Taco Night on the Grill

 

I can’t get enough of taco night. Neither can my wife Amy or my daughters. We love it, and especially me, because I can do everything — with the exception of chopping with a knife or the food processor — on the grill. It makes for easy clean-up, and who isn’t for easy clean-up?

I cut my teeth on Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas circa 1984 (does Instagram have a filter for that?). At this point in my life I hadn’t eaten that much Mexican food. For the most part it didn’t exist in Indiana outside of Chi Chi’s and my inner punk rocker wouldn’t allow me to set foot inside any place that colorful or where the waitstaff could happily sing Happy Birthday table side.

Nevertheless, when I would slide into a booth at one of the many hole-in-the-wall eateries (many of them were Spanish-speaking only), I would order as many kinds of salsa as I could point to on the menu. I didn’t know this many kinds of salsa existed, or for that matter soft shell tacos, or the food love of my life, tamales.

As I ate my way around both sides of Highway 35, little did I realize I was becoming an addict, to Texas country music, chili, and to Austin itself. It was hard to come home, and once I was back in Indiana it didn’t take long before I began jonesing for Texas Hill Country, salsa included.

All About Grilled Salsa

The grill is a great way to make an old salsa recipe feel new.
I couldn’t even guess how many varieties of salsa there are in the world, but I do know I haven’t found one yet that can’t be made on the grill. I like a fresh raw salsa as much as the next person, but sometimes I like to shift the flavor and it is an easy thing to do on the grill.

Chile oils on your hands are not your friend.
Be careful with hot chile peppers. I used to go at them in the manly man way and just tough it out, but the night I rubbed my eyes after working with Thai birds I thought a different approach might be appropriate. If you choose to go with bare naked hands in handling them, just realize you will quickly find out just how many places on your body you actually touch and how many places are very sensitive to capsaicin oils.

Get in touch with your inner caveman or woman.
I used to put my peppers and tomatoes on the grill grate and then one day I just decided to plop them right on the coals. It sears them very quickly while leaving the interior raw — the best of both worlds. You can roast whole heads of garlic too, but they need to be left to the side of the coals so they cook and soften slowly or you will burn the cloves which makes them bitter.

Liquidy or dry, it all depends on your tomato variety.
A lot of fresh tomatoes have a high liquid content. If you use too many tomatoes, your salsa will be watery, which isn’t always a bad thing. If you want a thicker salsa, it is a good idea to use plum or San Marzano tomatoes.

The finishing touches matter.
To the finished salsa I always like to add a drizzle of olive oil for mouthfeel and a splash of acid, be it lime, red wine vinegar, or whatever. Make sure you season your salsa with salt and black pepper.

Corn tortillas or flour both can be warmed on the grill, and should be.
I prefer corn tortillas over flour and my preference for cooking corn tortillas is right on the grill. They puff up and blacken in spots and become yummo-licous. Just make sure after searing them to wrap them in foil so they stay soft and don’t dry out.

Choose your toppings accordingly.
Almost every person I have ever met who hails from Central America prefers green cabbage, sliced razor thin, to lettuce for their tacos. It gets even better when you dress the cabbage with a touch of red wine vinegar and olive oil. You probably won’t find a lot of sour cream or cheese on the table either. I tend to go for authentic Mexican but I like Tex-Mex too. If you want to go for healthy, grill up a bunch of vegetables to use for toppings and forgo the dairy altogether.

Grilled Salsa

Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups

Depending on the kind and size of tomatoes you use, this salsa can be liquidy or firm. You will have to judge. Roma tomatoes have little liquid and work well for a chunkier salsa.

  • 1small head of garlic
  • 3 or 4roma tomatoes
  • 1 or 2heirloom variety tomatoes (Box Car Willies or Wisconsin 55 are good)
  • 1poblano pepper or 3 jalapeños or your choice
  • 3 to 4half-inch-thick slices of red onion, left intact
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Handful of cilantro
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  1. Fire up your charcoal grill. Let the coals get blazing hot.
  2. Wash the vegetables.
  3. Place the garlic off to the side of the coals where it will brown the paper skins but not burn the cloves. The garlic will take the longest to cook of everything. Let it get good and brown on all sides.
  4. Now place the tomatoes and peppers right on the coals. Let them blister and blacken. Remove them to a tray. Let the juices collect in the tray.
  5. Place the grill grate on the grill and grill the onions until they are caramelized and soft.
  6. If you plan to grill more stuff, like a nice skirt steak, you will probably need to add a few more coals to the fire. You be the judge.
  7. Peel the pepper, being carful not to spill or lose any pepper juices. I remove the seeds and, obviously, the stems. Put peeled peppers, tomatoes, onion, and peeled roasted garlic cloves into the bowl of a food processor. Add the tomato and pepper juices that collected in the bottom of the tray.
  8. Add a two-finger pinch of salt, some pepper, half the cilantro, the red wine vinegar, and olive oil. Pulse the processor until the salsa reaches your desired consistency. I like this particular salsa smoother than most but still chunky. Taste the salsa and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
  9. Pour into a serving bowl, garnish with cilantro, and serve

Grilling: Tips, Skirt Steak and more…

Skirt Steak with Greek Salsa

I use a pair of kitchen tongs and quickly flip a steak, pull back to let my hand cool for a split second before diving in again behind the safety of the tongs to flip another. The hair on my forearm recoils from the heat. Even with a long pair of kitchen tongs I can’t bear the sting of the glowing coals like I used too.

