No Expiration

I am really bad about making phone calls, and living 2 and 3 hours away from most of our friends and all of our family doesn’t help. I blame my career – talking to patients and co-workers all day results in me being less likely to pick up the phone and dial up a friend just to chat.

That said, I appreciate that most of my friends are just like me in that respect. Because of that mutual bad (or good, depending on how you look at it) habit, we also tend to have plenty to catch up on when we do chat, and there’s no blaming one another for not calling sooner. It’s sort of awesome.

Cheryl is definitely one of my favorite friends of all time. She’s the one with the boat and the ex-boyfriend who just happened to be Indian (who made killer chai mixes), and the one with the current boyfriend with the camera, who also just happens to be awesome. Cheryl’s a person who I know, without a doubt, will always keep up her end of the deal, which is why we’ll be together at Thanksgiving for years and years to come and I know we’ll always keep in touch, even if we only talk to each other every few months.

We had the chance to catch up last week, and as is usually the case, we had quite a bit to talk about.

For starters, she has a fancy new job. It seems as if we’re all moving around these days, and while she’ll continue to live in Minnesota, she gets to shake it up a bit with some new surroundings. It’s very exciting, and I can’t wait to hear more once she gets settled in a little bit. I also can’t wait to hear how she’s faring with dressing like an adult, since she’s had it easy in her low-key lab set-up, right Cheryl?!

Secondly, she and Luke are making wine! How awesome is that?! It seems that homebrews are all the rage these days, and we never seem to land in a city that allows us to have things like basements and storage space, so we never get around to doing such things. The good part is that we get to partake in others’ brews, so we’re hoping that come Thanksgiving, there are a few bottles of wine coming our way :).

Finally, we had a random conversation about moving, and about accumulating loads of, well, crap. Generally, moving is a good excuse to rid yourselves of all of that crap, but this time we didn’t do the packing, so we didn’t do as much ‘cleaning’ as we would have liked. That said, we had a few boxes with questionable material inside. One box was full of bags, since I used to save practically every handled bag I got from shopping; clearly I did not need to store such things. Another box was extra-creepy: it seemed to be full of a smelly powdery substance that looked like pollen; perhaps something disintegrated over the course of two months? Who knows! Anyway, it was interesting nonetheless.

Most of my pantry items came through the move with flying colors, some that maybe should have been inspected with a bit more precision than others, though. But as it turns out, it was all for good. I drove home the other day (exactly one day after Cheryl and I had this random coversation about weird items found when moving), excited to make this Mexican casserole, a dish that would feed us for days – days! I got home, started pulling out my ingredients, and I realized I was missing two items: enchilada sauce AND canned green chiles. In a desperate move to avoid having to call Chris yet again with an on-the-way-home-from-your-already-long-commute-grocery-list, I panned the pantry frantically. Lo and behold, both, yes both, items were there. The only “issue” was the expiration date, a “best by 1/2009” stamp slapped across the bottom of both of them led me to hesitate for a few minutes a split second. I forged ahead, and things turned out just fine. So sometimes, all those weird, extra items come in handy – and as I found out, some things never seem to expire!

Mexican Chicken Casserole
adapted from Cooking Light, January 2011; serves 8

time commitment: 1 hour, 15 minutes (45 minutes active)

a couple of quick notes on this recipe: I’m not convinced that making my own roasted tomato salsa added much to the recipe. Not that it’s hard to make, but if you’d like to keep the food processor on the shelf and shave off a little time, you could probably get away with skipping the salsa part and buying a jar of roasted tomato salsa. i left it in the recipe so you can decide for yourself. also, the chicken. I figure most of us don’t have shredded chicken sitting in the fridge, so I added this step into the time commitment above. i bought a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken and shredded it the night before. my shredded chicken was about 5 cups, so you can save the remaining 2 cups for a mexican chicken salad or panzanella salad, or whatever else you fancy.

printable version

8 plum tomatoes, halved and seeded
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, quartered
olive oil
1/3 c chopped fresh cilantro
3 T fresh lime juice
1/8 t black pepper

3 c cooked chicken breasts &/or thighs
1 c chopped onion
1 c fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 c diced zucchini
1 c chopped red bell pepper
1 T minced garlic
2 t chili powder
1 t ground cumin
1 (10-ounce) can enchilada sauce
1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chiles
12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
1 c (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 c (4 ounces) crumbled cotija or feta cheese

Preheat broiler.

