Monday, June 30, 2014

Growing an Herb(an) Garden: Week 12

It's nearly 3 months into the balcony container herb garden project, so I decided it was time for a check-in. Here's an update on what's been happening with the basil, mint and tarragon, all of which will appear in recipes on my site this week. I'll also talk about the chervil, which, unfortunately isn't doing so well.


In the last installment, I documented how I had trouble with my basil. The first plant withered away and seemed all but dead, so I discarded it--a victim of D.C.'s unseasonably cold April, I concluded. I tried again with a second plant. This one started off much better, doubling in height pretty quickly. Then things took a turn for the worse. The growth halted, and many of the leaves started turning yellow with brown splotches. While it wasn't so bad that I thought it was lost, it definitely needed an intervention and fast.

The once scrawny, yellowing basil is now tall and vibrant green.

I turned to the Web (as well as my mother, an avid gardener) for advice. One of the tricky things about growing plants is, like pets, they can't tell you what's wrong. You have to look for signs. Unfortunately, sometimes signs can be interpreted the wrong way. For example, I learned that yellowing leaves can be a sign of both under- and over-watering. So how to know which it is? With regard to watering, I think the trick is learning to water properly. 

Consider the soil. When you water the plant, the top layer of soil will instantly become saturated, whereas lower layers will only get wet from water that trickles down through the soil. If you only add a little bit of water, the top layer of soil and the roots in it will take up all the water and the lower layers will remain dry. However, there are roots down there too and they need water. So when watering, it's important to give the plant a good, long drink. Keep watering until a little bit of water drips out from the bottom of the plant, that way you know that you've watered all of the soil and not just the top layers. I like to add the water in increments with pauses between them to let the water trickle down. If you water in a constant stream, you could end up adding too much and then a lot of water will be dripping down, potentially overflowing the drip plate.

Watering in full like this doesn't need to be done everyday. Or even every 2 days. You should check the soil first with your finger. If you stick your finger into the dirt about an inch or two down and feel moisture, it's not time for watering yet. Better to let the plant continue drinking. If it's dry, then it's time for a drink. Using this method should ensure you don't under-water the plant by wetting only the top layer (or letting the whole thing dry out) nor over-water it by adding water when the soil is already damp and doesn't need more.

The other thing I've done with the basil is repot it. Initially, I had the basil in a 7-inch pot. I knew it should be all by itself so that it could spread out, but this pot proved to be too small. I moved up to a 10-inch pot, which might still be a bit small for basil, but so far it seems to be working fine. Since this is a balcony garden, I don't have a lot of room to keep transplanting into larger pots, but this move worked out great. I was grateful to have my mother's assistance with doing this during her recent visit. Here's what we did: 1) carefully removed the basil from the pot, 2) transferred the remaining potting soil from the old pot into the new one, 3) added additional potting soil until the pot was about half full, 4) placed the basil plant in the pot, 5) filled in the space around the plant with more potting soil, being careful to avoid air pockets. Not so hard actually. One thing we did was skip the step of putting gravel in the bottom of the pot. My mom she said she'd never heard of doing this. She was concerned that the gravel takes up room in the pot that could otherwise be used for the roots and that it's really not needed for drainage, since the holes in the bottom of the pot provide enough drainage.

So far, the re-potting has been a great success, as the once scrawny basil is now flourishing, having grown quite a lot and turned a much healthier shade of green.

Spearmint (above) and peppermint (below)

Although it never looked as bad as the basil, the mint also took a bad turn shortly after my last update, and I think it was for similar reasons. Mint also likes to spread out, and I put two mint plants in one 7-inch pot: spearmint and peppermint. I think this was just too much mint for a small pot. So I re-potted the spearmint into a larger 10-inch pot and left the peppermint all by itself in the smaller pot. So far, this has turned out to be an excellent choice, as both plants are flourishing now. In fact, the spearmint, which before was never a vibrant green, is a beautiful shade now, and the plant is quite bushy. The peppermint is still smaller, but that's fine, as I don't expect to use it as much.

Tarragon, on the left, is growing slowly; chervil, on the right appears to be done.


The tarragon has been a bit surprising, in that it hasn't really "taken off" like most of the other herbs, although it doesn't look unhappy. It just doesn't seem to grow very fast. I feel like I have barely more today than when I planted it, unlike, say, the thyme, which has grown like crazy. Not sure why this is the case. According to this source, it grows slowly (and interestingly doesn't grow from seed), so perhaps I just need to be patient. Luckily, it's not an herb I use often. 


I think it's time to bid "adieu" to the chervil (you can see it next to the tarragon in the photo above). After a wonderful start, the plant has withered away and dried out. I think it's a goner. After the flowers appeared, the plant started producing seeds and once that happened, I think it gave up, having completed its circle of life for the season. Maybe later in the summer I'll think about getting another one.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Cocktail: Mai Colada

This refreshing tropical-flavored highball is a cross between two popular tropical drinks: the Mai Tai and Piña Colada. If you have fresh pineapple on hand, it would make a great garnish.

Mai Colada

1.5 oz. dark rum, such as Captain Morgan or Mount Gay
1 oz. amaretto liqueur
3 oz. pineapple juice
1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. coconut water

Combine ingredients in a shaker, then add ice. Shake until cold and strain into a highball with ice.

Beachcomber Cocktail

Beachcomber cocktail

Tiki drinks are a class of cocktails inspired by tropical flavors usually made with rum and fruit. I'm not a big fan of really sweet drinks, so many of the tiki-style drinks aren't that appealing to me. But this more restrained Beachcomber, which features citrus and maraschino liqueur is perfect. This tart-sweet drink is perfect before a meal of freshly grilled food.

Beachcomber Cocktail
Adapted from a recipe by Colleen Graham

2 oz. light rum
3/4 oz. triple sec
3/4 oz. lime juice
1/8 tsp. maraschino liqueur
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Lime twist garnish

Combine rum, triple sec, lime juice, maraschino liqueur and simple syrup in a cocktail mixing glass. Fill with ice and shake until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lime twist.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gin & Tonic Gin Tasting: U.S. vs. U.K.

Last year, we did a gin tasting with American gins and crowned Bluecoat as our favorite. This year, we decided to pit American gins against their British cousins.

