Restaurant Week: Xochitl

For Restaurant Week, Sarah and I finally made it to Xochitl (pronounced So-cheet). Xochitl is an upscale Aztec Mexican on 2nd St. across from Headhouse Square in Old City. We had planned to go to this restaurant for some time and at $35 for a four-course meal this seemed like the perfect time. We were not disappointed.

The atmosphere is relaxing if a little cramped. We had a margarita and a beer at the bar while we waited for our table to free up. I could see coming to the bar for a few drinks and their freshly made guacamole. They have numerous types of tequila to sample as well as a good beer and wine list.

The prix fixe menu was divided into four courses: a soup, an appetizer, the main course and dessert. So let’s take each course one by one. Read the rest of this entry »

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Taco Riendo: The Real Deal in Northern Liberties

[where: 1301 N 5th St, Philadelphia, PA 19122]

It’s hard to live in New York City for four years, as I did, without become addicted to Mexican food. I’m not talking about Taco Bell or the cheesy, heavy stuff you get at chain restaurants with sombreros on their walls– I’m talking about the real deal. There are more than half a million Mexicans in New York City, most of them from the state of Puebla, and along with their energy, hard work and vibrant culture they have brought with them a varied and delicious set of foodways. As a result, there are neighborhoods all over the city in which fresh, handmade chilaquiles, sopes and tortas can be had for very low prices.

When Joe and I left NYC for cheap rent and better jobs in Philly, we mourned for our favorite Mexican diners. I couldn’t seem to find a decent taco al pastor— until we heard about Taco Riendo. Located on 5th St. just north of Girard, Taco Riendo is close by, but even if it wasn’t it would be worth the trip. This small, cheerfully decorated taqueria, like its more formal sister restaurant Las Cazuelas, serves fresh, authentic food for low prices.

Read the rest of this entry »

Orange Roughy in a Spicy Almond-Pecan Sauce

This is a cookbook recipe that ended up morphing into a very different dish!  We started out making “Fish in an Almond-Walnut Sauce” from The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz.  I chose this recipe because we have lots of fish and also some fresh tomatillos we needed to use, and the recipe called for both.  However, as we started to make it, it became clear that we didn’t have the exact ingredients we thought we had.  So we got creative with substitutions and made what turned out to be a really tasty and healthy dish.  (Also dairy-free and gluten-free.) Here are the ingredients we actually used:

Orange Roughy in a Spicy Almond-Pecan Sauce

2 orange roughy fillets

1 onion, chopped

1 cup white wine

about 8 fresh tomatillos

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 cup blanched almonds

1  cup pecans

1 tbsp sesame seeds

1 green chilli, chopped

1 chipotle pepper (canned), chopped

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

First, prepare the tomatillos (you can skip this step if you used canned): Heat olive oil in a pan. Put in quartered tomatillos. Add salt and the diced green chilli. Saute for a minute and reduce heat to med-low. Add a couple tablespoons of water. Cook on med-low for about a half hour.

Once they are cooked, strain them to separate the liquid from the fruit.  Heat the liquid in the pan with a cup of wine, the onion and garlic, and the salt and pepper.  Simmer for 15 minutes, then add the fish and cook until flaky.  Remove the fish to a covered serving dish.

Pour the liquid from the pan into a food processor and add all remaining ingredients (except the fish).  Blend until you have a smooth sauce.  Pour over the fish and serve.

It has a nutty, smoky taste that went really well with the orange roughy, and a little kick of heat at the end.   Serve this with some sort of bread so you can sop up the sauce.  Also, if you buy canned tomatillos, it doesn’t take long at all.  I’ll definitely make this again.  (Next time I might even buy the right ingredients so I can make the official recipe!)