To prepare salsa, combine first 4 ingredients on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Broil 20 minutes or until charred, stirring once. Remove from oven; cool slightly. Place tomato mixture in a food processor; add cilantro, lime juice, and pepper. Process until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Shred chicken meat and measure out three cups.

To prepare casserole, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly coat pan with cooking spray. Add onion, corn, zucchini, and bell pepper; sauté 6 minutes or until tender. Add chicken and next 5 ingredients (through green chiles); sauté 2 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat.

Spread 1/2 cup salsa over the bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Arrange half of tortillas over salsa (they will obviously overlap quite a bit). Spoon 2 cups chicken mixture evenly over tortillas. Top with 3/4 cup salsa. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of each cheese. Repeat layers, starting with remaining tortillas and ending with remaining cheeses. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes until bubbly.

Big Star at Home

Long weekends are such a tease. Just long enough to relax just a little bit, but they’re over right when you really start getting used to it. Long or not really though, I’ll take what I can get, and will only complain a little along the way.

As it turns out, these “long weekends” are just long enough to get a few things accomplished. They’re long enough to get your hands on a really cheap starter bike that you broke in immediately by riding it 8 miles home (meanwhile, breaking in the tailbone as well). They’re just long enough to eat a good (ultra-cheap) dinner with friends, and to make it to Ribfest to sweat a bit in the sweltering hot sun and watch the Hubs regretfully inhale a deep-fried Milky Way.

This particular long weekend was just long enough to squeeze in a trip to Grant Park for fireworks, which included seeing lots of unpleasant “mom cleavage”, a kid getting swacked upside the head, lackluster fireworks, and Chicago’s finest texting and facebooking instead of fighting crime. The time with friends was unbeatable, though, and entirely worth all the other oddities.

Hubs’ weekend was more than complete, even though he had to work some (on a Holiday weekend! a Holiday weekend!), because he got to see his favorite band of all time for the millionth time, which for him is entirely priceless. It’s priceless for me too, but not because of the music, but instead because I see him with a permanent smile, carefree and as happy as a kid building a sandcastle. Maybe happier.

The only thing we didn’t get to squeeze into the past long weekend was a trip to Big Star, our neighborhood’s popular new-ish bar that requires you to either be on a permanent vacation, and/or have the determination to make it there by noon on the weekends with plans to camp out all day, as the patio fills up within moments if you aren’t there on the weekday by three. For those of us who work, that’s a little hairy.

Fortunately, a recent read of Food & Wine led me to an easy-on-the-eye picture of tacos al pastor from none other than the Bucktown spot itself, as part of a feature of the country’s top taco joints. It seems these delicacies weren’t as difficult to come by as I might had previously imagined, after all.

And after making them, Hubs and I agreed that, aside from the waiting time of grilling and resting the pork shoulder and taco assembly, the wait for these at home is much more bearable. Just like their own in-house tacos, these are perfectly juicy and heavily flavored with the dried chile marinade that the pork soaked in overnight. Finished off with a grilled pineapple salsa, I could have easily been sitting at a picnic table outdoors rather than in my own house.

The only difference? I was missing a Bakersfield Buck. But next time these get made, I plan to procure some ginger beer and bourbon as well, and then I’ll truly have my very own Big Star at Home. Without the agony of waiting.

