All The Things I Eat

A White Guy Cooks Chicken Tinga Tacos

By on Wednesday, February 9th, 2022 at 4:39 pm

Tinga chicken meat in sauce

As a kid, we regularly had tacos from an Ortega taco kit: hard shells, seasoning, and packets of taco sauce. The beef was not included. I refer to these as 1980s Taco Night. We ate tacos with shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and sour cream. On extra special nights, we also had had Tostitos chips and salsa. Nothing screams mid-90s quite like Tostito’s brand packaging with the bright pink and aquamarine blue.

Today, hard tacos filled with ground beef flavored with “taco seasoning” packets taste like crunchy nostalgia. They are a rare treat in part because my wife doesn’t share the same sentimentality. I could find them at El Cortez, a tiki themed bar a few blocks away serving All American Taco Night, a perfect replica of those 1980s-style tacos, but the bar shut down a few years ago. What I really liked about them as an adult was how simple they are to cook — and no doubt why my mother liked them when I was a kid. Sauté some ground beef, toss in the seasoning, and twenty minutes later dinner is on the table.

As a grown up, I mostly eat Mexican-style tacos. Bushwick, Brooklyn has a wide variety on offer. I know there’s some guy from L.A. or Texas lurking out there ready to tell me how inferior Brooklyn tacos are. I accept your challenge.

First, I can’t talk about Bushwick tacos without mentioning Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, the tortilla factory in the heart of hipster (bourgeois) Bushwick that now attracts European tourists and finance bros from Manhattan. These tacos are perfectly fine. I have to admit that a decade ago, they were one of my earlier experiences with Mexican-style street tacos. But they were less memorable than Taqueria El Fogon, a restaurant on Flushing Ave, or Mesa Azteca, taqueria that looks like it could be a movie set. These are all decent tacos, even if they are overhyped.

One of my favorite spots has since closed. Taqueria Izucar, named after the Puebla city Izucar de Matamoros, squeezed under the elevated tracks of the M. There was a counter and maybe two barstools, but they had big flavor. It had irregular hours, making it difficult to plan a trip. The tacos, wrapped in double white corn tortillas, were inexpensive but delicious. The taco to get here was the Suadero taco, a kind of smooth muscle beef flank that was also fried.

The alternative I went to the day I realized Taqueria Izucar had closed for good was Taquiera Acatlan, also under the elevated tracks. A woman in the window of the store spends her day pressing out fresh corn tortillas with the finesse and skill of a master craftsman. I haven’t been back since the pandemic, but the beef tongue was quite good if memory serves correctly.

For the last year, a Taco Bite, a food truck has been parking nearby on Bushwick Avenue several nights week providing late night service for patrons of the popular warehouse district clubs. The trucks has a standard taco menu too with the expected carnitas and al pastor and chorizo, but I’m more likely to have a Cemitas or Torta sandwich. The truck has never disappointed me.

The newer taco restaurants are fancier. They appeal to a younger, hipper crowd. I order from them because they offer delivery and are close enough the tacos arrive hot, most of the time. Our go-to delivery since the pandemic started has been El Santo, on Flushing, or Taco Edition, on Grand Street. Both offer standards like al pastor, bistec, chorizo, carnitas — and typically I would order two or three of those. I do also experiment with goat, lamb, tongue, fish, and shrimp, but tacos are a kind of comfort food, and sometimes you just want familiarity.

Luckily, tacos are a low stakes game. They aren’t expensive, and most of the time I’m order more than one. More recently, I’ve been ordering chicken tinga tacos. Tinga tacos are spicy, pulled chicken.

Chicken tinga’s main ingredients are tomatoes, chipotle peppers in adobo, and onions. There are some variations on this depending on the region, and different spices to adjust the flavor. Tinga originates around Puebla, Mexico with the first record recipes from the early 19th century. However, the combination of ingredients likely dates back long before the arrival of Europeans.

I finally decided to make my own.

A big Le Creuset filled with chicken tinga meat finished simmering and reducing the volume of chicken stock

There were a few reasons I wanted to try my hand at chicken tinga tacos. I’m much more likely to make carnitas style tacos, but to do it properly requires hours of braising. And usually, braising a big piece of pork yields a huge amount of shredded meat. That’s great for a party, but not great for a pandemic. Experimenting with tinga tacos seemed like a good idea since I could better control duration and volume.

