If the slide into bourgeois bohemian middle age is signaled by weekly farmer’s market visits and excessive zeal for new kitchen gadgets, I am the avalanche. Unable to consume one more raw cherry and compelled to make a cobbler to address our bounty, I found myself without a cherry pitter. A quick trip to Sur La Table later, I was redecorating my kitchen in fuchsia splotches. I chose the OXO version, which while handsome, I can only partially recommend on account of the splattering and the fact that my husband nearly broke a tooth on the many pits I failed to remove.
On a side note, is totally disturbing to me that the employees at our neighborhood Sur La Table know me by name, thanks in part to our wedding registry last year. Consumer capitalism gets you good when you get hitched—I’m still receiving an unsolicited, unwelcome copy of Brides magazine each month. Little do the power that be know, I was the most disappointing participant in the wedding industrial complex of all time. This county courthouse bride didn’t even manage register for a cherry pitter!
You probably already have a go-to cobbler recipe, but I thought I’d tap out mine. At some point my recipe was essentially a Joy of Cooking/Betty Crocker hybrid, one I cobbled together, wink wink. But it’s enough my own now that the specifics may be worthwhile if you find yourself with an excess of cherries, sweet or sour.
4 cups of pitted fresh cherries (I used sweet, but you could use sour and up the sugar)
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4.5 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons sugar
2-½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup milk
Heat oven to 375º.
Pit those damn cherries. Bemoan the fact that your kitchen now looks like a shocking pink Pollack painting. Realize that you don’t have a lime. Steal a lime from your neighbor’s lime tree down the street. Mix cherries with 1/2 cup sugar, cornstarch, lime zest, and vanilla extract. Pour into ungreased baking dish that will fit the whole damn things with a few inches to spare for biscuit.
Cut room temperature butter into flour, 3 teaspoons sugar, baking powder and salt in medium bowl using a knife, until mixture look like fine crumbs. Stir in milk. By the spoonful, drop dough by onto filling mixture.
Bake 35-40 minutes or until topping is golden brown and fruit juice is oozing up and appears to have thickened. Eat with vanilla ice cream. And cobbler for breakfast is the bee’s knees, duh.
Some dark clouds have gathered Chez Bear-Garden, as my amazing 95-year-old grandmother is in the process of passing away from this world to whatever lies on the other side. There aren’t really any wise or clever words to dose out in this situation. All I can say is that she has lived a long and interesting life and raised a great family in the process, and I am still sorting how much emptier the world will be for my family without her in it.
Juanita is the most fiercely independent person I’ve ever known, and if I had to describe her in two words or less I would say “elegant mettle.” Originally raised in a Southern Colorado/Northern New Mexico Hispanic farming community that can trace its roots there to the early 16th century, she married into a family of Sicilian immigrants who had settled into the San Francisco Bay area. The fusion of those two culinary traditions — roasted green chiles, queso blanco, and blue corn on the one hand, salted anchovies, Cioppino, and homemade raviolis on the other — is what my family considers comfort food of the first order. All of us cook the way we do because of the way my grandparents cooked, and one of the ways I will always remember Juanita is through the culinary traditions that she and my grandfather started and that I hope will be shared with the generations to come in our family.
As a small tribute to her, I wanted to share one of my favorite of her recipes. An inveterate sweet tooth, my grandmother would always have a cake, a pie, or a loaf of famous banana bread for her visitors. Her banana bread is perfect, simple solution to that bunch of rotten bananas that you might have hanging out in your kitchen right now. My mother would always bake some for parties or for a sick neighbor, and today I often make a loaf at the beginning of the week for easy, yummy breakfasts on the go.
Juanita’s Banana Bread
1 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of butter or vegetable shortening
3-4 very ripe bananas (we’re talking brown, shriveled, and fruit-fly ready)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease loaf pan well with butter and sprinkle with flour. Cream together sugar and butter. Add eggs and bananas to butter and sugar mixture and mix well. I find that a potato masher works excellently for smushing up the bananas. Add flour, baking soda, and walnuts or pecans. Mixture will be stiff. Pour into pan and bake for one hour or more until toothpick comes out clean from the center of loaf when inserted.