Not wanting to repeat any of last year's choices, I chose Aviation Gin from Portland, Oregon, and Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin from Brooklyn as the American choices. Aviation has a pretty balanced character--like most American gins, it's less juniper forward and more about botanicals (it's worth nothing that Aviation Gin has redesigned its bottle since I bought mine). Greenhook Ginsmiths has more prominent juniper, but definitely also an American botanical profile.

On the British side, I chose Fifty Pounds gin, a London dry gin I discovered one evening at D.C.'s fantastic gin bar, the Gin Joint, which has a very forward juniper profile with some spice, and Plymouth gin, which is a little smoother and nicely balanced (and also redesigned its bottle recently).

I asked Gin Joint bartender Nicole Hassoun to recommend a tonic that was fairly neutral and would work well with most gins. She instantly pulled out a bottle of Fever Tree, already of a favorite of mine, which she said is known for not masking the qualities of gins. I picked some up for this tasting (it's available at many grocery stores, including Giant and Whole Foods).

All of the gins were mixed in 1:2 concentration with Fever Tree tonic and a squeeze of fresh lime. Here were the results:

United States

Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry Gin - This gin plays well with the lime. There's a bit of spice but not too assertive. Very clean. Both of us really like this one.

Aviation Gin - Claims to move away from "overabundance" of juniper in favor of a more botanical profile. Chris was reminded of D.C.'s Green Hat gin, which is assertively botanical, although Aviation's flavor profile was not as pronounced. The juniper is there, but plays a supporting role to the botanicals. It also has a more pronounced bitter taste than the Greenhook. I don't dislike this gin. For this style, I actually think it's rather good; however, it wasn't our favorite.

Winner: Greenhook Ginsmiths.

United Kingdom

Plymouth Gin - This gin has a cleaner taste, even a little sweet. It was Chris's favorite so far. I detected a bit more bitterness than with the Greenhook Ginsmiths, but it was still pretty smooth and definitely balanced.

Fifty Pounds Gin - This gin was also really good, and a little more assertive than the Plymouth. Chris loved it (he's clearly a fan of the British gins). It has a nice juniper flavor, but other flavors too: a little spice, a little botanical, a little bitter, but not too much. All around a very good choice, besting Plymouth by just a hair.

Winner: Fifty Pounds Gin.

In the end, we agreed we liked both of the British gins better than both of the American ones, so Fifty Pounds Gin is easily the champion of this contest. That said, we liked all four of these gins and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of them for a good, refreshing gin & tonic.

Winner: Fifty Pounds Gin.

Gin & Tonic

I like my gin & tonic made with a 1:2 ratio of gin to tonic. For a rocks glass, that generally translates to 1 1/2 oz. of gin and 3 oz. of tonic water. Sometimes I up the tonic to 4 oz., but this is about the radio I prefer. A bottle of Fever Tree tonic is 6.8 oz., so it's perfect for making two drinks. I also like to squeeze the lime wedge and drop it into the glass. Gin & tonics should be stirred just lightly to mix the gin and tonic but not too much or the tonic will lose its carbonation.

1 1/2 oz. gin
3 oz. tonic water
Lime wedge

Combine gin and tonic water in a rocks glass with ice. Squeeze lime over drink and drop in. Stir lightly to combine.

Cocktail: Barrel-Aged Berlioni (Orange Bitters)

Barrel-Aged Berlioni

This Barrel-Aged Berlioni comes from Greg Henry's book, Savory Cocktails. Henry adapted the recipe from the Berlioni recipe in Jim Meehan's PDT Cocktail Book. Meehan writes that the Berlioni was created in 2004 by Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro for the Victoria Bar in Berlin as a riff on the Negroni (get it? Berlin + Negroni = Berlioni). The PDT Berlioni is a simple drink of gin, Cynar and dry vermouth.

Henry pushes the drink in a more savory direction by making it with barrel-aged gin, a gin that takes on the smoky, vanilla notes of a whiskey due to its barrel aging (Washington Post spirits writer M. Carrie Allan had a great story about barrel-aged gin earlier this year). Few makes a barrel-aged gin that I've found in D.C. liquor stores.

The orange bitters I used are Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6, a product created by Gary "Gaz" Regan in 2005 following years of experimentation with orange bitters recipes (you can read about it on his site).

Lastly, I want to show off my new proper cocktail mixing glass, the Seamless Yarai Mixing Glass. Isn't it lovely? No more mixing stirred cocktails in half of a Boston shaker!

Barrel-Aged Berlioni
Adapted from a recipe from Greg Henry's Savory Cocktails

2 oz. barrel-aged gin
1/2 oz. Cynar (may use other herbaceous amaro)
1/2 oz. white vermouth (I used Lillet Blanc)
1 dash of orange bitters
1 large, wide orange peel (garnish)

Combine gin, Cynar, vermouth and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Fill with ice. Stir until chilled and diluted, about 20 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with orange peel, squeezing the back of the peel over the drink to express its oil onto the surface of the drink, rubbing the peel on the rim of the glass and dropping it into the drink.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Feed Summer Drinks Week Edition: June 25, 2014

The Feed is my weekly round up of interesting food-related stories from newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Imbibe Magazine (July/August issue): “Bitter Twist,” by Joshua M. Bernstein
IPAs are still kings of the craft brew world. We certainly drink more than our fair share of them at our house. Bernstein writes about some key trends in IPA brewing, including the pursuit of new hops and beers with lower alcohol content but not less flavor.

Push Play Eat: “War of the Rosès at Tel’Veh Wine Bar!” by Lisa Comento.
I shall scoff at Rosé no more after reading Comento’s informative piece about the oft under-appreciated wine that strikes a balance between white and red styles. Also love the history lesson she includes here—who know Rosé had such an interesting story?

NPR: “Tequila Nation: Mexico Reckons With Its Complicated Spirit,” by The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva).
The Kitchen Sisters profile Mexico’s tequila industry, finding that the spirit, though popular as ever, is taking a toll on the crop the spirit is made from, Mexico’s blue agave plant, while producers also work to make production more friendly to the environment.

The Martini Diva: “Vinegar Shrubs for Cocktails and Mocktails,” by Pop Art Diva.
The Martini Diva dives into the historic world of cocktail shrubs, an old-fashioned way of preserving fruit juice with sugar and vinegar. She provides a simple recipe for making shrubs based on Eric Felten’s recipe, and also a basic shrub cocktail recipe (with more recipes promised soon).