Tacos al Pastor
Adapted from Big Star via Food & Wine, May 2010; serves 6

printable version

timing: 45 minutes of work, but allow a day for overnight marinating

4 dried guajillo chiles (about 1 ounce)
1 dried ancho chile
2 dried chipotle chiles
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup Coca-Cola
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon annatto seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 whole clove
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for grilling
2 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 large Spanish onion, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
Salt and freshly ground pepper
12 corn tortillas, warmed
cotija cheese
Grilled pineapple, chopped red onion and cilantro, for serving
1/2 lime’s worth of juice

Stem and seed all of the dried chiles and place them in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with water and microwave at high power until softened, about 3 minutes. Let cool slightly, then drain and transfer to a blender. Add the orange juice, lime juice, soda and vinegar. In a spice grinder, grind the annatto with the oregano, cumin, clove, sugar and garlic powder until fine. Add the spice mixture to the blender and blend until smooth.

Transfer the marinade to a saucepan. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until very thick, about 5 minutes; let cool. Transfer the marinade to a large resealable plastic bag. Add the pork and onion and seal the bag. Refrigerate overnight.

Light a grill. Remove the pork and onion from the marinade and scrape most of it off. Brush the pork and onion with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over moderate heat, turning, until the meat is cooked through, 15 minutes. Transfer the pork and onion to a work surface, cover loosely with foil and let stand 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the pineapple, red onion, and cilantro with lime juice and season with salt and pepper.

Cut the pork into strips. Serve the pork and onion with the warmed tortillas and salsa. Top with cotija cheese.

Trusty Backlog

To all the meat-lovers: I’m sorry. Although I’ve vigorously loaded up on meat this month, the posts this month have suggested otherwise – but I’ve been in the mood for sweets, I suppose. Plus, I haven’t cooked as much these past couple of weeks, as you well know by now.  Fortunately, I have a trusty backlog of tasty recipes to share, especially some from that first week in June.

So with that, let’s get right to it.

Although I’ve known this all along, this fact became abundantly clear to me over the past month: I heart tacos. Tacos with beer-braised turkey are great for wintertime, and Korean-infused tofu tacos are spicy, crunchy, and entirely suitable for the vegetarians, but meat-lovers love them too, as the tofu is swaddled in pepper paste, and fried til crispy on the outside and soft, melt-in-your-mouth on the inside. (Clearly, I dug those tacos…) And in May, I know I must have made at least two types of fish tacos (fried and unfried). I doubt I’ve met a taco I haven’t liked, quite honestly.

You see, a tortilla shell, crunchy or soft, corn or flour, is like a painter’s blank canvas. You add whatever you want from there: protein, salsa, vegetable, sauce, cheese, whatevs, and a masterpiece you have. A perfect taco has textural contrast – if the tortilla is soft, add some crunch in the toppings; if you’re crafting a crunchy-shelled taco, salsas are perfect. At the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.

It’s funny, because a few years ago my only association with a taco, aside from Taco Bell, of course, was the “boxed taco kit” from the grocery store. There was even a Taco Bell version, wasn’t there? Said taco kit included your shells (soft, crunchy, or combo (!)), some over-processed salsa, and the lovely taco “seasoning”. You bought your meat, which was typically ground beef, and if you dared to spice it up, you’d add some iceburg lettuce and again, over-processed ingredients, shredded Kraft cheese. I won’t lie – I liked them, and I’d probably still like them today if I could forget about the ease of making them fresher and more varied.

This taco is probably one of the best chicken tacos I’ve eaten in a long time, maybe ever, if I dare say it. The chicken (thighs, please) is lightly spiced and the toppings are super simple: avocado, pickled red onion, and cotija cheese. The cheese is a dry Mexican cheese that’s used similarly to Parmesan, but it looks and feels like feta cheese; it is slightly salty, which works well with the sweet, acidic onions and the spiced chicken. Look long and hard for it (Whole Foods or a Mexican market should carry it), because you won’t find another cheese like it, and all the sites suggest substituting with Parmesan although I can’t imagine it working well here. I’d use feta over parm, if I had to choose.