Second generation modification: My mother used to serve slices of banana bread topped with cream cheese and black olives at her wild parties of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not my cup of tea, but a lot of people reading this blog might have fond memories of those days.
Third generation modification: To make this a bit healthier for weekday breakfasts, I like to substitute 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 cup of ground flaxseed. I also omit one banana and add instead a cup of frozen blueberries when I add the nuts.
Now that we no longer live three blocks from Pozzetto, we’ve been forced to improvise for our quotidian ice cream needs. Upon returning to the States I hit commercial gelato brands like Ciao Bella and Talenti pretty hard, hoping to find something approximating the lifestyle to which we had become accustomed. No dice. In fact, I was pretty disappointed in the quality-to-price ratio of those particular brands. If I’m going to drop six bucks on a pint of ice cream, it better make me see God.
My big revelation came when I was staying in California for a week this fall and my lovely hostess J oh-so-casually busted out dishes of her homemade Mexican chocolate ice cream on my first night in town. Oh man, it was good – creamy and light and deeply chocolatey with just a kick of chile to round the whole thing out. And instead of pretending that it was an impossibly difficult task to make one’s own ice cream at home (like I would have likely done to my own houseguests), J took the modest route and said it was totally simple and encouraged me to get an ice cream maker to try it myself.
Fast-forward to Christmas, when B’s parents sweetly gave me an ice cream attachment for my new Kitchen Aid stand mixer (birthday present from B to Clarence, aren’t we predictable?). Our first go at the basic chocolate gelato recipe from the Silver Spoon wasn’t exactly a roaring success – our custard didn’t set properly, we burned the chocolate ever so slightly, and the final product was decidedly crumbly and grainy. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely wasn’t worth the time and effort. B and I turned to the amazing wealth of information about ridiculous things on the internet and discovered a few tricks for making ice cream at home more successful. I think the biggest improvement came from beating the eggs yolks and sugar together until they were extremely light yellow and made ribbons off the wisk – no small effort but this is what live-in boyfriends are designed for.
Our second batch of ice cream was a riff on this Epicurious recipe for sour cream ice cream. I had heard tall tales of Momofuku’s sour cream ice cream with lime but it was impossible to track down the recipe on the internets and I was too lazy to do my usual Barnes and Noble camera phone trick. Plus B had been nursing an idea about rosemary ice cream. Put all those fat kid yearnings together and the result was one hell of an ice cream:
Rosemary and Lime Zest Sour Cream Ice Cream
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup sugar
8 large egg yolks
2 cups (1 pint) sour cream
2 stalks of fresh rosemary, removed from stalks and roughly chopped
zest of 1 lime
In heavy saucepan combine sour cream, half-and-half, and 3/4 cup sugar and bring just to a boil. Remove pan from heat, and then put the hot cream mixture into another bowl. In a second bowl whisk together egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar. I mean, really wisk it. Wisk it until your arm aches, and then switch arms and wisk some more. Then slowly pour egg mixture into hot cream mixture, wisking all the while. Don’t worry, you can skip the gym today. Return the incorporated ingredients to the saucepan, then add rosemary and lime zest. Cook over low heat, stirring, until a candy thermometer reads 170°F (though we didn’t have a candy thermometer and used a meat one instead and everything came out fine, so take that Williams Sonoma). Remove from heat and strain through a fine sieve into a bowl. Chill custard (or “batter,” as they say in the biz) until cold (we find our wintertime porch works excellently for this task), then freeze in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. While the soft-serve consistency of this ice cream was delicious right out of the churn, this guy really hit his stride after about three hours of setting in the freezer. I’d serve it with a salty caramel pine nut tart at a fantasy dinner party.
