Friday, June 25, 2010

Breakfast Burritos and New Bike Gear

The block that I live on was having a bunch of garage sales a couple of weekends ago, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to make some breakfast burritos for the visiting crowds. It was also a chance to try out the new side containers that my father in law put together to mount on the bike frame.

First I had to gather and prepare the ingredients.
  • 12" flour tortillas from the Mexican market
  • cooked a few pounds of chorizo seco (dried)
  • peeled, diced, and boiled a couple pounds of potatoes
  • 1 lb. of mixed of shredded jack and cheddar cheese to melt on the tortillas
  • 2 dozen eggs
  • diced jalapenos
The side car containers now had to be filled. The great part about this devise is that the individual containers come out for easy cleaning, and you can put ice in the bottom to keep the container contents cold. You can also put a Sterno candle underneath the container with some water inside of it to create a hot water bath to keep the container contents hot.

It was about 8:30 in the morning and I was ready to ride down the street and open up shop.

I had never cooked eggs on the hot 'arriba' part of the comal, but if I laid them down gently, they mostly stayed together without sliding off.

After the eggs were cooked, I mixed in the chorizo and egg that have been kept warm on the outer ring of the comal. Jalapenos occasionally went in here.

I scraped the completed filling to a free spot on the side of the comal so that I could use the center part to heat the tortilla and melt cheese on top of. The finished result turned out pretty good. Next time I would try to get more moisture in the filling. Maybe a chipotle sauce mixed in.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Squash Blossom Quesadilla

Went on my first trip at the farmers market last weekend of the year. My problem at these events is that I keep buying more ripe fruit and vegetables than I can possibly eat before they start going bad. This year was going to be different.

While wandering through the produce, I saw something that I hadn't seen in years, zucchini blossoms. I remembered how delicious these were when I was a kid and my grandmother used to fry them up. I had to take a second look.

Now I was recalling my Oaxaca trip, enjoying a quesadilla filled with Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms. It was one of the most wonderful things I had ever eaten. The whole thing was made in front of you on a wood burning comal. The cheese was like strands of thread with a milky texture while the blossoms were recently picked. They were spread on top of a freshly made masa tortilla until the cheese melted out of the sides.

The quality of Oaxacan cheese here isn't nearly as good as that in Oaxaca, here it is a drier, matted string cheese that doesn't melt as easily. However, the flowers were beautiful and I decided to give the squash blossom quesadilla a try.

This is a pretty easy thing to make once you acquire the flowers. I went with a flour tortilla and placed it on a dry iron comal. After a few seconds, I did my best of shredding Oaxacan cheese and putting on top of one half of the tortilla. Next, I tore up some of the flowers and put on top of the cheese.

Once the tortilla started to brown and the cheese started to melt, I folded in half and let the whole thing melt together.

It wasn't nearly as good as the one I got in Oaxaca, but it turned out pretty tasty. I will be looking for squash blossoms again at the farmers market.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bike Cart Jamaican Barbecue

Back from Jamaica, I had to take a shot at recreating the jerk chicken and serving up some fish that I had grown accustomed to eating on the island. The perfect opportunity for firing up the barbecue on the bike cart.

First a little more fabrication was due. While on vacation, the butcher block that I custom ordered had arrived. It is an awesome cut of maple end grain, 2 inches thick and sized to fit into the leftover space next to the cooking area. My father in law planted four studs into the wood and drilled corresponding holes into the aluminum frame. It fit perfectly and is removable for cleaning. We also put some hooks on the frame for holding utensils.

Picked up some beautiful halibut at Costco trip and thawed out some banana leaves in the freezer from the tamale expedition. Seasoned with a little dill and lemon, this cooked along side of some foil wrapped corn. A pretty simple dish, but it sure turned out great.

Now that the barbecue had been initiated, it was time for something a little more complicated, slow roasting a whole chicken prepared with jerk marinade. I am so glad that I had researched the Outdoor Chef City Grill 420 ahead of time. It really lives up to its reputation and high reviews. I was amazed how I was able to control the temperature within about five degrees for long periods of time.

This chicken cooked for an hour over 275 degree heat. It really was falling off the bone. The marinated was infused in the juicy meat and the jerk sauce was spicy, sweet, and wonderful.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Alright mon, thought that I would try something a little different. Maybe a little Jerk Chicken! What better place to learn than Mantego Bay, Jamaica. My wife and I were here for a little R&R when we saw 'The Art of Making Jerk' cooking class in the hotel activity brochure. After giving the jerk a try for lunch, this turned into a must do for the vacation.

