Real Deal Queso

Saw a social media post by a friend regarding queso, that incredibly delicious, ephemeral joy from points south. Now, this gal is a Fort Worth, (AKA Fo’t Wuth, Cowtown), born and bred Texan, a budding food professional, and she knows what she likes. She’s an unabashed advocate of the ‘there’s only two ingredients that go into real queso,’ school. Frankly, I’m not, although I’ll admit, I’ll eat the hell out of a fresh batch of that stuff when it’s offered, ‘cause we are gathered here today to talk about queso – Real deal queso.

Cheese sauces are ubiquitous in every country that makes and eats cheese. It’s a natural progression to think about changing the texture of something you love, and heat is one of the great ways to do just that – It also pretty much requires one to eat the results right away, which doesn’t suck as a concept, either.

Queso has Mexican roots, and the common saw about this dish is that it comes strictly from northern Mexico, just under the border with Los Estados Unidos – the true roots are deeper and broader than that. That fact also belies the mistaken belief that ‘real’ queso is made with Velveeta or an analog thereof – It stems from far more honorable cheeses – real cheeses – so, sorry Tejas – It just ain’t so.

In fact, many joints in Texas, either Tex-Mex or regional authentic, have long gotten away from using that pasteurized processed cheese food, (AKA, substances engaged in cheese-like activity), or never used it for their queso in the first place, thank the gods. My fave authentic place in Fort Worth, Benito’s, in the hospital district, has always used real Mexican cheese in their stunningly delicious queso flameado, (more about that version in a bit.)

Now, that version made with Velveeta? There are actually a couple derivations of that, too. One school likes the cheese-like stuff with salsa mixed in, while the purists insist it’s Velveeta with Rotel canned tomato and green chile blend. The problem with this is, once again, that the cheese isn’t really cheese at all – It’s made from, and I quote – Milk, Water, Whey, Milk Protein Concentrate, Milkfat, Whey Protein Concentrate, Sodium Phosphate, Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Calcium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Alginate, Enzymes, Apocarotenal, Annatto, Cheese Culture. There’s a reason it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, has a seven week shelf life, and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated after it’s been opened – Get the picture? The other issue is the Rotel stuff – Now, I like their products, but with anything canned, you need a long, slow cooking process to get that metallic taste out of the picture, and queso is not that kind of vehicle. So, that said, on to the real deal.

Think of Queso as a vehicle for good things
Think of Queso as a vehicle for good things

Queso, (sometimes chile con queso – literally chiles with cheese), speaks to what rightfully should be in the mix. Of course there are variants, as there should be, from queso flameado, to fundido, and choriqueso, to a myriad of one offs – Those will depend on where they’re made and who the chef is, of course. As with all signature dishes, everyone makes one, and theirs is the best, (usually, they’re right). Queso is simply a vehicle for whatever combination tastes good to you.

It is true that the most popular version found in El Norté hailed originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, home to its namesake cheese. Queso Chihuahua is a fairly firm, pale yellow, cows milk cheese, with a rich, buttery flavor. It’s also known as queso menonita, after the Mennonite communities established there in the 19th century – They’re the folks that introduced the stuff. It’s also known as queso campresino, which speaks to the production method – very much like that used to make cheddar, and in fact, queso chihuahua is considered a member of cheddar family. Like that famous cousin, this stuff starts out mild, then develops notable sharpness and depth of character with age – It also melts really well, which makes it a great cheese for queso sauce, si? This also explains why good, fresh cheddar makes great queso and is not, as some purists would claim, a blasphemous choice for the dish.

No, your Queso needn’t be white to be good, so long as you use great cheese.
No, your Queso needn’t be white to be good, so long as you use great cheese.

That said, great Mexican cheeses are far more available than they used to be, and if you’ve never tried them, you should – There are several that are go to’s for queso. These are one of the very few pleasant products of the Spanish presence in Mexico, as the locals didn’t have anything to do with dairy prior to the invasion. Great cheese is now a long standing tradition down there, with many stellar examples of the art – They’re ranked in the top ten of world production and consumption. Mexican Manchego, unlike its sheeps milk Spanish cousin, is made from cows milk. It has a distinct, nutty taste and melts well. Queso Oaxaca is a soft, mild white string cheese – It’s also a good melter. There’s also Asadero, a semi-soft, creamy cheese that comes from Chihuahua that’s similar to Monterrey Jack. Some folks mistakenly call this queso quesadilla, which will generally get you laughed at down in Mexico. There are many, many more small batch, one off and regional cheeses in Mexico, some of which have laws protecting the use of their names, like Cotija and queso de bola from Chiapas. Sadly, you’re unlikely to find most of them up here.

