Duck, East Asian, Latin, Random Thoughts

Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?

If you’re looking to start an argument, forget about politics and religion. Assemble several self-identifying foodies and throw out a sentence like “spaghetti and meatballs are not authentic.” Then walk away, whistling, with your hands behind your back. I guarantee you the group will come to blows before the hour is out. We can plow the rich ground of culinary authenticity battles another time, but the fundamentalist line tends to sound something like this:

* Ricotta cheese is made from whey, not whole milk. Ergo, every tub of “ricotta” sold in American supermarkets is a dirty lie.
* Thai food is cooked by Thai people, period. I don’t know what Andy Ricker thinks he’s playing at out in PDX.
* California rolls aren’t “sushi.”

The post-structuralist view can be just as galling, disavowing the existence of objective standards altogether. A middle-aged woman once threatened to punch my lights out in the Real Food Company on Russian Hill when I told her the things she thought were called scallions were actually shallots, because, as it turns out, that is what her mother called them, and her grandmother before her. Far be it from me to screw with someone’s fond childhood memories.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously once said, when asked to define pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” That pretty well covers the problem with most attempts to establish the “authenticity” of various foods. Everyone means something different when they use the word “authentic,” but there comes a point at which nearly everyone can agree the boundaries have been pushed beyond a reasonable point.

Take, for example, Peking duck. This is a dish you only obtain at Chinese restaurants, not the scary takeout with the plexiglas window where you can get enough sesame chicken to feed yourself over the next two days for $5. Peking duck is the province of the kind of Chinese restaurant Chinese émigrés frequent on the Lunar New Year. It requires at least 24 hours advance ordering. When the waiter brings it out to the table, everyone turns to watch in envy (or anticipation) before he takes it back to carve into shards of crisp skin and tender meat, to be eaten inside soft wheat pancakes as a prelude to duck soup and maybe duck fried rice. Unlike the aforementioned sesame chicken, Peking duck not only originated in Beijing but has a centuries’ long history of preparation and consumption according to more or less the same set of rules, in basically unreconstructed form, whether in Beijing, the United States, or Britain. It is an undeniably Chinese food and is easy to categorize because it’s always been prepared according to a fairly narrow set of specifications. And we all know what a Peking duck isn’t. A pig in blanket isn’t a Peking duck. Roast chicken and lefse isn’t Peking duck.

This is not a Peking duck.

This is not a Peking duck.

But some foods are harder to categorize, like tacos. Pretty much everyone agrees on the little corn tortillas, sometimes overlapped or doubled up and sometimes not, spread with a little bit of meat filling, maybe a little onion or cilantro, and then rolled or folded for eating. Beyond that, the question of taco authenticity is far more complicated than that of Peking duck. Rigid types will tell you tacos have to be served on corn tortillas made from masa harina and beyond a certain level of garniture, they are no longer tacos but rather some fancy perversion. Others will note the influx of wheat flour into the Northern Mexican states – Sonora and Chihuahua in particular – eventually led to the preparation and acceptance of wheat flour tortillas into the Northern Mexican diets, so a taco on a wheat tortilla is still a taco. Still others will argue the taco doesn’t stop being a taco just because it crosses the border from Mexico into Texas or Arizona or even points further north, and that there’s a difference between quality and authenticity. Take any tortilla and fill it with some kind of seasoned meat and a few other items, or basically any edible item for that matter, and you have a taco. By this reckoning, Taco Bell might not make a good taco, but it isn’t wholly inauthentic, either, because the basic parts are there. Can you push it a little further? What if you fry the shell first – the Ortega crunchy-shell business I’m always droning on and on about how much I love? What if you add pineapple and sriracha and Thai chiles? Does either of those things stop the resulting dish from being a taco, or is it still a taco if you call it a taco?

Braised beef cheek, farmer cheese, braised cipollini, in a crunchy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft corn tortilla.  Is it a taco, or is it a crime against humanity?

Cabernet-braised beef cheek, farmer cheese, braised cipollini, in a crunchy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft corn tortilla. Is it a taco, or is it a crime against humanity?

So can Peking duck be a taco? Fundie authenticity types would string me up for even suggesting it, I’m sure, but let’s look at the facts. Roasted meat, thin griddled wheat flatbread, some type of fresh onion, and maybe some vegetables. Based on a strictly side by side comparison of basic ingredients and assembly, how is Peking duck not essentially the same thing as tacos al asador? And yet, I wager a survey of most people will establish that few believe Peking duck to be a type of taco, and that hoping to turn it into a taco by simply calling it a “duck taco” is the equivalent of Jan Brady strapping on a curly black wig and expecting to gain a whole new identity – ridiculous and not likely to fool anyone. At the same time, at least some of those same people would find it clever to make or be served a “duck taco with hoisin,” like this number from a Los Angeles restaurant. It seems ridiculous to claim one is a taco and the other is not. What would Potter Stewart say? Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?

Peking duck

It doesn’t really matter whether Peking duck is a taco or not. It’s one of the best things to eat, and that’s good enough. Peking duck is an event. It’s special-occasion food. You don’t just decide you’re going to make Peking duck tonight and whip it up when you come home from work, at least not unless you’ve done a whole bunch of advance prep. It involves multiple steps, none of which is remotely difficult but each being necessary to a successful duck. The most important of these are separating the all skin from the meat before you do anything else to the duck, and letting it dry well in the refrigerator or in front of a fan in a cold room. These ensure the surface will be dry when it goes in the oven, minimizing steaming and any tendency to rubberiness, and the fatty layer under the skin will heat quickly and melt off, leaving shatteringly crisp skin that’s both savory and a little sweet.