Any home ice makers out there? What are your favorite recipes? What about store brands that tickle your fancy?
I just arrived home from a great trip with B’s family to Ireland and Scotland. Sneek peek: you’re about to witness a big ol’ UK offal mess up in here. I ate haggis people! And loved it! It’s taking me a little while to compile everything, however. In the meantime, I think you should spend some quality time with some new blogs made by lovely people I happen to know in real life too. Foodies should head directly to my friend A’s amazing food blog The Secret Menu, where she has been writing knockout accounts of her cooking adventures, complete with some seriously yummy recipes. I’ve riffed on a few of her terrific ideas recently and let’s just say that this blog is most hilarious way to get yourself out of a cooking (or dissertation writing) slump. Her entries are getting picked up all over the place and I think she’s just about to blow up big. Now you can say you were following her before she went viral.
Secondly! My dear friend S, who I’m sure you remember from this here blarg, has started a smart tumblr called Techno-Utopias. S is basically the super-hip art history professor that we all wish we had had in college, but didn’t. Instead we ended up with Professor Cobwebs and his recycled lectures from twenty years ago about neoclassicism. Snooze. Predictably, S’s cannily curated images are always surprising and guaranteed to leave you thinking.
So kick off your shoes, make yourself an Aperol Spritz, and hop over to these fantastic blogs. You won’t be sorry. They take “Smarter than me” to a whole new level. I’ll be back in a jiffy with pictures of organ meats in a variety of delightful contexts.
Ugh, what a mess we are over here at the ranch. B admirably fought off my vicious übervirus for nearly two months, no small feat given our four foot square apartment and our luxurious two star hotels in Portugal: “Hey! Is that your foot or the shower head?!” But he has finally succumbed to the beast. Our home has turned into a contest as to who can cough the loudest. He’s trying his best, but his weakling four-day-old cold is absolutely no match for my mature demon. Having completely exhausted my supply of mucus and lung tissue, I’ve begun coughing up lost elementary school biology papers, pieces of swallowed gum, and lead paint I chipped off a desk and ate when I was seven years old. I’m digging deep, dear reader.
I must be a seriously miserable sick person to live with. I spend most of my time surfing the web, looking for alternative diagnoses, and coming to the conclusion that my swollen lymph nodes actually indicate that I have tuberculosis and spleen cancer. I inherited this charming case of hypochondria from my mother, who once concluded from an errant lab result and an afternoon spent on Web MD that she had early onset Alzheimer’s, which she announced to me right before we attended a production of Madame Butterfly. Fortunately, you are allowed to sob through the opera. Needless to say, she didn’t have Alzheimer’s, nor do I have tuberculosis or spleen cancer. The internet is an ugly place for people of our disposition. Let’s just say that B has begun to lose his patience with sentences that begin with “According to Wikipedia, gallbladder failure begins with a faint sense of doom…”
Yet despite our cacophony of coughs and my rabid internet-fueled death fears, we had a pretty lovely Valentine’s Day, if you happen to care. I know you didn’t ask about my Valentine’s Day, and barf to hearing about other people’s romantic holidays, am I right? But one particularly cool thing transpired, namely that B bought and killed his first live lobster! I guess sometime in the past six months I said that the most romantic thing I could think of was someone making me lobster bisque from scratch. I don’t even remember saying it—I have a brain like a sieve for anything other than pop song lyrics—but B remembered my weird little request and filed it away, likely on an Excel spreadsheet that he maintains for this very purpose. On Monday, he left work and tracked down this amazing creature:
I was still teaching rather late into the evening, a rather brutal graduate class I’ve been assigned in the school of education in which my students are twice my age and seem to arbitrarily resent about half of the things I tell them about the English language. Still, a steady stream of text messages from home kept me duly entertained:
Success! That fishmonger on Rivoli had a lively selection. What a beautiful boy!