Any and all of those will make a fine queso, which speaks to the fact that your version need not be made from a single cheese. Like great mac and cheese, a blend will provide a deeper and more complex taste profile, which is rarely a bad thing. For that matter, you needn’t go to and buy cheese specifically to make queso – It’s often made to use up what’s in the pantry and ready to go. Cheddar, Jack, Swiss, Colby, whatever you’ve got will do just fine. Next time you’re shopping, check out the Mexican varieties for something special.

One thing you’ll see on a lot of menus is the claim that they use only ‘white cheese’ for their queso, without much elaboration past that, unless you ask. The primary reason for this, frankly, is to differentiate themselves from the velveeta versions – Good to know when you’re out for a nosh. In any case, it’s not necessary to only use white cheese when you make it at home – yellow cheddar will not get you in trouble with the queso policia. Hell, I’ve used leftover Brie in the mix and been very pleased with the results.

Now, those famous derivations, queso fundido, choriqueso, and queso flameado? The differences between the them are this – The first two are melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo, and the last one is melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo set on fire – Yep, that’s pretty much it. All are fundamentally the same, though again, every place has a mix of their own, adding onion, garlic, tomato, sweet peppers, and various spices, and yeah, in a good place like Benito’s, the flameado is done table side, flambéed right there as you watch and cheer.

When done correctly, the cheese is prepared separately from the chiles, chorizo, and any additional spices, and then combined right before the dish is served, just like Benito’s does it. Flameado is, of course, flambéed with tequila that has been briefly warmed on a stove top to make it that much more flammable. When it’s prepared at table, a long careful pour of the flaming, melted cheese into the other ingredients makes for quite a show, but please – As the saying goes, don’t try this at home if you’ve already put a dent in the tequila bottle.

Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas
Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas

Here’s our go to version. As with all things recipe, do what you like. You do not need chorizo if you don’t want the full Monty, but done up like this, it’s not an appetizer, it’s a meal. Again, if you don’t have the Mexican cheeses, just use a blend of what you do have in the way of melting cheeses – It’ll be just fine.

Queso de UrbanMonique

1/2 Cup Chihuahua, Asadero, or Oaxaca Cheese
1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar
1/4 Cup Monterrey Jack
1/4 Pound fresh Chorizo
4-6 Hatch Chiles (Anaheim’s will do)
2-4 Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles
1/2 Sweet Onion
1 Tomato
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
6-8 stems fresh Cilantro
2 Ounces Tequila (No rotgut)
1 Ounce Avocado Oil
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper

Consider frying up fresh tortilla chips with a great batch of Queso
Consider frying up fresh tortilla chips with a great batch of Queso

Fresh tortillas and tortilla chips
Fresh Pico de Gallo or Salsa

If you like your tortillas or chips warm, preheat oven to 200° F, wrap them in foil, and place on a middle rack.

Grate all cheeses and blend thoroughly.

Rinse, stem, seed, devein, and dice all chiles.

Peel, trim and dice the onion.

Peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Rinse, trim and dice the tomato.

Rinse and mince the cilantro.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the chorizo, about 3-5 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with clean paper towel and set aside.

Deglaze the hot pan with the tequila, scraping up all the dark bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the oil to the hot pan, and when heated through, add onion and chiles – Sauté until chiles soften and onion starts to turn translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, 1-2 minutes.

Add the tomato, cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to incorporate. Cook until those ingredients are heated through, about another 2-3 minutes.

Remove the sautéed veggie blend to the plate with the chorizo. Remove the pan from heat, wipe any excess oil from it, then return drained chorizo and veggies to the pan to stay warm.

Remove tortillas and/or chips from oven and set aside.

Preheat oven to broil and set a rack in a slot that leaves about 6” from the broiler element.

Place cheese in an 8” x 8” oven proof casserole or baking pan. Broil until the cheese is completely melted, bubbling, and starting to brown, about 4-6 minutes.

Bring cheese pan to the table and set on a trivet or hot pad. Carefully add veggie and chorizo blend to the cheese and stir to incorporate.

Scarf it all down with icy cold Mexican beer.

Giardiniera – The King of Pickled Veggies

My day job involves managing a bakery cafe for Panera Bread. We had, for a long time, a huge sandwich called an Italian Combo – It was, frankly, completely pedestrian – cold cuts, cheese, veggies – been there, done that, t-shirt is an oil rag… I was personally thrilled when that lead weight was replaced with a really good version this fall – With wine salami, hot sopressa, aged provolone, house made basil mayo, and a nice layer of Giardiniera, the King of pickled veggies, on a fresh baked hoagie roll – that’s a damn good sandwich, indeed.