Wall Street Journal: “Three Cocktails That Really Hum,” by Jemima Sissons.
Sisson shares recipes for three tiki-style cocktails famously set to music, Piña Colada, Brass Monkey and the Kokomo (okay, the last one is actually inspired by music, but it sounds pretty tasty).

Drinking in America: “Cocktail Corner: The Classic Daiquiri.
For many, a daiquiri is a colorful, fruity, slushy concoction served in a giant glass with an oversize straw. Drinking in America reminds us of the drink’s humble origins: just rum, lime and simple syrup shaken with ice.

Drinking in America: “Drink a Beer, Name a Shark.”
Jaws was the harbinger of the modern summer blockbuster movie.  This summer, you can drink in the nostalgia with Narragansett beer sold in the 1975 version of the can that Captain Quint crushes.

The Daily Meal: “Celebrate the World Cup with Brazilian-Themed Cocktails,” by Eva Zaccaria.
Zaccaria’s guest, New York bartender Justin Noel, mixes up Brazilian-Themed cocktails in honor of this year’s World Cup. As some of you may have gathered, I don’t follow sports, so at the risk of having a Caipirinha thrown at me, I don’t know anything about what’s going on in the contest. But I do know that Noel’s drinks sound amazing, especially the Samba with basil, simple syrup, lime juice, pineapple juice and cachaça.

Cocktail: June Sunrise

June Sunrise cocktail

Two years ago, I wrote about a cocktail I called the August Sunset, a summery gin concoction with a bright orange color courtesy of the Italian aperitif Aperol.

Aperol is my favorite Italian aperitif. I love its slightly bitter orange flavor and it's gorgeous color can turn just about any cocktail into a real looker.

The August Sunset was meant as an end-of-summer drink, so this June Sunrise is the flip side: a bracing, smoky drink inspired by the beginning of summer when it's time to break out the grills and spend more time outside.

The drink's smokiness comes from Laphroaig Scotch, a type of Islay Scotch Whisky known for its intense smokiness that I learned about from Carrie Allan's recent spirits column on smoky beverages. The scotch's smokiness is quite pronounced. It's markedly smokier than the Vida mezcal I've used in the past to make smoky drinks. Great stuff.

June Sunrise

2 oz. Laphroaig Scotch or other smoky Islay Scotch
1 oz. Aperol
2 or 3 dashes Fee Brothers whiskey barrel-aged bitters (may substitute Angostura bitters)
Lemon or orange peel garnish (optional, I'd have added one but I was out when I made this)

Combine the Scotch, Aperol and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until well chilled, about 20 seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with lemon or orange peel, if desired.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ginger Mojito

Ginger mojito

Ginger is one of my favorite flavors to work into cocktails. The easiest way to do so is with a ginger-flavored drink, such as ginger beer (Moscow Moose, Silver Linings Playbook) or ginger liqueur, which is featured in today's Ginger's Lazy Summer Afternoon.

For other drinks, you might instead want a ginger syrup. In the past when I've made ginger syrup, I've used a slow infusion method, basically making simple syrup on the stove with pieces of fresh ginger that "steep" in the hot syrup. With a little peppercorn, this is the syrup in the Kickin' Cucumber Collins, for example.

Cut the fresh ginger into chunks (you don't have to peel it) and pulverize it in a blender with sugar and boiling hot water.

Recently, I discovered another technique that's both faster and, I think, more effective. In a post for Hot Toddies, Bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler writes about what he calls the "San Francisco Ginger Syrup," so-named for its use by Bay Area bartenders Jon Santer and Thad Vogler. The technique is quite simple. Rather than steeping fresh ginger, this recipe instead pulverizes it in a blender with boiling hot water, extracting the juice while quickly combining it with sugar. The resulting mixture is then strained and, although requires chilling, comes together much faster than the stove-top infusion method. Morgenthaler included the ginger syrup recipe in his new book, The Bar Book.

Note to kitchen equipment manufacturers: somebody please develop a fine-mesh sieve without a handle. It would be so useful for straining tasks that take a little time. You can see here how I used ginger beer to prop up my sieve while straining the ginger.

When I make syrups like this, I store them in plastic squeeze bottles, which makes measurement of small quantities easy. I also put a piece of masking tape on the bottle and write on it what's inside and when it was made.

This syrup was perfect for making a Ginger Mojito, a slightly more bracing take on the classic summer refreshment. I also got to use some fresh spearmint from my herb garden, which is doing great these days (I'll update you on it soon).

Ginger syrup
Finished ginger syrup
Ginger Mojito

8-12 spearmint leaves
1 oz. ginger syrup (see recipe below)
Juice from 1/2 lime
2 oz. light rum
Club soda

Add the mint leaves, ginger syrup and lime juice to a highball glass. Gently muddle the mixture. Fill the glass with ice, add the rum and stir to combine. Top with club soda and serve.

Ginger Syrup
Adapted from a recipe by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

6 oz. fresh ginger, washed, no need to peel, although I recommend removing any questionable-looking bits, coarsely chopped into pieces about the size of the end of your pinkie finger
6 oz. sugar
6 oz. boiling water
1 tbsp. vodka (optional)

Combine ginger and sugar in a blender. Pour the boiling water over the top and turn the blender on high. Blend until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer then transfer to a sealed container to store in the refrigerator. (Note: to prolong the syrup, I like to add a tablespoon of vodka to keep it from spoiling as fast.)

Cocktail: Ginger's Lazy Summer Afternoon

Ginger's Lazy Summer Afternoon cocktail

I'm growing two type of mint in my herb garden this year: spearmint, which you'll recognize as the more common type that if usually just labeled "mint" at the grocery store, and peppermint, which has generally smaller, darker leaves and a sweet flavor. Hence its more common use in candy.

The subtle hint of mint is a welcome addition to this drink I whipped up as a summertime sipper--something to enjoy outside on a nice day. Cynar, an Italian aperitif, adds a touch of bitterness. I recommend an American gin for this drink, as they tend to have a more herbal/floral profile than the spicier notes common to London dry gin.

