Sunday, January 30, 2011

I've Been Home Cooking Pozole

I am an ametuer cook at best and this is definitely not a recipe blog. For that matter, if anyone has fallen ill after trying one of my recipes, by reading this sentence you absolve me from any wrongdoing or associated responsibility. My lawyer counseled me to put that in-- just to be safe-- for what is another recipe post.

I don't actually have a lawyer per se, but if I needed one I would choose the man I alluded to above. Not only was it his drunken, campfire brainstorming that came up with the name of this blog but he also likes to argue more than than anyone I know and as far as I can tell this is what makes a good lawyer. For example, I could say this to him: "You like to argue."

His answer would be: "No I don't."

And surely when he reads that he will think: "I wouldn't say that." His is a viscous circle of debate, and all who enter are instantly overwhelmed with argument.

Anyway, the other night my wife and I had this lawyer friend and his lawyer wife over for dinner. With their two little lawyers-to-be in tow, going out to eat was not in the cards so we settled for what was possibly the fourth-best option for eating after that (after ordering in, having someone else cook and microwaving pizza): me cooking.

I decided to cook a big pot of red pozole which if all the stars align just right is something I can do relatively well. I originally stumbled across a recipe I liked in a Rick Bayless cookbook. What caught my attention was that Mr. Bayless had somehow pilfered the recipe from a small market stall in the pozole-rich bohemian neighboorhood of Coyaocan in Mexico City. My wife is from this part of the city and we visit this exact market just about every time we go to the Federal District. It is, without a doubt the best pozole I have ever eaten. I played with the Bayless recipe for a year or so but never felt it replicated the version we know and love from Coyoacan. Maybe because I never bought and boiled a pig's head, but I think somewhere in Mr. Bayless' recipe gathering, some items or steps were lost or more likely intentionally omitted. I mean, clearly Bayless is a culturally sensitive guy and I really do appreciate his respect of the Mexican culture, but we all know he isn't sending royalty checks out to these market-stall chefs he "borrows" recipes from, so I can't blame the pozole-master of Coyoacan for holding back a little.

To supplement my Bayless recipe, over the years I have watched my mother-in-law make pozole and from that come up with more or less my own version that I like to think comes out pretty damn well.

I start with a big can of hominy. Actually going back, I start all my pozole dishes with a trip to Liborio or other similar Mexican grocery. There you will want to get the big can of hominy. Also at Liborio you can get a big menudo/ tamale-steamer pot for a great price that is a perfect size for a healthy portion of this soup.

I drain and rinse the hominy well and add it to the pot. On top of it I add probably about two gallons of water. I start the flame and bring it to a rolling boil, lower to a simmer and add in five or six medium-sized cloves of garlic. After that I throw in the pork.

The pork for the pozole is likely the most important part. While it is true that a pig's head yields the tastiest dish, I've found that it is acceptable to get about a kilo each (it's fun to order in the metric system while in a Mexican market) of pork ribs, pork stew meat and something else bony or fatty like more ribs, neck bones or even the hodgepodge of meat at Loborio labeled "para pozole". Put all that in now with the garlic and let that simmer for at least a couple hours or until the hominy is soft. Stir often.

Once that is going break out 8-10 chiles anchos and 8-10 chiles guajillos. Open them, de-vein them and remove the stem and all the seeds. Heat a cast iron skillet and toast each side of each chile briefly until they blister but be careful not to burn them. If you do burn one, toss it and try again. This is really important.

Once all the chiles are toasted put them in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Cover that bowl and let it sit for 20-30 minutes. Don't forget to stir your hominy, it likes to stick to the bottom of the pot.

Drain most of the water out of the chiles but save it. Blend the rest until it reaches the consistency of a runny paste. Add the chile water as needed. Strain the mixture through a medium-sized colander into the pot. At this time peal an onion, cut it in half and add it to the pot.

Take the pork out thirty minutes or so after the hominy is soft. Let it cool and shred it into a bowl. Now is the time to start adding salt. Taste every time you salt, but know that it is hard to over-salt anything with hominy. I usually start by adding 3-4 tablespoons and go from there. Remove the onion halves and adjust the flavor as needed by adding salt, boiling off some more liquid or adding some of the water the chiles soaked in.

When you get pozole in a market stall in Mexico the pork is added into each bowl. Likely this is so everyone gets his or her share of the good stuff, and one can also chose which parts of the pig he or she likes best. I just toss all the pork back in after I shred it and let it boil some more.

