Sunday, January 25, 2009

Catfish Tacos

So there is this great burrito cafe on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland that we affectionately call Baja. They have the greatest fish tacos in the world. They are also the home of the 18 dollar steak and lobster burrito. My friend Bryan got it once and he said it wasn't that great. However, that's the first time I've ever heard of anyone saying anything from Baja was "not that great", but it was an 18 dollar burrito. One of the best parts is that they have a nice little array of cheap drinks. Four dollar margaritas, mojitos, and cuba libres to accompany your chicken taco plate smothered in mole and sour cream. Yum.

My friends Bryan and MLE went out to Baja without me one time and brought me a fish taco. Although it was lukewarm, it was still the most delicious taco I've ever had. Blew those ridiculous expensivos across the bay at Mijita out of the water. Nicely fried fish, excellent cabbage relish. I tried to recreate them tonight, and I must say to my credit, that I was close!

Catfish Tacos (makes 4 big tacos, or probably 6 small ones)

You will need:

(for the fish)
About a pound of catfish, tilapia, or a similar boneless white fish
1/3 cup fine cornmeal
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/3 peanut oil
1 egg, beaten

(for the cabbage relish)
1 1/2 cups purple cabbage, shredded
2 small ripe tomatoes, diced
1 jalapeno, minced with seeds (if you like it spicy)
1 shallot, or half a red onion, minced
juice of 1 lime or 3/4 lemon
2-3 tablespoons rice vinegar
*If you like cilantro in your salsas, put a handful of chopped cilantro in too.

AND you'll need some tacos.

About an hour before you want to eat, prepare the relish by combining all the vegetables together in a tupperware with a lid and sprinkling the citrus juice and rice vinegar over it. Fasten the lid on the container and shake it up to combine. Chill for at least a half hour to combine the flavors while you prepare the fish.

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees, unless everyone is standing around the kitchen watching you cook and waiting to sit down to eat.

Combine the cornstarch and cornmeal in a bowl and keep near the bowl with the beaten egg. Slice the fish into manageable portions (deck of cards size or smaller). Put the oil in a preheated frying pan and wait til it's hot. (It's hot when you drop it a breadcrumb and it sizzles)

When the oil is hot, bread the fish pieces (by dipping first in the egg and then in the cornmix) and fry about 2 minutes on each side. Depending on the size of your frying pan, this may take a few batches. If the oil starts to get low, add some more!

When the fish is fried, put it in an ovensafe dish and place in preheated oven to keep it hot until you're ready to eat.

When you're ready to eat, put the fish in the taco and top with the relish. Serve with beans, rice, and cuba libres.

Cuba Libres

(Makes One)

1.5 - 2 oz light rum
juice of half a lime

Combine all in a glass with ice and a toothpick parasol.

(I guess it's just a glorified rum and coke, but cuba libre just sounds so much better.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Still Life With Breakfast

Ah, the first and arguably the finest meal of the day. Such limitations and possibilities together. I live with a man who has an extremely rigid concept of what can be constituted as "breakfast food". Basically, if it ain't eggs, it ain't breakfast. I think he'll on occasion make an exception for lemon pastries with coffee coffee coffee, and tofu is also accepted now, but isn't that funny how no other meal has as closed a set of items as breakfast has. Eggs, toast, coffee, tea, donuts, hashbrowns, orange juice, pancakes, french toast....sometimes pie and cake.....sometimes champagne......what is the common element? A split between indulgence and nutritional responsibility? Some people have smoothies with protein powder. Some eggs and bacon or tofu and toast. Some have donut holes and frappacinos. Some poor buggers have nothing at all....

Breakfast is such a powerful time. You roll out of bed, groggy and disoriented, perhaps rubbing the last bit of a lingering rush of caffeine. Or perhaps not, if you're one of those who can thrive without it in the morning. Bully for you. The rest of us prepare our morning libations with ritual even if it's so old hat now that most of us don't think to notice or enjoy it. I still try to. My french press has become a good friend of mine, one with whom I share a friendly conversation each morning as it helps me to become human again.

Such wonderful things we have for breakfast. My gentleman friend has taken it upon himself lately to practice the art of the omelette. He's doing very well, they look and taste extremely professional, although I still must take mine with ketchup. My boyfriend doesn't understand this, although he puts cold tomato sauce on his when it's available. I have a friend who has told me on several occasions that if we had met in elementary school, we would not be friends. She refused to befriend anyone who put ketchup on their eggs.

She is a woman of principle.

I believe the best album for breakfast is the Velvet Underground and Nico by the Velvet Underground. Sunday morning just lends itself to brunch, especially if you are still a little drunk from Saturday night or it is raining outside. Satie and David Bowie are pretty good too.