And that got me thinking about that giardiniera, (Jar-dhi-nare-uh), a pickled vegetable mix, either done up as bite sized pieces or a relish. Redolent of fresh veggies and good olive oil, wrapped around lip smacking brininess that rivals a great cornichon – This is something we all need to be making at home.

Pickling foods to preserve them hardens back thousands of years and crosses numerous boundaries – almost every society does and has employed it. Everything from veggies, to meat, fish, fruit, nuts, and even eggs can end up in the pickle jar, much to our advantage. Pickling not only helps preserve things through the dark months, it adds a vital zip to what can otherwise be a rather bland time of year.

Giardiniera hails from Italy, and means literally, ‘from the garden, (also called sottacetto, or ‘under vinegar.’) While variants come from all over the boot, the versions we’re most familiar with has southern roots, down where the mild Mediterranean climate fosters a wide variety of veggies, the best olive oil, and great sea salt. That’s where those colorful jars filled with cauliflower, carrot, olives, onions, peppers, and chiles hailed from.

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You’ll likely find jars of the bite sized version of giardiniera in your local grocery, with the fancy olives and other pickled goodies. While some of the commercial stuff is pretty good, none of it can match what you can make at home, and to top things off, it’s remarkably easy to do, (And frankly, the relish version of giardiniera is much more versatile, and rarely found in stores).

Seasoned with fresh herbs, maybe even touched with a little hot chile flake, giardiniera is fabulous on sandwiches, (including burgers and dogs), pizza, salads, and as a table condiment with more dishes than you can shake a stick at. Now is the time to be doing up a few batches of your own – it’s fairly traditional for giardiniera to be made in the fall, as a catch all for all those late season veggies we don’t want to lose to the first frost.

The American home of giardiniera is Chicago, where that famous Italian beef sandwich hails from. Slow roasted beef, cooked over its own jus, sliced thin and slapped onto a nice, dense roll, ladled with a generous spoon of giardiniera, a little jus, and eaten in the classic sloppy sandwich hunch – a little slice of heaven.

Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera
Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera

Making giardiniera is a real treat. Your first and foremost issue, naturally, is what to put into the mix. The blend I outlined earlier is generally recognized as the classic base mix, but pretty much anything goes, (I should note that peppers and chiles were not in the original Italian versions of the dish, as they didn’t show up in European cultivation until the 1700s.) firm veggies, like carrots, celeriac root, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus do well. Peppers and chiles will do well too, though really soft stuff like tomatoes tend to break down quickly.

Making giardiniera couldn’t be easier. While some recipes call for cooking or fermenting, (both processes are perfectly fine), the simplest version is, for my mind, best – Just brine your veggie mix for a day or two, until you reach the degrees of zip and bite that you like, and that’s it. You’ll find recipes that call for the mix to be stored in brine, oil, vinegar, and a simple vinaigrette – My money is in the latter option – that will provide a nice stable medium, and a great taste as well.

There are typically mild and spicy (AKA Hot) versions, and extensive regional variety, like the Chicago style that includes sport peppers and an accompanying degree of heat. Down south, the version that goes with a muffuletta sandwich is mild and heavier on the olives. Those are great, and worth your time to build, but really, look upon giardiniera as a launching pad for creativity – You really can’t go wrong if it’s made with stuff you love – For instance, I didn’t have celery when I made up the relish version, but I did have fresh celeriac root, and it turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

You can use any oil and vinegar you like for the base vinaigrette. Seasoning can be as easy as good salt, olive oil, and vinegar. When you feel like adding additional spices, be conservative in both number and ratio – The rule of three is a good thing here.

Unless you process your giardiniera in a hot water bath, keep in mind that this is basically a fridge pickle. If made carefully, and packed into sterilized glass jars, it will last a month or two refrigerated. Just keep in mind that they’re not shelf stable unless you go through the canning process. Accordingly, what we offer below are small batches that will make a couple of quart jars of finished product. There are cooked and fermented versions out there, and we’ll leave those for you to explore.

Giardiniera Relish

A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge
A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge

For the base mix

1 Green Bell Pepper
1 Red Pepper
1 small Sweet Onion
2-4 Jalapeño Chiles
1 medium Carrot
1 Stalk Celery
1/2 Cup Cauliflower florets
1/4 Cup Pickling Salt

For the final mix

1 Cup White Vinegar
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
6-8 large Green Olives
1 Clove Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Chile Flake
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse all produce thoroughly.

Stem, seed, and devein the peppers and chiles, (leave the veins in the jalapeños if you want more heat).

Cut all veggies for the base mix into a uniform fine dice, about 1/4″ pieces. It’s not important to be exact, just get everything about the same size and you’ll be fine.