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Peking duck is not about the meat, although obviously the dish does yield some. Use a Pekin duck (or Long Island duck), the traditional duck used in Beijing for this dish. They are bred for their skin and fat, not their meat and by happy coincidence are the least expensive ducks you can buy; for this dish, don’t waste your money on ducks better suited to breaking down and searing, like Muscovy or Moulard. The high heat needed to crisp the skin will ruin the meat of those breasts, which should be served medium rare. Instead, accept that the meat of the Pekin duck will be fully well done. You should serve both the skin and the meat with the pancakes, hoisin sauce, scallions, and if you like, some fresh cucumber.

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Maltose is a type of sugar that is not nearly as sweet as sucrose, only about a third as sweet. It comes from barley malt and is the stickiest shit you’ll ever encounter in a kitchen. If you can’t find the super-thick version available in Chinese stores, but have access to Whole Foods or some other natural foods store, try barley malt syrup, which is pretty similar and far easier to work with (although it has a slightly more toasty taste).

For the duck:

1/4 tsp five spice powder
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 Pekin duck
1/4 c maltose syrup
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 c water

Combine the salt and five spice powder. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set up a colander in a well-draining sink.

Trim the excess fat from around the neck and cavity of the duck. You should remove your rings for the next step, if you wear rings. Starting at the cavity, separate the skin from the fatty skin with your hands, working slowly to avoid tearing. Once you get to the point your hands are too big to go any further without damaging the skin, insert a small/medium wooden spoon, convex side against the skin, into the space between skin and meat and work slowly to separate all the skin. Do the same for the thighs and legs, as well as you can (the skin from the drumstick portion of the legs you do not need to detach if you find this difficult). Classically, air is pumped between the two, but this is difficult to accomplish at home and the spoon method will work just as well.

When the water comes to a boil, stand the duck cavity side down in the colander in a sink and slowly pour the boiling water evenly over all. Do not pour faster than the sink can drain immediately. Pat the duck dry. Season the cavity with the salt/five spice mixture.

Clear enough space in your refrigerator to accommodate both the pan you will be using and enough vertical height for the duck. If you have one of those obnoxious beer can chicken roasters, stand the duck on the roasting apparatus, cavity side down. If not, use a clean, tallish (empty) beer can. I recommend the 16 ounce Heineken or Bitburger cans. Place in a small roasting or cake pan large enough to accommodate the bird standing up. Refrigerate at least 6-12 hours before the next step.

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Bring the maltose, vinegar, soy, and water to a boil and remove from heat once the maltose has dissolved. After the duck has dried out for about 6-12 hours, paint the surface evenly with a thin coat of the maltose. Return to the refrigerator and repeat every 6-8 hours if possible until you have added three coats. It should be shiny and quite dry/barely sticky to the touch.

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Heat your oven to 450F. If you have a rotisserie arrangement, now is the time to use it! Be sure to place a large pan under the duck to catch the fat and drippings. If not, carefully place the duck, still standing vertically in its pan, in the oven. Blast it at 450F for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350F. Do not open the oven door to check on it, at least not for the first hour. Use this time to make the pancakes.

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After about 75=90 minutes, your duck should be ready to come out. Remove the pan or rotisserie. Allow it to cool about 10-15 minutes to allow the glaze to re-harden. It will be rather glossy and a deep mahogany.

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Separate the skin in the largest pieces possible and slice them up. Remove what meat exists from the bony frame and slice or shred it. Serve it with the pancakes and other condiments listed below.

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For the pancakes:

2 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 c boiling water
toasted sesame oil

Whisk together the flour and salt in a stand mixer bowl. With the mixer running, add the boiling water slowly. Knead until you obtain a smooth, elastic dough. You do not need to let this dough rest as it is a boiling-water dough; the gluten becomes very relaxed from the high heat. Roll into a ball and divide in two; roll each half into a smooth ball, then into a cylinder, and divide into 10 uniform pieces each. Cover what you aren’t using. Gently flatten two pieces at a time; brush each on both sides with sesame oil. Place one oiled disc atop another. (Alternatively, roll each half into approximately 1/8″ thick disc. Stamp out rounds using a biscuit cutter.)

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Roll out the double disc and then flip over; roll some more. These should be as thin as you can make them without tearing. Don’t press too hard or they will stick together and become difficult to separate.

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Place a dry skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the rolled out pancakes (if your skillet is large enough, you can do two at once). Wait for them to just barely puff slightly and flip. They should be browned in spots but not burnt or uniformly brown. Place in a steamer basket lined with a clean kitchen towel and cover with the towel. Cover with the steamer lid. Don’t let them sit out uncovered or they will dry out as the steam escapes.

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To assemble and serve:

12 scallions
1 long Japanese cucumber, peeled and sliced into 2″ batons
1/4 c hoisin sauce

Slice the scallions thinly on the diagonal or, for a fancier presentation, cut them into 2″ lengths, slice those vertically into 1/8″ batons, and place in ice water for up to an hour.

I don’t like raw cucumber so I rarely eat it plain, but instead dress the cucumbers with a little rice vinegar and sugar to take off that raw edge. If you choose to do this, combine 2 tbsp of rice vinegar, 2 tbsp of filtered water, 1/2 tsp sugar and a pinch of salt and dress the cucumbers lightly about 30 minutes before service.

Serve the duck with the pancakes, the hoisin sauce, the cucumber, and the scallions. Diners may build their own or you may build them before service (which tends to look nicer).

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Note: Acolytes of postmodernism who think I have butchered and/or misrepresented your viewpoint, it’s possible, sure. Feel free to let me have it in the comments.

Further note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Breakfast, Cocktails, eggs, Latin, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Your medium western states.

When I was growing up in Milwaukee in the Seventies, my city was the epicenter of American prime time television culture, what with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and all. The interesting thing is it came by this fame not for displaying its contemporary charms, but by portraying a sort of idealized vision of a Fifties-era Milwaukee, evoking a sagging nation’s fondness for its own better days. If you doubt the prominence of Wisconsin in Seventies pop culture and its use as a nostalgic prop, I submit to you that, twenty years later, Fox set That Seventies Show not in New York or San Francisco or Southern California, but in my home state. As viewed through the lens of television, the whole idea of Wisconsin is like standing in one of those bathrooms with a mirrored shower door opposite a mirrored wall. You can stand there and watch yourself traveling backwards through time into infinity.

