Mexican food is so good and I really do enjoy it, but I have to admit, there are many times when I find myself often turning down this cuisine when friends extend an invite for a Mexican dinner out. For one, I've never been a huge fan of the "standard" Mexican fare that you'll usually find in North American Mexican restaurants. And two, it always feels so heavy, like I've just eaten an entire meal consisting of nothing but cheese, chips and some more cheese. I love the flavor of black beans and refried beans but I loathe the texture and lack of creativity for this special legume. Another side item that always makes an appearance on the plate, yellow rice. Does it always have to be yellow rice? There are so many other flavors and vegetable varieties one could use to turn this food upside down and shake it up. Chef Rick Bayless has mastered the art of bringing authentic and fresh Mexican cuisine to American diners who longed for something more than just "the usual" but didn't realize it until he began educating them with his cookbooks and restaurants. Inspired by him and understanding what I want out of Mexican food, I look for those known flavors that satisfy a craving, but aim to prepare them in a lighter and unexpected way.
While I am happy to say that in recent months Orlando, FL has finally gotten a couple of very good Mexican restaurants, we still aren't where we need to be with options. So last night I thought I'd make tacos, I originally started out with the intention of making a barbacoa style beef but as I began to put my ingredients together I found myself preparing it in the way I sometimes season my carnitas, with a simple adobo marinade, brief sear and a slow braise. My first step is to chop all my peppers: red bell, green bell, red chiles, finger hots and jalapeño. I toss them into in the food processor and set aside. I chop to a paste, three cloves of garlic, a thick bunch of cilantro and one half of an onion. Add that to the food processor with a bit of salt, squeeze of a lime, dash of cumin and pour a slight drizzle of olive oil and mix. I'll cover all sides of my roast with this and set in the fridge for a few hours (you can leave this over night). It's important that you have ample time for this meal, as this cut of beef (2lb chuck roast) will need to cook uninterrupted for at least 4-5 hours. I heat a large pot on the stove with a bit of olive oil and set to high. Once heated, I gently lay the beef snuggled in to the pot and sear to a nice crust. This usually happens in about 2-3 minutes, so you must be mindful to keep close eye. Flipping to sear on the other side, once complete, I drop the heat down to a simmer and add the remaining liquids from the marinade as well as a cup or so of water to the pot, enough to cover the roast. Along with the roast, I like to throw in a rough chopped tomato and onion, sprinkling of salt, cayenne and a dash of sugar to add to the flavor of meat. I cover my pot tightly with the lid, pretend it's not there and let the slow heat work it's magic. During this time I've heated my oven to 425 degrees. In a clear baking dish I add one sliced onion, three whole poblanos and two red chilis. I rub them in olive oil and salt and nothing more. This medley will be one of my toppings for our tacos. To prep one of my side dishes, I'll take one small sweet potato, rub it in olive oil and salt and wrap it tightly in foil. This too will go into the oven with the peppers and onion and sit quietly for about 30 minutes.
While that's cooking I work on my second side dish, creamed corn with jalapeño, cilantro and fresh lime. This is SO easy and delicious, I cannot even begin to imagine who or why someone would continue to purchase the artificially flavored, preservative laden and underwhelming store bought kind. Sweet corn season is in full swing and there are such beautiful selections available. I begin shucking three ears of corn and remove the kernels. Into a hot pan with a bit of olive oil, I add the corn along with a chopped jalapeño. I continuously watch over the corn while stirring. The goal here is for some kernels to get that golden grilled caramelized color but you have to be careful not to burn your entire pan. As you start to see that color come into play, I squeeze in one half of a lime. I lower my heat and add in about 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter. As the butter begins to slowly melt, I hit it with about a half cup of cream. You may use more or less based on your preference. With the corn slowly thickening as I stir, I knock the heat back even further and mix in some chopped cilantro and a dash of salt to taste. I'll let this sit on the warm stove.
I've removed my peppers, onions and sweet potato from the oven. They have been cooled and are ready to peel. I start with the sweet potato, once peeled I set in a bowl and mash. To this mixture I add about a cup of pressed black beans, drained of any liquids. It's important to note that I do not mash my black beans to a complete puree, I like to leave a bit of texture for the importance of presentation and taste. Because I've chosen to mash the sweet potato I want to avoid a mushy center for my cakes. I add one egg, salt, pepper, coriander, honey and a dash of cayenne. Once blended I add a bit of flour to thicken the batter just a bit. I heat a pan with some canola oil and fry these up. This process is pretty quick since all of my ingredients have already been cooked, what I need here is a nice, slightly firm crispy cake.
Once my cakes have been fried, I'll let them sit on a sheet pan atop some paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
After about 3 hours on the stove, I remove my beef from the pot and start to shred. I transfer all of my shredded beef to a casserole dish and ladle in a few scoops of the broth that was in the pot over my beef. I loosely cover my dish with foil and set in the oven at 225 degrees. At this point I return my cakes to the oven to warm up. I begin peeling my poblanos and red chile that I roasted earlier. Almost ready to dig in, I set my table with several topping options, including, peppers and onions, crumbled queso fresco, thinly sliced avocado and cilantro.
This meal was fabulous. The black bean and sweet potato cakes were everything I'd hoped for and more. The sweetness from the potato and honey married with the creamy flavor of the black beans and it's natural nuttiness enhanced by the coriander and salt. For me, this was the perfect way to enjoy the beans that I formerly despised served whole on my plate. The corn, bursting with flavor from five simple ingredients. Slight heat from the jalapeño and that tangy tartness from the lime juice balance the dish from feeling overly creamy and buttery, yet still manages to pull off a velvety, rich and indulging twist. Our main star of the show, the beef. Perfectly cooked, juicy and intensely sharp flavors of peppers, garlic and spices. Folded up in a warm, soft flour tortilla with all the toppings, each bite is an experience I never want to end. Served with a fresh mango margarita, I look forward to making this again, and mixing it up with yet another new and exciting gift from the season!