Archive for September 23rd, 2012

a slam dunk

I’d like to introduce you to an old friend.

Every time I see him, it’s like a high school reunion. Not the kind of reunion with the awkward conversations (hi, how have you been, where do you live now, what do you do, how many kids do you have?) and prom flashbacks and cliques that somehow never go away. I’m talking about the real re-union with the friends who knew you when you were still living at home, who have met your parents, who have watched you on the court/in the pool/on the field/on stage. The friends whom you phoned after your first kiss, the night before the SATs, when you received your college admission letter. You may not see these friends very often – sometimes only in times of tragedy and celebration – but when you do, you just pick up where you left off.

The old friend is a cookbook. I’m not sure why he’s a he, but he is. Perhaps it’s because my mother gave him to me and she’s always trying to set me up with boys. This book was one of the first I ever cooked from. Unlike the baby steps I took with the Better Crocker’s Cookbook  and  Julee Russo’s Great Good Food and  the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, this one was a keeper.

Betty, printed before I was  born, I left behind in the pantry of my parents’ kitchen when I went to college. I lived on campus and took all my meals in the dining halls. Without a kitchen, there was little need to refer to her sticky and crumbling page 57 (pancakes) and page 136 (chocolate chip cookies).

Julee, with its line drawings and low-fat recipes of my dancer days, disappeared. I think I lent it to a friend and never got it back (it’s OK, Veronica … if that was you, all is forgiven).

Fannie was a gift from my aunt to my grandmother. She traveled with me state to state, home to home, getting buried in the bottom of the cookbook box with each move, eventually landing in the corner on the bottom shelf of my cookbook bookshelf. The color-coded tabs mark the basics – basic method for cooking green beans, basic method for cooking broccoli, pan-roasted potatoes – and now remind me how far my cooking self  has come. Quickly, though, Fannie found herself covered in dust as my cookbook collection grew and the bookshelf seemed to shrink. I haven’t cooked from her in nearly a decade.

But we’re here to talk about the cookbook that made it to real old friend status. His name is The Southwest, and he’s part of the Williams-Sonoma New American Cooking series. Cooking with Southwest was my first break from cooking the foods I grew up with. Unsure of how to mix flavors for a cohesive dinner menu, I relied on theme meals, and he provided a geographic crutch. One of the first times I entertained, I studied his pages day after day and cobbled together a handful of matching dishes. We started with a sopa de lima of chicken and limes, the main dish was salpicón beef  burritos , and dessert was brownie-mix brownies tinged with cinnamon.

I moved on from the Southwest to Japan (sushi rice salad and soy scallion grilled steak, anyone?) and the Middle East (mezze and kabobs), to Spain (once  you start with the Sangria, it doesn’t really matter what you cook) and France (ahh, France), but I always returned to my old friend.

Over the years, I’ve cooked my way through nearly half of his sixty recipes. A few have shown up on this site, and I turn to them so frequently that I think of them as personal signature dishes. But that first dinner Southwest and I prepared together never leaves my side. Whenever I’m looking for a slam dunk, I turn to salpicón.

So, when two food bloggers, Molly and Jess, plus husbands joined me for shabbat lunch, I pulled out Southwest, and flipped right to good old reliable.

Mia, Jess’s and Eli’s 11-month old daughter, slurped the salpicón from a bowl like it was spaghetti. With Southwest by my side, I won over the most honest of critics.

Thanks, old friend. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.


Salpicón is Mexican shredded beef that can be piled on salad or stuffed in a tortilla. This recipe is from The Southwest, one of Williams-Sonoma’s New American Cooking series. It’s easy  but does require a bit of planning as you need to cook the meat for 2 hours, let it cool (at least another hour), and then add the dressing. I like to make it a day in advance so that the flavors intensify. I always at least double the recipe, making 4+ pounds of brisket. In this case, the double recipe served 5 hearty meat eaters (plus baby) with only a tortilla or two worth of leftovers.

Serves 3-4 (with ample leftovers)

For the beef

– 2 pounds beef brisket (second cut is best)

– 3 T olive oil

– 1 onion

– 1 head of garlic

For the sauce

– 1/4 C chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (I use La Costena)

– 3-4 T cider vinegar (or white vinegar in a pinch)

– 3 cloves garlic

– 1/2 C olive oil

– pinch of sugar

– kosher salt and pepper

All the fixins

– vegetables to accompany: romaine lettuce, tomatoes,  avocado, 1 red onions (plus 1/4 C white vinegar, 1 T salt, and pinch sugar for pickling)

– flour or corn tortillas

Brown. In a heavy pot over medium-high heat, warm oil. Pat the brisket dry and brown well on all sides, around 5 minutes. Make sure that all brisket surfaces get dark brown.

Simmer. Peel the onion, cut it in quarters through the stem end, and add to the pot. Take an entire head of garlic and slice through it horizontally, and add it, skin and all, to the pot. Cover the meat with water, and bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.

Cool. Take the pot off the heat and let the meat cool in the water (now a sort of stock).

Shred. Remove the cooled meat to a large plate. Using two forks or your fingers, thinly shred the meat.

Make dressing. In a small food processor, puree the chipotle and its sauce, vinegar, and garlic. Drizzle in the olive oil and keep pulsing until emulsified. Add sugar, salt, and pepper to taste.

Mix. Add half the dressing to the shredded meat and mix. Add more to taste, depending on how much heat you want.

Make the fixins. Finely shred romaine lettuce. Chop tomatoes. Cube avocado.  Thinly slice the red onion (I use a mandoline). Mix together 1/4 C white vinegar, 1/2 C water, 1 T salt, and a pinch of sugar. Let sit for about 30 minutes until the liquid turns bright pink.  Put each of the vegetables in a bowl and serve with the tortillas.

Heat. Place tortillas in a pan, cover, and heat in a low oven until soft and pliable.

Put it all together. Fill a tortilla with meat, vegetables, and refried beans (see below) and roll it all up.

Refried beans

I made these beans for my vegetarian friend Ilana, and the meat eaters devoured them. I adapted this recipe from one for refried black beans in, you guessed it, The Southwest. To give the beans a smoky flavor with using meat, I douse them in liquid smoke, which, if you’ve never tried, is really cool for vegetarian recipes. 

Makes about 2 cups

2 15.5 ounce cans of pinto or kidney beans

– 3 T olive oil

– 1 onion

– 2 garlic cloves

– 1 t cumin seeds, toasted and ground or 1 t pre-ground cumin

– 1/2 t cayenne pepper

– 5-10 sprigs of fresh thyme

– 1-2 C water

– 1/2 t liquid smoke (I use Colgin brand)

– salt and pepper

Drain. Rinse and drain beans.

Saute. Finely chop onion and garlic. Saute onion in olive oil over low heat until translucent, adding garlic after about 5 minutes. Saute 5 minutes more for a total of about 10 minutes, making sure not to burn the garlic. Add cumin seeds, cayenne, and thyme (you’ll remove the stems later), and mix quickly.

Simmer. Add 1 cup of water and scrap up all the good stuff that’s stuck to the pan. Then add the beans and liquid smoke. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove the thyme stems (most of the leaves will have fallen off).

Mash. Use a fork or potato masher to mash the beans. Add water as needed to get the consistency  you want. Season with salt, pepper, and additional liquid smoke to taste.

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