Fairly or not, in any case, the Midwest as a whole has come to represent the situs of not only American nostalgia but a sort of anti-progress, looking backward at our past as though into the endless regression of those reflected mirror images. Is it true – that we stand still while time eddies around us? Does it matter? Which brings me to South Dakota, where I recently spent a week driving around with a colleague, another transplanted Midwesterner now living on the east coast.

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Here’s the thing about living in the city: it can turn you into a glutton for novelty and status. You get to the point where you always order the one unfamiliar item on the menu, which you have scanned for words like tripe, foraged, and hay-smoked to ensure the chef, like you, has been doing his homework. Securing a cronut comes with bragging rights, until that sudden moment when they’re so over, as over as cupcakes and salted caramel, fodder for copycatting on mommy blogs and the Starbucks bakery case. You watch that Portlandia episode with an expanding sense of unease, like, are you this ridiculous? Maybe you are this ridiculous.

None of this is an issue in rural South Dakota. Your dining options are basically limited to truck stops and taverns, and you had better like beef, or you’re shit out of luck. One night during our visit, we ordered grilled ribeyes, which came with a trip to the salad bar. “You first,” I gestured to my colleague. He returned a few minutes later with a frosted glass plate of iceberg lettuce and what looked like macaroni salad. “Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned me in his low-key Michigander way, as I stood for my turn. Nestled beside the bowl of rust-tinged iceberg lettuce in the salad buffet was something I thought could be creamed mushrooms. For one demented moment, I even thought it might be edible soil folded into mayonnaise. I took a big spoonful. It turned out to be crushed Oreos folded into vanilla pudding, which, I learned the next day, is called “cookie salad” locally and may be varied by substituting other cookies or candy bars for the Oreos, and Cool Whip for the pudding. “That sounds great,” my husband said later that night, when I gave him the post-game over the phone. “Not as salad, though.”

This is the kind of food that makes sophisticates on the coasts cast knowing glances of pity and scorn on their Midwestern associates. And plant foods are not the strong point of rural South Dakota at end-of-winter, based on our visit. But the ribeyes were deeply marked from the grill, rimmed in charred fat, and mine was the perfect medium rare I’d requested. The macaroni salad turned out to be a very good potato salad, the potato grated into long shreds and bound lightly in mayonnaise. Beers were icy, served in frosted mugs. Cookie salad notwithstanding, our dinner was the kind of thing – like grilled cheese or meat lasagne – most of us love when we’re not trying to keep up appearances. Sometimes moving forward is less important than standing perfectly still.

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Breakfast Egg

A good breakfast is a lot like a good dinner in the rural Midwest. It’s inherently retrograde – probably taking you back a couple of decades at least – and delivers total familiarity, not intellectual demands first thing in the morning. Maybe you deploy a few tricks here and there – your eggs are cooked in a water bath, your sausage is house-made – but always in the service of improvement, not novelty. Like Steve Austin. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. But also like Steve Austin, the perfect modern breakfast still basically looks like the breakfast you remember.

When I was a kid, I figured out pretty early that I could do almost anything I wanted during weekend mornings if I was quiet enough not to wake my parents. This awareness inevitably led me down one of two paths: slice upon slice of white sandwich bread, toasted one at a time and immediately spread with thin curls of cold salted butter; or eggs, either scrambled with slices of American cheese (one per egg), or beaten and poured into a swirling vortex of chicken bouillon until just set, like a fluffy, poached, chicken-flavored omelet. Both were eaten watching Super Friends while sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter; both were always followed, once my parents came down a couple hours later, by what I liked to call “second breakfast.”

What follows is a modern breakfast interpretation of one of my favorite second breakfasts, over easy eggs with maple-y sausage links and bacon, toast on the side. The yolk should run somewhat; you accomplish this by cooking the egg until only the white is set, chilling, and wrapping the chilled egg in sausage. If you let the egg come to room temperature before frying, you probably will end up with a set (if soft-ish) yolk.

Transglutaminase is not strictly necessary. It binds the protein in the pork to that in the egg white, but you can achieve a pretty ok effect by rolling the eggs in flour. The downside to flour is it can form an unappetizing pastelike substance when it combines with the moisture in the pork, so use only the merest coating. And if you don’t keep quarts of bacon fat around the house, pretty much any vegetable oil will do, though your eggs won’t taste all that bacon-y.

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For the eggs:

6 large eggs, at room temperature
Egg carton

Prepare an ice bath.

Bring 3000 ml (3 liters, about 3 qts) salted water to a boil. Carefully add the eggs. Cook just at the boil (not a rolling boil) for 4 1/2 minutes. Remove with a skimmer and deposit in the ice bath. Once the eggs are just cool enough to handle, tap lightly all over to form shallow cracks, including at both ends. Allow the eggs to rest in the ice bath under refrigeration at least 3 hours. This allows the eggs to cool but also permits water to penetrate the cracks and loosen the shell.

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When ready to coat in sausage, remove the shell. Store the eggs upright in an empty egg carton lined with clingfilm.

For the sausage:

700g/1.5 lbs pork shoulder, quite fatty (2:1 ratio shoulder to belly if a fatty cut of shoulder is not available)
2 1/4 tsp smoked salt
2 tbsp maple sugar
1/8 tsp pimentón
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
leaves from 3 sprigs thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled

Cube the pork shoulder and season with the salt, sugar, pepper, and pimentón. Freeze briefly and then add the thyme leaves and thinly sliced garlic. Grind through a small die. Cook a test quenelle and add seasoning if necessary.