Ginger's Lazy Summer Afternoon

6 to 8 peppermint leaves
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 oz. Green Hat gin (or other herbal American gin)
1/2 oz. Cynar
4 oz. ginger beer
Lemon wheel

Add the mint leaves and lemon juice to a highball glass and muddle the mint leaves. Fill the glass with ice then add the gin, Cynar and ginger beer. Stir to combine and garnish with lemon wheel.

Penicillin Cocktail

Penicillin cocktail

Great bartenders are good sources for learning both new drinks and new techniques. Here, I'm combining both of those things.

The drink comes from Australian bartender Sam Ross, who's worked in Melbourne and New York bars (currently Attaboy). In its recent May/June issue, Imbibe Magazine named Ross's Penicillin Cocktail one of ten contemporary "classic" cocktails, describing it as a "smoky, spicy mix."

The Imbibe recipe calls for muddling fresh ginger, although Ross uses fresh ginger juice when making it in this video. Instead, I made it with ginger syrup, using Jeffrey Morgenthaler's recipe from his blog and new book The Bar Book (see recipe in this post). I also used a lemon twist garnish instead of the candied ginger.

In his video, Ross discusses how he came up with the drink as a way to showcase single malt Scotch, which isn't often used in cocktails. Although the body of the drink uses blended Scotch, the finishing touch of a float of smoky Islay single-malt Scotch gives drink a dose of smoke on the nose.

Penicillin Cocktail
Adapted from a recipe by Sam Ross

Note: To "float" the Scotch on top means to carefully pour the Scotch on top of the drink without stirring it in as a final step.

2 oz. blended Scotch whisky
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. ginger syrup (see recipe)
1/4 oz. smoky Islay single-malt Scotch whisky
Lemon twist garnish

Combine blended Scotch, lemon juice and ginger syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until cold. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Float the Islay Scotch on top and garnish with a lemon twist.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Cocktails Week 2014

Summer officially begins this week, making it the perfect time for another focus week on cocktails.

This year's main cocktail muse is Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who early this month published his first book, The Bar Book, which focuses on the techniques of making cocktails while also sharing recipes and other bits of cocktail lore. I reviewed his book today and also included recipes for his Sidecar and Spanish Coffee.

Tomorrow, I'm sharing cocktails with ginger flavors, including a couple of drinks made with ginger syrup using Morgenthaler's great technique (Penicillin, Ginger Mojito and Ginger's Lazy Summer Afternoon). Wednesday, I mix a drink that combines smoky Islay Scotch with the summery Italian Aperol (June Sunrise). Thursday is gin day, pitting American and British gins in a taste-test to find the best Gin & Tonic. I'll also share a Berlioni made with barrel-aged gin. And Friday I'll share a couple of tiki cocktails, tropical fruit-forward, rum-based drinks (Mai Colada and Beachcomber).

In addition to this week's new drinks, here are some more ideas for summer cocktails:

  • Put a new spin on the classic margarita with apple and ginger in the Apple Margarita. Tequila lovers may also like the classic Improved Tequila Cocktail made with Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.
  • If mezcal is more your thing, try the Smoky Paloma made with peppercorn-bacon bitters. The Nicolas from our line of Dallas Drinks is another sophisticated mezcal drink made also with amontillado sherry.
  • Gin & Tonic is my favorite drink, and I've done some variations of other drinks inspired by it, like this G&T Martini.
  • The British classic Pimm's Cup is also welcome in the summer. For a unique twist, try the Pimm's Cup imposter, the American Hustle, inspired by the recent film.
  • Speaking of the movies, several of this year's Oscar Cocktails would be great for summertime, like the Captain Phillips, an African riff on the Screwdriver, the Nebraska, a minty beer cocktail, and the Her, a colorful gin drink made with summery Aperol. Don't forget the Oscar bonus cocktail for Blue Jasmine with tea-infused vodka and blue curaçao. 
  • If classic cocktails are your thing, I recommend The Last Word, a tart mix of gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime.
  • Then there's the Mint Julep, a classic summer staple.
  • Here's last year's list of summer cocktail suggestions.

Cocktail: Spanish Coffee

Spanish Coffee

While reading Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book, I was on the lookout for a particular special drink I wanted to make. After reading about Spanish Coffee, I knew it was the one.

Admittedly, this isn't a very summery drink. But that didn't deter me. Tuck it away and make it December if a warm cocktail doesn't inspire you this time of year (but consider that even in the summer, there are cool evenings). 

What caught my eye was Morgenthaler's description of this being uniquely an Oregon cocktail, invented in the 1970s in Portland's Huber's Cafe. I may have lived in Washington, D.C. for 15 years now, but I'm still an Oregon boy at heart. Huber's is Portland's oldest restaurant, established in 1879. It's a wonderfully old-school place; check out the interior. I remember going here for lunch with my parents. 

I'll be honest: any drink involving fire can be a little scary, and this is no exception. Making the drink involves igniting high-alcohol rum and letting it caramelize a sugar rim around the glass. It takes about 2 minutes, so the flame is burning for quite a while and the glass gets hot, so be careful. Also, be sure to use tempered glass. I bought these glass cappuccino mugs just for the occasion, and the fact that I could hold onto their handles instead of the glass while doing this turned out to be ideal.

Spanish Coffee
From The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, adapted from the recipe by Huber's Cafe

Sugar for rimming the glass
1 lime wedge
3/4 oz. 151-proof rum
1/2 oz. triple sec
1 1/2 oz. Kahlúa
3 oz. freshly brewed coffee
Lightly whipped cream (about 2 tbsp.)
Freshly grated nutmeg (garnish)

1. Put the sugar in shallow bowl. Cut a slit in the lime wedge and moisten the rim of a tempered glass with it. Rum the moistened glass rim through the sugar to coat it with sugar, making a sugar band about 1/4-inch wide around the outside edge of the glass.

2. Add the rum and triple sec to the glass and carefully ignite the fumes with a match. (Hold the glass at an angle and bring the lit match in from the side; have a small bowl of water ready to extinguish the match. Use caution when working with fire: consider what's around the flame and make sure there aren't things like wood cupboards or your clothing or hair nearby. Hold the glass at an angle to heat the sugar rim with the flame until the sugar begins to caramelize, about a minute later. Rotate the glass to caramelized the sugar around the rim (be careful, as the glass will get hot).

3. Add the Kahlúa and coffee to the glass, which should extinguish the flame (you can blow it out if if doesn't). Top with lightly whipped cream and grated nutmeg.