As for the pickled onions, I could rave about them for a while, if I had the time. They’re quickly plunged into boiling water to remove that raw red onion bite and then quick-pickled in some citrus juices, a bit of sugar, and cumin. I could eat them straight out of the bowl, which I may or may not have done a few times while the chicken was cooking – they are perfectly crunchy, onion-y in a sweet way, and citrus-spiked. And so pretty, aren’t they? with their neon-pink glow. It’s a festive looking dish for sure, almost too pretty to eat, really. But not quite…

Pollo Asada Tacos w/ Pickled Onions
Adapted from Cooking Light, April 2010; serves 4

printable version

1/2  c  fresh lemon juice
1/3  c  fresh lime juice
1  t  sugar
1  t  cumin seeds
1  medium red onion, sliced into thin strips
1 1/2  lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into thin strips
1  t  dried oregano
1  t  ground cumin
1 t chipotle chili powder
3/4  t  salt
3/4  t black pepper
Cooking spray
8  (6-inch) corn tortillas
1 avocado, sliced
1/2  c  (2 ounces) crumbled Cotija cheese

Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring until sugar dissolves. Place onion in a small saucepan; cover with water. Bring to a boil; drain and dunk onion in ice water. Drain onion; add to juice mixture. Chill until ready to serve.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Sprinkle chicken with oregano, cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper; toss to coat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add chicken to pan; cook 4 minutes or until browned and done, stirring occasionally.

Heat tortillas according to package directions. Divide chicken evenly among tortillas. Drain onion; divide evenly among tortillas. Top each tortilla with avocado and 1 tablespoon cheese; fold over.

¿Quién adora enchiladas? ¡Hago!

shrimp enchiladas

It’s been said previously, and on more than one occasion, that I’m from the South. I look forward to our visits back ‘home’ for a whole bunch of reasons. Sure, seeing friends and family are top on that list. I also like it because my accent gets more Southern-like after a couple of days (maybe even a couple of minutes if I’m around my mom or Kris).

Hitting up all of our favorite food joints ranks pretty high as well. And we’re not just talking Southern classics, people. Don’t get me wrong, I am most excited about Aunt Faye’s Sunday Dinners (chicken pastry included, of course), and I do love a Bojangles biscuit and dirty rice. CookOut milkshake? Yes, please. Sammy’s chicken wings w/ Sammy’s Sauce? Come to mama. And then there’s Mexican food. Oh si chicos y chicas! Sea todavía mi corazón!

tomatillo wrapper

So yes, it’s safe to say, “Yo adoro” Mexican food. Oh yeah. And in NC, there really isn’t a bad Mexican restaurant. And believe you me, there are thousands of ’em – Mexican restaurants in NC are like liquor stores in the projects, or Starbucks in downtown Chicago. You get the point, right? I had my go-to when I lived in Raleigh, El Rodeo (and they had a few locations). My all-time favorite in Durham near our old apartment, Bandidos. There was one near my work too that had the best specials and addicting salsa. And let’s not forget my first “date” with Chris: Baja Burrito (we’re so classy…).


But, it’s just not quite the same here in the Big City. Yes, there are still thousands, and I’ve found some gems, that’s for sure:

Pricey but Tasty: Que Rico!, 2814 N Southport in Lakeview. Great margaritas.
Bar Scene: Bar Celona & Grill, 3473 N Clark in Wrigleyville. Spanish/Mexican. In grad school, this was a great happy hour spot. $3 sangria can’t be beat. Blocks from the Cubbies.
Bar Scene w/ Outdoor Seating: Angels & Mariachis, 1721 W Division. Great new find for sure. I think Jennifer & Jon go here like every week. Or, a lot. They have great margaritas too.
I Can’t Remember the Name of the one with the coconut margaritas, Belmont, West of the Belmont red line stop by 3 blocks. Super duper enchilada suizas.
Supa Dupa Cheap: Flash Taco, 1570 N Damen Avenue. Right off the Blue Line Damen!! This is Chris’ favorite midnight spot, just like everyone else in our neighborhood.
Quick & Cheap: La Pasadita 1132, 1140, 1142 N Ashland. Yes, three locations. They’re busy!

salsa ingredients

In addition to satisfying my occasional (if occasional also means often…) Mexican (food) craving by dining out, I also gravitate towards the Mexican recipes in the thousand foodie magazines I read. I have a stack of tamale dishes that I’ve yet to make, and now that I mention it, I’m not at all sure why I haven’t. And this one sat in the stack for a while too. I suppose I’ve been busy, with things like the quarter from hell in culinary school, for one.

