New Mexico: Calabacitas

This was another incredibly successful dish for the food orgy that was our 24, 24, 24 dinner last month. We put together a menu based on foods by the various US regions. This entrée represented the Southwest region: Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The food in this region was heavily influenced by Spanish immigrants who brought ingredients such as chiles, tomatoes. These were then combined with ingredients common to the area, which included red pepper, cummin and cinnamon. And, of course, this is cattle/livestock country, so the entrée had to include something meaty. We ended up with: Lamb Chops with Pepper Chutney and Calabacitas.

Calabacitas is a true New Mexican favorite, you will often find it as one of the sides you can pick from when you eat at most restaurants. I remember having it in Albuquerque many years ago. It was a creamy casserole of sorts, with Mexican squash, corn, chilies, cheese and a hint of allspice.¬† For this recipe I wanted something ‘fancier’, so I was thrilled when I came across this version over at Fete & Feast. It brought to mind a stuffed chayote my¬† mom prepares. Anyway, here it is:

Calabacitas Rellenas
Serves 6

6 small zucchini squash
1 tsp. ancho chile powder
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
1 cp fresh corn kernels
1/2 cp red bell pepper, chopped
4 oz. chopped green chiles
1 tsp allspice
1 cp queso Oaxaca*, shredded
1/4 cp crema fresca or heavy cream
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375¬į degrees.

Slice the top ¬Ĺ inch from the squash. The squash I used for this were very small, about 4-5 inches long each and I used a whole one per person. To trim and remove their filling, I split each zuchinni at about 2/3s of the way–less than halfway through. If you’re working with larger ones, you could simply split them¬†in half horizontally and scrape out the seeds.

Bring enough salted water to cover the squash halves to a boil. Drop the halves into the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Remove shells from boiling water; nestle close together in a glass baking pan, and season with a little more salt and pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Cook the onion until soft and starting to become translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the corn,  and green chiles. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes. Then add 2/3s of the cheese, crema, and allspice. Check for seasoning; add salt and pepper to taste.

Mound some of the stuffing into each squash half. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle the rest of the cheese, and return to the oven. Cook for an additional 5-7 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly.

Cookingly yours,
Anamaris

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: An 8+8+8 interpretation

As a Foodbuzz  featured publisher, I was given the opportunity to prepare and document a meal. The concept was to have friends over to enjoy dishes from the various US regions and pair them with US wines.

24 = 8 Foodies + 8 US regions + 8 Pairings

Food and wine pairing has always been fascinating, and daunting¬†to me. I’m not sure how someone develops their senses to the extent necessary to accurately pair a dish with¬† wine that enhances it. That was my goal. Hang out with food and wine loving friends, and experience how wine and food play off each other.

First, divide the US into regions:

  1. New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware
  2. Mid-West: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Oklahoma
  3. West: Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana
  4. Deep South: Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Maryland
  5. Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico and Texas
  6. Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington and Alaska
  7. California
  8. The Islands: Puerto Rico and Hawaii

After research, the menu went a little something like this.  

Next, to figure out the wines for these meals. The tricky part, but quite rewarding. The internet is your friend. And mine. I took full advantage of this technological advance. There are 2 sites I found especially helpful. The first one helped get in the right wine range. That is, I typed the general type of food and it gave me suggestions for the best wine pair. Wine Review Online  provided choices for specific dishes/recipes as well as by ingredient. The members of the site then offer up reviews of some of their favorites bottles.

Once I knew what type of wine or grape varietal I should be aiming for, I was ready for specific bottles. I wanted all the wine selections to be under the $24 price point, preferably under $20. Good Wine Under $20 was just the right spot for me. I am SO glad I found this site. It is comprehensive and easy to follow and the blog owner provides you with clear reviews about the various wines. Just what I needed.

 

Menu in hand and with my pairing recommendations, this is how the evening played out. Our guests¬†began arriving around 6:30. I printed out the menus and in the back of the card I provided¬†space for each guests’ comments–their thoughts¬†on the dish and how the wine enhanced it, would they ever like to try it again, etc.

This¬†was a pretty informal bunch, as they arrived¬†we discussed whether to eat the dishes in the ‘proper order’ (salads, seafood, dark meats) or if they just wanted to enjoy the dishes randomly. We agreed on¬†a random approach, none of us seemed terribly concerned with following the¬†white then¬†reds rule. Additionally, most of us have a preference for red wines. In any case, off to the first course we went.

 

First up, She Crab Soup: a specialty from the South Carolina low country and the signature dish of Charleston. This soup starts off with a crab stock, cooked onions, celery and rice to arrive at the final product. The addition of sherry and mace gave this soup a deep flavor that proved to be highly satisfying with our guests.

Pairing:¬†Grant & Amy chose a bottle of¬†2008¬†Laird Sauvignon Blanc.¬†On their comment card they mentioned the soup was great and light with a great nutty taste which paired perfectly with the oaky finish of the wine. Complimenting its smooth body and melon undertones’.