Sidecar Cocktail

Sidecar Cocktail

Bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler writes in his new book, The Bar Book (click the link for my review), that the Sidecar was the first drink that he got to know.

I've made this drink before and found it to be too tart, but Morgenthaler has the perfect solution for this. Rather than making the drink with a sugar rim around the glass, he adds simple syrup, a much more consistent way to sweeten the drink.

Adapted from The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Note: to double-strain a drink, strain first through a Hawthorne strainer if using a Boston shaker (or the attached strainer of a cobbler-style shaker), then through a fine-mesh sieve held over the glass while pouring.

1 1/2 oz. cognac
3/4 oz. Cointreau
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp 2:1 simple syrup (I instead used 2 tsp. of 1:1 simple syrup)
Orange peel (garnish)

Combine cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail mixing glass. Fill with ice and shake until cold. Double-strain into a chilled coupe glass. Twist the orange peel over the surface of the drink and drop into the glass.

The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

In the last few years, my bookshelf has become home to a good number of books on cocktails, in addition to the many other volumes on food and cooking. At this point, I feel I need to be judicious about adding only titles that provide something essential my collection was previously lacking.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book (co-written with Martha Holmberg) easily meets that criterion. Written to focus on technique, rather than drink recipes, The Bar Book fills a unique and critical niche in the world of cocktail writing.

If some bartenders fancy themselves a bit like magicians--they do, after all, often share key traits like the bag of tools, the showmanship, the fancy mustache--then Morgenthaler's book demystifies some of the magic by explaining the tricks in a format that is accessible, well-written and surprisingly scientific. Among the cocktail books already on my shelf, it has the most in common with Kevin Liu's Craft Cocktails at Home, last year's engaging exploration of cocktail science and technique. When Morgenthaler explains things like carbonation and infusions, complete with molecular notations and diagrams, flashbacks of 11th Grade chemistry may ensue.

That's not to say the book isn't approachable, as Morgenthaler employs a conversational style that's instructional but also personal. His writing is also grounded in the current movement of contemporary  bartenders who have reshaped the profession to focus on its roots as a skilled craft. Take the mint julep, for example, which was my introduction to Morgenthaler's writing when I came across his blog's post on the classic drink, in which he "rebuts" what he calls "the most horrific excuse for a Mint Julep" with a video showing how he thinks it should be done (the recipe is included in The Bar Book). It's a good example of how today's bartenders are working at bringing back the traditional way of making many drinks without the sticky, processed additions of things like sour mix and commercial soda pop.

Yet Morgenthaler isn't opposed to innovation either. Although he includes instruction for creating a sugar rim on glasses, he prefers to omit this step from the classic Sidecar cocktail and instead adds a little simple syrup to balance the drink's sweetness in the glass, a smart move in my opinion (check out my post today on his version of the Sidecar).

Morgenthaler's focus on technique means that even if you're an experienced cocktail-maker, you're bound to learn some new things, including better ways of doing things you already know. Already, I've revised some of my key practices, like how I shake drinks (horizontally, rather than vertically) and adding ice to the mixing glass after the liquid ingredients instead of before. He explains the reasons behind these decisions in detail, such as the ergonomic reasons for pouring a certain way. He also values measurement, which gets its own chapter, even when those around him disdain such precision for free-pouring. That image of the cavalier bartender sloppily pouring and sloshing around a bunch of drinks at once? That ain't Morgenthaler.

Another way The Bar Book isn't like most cocktail book is that it's an engaging cover-to-cover read. In addition to providing many helpful hints and tricks, narratives between the technique writing provide insights into the world of bartending and Morgenthaler's journey from University of Oregon architecture student to running the celebrated bar at Portland's Clyde Common, which was nominated this year for the James Beard Award for best bar program. Along the way, he drops the names of many other bartenders he clearly admires. His writing even takes on a bit of poetry, such as his description of how to mix drinks in a blender: "the perfect amount of ice will produce a central vortex, with distinct curves of drink flowing into it, almost like pillow of drink folding into each other." Doesn't that just make you thirsty for a good Piña Colada?

He also reveals some dark undercurrents in an industry that has gained much traction in recent years, like that some young bartenders are "often conditioned to respond to their guests' joy with disdain," a troubling revelation for a service-based industry.

Having written a cocktail blog for many years, Morgenthaler was already an experienced writer, and it shows in the style for The Bar Book, written in a voice that's knowledgeable but not condescending. As much as I bought the book to read about techniques, I loved the stories he wove throughout the book. If Morgenthaler ever decided to write a memoir, it would surely be an engaging, revealing read. Something to savor while sipping a Spanish Coffee perhaps.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Guide to Mexican Restaurants in D.C.

2015 Update: Since writing this, the Rosa Mexicano in Friendship Heights Casa Oaxaca, Diego and Mi Cocina have closed. 

It's sad but sometimes true: it can be difficult to find good Mexican food in D.C.

Chris and I are big lovers of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. When new Mexican restaurants open in the city, we excitedly head out to see what they offer. Unfortunately, we're usually disappointed. More so than other cuisines, Mexican seems to have a tough time here. And I'm not sure why. As the crowds at more popular outlets show, there is a strong market here for good Mexican food. Some may say it's because we're pretty far from the border, but we're certainly much much farther from Thailand, India and Japan, and there are amazing restaurants in D.C. serving food inspired by the cuisines of those countries.

That said, over the years we have found a few solid choices for good Mexicano food. We count ourselves as regulars at quite a few of the better choices in D.C. Below is a guide to the "best and the rest" of what D.C. offers in terms of Mexicano food. I've written about a few of these restaurants in the last few years, and the links to those posts are included below too. Of course, there are many more choices than what's represented here, including a few I'd really like to try, such as El Chucho in Columbia Heights and MXDC in downtown (which got a bad review from the Washington Post, but I would still be interested in trying it).

Cactus Cantina Chicken and Vegetable Fajitas
So what makes or breaks a good Mexican experience?

Margaritas can sink a Mexican restaurant fast, since they arrive early. The best ones of are made with fresh ingredients, but even those made with a mix can be enjoyable if prepared well. It's when they taste like gatorade or contain so little tequila that you can't taste (or feel) it, that you're looking at margarita failure. Oyamel, Rosa Mexicano and El Centro all make very good fresh margaritas, with Oyamel having a particularly inventive roster of options. I'll admit I have a soft spot for the slushy "frozen" variety of margaritas, the best of which can be had at Cactus Cantina and Alero.