He’s watching me chop the vegetables for the bisque! A great kitchen companion!
Can I touch it!? YES! [If this doesn’t ring a bell, scurry over here immediately and promptly make your own day.]
Goodbye my lobster friend!
OMG escape attempt! Thwarted!
OMG, he actually changed colors!! Why didn’t we charge the camera! Can I use the photobooth on your computer??
OMG, HE is a SHE! EGG SACK!
I came home to Sade and Stevie Wonder on the stereo, a perfect bouquet of orange tulips, a box of fancy chocolates, and fragments of lobster shell mysteriously shellacked to the walls of our kitchen. The bisque itself was a labor-intensive, resounding success. I often describe things as “sex on toast” (no idea where I got that one), but this was even better. It was like sex on a fresh blini. Always a stickler for the correct word, B explained that it less of a bisque and more of a chowder, as he decided to submerge a half-lobster’s worth of meat in each bowl upon serving (insert heaving sounds of joy here). He cobbled together his masterpiece from a mixture of French and English recipes, so I’ll try and convince him to give me the recipe to post here. There really is nothing like the slaying of a live animal to really let your lover know you care.
So at some point in the past two weeks winter decided to come to Paris. Man, oh man, do I hate winter now. Especially in a place like this, where it more often than not means gray, overcast day after gray, overcast day, with a fair amount of freezing rain and howling winds on the side. I keep buying coats with the idea that I will eventually find one that keeps me warm but doesn’t render me a sweaty, overheated mess when I go from the cold street into the hot, crowded métro. I haven’t succeeded yet, though I did sink my clothing budget for the month into a pretty serious puffy down coat from Uniqlo. I could tell you about how it is Jil Sander’s line and looks nothing like the puffy coat my mother wore to shovel the driveway when I was a kid, but I’d be lying through my teeth. Like most things in my life, it is symptomatic of the fact that my mom was usually right about things, and I had my head up my ass. The universal realization of growing up, I suppose.
Anyway, all this WINTER has meant that we have been making a lot of SOUPS. Some of them have been less stellar than others, but a few have been knockouts and I suspect that they will become a regular part of our schedule. One that already has near-weekly place in the rotation is my lentil soup:
You see lentils and you think “healthy,” right? Wrong! I mean, I guess these are healthy in an abstract sense, but like most things in my life they actually contain a lot of pork fat and booze. Surprise, surprise! But they are seriously delicious, and get increasingly so if you make enough for leftovers. They are easy and a hearty dinner in their own right, especially if you pair with some fresh bread (we buy our baguettes from the amazing Huré, 18 rue Rambuteau, Paris 75003, Métro Rambuteau, and will never pledge this kind of devotion to another bakery again) and a big green salad.
T’s Weekday Lentils
2 small, or 1 large, package of lardons (Lardons are matchstick or cube-cut pieces of bacon or larding fat cut from the belly of pork. In France, you can buy them in any supermarket in convenient packages. If you live in the States, you can ask your butcher if they sell pre-cut lardons, or you can buy pork belly and cut them yourself with a sharp knife. Alternately, you substitute cubed bacon. I’m a huge fan of Niman Ranch’s Applewood Smoked Bacon. One package cut into strips would do quite nicely.)
3-4 large garlic cloves, chopped roughly
1 large (or two small) purple onions, diced
3-4 big carrots, diced
5 tablespoons of San Marzano tomato paste (or whatever you have, but seriously, spend the extra buck and get the San Marzano tomatoes from now on. They will change your life.)
2 cups of chicken stock (We make our own, not because we are so sophisticated but because we eat a positively absurd amount of rotisserie chickens and my boyfriend is terrified of wasting anything.)
2 bottles of a burly red wine (One for the soup, one for you to drink with dinner. By burly, I mean that this isn’t the time for a merlot or a pinot noir. This is the time for a Bourgogne or a Côte du Rhône. Maybe one of those punchy Australian syrahs would be nice! I’m not a wine snob, so just buy something cheap enough that you don’t mind cooking with it but decent enough that you enjoy drinking it.)
