Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fried Cheese (Queso De Freir) Tacos

Queso De Freir brings me surprising comfort.  I first had the scrumptious Hispanic cheese years ago on the Southside of Providence, Rhode Island when I was a restless undergraduate on a mission to get off the hill (i.e., the College Hill neighborhood of Providence).  It was during the time that I became good friends with a local chef who shared my appreciation for ethnic foods.  We ate indiscriminately--Dominican, Jamaican, Vietnamese, West African, soul food, Mexican, Italian, Puerto Rican, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc.--and I experienced new tastes, textures, techniques, and ingredients.  When I first tried Queso De Freir, I remember thinking it was weird that you could fry this cheese and it wouldn't melt.  I ate it "straight up" and it was salty, but not overpowering.  I only had it that one time, but it made quite an impression on me.

Fast forward about 6 years to 2011, and I am living in Philadelphia, PA.  I continue to eat indiscriminately, with a much greater focus on healthy foods.   I continue to enjoy dining out, but I have learned to lower my expectations (for other people's cooking) after far too many bland meals as a pescetarian.  Now, imagine the vibrant neighborhood of South Philly where The Italian Market is located along with the East Passyunk Avenue Business District and the iconic cheesesteak institutions of Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks.  If it matters to you, numerous sources along with Craig LaBan, Inquirer Restaurant Critic, say that the cheesesteaks at John's Roast Pork are the best in the city.  Check out Craig's 2002 Cheesesteak Report.  Now, imagine the most mundane, no frills Mexican restaurant sandwiched between all this action.  That would be La Lupe. I went there with slight apprehension a few months ago with a good friend who is a regular.  As we entered the mostly empty restaurant, the staff sat at two tables eating and chatting in Spanish as it was near closing time.  I was immediately taken aback by the fact that the Cha Cha Slide was blaring from a small portable boombox and I felt more like I was at a cookout down South.  However, I decided to overlook that odd occurrence. I was truly determined to give this place a fighting chance.  I perused the menu and the cheese tacos jumped out at me.  WAS IT THE ELUSIVE FRIED CHEESE FROM PROVIDENCE?!?!?!  I inquired and, as the cook described the dish, it still seemed like a bit of a gamble.  I went ahead and gave in to temptation and ordered two.  I was assured that "everything on the menu is good" by both my friend and the cook.   A few minutes later, the tacos finally arrived and we took our meals back to my friend's place, where I anxiously bit into a taco.  It was pure delight!  I had finally rediscovered the elusive Queso De Freir and it made a darn good taco!

This fried cheese taco is a recreation of the masterpiece I had at La Lupe during the winter of 2011.

Fried Cheese Tacos (Queso De Freir)

1 1/4 cups Queso De Freir, shredded
1/2 avocado
sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon canola oil
1 1/2 tablespoons pico de gallo
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 corn tortillas

In a mortar or bowl, mash the avocado until slightly chunky.  Add the pico de gallo, chopped cilantro, and fresh ground pepper.  Mix well and set aside.

Heat canola oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat.  Add the shredded cheese and cook 2-3 minutes.  Using a spatula, separate the cheese into two distinct patties.  Continue cooking and allow to brown on both sides by flipping the cheese patties.  Remove from heat and sprinkle sparingly with sea salt.  Queso De Freir is naturally salty so be careful not to over salt.

Heat tortillas for 1-2 minutes in the frying pan, until warm.  Then, place the warm tortillas on a dinner plate and add the fried cheese patties and guacamole.  Enjoy with crudites such as radishes and cucumbers.

Notes:  This guacamole recipe is my easy, weekday recipe for quick guacamole.  Guacamole is even better with freshly chopped vegetables and a little lime juice if you seek a more traditional taste.

If you are extra sensitive to the taste of salt, eliminate the sea salt in the recipe.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Calamari and Catfish Stew with Plantains

Who doesn't like calamari?  It's actually one of my favorite seafoods.  As I sit here writing this post, I'm reminded of the year I spent in Chicago, when I became obsessed with the blackened calamari at Davis Fish Market - it's by far the best preparation I've had.  I'm talking whole pieces of calamari, covered in blackening spice and chargrilled to perfection.  It's one of those dishes so darn good that I can remember exactly the last time I had it.  It was the dead of winter and I met up with two friends from undergrad after a long day of work.  We sat on the left side of the dining room for drinks and appetizers, discussing all the exciting changes at hand - business ventures, job offers, and graduate school.  Good times!