Chips and salsa still arrive gratis at most Mexican restaurants, but, given what they say about first impressions, restaurants must still pay attention to what they're sending out. Chips should be fresh and robust enough to handle the salsa and guacamole served with them. Wimpy, stale chips are an automatic fail, as is excessively watery salsa. And it when it comes to guacamole, made-to-order is in, so if you're mixing you're guacamole in the morning these days, it's not going to hold a candle to what other restaurants are serving. Oyamel and Rosa Mexicano are the gold standards for fresh guacamole, but plenty of other restaurants are serving it now too. Guapo's recently added their own very good version, including a fun bacon-pineapple variation.

After those critical opening salvos, a good Mexican experience is marked by inventive dishes with fresh ingredients, skillfully grilled meats and thoughtful accompaniments. For example, I love restaurants that make their own tortillas. One of the reasons Guapo's has been a long-time favorite of ours is their homemade flour tortillas, which elevate their grilled fajitas above other Tex-Mex chains that buy tortillas. For a while, Rosa Mexicano was serving its guacamole with delicious homemade corn tortillas, but has unfortunately stopped that practice (I hope they bring them back).

I like a menu that showcases well-made Mexican and Tex-Mex favorites, but also makes room for other interesting options. Several of the city's Tex-Mex restaurants also include Cuban and South American dishes like Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian stir fry of beef and vegetables served with fries.

A caveat--I'm lumping Mexican and Tex-Mex together in this post, which is not unreasonable, but there are differences. A true Mexican restaurant is serving dishes that originated in Mexico, while Tex-Mex refers to an American cuisine that developed in Texas inspired by Mexican food. Given that these are all American restaurants, the line between the two can blur sometimes, plus many of these restaurants feature other types of Latin cuisines (and our city's top Mexican restaurant is overseen by America's most prominent Spanish chef).

Oyamel Guacamole
Oyamel Guacmole

The Best

Oyamel (my review). Is it a surprise that a Spanish-American chef who made his name with inventive Spanish-style small plates is also responsible for the city's top Mexican establishment? Perhaps, but José Andrés has proven time and again that he operates comfortably outside his own ethnic background, whether it be the Middle Eastern flavors of Zaytinya or the forthcoming Peruvian-Chinese fusion of China Chilcano. Among D.C.'s Mexicano restaurants, Oyamel is unique in many ways. It definitely leans more Mexican and less Tex-Mex, it's diverse menu stocked with favorites (more papas al mole please) and rotating seasonal offerings. And the freshly made margaritas are among the best in the city.

Other Favorites

Rosa Mexicano (my review). This upscale chain originated in New York and has two locations in D.C. (Penn Quarter and Friendship Heights) It popularized guacamole freshly made tableside which, although I find a little annoying (just make it in the kitchen), it is really good. Rosa also boasts a wonderful array of freshly made margaritas, a decent smoky salsa and the city's best refried beans, which are black instead of traditional pinto.

El Centro D.F. Part of the Richard Sandoval restaurant family, El Centro D.F., located on 14th Street and in Georgetown, serves a variety of tacos, enchiladas and other Mexican favorites, similar in many ways to the type of food you get at Rosa Mexicano. Rosa is more convenient for me, but the few times we've visited El Centro, we've enjoyed it.

Cactus Cantina. Upper Northwest is home to three great Tex-Mex restaurants. Sure, they don't offer much in terms of innovation, but when I need a fix of satisfying grilled fajitas and a frosty frozen margarita, I go to one of these three places. Lately, I've rediscovered Cactus Cantina, the less-bustling Cleveland Park sister restaurant of Dupont Circle's Lauriol Plaza. The margaritas are tart and sweet but not too much so and have just the right amount of tequila. Also love the vegetable-heavy chicken fajita option for Sunday brunch.

Guapo's. Further up Wisconsin Avenue in Tenleytown is Guapo's, one of the first Tex-Mex restaurants I discovered make their own flour tortillas. Guapo's grilled meats are particularly good, and their chef's specials are interesting too, particularly the tender masitas de puerco al horno, a plate of falling-apart pork shoulder served with fried plantains and vegetables. The frozen margaritas do tip the sweetness scale, but don't taste artificial.

Alero. When we lived in Cleveland Park, Alero was our regular Mexican hangout. It's here I sampled my first tres leches cake. I also like that their menu features carnitas fajitas option when I'm in the mood for pork. I definitely prefer the Cleveland Park location over the too-busy U Street outpost.

District Taco (my review). For simple tacos crafted from quality ingredients, you could do worse than to visit this downtown taqueria that started as a food truck. Definitely spring for the corn tortillas and al pastor with rotisserie pork and chopped pineapple.

Chipotle Mexican Grill. I know, this is a national chain, but I fell in love with it in D.C., which saw its first Chipotle open in 2000 and aggressive expansion ever since (there are now 14 in the city, plus more in the suburbs)

Rosa Mexicano Braised Short Ribs
Rosa Mexicano Braised Short Ribs

Other Options

Austin Grill. I used to really love Austin Grill, but lately it's lost its luster. A menu revamp a few years ago removed my favorite dish, mole enchiladas, which was disappointing. On the plus side, they do have good tortilla chips, robust enough to hold up to thick smoky salsa.

Bandolero (my review). Mike Isabella, whose first restaurant, Graffiato, I love, opened this Mexican establishment in Georgetown a few years ago, but has since distanced himself from the project. In hindsight, that's not such a bad move, as we were underwhelmed by the experience, which delivered great tacos and margaritas but also other dishes of mixed quality.

Casa Oaxaca. I had high hopes we would enjoy this Adams-Morgan establishment, as its menu reads more authentically Mexican. The moles are the reason to go, and the sauces were very good, but the chicken they were served with was not very interesting. While the large margaritas may look exciting, the excitement ends with the first sip. Was the tequila merely waved in their direction? After two of these each, we felt no buzz at all.

Casa Fiesta. This Tenleytown restaurant, better known for its punk rock concerts than its food, recently revamped its menu--unfortunately, to remove the more interesting Salvadorian dishes they used to feature. We stopped in recently and sampled their by-the-book fajitas and margaritas that disappointed with the obvious flavor of sub-par mix.