3-4 cups of French green lentils, rinsed and picked through for stones (I guess you could use a different kind of lentil, but it might change the amount of liquid you need. All the more reason to buy and extra bottle of wine and eat another rotisserie chicken).
2 tablespoons of dried herbes de provence (I put this in everything, and it’s always good).
Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes (or Srichacha), to taste
Put a big pot on the stove over medium-high heat. When hot, throw in your lardons. Cook, stirring occasionally, past the point where they release all their water, to the point where all the fat melts and they start to brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the lardons from the pot, leaving the fat in the bottom. You should have enough to cook your veggies, but if it looks like they weren’t particularly fatty you can add a bit of olive oil. Return the pot to the heat and add your onions. It should smell amazing. Once your onions have started to become translucent, add the garlic, carrots, herbes de provence, and browned lardons. Cook for a few minutes stirring regularly until everything has softened up. Then add your lentils, stirring so that they become well-coated with fat. This is a trick B learned from a French lady, and it really does help your lentils cook. Then, when everything is nice and hot and starting to sizzle, add the tomato paste. Stir around, and then slowly begin adding wine. You want to keep the temperature up, so don’t add your liquid all at once. I usually put in about three-quarters of a bottle of wine. You can do more or less, based on your own taste. I arrived at this magical amount because I usually drink a glass while I’m cooking, and give another to B when he gets home from work. Once I’ve added all the wine and the pot is simmering, I top it off with chicken stock until it reaches the top. I’ll be honest, the lentil to wine/stock ratios aren’t exact here, as different lentils need different amounts of cooking liquid. Remember, you can always add more liquid if they start to burn, but you shouldn’t add wine too close to end of the cooking process because it won’t have time to mellow out. Turn down to low heat, partially cover, and walk away (stirring occasionally). It usually takes about two hours for this to turn into something magnificent. I add salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes once the lentils have cooked, as I’ve found that I tend to over-salt if I do it beforehand. You’ll know it’s done when everything is tender and thick.
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B is a well-documented mushroom maniac, so when the chanterelles, death trumpets, oyster mushrooms, and enormous cêpes began showing up at the vegetable market, he became a jittery mess. I suggested that he make an autumn mushroom soup, which was perhaps the best suggestion I’ve ever made. After tinkering around with some recipes he found online, he created the following masterpiece.
B’s Manic Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup
1 pound, or thereabouts, of assorted wild mushrooms (we bought giant cêpes, death trumpets, and golden chanterelles, though shitakes and oyster mushrooms would have been terrific as well), cleaned and roughly chopped
1 large leek, cut on the bias
White wine (I believe we used a Mâcon-Villages, though anything dry and not too sweet would work just fine)
Container of crème fraîche (or heavy cream for those stateside)
Salted butter (please don’t insult mushrooms like these with margarine or oil)
Set about one-third of your mushrooms aside (we set aside the otherworldly chanterelles). Sauté the remaining two-thirds along with the leeks in butter until browned. You will have to do this in batches, as it is important to not crowd your mushrooms as they cook (thanks Julia Child!).
When slightly browned, sprinkle with flour and brown a bit further until it looks and smells really yummy (highly scientific, I know). Once you have browned all of the leeks and two-thirds of your mushrooms, gradually put the mixture in the food processor, using chicken stock as a liquid to get things moving. You should be left with an paste, which you should add to a pot with equal parts white wine and chicken stock. In another frying pan, brown up the mushrooms you reserved. These will not be pureed and will give your soup some texture.
Once browned, add to your burgeoning soup, along with the crème fraîche, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about thirty minutes over low heat, be careful not to boil this delicate soup. Serve with white wine, crusty bread, and a big salad (are you noticing a theme here?).