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To fry:

2-4 slices bacon, depending on thickness
4 g transglutaminase (Activa RM)
4 c bacon fat
1 c flour
1 egg, beaten with 3 tbsp water
2 c panko

Set the bacon slices on a rack over a quarter sheet pan and bake at 150C/300F for 8-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until the bacon, including its fat, is just cooked but not browned. Reduce heat to 82C/180F and continue to dry the bacon until crisp, about 3 hours. Not browning the bacon is important, as browned bacon will burn once fried later. Drain well on paper towels, cool, and grind to a powder. Combine with the panko. Up to this point, you may store the panko blend tightly covered for several days in the refrigerator.

On a large square of clingfilm, spread about 75g (around 3 ounces) sausage in a thin (about 3 mm) layer large enough to cover the egg evenly once completely rolled. Note: You should do a test run to get a sense of the size of the sausage layer before proceeding to the next step as mistakes cannot be undone without an adverse impact on texture.

Sprinkle transglutaminase over the sausage surface in a thin layer (about 1% by weight, so just over .5g per egg). Place an egg in the center and gather the clingfilm upwards, covering the surface of the egg with sausage. Twist to enclose completely and form into an ovaline ball; repeat until all the sausage and eggs are gone. It is best to place these in a muffin/popover tin as you work so they remain round while they chill. Chill for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.

Set up a standard three part breading station and heat the bacon fat to 163C/325F. Unwrap the sausage-covered eggs as you are ready to fry. Ensure the sausage is well attached to the egg; dip in the flour, the egg wash, then the panko-bacon mixture. Fry on each side for about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with rye toast for dipping in the runny yolk.

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Bonus: Michelada

On the way home from South Dakota, I stopped at O’Hare. I never complain about laying over in O’Hare because I can stock up on Garrett’s cheese corn and have molletes at Tortas Frontera. This time, I added a cocktail to my routine. The bartender was kind enough to put it in a to go cup so I could use it to take the edge off my flight. Midwesterners are so thoughtful.

I’ve consumed many a michelada, but this was by far the best. I attribute it to the extra lime I requested. If you like drinking with breakfast at weekends, this is better than bloodies – more refreshing and far less drunk-making. I have no idea if this is how Frontera makes micheladas, but it tastes right.

Tajin* or Valentina fruit seasoning (Note: these are both dry seasonings of chile, lime, and salt and are pretty much the same. Excellent on melons, mango, and papaya. Substitute a chile salt)
One 12-ounce Negro Modelo or similar; Corona or PBR will do in a pinch
1 tsp or so Valentina hot sauce (specifically)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 shakes Maggi
Juice of two limes or one really juicy, large lime
Optional: between 1/2 and 1 shot tequila (NOT silver or blanco, and nothing really expensive)
Several ice cubes

Moisten the rim of a pint glass and dip in a plate with a shallow layer of Tajin.

In the glass, stir together the hot sauce, Worcestershire, Maggi, lime juice, and tequila if using. Add the ice cubes. Slowly pour in about 1/3 of the beer and stir gently just to combine. Add the rest of the beer. Drink with more lime.

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*Note: The Tajin bottle bears an interesting warning:

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Further note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Chiles, Latin, Pork Products, Quick Meals

That’s a spicy meatball.

Let me begin by saying that I think the whole meatball thing is really played out. Ever since Joey Campanaro started serving his gravy meatball sliders at The Little Owl – and that was in what, 2006? – people have been going crazy for meatballs. Just Google “meatball trend” and you’ll find stories from last year and this one touting meatballs as a “hot food trend,” “vying for most buzzed-about treat with macarons and cake pops.” And that’s about right – five years after it appears in a fine dining context (or in NYC), an idea starts catches fire in popular food culture, where it’s relentlessly beaten to death for a few years until no one can stand the sight of it. It happened with sundried tomatoes and roasted garlic, and it happened with seared tuna. We all know what’s become of cupcakes. Just last fall, I was forced to eat at Macaroni Grill on a work trip and ordered some decidedly mediocre “spicy ricotta meatballs” for lunch. In a year or two, meatballs will be all over every chain restaurant menu in the country and you’ll all be sick of the double entendres about balls.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love a good meatball, though. Along with soups and sauces, meatballs are among the great frugal foods, a way of stretching meat further or using meat trimmings to avoid waste. At their simplest, meatballs are simply ground or chopped meat extended with eggs or a starch like bread or rice; from there, they can assume virtually any guise. In Italy, pork or veal enriched with bread might be simmered in brodo (a meat broth); in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and throughout the Middle East, koftes and their relatives combine bulghur or bread with lamb or beef. In Vietnam, pork balls bound with ground roasted rice are grilled and eaten with vermicelli or rice, or simmered in soup. Among my favorite meatballs are albóndigas, seasoned meatballs popular throughout Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, usually served in a light broth with vegetables.

Recently, we enjoyed some braised pork tacos prepared by a friend for our regular supper club. Essentially carnitas stewed in a tangy tomatillo sauce, they were tender and meaty with just a little heat from some chiles. Why not enjoy albóndigas featuring these flavors? Simmering porky meatballs in an acidic sauce of roasted tomatillos and chiles tenderizes the meat while conveying some of that meaty savor to the sauce.

Tomatillos, in their husks.

Note: these meatballs won both People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice awards at the Great Grapes wine festival just north of Baltimore yesterday. Prize-winning meatballs! Make them tonight!

SOME PIG

Pork meatballs, tomatillo-chile sauce

This recipe incorporates my suggestions for making the best meatball, whatever your flavors. First, you’ll note, it uses a panade of bread and a liquid (I chose cream for richness but milk or even water are fine). Why panade instead of eggs? Well, if you’ve ever boiled an egg, you know what happens to egg white as it cooks – it becomes solid and tough, even rubbery. The proteins in the meat will become firm enough as you cook them; there’s no need to make the meatballs even harder with egg white. The point is to extend the meat, not to toughen it. If you really need to extend a small quantity of meat and have nothing but eggs, you’re better off making a Scotch egg.

