Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dinner for Slackers

Not only did I spend more money than I had planned at the grocery this week, but I also spent more time. After being cart-blocked at every turn by the Oldsters of South Pasadena, I was in no mood to roast tomatillos and slice onions, peppers, and steak for the tacos. I defaulted to the butternut squash soup.

Most of my recipes are hybrids, and this is no exception: I combine the technique from America’s Test Kitchen with part of a recipe from somewhere on Epicurious, then I tweak based on the Degree of Slack I require from my dinner at the particular moment. Here’s what I did tonight:

--halve a giant squash lengthwise; reserve gross stuff
--in multi-pot, saute gross stuff in butter 
--add onion, 3 star anise, sliced ginger, garlic; brown
--add an inch of water
--put squash face-down in steamer basket; cover
--steam until soft (20 min?)
--strain out gross stuff; pour liquid back into pot
--scoop out and add nuclear squash pulp
--add 4-5 cups liquid(1)
--puree with stick blender until smooth
--simmer for 20 minutes(2)

Sometimes I add a bit of cream, but not tonight.(3)

I also made turkey sandwiches, because soup and sandwich are still together after All These Years. But I knew I was going to blog about it later, so I gussied up the deli turkey with some thinly sliced apple, farmhouse cheddar, and avocado. I briefly considered grilling them, because that’s extra delicious, but then I realized I’d have to come up with a new title for the post and I was just way too apathetic. Deal.

It wasn’t bad, considering all the hands-off time. Family consensus is that it would have been better if I’d actually done the ATK-steaming method, because it really is delicious. But I didn’t want to do the straining or the dishes, so I just diced the squash, dumped it all in a Dutch oven, set the heat to medium, and fell asleep. In 20 minutes, I had soup. Result!


(1) I used mostly water ‘cuz I’m cheap, and a little broth

(2) Or 40 if, like me, you fall asleep on the couch

(3) I’ll pretend that I did it to help Dorian out with that high cholesterol business, but actually I would have sneaked it in there if we’d had any.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

8.29: This Week in Food

  • Sunday: butternut squash soup / turkey sandwich
  • Monday: black bean burger / sweet potato fries
  • Tuesday: scrambled eggs / bacon / toast
  • Wednesday: steak tacos / refritos
  • Thursday: night of shame (aka, Take Out Night)
  • Friday: grilled mahi / green beans / brown rice
Grocery total: $80 (rounded up, not including household items and kid-lunch food)

Thoughts: I spent more than intended at the grocery store, but we were out of a lot of staples, like milk, eggs, and beans; also, I bought a few things that I forgot we already had, like canned chipotles. (1)


(1) Seriously, chipotles are my Derrida Item--I "always already" have them, but I buy them every time I'm at the store. As my family well knows, my grandmother's Derrida Item is Jell-O. Mine used to be coconut milk, and said Item's supplanting by chipotle peppers is an interesting snapshot of the globally-southward migration of my meal preferences.

Saturday Review: Red Mesa

St. Pete-ians and Tampons alike looooooove their Red Mesa, the quasi-Mexican, quasi-fine dining restaurant nestled idiosyncratically between Applebees and Word of Beer on 4th Street. Critics and locals have showered praise on this place since it opened in 1996. My personal experiences with Red Mesa have been uneven, to say the least. The first three times I ate there, I was like, "meh." It was years before I returned--and only then because some friends made me.

Don't get me wrong--this IS going to turn into a positive review, and I've had some FAB food at Mesa. There was the Famous Fruit Mole of '02, which I still describe to my friends through tears of lingering ecstasy. I persist in lamenting (1) the loss of the Grilled Pork Chop Stuffed with Goat Cheese/Apple/Walnut in OMFG-That's-Good smoky tomato broth. The specials menu reliably taunts me with huitlacoche quesadillas (2), guacamole trios, and inventive ceviches. Shrimp and feta queso fundido is swoon-worthy.

Overall, though, Mesa--much like Nicole Kidman--does not live up to its rep. Anything that sounds like something on a typical Mexican restaurant menu (cheese enchiladas, chile rellenos, skirt steak tacos) proves simple and bland. The rice and black bean "congri" that accompanies damn near everything on the menu is just lame. Chunks of dry, fatty pork float in a greasy, bland chili verde sauce in one of the most popular (!) dishes, and chipotle shrimp are too spicy and flavorless (quite a feat) to do any justice to Mesa's customary prowess with the smoky (3) chiles.

If you work for Red Mesa and are reading this, I swear to you that The Praise Begins Now.