I consulted a few recipes from Food & Wine, Gimme Some Oven, and Punch of Yum. Mostly I wanted to confirm the rough ratios of ingredients and the suggested spices–-in this case, cumin and oregano. None of the ingredients were difficult to come by, and after a quick trip to the grocery store, I was ready to go.

I started by poaching a couple of chicken breasts. I hadn’t shredded poach chicken before last week when I was making Mala chicken salad using an Omsom sauce packet I had received for Christmas. I liked the texture of the poached, shredded chicken, and how quickly the breasts cooked. It seemed perfect for making tinga quickly.

After putting the chicken in its hot bath, I set about pickling some red onions using lime juice, garlic, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and a few pieces of hot pepper. These were fast pickles, but there are leftovers getting more pickled right now, and I can’t wait to to use them on something else.

Then I set out to the sauce. Weeknight meals are a sloppy, quick affair these days, squeezed in after baby’s bedtime. I chopped up the remains of the red onion, threw in some garlic, two chipotle peppers, the cumin, oregano, and tomatoes and blended them with a wand mixer. Wand mixers are notoriously dangerous, and honestly it was my first time using one. It kind of felt like holding an industrial strength vibrator with deadly blades spinning on the bottom like some kind of German fetish toy. Safe word: spicy.

The wand mixer went pretty well until the bulky wand tipped over the lightweight plastic jar spilling half the sauce. A huge red mess ensued covering the countertop, baby food maker, dish sponge, coffee pot, electric tea kettle — the whole place looked like a murder scene. Luckily I had reserved some of the tomatoes and chipotle peppers, but the spill had thrown off the resulting ratios.

After remaking the sauce and blending it all together, I added it to our big pot with some chicken stock. It’s worth noting that the recipes I consulted suggested starting the garlic and onion in the oil before blending it all together. However, I was going for speed, but to be honest I don’t think it had a huge impact on flavor. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have spilled half the sauce with the wand mixer if it was all in the giant dutch oven.

As the sauce simmered, I took the poached chicken out of the hot chicken water and shredded it with two forks. Once it was separated and stringy, I tossed this into the simmering sauce with a bit more stock. In about ten minutes most of the liquid boiled off into a thicker tinga sauce.

I also found some time to make a bowl of guacamole, served alongside the tacos. I had cotija cheese for garnish. I cooked my white flour tortillas and was ready to go.

In the end, cooking my own chicken tinga proved far easier than it ever was in my mind. There was no slow braise or complicated measuring. Other than spilling the sauce, preparing the tinga was a straight forward process, not all that more complicated than opening up an Ortega brand taco seasoning pack and pouring it over some ground beef.

The finished tacos with pickled red onions and cotija cheese

Quiche: It’s What’s For Dinner

By on Thursday, December 9th, 2021 at 6:45 pm

Quiche is for dinner

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of quiche is Julia Child.

I watched a lot of The French Chef on PBS as a child, and her quiche lorraine was one of the first recipes I made from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. WGBH has a copy of the recipe online.

Although I couldn’t find a free clip of Julia Child making a quiche, there are plenty of people producing Julia Child quiche videos as they embark on their epic journey through her cookbook. The master of cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking is Julie Powell, who way back in 2002 turned her project into a blog, a book, and a movie.

I read Julie Powell’s memoir, Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, back when it first came out. Like so many readers, I wanted to immediately start cooking through every recipe in the collection. And like so many of those people who attempted, I quit the project before finishing. I’ll admit I was probably not ever going to take a deep dive into the world of aspic. However, I did learn how to chop onions by following her instructions, and highly recommend taking her knife advice.

Now that brings us back to quiche. Julia Child’s quiche lorraine was one of the first recipes I cooked from the book in part because it was an easy, standalone meal. I also like quiche because when you’re hosting a party, it can be made in advance and is at least as good cold as it is hot – maybe even better. (I’m also a big fan of making bit-sized quiche, but that’s a whole other post.)

Quiche is a French egg tart, and like most great French foods, its origins are actually in Italy. The early 15th century cookbook Libro de arte coquinaria includes an egg tart that is more or less a modern quiche, and the classic cookery book was written by Martino da Como featuring medieval and renaissance cooking. The term quiche, however, is more likely related to the German word kuchen, meaning cake. The German connection makes a lot more sense when you consider the famous quiche’s namesake, Alsace-Lorraine, has changed hands between France and Germany countless times.

