 60s) in Tokyo have ever eaten Mexican food.