Crios. We wandered in here with friends about a year ago. We haven't wandered back. There was nothing special about the food in this Dupont Circle sister restaurant of Scion, and the uneven service needed work.

Diego (my review). Diego is not a bad place, although not special enough to justify a visit if you don't live nearby and have good Tex-Mex in your neighborhood. Unfortunately, the recent departure of the restaurant's notable chef meant the more interesting dishes also departed the menu.

Lauriol Plaza. If you're older than 25, there's probably no reason to go here. Check out Cactus Cantina instead, which has similar food without the ridiculously long wait.

Mi Cocina. Not in the city, but just across the border in the Maryland portion of Friendship Heights, this chic Tex-Mex restaurant counts high-end retailers such as Christian Dior, Cartier and Tiffany & Co. as its neighbors. If only the food was as luxurious. Nothing was particularly memorable, and the margaritas were neither cold nor well mixed. And "attitude" is not something any server should strive for.

There are still others I'd like to try. I've heard good things about the Columbia Heights taqueria, El Chucho and, although the Post wasn't that into MXDC, I'd still be up for giving it a try.

Have I left any place off that you love? Let me know so I can go give it a try.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chicken and Apple Tacos

Chicken Apple Tacos

To accompany today's Apple Margaritas, how about some chicken and apple tacos? These come together quite fast and are delicious. I deglazed the pan with a splash of smoky mezcal and garnished the tacos with fresh avocado, cilantro and Mexican queso fresco.

Chicken and Apple Tacos
Adapted from Chicken Soft Tacos with Sauteed Onions and Apples, Cooking Light

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. chicken breast cutlets
Salt, to taste
2 dashes nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1 sweet onion, diced
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into pieces about 1/4-inch thick.
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. mezcal
8 corn tortillas
2 avocados, peeled and diced
4 oz. queso fresco, crumbled
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add chicken, season with salt, nutmeg, cumin and chili powder, and cook until lightly browned and cooked through, about 10-12 minutes, flipping over halfway through. Remove chicken from pan and allow to cool a bit, transfer to a cutting board and chop into 1/2-inch pieces.

2. Add onion to hot pan (add additional olive oil if pan is dry) and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add apple and sauté until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then add the mezcal, stirring to combine with the other ingredients. Add the chicken and cook until reheated, about 2-3 minutes.

3. Heat the corn tortillas. Fill each tortilla with 1/2 cup of onion-apple-chicken mixture, then top with avocado, queso fresco and cilantro.

Apple Margarita

Apple margarita

I drink margaritas year-round, but they taste best in the summer. Apples come into season in the U.S. in the fall, but can (and I think should) also be enjoyed year-round. Thus, there's no reason why the tart brightness of a Granny Smith apple can't find it's way into a refreshing margarita.

While you can buy a sour apple liqueur, I find it unappealing (a friend recently likened it to a Jolly Rancher). It's pretty easy to extract fresh apple flavor. Here, I've used a blender to puree Granny Smith apples while also mixing them with agave nectar to form a syrup--basically an agave-sweetened apple cider. You don't have to peel the apples--the peel reminds behind with the pulp during the straining. If you want, you could strain with cheesecloth, but it would take longer, and I don't mind a little cloudiness in this drink.

This technique was inspired by Jeffrey Morgenthaler's recipe for making ginger syrup, which uses a similar technique to blend fresh ginger with sugar. Morgenthaler just released a great cocktail book, The Bar Book, which I'll talk more about soon.

I used blanco tequila (sometimes called silver tequila) for its clean profile. Instead of the usual orange liqueur, I went with ginger, which complements apple so well, and a couple dashes of Fee Brothers whiskey barrel-aged bitters, which have a noticeable cinnamon flavor that's perfect in this drink.

Enjoy an apple margarita while eating Chicken and Apple Tacos.

Apple Margarita

 2 oz. tequila blanco
1 oz. ginger liqueur
1 oz. apple-agave syrup (see recipe below)
Juice from 1/2 lemon
2 dashes Fee Brothers whiskey barrel-aged bitters
Lemon wheel garnish

Combine ingredients (except the garnish) in a shaker with ice. Shake until cold and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with lemon wheel.

Apple-agave syrup

2 Granny smith apples, cored and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
6 oz. agave nectar
1/2 cup boiling water

Combine apples, agave and boiling water in a blender. Blend at high speed until very smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Yields about 1 cup (8 oz.).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Feed: June 18, 2014

Korean Tacos
Do you love Korean Tacos? You probably have Roy Choi to thank. He's profiled in the New York Times this week.
The Feed is my weekly round up of interesting food-related stories from newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Washington Post: “A Family Farm’s Russian Invasion,” by Arlo Crawford.
They say you should get to know your farmer, which I’ll have a unique opportunity to do by reading Arlo Crawford’s memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year. Crawford is the son of Jim Crawford, the Pennsylvania farmer from New Morning Farm who sets up his market in my neighborhood every Saturday morning (and Tuesday afternoon). In this essay, Arlo recounts how a Russian traveler worked briefly on New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania, drawing parallels between the traveler and the farm. It’s part of this week’s Food section’s focus on farming and growing.

New York Times: “Roy Choi, King of L.A. Food Trucks, Moves on to a Hotel,” by Jeff Gordinier.
Roy Choi may be one of the founding fathers of the modern food truck movement (he popularized Korean tacos), but these days he has his sights on less mobile enterprises, helping to launch The Line Hotel in Los Angeles. Gordinier profiles the chef and reports on his latest move. Accompanying the story is Choi's recipe for “perfect” instant ramen doctored with butter, egg and American cheese.

New York Times: “Gluten Free Eating Appears to Be Here toStay,” by Kim Severson.
Severson writes about how the gluten-free fad doesn’t appear to be abating, and prominent restaurants like Del Posto have taken notice. Perhaps, but I love what N.Y.U. Professor Marion Nestle has to say about fad diets, “There really isn’t much better dietary advice than eating your veggies, exercising and limiting calories. People just seem to like making eating difficult for themselves.”

If you’ve wanted to try eating from food trucks but have held back due to health concerns, fear not. According to at least one study, they are better than restaurants when it comes to food safety.