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Grilled Chicken with a Chipotle Lime Sauce; Grilled Asparagus with Truffle Oil and Parmesan; Almond Pomegranate Couscous; Chipotle Lime Sauce

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I was assigned to dinner and Sarah told me to get creative. I was planning on making some of my chipotle lime sauce to have on hand (see recipe below), so I thought I’d kill some birds (so to speak) and use it in the dinner. I had some nice organic chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s, so I fired up the grill and got to work.First I took some of the chipotle lime sauce (about 1 cup) and mixed it with plain yogurt and some lime juice. I covered the chicken breasts with half of the sauce and let it sit for an hour. When the grill was going full steam, I shook off the extra sauce and placed the breasts on the hottest part of the grill. My aim was not to cook them through but to get a a nice char on them. When this was achieved I removed them from the grill and put them in a small roasting pan. I added the remaining half of the sauce and about a half cup of chardonnay, and put them covered in a 375-degree oven for about 20 minutes to cook through and to absorb the flavors of the sauce and the wine.

While the chicken was in the oven I threw the asparagus on the grill. It only takes a minute or so on each side to get a nice grilled char on them. Remove to a bowl. Toss with white truffle oil, black truffle oil, shaved Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Serve warm to room temperature.

About ten minutes before serving, take one cup of chicken stock, two or three tablespoons of pomegranate syrup and a quarter cup of almonds and bring to a boil. Add one cup of couscous and remove from the heat. Stir and cover and wait about five minutes. Fluff with a fork.

To serve, I put a serving of couscous on the plate, laid some asparagus spears across the couscous and placed the chicken to the side. The chicken should have a bit of a kick to it but the heat should not be overwhelming.

My Chipotle Lime Sauce:

Two whole chipotle peppers

One can of chipotle sauce

Four or five tablespoons of plain yogurt

Juice of one or two limes.

Vegetable oil

In a food processor blend the pepper and the sauce on high until the peppers integrated with the sauce. Add the yogurt and the lime juice. The lime juice will bring out the natural smoked flavor and the yogurt helps to cut the heat a bit. Blend until the sauce turns a light orange color. Add oil while the processor is on low until the sauce is smooth and the consistency that you desire.

Everything but the couscous is gluten-free.

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Grilled Chicken Nachos

Another totally Americanized dish!  Actually, nachos are border cuisine— at least according to their Wikipedia entry, which credits their invention to one Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, a Mexican chef working at a restaurant in Eagle Pass, Texas.  Both countries have adapted the recipe to their own tastes, and various American regional cuisines have made it their own.  Nachos in the US are also a very common ‘plastic’ food, sold with horrible fake cheese sauce at ballparks and convenience stores everywhere.  (Well, OK, I think it’s horrible.  My dear husband, while agreeing that ‘nacho cheese’ is horrible in principle, totally loves the stuff.) 

But here’s the thing about nachos: they’re a wonderfully customizable dish.  They can be healthy or fatty, organic or chemical-laden, a light snack or a full meal.  And they’re kind of like a stew, in that you can get creative and make use of whatever you happen to have in the refrigerator.

 This version was our dinner a few nights ago, and it surprised us by being really delicious.

Grilled Chicken Nachos:

3 boneless chicken filets

Several generous handfuls of good-quality gluten-free tortilla chips (we used Trader Joe’s)

1 can black beans

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (we used the white kind from the Amish farmstand)

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tbsp roasted, ground cumin

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Sour cream

Salt and pepper

First, grill the chicken.  We used a cast iron grill on the stovetop– you can do this on a real grill, or just brown them in a pan.  Just rub with salt and pepper, brush the grill with vegetable oil, and brown.  Make sure they stay juicy– don’t overcook!  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roast the cumin in a dry pan for just a few minutes, until it begins to change color and release its oils.  Grind.  (Or use cumin powder, but trust me, fresh is better.) 

Cook garlic in a little bit of vegetable oil until it just barely starts to brown.  (You could also add a chopped onion or some peppers here, if that’s how you roll.)  Add the canned beans, with their liquid.  Stir in cumin and cayenne and slowly bring to a boil.