Transfer the mix to a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Cover the mix with fresh, cold water with an inch or so to spare.

Add the pickling salt and mix with a slotted spoon until the salt is thoroughly dissolved.

Cover with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, take a spoon of the mix out, gently rinse it under cold water for a minute or so.

Test the degree of pickle and softness of the veggies. If you like what you’ve got, move on – If not, give it another day.
When you’re ready to prep the final mix –

Remove the base mix from the fridge and transfer to a single mesh strainer. Run cold water over and through the mix, using your hand to make sure that the salt solution is rinsed off.

fine dice the olives, peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Add all ingredients to a glass or stainless mixing bowl and stir with a slotted spoon to thoroughly incorporate.

Sanitize two quart mason jars either by boiling the jars, rings, and lids for 3-5 minutes in clean, fresh water, or running them through a cycle in your dishwasher.

Transfer the mix to the jars, and seal. Refrigerate for two days prior to use.

Giardiniera, bite size
Giardiniera, bite size

For the bite sized version, cut everything into roughly 1″ pieces, )or larger, depending on jar size and predilection), and process as per above. A bay leaf or two is a nice addition.

Cooking at the Gathering

So, a couple weeks ago, I didn’t post, because, as luck and joy would have it, I was 1600 miles from home, at my other home for a few precious days. Formally known as The Luthier Community Gathering, this is an annual event held in the north woods of Minnesota. Hosted by Grant Goltz and Christy Hohman at their incredibly eclectic and homey spread, this is several days of companionship, renewed and new friendships, music, incredible house made beer and ale, and of course, food.   

Over the years, I’ve become the official Chef de Gathering, and it is a joy of joys to do. Over the three days of the main event, we feed somewhere around 30 to 40 folks for dinner, and maybe 12 to 20 for breakfasts and lunches. While some folks bring a little of this and a little of that, Chris and I provide the mainstays, (and usually Monica, who couldn’t make the trip this year due to a new job). And rank has its privilege – I get my own incredibly cozy Chef apartment, and an incredible kitchen to work from.


 For such a big crowd, the process is incredibly easy. At some point, we’ll touch base and decide on theme, main ingredients, etc – it rarely takes more than a couple minutes. I say, “Hey Chris, what are we gonna build?” She fires off some options, inspiration takes hold, and off we go. 

 The real joy comes not only from feeding good friends in a great kitchen, but in the gathering of ingredients. Grant and Christy run a Community Supported Agriculture, (CSA), operation on their spread, so the variety and scope of produce is truly stunning, as you can see.  So, picking ingredients means just that; heading out on the trail with basket in hand, and coming back with the bounty. 

  
  
 This year marked the first truly amazing mushroom harvest, from logs inoculated and set up last season – Shiitakes, an almost embarrassing wealth of gorgeous, just picked beauties – I put them in everything I could think of, (and I did say ‘almost’).

  

  
Our mutual friends, John and Lissa Sumption, have a working CSA close by, (King’s Gardens), so literally anything we don’t have right on hand can be had with a phone call. During my visit, Mark, the very talented local butcher, stopped by and dropped off some goodies, for which he took produce in barter. The results speak for themselves.  

  
 Our recent piece on apples contains several of the recipes we did this year. Here’s the recipe for smoked Guacamole – It’s become a must-do for the event ever since we debuted it seven or eight years ago.


The Annual Gathering is open to any and all who love music, good friends, and good food. Here’s a video and a song that pretty well sums up the vibe. It’s held in August every year. This year, a dear friend from my wildfire fighting days, Nancy Swenson, made the trip out – First time we’d seen each other in thirty four years!

Tapenade

This morning, I woke up Jonesing for Tapenade. If, gods forbid, you’re unfamiliar, it’s a classic Provençal dish made with olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil, chopped finely or blended together into a paste.

It’s not only incredibly delicious, it’s silly easy to make and it stores well; this naturally invites one to make a couple varieties and keep them handy when you need a nosh. Just varying the olive in question is a tasty adventure in and of itself.

The now closed Orchard Street Brewery here in Bellingham used to offer a creamy variation with Kalamata olives that I was crazy about, so I’ve recreated that version here; it’s a bit milder on the garlic and anchovy front, as well as having the creamy aspect, so it may well be more palatable to those who think they’ll hate tapenade… I’ve included what I’d comfortably call a classic style for y’all to try as well.