Traditional toppings for this red pozole include sliced radishes, chopped iceberg lettuce, diced onion, oregano and chile powder. It is also good to have some tostadas handy. Enjoy. Pozole, like many slow-cooked dishes is best the next day or when it has cooled some and is re-heated.

Well, if you are so inclined to try this recipe I hope you like it. Chance are there will be more of these recipe posts in my future as my life has suddenly and wonderfully changed a week ago with the arrival of healthy and beautiful twin boys. And so it might take me a few weeks to get back on board with a restaurant review (and leave the house again).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 9: The Tent Next to La Flor de Michoacan in Thornton

Lately I've been in a lull when it comes to restaurants and new food experiences. Don't get me wrong, I've had some good food here and there, but nothing mind-blowing, and mixed in have been some disappointments as well. And then there was the other night. Every once in a while a restaurant or food experience will remind me why I spend countless hours of my already busy life seeking out, eating and writing about food in the first place. And that is exactly what happened the other night when following the lead of a friend I made my way into the heart of Thornton to the Carniceria y Taquieria La Flor de Michoacan to track down a spit of pastor.

It's shouldn't be surprising that this rejuvenating experience involved tacos al pastor. It has been a long time since I've written about a good taco al pastor, and for those of you that don't know, please click here or here to see just how deep my passion for this marinated pork-on-a-spit goes. You ought to (and might already) know that while many places in Denver advertise pastor on the menu, very few have it roasting on spit like it was meant to be.

"Exquisite and Delicious"

But back to that night. It was not the Carneceria that I was after per se, though we wandered to the back of it where they also sell tacos only to elicit a confused stare from the guy when we asked for pastor.

"Aqui no hay," he stated, passing his hand over a relatively enticing (but a little old-looking) guisado buffet as my heart sank into my stomach thinking we had arrived too late and missed the pastor bounty.

"Afuera?" I asked. Outside? He only shrugged, mumbled something about being new and disappeared back into the bowels of the store. In fact this guy was so clueless about the existence of pastor just a few steps away from him that if I hadn't already seen the tent at the side of the building I might have panicked a little.

We wandered back out of the little store and into the tent that was actually more like a lean-to conglomerate of brick, concrete and wood with the canvas facade of a tent. They had not run out of pastor.

Quite the opposite, in fact: The taquero was sharpening his knife, eying the stacked meat and grinning like a man who is at that moment happy to be doing exactly what he is doing. Before him was a lovely spit of marinated pork with a proper chunk of pineapple over its top. In the grill next to him bubbled chorizo sausages and chopped steak. Behind him a smiling woman who took our orders and motioned for us to sit.

We made our way to some plastic chairs in the back, away from the music of the ubiquitous CD vendors. As primitive as this set-up was, there was of course a flat-screen TV, and during our entire meal it was blaring Al Extremo, a nightly highlight reel of car crashes, natural disasters and general tragedy. The tires screeches and gratuitous screams of horror from the TV were partially silenced by the heater in front of us, which was essentially a miniature jet engine. In fact despite the cold on the other side of the canvas we were instantly boiling hot in front of this super-powered propane heater.

The chaotic din, the smells of frying meat, the dark, temporary shelter that was all-too permanent created an oasis of Mexican street life--it was only the occasional gust of frigid air through the cracks in the wood that reminded us we were just fifteen minutes from downtown Denver.

Our tacos came shortly after on small Styrofoam trays with a bounty of grilled onions and a grilled jalepeño. The salsa bar was pretty standard but featured an excellent smoky red and a tremendous tomatillo-avocado salsa.

The taco al pastor was excellent. I will have to go back and try it again before I put it towards the top of my list, but based on this experience it was close. The meat was sliced a little thick but it was charred well and the marinade was very good. It might have been a little sweet, but then again, I went a little overboard with the pineapple, which was self-serve up at the salsa bar.

Below is round two, less drenched in salsa though not pineapples. Equally as incredible. Though I have to admit the environment of this taco stall enhances the flavor significantly.

The tortillas on all the tacos were soft, and oily in a good way. On them I tried all the rest of the tacos that they had to offer that night. Chorizo is always good, but here it was a little better than average being that it was grilled to order in the open air of the tent. I followed that with a moist and tender taco de carne asada which was equally as good.

I finished the night with a couple of cabeza tacos. The specific meat can vary, but it is slow-cooked with steam and comes from various places in the cow's head. When done right it is succulent to the point where it falls apart in your hand. The flavor of La Flor's cabeza is rich and this taco rivaled the pastor.

