Get your mojo running

For the last few weeks, this space has been heavily Durham-centric.

Well, not this week.

Today our sojourn will be in the sunny climes of the Caribbean, by way of Brier Creek.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico there is a sauce called mojo (pronounced mow-hoe).  It’s a very strongly flavored marinade.  Along with herbs like oregano and culantro (culantro, not cilantro; it’s an entirely different plant), it’s full of garlic, olive oil, and bitter orange juice.

While different places have different varieties, the most common is mojo criollo.  Criollo means Creole, which is a mixture of cultures.  The cultures in this instance are Spanish, African, and indigenous Caribbean.  Traditionally it’s used in amazing pork dishes.

This will look very familiar to barbecue-crazy folks from NC…in Cuba and Puerto Rico it’s called lechon.  And once you’ve had it, you will dream about this crispy, crispy skin.

A few weeks ago I went shopping to help fill fridge and pantry in The Kid’s new apartment.  After Target, but before we hit Lowes Foods, we stopped at the dollar store.  It’s terrific for nonperishables.  I almost always buy egg noodles and canned beans there.  I’ve also gotten amazing cosmetics there too.  The $1.00 eye liner works better than one from Sephora costing $14.00.

As we were walking down one aisle, I spied a bottle of mojo criollo.  It was a smaller size, but even so, $1.00 is a real bargain.  The Kid picked up a bottle and so did I.

That was the first bottle I bought there.  I used it to marinate pork tenderloin and flavor a pot of black rice for dinner one night.  It was delicious.

Then I went back for a second bottle.

This time, I decided to color outside the lines.  I would do something with it that I’d never heard of.  I was going to make mojo pasta salad.

Mojo chicken pasta salad

mojo pasta

1/3 cup + 1/4 cup mojo criollo

1 cup mayonnaise

Pinch of sugar

Water

1/2 pound tubetti, sea shell, cavatapi, or lumaconi pasta

1 cup frozen peas, blanched and shocked

3/4 cup grape tomatoes or similar

1/4 cup diced red onion

3 cups cooked, shredded chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

Make dressing: Whisk together mayo, 1/3 cup mojo, and sugar.  Add enough water to make it the consistency of creamy salad dressing.  Taste and season.  Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Slice tomatoes in half and place in colander.  Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and let sit out for at least 90 minutes.  This will draw out much of the moisture, so the tomato flavors are concentrated and the juice doesn’t dilute the dressing.

Cook pasta in heavily salted, boiling water until tender.  Drain.  While still hot, put into a large bowl and stir in ¼ cup mojo.  Cool completely.

1 hour before service, gently mix together all ingredients.  Stir in dressing.  Make it a bit wetter than you want the final product, as the dressing will absorb into salad and will dry out as it sits.

Let sit at room temp for one hour.  Before serving, toss and check for seasoning.

Serves 4-6 as a main or 8 as a side.

I buy them at the Durham Coop, and almost always have some in the fridge.

I served this with a large handful of pea shoots on top.  They’re exactly what you think; tiny shoots from a pea plant.  Fresh and green, with a mild peppery bite, they’re perfect for sandwiches and on top of dishes that need a hit of something bright.  They’re perfect on scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

We also had some bread with our meal.

While I was at Brier Creek picking up the mojo, I stopped by Earth Fare for one of the best deals in town.  They have freshly baked baguettes for only 98 cents, every day.  Right before we eat I run it under some water, and toss it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so.

This little trick brings bread back to bakery freshness.  I keep rolls and buns in the freezer, and with this method, we have fresh bread on demand (when frozen, they go for 13 minutes).  For yeasty dinner rolls, instead of water, I spread a thin layer of butter over the whole surface.  They come out crispy and buttery.

Plate up some of this pasta salad, pour a glass of rum, and turn on the salsa music.  You’re in Puerto Rico with no plane ticket required.

Thanks for your time.

Dinner as the reward of virtue

First, let me admit that I am most definitely no goody-two-shoes, uber-organized, Martha Stewart-wannabe.

I once overheard a woman say that she tries to retrieve her laundry from the dryer before the clothes go cold.  I try to retrieve my laundry from the dryer before the clothes go out of style.

There is, however, one exception.

Growing up, my father was in the Coast Guard.  Their motto is Semper Paratus – Always Ready.   My mother’s personal motto is Clean as you go along.  The result of being raised with these two philosophies is that when cooking, I am a cleaning, prepping machine.

There are few things I love more than getting into the kitchen and knocking out every step of a meal up to the final cooking.

Which is exactly what I was doing the other day when I was putting together a pot of goulash.

I grew up eating goulash.  It consists of hamburger, pasta, tomatoes, and loads of garlic.  It’s also known as American chop suey or beefy mac.

This time I did all the prep, and after adding the pasta, covered it, and took it off the heat.  An hour later I discovered that the residual heat had almost cooked the pasta.  But they were still opaque, and tasted a little doughy.  So later, when we were ready to eat, I cooked it briefly, stirring frequently, until the cavatappi was translucent and tasted cooked.

If you want to cook it right away, instead of taking it off the heat cook it on medium covered for 10 minutes, and uncovered for 10 more, or until the noodles are cooked and the sauce is thickened and clinging to the pasta.

Now-R-Later Goulash

goulash

1 lb. 80/20 hamburger

12 ounces mushrooms

1 onion

2 heads garlic

½ teaspoon bacon fat or vegetable oil

2-14 ounce can tomatoes

1 ½ cups beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 ½ teaspoons dry thyme + ½ teaspoon

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary finely chopped + 2 sprigs

2 teaspoons kosher salt + pinch

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper + pinch

1 pound cavatappi pasta

Roast garlic:

Preheat oven to 350.  Cut heads of garlic in half horizontally.  Lay in piece of foil about 9 inches square. Place ½ teaspoon thyme, rosemary sprigs, pinch of salt, pepper, and oil.  Wrap, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Extract garlic cloves from skins and set aside.

Put hamburger into large heavy pot with a cover.  When it’s just about cooked through, add onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, and remaining herbs.  Cook until the veg have released and cooked out all their liquid.

Add garlic and stir.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and mix in.  Cook until the paste has darkened, and started to stick to the bottom of the pot.  Add sherry, stir to pull up all the stuff on the bottom of the pot.  Cook until the sherry’s cook in.

Pour in tomatoes and juice.  Add beef stock.  Stir in pasta. 

Cover, take off the heat and let sit covered for 60 minutes.

10 minutes before service, put it on a medium burner, gently stirring frequently, so that all the pasta cooks to opaque.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream of Mexican crema.  Serves 8.

So, practicing the virtues taught to me by my parents, I was rewarded with a dinner that virtually cooked itself.

It’s like we dined on instant karma.

Thanks for your time.