5.19.2016

Fajitas: Stop Complaining and Start Cooking!

I realized I've complained a couple times lately in my Watertown Daily Times column about Mexican food and fajitas, and their authenticity. Recently, my parents came to visit, and to make up for the disastrous beef fajitas my Dad had endured at the River Valley Inn, in Lewis County, I made a huge feast of both chicken and beef fajitas - complete with varying spice levels tailored to each parent.

When my Mom dug into her spice-free chicken fajita, she proclaimed, "I can never order fajitas in a restaurant ever again! These are the best I've ever had!" 

God bless that woman; her support of me is steadfast and unwavering, even if, perhaps, unwarranted. I highly doubt those were the best chicken fajitas ever rendered, but it did help me realize that if I'm going to write lots of cranky things about other people's Tex-Mex food, maybe I should sack up and share some of my own recipes. 

Fajitas are not exactly authentically Mexican, no matter how you make them. They are a Southwest invention, basically tacos made by Mexican expat cowboys from the skirt steaks their ranch owner bosses tossed their way after butchering cows. The steaks were tough, so marinating them was a way to break down some of the connective tissue and make them palatable. There IS a Mexican taco variation made with marinated skirt steaks as well, but they go by another moniker. 

So anyway, here's how I make fajitas at home. I usually use boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but chicken tenders or cutlets also work, or sirloin, tri tip, or skirt steak. I use the same marinade no matter the protein. Here it is:

Fajita Marinade (Basic) for 1 pound Chicken or Beef

1 lime, juiced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

½ teaspoon garlic salt or 1 clove fresh garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

3 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup water

Whisk these all together, pour over meat and store, either in a bowl or in a zip-top plastic bag; up to four hours for chicken, up to 24 hours for beef. 

But we’re not basic folk, correct? We can handle some more flavor and a little kick, yes? In that case, graduate to my advanced version:

Tequila Lime Fajita Marinade for 1 Pound Chicken or Beef

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoon silver tequila (I like Espolon)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, sliced

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

1 teaspoon taco seasoning (I like Penzey’s Bold Taco Seasoning)

3 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup water

Again, whisk the ingredients together, submerge the meat in them, and refrigerate up to four hours for chicken and up to 24 hours for steak. Especially with the chicken, you don’t want to marinate too long in citrus juice, because it will affect the texture. 

OK, so you’ve got some really flavorful meats; now you need to make them into fajitas! The next steps are more of a method than a recipe, as this dish is customizable in many ways. That’s why I love serving fajitas to guests — there’s a combo to please everyone’s likes here. I’ll outline my method and then give you some options. 

Traditional Fajitas

Serves four

1 pound marinated chicken breasts or steak (recipe above)

1 green bell pepper, sliced into thin strips

1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips

2 Vidalia onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

1 package large flour tortillas

½ pound queso fresco or queso Oaxaca, shredded with a box grater

Fresh cilantro, chopped

½ head iceberg lettuce, shredded

2 tomatoes, chopped

¼ cup black olives, chopped

Salsa of your choice

Sour cream, to taste

Lime wedges

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Grill the chicken breasts or steak on a hot grill until just cooked through. Let them rest, covered, for 10 minutes before slicing into thin strips for service.

2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat and sauté onions and bell peppers seasoned with salt and pepper. Cook until brown at the edges and just tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. 

3. Place tortillas on a microwave-safe plate and cover with a paper towel soaked in water and wrung out. Microwave for one minute to steam them and make them pliable. You can also cover them in foil and heat them in a warm oven for 10 minutes if you don’t have a microwave. 

4. Arrange shredded lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, olives, cilantro and lime wedges on a large platter. 

5. Arrange sliced meat, onions and peppers on a separate platter. 

6. Serve salsa and sour cream in small bowls with spoons. 

7. Let everyone assemble their own fajitas from all the ingredients — it’s a party!

Variations:

You can use a bag of shredded Mexican cheese rather than the cheeses I listed, if you’re short on time, but you will derive much more flavor and superior texture from cheese you buy in a block and shred yourself. Queso fresco is stronger, with an aged, salty flavor similar to feta. Queso Oaxaca is creamier, sort of like mozzarella. It melts better than the fresco. 

I season the onions and peppers only with salt and pepper because the meats are so well seasoned from the marinade, but you can add some taco spice, or cumin, coriander, cayenne and onion powder if you want to kick it up. You can also add hot, fresh chiles, sliced, to this sauté, or mushrooms, zucchini, yellow squash or other vegetables if you want to make this meal even healthier or cheaper, by offsetting the amount of meat you need.

While we’re giving healthy options, corn tortillas are much lower in calories than flour. You can swap them out, if you like. 

Your salsa options are endless, and can really customize your fajitas. Make your own from fresh diced tomato, white onion, garlic, cumin, and fresh cilantro and lime juice, or buy mild, medium or hot in a jar or fresh from the produce section of the grocery store. Our favorite is Wegmans Roasted Tomato Salsa. 

