Turns Out, It’s Pretty Easy Being Green

One would think, to hear me whine week after week about too spicy this, and hellishly hot that, that my favorite cuisine might be something famously bland.

Like Finnish food, or hospital cafeteria.

But one of my very favorite national cuisines is Mexican.  It’s rich and comforting.  Much of it is simple, but simple in the way a Chanel suit is simple; classically elegant.  It’s full of fresh flavors, yet much of it is slowly cooked, “peasant” fare.But I still have the heat tolerance of a snow angel, so I’ve learned some self-protective hacks.

Dairy is my friend.  The heat from chilis comes from an oily substance called capsaicin. Milk, or more commonly, sour cream contains something called casein.  The casein is a fat-loving compound which binds to the fiery lipids and washes them away.  Water only spreads the heat, and while alcohol also works, you’d have to drink about a fifth of tequilla to cool a couple of bites.And while some folks prove this doable on a daily basis, I’m the cheapest of cheap drunks who would be swinging from the chandelier or napping under a table after three or four swigs.

So, it’s sour cream for me.Green is usually (but not always, not by a long shot) milder than red.  Green sauces normally contain tomatillos, a sour fruit that looks like a green tomato, and brings no heat to the party.  And of course there is my very good, very green friend; avocado who feels to me like it cools thing down a bit.

One of my favorite dishes on a Mexican menu is chicken enchiladas Suizas.  Suiza means Swiss, and connotes pale creamy cheeses and sauces.

Right?

Enchiladas are terrific in restaurants, where all you have to do is order them.  But at home, not so much.  You have to make the filling, stuff them, roll them, and lay them in the baking vessel.  Then bake them off while hoping they don’t fall apart or end up with dry, burned tortilla parts that didn’t get sauced.

Wrong.

Years ago I found a spicy Mexican cornbread pie thing.  I changed some ingredients and turned it into an easy family favorite with all the flavors and textures of those creamy green enchiladas.

Chicken enchilada Suiza casseroleenchilada casserole1-8 ½ oz. package Jiffy corn muffin mix

1-14 ¾ oz. can creamed-style corn

1-4 oz. can green chilis, drained

2 eggs lightly beaten

½ cup milk

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon Goya bitter orange adobo

2 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese

2 cups green salsa (heat level of your choice)

3 cups shredded cooked chicken (I use half of a grocery store rotisserie bird)

Sour Cream, avocado slices, scallions, radish and limes wedges (garnish)garnishPreheat oven to 400. Spray 13X9 pan with cooking spray.

In large bowl, mix first seven ingredients and 1 cup cheese. Pour into pan and bake 20 minutes.

Remove from oven, and pierce casserole 12-15 times with sharp knife. Pour and spread salsa all over. Scatter chicken on top and cover with rest of cheese. Bake 20 minutes. Let rest out of oven for 10 minutes, then slice and serve with garnishes.Makes 8 servings.

And it gets even easier.  You can take it right up to the second bake, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 24 hours before finishing.  Just leave off the top cheese then sprinkle it on right before baking.

And if you do choose tequila to quell spiciness and end up with a lampshade on your drunken head, that’s your choice—but please, send plenty of photos.Thanks for your time.

Strata Symbol

Since Halloween is coming I thought I’d give you, gentle reader, a voyage through one of the most spine-tingling, terrifying places that I know.

My mind.

I developed this week’s recipe well before I could cook, but it’s one we still all enjoy.

It’s a savory Mexican torte.  But that’s not how it began life.  And the mental journey on which I’m taking you is how and why I made changes, from the discovery of the original incarnation’s recipe to dinner last night, when we ate slices leftover from the torte I made a few days ago.

Even before I had any cooking skills, I was fascinated by cookbooks.  They were books about food—with pictures.  I might not have been much of a cook, but I’ve always been a champ at eating.I especially loved going to garage sales and the library sale to snag those little cookbook magazines from the checkout line at the supermarket.  The older the issue better, with a special interest in the Pillsbury Bake-Off editions.

In one from the 70s, was a Mexican pie built in a pie crust and layered with hamburger, sliced tomatoes, lots of cheese and sour cream.  I decided to make it.

It was tasty, but it was also so full of fat that after a few bites one felt the need to go for a run, followed by a few hours of calisthenics.  I needed to lighten it up.To make for a dramatic, attractive presentation, I make it in a spring form pan.  I layer it with flour tortillas which I dredge in a sauce.  Between the tortillas I’d put a couple different Mexican ingredients.

For the sauce, I mixed a mild green salsa, some chicken stock, and sour cream.  I put it in a pie tin and coated both sides of the tortillas before I laid them in the spring form.