Second, you’ll see that the recipe calls for grinding meat together with onions and garlic. Why? Onion is an excellent filler for meatballs, but there’s nothing worse than a big bite of raw onion inside a cooked piece of meat. By grinding the onion and garlic with the meat, you ensure small bits and even distribution. You also avoid the dreaded pink slime problem. If you don’t have the means or inclination to grind your own meat, don’t worry. Just ask the butcher to grind the cut you select, or, at a minimum, ask whether the ground meat you want to buy is ground in-house. If so, you can feel quite sure you’re not eating some extruded meat slurry from bits scraped up off the slaughterhouse floor, blasted with ammonia. Most supermarket ground beef found in the butcher’s display case is ground in-house; most packaged ground meat is not. Choose knowledgeably.

Don’t be daunted by the list of ingredients – many of them are garnishes and you can take or leave them as you choose. I’ve also provided instructions using ground meat and ground spices. If you use pre-ground products the meatballs can hit the pan in fewer than ten minutes. You can double, triple, or otherwise multiply this recipe as necessary. A pound of meat yields perhaps a dozen golf ball-sized meatballs (after cooking).

For the meatballs:

4 whole allspice, or 1/8 tsp ground
1 tsp cumin seeds, or 1/2 tsp ground
2 tsp coriander seeds, or 1 tsp ground
1 standard slice bread
1/4 c cream, half and half, milk, or water (more fat obviously equals more richness)
1 lb pork shoulder, mostly lean and some fat, or 1 lb ground pork
1/2 medium onion, diced
6 cloves garlic confit or substitute 2 cloves fresh, minced
1 tsp salt, plus a pinch extra
one lime
To garnish:
crema, or sour cream
grated queso asadero or another hard grating cheese
cilantro leaves, washed and spun dry
finely diced onion, rinsed for two minutes in cold water and drained well

For the roasted tomatillo and chile sauce:

1 1/2 lb tomatillos, husked and washed (they’ll be a little sticky; don’t worry if it doesn’t all come off)
2 serrano chiles, more if you like it hot
1 small onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic confit and a little oil from the confit, or substitute 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced, and 1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
salt

Start with the tomatillo sauce.

Set the broiler of your oven at the hottest setting. Place the chiles and tomatillos on a sheet pan and set under the broiler.

When the peppers and tomatillos have blistered and are beginning to blacken on top (maybe five minutes, maybe more), remove the pan and flip them over. Return to the broiler and broil until totally softened and blistered. You do want them to be blistered well with a dark brown to black char in parts – this will contribute to the smoky flavor of the tomatillo sauce.

Remove from the broiler, taking care not to spill any accumulated liquid – which may be considerable. Remove the stems from the peppers and discard. Transfer to a blender/vitaprep.

Tomatillos and chiles, roasted.

Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil from the garlic confit. Add the onions and garlic confit, sweating until translucent. Add the cumin and cook another minute more. Transfer to the blender/vitaprep. Blend until relatively smooth, taste, season with salt, and transfer to a saucepot and set aside. You may wish to add a small amount of water to thin out the sauce.

Prepare the meatballs.

If using whole spices, place the spices in a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Toss from time to time. When you begin to smell a “toasted” spice aroma, remove from the heat and transfer to a spice grinder. Grind well, until no visible chunks of spice remain (this is most difficult to achieve with coriander so if you get a husk or two, that’s fine). If using ground spices, simply combine.

Tear or cut the bread into small pieces (less than an inch) and mix with the heavy cream. Allow to moisten and then mash well with a fork or potato masher. If it is too stiff to mash, add a little water until the consistency of the mash is like a thick batter. (This is called the panade.)

If using a pre-ground pork, mince the onion and the garlic confit as finely as possible. Combine with the ground pork, panade, and about 1 1/4 tsp of the seasonings; mix well with your hands.

If grinding your own, dice the pork about 3/4″.

Combine the salt and about 1 1/4 tsp of the seasonings. Toss the meat, diced onion, and garlic confit with the seasoning and spread it on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.

Grind the entire pork/garlic/onion/spice combination using the small die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and seasonings if necessary. Combine with the panade and mix well with your hands.

On the grind.

Set the saucepot of tomatillo sauce over low heat and bring to just below a simmer. Place a large skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add a little vegetable oil, just enough to film. Form the meatball mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls and set in the hot, oiled skillet. After a minute or two, roll the meatball – if it sticks, it is not ready to roll. Brown on all sides, rolling from time to time, until all sides are browned. Don’t worry too much whether the meatballs are fully cooked inside as they will continue to cook in the tomatillo sauce. Transfer with a slotted spoon to the tomatillo sauce. Repeat until all the meatballs are cooked.

Cover the pot and cook at just below a simmer, stirring from time to time to ensure that the meatballs all cook evenly, for about 20 minutes.

Pot of meatballs.

Squeeze a little lime juice over the meatballs and serve with crema or sour cream, a little grated queso asadero, raw onion, and cilantro (if you like that sort of thing). Enjoy these with corn tortillas, over grits, or with a simple salad.

Bowl of balls.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.

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Fish, Latin, Quick Meals

Chimichurri.

The other day, a friend noted that, although he likes bluefish, he won’t cook it inside the house. I told him that I know a way to prepare it indoors without stinking up the joint. “You’re on,” he said.

The smelliest and most regret-inducing way to prepare fish indoors is to pan-fry rich, oily fish. For a lot of people, it’s hard to get right, too – it sticks to the pan because people are afraid to use oil; it becomes overdone and chewy, with a tough, leathery exterior because people are afraid to undercook. Don’t pan-fry. You’ll smell it for days, and not in a good way. Grilling is always a good option, but it also can pose the problem of sticking. My solution? Roast the fish. If you roast fish, you won’t smell a thing. Not even with bluefish, or any of the stronger fish.