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Finally, I’d like to share with you a soup that can be added to the annals of “growing up is good!” As my mom will certainly attest, I was kind of a weird kid when it came to food. I wasn’t a fan of many of the staples of American childhood, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apple juice, or tomato soup. And while the idea of peanut butter and jelly still makes me nauseous, I’ve been coming around on tomato soup, especially when pair with a classic grilled cheese. Now everybody has their own version of the “perfect” grilled cheese (mine is with buttered wheat bread, Colby cheese, and should slightly burned on one side). Lately, in the absence of my beloved Colby (you can take the girl out of Colorado…), I’ve been making French grilled cheeses with a combination of Mimolette and Emmentaler. At the suggestion of the genius Aarti Sequeira, whose show and internet videos you should be watching if you aren’t already, I’ve begun adding carmelized onions to my grilled cheeses. Amazing and very grown-up.
I’ve struggled a bit more with the tomato soup part of the meal, as I find conventional canned tomato soups to be pretty gag-worthy. I started playing around with combinations I liked and last night I found the holy trinity: tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and basil. This ain’t your momma’s tomato soup, that is, if your momma was in the habit of opening a can of Campbell’s. But it’s pretty stupidly easy and paired with a grilled cheese it makes for a yummy winter meal.
T’s Consummate Tomato, Roasted Red Pepper, and Basil Soup
Extra-virgin olive oil for sautéing
1 white onion, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes (seriously already! Life changing!)
1 jar of roasted red peppers in water, chopped and keep the water (approximately five whole roasted peppers if you are fancy and burdened by so much free time that you want to roast your own)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup chicken stock (or ½ cup chicken stock and ½ cup of white wine)
2 tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar (when buying Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, make sure you pick a brand with the seal and the cream-colored cap, which means that it was aged for at least 12 years. If you roll like Daddy Warbucks, splurge on the gold-capped variety, which has been aged for 25 years)
1 bunch of fresh basil (about 20-25 leaves)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 container of crème fraîche (or heavy cream, or half and half, as you like)
Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent. Add cans of tomatoes, red peppers, red pepper water, chicken stock, balsamic vinegar, and oregano. Simmer over low heat for about an hour and a half, or until the tomatoes sweeten up. Remove from heat and cool slightly, and then add roughly torn fresh basil leaves. Transfer and carefully process until smooth in food processor or blender (or use your immersion blender, you fancypants). Return to stove and add crème fraîche and salt and pepper to taste. Cook on very low for about a half hour more.
Well that’s it people. I hope you like these. As with everything I cook, I’m always tinkering with the recipe, so if you make any amazing adjustments, let me know. And I’m always looking for new soup ideas, so if you’ve got a real gem up your sleeve, please share!
If I were making a list of things I miss about the United States, Mexican food would be numbers one, two, and three. I know it sounds kinda hysterical, but I really can’t tell you how much of a shift in my diet I had to make coming to live in Paris. I know, cry me a river made entirely of Camembert and Roquefort, right? But seriously, I miss Mexican food in a nearly elemental way. When my mother was pregnant with me, she constantly craved green chile smothered burritos, a decision that left her with a happy fetus and a lot of heartburn. We joke that I’ve loved New Mexican food since I was in utero and we usually make it down to Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque at least once a year for a serious chile fix. Let’s just say Clarence in New Mexico would make Clarence in Paris have an aneurism. The rule of these vacations is that we eat chile at every meal until our gastrointestinal systems mutiny. Barring a trip to New Mexico—or a couple of coolers filled with chiles from Hatch Chile Days and a couple of bags dried red chile pods from the now (sob) extinct Chimayo ranch—my hometown of Denver has some nice stopgap options for excellent New Mexican style food. I’m planning a whole Clarence in Denver feature when I go home at Christmas for the first time in a year and a half. That is, of course, if I’m not too busy warding off culture shock and binge shopping at Target.
