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Friday, February 29, 2008

Hidden Treasures at Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica

Driving on the freeway, looking at the streets and neighborhoods below, I often wonder what fabulous restaurants I'm missing.Tacos Por Favor is one of those places that I had heard about for years, but had always driven by without stopping.

Today I decided to stop.

A cantina-sized Mexican restaurant on the corner of Olympic at 14th Street,Tacos Por Favor sits on the border between the two-Santa Monicas. It is well-known to the people who work in the auto repair and building supply businesses nearby as well as the students of the upscale private school, Crossroads and the well-heeled who could eat at the upscale Buffalo Club down the block, but prefer Tacos Por Favor's casual atmosphere and lower prices.

Long before it was hip, the restaurant made its reputation on the quality of its ingredients. Abandoning lard and searching out the freshest vegetables to make its salsas, Tacos Por Favor prides itself on serving "healthy Mexican food."

On this first visit, I tried a selection of the soft tacos: carnitas, chicken, cheese, shrimp, and the potato (delicious). One of the day's specials was shrimp soup. Six corn tortillas came with the large bowl of spicy soup, filled with whole shrimp, bell peppers, roasted red peppers, celery, and onions.

Delicious, filling, and affordable.

Stimulated by the flavors, I knew what I was going to make for dinner: carne asada with avocado and homemade salsa.

Carne Asada, Avocado, and Salsa

Instead of buying the meat at the supermarket, if you're close to a Mexican or Asian market, you'll find the cuts of meat you need at half the price.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound flank or skirt steak, thin sliced
1 ripe tomato, washed, stem removed, chopped
1 carrot, washed, peeled, sliced into thick rounds
1 medium sized ripe avocado, washed, peeled, the pit removed, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro leaves
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 small serrano chile, washed, cut in half, seeded
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Mexican hot sauce or Tabasco
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
6-8 large tortillas, corn or flour

Method

Marinate the steak in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt, black pepper, and a bit of hot sauce. If you have the time, overnight is great, but as little as an hour will help tenderize and flavor the meat.

Toss the carrot pieces and serrano chile in a bowl with olive oil and sea salt, then grill, 3 minutes on each side, remove and chop. Put them back into the bowl. Add the chopped tomatoes, onions, avocado, and cilantro. Mix well. Drizzle with the lemon juice and season with hot sauce, if needed. Marinate 30 minutes.

Grill the steak on a hot grill, 5 minutes on each side or until the edges are charred. Transfer to a plate, cover with a piece of aluminum foil, and set aside for 5 minutes.

Grill flour or corn tortillas and keep warm in a covered basket.

Roughly chop the steak, put the pieces into a bowl, pour the juices over the meat, and serve with the salsa and hot tortillas.

Variations

Grill 6 scallions--washed, ends trimmed--until charred and serve with the tacos

Grill 1 ear of corn--shucked, silks removed, washed--take off the kernels, add them to the salsa

Roast 2 garlic cloves in their skins over an open flame until their skins burn off, let cool, mince, add to the salasa

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro to the salsa

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Trying Something New: Shrimp with Lemongrass

Today I spent an hour at Barnes and Noble browsing through the cookbooks. The ones that seemed most interesting to me featured cooking from Asia. Nobu and Masahara Morimoto have incredibly beautiful books about Japanese cooking. But it was James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor, with his account of cooking in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, that was most appealing. What I liked was his description of street-vendor food, full of flavor and easy to eat.

Years ago when I was experimenting with Vietnamese food, I planted lemongrass in the garden. I didn't use it very much, so the plant grew undisturbed until it had taken over most of the garden. Looking through the Asian cookbooks reminded me about all that lemongrass in the back yard. When I got home I cut off a stalk and came up with an incredibly easy to make shrimp dish.

Shrimp with Lemongrass, Garlic, and Bacon

The shrimp can be served with sliced avocado, steamed rice, pasta, or steamed vegetables.