So of course, I went to Whole Foods looking for bluefish to prove my point, and they didn’t have it. According to the fish guy, people in the greater Annapolis area don’t buy it. Same goes for mackerel, another favorite fish with a similar rich, meaty flavor profile, and sardines, a rich, meaty, small fish perfectly suited to grilling over coals. So I bought mahi-mahi, a milder but somewhat firmer fish. Whole Foods had a whole mahi mahi, iced down, in the display, and it is a striking fish with golden skin, a prominent round forehead, and a sail-like dorsal fin. Fished off U.S. waters in the Atlantic, it’s also a sustainable choice.

I like to pair strong-flavored fish like bluefish, mackerel, and sardines with chimichurri sauce. In 1997, I traveled to Nicaragua with my family for the presidential inauguration. From an ideological standpoint I have to say the president was not my cup of tea, but the trip introduced me to chimichurri, which we ate during lunch with roasted Argentine beef. It may have been the most delicious beef dish I had ever tasted at the time.

Chimichurri, sharp from vinegar, savory with onions, and green with parsley and other herbs, is perfectly suited to cutting the fattiness of rich meats. That much has been clear to the generations of Latin Americans who have enjoyed it on well-marbled, grass-fed beef. It occurred to me after the trip, however, that chimichurri was an even better pairing with rich, oily fish. And you know, it really is. My husband – “not a fish guy” – loves even the stronger-tasting fish, if I serve them with chimichurri.

Spanish mackerel, chimichurri

Roasted fish with chimichurri

Within reason, you can substitute other fish for the bluefish or mackerel, but I urge you to try this dish with one of these fish (or sardines, which are amazing with chimichurri). Don’t use a mild, delicate fish like trout, flounder, or sole – these can’t stand up to the strong flavors of the sauce. I’m not a huge fan of salmon either (except in its raw form), and I probably would steer clear of salmon as well.

And when you’re choosing fish, always choose carefully, with an eye toward preserving ocean life. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s excellent Seafood Watch program provides three easy ways to check whether your choice is environmentally friendly. They’ve got an online guide, a downloadable, printable pocket guide (sushi guides, nationwide guides, and regional guides are all available), and a super-useful mobile guide for iPhone users. The ocean needs our help – now more than ever.

2 cups flat-leaf parsley leaves, washed and spun dry
3 tbsp dried Mexican oregano
1 small onion, minced finely
1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 c olive oil

Bluefish or spanish mackerel, or another firm, meaty fish
olive oil
salt or soy sauce
black pepper

Combine the oregano, onion, salt, pepper, cayenne. Whisk together the vinegar and oil and stir into the onion blend. Set aside.

Mince the parsley as finely as you can and add to the vinaigrette. Allow flavors to combine for at least half an hour before serving.

While chimichurri rests, heat oven to 400F. Fillet the fish if necessary, and place on a sheet pan – lining it with foil will facilitate cleanup. Rub a small quantity of soy sauce (just barely to season) into the flesh, or salt the fish, and drizzle with a small quantity of olive oil. Roast about 8 minutes for spanish mackerel or 16 for bluefish, depending on the thickness of the filet. Season with black pepper.

Spoon chimichurri over the fish.

Variant: clean sardines; make several small (1/8″) cuts in flesh on each side. Season with a little salt and grill on an oiled grate over coals. Serve with chimichurri.

Mahi-mahi, chimichurri, potato/zucchini

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Latin, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Quick Meals, Sandwich

Pressed for time.

The Cuban food fest of the past weekend yielded some leftovers, by design. See, I really like Cubanos. As sandwiches go, I don’t think you can beat them.

If you don’t already know, a Cubano – the archetypical Cuban sandwich – is a sandwich of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and sliced pickles between the halves of a Cuban loaf, slathered with mustard. The sandwich is heated and pressed using a device called the plancha, which resembles a panino maker. Unlike the panino maker, the plancha is not grooved and does not leave grill marks. Its heavy plates flatten the bread, compressing the layers of meat and pickle, and melting the Swiss cheese.

Which brings us to Baltimore, 2010. I have leftover roast pork and a jar of house-made dill pickles. To me, that means Cubanos. The origins of the Cubano are open to dispute – no one is really sure whether the sandwich originated in Florida, among the cigar workers in Tampa’s Ybor City and Key West, or in Cuba, but it is clear that the sandwich was popular both on the continent and the island. The Cubano probably first appeared – wherever it appeared – at the beginning of the 20th century, and by the 1960s, it was eaten widely throughout South Florida and cosmopolitan Cuba.

Pickles and mustard lend tang to the sandwich, and the plancha-pressing produces a crisp, brown crust. The melted Swiss cheese holds all the sandwich fillings together. It’s a perfect sandwich. Although a Tampa variant sometimes includes Genoa salami – a tangy, garlicky sausage – most versions of the sandwich do not. Lettuce, tomato, and condiments besides mustard (such like mayonnaise) generally are considered inauthentic.

Cubano

If you can find Cuban bread, use it. It’s not easy to come by outside Central and South Florida. If, like me, you live in the Land Without Cubans, use a baguette, preferably not a really good one, You want something supermarkety, not as crisp-crusty as a baguette really should be, and split down the length of the top, if you can find that. Sadly, I don’t have a panino maker or a plancha, so I use a grill press (a flat plate of stainless steel with a wooden handle). It’s not quite as effective, but it comes close. And I only had good baguettes. Whatever, it’s still a delicious, crusty sandwich.

Yellow mustard is traditional, but I prefer the mellower bite of a green peppercorn Dijon mustard. The pickled red onion also is atypical, but I had them, and I used them.

One loaf Cuban bread, or a baguette
1/4 lb thinly sliced ham – a glazed, Virginia, or maple ham is good
1/4 lb thinly sliced roast pork
2 dill pickles, thinly sliced
Optional: pickled red onions, from recipe
4-6 slices Swiss cheese (depending on size of baguette)
mustard

Slice the Cuban loaf or the baguette lengthwise. Spread the mustard on the cut sides of the bread and layer the fillings within the loaf. Replace the top and press down.