I have lost my commercial kitchen hands. The hands that could take the heat without flinching, the same hands that could grab thermonuclear plates, or could move steaks around on a grill without ever noticing the heat. The heat abused hands that were once this line cooks badge of honor.

The wind shifts, a wisp of white smoke blows back. My eyes catch a little before I can turn and shut them. The smoke underneath my eyelids stings and my eyes begin to water. Continue reading

Smoked Herring Salad

Smoked Herring Salad

Why do so many people fear canned fish? I don’t mean tuna, it doesn’t even count. Was there some massive food poisoning event in the United States back in 1908 or something and the canned fish market never recovered or do we just have a lot of closet canned fish eaters in this country.

Canned fish is brilliant, don’t laugh, I am being totally serious. It is really tasty, it harmlessly sits in your pantry ready to be used and is as tasty as the day it was packed.

Maybe people don’t know how to use it or maybe when they were little their parents always told them they wouldn’t like it and so they never have. My guess is most people who say they don’t like it have never tried it or it has been served to them right out of the can bathed in some sort of funky sauce.

No, what I am talking about is fish packed in oil, be it, mackerel, herring or sardines, smoked and not smoked. The omega-3 dense bait fish, well not mackerel it is higher up the chain then the other two, but fish oil rich nonetheless.

It’s as if you have to go to Eastern Europe, Nordic countries or Russia for your recipes and I am good with that. These countries now what to do when it comes to canned fish. I trust them.

This recipe is of Dutch descent. Being the herring eaters they are you can count on them for good recipes.

Serves 4

1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dusseldorf mustard or Dijon

1 teaspoon whole grain mustard

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 tin smoked herring or mackerel

2/3 cup celery, chopped

1 cup yukon gold potatoes, boiled and cubed

6 cornichons, chopped

2 to 3 beets, roasted, peeled and cubed

2 hard boiled eggs, shelled

a handful of peas, fresh or frozen

2 teaspoons chives, chopped

2 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds

salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Combine the mayonnaise, mustards and vinegar in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to combine.

2. Add the celery, potato, cornichons, peas and herring. Smash the eggs into chunks and add them to the bowl. Stir to combine. The herring will break up into small pieces with some hunks much like if you were making tuna salad. If you want big hunks of herring then garnish the salad with it.

3. Divide among 4 plates and garnish with the beets and shallot rings. Garnishing with the beets keeps the salad from turning pink.

4. Serve

Texas Caviar

The first time I had Texas caviar I was in Santa Fe.  There I think they called it Cowgirl Caviar but that might have been the name of the restaurant.  I remember lots of pictures of cowgirls.  Maybe the name of the restaurant was called Cowgirl Hall of Fame.  That seems more right to me.

Anyway.  Texas Caviar was made famous by Helen Corbitt the food director in the 1950’s for Neiman Marcus in Dallas.  Many recipes call for Italian dressing.  No.  Do not do it.  I am sorry but bottled dressings suck.  Period.  This is supposed to be fresh and vibrant and everything added is meant to highlight the creamy texture of the legumes, not hide it.

Serves 6 to 8

2 ea. 15 oz cans black eyed peas, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons red onion, minced

2 tablespoons celery, minced

1/3 cup cilantro, minced

1 tablespoon green onions, minced

1 garlic clove, minced finely

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/8 cup neutral flavored oil, i.e., canola, grape seed

1 to 2 dried cayennes or chile tepins cut into thin strips with scissors

kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

corn chips

1. Combine all the ingredients into a bowl and mix to combine. Season with salt and lots of black pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary. This gets better as it sits, 24 hours is optimal, but will also gain more Scoville heat units so keep that in mind when you decide the amount of red pepper you want to use.

Olive Salad Taverna

Olive Salad Taverna

While having never been to Greece this seems as though it would be something that you might eat at a small taverna on the Mediterranean Sea. It is sort of an “a la grecque” dish which if done right is always good to have on hand and usually are even better the second day or, at the very least, after a couple hour marinade. I think this would be good followed by some sort of Mediterranean fish dish. If you want to make this a very filling salad add some feta and a couple of pitas and you will have a meal.

SERVES 4

1 cup mixed olives

1 cup garbanzos, cooked, or rinsed canned

2 teaspoons preserved lemon, finely minced

2 teaspoons shallot, finely minced

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 teaspoon fresh savory or thyme, minced, Richard Olney used savory with olives and I think it works really well

1/2 teaspoon chile flakes

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 head butter leaf lettuce

hunks of feta and pita, optional

1. In a mixing bowl combine everything up to the olive oil. Mix everything to combine. Season it with black pepper and then add the olive oil. Stir to coat and then let the salad rest for at least 1 hour and you can even refrigerate it over night.

2. Before serving rinse the butter leaf and then using a salad spinner dry the lettuce. Place two or three leaves on each plate. Stir the salad to redistribute everything. Taste and if it needs salt add some. Divide the garbanzo/olive mixture evenly between the plates. Using a spoon drizzle some of the juice over the greens. Serve.