I happened to have some calamari on hand this past week and it got me to thinking about the possibility of incorporating it into a hearty stew.  I did a little research and came up with this recipe.  I kind of built it around the calamari and the ingredients I had on hand.   Most of the technique is inspired by the American South, but the flavors are more reminiscent of West and North Africa.  This stew and the leftover blood orange sangria turned out to be the perfect antidote to the snow flurries and windy breezes hovering over Maryland these past few days.  

Calamari and Catfish Stew


1 large red onion, diced
4 red bell peppers, finely chopped
4 celery stalks, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced
5 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups of vegetable stock
1 tablespoon of Cajun seasoning
1/2 pound dried chickpeas
3 cups chopped okra
2 large 28 oz-cans of whole tomatoes
1 pound of calamari
1 pound of catfish, cut into medium-sized chunks
1 sprig fresh thyme
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
3 bay leaves
pearled couscous, prepared according to package instructions


Begin by soaking the dried chickpeas in 4 cups of hot water.  Boil for 2 minutes and set aside for an hour.  

Blend one can of tomatoes and chop about half the tomatoes from the second can.  Set aside.  Refrigerate and store remaining tomatoes.  In a large bowl, season catfish and calamari with Cajun seasoning and set aside.

In a large stockpot, cook the red onion, bell peppers, celery, garlic, and ginger in the olive oil for about 5 minutes on medium heat.  Add 2 cups of the vegetable stock to the pot and reduce the liquid by half.  Then, add the blended and chopped tomatoes, chopped okra, thyme, bay leaves, salt, pepper, and the remaining vegetable stock.  Stir.  Reduce to low heat and cook for about 1 hour 30 minutes.  Add the soaked chickpeas and cook for another 40 - 45 minutes.  Add catfish during the last 20 minutes of cooking, and the calamari should be added during the last 2 - 3 minutes of cooking.  Serve over pearled couscous with plantain pieces (see recipe below) on the side.  Enjoy!



2 plantains
canola oil


Peel plantains and slice lengthwise.  Cut each half into 3-4 pieces.  Then, add about 1 inch of canola oil to a frying pan and heat to 350 degrees.  Fry plantains until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes.  Allow to drip dry on a plate covered with paper towels.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Blood Orange Sangria

I ended up with beaucoup blood oranges after a nutrition lesson highlighting the hydrating, cancer-fighting abilities of red fruits and vegetables for Valentine's Day, and I immediately knew exactly what I wanted to do with them.  Anyone who knows me well probably knows I am obsessed with sangria.  Someone even gifted me with the book 101 Sangrias & Pitcher Drinks for my 27th birthday.  Without a doubt, the most thoughtful gift ever!  I'm always experimenting with sangria flavor combinations, so blood oranges were a natural next step.  I built the punch around the blood oranges by choosing fruit and spirits that would complement the slightly tart flavor.  A clerk at my preferred local wine store, The Wine Source, confirmed my choice of a Torremoron Tinto 2009, made from 100% Tempranillo for this sangria.

This punch is awesome for a number of reasons.  #1.  It's seasonal!  #2.  It's perfect for today's Super Bowl Game.  #3.  It's perfect for Valentine's Day.  #4.  I've been told that sangria means blood in Spanish so the addition of blood oranges increases the irony of this punch's name.  #5.  It freakin' good.  #6.  I get to have sangria all week after those long work days.

Blood Orange Sangria


1 cup simple syrup
1 bottle red wine (750mL)
1 cup fresh-squeezed blood orange juice
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup triple sec
1 Brown Asian Pear, diced
1 Honeycrisp Apple, diced
2 Kiwis, sliced
2 cup Black Seedless Grapes
1/2 lime, juiced


Begin by making the simple syrup: combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup hot water in a container.  Set aside.  Wash and cut the pear, apple, and kiwis.  Set aside.  Wash grapes and set aside.  In a saucepan, combine the cut fruit and 1 cup of grapes with the simple syrup over low heat.  Cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Discard cooked grapes.  Combine remaining ingredients in a large ceramic or glass container.  Add the fruit and syrup mixture and stir well.  Cover and refrigerate at for at least 4 hours.  Serve over ice.