The Patriot News/Penn Live: “Restaurant Reviewer Mimi Brodeur: Putting a Face with a Name,” by Richard Abowitz.
Many restaurant critics make great effort to remain anonymous, such as the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema. But Central Pennsylvania paper The Patriot News’ reviewer Mimi Brodeur unveiled herself last week in a move Abowitz writes was done to make Brodeur more accessible to readers.

Wall Street Journal: “The Art of Making Risotto,” by Ralph Gardner Jr.
From the headline, I was hoping for some tips on making risotto, but the author offered none, instead recounting an all-risotto dinner at Risotteria Melotti (from which he left early), as well as a visit to a nearby farm growing Japanese and, thanks to the Melottis, Italian rices.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mexican Avocado & Chorizo Pasta

Mexican avocado and chorizo pasta

I really love pasta, but when eating out in restaurants, it's usually a diet buster. So many restaurants drown their pastas with thick, creamy sauces. Even if they don't do that, there's still usually a copious amount of butter.

I was reading recently about ways to achieve creamy texture in dishes without using cream and avocados were mentioned, sparking my idea to use avocado as a sauce for a Mexican-inspired pasta dish.

Sure, avocados are not a low-fat food. A cup of avocado, contains 21 grams of fat, but only about 230 calories. Compared to a cup of heavy cream, which has 820 calories and 88 grams of fat, it's a markedly better choice. It's better fat too: most of the fat in cream is saturated, while avocado has very little saturated fat.

It worked rather well. In the food processor, when blended with a little of the past cooking water, the avocado turned into a thick sauce with a dense creamy texture. When stirred into the finished pasta sauce, it provided just the right creamy richness I was looking for, but without the cream.

I was really pleased with how this dish turned out. The smoky-spicy chorizo was the perfect contrast to the richness of the avocado. A sprinkle of queso fresco and fresh cilantro provide additional flavor.

I used a food processor to chop pre-cooked chorizo to a texture similar to what I'd have gotten if I'd started with raw chorizo.

I intended to make this with raw chorizo, but accidentally bought the pre-cooked kind. It actually worked just fine though. After carefully removing the casings, I chopped the sausage and pulsed it a few times in the food processor to obtain a texture similar to that of fresh cooked chorizo.

Mexican Avocado & Chorizo Pasta

1 lb. penne rigate pasta
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 Vidalia sweet onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, to taste
1 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. ground cumin
12 oz. cooked chorizo, casings removed and crumbled (if using raw chorizo, brown before sautéing the onions)
2 ripe hass avocados
4 oz. queso fresco, crumbled
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions for al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta and set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking until the onions are browed, another 5 minutes or so. Season with salt, oregano and cumin. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in the crumbled chorizo and cook until reheated (chorizo will turn brown). Turn off the heat.

3. Cut the avocados in half, remove the seed and scoop the flesh out and transfer to a food processor. Pulse a few times, add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water and process until very smooth.

4. Add the cooked pasta and pureed avocado to the onion-chorizo mixture and stir to combine. Add the additional 1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water and stir until the pasta is evenly coated with avocado sauce. Adjust seasoning. Serve in shallow bowls topped with queso fresco and cilantro.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mole Chicken Enchiladas

Mole Chicken Enchiladas

For many years I've loved mole sauce, the spicy concoction from the Oaxacan region of Mexico. It's often served over enchiladas and it's often rather complicated: a mix of toasted and ground spices, chiles, nuts and chocolate.

I found this mole recipe in Robb Walsh's The Tex-Mex Cookbook, and it's comparatively simple with 13 ingredients, compared to the 29 in the recipe I came across when Googling "traditional mole recipe."
Mole sauce

A surprising fact about mole: it doesn't take long to cook--about 15 to 20 minutes total, making it the fastest component of this dish. Despite this short cooking time, the mole had a wonderful depth of flavor that was just what I was hoping for.

I actually pared the ingredients back a bit more because I couldn't find a dried guajillo or pasilla chile, so I used two ancho chiles instead, which are far less spicy than I imagined they would be. To prep them, use a paring knife to split them open and the scrape the seeds out with a spoon (discard the seeds).

For anyone who loves Mexican food which, in the United States is often really Tex-Mex food, Walsh's cookbook is a great read, providing a lot of background on the origins of Tex-Mex cuisine and a solid argument for why it should be considered a proper culinary tradition and not an illegitimate Americanization of true Mexican dishes.

Mole Chicken Enchiladas
Adapted from recipes in The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh


8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 1/2 to 3 lbs. bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
1 yellow onion, quartered
4 garlic cloves
6 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. ground cumin


2 tbsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 yellow onion (about 1/4 cup), diced
2 canned peeled tomatoes, quartered
2 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 tsp. sesame seeds
1 tsp. smooth peanut butter
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 saltine crackers, crumbled
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Salt, to taste


1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 yellow onion (about 1/4 cup), diced
12-14 fresh corn tortillas (recipe to make your own, although this time I used store-bought)
2 cups shredded Monterey jack cheese

Cook the chicken:

1. bring chicken broth to boil in a large pot. Add the chicken, onion, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf and cumin. When the mixture bubbles, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 25-30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken, allow it to cool a bit, then shred it with a fork and set aside.

Make the mole (while the chicken cooks):

2. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Ass the garlic and onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, chiles, chocolate, sesame seeds, peanut butter, sugar, crackers and chicken broth. Simmer the mixture for 5 minutes then remove from heat.

3. To puree the mixture you can do the following: 1) transfer to an appropriate container and blend with an immersion blender until smooth (my immersion blender can with a tall plastic container perfect for a job like this), or 2) transfer to a regular blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Make the enchiladas:

4. Preheat oven to 300 F.

5. In a small frying pan, toast the sesame seeds over medium-low heat until fragrant.

6. Heat olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken and cook until heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Remove chicken and onion from heat and transfer to a bowl. Add 1/2 cup of mole sauce to the shredded chicken and toss to combine.

7. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat. One-by-one, toast each tortilla in the pan for about 10 to 15 seconds to soften them. Divide the chicken mixture among the tortillas, roll them up and place them seam-side down in a greased 9 X 13 baking dish. Pour the remaining mole sauce over the enchiladas then top with shredded cheese. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until bubbling hot. Serve garnished with toasted sesame seeds.