 

We then moved on to California cuisine with a¬† Fig and Grape Salad with Pancetta Crostini. This was a salad by Alice Waters, one of the chefs who’s had¬†great impact on California’s cuisine. The salad combines arugula, figs, grapes and a balsamic vinegar reduction together with crostinis– bread sticks¬†of focaccia–wrapped in pancetta. The suggestion from my local wine specialist was for a Riesling.

Pairing: I selected a Riesling by Loredona in Monterey County. I found that this wine really balanced the peppery arugula with the sweetness of the figs and balsamic reduction. White wines aren’t my first preference, but this Riesling was not too sweet, while still being refreshing and slightly tart.

 

For the New England area, we served a Salt Cod & Clam Stew. The base included cannellini beans, leeks, salt cod and clams. One of the suggestions was to pair it with a Pinot Grigio. Jay and Angie brought us a bottle of DaVinci Pinot Grigio. Apple and citrus flavors helped to tone down the saltiness inherent to the cod.

 

For the Midwest¬†we took a stab at White Castle burgers and saluted the corn growers in the area. This course was an open-face White Castle inspired burger–served on a corn fritter and topped with caramelized onions. The wine recommended was a Petite Shiraz.

 

Pairing:¬†GWU20 suggested a bottle of 2008 The Crusher Petite Shiraz¬†and OMG! This is a beautiful wine! We were first struck by the color; the deepest purple I’ve ever seen in a wine. This is immediately followed by the herby and fruity¬†aromas emanating from the glass. Someone commented on how the wine complimented the sweetness of the onions and peppery notes in the burger. This is a bottle that will always be on our shelf.

For the Southwest we had Lamb Chops with Pepper Chutney and Calabacitas. Mildly gamey, tender meat that comes alive with a sweet and spicy chutney that brought your mouth to life. The wine suggested was Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pairing: We selected a bottle of Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon. This is definitely a budget bottle, but it tamed the heat of the chutney while bring out the sweetness and peppery notes of the dish. For a bottle under $10, it was a nice compliment.

 

The islands: Hawaii & Puerto Rico. Kalua Pig and Plantains-I¬†made a last minute¬†change and included both, green and ripe plantains. This was the sleeper dish. Nothing about it was supposed to be exceptional, and yet, it was. The pork is rudimentary seasoned with Hawaiian salts and slow cooked wrapped in banana leaves. There’s no smoke and mirrors here, it was straight forward meat preparation. Meat+salt+garlic+wrapping (leaves)+ slow cooking.

Pairing: Hook & Ladder The Tillerman. This is a nice Cabernet blend with a  rich medium body. Not too boisterous to overpower the simplicity of the pork, but not shy enough to be ignored.

The Pacific Northwest was well represented by salmon. A pan seared Salmon Beer Blanc over Melted Leeks turned out to be a beautifuly simple dish. The salmon drippings were deglazed with a bit of shallots and red ale. And the leeks were cooked down in olive oil leaving a creamy oniony puree. The wine recommendation was a Pinot Noir.

Pairing: Toad Hollow Erik’s The Red.¬†An awesome blend of about 18 varietals makes it an awesome house red. It was smooth and herby, which contrasted wonderfully with the leeks and oiliness of the salmon.

The Western United States brought us up close and personal with meat and potatoes. The last minute substitution of filets instead of roast and potato gallette instead of chips was quite well received. The wine recommendation was Zinfandel.

Pairing: The beef was marinated in vodka, salt and garlic, then seared wrapped in bacon. A side of potatoes and chives rounded up the plate. An Old Vine Zinfandel by Bogle proved to be the right wine, providing a nice spicy finish to the almost creamy, delicate texture of the filets.

 

Then there was dessert. Vanilla Bean Frozen Custard with Pinion Brittle. Creamy, cold, coupled with a¬†nutty and slightly bitter brittle. This was served with Trentadue¬†Chocolate Amore. It’s a merlot based, chocolate flavored dessert wine. I heard no complaints.

Lessons Learned

  1. An evening with 8 meal courses is VERY ambitious. I don’t think they’ve invented stretchy enough pants yet. However, when you hang out with friends who love eating and drinking as much as you do, anything is possible.
  2. Wine and food are like an old married couple: they don’t always like each other, but they just make each other better. All that’s required is a willigness to discover each other’s secrets.
  3. Food & Wine Pairing doesn’t have to be rocket science. Google is your ally and so is the quirky person that answers your wine questions at the store. If you don’t know, just ask.
  4. It’s always about what works for you. Don’t bog yourself down with rules. Taste foods and then have some wine, you may find that it brings out something unexpected.
  5. Wisdom comes from experience. Play with your food and wine, experience and experiment, then document for future generations.

Thanks again to Foodbuzz for the opportunity to throw down with wine and food and to share this with friends and all of you. The various recipes will be posted throughout this week, you really don’t want to miss them. There were a lot of very surprising treats.

Cookingly yours,
Anamaris