September 22, 2013

Tortas

There are rare, incomparable meals I have eaten that embody the Platonic ideal of certain foods. At the time, all you can do is revel in their glory. You are ecstatic to have the experience of tasting such delectable perfection.

But then problems begin. No matter where you go, no matter how hard you search, you cannot find anything to replicate that original experience. Everything else you taste comes up short.

I once had the best fish and chips from a hole in the wall joint in Auckland, New Zealand. I subsequently spent the better part of three weeks attempting to replicate the experience. I searched all over the North and South Island. No dice.

The same thing happened in Mexico City. Across the street from the apartment where I lived, there was a hole in the wall (the best places always seem to be of the hole in the wall variety) taco place Chip's--pronounced cheeps in Spanish--which were a better version of Tim's.) In the intervening 12 years, I have yet to encounter a torta that is even in the same ballpark as Watsy's. They. Just. Don't. Compare.
called--of all things--Watsy Taco. For months my friends and I were regulars, and we always ordered the same thing: a chicken torta with cheese. (For a perfect pairing, consume with a green bag of jalapeño

To make a torta, it is best to have a very special type of soft, wide bread called a telera. I randomly encountered teleras in a Wilsonville Albertson's recently, and couldn't pass them up. For my first attempt at making tortas, I did not hope to achieve the apogee of the Watsy Torta. But the nice thing about a torta is that it will be still be delicious, even if you are not in Mexico City.

 Tortas
  • Telera rolls, cut in half and toasted-1 per person
  • Refried black beans prepared, or homemade: diced onions, minced garlic, broth
  • Chicken, or meat of your choice 
  • Cheese
  • Grilled onions
  • Avocado slices
  • Salsa
  • Sour cream
  • Cilantro
  • Pickled jalapeños
  • Other toppings of your choice (tomato, grilled peppers, etc)
  • Spices, to taste
  1.  Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add cumin, chipotle, chile powder, paprika, salt and pepper, etc. to taste. Add diced onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Add black beans and a couple tablespoons of broth. Mash the beans together.
  2. Toast telera in a toaster oven or broiler. Cover one side with cheese, so it melts. 
  3. Spread sour cream on one side and refried beans on the other. Build the sandwich by layering the meat, onions, avocado and other ingredients. Drizzle with salsa and top with telera.

September 2, 2013

Fresh Spring Rolls/Salad Rolls and Peanut Sauce


These are a revelation. They are so light and tasty--healthy, even. Until you dip them in the savory peanut sauce that is. These rolls are fun and easy to make, yet people will be very impressed with you. You can essentially add anything you like, then just roll it up--sort of like a cross between a burrito and sushi! This recipe is based on one from the fantastic book Quick & Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott. If you don't own it, go get it! All of her recipes are very approachable and delicious.

Salad Rolls
  • 8 ounces very thin dried rice noodles
  • 12 round rice paper sheets, about 8 inches in diameter
  • 2 cups tender lettuce (I used prepackaged butter lettuce)
  • 1/2 cup fresh Thai basil or mint
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 5 green onions, cut in 3-inch strips
  • Thin cucumber spears (optional)
  • Thin carrot spears (optional)
  • 18 medium cooked shrimp, halved lengthwise
  • Cooked chicken (optional)
  1. Boil water in a medium saucepan. Drop in rice noodles and remove from heat. Gently toss and stir the noodles so they cook evenly. Let stand 8 to 10 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water. Drain well and set aside. Makes about 2 cups of noodles.
  2. Arrange prepped ingredients around a cutting board. Have the serving plate ready. Fill a skillet with very warm water.
  3. Submerse one rice paper sheet into the warm water for about 15 seconds, until it is soft and pliable. Carefully remove the rice paper, letting it drain, and spread it flat on the cutting board.
  4. About a third of the way in, make a horizontal row of each ingredient, except shrimp. Lift the wrapper edge nearest you and roll it up and away from you, tucking the edge in over the pile in the middle. Tightly fold in the sides of the wrapper, to form a little package. Place 3 shrimp halves over the filling, then continue rolling the wrapper tightly. 
  5. Press the seam to close the roll, applying a little water if it has dried out. Set the roll on the platter seam side down. Continue until you run out of fillings. Serve with peanut sauce or other dipping sauce.
Makes 10-12 rolls

Peanut Sauce
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon red curry paste or mussamun curry paste
  • 2 teaspoons roasted chili paste
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar or brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  1. Bring coconut milk to a gentle boil in a medium saucepan. Add the curry paste and roasted chili paste. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, stirring to dissolve. 
  2. Add the chicken broth, fish sauce, sugar, peanut butter and lime juice. Cook for 1 minute, stirring to smooth.
  3. Remove from heat, transfer to a serving bowl and set aside to cool.