But I finally did get around to it, and I am glad I did. I had to change a few things, but that’s fine. But if you like enchiladas and if you like shrimp, I’d say to give it a go. Plus, anything roasted always tastes better, and roasted salsa verde is top notch for flavor.

roasted tomatillos and poblanos

The cheese used here is also a nice alternative to your typical Mexican cheeses. Queso fresco will always be my favorite in that group, but Cotija is also mighty fine. It’s most similar to the Greek feta cheese, and you could even use feta instead for a similar flavor and texture – the hardness of the cheese is really what you’re going for.

cotija cheese

Now, this is not your speedy Gonzalez enchilada dish. No way Jose. The roasting and making of the salsa is time-consuming, let alone sauteing the rest of the ingredients, assembling the enchiladas, and baking them. But I tell you, it’s worth it and please, don’t buy the crap in the bottle and think you’re being slick. You’re not, and I will catch you. Plus, you should have some salsa leftover for some chips n’ salsa while you wait. And by all means, please make extra! It lasts for days and would make for a great taco salad. Or whatever else you fancy 🙂

Poll to the People: What are your favorite Mexican restaurants and recipes? What have I left out in Chi-town? I’m sure there are many others!

cooked shrimp

Shrimp & Cotija Enchiladas w/ Roasted Salsa Verde
Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2009; Serves 4

printable recipe

4 T olive oil, divided
2 1/2 lbs tomatillos, husked & rinsed
4 large poblano chiles, halved lengthwise, cored, seeded; divided
1 jalapeno, halved and seeded (leave some if you want heat)
4 unpeeled garlic cloves
2 cups (packed) coarsely chopped cilantro (plus some for garnish)
1 cup (packed) chopped green onions
3/4 cup chopped red onion (plus some thinly sliced for garnish)
2 chopped roma tomatoes
1 lb uncooked shrimp, peeled & deveined (~32)
2 T fresh oregano
1 t gr. cumin
8 small corn tortillas
8 oz crumbled Cotija or feta cheese
avocado slices


  1. Preheat broiler. Line large rimmed baking sheet with foil; brush lightly with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Arrange tomatillos, poblano chiles, cut side down, and garlic cloves on prepared baking sheet. Broil until tomatillos and chiles begin to soften and blacken in several spots, watching closely to prevent burning, about 10 minutes (do not turn). Remove from oven. Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes.
  2. Transfer tomatillos to processor. Peel garlic and add to processor. Peel charred parts of chiles; coarsely chop chiles. Add generous 1/3 cup chopped chiles to processor (reserve remaining chiles for enchilada filling). Add jalapeno. Add 2 cups cilantro and 1 cup green onions to processor; pulse until coarse puree forms. Season salsa verde to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer 1 1/2 cups salsa verde to shallow bowl. (Note: Can be made in advance and kept in fridge)
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped red onion and sauté until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle shrimp with salt and pepper. Add shrimp, oregano, cumin, tomatoes, and remaining chopped chiles to skillet; sauté just until shrimp are almost opaque but not completely cooked through, tossing often, ~3 minutes. Remove shrimp mixture from heat.
  4. Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush 15×10 inch glass baking dish with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Spread 1/2 cup salsa verde from processor in bottom of dish. Stack tortillas; wrap in damp paper towels and place on plate. Microwave tortillas on high just until soft and pliable, 1 to 11/2 minutes. Place 4 shrimp and some onion-chile mixture down center of tortilla, then sprinkle rounded tablespoonful cheese over. Roll up tortilla, enclosing shrimp and onion-chile filling. Place seam side down in dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas, shrimp, onion-chile mixture, and cheese. (Note: you may have leftover mixture). Spread 2 cups salsa verde from processor over enchiladas.
  5. Bake enchiladas just until heated through and cheese melts, about 20 minutes. Using spatula, transfer 2 enchiladas to each of 6 plates. Spoon any remaining salsa verde over; sprinkle with remaining cheese. Garnish with red onion slices, avocado, and additional chopped cilantro, if desired.