Place the sandwich in a heated plancha or panino press (with a flat plate), on a hot flat top, or in a heated dry skillet. Lower the top of the plancha or panino press, or place a heavy weight (such as a foil-wrapped brick or another skillet) over the sandwich. Press hard. If heating on a flat top or in a skillet, flip over the sandwich and repeat. When golden and crisp, remove the sandwich from heat and slice.

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Beans, Beef, Latin, Pork Products, Salad, Vegetables

Cuba libre.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that we’ve been eating a certain amount of Cuban food during the past several days. One of my favorite people in Washington is leaving town for good, and moving back to her hometown, Tampa. I’m happy for her and all, but I wish she weren’t leaving. We’ve had some great times together over the past ten years – her office was right next to mine at my old job and over the years we’ve had cake parties together, eaten our way through a lot of DC restaurants, tried to find something good to eat in Oklahoma City (I don’t think we were successful), and consumed a lot of wine and boar sausage in Languedoc.

So to celebrate her awesomeness, some of us friends decided to throw a party. Cuban food seemed the natural choice – Tampa has a long relationship with Cuba and Cubans, starting with the establishment of Ybor City in the late 19th century as a cigar manufacturing center and vibrant Cuban community. Normally I gravitate toward the more obscure foods, or update the classics. But a buffet for forty seemed a time to play it straight. With the greatest hits of Cuban cuisine – long braises like ropa vieja, hearty dishes like black beans and rice ( frijoles negros), plátanos or plantains, and slow roasted pork – how could we go wrong?

To cater to the vegetarians at the party, I elected to make the frijoles negros a meatless dish. Along with the plátanos and the avocado/mango salad, they make a totally filling meal for vegans. For meat eaters, the ropa vieja, with its falling-apart tender beef in a seasoned tomato sauce, and the slow roasted pork, with a counterpoint of crisp, pickled red onion to cut through the fatty meat, complete a perfect home-style meal.

Family style.

Frijoles negros

Here it is – Cuban black beans and rice, suitable for vegetarians. Beer and pimentón, smoked Spanish paprika, make up for the absence of meat-based stock and ham hock. Pimentón is not traditional in Cuban cuisine but it adds smokiness, a slight sweet flavor, and depth to the dish.

1 1/4 lb black turtle beans, rinsed and picked over
olive oil
two medium onions, peeled, fine dice
8 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
1 large rib celery, strings removed, fine dice
2 cubanelle peppers, seeded, deribbed, skin removed, fine dice
1 1/2 tsp pimentón, preferably dulce (sweet)
1/8 tsp cayenne
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp cider vinegar
1 12 oz bottle beer – pilsener style
water
salt and pepper

Soak beans if you have time; otherwise just simmer until cooked completely through to the center. Drain, reserving 2 c cooking liquid, and set aside.

Place a large pot over medium low heat and add oil. Sweat vegetables, adding in the order prescribed. When all vegetables are tender, add pimentón, cayenne, and oregano and saute for one minute. Add bay leaves, thyme, 1 tsp sugar, and drained beans. Add vinegar, beer, and about 1/2 c water. Simmer, covered, until very tender – about 30 mins; remove lid and add the reserved bean cooking liquid. Continue to simmer another 30 minutes. If the mixture requires more water to stay moist and somewhat soupy, add more water (add 1 tbsp vinegar per additional cup water). Remove thyme branches and bay. Taste for salt and pimentón, and season. Do not be surprised if you need to add quite a bit of salt – beans often require aggressive seasoning.

Serve with steamed rice.

Slow roasted pork shoulder, sour orange mojo

Sour oranges are not widely available outside of Latin markets, and even then, you may not find them. I was fortunate to find them at the Berkeley Bowl. But don’t worry – the bottled juice, available at most Latin markets, is just fine. You also can substitute a 50/50 blend of orange juice and lime juice.

6 lb pork shoulder, or Boston butt, bone-in
3 c sour orange juice, either freshly squeezed or bottled (jugo de naranja agria)
8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
kosher salt

Combine the orange juice and garlic cloves at least 24 hours before roasting the pork. Rub the pork with salt, about 1/2 tsp per pound, and marinate in the orange juice about 24 hours. If you don’t have the time, you can marinate for as few as 4 hours.

Oven 400F/200C. Remove the roast from the marinade and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Season evenly but lightly with kosher salt. Reserve the marinade in the refrigerator.

Roast at 400F/200C for about 20 minutes, until a golden brown crust begins to form. Reduce the heat to 200F/90C and roast for 6 hours, rotating the pan a couple of times.

Slow roasting pork shoulder.

Remove the roast from the oven and allow to rest for 45 minutes before slicing. Meanwhile, pour the excess melted pork fat from the roasting pan and place the roasting pan, with drippings, on the stove. Pour in the reserved marinade and bring to a simmer, incorporating the fond (drippings) into the marinade. Strain.

Delicious roast pork with pickled onion.

Slice the pork and serve, drizzled with sauce, with pickled red onion.

Pickled red onion

I’ve flash pickled red onion on these pages before. Here’s a slower version that you can store, in the pickling liquid, in the refrigerator. It’s best after about two hours, and within a few days.

2 red onions, peeled and sliced pole-to-pole
2/3 c red wine vinegar
2/3 c filtered water
2 tsp kosher salt

Dissolve the salt in the vinegar and water. Pour over the onions and allow to sit, covered, for at least 2 hours. If you wish to pickle overnight (the onions will be totally pink if you do), refrigerate the container.

Ropa vieja

Ordinarily, the beef for ropa vieja is simmered first in a mirepoix-based broth; the beef is shredded into ropy strands and simmered in a spiced tomato sauce. But I hate to lose that beefy flavor to the simmering water, so I always simmer the beef in the tomato sauce. Bonus – not only does the hearty taste of the beef enhance the sauce, but the acid in the tomato helps tenderize the meat, and the dish can be completed in one pot, rather than two.