The thing with quiche, though, is Americans treat it like a morning food – breakfast, brunch, and on rare occasions, lunch menus. Trying to find a dinner quiche in America is like trying to find tap water in Europe: everyone will look at you funny and then pretend they don’t speak the same language.

In Europe, quiche is a decidedly an afternoon meal. Bistros and cafes and even restaurants with white linen tablecloths will serve quiche for dinner, either as a starter or a main. You’ll see it on a lunch menu too, but since breakfast is something for American tourists, it isn’t that common.

So why do Americans think quiche is a breakfast food?

Although quiche as we think of it today is about two centuries old in France, it was mainly Americanized in the post-war period. There are plenty of combinations of fillings for quiche, but by far the most popular in America was quiche lorraine. Julia Child introduced quiche lorraine in 1963, during the first season of The French Chef. The dish actually is introduced to Americans before that, with Julia Child perhaps the best known example. In Cosmopolitan, April 1952, Quiche Lorraine is featured in a large article about cheesy recipes, and is described as a “cheese custard pie,” and other instances of quiche Lorraine appear in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal through the 1950s.

Quiche lorraine, filled with bacon and cheese, is an ideal American breakfast. Americans love mixing bacon and eggs for breakfast. This is also the mythology behind Spaghetti Carbonara, where the debunked legend cites American soldiers’ desire for an American-style breakfast as the inspiration for creating the pasta dish made from egg and bacon. So it isn’t all that surprising that Americans think of quiche as breakfast. It is afterall, a breakfast sandwich in a crusty pie – bacon, eggs, and cheese is how I order a bagel in the morning. Pass the ketchup, please.

Quiche ingredients: bacon and cheese and onion

Here’s the thing: quiche is easy and fast to assemble but requires a solid forty to fifty minutes of baking after having prepared the crust. I don’t have time for that in the morning, and although I agree baking a quiche the night before is perfectly acceptable, that requires way too much forethought. But for dinner, the food prep is actually quite fast relative to other meals, and the baking time can easily translate to free time.

There are some shortcuts that can be taken, too. I would never do it today, but in my wayward youth, I would buy frozen pie crusts. There are actually some advantages beyond time savings. Store bought crusts don’t require a pie pan because they come packaged in a disposable one. We can also debate how industrial pastry is probably at least as flaky as anything I can make on my own, but I realize there are more accomplished bakers out there who will strongly disagree.

I’ve since (nearly) memorized Alton Brown’s pie crust recipe. This is my go-to pie crust. It’s also basically the only thing I ever bake. It’s robust enough to withstand my lax measuring standards.

I make basic pie crusts following Alton Brown’s recipe from Good Eats. I usually substitute 2 tablespoons of butter for lard because lard isn’t something I usually have laying around, but butter is something I almost always have a lot of. Last month we happened to have lard, so for the first time ever, the crust was baked with it. Wow. It definitely changes things a bit. On one hand, it turned out much flakier. On the other hand, I might like the all-butter crust better.

Despite Alton Brown’s warnings against single-use kitchen items, we have a set of pie weights in the house. I think they are worth having as long as you remember to lay down parchment before placing the pie in the oven. One time I overlooked this critical step and had a crust with pie weights embedded in it. Not so delicious.

With the crust baking (and the pie weights safely secured on top of parchment paper), it was time to turn the custard. Here’s where I was playing fast and loose. I mixed in three eggs instead of two, and equal parts of cream and milk, but all this was by eye. Plus I had chopped up some onion.

Onion isn’t usually included in quiche. Neither is garlic powder, but I usually have it too. Bacon and onion are two flavors that go together exceedingly well. One great example of this is flammkuchen, a thin-crust German-style pizza. If you were really looking to bend some food words, you might say I had made a Quiche flammkucken. Maybe that’s a stretch too far.

Since the crust was par-baked, I layered the fillings in first. The fat from the cheese and bacon help keep moisture away from the crust, and hopefully help avoid a soggy bottom. Cook everyday like Paul Hollywood might be tasting your bake. The disadvantage to layering the filling is it is less likely to be mix throughout the custard. For me, this isn’t a problem. I actually like the clear layers of filling, but not everyone does.