Where Mesa really shines is at Sunday brunch. Typically a restaurant's throw away service, brunch here plays to the kitchen's strengths--every egg dish is accompanied by two or three of those genius salsas, with varying heat levels, textures, and flavor profiles, and there are enough choices on the menu to satisfy the hungover hipsters, their discerning children, and the wealthy oldsters who cram into the booths and freeze their asses off. (4)

Typically, I waffle between the Migas (fluffy eggs scrambled around strips of crunchy poblano peppers, caramelized onions, and crisp tortillas, served with a brothy, smoky salsa and so-so refried beans) and the Shrimp and Grits--different from anything you'll find in South Carolina's Low Country, but the best I've ever had. This morning, I chose the latter, and they arrived pitch-perfect, as usual: plump, unbelievably sweet shrimp doused in a creamy chipotle sauce with more of those poblano and onion rajas, soaking into a volcano of velvety grits. They thoughtfully sprinkle on some sliced scallions, adding crunch and verve, and a shredded aged cheese of such deliciousness that I can hardly stop salivating long enough to describe it. (5)

Other winning dishes: chilaquiles roja, which confirms my suspicion that Red Mesa should just soak shit in salsa and bringitrightheretomytableNOW, huevos rancheros (more sophisticated than usual and all the better for it), and guava-stuffed French toast. Also, their fruit salad is dressed with a lime syrup that's even yummier because it cancels out any potential fruit-related health benefits. Burritos are more filling than they look. Potato-chorizo hash sounds better than it is (which kills me, because potatoes + chorizo = my happy place). Coffee is strong and delicious, and their kids' menu is brief (a good thing), healthy, and reasonably priced--and it's not patronizing: the tots get the same spicy sausage as their taller dining companions.

Did I mention that it's ridiculously cheap? On a Friday night, our bill for 2 has never been less than $60; after a brunch-for-three so big we're on hammocks for the better part of the afternoon, the receipt freaks me out with its $24 bottom line.

Service is always spot on at Red Mesa, even at brunch when servers at lesser establishments are often hungover and angry about having to be perky at 9 am while a bunch of noisy kids grind strawberries into the carpet.

If you've been disappointed with Red Mesa in the past (I'm looking at you, Lemdrichs), try again on a Sunday. If you've never been, start with brunch...and maybe end there, too. For dinner, I'd recommend gettin' yer fancy shoes on, hiring a babysitter, and braving the scene at their hipper downtown spot, Red Mesa Cantina. Their drinks are strong, their tacos are cheap, and the crowd will make it easy to pretend you're still cool.


What, you don't like footnotes? Too bad--I'm an academic. Suck it.

(1) Along with the server who has an uncanny knack for getting our table every single time. Which reminds me: a testament to Red Mesa's Doing Something Right is the insane degree of server loyalty. There are about five servers whom I see every time we go in there, be it a Friday night, a Wednesday lunch, or a Sunday morning. They've been there ten years, at least. That's unheard of in this fickle town.

(2) Holy crap, these were good. WHY ARE WE NOT EATING MORE CORN FUNGUS, AMERICA??

(3) How many times am I going to use the word "smoky" in this post? Only 3. But I should use it more, because Red Mesa's smoky is the most epic and craveable smoky in town. (Oh, look--that's 5. Boo-yah.)

(4) I'm serious: bring a sweater.

(5) Come to think of it, next to salsas, cheese may be Red Mesa's biggest win. There must be 7 or 8 "garnish" cheeses in that kitchen, and they shred/grate/crumble/melt each one onto its ideal partner EVERY SINGLE TIME. Even on the humblest of Mesa plates, I've never been disappointed by the cheese.

And so it begins.

It’s Saturday, and I’m hungry. This is the day when, exhausted from a week of working, cooking, parenting, and studying, my family eats out for four straight meals—breakfast today through a late breakfast tomorrow. Then the guilt (and poverty) sets in, and I spend Sunday planning the week’s meals and going grocery shopping.

I’m starting this blog—late to the game as I am—because I love writing and reading about food, but also because I need to light a fire under my lazy ass every week, to force me to cook for my family in a way that is healthy, delicious, fast, cheap, and as easy to clean up as possible. This is no small demand that I place on myself, but it must be so.

My plan: review a local restaurant from our weekend exploits on Saturday; divulge my shopping list, meal plans, and final tally on Sunday; blog my culinary successes and failures 2 or 3 nights a week; and somehow find time within all of that to write a dissertation, raise a 5-year-old, be a good wife and homeowner, and nurture the hell out of my sixth-grade students. Oh, and at some point this year I want to start exercising. Cuz I have all this extra time and energy. Not.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.