2 lb skirt steak (flap or plate)
two medium onions, peeled, fine dice
8 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
4 cubanelle peppers, seeded, deribbed, skin removed, fine dice
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
2 28-ounce cans crushed or diced tomato

Place a large, deep pot over medium low heat and add oil. Sweat vegetables, adding in the order prescribed. When all vegetables are tender, add the oregano and cumin, and saute for one minute. Add 1/2 tsp salt, bay leaves, thyme, and the tomatoes. Add the beef and bring to a bare simmer. Cook at a very low simmer, covered, until very tender – about 2 hours.

Remove the meat from the pot and shred it roughly into long, ropy chunks of strands about 1/2″ wide. Return to the pot and bring to a bare simmer again. Cook until very tender, another 45 minutes. Season with salt and add oregano or cumin if necessary. Remove thyme branches and bay.

Serve over rice (especially yellow rice, arroz amarillo, made golden with achiote).

Avocado and mango salad

Jicama adds crunch to this salad, and lime juice keeps it tart. Don’t skimp on the lime – the mango can be too sweet, and this isn’t a dessert; it’s a salad.

2 avocadoes, peeled and pitted
1 large mango or 2 small mangoes, sliced parallel to the pit
1 small jicama root, peeled
2 limes
watercress, washed and dried
sea salt and black peppercorns (I used smoked peppercorns)

Slice the avocadoes into about 8 slices per half. Slice the mango into thin batons, about 1/4″ thick or less. Arrange the mango slices on top of the avocado slices, squeeze lime juice over all, and season with pepper.

Julienne the jicama and toss with lime juice. Arrange atop the mango. Season with a little salt and garnish with watercress.

Avocado, mango, jicama, lime.

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Latin, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Quick Meals

Recycling is good, the cross-border edition.

So let’s say you made the pork shoulder and the grits the other night, and now you’ve got leftovers. Some people love leftovers, just as they are. But for a lot of people – more, in my experience – leftovers = been there/done that = wasted food. And the pork and grits are too good to go to waste. In these cases, it’s always good to recycle.

We don’t have tamales often at home. Normally, tamales begin with a corn-based dough, called masa. To prepare masa, corn is soaked in a solution of ash (generally potash [K2CO3] dissolved in water], or limewater (calcium carbonate [CaCO3] dissolved in water); the alkaline solution makes available niacin, a B vitamin that is not available in unprocessed corn. This process, called nixtamalization, is ancient, and probably made possible the reliance of Mesoamerican people on a corn-based diet.

Conventionally, to make tamales, one combines nixtamalized cornmeal (masa de harina) with water to hydrate, and then with lard to add unctuousness and flavor, and baking powder for lightness. The masa is spread inside a banana leaf or corn husk (or occasionally a chard leaf), enclosing a savory or sweet filling. The leaf is wrapped to enclose the filling, the tamales are stacked in a steamer, and steamed until firm. It’s not difficult, but I don’t make tamales or tortillas often enough to use up the biggish bags of masa de harina from the Latin market before they go stale. And you probably don’t either.

I had an idea last night, when I looked through the refrigerator and found the leftover grits. Sure, they’re not masa. For a quick evening meal, though, spreading the leftover grits inside banana leaves and enclosing some of the leftover pork might make a perfectly good imitation tamal. The grits, like all cornmeal dishes, tend to firm up on cooling, like masa; the sour orange flavors in the pork, combined with the banana leaves, would be reminiscent of the Yucatán. And the whole thing would take about twenty minutes, from wrapping to eating.

Are these authentic tamales? No. Are they quick and delicious? Yes. They’re also much lighter. To complete the tasty bastardization, serve the tamales with a little of the remaining red or green chile sauce, and follow up with an avocado and orange salad.

Pork “tamales”

Banana leaves are widely available in the freezer section of the supermarket. Check the Latin foods section – Goya provides frozen banana leaves in large, square plastic packets for just a couple of dollars. If you live in an area with a large Central American or Southeast Asian population, you may be able to find them fresh at a Latin or Asian market. Rinse well and remove the large central rib from fresh leaves – it usually has been removed in the frozen product. For maximum flavor and pliability, steam the leaves in a basket above simmering water for about 15-20 minutes before using. You can skip this step to save time.

The recipes for the grits, pork, and the red/green chile sauces all come from the “Christmas” post.

2 1/2 c leftover grits
1/2 c corn kernels, cut off the cob (optional – I was trying to use up some corn in the freezer)
1 c leftover pork shoulder in mojo, diced 1/4″
6 banana leaf sections, about 12″/30cm square or so
leftover red and/or green chile sauce

Spread a banana leaf on a cutting board. Spread out about 1/6 of the grits into a 3″ x 4″ rectangle in the middle of the leaf (the grits rectangle should be wider than it is tall). Don’t worry if the grits have become firm – they will spread easily. Sprinkle corn over, if using. Place 1/6 of the pork down the center, vertically. Carefully fold the banana leaf over so that the grits totally enclose the pork filling. Continue to fold closed so it forms a small rectangular packet and place in a small steamer basket. Repeat until you have used all the filling and leaves. Cover the basket.

Set the steamer basket over a pan of water and bring to a simmer. Steam for about eight minutes, until heated through. If you like, serve with the chile sauces.

Ersatz tamal with pork.

Avocado, orange, and onion salad

one bunch watercress, washed well and spun dry
one avocado, pitted, peeled, and sliced
one large orange, peeled and cut into supremes
about 1/2 red onion, sliced into thin rings, rinsed in cold water
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tbsp water
pinch salt
juice of one lime
salt and pepper

Combine the vinegar and water. Soak the onion rings for at least ten minutes in the vinegar water.

Meanwhile, arrange the avocado and orange on the plate. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over all the avocado. Drain the onion rings and blot dry; add to the plate. Season with salt and the remaining lime juice. Top with the watercress.

Avocado, orange, onion salad

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