The Jerk Centre is located just 25 feet off of the Jamaican shoreline at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Jerk shacks thrive on the sides of the road in Jamaica as a local fast-food industry. The term jerk is said to come from the word charqui, a Spanish term for jerked or dried meat. It eventually became jerky in English. Another origin is linked to the jerking or poking of the meat with a sharp object, producing holes which were then filled with a spice mixture. Jerk was an ingenious way to preserve meat out in the wilderness.

Jerk seasoning has two key ingredients: scotch bonnet pepper and allspice berry.

The scotch bonnet pepper is a variety of the habanero and got its name for its shape resembling a Scotch tam or hat. The colors range from green to yellow to red. The chiles not only add a spicy flavor, but also preserve foods when refrigeration was not easy to come by. You can substitute jalapenos, but it is worth the effort to hunt down the real thing. Reduce the heat by removing the seeds and veins from the pepper.

The allspice berry is a popular spice in Jamaica. This is not the same as the ground combination spice powder often used in pumpkin pies, but is the berry of the evergreen pimento tree which is native to the West Indies and South America. The dark brown, dried berries have an aroma similar to the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Other spices and herbs may include thyme, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, garlic, and scallion (depending on the cook).

Our instructor, Keisha, was going to show us how to combine these ingredients into the jerk.

In Jamaica, there are 2 types of jerk marinades, wet and dry. The dry rub is used when you are in a hurry and need to make a quick dinner. We focused on the wet rub that is more flavorful, infusing the meat all the way to the bone. It can be used on chicken, pork, seafood, or tofu.

Jerk Marinade (Wet)
  • 1/4 cup allspice berries
  • 10 scotch bonnets, stems and seeds removed
  • 1/2 cup scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4 bay leaves, crushed
  • 1/3 cup ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh thyme
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
Blend all of the ingredients thoroughly.

After the marinade was made, I had the honor of marinating the meat. We used a whole chicken with the back removed. A cup of the marinade was rubbed thoroughly into the meat. I also was instructed to gently separate the pocket of skin along each breast and to rub the marinade into the space.

Chicken or pork should be marinated between 1 and 2 days for the flavors to work themselves all the way to the bone. Seafood can be marinated right before cooking.

Jerked items are traditionally cooked slowly over pimento wood. I think that in the absence of a pimento wood fire, the key to authenticity is a slow, smokey fire. Keisha also mentioned that barbecue or baking the meat also comes out pretty good, no problem mon.

The final step to the jerk is to make the jerk sauce. This sauce not only goes perfectly with the jerk meat, but the spicy, sweet sauce works great on just about anything.

Mild Jerk Sauce
  • 2 cups Jerk Marinade (Wet)
  • 1/4 cup Leam Perry Sauce
  • 4 ounce Tabasco Sauce
  • 3 cups pineapple juice
  • 1 cup Ketchup
  • 3 cups sweet chili sauce
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 10 scotch bonnets (whole with stems on)
Blend all the ingredients thoroughly. This stuff keeps for a couple of weeks on the counter or indefinitely in the refrigerator. To spice it up, put in 15 scotch bonnets and 8 ounces of Tabasco sauce. Your lips are going to be hot!

This chicken was amazing and the sauce was phenomenal. Looking forward to trying this at home.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Functionality for the Bike Cart

The plan for building a taco cart from a Mercurio cargo bike is coming along. My first task was to decide upon what type of cooking devices that I wanted to incorporate. With an area of only 28 square inches to work with, I needed to find portable devices that allowed a lot of flexibility in a little space.

The first purchase was the Outdoor Chef City Grill 420. It got great reviews and is able to cook both directly and indirectly due to its flip funnel technology. The funnel passes the heat to the grill when set as an inverted "V". Heat is sent to the sides when it is turned over into its "V" position. All this is bundled into a small, light frame.

Now where to put it on the bike. Mounting to the base would take up a lot of space and eliminate most of the storage area. After taking the legs off the grill, I noticed the mount that connected the grill body to the legs. It would be perfect to attach to a frame and suspend it above the cargo area.

Light bulbs started going off, if I could suspend a grill with this mount, maybe there was a way that I could use the same mount to suspend a propane stove top cooker as well. Over the internet, it was hard to figure out the size compatibility of the two devices, but I found the smallest and toughest cooker available, the King Kooker 1205 outdoor cooker, and rolled the dice.

The final procurement of this stage was the taco cooking device. I needed to have this to ensure that everything was going to fit with the mount placement. There was no doubt that it had to be the legend for making tacos, the comal bola arriba (comal with the upward bowl). I had to search no further than our local Mercado Loco for this stainless steel tool.

Once the components arrived, I put together a wood prototype to get a feel for how these items would work together and where their placement should be. I briefly considered mounting both devices, but gave up on that idea as it would provide too much cooking power and not enough work area. They mostly were sitting next to each other to consider sizing of the dual purpose mount.