Classic Tapenade

1 Cup pitted black Provençal Olives, pitted
1/4 Cup extra virgin Olive Oil
2 canned, oil-packed Anchovy Fillets
2-3 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Capers
Juice of 1/2 fresh Lemon
1/4 teaspoon fresh Lemon Zest
1/2 teaspoon dried Thyme
A couple twists of fresh ground black Pepper

Creamy Kalamata Tapenade

1 Cup Crème Fraîche
1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives, pitted
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 clove Garlic
Juice 1/2 Lemon
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/2 teaspoon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Anchovy Paste
Couple twists of fresh ground Pepper
Note: you may sub Crèma or sour cream for the Crème Fraîche

For either variation, throw everybody into your robot coup, (AKA, the Quisinart, AKA a food processor). Pulse sparingly until all the ingredients are evenly blended, like a nice, fine dice.

Place in a covered glass bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving, and 4 is better.

Serve Tapenade on fresh baguette slices or with little crudités, (AKA nice raw veggies like celery, carrot, radish, peppers, etc)

If you wanna look very fancy schmancy with little effort, grab some puff pastry or phyllo dough when you hit the grocery.

If you do the puff pastry version, spread a thin layer over a sheet to within a 1/2″ of the edge, then roll two edges up toward the middle. Toss that back into your freezer for about 15 minutes, then pull it back out and with a sharp knife, slice the roll into roughly 1/4″ thick slices. Pop those into a preheated 375 F oven for 10 minutes or until golden brown. They look and taste wonderful and are a breeze to make.

If you go the phyllo route, use 4 or 5 sheets, spread a little tapenade in the middles, wet the edge with a little melted butter and fold them into little triangles. 375 F for about 8 – 10 minutes or golden brown will do the trick.

Vas-y!

Smoked Guacamole

Smoked Guacamole
Here’s a great twist on the standard chip fodder. The lightly smoked components add a really savory, distinct note to a wonderful dip.

2 ripe Avocados.
1 medium Onion.
1 firm Tomato.
1-3 cloves Garlic.
½ fresh Grapefruit.
5 – 8 sprigs fresh Cilantro.
Juice of 1 – 2 fresh Limes.
Salt, Pepper and Chile flake to taste.

Build a small charcoal pile, then spread the coals to a thin, even layer.

Prepare some smoking wood of your choice by soaking it in water for about half an hour, then placing that on top of the hot coals.

Cut all ingredients to be smoked in half, and leave the skins on the halved avocado.

Load the grill with the avocados skin side up, and allow them to grill for a minute or two, then flip them to skin side down.

Add the onion, garlic and grapefruit to the grill, then close the cover and damper the vents so the air flow is minimal, allowing the smoke to work low and slow for about thirty minutes.

* NOTE: We didn’t smoke or grill the tomatoes, (Which were very fresh at the time), ‘cause they get too mushy, but my big Sis pointed out, post production, that green tomatoes are a thing of beauty, which is absolutely true: So try that option if you like, ’cause we’re sure gonna!

Allow the grilled/smoked stuff to cool. Dice the tomato, onion, avocado and garlic, then combine in a non-reactive bowl and mix well. Add chiffenaded cilantro, juice from one lime, and squeeze juice from ¼ of the grapefruit.

Add salt, pepper and chile flake to taste, and add additional lime and/or grapefruit juice as desired – When you get the balance right, you’ll have a nice, tangy citrus counterpoint to the smoky veggies.

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Oysters, Love ‘em or Hate ‘em?

‘Cause there ain’t no in between! You either hear folks say ‘Yum’ or ‘Etch!’; I’ve never heard a “Oh, they’re kinda OK…” from anyone, have you?

Alright, first to the basics!

If you’re gonna do oysters and you don’t live near where they come from, then get them from a place where they do, that you know if the best, freshest you can get, period! We don’t do oysters often, but when we do, we get really good ones and we do it from somebody who needs and wants the business. Take this opportunity to help out folks from the Gulf, you’ll make their day, get great food, and do good in the bargain. Here are some great options for y’all.

Zirlott’s is from coastal Alabama; family run, great food, great folks.

Tony’s Seafood in Baton Rouge is the same thing; local, fresh, great folks!

Now, a few points about delaing with ’em after you got ’em. Fresh oysters must be alive just before consumption. There’s a simple test for this: oysters must be capable of closing the shell tightly.
Open oyster? Knock on the shell; a live one’ll close up and is therefore good to go.
If they’re open and stay that way, they’re dead, so chuck ‘em, don’t shuck ‘em!
A dead oysters, or oyster shells filled with sand may stay closed, but they ‘clack’ when ya rap ‘em – That’s a no go too, (And why they’re called ‘clackers’)

Shucking oysters requires skill, ‘cause live oysters outside of water close themselves in with a powerful muscle to seal in their juices and survive.

The generally used method for opening oysters is to use a special knife (called an oyster knife, a variant of a shucking knife), with a short and thick blade about 2 inches long.