12 shrimp, raw, washed, the shells removed and saved, deveined
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 piece of bacon, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely grated, fresh lemongrass
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon nam pla (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea
salt

In a small pot, boil the shrimp shells with 1 cup of water until the liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons, then discard the shells. Marinate the deveined shrimp in olive oil, black pepper, and the grated lemongrass. For a Southeast Asian flavor use the the nam pla, otherwise sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on the shrimp.

Sauté the garlic, bacon, and shallot in the olive oil until lightly browned. Deglaze the pan with the shrimp liquid and reduce by half. Add the shrimp and the marinating sauce to the pan. Cook the shrimp no more than 30 seconds on each side. Serve with the sauce in a bowl.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 5 minutes.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

To Market, To Market to Buy Everything Fresh

Sundays in the Palisades, Wednesdays and Saturdays in Santa Monica, these are good days because that's when we go to the local farmers' markets. Most neighborhoods in LA have a farmers' market one day of the week. Southern California is blessed with a climate that allows us to enjoy dozens of varieties of fresh flowers and a wide selection of vegetables all year long.

My first experience with non-Southern California produce happened when I moved to Rhode Island. At the local supermarket, the produce section looked like a science experiment. The tomatoes were the worst. Most of them were pale green and trapped under a tightly sealed plastic wrap. I picked ones that had a reddish tinge, thinking they were more ripe. My friend informed me, knowingly, that the tomatoes were red because they'd been gassed. I was happy when I moved back to LA.

The summer will always have the best tasting produce, but what I saw at our local farmers' market this week looked great. For the easiest meal, winter or summer, lunch or dinner, nothing beats grilled vegetables, seasoned with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Because vegetables take so little work to prepare, a feast is easily within reach: roasted tomatoes, grilled broccoli, carrots, eggplant and corn on the cob in the summer, steamed artichokes with melted butter. There is no more satisfying meal.

Grilled Vegetables

Cut the broccoli into bite sized pieces. Peel the carrots and cut them into slabs ½" x 1". Slice the egg plants in half. Husk and clean the corn on the cob, but leave them whole. For all the vegetables, the recipe is the same: drizzle them with a little olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper, put them on a grill, and turn frequently.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Steamed Artichokes

Delicious as an appetizer or a side dish, artichokes are healthy and easy to make.

2 large artichokes, washed
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ cup sweet (unsalted) butter, melted

Trim the stem and snip off the sharp ends of each leaf with kitchen shears or household scissors. Put 2" of water into the bottom of a large pot. Put the artichokes in the pot on top of a steamer. Cover and cook on a high flame. After 30 minutes, use tongs to pull a leaf off one of the artichokes, and taste to see if it's done. If not, add 2 cups of water and cook for another 10 minutes, taste another leaf, and continue cooking until done.

Serve with melted butter and sea salt.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 30-50 minutes.

Oven Roasted Whole Tomatoes

At the farmers' markets there are always vendors who want to sell their over-ripe tomatoes at half price, so you can buy a lot.

4-5 lbs. whole tomatoes, washed, stems and blemishes removed
4 garlic cloves, peeled, julienned
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet, parchment paper, or tin foil. Put several garlic slivers in the top of each tomato. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in a pre-heated, 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

1 tomato serves 1 person as a side dish with grilled chicken breasts, Italian sausages, or a steak.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 1 hour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Peel off the skins and discard. If you want to use the tomatoes in a stew or as pieces added to pasta, tear them apart with your hands, collecting everything in a bowl. Save the liquid in the roasting pan. Some of that is the olive oil, but most of it is a flavorful, clear liquid given off by the tomatoes as they cook. Add the liquid to the bowl.

If you want a smooth, thick sauce, run the tomatoes through a food mill. You'll have a quart of high-quality tomato sauce.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes.

Pasta Sauce

To make a good pasta sauce, the liquid has to be reduced and flavor has to be added.

1 quart roasted tomato sauce
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
6 mushrooms, brown or shiitake, washed, thinly sliced
½ cup bacon, finely chopped (optional)
2 cups homemade chicken stock (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, washed, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Sauté the garlic, onion, parsley, mushrooms, and bacon (optional) until lightly browned. Add the tomato sauce, oregano, and cayenne. The chicken stock adds a sweetness and another layer of flavor, but if you want to stay meat-free, the chicken stock is optional.

Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the sauce from burning. Taste and adjust the flavor by seasoning with sea salt. Use the sugar if the sauce is too acidic. Stir and simmer another 30 minutes, then refrigerate overnight. Reduced, you should have 2 pints of sauce. When reheated, taste and adjust the flavors again.

The sauce will keep for several days in the refrigerator or weeks in the freezer.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 75 minutes.

Where's the Beef? Tracking Down Free Range, Grass Fed, Hormone Free Beef

I like eating meat. But the recent, disturbing news report about downer-cattle coming into the food supply didn't engender confidence that what's available at local markets is always healthy. Being an alarmist doesn't help, but it's good to learn more about available alternatives.

One of the benefits of starting this web site has been hearing from people who email me recipes and their own food-stories. In response to my posting about buying affordable meat, a colleague from United Hollywood, John Jabaley sent in a note about his experience buying beef directly from an organic rancher. Here's John's account, together with his family's recipe for Bolognese Meat Sauce.

from John Jabaley:

We typically order every year and get a quarter of a cow for ourselves, sometimes just for ourselves and sometimes we'll split it with other families.

I found the farm around four years ago when my wife, Erika, read "Fast Food Nation" and asked me to read it as well. At the time she was a "fishetarian." Though I was mightily swayed by the book, I wasn't willing to give up beef. So I started looking outside the big food chain.

When you google it, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there isn't enough rain in Southern California to raise free range grass fed, hormone free beef. Lake Tahoe and Northern California are the closest places that have enough space and rain to support that kind of ranching. Chileno Beef finally popped up after more searching than I thought would be necessary, so I called them. The owner, Mike, happened to be coming down to L.A., so we bought a quarter with another family. Two weeks later, I met him in the parking lot at the Tam O' Shanter in Los Feliz.

I brought 60 pounds of beef home, which raised some eye-brows, but Erika soon came to the decision that she wouldn't sit idly by as the kids and I enjoyed free range, grass fed beef. We were astounded by the difference. It is lean and actually has flavor, not so much as say bison or venison, but more than the corn fed hormone addled stuff you get at most grocery stores, and of course at a third of the price you pay for the same thing at Whole Foods.

We have bought as much as a whole steer, which we split with 3 other families. We all like the flavor so much, that one of the families wasn't getting through all of their allotment, so they split their quarter with another family. Because it comes frozen, the meat lasts quite a while, but if we were to buy more than a quarter for ourselves it would sit too long before we finished it. We have a separate freezer and it fills two shelves and half the door.

Since that first time, I started to drive up to the ranch to pick up the beef. It's a bit of a haul, since it's north of San Francisco, but worth the drive. Even adding in the cost of the gas and lodging, if you spend the night, you end up paying under 5 bucks a pound.

Another wonderful thing about the ranch is that Art Ibleto is the butcher. You pick up the meat at his place where he also sells all kinds of handmade pastas.

You have to be very careful with the roasts as there is not a lot of marbling, but they're delicious if done properly: rub them with olive oil salt and pepper, heat a cast iron skillet until it smokes, brown them, throw the whole thing in a medium oven until rare. The ground beef makes the most amazing Bolognese.

Bolognese Meat Sauce

1 lb. ground beef
3 celery stalks, washed, chopped
1 large onion, peeled, chopped
4 large carrots, washed, peeled, chopped
3 ½ cups roasted tomatoes, peeled, chopped or canned Italian whole tomates
1 6 oz. can Italian tomato paste
½ cup red wine
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, add the ground beef and crumble in the pan with a fork. Saute until browned, then remove and drain on a paper towel. Drain off excess fat. Saute the celery, onions, and carrots until browned, add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and ground beef. Simmer on a low flame for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavors.

If it's too thick, add the red wine. Come to think of it, add the red wine anyway. Continue cooking until the sauce is thick enough. Don't eat it the first night. Refrigerate it. It's better the 2nd day.