Arrange a generous layer of chips in a pie pan.  Slice the chicken into bite-sized pieces and put over the chips.  Add a layer of beans and a layer of cheese.  Heat in oven for 10 minutes.

Add a few dollops of sour cream and serve hot.  Other great additions at this point would be fresh salsa, guacamole, chopped cilantro, raw onions, a garnish of sliced lime, and/or hot sauce.  Best served with cold cerveza.

Books ‘n’ at

I used a gift certificate from work to pick up two food-related books this weekend: The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, and The Indian Grocery Store Demystified by Linda Bladholm. Haven’t cooked anything from the Mexican book yet, but it seems, in my limited understanding, like a reasonably comprehensive guide to Mexico City cooking. Should be fun. The Bladholm book…

OK, here’s the thing about the Bladholm book. The introductory material is fairly Orientalist.
Here’s an example of what I mean:

You pull open the door and a string of brass bells jangle, ushering you into
another land. The heady aromas of cardamom, black pepper, perfumed
incense, and rose-scented sweets fill the air. You are surrounded by
exotic provisions with colorful wrappers and labels. The strains of a
sitar resonate from a far corner. There is the rustle of a saree…

And so on and so forth. This is worthless at best and racist at worst. However, the explanations of various spices, their origins, uses and alternate names, are incredibly useful, as are the sections on cooking instruments and produce that are hard to find in the US. I’ll at least stop confusing kalonji with black cumin!

If you’re going to be in Philadelphia this weekend (and I am not), the White Dog Foundation is sponsoring a local food event at Yard’s Brewery:

Yards Kick Off Event:
All Local Ingredient Cheese Steaks
(Pastured Beef and Veg.) * Hand Crafted Ales * Live Music * Dunk Local Food
Leaders in Dunk Tank
Sunday, July 15th 2:00pm – 6:30pm2439 Amber Street, Philadelphia, PA. Located in the
Kensington neighborhood of Philly. The brewery entrance is on Martha Street
close to Hagert St.
There will be a dunk tank at the event in which Local Food
Leaders (including Judy Wicks) from Fair Food, Farm to City, Reading Terminal
Market, The Book & The Cook and The Food Trust will be submerged — that is,
provided you can hit the target.

Quick Chicken Molé Tacos

I wasn’t going to blog this dish– it’s just too damn easy– but then, maybe that’s what you’re looking for. This is a staple in our house; it’s pretty much what I make when I don’t feel like cooking. It is neither authentic nor Slow Food, but it is quick and tasty, and gluten-free as well. My friend Lynn was over last night, and we needed some ballast before going out for martinis, so this is what I made.

1 lb boneless chicken filets
Trader Joe’s Red Molé Sauce
Shredded cheddar cheese (told you it wasn’t authentic!)
Sour cream
Corn tortillas

Chop some chicken into 1-inch cubes. I used chicken filets from Trader Joe’s– a boneless cut is easiest. Heat a small amount of oil in your cast iron pan, just enough to cover the bottom. Throw in the chicken and let it start to brown. When it’s not totally raw anymore, add a few generous spoonfuls of molé and stir to coat the chicken. (I’m looking forward to learning to make my own molé, but TJ’s will do for now; you can also get good ones in the Goya aisle at your local grocery or Latin American foods store, but they won’t be gluten free like TJ’s is.) Cook, stirring periodically, until the chicken is cooked through.

Meanwhile, if you have a gas stove, you can make your tortillas tasty. Put a tortilla directly on the burner and put the flame on medium. Use tongs to flip it once it gets just a little charred. Try not to let it catch on fire. Do this until all of your tortillas are toasted and just a bit crispy.

(If you don’t have a gas stove, put your tortillas on a plate, cover with a moist paper towel and microwave for about 30 seconds.)

Assemble tacos and top with sour cream and cheese. Tomatoes, lettuce, or guacamole are also good; if you want to be a little more authentic about it, top with chopped cilantro and raw onions. Serve hot, with cold beer.