I took the topping from the original recipe but lightened it.  After the torte had cooked (covered in a parchment round and foil) at 350 to an internal temp of 165, I uncovered it, spread 2 tablespoons of low-fat sour cream on top, and sprinkled ½ cup or so of cheddar.  I then put it under the low broiler until browned.mexi-torta-1After experimenting, I settled on filling.  The center layer was 2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken mixed with ½ cup of store-bought queso, like what you eat with chips.  The layers above and below the meat would be my deluxe homemade cantina-style rice.

Super Lucky Happy Fun-time Mexican Rice

cantina-rice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ yellow onion, chopped

1 ½ cups Jasmine rice rinsed under water until water runs clear, then drained

2-4 ounce cans chopped green chiles, undrained

1-10.75 ounce can low-sodium tomato soup

2 teaspoons cumin

2 teaspoons dry thyme

2 teaspoons Goya adobo powder

2 packets Goya Sazon with achiote

½ cup white wine

2 ½ cups chicken stock

1 cup frozen shoepeg corn

Heat oil in large, heavy pot with lid.  Sautee onions until they start to caramelize. Add the next seven ingredients and cook, stirring frequently until the rice is very lightly toasted.

Add wine and let cook out.  Pour in chicken stock and corn.  When it comes to a boil, lower to medium-low and cover.

Cook, covered, approx. 17 minutes or until liquid has just cooked in.  Take off heat, leave covered, for 15 minutes or so.  Serve, or use as layers in torte.

I hope this trip through my thoughts hasn’t been too traumatizing. I have one last thing to say.Boo!

Thanks for your time.

The fray in the Bay (7)

Three years ago Southern Living magazine named Durham “The South’s tastiest Town”.  With food trucks, restaurants that run the culinary gamut from Elmo’s (776 9th St) to Revolution (107 W Main St), and hotels both new and acclaimed, like the Washington Duke (3001 Cameron Blvd) and 21c Museum (111 Corcoran St), the Bull City has the food thing locked up.

But in April we get a new food-based feather in our cap.

For the first time, from April 18-21, the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series will be holding battles here; at Bay 7 in the American Tobacco Campus (318 Blackwell St).

In a bracket challenge similar to the NCAA basketball championship, area chefs will compete in multiple cities, culminating in the Battle of the Champions in October, at a location which will be announced later.

The rules are exciting, as well as delicious.  Each round will be two chefs and their team competing head to head.  The teams will face off and prepare three course meals centered on a theme ingredient that remains under wraps until the morning of the bout.  Each ingredient comes from a North Carolina farmer or artisan producer.

Normally each team consists of a local chef and their team.  In the past the teams all came from the same kitchen.  But this year there’s a twist; the teams may consist of chefs from three different establishments.  What this means for the diner is that a team could turn out three courses each of which has been spearheaded by an award-winning executive chef.

I think that just upped the game a tad.

But it won’t only be a panel of judges that benefit from this game.  Ticketed guests dine on the six-course meal that is produced.  Then without knowing who produced which plate, and using an interactive app, diners and judges vote, deciding who moves on, and who goes home.

The competition starts in Durham, then moves on to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington before the Final battle of the champs.

Competitors must be currently employed food professionals.  The participants were chosen on March 10th, and will be announced soon.  If you’re interested in attending, get more information and purchase your tickets at competitiondining.com.

Last week I visited a foodery owned by one of our illustrious Bull City chefs.  I dropped into Nana Taco (2512 University Dr), for a trunk-full of takeout grub.  It’s the brainchild of Scott Howell, also owner of Nana’s (2514 University Dr) and the newly opened Nanasteak (345 Blackwell St).

Petey got one of their ginormous quesadillas with pork butt.  The Kid and I each availed ourselves to the three taco deal.  For around $7.25 (depending on which meats you choose), we got three tacos, rice, beans, and chips.  I always get at least one made with the tender and unctuous garlic beef.  Then I chose from the “dirty meat” category; exotic cuts and critters like duck and lamb.  My child and I dined on pork belly and hog jowl.  The cheek was the best of the three, but they were all heart-breakingly scrumptious.

As always we ordered extra rice and what I believe are the best pinto beans in town.  And although they always have an imaginative selection of beers, I sipped on a pink lemonade while Petey and I watched the end of the first round of the ACC tourney before heading home.

I picked up dessert across the street at Miele Bon Bons.  It’s a bakery/candy shop with everything from wedding cakes to French macarons and out-of-the box chocolates.  I left with eight pieces. Out of many varieties of macarons, I picked crème brule, salted caramel, and pistachio macarons (my favorite).  The candies I purchased were dark chocolate salted caramel, blood orange-balsamic-pink peppercorn, and an Earl Grey confection.  It all came to around twenty dollars, which is a terrific deal for fancy hand-made chocolates.  For the price, it’s a delightful, affordable, every-day luxury.

Durham is a real happening place.  With culinary special events and our local independent food businesses, we are all pretty darn lucky.

Here’s an idea: on your next day off, plan a day trip—in your own hometown.

Thanks for your time.