Best advice if you’re new at it? Buy ‘em shucked! If not, get a cut-proof glove for your holding hand! If you’re lucky enough to not cut yourself with the knife, you likely will on the oyster shell itself, which can be razor sharp, so be sober and extra careful throughout the process!

Slip the blade in at the hinge in the rear of the shell. Twist the blade until you hear and feel a slight pop. Now slide the blade upward to cut the adductor muscle (which holds the shell closed). Bingo, you’re there.

So, how to eat ’em?

On the Half Shell
Straight away, on a bed of ice. Slice lemons, fine dice onion or scallion, have a bottle of hot sauce on hand, and maybe some really nice fresh cracked pepper. Slide, don’t chew – If you’ve ever done that, you won’t likely do it again…

Deep Fried
Shuck and remove oysters from shell, rinse and trim thoroughly.

Build a dredge:
Mix well in a bag
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Pop oysters into the dredge bag and shake a few times. Tap excess dredge off before placing in the fryer.
Heat your oil to 375 degrees F and keep it there; that means introducing a single oyster at a time and allowing a little pause for your fryer to recover the desired temp before you add more: Keep the batches to 4 or 5 tops. Doing so assures you of light taste and minimal sogginess.

Pair with fresh homemade fries, onion rings, or coleslaw. Have plenty fo fresh sliced lemon ready too.

Oysters Rockefeller
8 large raw oysters.
1 Cup spinach, cooked and drained.
2 Tablespoons onion, chopped.
1/2 Tablespoon parsley, chopped.
1/2 stick Celery.
2 Tablespoons soft breadcrumbs.
1 tablespoons of butter.
1 lemon, sliced
Dash of salt
Dash of hot sauce.

Open the oysters, remove from their shells and drain. Reserve the shells.

Fill an baking dish, (Or individual ones), with rock salt.

Place reserved shells in each dish and put an oyster in each shell.

Saute your spinach in a little olive oil.

Rough chop the onion and parsley, (You can put ’em together, no problem).

Crush or juice celery and reserve 1/2 teaspoon juice.

Add celery juice, salt, hot sauce and breadcrumbs and saute over medium high heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

Spoon about 1 tablespoon of spinach mixture over each oyster.

Bake in a preheated oven at 400°F for 10 minutes, (Sauce should be bubbling nicely.)

Serve with plenty of lemon slices.

House and Semi-House Made

Comfort food is a wonderful thing, if for nothing else, than from the breadth and depth of the cornucopia. One of my favorite things to do is to twist a traditional recipe into something similar in feel but different in content; maybe that’s what folks mean when they call something “fusion” cooking, maybe not, but it works for me! Hence comes Enchilada Lasagna…

With noodles, (Mas o menos), made from Masa, homemade queso, and homegrown veggies, this is a real treat all around.

Queso Blanco and Queso Fresco are names that are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same beast: Both are white cheeses commonly made from fresh cow’s milk, are usually salted, and appear often in Mexican and South American cuisine, but that’s where the broad similarities end. Queso Fresco is made with rennet, used to form the curds. Queso Blanco uses an acid, such as vinegar, lemon or lime juice, to form curds. Queso Fresco will melt readily and is great for making its namesake dipping and topping salsa, know ubiquitously throughout the southwest as simply Queso. Queso Blanco does not really melt, but will become softer or creamer when heated. It’s sometimes known as queso para freir, literally cheese for frying; it retains its shape very nicely when fried, and takes well to breading or coating with herbs and chiles. The variations of these cheeses are as broad as the regions they are made in; they are not dissimilar in consistency to Feta or Peneer.

Queso Blanco

One gal whole milk, (Pasteurized or raw is cool, but ultrapasteurized is NOT!)
1/2 cup of white vinegar, lemon or lime juice
Salt to taste

Pour milk into a non-reactive pan on medium heat. Stir regularly to avoid scalding on the bottom of the pan. Using a cooking thermometer, track your temp throughout; you’re looking for 180º F.

If you’re using citrus for your acidifier, juice, seed, and measure. Lemon or lime juice adds a certain note to the flavor of your cheese that is very pleasant; I’m not sure how to specify what it tastes like, you’ll just have to try all three and decide which you like best. I have used cider vinegar as well and been very pleased with the results. My current favorite is lemon juice, FYI…

Add your acidifier: Curds will begin to separate from the whey right away; they are quite small in this cheese, (Noticably smaller than the Ricotta recipe I shared a while back, so if you see that and wonder, fear not!). The curds are about small pea size at best in this recipe.
Let the mixture simmer for a couple minutes and then carefully pour it off into a cheesecloth lined colander; be sure to use several layers of cheesecloth if you have the standard wide-weave kind you’ll find in the grocery or hardware store.

