Thursday, September 3, 2009

- Craving Mexican (well, Tex-Mex anyway)

Wannabe-Yankee that I am (I grew up on Long Island), I always thought that Mexican food was too hot and spicy to handle. Fortunately, Cindy Sedam invited us out to Fort Worth about ten years ago and took us to Joe T. Garcia’s.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. I fell in love with fajitas, enchiladas, guacamole, and pico-de-gallo (aka salsa) … only to be cautioned that I wouldn’t find the same fare back in Williamsburg. Fortunately, that wasn’t entirely true. Casa Maya, and then Tequila Rose became my go-to haunts for all things Mexican. But they couldn’t hold a candle to Joe T’s … or to Matt’s El Rancho on South Lamar … or to Torchy’s Tacos in the South Austin Trailer Park (hold your fire Austinites … I’m sure there are others, I just haven’t had time to sample them all yet).

So while we were still on the East Coast, I developed my own take on Mexican-style food. I discovered that jalapenos could be tamed by removing the seeds, became adept at timing avocado ripeness, and stalked the local food stores for Cotija. I took a deep breath as I paid $12.99 a pound for skirt steak and $1.99 a bunch for organic cilantro. And I learned how to make my own flour tortillas, the core ingredients of which --flour, lard, salt and water-- are the same as my grandmother’s Depression-era bread recipe.

Now lard can be found in many grocery stores, but I share Michael Pollan’s dim view of animal fat that doesn't need to be refrigerated. Read the fine print on a lard box and you’re apt to find the dreaded word “hydrogenated.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to eat something that’s full of saturated fat, I want it to be unadulterated. Fortunately, you can find leaf lard online, which can be portioned and frozen for future use. I’ve also made tortillas with olive oil, and they’re actually pretty good, but there’s nothing like using lard in flour tortillas, absolutely nothing. So find yourself some good lard and make some tortillas. Then you’ll have enough lard leftover to try in your next apple pie crust. At which point you should be well and truly hooked.

East Coast Fajitas (serves 2)

1 lb. skirt steak
Hardwood charcoal for grilling if at all possible

Marinade
3 Tbs. soy sauce (I just eyeball this as it glugs out of the bottle)
3 Tbs. olive oil (ditto)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. cumin
Juice of ½ lime
2 Tbs. brown sugar

Salsa
1 ripe Haas avocado, chunked
½ small red onion, finely diced
½ cup diced ripe tomato
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 small jalapeno, seeded and chopped fine
Juice of ½ lime
Kosher salt to taste

Tortillas
1 cup flour
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbs. lard (or olive oil)
1/3 cup water

Optional toppings
Grated Cotija cheese (or queso seco)
Sour cream
Onion and/or red peppers, lightly sautéed in olive oil

Make the tortilla dough at least two hours before you plan to start dinner
Put the water and lard (or olive oil) in the microwave just long enough to warm it
Add to the flour and salt and give them all a spin in the food processor
The resulting dough should come together in a ball without being too sticky or crumbly
Add water or flour as needed to make a nice elastic dough
Let it rest under a damp towel for at least an hour, more if possible

The salsa and marinade can be made about an hour before grilling time
Cut the skirt steak into two to four shorter strips before marinating
Assemble any other toppings as desired
Recruit your favorite grillmaster to get the grilled fired up and the meat cooked rare
Then carve the meat into thin strips just before serving

Try to cook the tortillas while the meat is grilling, so they’re hot when you serve them
You can hold them under a damp towel in a warm oven, but hot off the griddle is best
Divide the dough into 6-8 pieces
Roll into 6-8” circles, using as little flour as possible
Cook on a 400 degree griddle (or a hot frying pan) … do not grease the cooking surface
Flip several times, 20-30 seconds to a side, until each tortilla puffs
You’re aiming for light brown spots … if the pan/griddle starts smoking, turn it down a bit

To serve, layer ingredients onto tortillas, roll up as best you can (good luck with that) and enjoy

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