Cook up a drained, rinsed can of black beans with a tablespoon of bacon fat (or butter), a packet of Goya Sazon and two tablespoons of salsa, and you’ve got a delicious and hearty side dish. 

Make your own cilantro lime rice by making long grain white rice according to package directions, then stirring in a tablespoon of butter, salt to taste, a handful of chopped cilantro, the zest and juice of one lime, and a sprinkle of cumin. Cooking it in chicken stock instead of water makes it even more flavorful.

So that’s my favorite fajita recipe and just about every way I’ve played with the method over the years to customize it to the likes and dislikes of my friends and family. This recipe is easily doubled or tripled to feed a crowd, and in the winter, you can cook the meat inside in a skillet or on a stovetop grill, if your outdoor grill is snowed in. We also sometimes like to make both chicken and beef, so that everyone’s happy. 

I may not have a drop of Mexican blood in me, but what I do possesses is a deep-seated love of the flavors of traditional Mexican fare: Bright citrus, salty cheeses, grilled meats and fiery chiles are exciting, fresh flavors that aren’t often found in our New York kitchens. I hope you give my fajitas a try and let me know how you like them! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


5.10.2016

The Secret Spot in Watertown That Will Make All Your Asian Food Dreams Come True

A couple weeks back, I made a big deal out of one of the vendors at Watertown's Taste of the Town: Asian Market. This little store has been on State St in Watertown for years, and I'd never been inside. Maybe because that part of State St isn't the best area of town, or maybe because I get very intimidated about going into Asian markets without an Asian chaperone. 

Whatever the reason, feeble or otherwise, Asian Market's presence at the food festival gave me a chance to meet the shop's owners and get a taste of what they have available. Boy, was I blown away. At the event, the married couple who run the market were cooking up killer beef bulgogi marinated with one of the jarred sauces they sell in their shop, plus jarred kim chee that was some of the best I've ever tasted, and a bunch of fun aloe vera drinks that I expected to taste kind of insipid and gooey, but which instead were sweet and refreshing.



The next day, finding that the store was open (surprise!) on a Sunday, we dropped in. I was impressed right away by how clean and organized and bright it was inside, and by the stunning array of fresh produce, frozen meats and seafood, and multi-cultural goods from all over the far East.

 
You can get just about every variety of rice or noodle you could possibly need to prepare Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Laotian, Jamaican, Philippine, or Vietnamese food. But also: rare delicacies like fresh quail eggs, slabs of pork belly, tiny dried shrimp, baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, bitter melon, and all kinds of cool mushrooms (dried and fresh).


Looking for Korean chile powder and other Asian spices in large quantities for low prices? Start hanging out here. Still love ramen, but want it less junky and more authentic than the 48 cent packages at Price Chopper? They carry about six or seven Japanese and Korean brands (Sapporo Ichiban is my favorite). Always wanted to try green tea matcha Kit Kat candy bars? They have your hook-up for tons of cool, odd candies! I feel like this place is a secret den of all the delicious treats I can't find in the regular grocery store.

The friendly owner even helped me find the best brand of rice wine he had in the store. The label is entirely in some other language, so I never would have been able to find it on my own. Look out, stir fries! If you make stir fry at home, you can also get really good soy sauce here, like Japanese tamari, which is dark soy, plus lighter soys and shoyu. 


I get down on the north country sometimes for being a bit one-note in its food scene. You've certainly read me making fun of the fact that chicken parm is on every single menu up there, whether it's an Italian restaurant or not! So finding a spot like Asian Market, catering to the folks in NNY who use these products in their home kitchens, traveling and importing to stock items their customers couldn't possibly find in a local grocery store, fills me with glee. I nosed around on the shop's Facebook page, because that's how I roll, and found people making requests for special products and those requests actually being fulfilled! And to know the proprietress can make such fantastic food out of the products she carries!! It's just too good to keep a secret. Let's not.

I stocked my kitchen with items from Asian Market just a few weeks ago, and already I'm excited to go back with a cooler so that I can bring some meats and fresh items home with me. So let's spread the word on this very cool resource right here in our community. I hope you check it out and let me know what you think! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


5.04.2016

'Tis the Season

I was chatting up my friend Kristen Roby, the fabulous food writer for the Press & Sun Bulletin, at the Southern Tier Independent Restaurants' Spring Tasting Party last Sunday, and she casually dropped into the conversation that it's food event season. Since I've judged two and attended another in the span of the last two weeks, I guess she's right!

In last week's Watetown Daily Times column, I covered Watertown's Taste of the Town, which benefitted  the Victims Assistance Center in Jefferson County. I served as a judge at that event, and we picked Mr. Bigg's as our Best Local Taste of the Town.


Last week, it was the Binghamton Philharmonic's turn to hold a fundraiser, and it manifested as the Mac & Cheese Fest. I'm not gonna lie, I pressured my buddy Dan, who's on the Philharmonic board, to let me judge this. Because mac & cheese, you know?

 
Yeah, that's me. Perched on a noodle, loving macaroni and cheese. Wanna make something of it?