You can toss the whey, or you can save that to make ricotta with, or you can dump it into your compost heap.

Now is the time to salt the curds and add any herbs, chiles, etc; in this recipe, I’ve diced up some nice sweet peppers that will flavor this batch. Gently mix everything together. Note that you can add a bit more salt than you might like when tasting at this point – You’re going to hang and drain this cheese for a couple hours, and salt will be some of what goes away.

As we did with the Ricotta, bundle up your cheese, tie it off in a nice little ball and hang it from your faucet.

Draining your cheese is something that shouldn’t be rushed; I like to go at least 2 hours, and you can go well more than that if you want – The more you drain, the firmer your cheese!

Recipe yields about 16 ounces of lovely Queso. It will keep, well sealed, in the fridge for roughly as long as the expiration date on the milk you used, but really, it shouldn’t last that long, OK? Here’s what ours looks like with that fantastic sweet, red pepper in it. ¿Muy bonita, si?

Corn Tortillas, (in this case, AKA noodles)

2 cups corn Masa Harina, white or yellow
1 ¼ cups hot water
1 teaspoon salt

A starting note; make sure you get Masa, AKA corn flour, NOT corn meal – The latter will not do the trick!

Mix masa and salt in a bowl. Add the hot water and stir until you can handle the mix without it sticking too much to your paws; at first, the mix will seem a bit dry and that’s OK. Add more hot water a teaspoon at a time until you form a nice, semi-elastic dough that stays together and doesn’t stick to the bowl. Knead the dough for a couple minutes, adding tiny amounts of water or masa as needed to keep the dough workable and not too wet or dry; you want it to feel moist and workable, but not wet or sticky; it almost feels like a nice, loamy soil when it’s right, (If that makes sense…)

Pinch off a piece of dough and roll it between your hands into a golf ball sized chunk. Let these sit, separated and covered with a moist paper towel, on a plate for a few minutes. If you have a tortilla press, (Or your rolling pin, if not and that’s just fine too!), now’s the time to get it out, along with a gallon freezer bag cut into two equal pieces that you’ll use to hold your dough while you roll or press it out.

FYI, this ain’t like pie dough, so it is not gonna get tougher if you handle it:
Grab a golf ball and flatten it between your palms until it’s about a 3” circle. Place that between your plastic sheets and roll or press until you get a nice 6” to 7” tortilla; they can be a bit thicker than the store bought ones – Believe me, they’ll be WAY better tasting!

If we were making straight tortillas, we’d be heating up a dry cast iron pan or comal over medium high heat; cook the tortillas for about 45 second to a minute a side, then place them in aluminum foil in a warm place to rest for a bit until you’re ready to use them.

In this instance, I’m using the dough to make analog lasagna noodles, so I pressed out the dough until it’s just thick enough for my pasta roller to receive and worked it through once on the widest setting, then let the results sit and ry for a few minutes, (No additional cooking needed for this variation.)

Tomato Sauce

We’re gonna make a basic Mexican influenced sauce for this dish, from fresh tomatoes. We’re going quick and dirty here, ‘cause this is dinner on a working day, no guests, no time, no energy, so… Gonna forgo blanching, etc in the name of speed!

6 ripe tomatoes of your choice
1 clove garlic
5 or 6 sprigs of cilantro
Couple slices of large onion
1 medium hot chile of your choice
½ teaspoon cumin seed
¼ teaspoon annatto seed
¼ teaspoon celery seed
½ teaspoon Mexican Oregano
¼ teaspoon chipotle flake
Shot of vegetable oil
Dash salt

Cut tomatoes in half, rough chop garlic, cilantro, onion and chile; throw all that plus the oil into a blender or processor.

Combine cumin, annatto, celery seed, oregano, chipotle and salt in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind to a fine, even powder.

Add spice mix to veggies and blend/process until everything is nice and uniform. Open top of blender. Stick your nose in there. Breathe deep and marvel at your skillful handiwork. Go find other folk in the house, make them smell it and tell you how amazing you are…

Variation: You could substitute tomatillos for tomatoes in any percentage you like; doing the whole thing yields a gorgeous green sauce!

Now we’re ready to assemble the main dish. Lightly oil a glass baking dish, then begin by ladling some sauce in; smooth that out, add an even layer of protein, (Again, I used some killer fajita beef and chicken made by my pal Kevin, which I cubed. You could also use pork, or homemade Chorizo, for which there is a recipe lurking somewhere on this blog!). Add a sprinkling of cheese, then a layer of tortilla/noodle and repeat; I like to end with tortilla, as I think that lets the flavors get locked in and blend better as everything bakes. I topped this with some nice, sharp shredded Asiago, to further confuse the nationality of the dish and add a nice little counterpoint to the mild queso.

