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

ingredients
Salsa
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

Casserole
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

instructions
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

ingredients
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

instructions
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.