I had to acclimate to Southern California style Mexican food when I moved to Orange County in 2005. I’m sure that it is much more authentically Mexican than the “Mexican” I’m really nuts for, which isn’t TexMex either. There are more big square states out West than most people are aware of, and the kind of food I like best is in New Mexico (with nods of recognition to Colorado and Arizona). Anyway, one thing I did really get to like in California is the ubiquity of taco stands and trucks. There aren’t very many taco trucks in the soulless part of Orange County that I inhabited (though the one that hangs out in front of the Santa Ana courthouse on weekdays is killer and sure takes the edge off of traffic school). There are, however, a lot of prime brick and mortar locations for my very favorite alliterated holiday: Taco Tuesday. Mix bargain tacos with drink specials that encourage getting blitzed before midweek and you’ve got yourself a routine. My best friend N and I made a near-religious habit of Taco Tuesdays in the past few years.
Should you find yourself in Orange County on that oh-so-wonderful day of the week, you should definitely check out the bargain eating and boozing options. In Costa Mesa, you can hit Taco Mesa (647 West 19th Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627), where they have a particularly diverse selection of yummy and healthy tacos, a serve-yourself salsa bar with killer escabeche and salsa verde, and dollar cans of Tecate. Their heated outdoor patio overlooks the parking lot of the DMV, so you can revel in your culinary indulgence while watching your fellow citizens’ brains explode with frustration. Maybe you can invite a DMV-disgruntled stranger over to your table! At a mere two bucks for a taco and a beer, everybody can afford to be generous! Make sure you splurge an extra buck and get yourself a blackened chicken taco. You won’t regret it.
Should you find yourself coast-side in Laguna Beach, treat yourself to a few fish tacos at Taco Loco (640 California 1, Laguna Beach, CA 92651). If you can get over the tacky tourists, the screeching traffic on Highway 1, and the kind of annoying teenagers that spawned an entire generation of reality television shows, Taco Loco has some of the lushest fish tacos in the area. Served with little more than a chucky avocado salsa, the blackened fish, swordfish, shrimp, and calamari can’t be beat. Skip the chicken and beef variations, and splurge on the seasonal lobster taco when it’s on the menu. The prices are steeper, but it will still be the cheapest thing you’ll eat in Laguna.
Finally, if your main goal is to just tie one on and eat some tacos in the process, I can’t recommend enough the John Wayne airport-adjacent El Torito (951 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92660). Taco Tuesday is a real institution at this rather tragic locale, where Irvine corporate worker drones and tired business travelers converge every Tuesday for dollar tacos and enormous bargain margaritas and beers. It’s got everything you want in an Orange County Taco Tuesday: an assembly line of skillful chefs who make the tortillas to your order, a light rock soundtrack, a hearty helping of bad plastic surgery, a parking lot full of BMWs, and the stench of quiet desperation. Swear to God, N and I were once debating if we should call a cab outside of El Torito and a strange woman asked us if we wanted to use the breathalyzer that she had recently picked up at Costco. The more you know, I guess? Anyway, it’s a real train wreck of a place and I miss spending my Tuesday nights there.
Every Tuesday since moving to Paris, I forlornly remember that somewhere in the world people are eating bargain tacos and getting sloppy. Since such an item isn’t on the agenda here in France (c’mon Chipotle! You could make a fortune on the drunk study abroad kids alone!), I woke up today with a clear sense of purpose: fish tacos and beer for dinner, dammit.
This was no small proposition. While there is a “Mexican” foods section at most large Monoprix in Paris, the offerings are horrifying. Most stores will sell something they call “Mexican style chili powder,” usually with ginger and paprika as the first two items on the ingredient list (huh?). It’s virtually impossible to find fresh hot chiles at the many vegetable markets in Paris, and I’ve found it’s difficult to use Thai and Vietnamese chiles you can buy in the Asian markets here in comparable proportions to my beloved jalapeños, serranos, and poblanos. I have discovered that you can buy some decent dried chiles and corn flour at L’Epicerie de Bruno (30 rue Tiquetonne, 75002 Paris) and Izrael (30 Rue François Miron, 75004 Paris), and I make a habit of requesting black beans, cans of roasted green chiles, and pickled jalapeños whenever anyone comes to visit from the States.