Bake at 350 for 35 to 45 minutes, until top tortilla is browned and everything is nice and bubbly. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on stove top prior to plating.

For topping, you simply gotta have some pico and guac, don’t ya think?

Citrus Pico

2 or 3 ripe, medium tomatoes
¼ to ½ medium sweet onion
5 – 8 sprigs cilantro
1 medium to hot chile of your choice
1 small lime
Shot of grapefruit juice
Salt and Pepper to taste

Dice tomatoes and onion, chiffenade cilantro and fine dice the chile. Add all to a nonreactive bowl. Juice lime over veggies, keeping seeds out of course. Add shot of grapefruit juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat and blend, allow to rest chilled for 30 minutes.

Guacamole Authentico

2 or 3 ripe, medium avocados
1 firm medium tomato
1 or 2 ¼ slices from a medium, sweet onion
½ small Shallot
5 or 6 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1 small sweet chile
1 small lime
salt to taste.

Skin avocados and remove flesh with spoon into a molcajete or nonreactive mixing bowl. Core, seed, and dice tomato to ¼”. Fine mince cilantro and shallot. Stem, seed, core and fine mince chile. Quarter the lime.

Mash avocado gently with a fork, leaving it with substantial chunks roughly ½”in size. Add tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro, and chile. Squeeze juice from ½ of lime, salt lighly and taste; add more lime as needed. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

To plate, shred a 50% – 50% mix of iceberg lettuce and red cabbage. Place shreds in a bowl and lightly salt and pepper. Place a mound of the shreds on a plate, serve a generous slice of the casserole on top, then add small spoonfuls of pico, guac, and sour cream. Serve with a nice, cold lager or pilsner.

Desert, anyone?

M loves sweets, especially good ones: I’m pretty sure I’ve shown the crème caramel variation of this incredible desert, but this time we’ll go for a very cool variation of that, which I dub Crème Añejo. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s fast and easy. Crème brûlée/Crème Añejo is a baked custard, as opposed to a stirred custard, (Done on a stove top in a double boiler); both are easy, but for my mind, letting the oven do the work while I read beats the crud out of constant stirring, so… Seriously, making these guys takes maybe 10 minutes, tops, so what are y’all waiting for?

Crème Añejo

1 quart heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, (You can sub ½ teaspoon of extract too)
1 cup vanilla sugar, (Split and scrape a vanilla bean into 1 cup sugar, let sit for 1 hr+, then remove bean)
6 large egg yolks
Double shot of Añejo Tequila, (Could use Rum, Bourbon, Scotch, or…)

Preheat your oven to 325º F.

Arrange 6 ramekins in a glass baking dish at least 3” deep.

Put cream, vanilla bean and seeds into a nonreactive pan over medium heat. Bring mixture to a rolling boil and then immediately pull it off the heat. Let the mixture cool, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean, which you can dry out and then use to make yet more vanilla sugar.

In a mixing bowl, combine ½ cup of the vanilla sugar and the egg yolks; whisk them together well. Now take the cream mixture and slowly pour that into the egg/sugar, whisking constantly.

For the Añejo caramel, pour the tequila into a sauce pan on medium high heat; Allow the booze to heat until the alcohol is boiled off; remove it from the heat.

Place the rest of the vanilla sugar into a pan on medium heat and allow it to melt thoroughly. Once it is liquefied, begin to add the tequila VERY SLOWLY – Liquid into caramelized sugar is volatile – The sugar superheats the liquid and will vaporize it explosively if you’re not REALLY careful about this process – Add the liquid a tiny bit at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the mixture to come to equilibrium before you add more. Once the booze and sugar are combined happily, add a tablespoon of butter and whisk everything together; immediately pour equal portions of the Añejo caramel into each ramekin.

Pour the custard into the ramekins to within roughly ¾” of the tops. Place the dish into your oven on a rack set in the middle position. Pour hot water into the dish until the water level is roughly ½ way up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Check for done by jiggling each ramekin. If the custard is done, the edges will look firm but the middles will still jiggle a bit; this is just where ya wanna be, as the latent heat in the custard will complete the cooking while they rest.

Refrigerate the custards for at least 2 hours, then pull ‘em out and let ‘’em sit in room temp for at least 15 minutes: Run a knife around the rim of the ramekin, and then quickly flip ’em over onto a desert plate and viola, instant bliss!

Serve with a sprig of mint as a garnish; stand back and keep your hands and feet clear as your guests dig into this stuff!