At this stage, I drew up some plans and consulted with my father-in-law. He has a wicked set of tools, a great supply of miscellaneous aluminum pieces, and the expertise to build things with them. The grill mount went together first. It was relatively easy following the wood model.

The stove top was a little trickier. After cutting the base off, it was an inch too small to fit inside of the grill mount. We ran through some different ideas for broadening the leg stumps to fit correctly inside the mount. Then my father-in-law had a great idea. What if we found a piece of aluminum that would fit on top of the mount and drill holes through it that would fit the leg stumps of the stove top. Like magic, the perfect size piece of aluminum appeared in the scrap pile. From there, everything fell into place.

At last it was time to have a practice run of the new equipment. I grilled some white onion, chicken breast, and arrachera (thinly cut flank steak). Put a tongue in the pressure cooker. After all of this was mostly cooked, I diced everything into tiny pieces. I also chopped up some red chard. The nopales (cactus) already had its needles removed and was cut to the right size.

I set up the bike in the back yard and fired up the stove top cooker for the first time. It was working perfectly.
I put the comal on top and started sweating down the red chard with some chopped garlic and green onion. Also put on a pound of chorizo to see how it would turn out.

After these items got most of the way done, I added the remaining pre-cooked ingredients. It was a beautiful site to see all of those items getting their finish. Once everything is ready, the hot middle part is used to heat up tortillas.

It was surprising how well everything came together. A little fresh lime juice on all of the meats was the only seasoning that I used. Probably will mix in a little more spices next time, but this wasn't bad for the first time.

Looks like the first objective has been met. I already have a few opportunities for practicing away from home at different types of functions in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I think there is only one thing to do, accessorize!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mercurio Bike Cart Arrives

It has been quite a while since I have put a post out here. Of course I have been cooking and even taking pictures on occasion, but haven't been inspired or blessed with the time to put something together. I am thinking that it is about to change now as I have become the proud owner of a Mercurio bike cart!

I became fascinated with these mobile kitchens from prior trips to Mexico (see Oaxaca trip postings if you are interested). It is like a blank sheet of paper with so many options and potential configurations.

I know what you are asking, how did I get my hands on one of these? You probably already know the answer, eBay. I was just randomly looking one day and there it was, a real Mercurio cargo bike in good condition. The price was $380, but it had to be picked up from Burbank. That was going to be the tough part. The good news is that it eliminated the bid competition. A few days and emails later, and I won the bidding.

My brother has some contacts who run produce equipment up and down the southern part of California and over a couple of months, he was able to get the bike moved from Burbank, to Oxnard, to Salinas, and finally, to Sacramento. Alas, my precious bike made it home.

It was a little weathered with some rust on the bare metal parts including the rims and it had no working brakes. Otherwise, it was in great shape and truly the real deal.

Some steel wool and WD-40, and the rust slowly disappeared. The brakes were going to be another issue. I decided to ride it the 3 miles to a local bike shop that deals with vintage bikes. Without any brakes, I had to do the Flinstone stop when necessary. It is difficult enough to maneuver with brakes, but no brakes made for an interesting ride. My forearms were exhausted from keeping the wheels going straight by the time I got to the shop. I was looking forward to dropping it off and getting into my awaiting ride. Bad news, the bike didn't fit in the bike shop doors. I was able to talk the salesman into coming outside to look at it. "Just bring the back wheel in and I can fix the brakes for you" was his comment. Grrr, now to ride it all the way back home and return with the back wheel. At least I got some interesting looks on the way back.

Removing the back wheel did give me a chance to remove the chain and get all the rust off of it too. Tried to put on some new, metal pedals, but they were an obscure size and I decide to put the original ones back on. Got the back wheel back a week later and everything was clean and functioning. Bike repair guy said that the manufacturer didn't put any grease into the hubs of the coaster brakes. This is such a well built bike, sad to see the manufacturer cheap out on greasing the hub and putting on weak pedals.

Now the fun part is about to begin. I have seen all kinds of uses for these bikes, but have never seen one used for making tacos. That is my vision, lets see how it goes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Intermediate Tamales

This year, I was able to talk the family into a Mexican Christmas. It would be an opportunity to try my hand at mass producing tamales. There were two goals of this effort (besides a successful Christmas dinner), variety and consistency.

With the help of family and friends, we made five different kinds of tamales, each being an entirely separate effort. Most of the ideas and techniques worked, but some didn't. Through the experience, I have discovered a few tips about what makes a good filling and good masa.