I baked it for forty-five minutes or so before even thinking about taking it out. I wanted that rich brown color on top of the eggs. How long it really takes to cook depends on how deep the quiche pan is. I was also watching the pie crust start to brown. Since it was parbaked, it already had some color. I have, in some instances, wrapped the quiche crust with tin foil to keep the crust from getting too dark. I’ve come around to say it is probably less necessary to do this and better to have a slightly darker crust edge.

One of the biggest mistakes is taking the quiche out of the oven too early, leaving you with an uncooked custard, or worse, runny scrambled eggs. It is of course totally possible to leave the quiche in too long, overcooking everything, but I actually think it is better to caution on the side of overbaked.

We had about half the quiche for dinner along with a light green salad. The next morning I had a slice of quiche for breakfast. It was great. Why didn’t I always have a quiche for breakfast?

quiche cross section

Chicken Crepes With Béchamel Sauce

By on Friday, November 5th, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Savory chicken crepes

Savory dinner crepes are an underrated food. What I love about them is they seem fancy, but are actually rather simple to make.

The first time I had a savory chicken crepe was in college at the North Star Bar, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was one of the more upscale bars in the downtown intended for the business people and young professionals in the city rather than college students. At happy hour though the drinks were cheap enough and the bar menu discounted, so we could pretend we belonged.

The crepes were filled with chicken, an assortment of vegetables including asparagus and red peppers, and a creamy sauce. I’m sure the memory of these crepes were far better than they really were, or maybe just relative to the other types of things I was eating in college, they seemed especially good. I think about those crepes every time I make savory crepes for dinner. It is not that I am trying to to replicate the dish, nor would I be able to.

For the crepes, I started with a basic recipe. I don’t have a specific goto that I prefer for crepes and usually just pull the top listing off of Google. The essentials are Eggs, flour, milk, and melted butter. Some recipes suggest adding sugar, but I avoid these recipes even if I’m making sweet crepes. I also like recipes that suggesting thinning out the batter with water.

The most important step in making crepes is allowing the batter to sit. Some recipes will insist the batter needs to sit overnight in the refrigerator. Generally I think a thirty minute rest period is enough. That is enough time for thin batter to spread easily across the pan. Mixing in a bit of water at this point can help thin the batter out too.

The longest part of the whole process is cooking the crepes. Each crepe will cook relatively quickly but the time adds up when it comes to the volume of crepes. And a smaller pan means smaller crepes, and ultimately more crepes to make.

Sometimes I wish I had a crepe specific pan or even a professional grade crepe hotplate. Both tools create extremely thin crepes. On the other hand, I don’t need the extra equipment clogging up the kitchen.

I could have started the filling while the batter was resting, but I wanted to finish watching the last twenty minutes of Sideways. The film mostly holds up, although the portrait of a man willing to bang his way through Napa Valley three days before his wedding seems tired and outdated. Anyway, I waited until the crepes were cooking to get to work on the filling.

The filling started with olive oil and onions. Once they were translucent, I added in slices of a chicken breast. You can argue about how much more flavorful dark meat is, but béchamel is a rich and fatty sauce anyway. After lightly browning the chicken, I tossed in some mushrooms and simmered those for a few minutes. I continued flipping out crepes.

A good crepe maker can flip a crepe with a simple flick of the wrist. I’m not good enough to do this perfectly every time and so I use the assistance of a spatula.

One the meat arrived at a stable place in the cooking process, I could start on the white sauce. I would love to pretend like I’ve memorized the béchamel ratios, but I’m not a French trained chef, and the internet is in my pocket. In addition to the butter, flour, and milk, I also added some garlic powder. Once the sauce was thickened, I added about half of it to the chicken and mushrooms, reserving the rest for the top of the crepe.

To assemble them, I laid a crepe out flat, added some filling, and rolled it over on itself. I plated two each and then drizzled some sauce over each one. One recipe online suggested topping the crepes with gruyere and then baking them briefly. I had forgotten to get gruyere and the cheddar I had in the refrigerator just didn’t seem a good match. Instead, I shaved some Parmigiano-Reggiano over the crepes.

Cross section of a crepe

As you can see in the above cross section, the sauce inside the crepe was gooey and creamy.