La Flor de Michoacan reminds us how little is needed to create a meaningful, unforgettable food experience. No smoke and mirrors, hell, not even four solid walls. I needed a night like this to feel invigorated about food again. I've said a couple times before that certain places in Denver have felt like being back in Mexico, but they don't compare to crossing the threshold of this tent. Here I really felt like I entered a different world, and it was such a surreal experience that after getting back into my car and driving home, it almost didn't seem like it could have happened. I don't throw the term around loosely, but this is about as close as you can get to an "authentic" Mexican taco experience in this town-- both "real and honest" and "true to the original".

There are very few places like this in our fair city and I feel somehow reassured and good again just knowing that it is there. Surely this place won't be for everyone (you want to know your way around a taco stand), and for that matter I hope everyone that reads this doesn't rush out to go there (OK, I won't flatter myself, that never happens). In fact part of me struggled to even write about this place-- preferring to keep it to myself and my close friends-- and even after I publish it I think I will still have second thoughts. But I trust that those that go there will do so because they will know what to expect, crave and respect that; and will savor every single moment.

Visit Carniceria y Taquieria La Flor de Michoacan en Thorton at 2001 North Coronado Parkway on Friday, Saturday or Sunday starting at 4pm and go directly to the tent. If you also happen to need some freshly butchered meat, or are low on some groceries stop in the store itself and stock up. 

Carniceria y Taqueria La Flor de Michoacan on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Long Live La Casa del Rey in Commerce City

I chose to go to La Casa Del Rey for the first time about a week ago because I met one of the owner's family members and I liked the story he told me: a quarter century in existence growing from a dream to a small four-table operation to a busy and successful Commerce City standard. All the while run by the same family from our own San Luis Valley, literally going back almost 100 years to take pages from grandma's old recipe book. Oh, and I am always up for something new and I have to admit that I have never once been to a restaurant in Commerce City. Or for that matter written the words: "Commerce City Standard".

CC (not to be confused with the Chocolate City-- which would be hard) is thought of by most Denverites as a commercial and industrial wasteland, and not without reason; but at the same time it is full of working-class families and pockets of communities that are the basis for forming good neighborhood restaurants. I was hoping La Casa Del Rey would be one of them.

There are mixed signs to be found when one is considering eating his first meal at the House of the King. Consider the withered banana (pepper I suppose) that appears to be coming off a sleepless three-day bender and thought that by putting on a ton of make-up she would be able to show up at work and no one would notice. Little did she know that was the day La Casa decided to take her picture and emblazen it on eveything from the website, the servers, the menus and even t-shirts for little babies. Mrs. Cha Cha, as she is known, reminds me of an old lady who spent one too many years sunning by the pool in Florida. And trust me, you don't want this picture on your chest. Or your menu.

On the other hand, the fact that La Casa embraces this pepper so much makes it somehow funny and OK. And they keep with the preferred way of spelling "chile" which I take as a tremendously great sign. Plus the rest of the back story of this restaurant as it was told to me included the fact that just about everything at La Casa Del Rey is made from scratch in-house: from the beans and tortilla chips to the shredded beef and chile rellenos. And again, many of these are good old-fashioned Southern Colorado recipes. This is about as Colorado as it gets.

And this is why, as promised in my last post, I was bringing my Mexican in-laws out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. But of course this is not a Mexican restaurant in a pure sense, and as I have dedicated many lines of prose to the differences between Mexican food and New Mexican-- or food from Southern Colorado (remember it was all Mexico about 150 years ago)-- I won't bore you again on the differences. Suffice to say I was bringing my in-laws here to taste the distinct flavors of Coloradan fare that developed just like another region of Mexico-- though with the technicality that it was now in the US.

La Casa Del Rey is an adobe structure just off Quebec on 72nd in the heart of Commerce City. Inside it is wildly decorated with tropical faux palm-leaf ceiling fans, wooden parrots, southwestern prints and utilitarian booths and tables. None of these are particularly good signs for me either, and I doubted myself for a second for bringing my in-laws here for their first true Southwestern food experience.

We sat down while being serenaded by the sounds of a guitar duo. This was a nice touch, and they quickly warmed to my family and even belted out some obscure requests form my mother in-law while we sipped our drinks. I also immediately ordered us a big plate of green chile, and for the first time my inlaws brought a spoonful of green chile to their mouths.

I have to say that it was a very good green chile, cooked the way I like it with big chunks of red tomatoes and chiles, just a little thick but mostly soupy, just the right amount of spice in the hot version and all with a casera (homemade) taste and comfort. We all liked it very much and I breathed a sigh of relief that my inlaw's first green chile was this good.

