How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tortilla Heaven

For this week's recipe, I dug into one of our favorite cookbooks, The Well-Filled Tortilla. by Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman. We purchased this book at a great little southwest book store in Tucson, Arizona -- where these things are decided. Its mix of simple and fancy, meat and veggie, savory and sweet, was just the thing for adventurous, thrifty cooking in graduate school. (A cursory look online shows that the great feminist book store Antigone and the great used book store Bookman's are both still in business, but I cannot find this southwest-themed store, whose name escapes me. Tucson readers: please tell me if it is still around. Meanwhile, it is good to know that Singing Wind in Benson is still a Mecca for readers of all things Southwestern!) Fortunately, more than 20 years after its initial publication, this celebration of the tortilla is still in print. At $10, I can think of no better cookbook bargain.

Zipf's Law, also known as the 80/20 rule, applies to many of life's distributions: 20 percent of volunteers (or employees) doing 80 percent of the work; 20 percent of a library's holdings comprising 80 percent of the circulation; 20 percent of songs taking up 80 percent of a radio's air time, and so on. For recipe books, however, Mr. Zipf's estimate is probably too conservative. We have cooked from this book hundreds of times, but I doubt we have prepared more than 5 percent of the recipes -- a 95/5 rule would be a generous estimation for this or any of our other cookbooks.

This common reality was part of Pam's motivation for the Nueva Receta project, and I am delighted. Thumbing through this volume, I commit to revisit some old favorites -- such as Turkish turkey tacos and Puerto Rican chicken fajitas -- but I disciplined myself to choose something we've never tried before. Because we have good beef in the freezer from last week's Julia Child adventure, and because of my recent interest in home brewing, I chose beef beer stew tacos (page 96) with a roasted red pepper, chili, and pine nut salsa (page 57).

This was an excuse to -- finally -- learn how to roast my own red peppers. The book includes an incredible assortment of salsa recipes, most of which are recommended to match particular fillings. I should have made more of those salsas when we lived in the Southwest, since produce in general and peppers in particular are much more limited in New England. I had made an orange/onion salsa quite a few times, but never any of the others. I have always wanted to roast red peppers, and finally got to it this time. Our oven has been acting up lately, so I almost resorted to a stove-top approach, but at the last minute I coaxed the oven into working. I roasted at 500 degrees for 25 minutes as directed, and many charred spots were beginning to appear. I will let it go a bit further next time, though, so that the outer skin will come off more easily, and by next time I hope to have a reliable oven! (These were red bell peppers, by the way, so there was no capsaicin problem working the pepper by hand.)

Confession: I simmered the beef in Mexican dark beer rather than amber, because my favorite -- Negra Modelo -- was readily available and a classic amber -- such as Dos Equis -- was not. Negra Modelo is dark for a Mexican beer, though not nearly as heavy as a dark European beer, so it seems to be within the spirit of this recipe. Also, I did not brew the beer, though a friend has given me a recipe with which I hope to clone Negra Modelo in the near future.

I shot this in-progress photo when I realized that several interesting things were on our counter at the same time. First, the counter itself: this is an ordinary, small island we purchased from Target a few years ago. We realized that we could use it as a small snack or breakfast table, if only its top were a bit wider, so we asked our friend Frank to build a new top for it. This gave us the added benefit of perhaps two more square feet of precious counter space in a kitchen that was not really designed for active cooking.

To the left of the counter is a box that I almost cropped out of the photo, but I might as well mention that it contains beer-brewing supplies. As we may have mentioned elsewhere on a blog, Pam discovered last year that National Home Brew Day is on my birthday (at least some years, it is), which has given us an excuse to add beer to the list of beverages about which we are becoming obsessive (see my recent tea post for others). We have not yet become completely obsessive, though: we are still working from kits. Eventually we hope to grow some of the ingredients ourselves and begin experimenting, but for now kits strike the right balance.

On the counter is a recipe-book holder, a gift that Pam received from my parents -- by fortunate coincidence -- just before this project began. We've tried a variety of approaches, and this is the best design we have encountered. Also in the photo are some beautiful peppers (though I'm sure my salsa will be better in the summer with local, if less photogenic, organic peppers). Some of the peppers are a lightweight mesh bag that we now use to replace the plastic produce bags at the grocery store. To the left of the peppers is a case for reading glasses -- the case itself comes from the El Chile women's weaving cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. In it we keep an old, crooked pair of glasses that is no longer suitable for reading books but works for occasional reading emergencies in the kitchen). Finally, in the background is a French press (also known as a press pot), which has nothing to do with this meal but is evidence of the near-constant presence of coffee in our lives, and of the great care we take in its preparation.

Our friends Anna, Brendan, and Amelia joined us for this small feast, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. I was grateful that Brendan brought guacamole at my request. He was raised in California, and even though Massachusetts in January is not natural habitat for avocados, he managed to provide us with a scrumptious appetizer.  The beef was exceptionally tender and savory, and the pairing with roasted red-pepper salsa was perfect. For our veggie daughter Paloma, I prepared her favorite rice-and-bean burrito. (The Nueva Receta project has begun with much more beef than we usually eat, so check this site in the near future for more vegetarian offerings!)

I was delighted that Pam prepared the table both with festive colors and with our real silver. Because washing it is a bit of an extra chore, we do not use our silver at every meal, but neither do we save it for once-a-year, formal meals. Silver helps to make any meal festive, as do fresh flowers (even if they are dyed unnatural colors).

Incidentally, using the silver with some frequency helps to prevent tarnishing.

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