I debated stuffing in some green beans that I had prepared as side dish, but thought the texture would not be quite right. I also think a roasted sweet potato would make an excellent substitute for the chicken for vegetarians, but then that’s probably a different post altogether.

Cassoulet Is Never Quick

By on Friday, October 29th, 2021 at 7:21 pm

A cassoulet using Rancho Gordo beans and d'artangan duck sausage

Subscribing to the Rancho Gordo bean club can sometimes feel oppressive when you are sitting on a stockpile of beans and know another box just around the corner. I knew we needed to use up some of the beans we’d been accumulating so I pulled out the box of white beans to assess what we had. Sure enough, a full bag of cassoulet beans ready and waiting.

What I love about this dish is that it’s basically impossible to screw up. Sure, you can try to rush a cassoulet and that isn’t going to help it much. You need time in the oven to crisp the top. But as long as you can braise it for four or five hours, it pretty much cooks itself.

At this point I don’t even bother looking at cassoulet recipes. Maybe I should have. I made a few mistakes on this, but it sure turned out fine just the same.

First I had to boil off the beans. We had some old rosemary in the back of the refrigerator — just enough to toss a sprig in. What I forgot to do was boil the carrot and the celery with the beans, but honestly with five hours for braising, it was fine to add them later.

When the beans were cooked, I started cooking the pork belly. I wanted a little brown on the meat and render some of that fat for frying everything else. I also cut up a few strips of bacon. before adding in some duck sausages from D’Artagnan. I used these instead of the more traditionally duck confit for two reasons.

First, The Meat Hook didn’t have any in stock. I’m not even sure if they still stock duck confit. The last time I had to go all the way to Dicksons Farmstand in Chelsea Market.

The second reason is duck confit is really heavy. The duck fat is great and I love using it for roasted potatoes to go along with the cassoulet, but there isn’t anything light about it. The sausages were a perfect substitute, especially since there should be sausages in the dish anyway.

Once I browned off the meat, I chopped an onion, garlic, celery, and carrot browning in the rendered fat. I added in the beans. I wasn’t too worried about layering properly because I was only using a pound of beans with a wide brimmed pot. Having extra surface area really helps develop that great cassoulet crust. I topped off with a cup of chicken broth. Twenty minutes in I realized I forgot to add the can of tomatoes.

The pot when in the oven. After half an hour I took off the lid to allow the browning to start. About four hours later she was ready to come out with a nice crusty top. The single pound of beans and swapping out duck sausage was a great choice for two people. We had a filling dinner and lunch the next day with a little left over for the weekend.

Rabbit Stew

By on Thursday, April 4th, 2013 at 8:21 am

Rabbit Stew

I wanted to save the rabbit meat for easter dinner. Nobody else was really into that idea.

Rabbit isn’t as common a protein as it once was. Rabbits are breed quickly, are relatively easy to maintain, and don’t take up too much space. They are great peasant food.

My grandfather loved rabbit meat. In Italy as a child, his family raised rabbits in their small patch of land. This shouldn’t be romanticized.

Most southern Italians didn’t own the land they worked, instead working for padroni, the bosses. If they did have access to a patch of land as my grandfather’s parents had, also paid taxes to the government on the food they raised themselves. Its not all that surprising then that so many Italians left their homeland during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Rabbit was popular in the United States at the time, also. Beef prices did come down through the 20th century, and as the beef got cheaper, alternative meat like rabbits grew less popular. Ironically, it has a low fat content making it a relative lean meat that probably would be very appealing to people interested in the various fad diets today.

Finding rabbit meat is not always easy. In New York City, Dickson’s Farmstand Meats receives a few rabbits on Saturday mornings. They can be bought whole and usually sell out by the end of the day. At the various green markets around the city, I’ve found rabbit meat available from some of the tables.

One of the drawbacks of rabbit is that it can have tiny bones. They are small animals after all. Braising a rabbit in a stew is one way to separate the meat from this tiny bones, but its still possible of course to come across a choking hazard.

I didn’t follow much of a recipe on this. I chopped up some basic vegetables: onions, garlic, celery, and tossed in some large carrot chunks. I saved the mushrooms for the end to keep them from totally disappearing in the broth. After covering it with chicken broth, it braised for a few hours until the meat fell off the bones.