While we savored our green chile, we browsed the extensive menu and I decided on the enchiladas with shredded beef--smothered, of course, in green chile. The house-prepared, hand-shredded beef was indeed moist and rich with flavor. Topped with the green chile and mixed in with the thick refried beans, it was an excellent plate of enchiladas.

My wife ordered the chiles rellenos, which quickly became the talk of our table. Unlike its Mexican counterpart, traditional chiles rellenos in these parts are made with the long New Mexican green chile instead of the shorter and stouter Mexican poblano. I don't know if my mother-in-law ever quite believed that her daughter was eating chiles rellenos, but she did agree that, whatever it was, it was really good. The batter was thick and fried crisp, the chile fresh and the cheese melted in with the smothered green chile sauce.

My father-in-law had an excellent plate of Steak Ranchero: sliced strips of steak covered in a sweet and spicy tomato and chile sauce. It reminded him of Puntas de Res a la Mexicana, which is another, very similar dish of beef tips covered in a red sauce all mixed in with sauteed peppers and onions. Whatever it was, there was an enormous plate of it and we all got to try a healthy share of it.

My mother and sister-in-law had relatively unremarkable plates of carne asada and a carne asada burrito, respectively. Although, to be fair, my sister-in-law ordered her burrito without the green chile, which is a lot like getting a slice of pizza without cheese or sauce, but being fifteen, she is a little less-than-adventurous and in the end really did like her meal. Here is what her burrito contents looked like on a small tortilla (flour of course) with a nice helping of green chile and beans. Now that was good.

We finished it off with a round of sopapillas. Just like the chile relleno plate, my family gave me a confused look when a plate of five fluffy pieces of plain-looking dough came out for our dessert. For some reason I am not a huge fan of the sopapilla, although I do recognize that fried dough drizzled in honey is generally a good thing. These were good sopapillas, and got the nod of approval from the in-laws by being devoured in a matter of minutes.

Regardless of what the signs were for La Casa Del Rey, in the end it was a great meal with friendly service and fun entertainment. While the kitschy and dated interior decor reflects the 25 years this restaurant has been up and running, the food reflects a family that still cares about its patrons by turning out quality plates served by a friendly and efficient staff. Yes, La Casa del Rey is exactly the type of neighborhood restaurant that I hoped to find in CC, and is a comforting taste of Grandma's home-style Southern Colorado cooking perfected after generations of practice.

What do Joe Biden, Dog the Bounty Hunter and a young John Elway all have in common? They all have been to La Casa de Rey over the years and had their mugs added to the walls and website of La Casa. See if you too can join this elite crowd by visiting La Casa in our industrious neighbor to the north and eating a plate of their excellent green chile.  

La Casa Del Rey on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stuffing My Face Just Like Nonna's of Denver Would Want Me To

Nonna translated from Italian means "Grandmother", and Nonna's Chicago Bistro of Denver looks and feels a lot like your Grandmother's idea of the ideal restaurant. There is parking right up front thanks to the out-of-the way strip mall location on Leetsdale and Monaco. The walls are painted in a familiar cracked-villa-stucco-overgrown-with-leafy-vines and two-dimensional-bright-purple-grapes kind-of-way. Faux brick thoughtfully lines the underside of the bar where mostly middle-aged and older well-dressed patrons are comfortably chatting and sipping wine. Plastic plants requiring no care yet almost as real-as-life adorn many-a-mantle. The booths are deep with slick brown vinyl. The table tops are collages of old wine labels with a touch of some sort of marbled gold inlay.

I was there for the first time over a month ago with my parents who were visiting from their home in Chicago. Bringing my parents to Nonna's Chicago Bistro is a little like bringing my Mexican in-laws to eat Mexican food in Denver (stay tuned, I just did that), but my parents are not adverse to familiarity, so it seemed like a good fit. On this Saturday night Nonna's was nothing short of packed; and the dimly lit interior, the glasses clinking, the laughter and bright conversation made it feel like the place to be that night (if you were over 50 and lived in Southeast Denver). A quartet of well-dressed gentlemen was setting up instruments. By the time we sat down they were breaking into their first number, the familiar feel of this Chicago-style spot got even more nostalgic as a Tony Bennett clone belted out swanky classics backed by a polished, crisp jazz trio.

Our menus came amidst a spattering of light applause and I was disappointed to see that dinner doesn't include the Italian beef. I remember having a decent one from Nonna's at the Italian festival in Belmar Plaza a couple years back, but I had to return for lunch in order to get one this time around (see the end of the post).