We went through 35 pounds of masa making 5 different varieties of tamales:
  • beef machaca
  • roasted chicken with veracruzana sauce
  • pork al pastor
  • chocolate, cherry, and pecan
  • strawberry masa with strawberries, bananas, and pineapple

The preparation of the meats and sauces was very time consuming. I may take a few shortcuts in the future, but it is always educational to do everything from scratch at least one time to know what to do myself and what to purchase prepared. For instance, the beef machaca takes a seasoned chuck roast and slowly bakes it inside of a bath of beef broth, carrots, celery, and onion. After pulling the meat out and allowing it to cool, it shreds easily and the broth is used to make the machaca sauce. Not going to find this prepared at the grocery store.

On the other hand, the roasted chicken was a lot of work for limited benefits. The skin was gingerly separated around the breast of a whole fryer. I rubbed some olive oil, crushed garlic, and placed a rosemary sprig into the skin pocket. The chicken was then seasoned with chile powder and baked.

After baking and cooling down, the meat is stripped from the carcus and shredded. Finally, the veracruzana sauce is mixed with the chicken and all of its delicate flavors are drowned out by the sauce. Next time, I will be picking up the roasted chicken from the grocery store.

The best meat turned out to be the al pastor, a pork dish cooked with pineapple and chiles. The pineapples contrast the rich pork and zesty chiles. Makes a terrific tamale filler.

Adapted from Daniel Hoyer's "Tamales".
  • Cut 3 1/2 pounds of boneless pork loin into bite sized chunks and season with salt and pepper. Mix with 2 cups of diced, fresh pineapple chunks and let marinade overnight.
  • In a heavy skillet over high heat, add some vegetable oil and sear pork until well browned on all sides. Add 1/2 of a chopped white onion and 10 chopped garlic cloves and cook for an additional minute.
  • Add 4 to 6 ancho chiles and 2 guajillo chiles that have been stemmed, toasted, seeded, soaked, and pureed to the skillet mixture and fry for 1 or 2 minutes more.
  • Add enough water to the skillet to just cover the meat. Add 2 tablespoons of apple vinegar, a teaspoon of whole cloves, and a canela stick to the mixture. Stir well to combine the seasonings. Cover and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.
  • When the meat is tender, uncover and cook until only 1 cup of liquid is remaining.
Makes enough for 24 to 30 tamales.

The meat tamales all came out tasty. While some sauce keeps the tamale moist after steaming and gives a good flavor, too much sauce can turn into a mess while trying to form the tamale. The second picture below of the beef machaca is what I found to be the perfect balance. My new approach is to give the meat and sauce mixture a good stirring before the tamale preparation, then to drain off the excess sauce rather than having to constantly avoid it.

Another problem that I am still having is with getting the masa to form around the meat so when the tamale is opened, the filling is surrounded by the masa. I think that the solution involves leaving a border around the outer edges and sealing the two ends together before rolling, but I need to investigate further. Hopefully will have a solution when getting to the Advanced Tamale blog. You can see the problem below. While still beautiful and tasty, it just lacks from what I would consider a perfect tamale.

As for the masa, I had to wait in line for 30 minutes during the Christmas masa rush. I was a little disappointed at first, until I realized I was among my people. I was able to spend the time with a bunch of Mexican ladies trading tamale techniques and recipes. Most of them found it funny that a gringo knew so much about the craft, but in the end, I sold them on trying out the chocolate, cherry, and pecan tamale and we talked about techniques for spreading the masa. The best tip that I picked up was to blend some chopped green and red chiles into the savory tamale masa to give it a holiday look and a little additional flavor.

I also purchased some strawberry masa on my visit. It looked so bubble gum florescent pink that I was convinced that it would be loaded with strawberry flavor. I asked the sales clerk what she would put into these tamales and she said pineapple works well. I had a little left over from the al pastor so I used that for some and improvised with banana and strawberries for the rest. Sadly, these were pretty disappointing. Just a slight strawberry flavor came from the masa, and steaming the tamales left the fruit discolored and tasteless. They were still edible and amazing looking, but next time, I would mix dried ingredients like chocolate chips and dried fruits instead of the fresh stuff.

The second goal I was shooting for was to strive for consistency in size. Seems like an easy enough concept, but it isn't very easy in practice, especially when you have an assembly line working. I did manage to start getting a uniform size on maybe the third round of this effort and have some pointers on doing so in the future.
  • Eliminate husks that are less than six inches at the widest point. Anything smaller is going to fold into a tiny size. You can use these smaller husks to make ties for the tamales.
  • Use a consistent amount of masa spread on every husk. I found this masa spreader at the local Mexican market, Mercado Loco. It is kind of like spreading spackle on a wall with this thing. Depending on the angle it is being used, a thick or thin layer of masa is spread evenly across the husk.

Masa thickness is a personal choice. I would like to work towards a little thicker masa on mine, especially since the stuff that I have found is so tasty.

The Christmas dinner was beautiful and delicious. Still have a little ways to go before really mastering the art, but at least everyone is able to benefit from eating the lessons along the way.