I have another good friend who throws breakfast parties. Not exclusively, but more often than not. Almost always on a Sunday morning, my friend invites a few people to his sunny and cluttery kitchen for a mimosa, a mocha, and crepes. Oh, all kinds of crepes! And always glorious ones. Having spent years perfecting his crepe technique, he can now put just about anything inside a crepe successfully. My personal favorite is parmesan and prosciutto, although the chocolate jam ones are also divine. I can think of no place that I would rather spend a Sunday than in my friend's kitchen for a breakfast party, drinking champagne and talking about wonderfully fascinating things from japanese film to his nephew's obsession with trains to anything else under the sun. Perhaps it's the champagne that makes the conversation flow so. It's so extravagant drinking in the mornings. But what better time to start, really?

He also taught me how to make fantastic french toast.

And here are some bagels I made. They are excellent for breakfast with cream cheese and jalapeno jelly.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cheesy Romance

My mother's best friend gave me a copy of Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" a few birthdays ago and it's been staring at me expectantly from the shelf ever since. Although I greatly admire her, I have been wary to delve into one of her recipes mainly because they are expensive in so many ways; in time, in energy, in currency, and in fat. But you do have to live a little sometimes.

I decided last week to make French Onion Soup as it's been dreadfully cold and I just got some new oven safe bowls. In the past, I have used Mollie Katzen's Onion Soup recipe which has always been pretty good, but not fantastic. Good on the first round but upon reheating you have a bunch of fried onions in a watery soy sauce broth. I love Mollie, don't get me wrong, but her recipes need a little rounding out with some animal fat every now and then. So, I decided to try Ms. Child's version, which included french vermouth AND fine brandy. Well well well.

Of course, I am still a twenty something and cannot keep liquor in the house, especially not FINE brandy, so this warranted a trip to the liquor store. I emerged after procuring a tiny little bottle of E&J (fine enough for me!) and an economy sized bottle of Martini and Rossi.  I was also making a curried chicken salad so I got a tiny bottle of chardonnay as well. Pete's Liquor store on Easton is fantastic for cooking alcohols in any size to fit any budget.

It was a fine soup indeed. I was pleased as punch when it emerged bubbling and steamy from the oven, despite the fact that my bread had disintegrated partially into the soup. Oh Julia, she warned us about that too, "Be sure you have a homemade type of bread with body here because flimsy loaves [like Stop and Shop 100% Whole Wheat] will disintegrate into a slimy mass[.]" (pg 19). But it certainly was delicious.

And we both enjoyed it.

The biggest learning experience, however, was through the salad. Usually I think of myself as a reasonably good vinaigrette maker (I thought that adding mustard to one's balsamic mix was the height of cleverness and sophistication) but Julia had more to teach me on that front. I thought it might be fun to make a lemon and oil dressing for my arugula salad with bleu cheese and currants so I checked out what she had to say about it. Turns out all my vinaigrettes in the past had been all off. No wonder people's eyes watered so much when I made them salads; they certainly weren't tears of joy. The vinegar-oil ratio was TOTALLY WRONG. Here's what she had to say about proportions:

"Vinaigrettes, as dressings for green salads are usually called, are made with all vinegar, or all lemon juice, or a little of both. Although standard proportions appear to be 1 part vinegar or lemon to 3 of oil, I think this makes far too acid a mixture, especially when you are serving wine with the meal. I opt for the dry martini proportions, 1 to 5; but you must judge this yourself for each salad. You can always toss in a little more lemon or vinegar if needed, but it's hard to remove or disguise an excess." (page 350).

I was fascinated enough to try it out. Here's the recipe for any budding vinaigrette fans out there!

Julia's Oil and Lemon Dressing (the Master Recipe!)
For about 2/3 cup, enough for 6 to 8 servings

2 strips of fresh lemon peel (1 by 2.5 inches each) [I just used zest]
1/4 tsp salt, plus more, if needed
1 Tbs Dijon-type prepared mustard
1 to 2 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup fine fresh oil [olive was delicious]
Freshly ground pepper

Special Equipment Suggested: A small mortar and pestle, or a heavy bowl and wooden spoon; a small portable beater or wire whisk.

Mince the lemon peel very finely with the salt, scrape it into the mortar or bowl, and mash into a fine paste with the pestle or the spoon.

Beat in the mustard and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice; when thoroughly blended, start beating in the oil by droplets to make a homogeneous sauce - easier when done with a small electric mixer. Beat in droplets more lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Emulsion Note: Slow additions or oil and constant beating make the emulsion here, and if the sauce doesn't "take" - too bad - just beat it well before using. Or whisk in a spoonful of raw egg white, heavy cream, or condensed milk, which should bring it together. For security, these could be added at the beginning, with the mustard. (Pages 350-351, The Way to Cook)