My mom tried the classic spaghetti and meatballs. Her favorite. The two meatballs were moist, tender and packed with homemade flavor. The sauce had a little arrabiata kick to it and tasted very fresh. This dish has garnered awards for being among Denver's best, and while I don't often go around seeking out balls of meat (I should) to verify the top-of-the-town rating, they were indeed quite good.

My dad ordered his favorite as well-- eggplant parmesan. His dish too tasted fresh and was classically prepared in the Italian-American grandmotherly tradition. It was, like the meatballs: a big, heaping plate of comfort.

My wife and I split a large order of Chicago-style ribs. Now many people don't know that Chicago has its own style of rib-cooking, but it does. Mostly it means slow cooking without smoking and then covering them with a simple tangy barbecue sauce. These ribs at Nonna's were indeed fall-off-the-bone-tender and each bite melted in my mouth (grandma's like this too, for obvious reasons). The sauce was nothing spectacular but it was good enough being that these ribs were so tender and juicy. In the photo below try and ignore the overcooked, charred and chewy vegetables next to the ribs-- they were barely edible.

My wife's favorite dish was our calamari appetizer. It was well-fried calamari (not chewy, not oily) tossed with all the other ingredients that would otherwise might make up some sort of Greek salad: olives, feta, capers and tomatoes. It also had deep-fried artichokes. It is a unique concept and I propose every restaurant rethink a salad from its menu by replacing the lettuce with some sort of fried meat. Seriously.

I did get back for lunch a few weeks later in order to try the beef. It was a little strange sitting down to eat a beef with my drink served in a glass and a cloth napkin on my lap, but such are the circumstances that us beef-cravers must endure to find a good Chicago-style sammich in Denver. The giardiniera peppers were served on the side, and the bun was a slice of Italian-style bread sprinkled with parsley and parmesan. I dumped on the peppers and devoured my sandwich without putting it down or once touching a utensil. It was moist, flavorful and much better than the last beef I had in Denver.

I liked it here. It's hard not to like a place that brings together people around food and drink like Nonna's does, and even never having met Nonna, I imagine that is exactly what she had in mind. Never mind that it would not be my first choice for a night out on the town with my wife, but for nights like this with my parents in tow it was perfect. My parents agreed that it did indeed remind them of the old family-style Italian-American restaurants that dot Chicago's suburban landscape (there are very few strip malls in the city). And the food was good. Nothing that will blow your socks off, but it had the feeling of consistency and comfort that obviously pleases enough people to fill the tables every weekend.

It was more than the food; it was again, the whole vibe: The live band swinging, the excellent service and the smiling patrons-- mostly all tipsy on wine-- having a great time. Visit them on the world wide web, or in person for some juicy ribs, a big beef sandwich and some middle-aged Chicago-style fun.

Nonna's Chicago Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 2, 2011

And The Food and Film Contest Winner Is...

A couple of weeks ago I posted a contest with the incredible opportunity to win a Dual Membership to the Denver Film Society. If you have ever watched a movie that had food in it at some point you had a very good chance at winning. The entries ranged from a vague reference to the convenience-store-kayaking/ extreme-cheddar-Doritos-eating scene in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, to several wonderfully detailed accounts of how much a film can mean to us as individuals, and how food played a role in that. And while I have to admit that I have a special place on my DVD shelf for the original Harold and Kumar (for being the first and only great Asian-American slapstick comedy), the latter is more what I was looking for.

What it came down to was choosing between three entries that I thought were all worthy. The first was from Andrea of the local blog Fork Fingers Chopsticks. Her blog if you haven't read it before is full of amazing and unique recipes, beautiful photography and good writing. It is a rare combination in a recipe blog, and I feel lucky to have her blogging away right here in our own town. She wrote eloquently about the Singaporean film Be With Me and inspired me to pick it up from my favorite movie store, the Denver Public Library.

The second was a description of Jack Nicholson's classic diner scene from Five Easy Pieces. If you haven't seen it, I embedded the clip below because it is so damn hilarious. Thanks to Stacia, and I agree that we all have wanted to let our inner-Nicholson out at a restaurant before.

The third and winning entry was from a husband and wife pair and came via email. It was an exhaustive list of food-related films and why each was either so funny, inspirational, classic, erotic, nostalgic or personal. One of my favorites from the list was remembering Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas slicing garlic paper-thin (so it would liquefy in the oil, of course) for a made-from-scratch, mouth-watering Mafioso prison meal.

It was a very good system.

Congratulations to John and his wife who clearly have a love of film and an amazing capacity to recall the food-related moments. And of course thanks for all the entries and for taking the time to check in and read this blog from time to time. Happy New Year.


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