After some brutal run-ins with French packaged tortillas, I threw in the towel and gave up. Fortunately, among the many other skills he possesses, B is an avid home tortilla maker. I was skeptical at first, but now I can’t believe I haven’t been making tortillas from scratch my whole life. They are easy, stupidly cheap, and much more delicious than their shelf-stable brethren. The proportions are simple: roughly 2 parts masa to 1 part warm water. In a bowl, combine your masa with a couple pinches of salt. Then, slowly add the warm water, integrating it as you go along until you have a firm dough. You may need more or less water, obviously.
Then roll the dough into little balls, and smoosh them between two nonstick surfaces. We have fashioned a tortilla press out of a wooden cutting board wrapped in cling wrap and the back of a frying pan. If you find your tortillas are sticking to the pressing surface, dust it with a bit of dry masa.
Heat up a nonstick pan until it’s super-smoking hot. Then drop your tortilla onto the dry surface and cook about 10-15 seconds on each side. It should be easy to flip them without using a spatula, as nothing should be remotely sticky. This is ideally a two-person operation. B and I had a rather nice rhythm going tonight where he pressed and I cooked and flipped. Stack your tortillas in a teatowel, rewrapping your little bundle after each addition to keep them warm.
While these buggers could obviously be the delivery device for a million different things, tonight we ate:
T’s “Take That France!” Tuesday Tacos
For the fish:
1 pound cod filets, skinned and cut into 1-2 inch pieces (sole, halibut, mahi-mahi, swordfish would all do the trick)
¼ red onion
1-2 large garlic cloves
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 large handful of fresh cilantro (stems are not a big deal here)
1 tablespoon of the hottest chili powder you can find (I used my dwindling supply of Chimayo red chile)
A couple of shakes from a rather old bottle of Tapatio abandoned by a fellow expat (untraditional in a marinade, but surprisingly delightful)
2 tablespoons olive oil
the juice of ½ of a lime
Combine everything except the fish in your food processor and pulse until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste, then cover your fish with the marinade.
While this is marinating, you can make my ode to the Yucatan: green mayo. This my attempt at a Parisian homage to the ineffable combination of mayonnaise and habenero salsa that you find in plastic squeeze bottles at every taco stand in the Yucatan. Obviously, if you have access to proper habenero salsa, you can skip this step (though my extemporaneous sauce was pretty fantastic).
Combine the following in your food processor:
4 tablespoons Maille or homemade mayonnaise (mayo snob!)
1 large handful of fresh cilantro leaves
1 large handful of fresh mint leaves
juice of ½ of a lime
1 teaspoon of dried cumin
a couple of shakes of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
Pulse until smooth, and refrigerate until serving.
Fry up your marinated fish in a hot skillet, cooking just until flaky. My cod was really delicate and fell apart, but who cares when it’s in a taco? I served the warm corn tortillas and fish with homemade guacamole, strips of purple cabbage, and a drizzle of my green mayo. It might just be that I haven’t eaten fish tacos in over a year, but holy shit these tasted good. The spiciness of the fish against the creamy avocado and minty mayo with a bit of crunchy cabbage in a fresh warm tortilla – I wish I ate like this everyday. We cracked open two bottles of the one decent French beer we’ve found and dug in, quickly annihilating twelve tacos between us. Sated and blissed out, B declared “It’s a good day to be me!” which I took as a highest-order compliment of my fish taco skillz. Obviously this would be a bit labor-intensive if you are in a place where you can just go out for dollar tacos on Tuesday, but it’s a nice stopgap measure if you find yourself in taco-free Paris (read that last part so it rhymes, okay?).