My fellow judges and I (this is Jim Ehmke and Ty Muse as captured by the event organizers) sampled 28 kinds of macaroni and cheese from restaurants in the Binghamton area, and about 1,000 lucky ticketholders accompanied us. This was some serious eating.

Among my favorites: Ransom Steele Tavern, in Apalachin, made a reuben mac, with assertively crunchy breadcrumbs for texture, a good amount of corned beef, sharp cheese, and just a little sweetness from the Thousand Islands dressing.


I never thought I would be praising The McKinley, believe me. Because my day job's on Huron property, I've eaten lots of the food the event space in Endicott serves up, including its daytime cafeteria fare, and never been very impressed. Well, watch me eat my own words along with McKinley's delicious French onion mac and cheese, which was very cheesy, but also flavored with sweet caramelized onions, some crispy, fried onions, and enough seasoning to balance out the sugars of the cooked-down veg.


Whenever I go to Food & Fire, in Johnson City, (which is often), I already order Dan's macaroni and cheese. He uses smoked Gouda in it, and I am a total sucker for the gently smokey, extremely creamy, kind of luscious but also a little sharp, flavor of that cheese. For the fest, he took that gooey mac and topped it with the BBQ restaurant's chili and a slice of fresh jalapeño. I can't tell you how welcome that spice was after sampling an excessive amount of rich cheese sauce. 


Social on State already has another of my local favorites on its regular menu, and they served it at the festival. As always, it is marked by a lovely, creamy sauce, not cooked as tightly as a lot of other versions. That sauce is flavors with aromatics, and there are a couple cheeses in it to meld into a perfect balance of richness and sharpness. I didn't get a picture, but I did garb one of SoS Chef Jay getting friendly with my boy Dan from F&F:


Another very creamy offering came from Apple Hills. It was presented with a folky little biscuit on the side, and the sauce had an appealing sweetness to it that worked wonderfully with the biscuit. Um, I didn't get a picture of that one, either, because there were twenty-eight samples of macaroni and cheese. You'll have to excuse me, it was a bit overwhelming at times. Instead, just look at these fine fellow judges sending you finger guns:


Hi Joshua! Hi Jennifer! Hi Ty, even though we've already met you!

I also found The Night Kitchen's dish very tasty. This is a restaurant in Binghamton I've been meaning to try, known for its southern-tinged comfort food and indulgent burgers. This mac had great texture, thanks to some toasted breadcrumbs, plus good spice and cheesiness. You wouldn't believe how many samples we tried that had no real cheese flavor, but TNK's was full of cheddar richness.



Ok, it's time for the money maker, and it was the very first mac out of the gate that we were served. Our judges' choice was from Amici, the brick oven pizza joint in Binghamton. It was gnocchi, bacon, and a well-seasoned, very cheesy, tight sauce. I couldn't stop eating it. I hope these folks add it to their menu!


Back to this last Sunday, and STIR's Spring Tasting Party. I'm not gonna lie, I was a little food festivaled out by this thing, but I always get to visit with all my local friends in the food industry at this event, and I wasn't passing that up. Plus, Melinda came with me, and an evening out with her is always a good time.


We started with an anracini from A Tavolo, in Windsor. I can't tell you how angry I am that someone local is making fried rice balls this good, with a tiny nugget of gooey mozzarella cheese in the middle, and I haven't been there yet! Who wants to go to A Tavolo with me for dinner?


We went to Chef Jay Piculli's cooking demo because he was cooking lobster. If you haven't been to his Social on State yet, you might not know that it serves the best lobster dishes in the Southern Tier. But now I know how to make two of them!


Hey Jay, pipe down and make me your angry lobster! Um, please?


Thank you! I learned the secrets of angry lobster AND got to eat it. I'm not telling you the secrets, because you need to come to the event next time and learn for yourself AND you need to go eat it yourself, because this brothy, spicy, herbal shellfish and pasta dream has to be tasted to be believed.


Chef Rick, from P.S. restaurant delivered a lamb meatball that was juicy and savory, nbut better still, a mint and cilantro cucumber salad that knocked my socks off. I love this man's salads!


Chroma Bakery in Binghamton has a new chef, and she cranked out a chorizo sandwich with manchego cheese on a chewy roll that was fatty and salty and prett damn excellent. But Chroma also has cake. You want cake from here, you guys:


I liked their triple chocolate cake, but it was the moist, creamy white cake with raspberries that knocked my socks off. I'm not typically a big raspberry fan, but they were employed as the tang agent to keep sweetness at bay in this tender, moist cake to great effect.

If you've read this recap, or attended either of these events, I challenge you to allege that Binghamton doesn't have a food scene. I frequently hear generalizations that put down these communities for not having a whole lot going on. Having attended both these, plus Watertown's event the weekend before last, I can affirm that Upstate NY has a lot of culinary bright spots, and that's not even counting Syracuse, the Finger Lakes, the Capital region, or Western New York! And not only do these talented chefs and fun restaurants reside right here in little old Binghamton (or Endicott, or Vestal...), but they also lend their time and their products to charity events that give even more back to our communities. I think we have a lot to be thankful for this season of foodie events. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!