Easy Chicken Taco Filling

In my new-found desire to eat cheaply, I went to ALDI the other day. I bought some bonless, skinless chicken breasts ($2.99 a lb), some canned tuna ($0.69 a can) and a jar of salsa (the price of which I forget, but it couldn’t possibly be as expensive as the Sadie’s Salsa that I am waiting to arrive from Albuquerque). I simmered the chicken breasts until they were cooked, then shredded two of them to make a taco filling. I put some of the salsa in a skillet, then added the chicken and stirred it to mix all the salsa throughout. If you want, you can add 3/4 cup of chicken stock and simmer until it’s evaporated – this will add flavor to the chicken – I didn’t do that this time, and the chicken seems fine. This simple-minded way of making a taco filling yields good results if the salsa is not overly tomato-y, or too sweet. The Sadie’s Salsa I usually use is best, of course, coming, as it does, from Sadie’s Restaurant in Albuquerque, but it is not cheap, especially after you add the cost of shipping! However – if you’re like me and have to have your salsa, you may think it’s worth it (I do!).

After you make taco filling, you can make tacos! Here’s what mine looked like:

I softened some tortillas in hot oil (dry them between paper towels), then added to each some chicken taco filling and grated cheese. I then fried them in just a bit of oil to crisp them, then topped them off with shredded lettuce, pickled carrots and salsa.

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Chilaquiles – a Cheap and Filling Breakfast

This is my favorite breakfast – but then, I’m a cheese addict and a Mexican food fiend, so it figures. This is best when you use the kind of tortilla chips you get in a brown bag at the Mexican market, or left over from an order of chips from Mexican takeout – but a good quality commercial chip is okay, too (no Doritos, please).

2 oz tortilla chips

chicken stock to moisten the chips, about 1/3 cup or more

2 to 3 T salsa, or to taste

1 oz grated cheddar cheese

Place the tortilla chips in a small non-stick frying pan, then pour in the chicken stock. Turn the chips to moisten them all. Top with the salsa and the grated cheese. Cook undisturbed on medium-low heat until the chips are soft and the cheese is melted (add more stock, if necessary, to keep the chips moist and soft). This makes one serving – double everything for two servings, and use a bigger pan. Here’s a photo of the assembled chilaquiles before cooking:

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Dai-Shikago Binbo Seikatsu Manyuaru (in which I make “French Hamburgers”)

One of my favorite Japanese manga is “Dai-Tokyo Binbo Seikatsu Manyuaru,” or “A Guide to Living Cheap in Greater Tokyo.” The hero is shown living a life of deliberate poverty among the old-fashioned shitamachi – the old “low city” of working-class Tokyo neighborhoods that still maintain a traditional Japanese life-style. We see him enjoying a simple bowl of ramen, or getting paid with a watermelon  for working at the local temple. In that same spirit (and cognizant of the rising cost of food), I have pledged to “cook cheap” as much as possible. I started recently with an old favorite that we hadn’t had in a long while: Bitoque, or, French Hamburgers. They couldn’t be simpler, yet they’re something special to make with ground beef:


1 slice home-style white bread, or equivalent amount of baguette

1/3 cup milk

1 lb ground chuck

flour for dredging

salt and pepper to taste

1 T unsalted butter

1 T vegetable oil

4 T sour cream

4 T beef consomme (NOT beef broth)

Pull the bread into pea-sized bits and add the milk. Mix to soften all the bread, then add in the ground chuck and mix lightly to distribute all the bread throughout the beef. Form into 4 patties. Place the flour in a soup bowl and add the salt and pepper to season it.. Mix well. Dredge each patty and shake to remove excess flour.

Heat on high a heavy skillet large enough to hold all the patties, then add the butter and oil and mix together. Reduce heat to medium, add the patties and turn to brown on both sides. Cook the patties to desired done-ness, (be careful not to burn the butter-oil – reduce heat if you see that happening), then remove to a plate and cover with foil while you make the sauce. Add to the skillet the sour cream and the consomme. Stir to combine, scraping all the crusty bits and juices from the bottom of the skillet (add in any juice from the reserved cooked patties, too). Heat gently, stirring, until the sauce has thickened. Serve the Bitoque patties with some sauce dribbled over each one.

Delicious! I usually make double the sauce, so I can use it on the french fries that I always serve with this. Save the rest of the can of consomme to use in soups or to add to roasts or fricasees.

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Tungpo Pork

I’ve been on hiatus – last Saturday we went to Ed’s Potsticker House, so I didn’t cook. Ed’s was sort of a disappointment, but that was possibly because we didn’t order the right things. The noodles were nice and chewy, but bland; the Kung Pao Chucken turned out to contain bamboo shoot, which I usually hate (it has a raunchy taste I dislike), so that was bad; the potstickers were nothing special (they’re an idiosyncratic tubular shape, which is not a good idea, in my opinion – it doesn’t hold the soy sauce the way the cresent shape does, and it’s harder to eat). Oh well – we went with friends who we don’t see very often, so we had fun anyway.

On to the pork! This is a famous dish, and exemplifies the Chinese love of fat. Here’s the piece of pork belly, which has to be salted and left to sit for 2 hours before starting the recipe:

You can see that some blood-tinged liquid is leeching out of the meat. Here it is after being stewed with soy sauce, wine, scallions and ginger for 2 hours:

The skin is on top. Next, you turn it over so the skin is down, cover it tightly, and steam it (sauce and juices included) for 4 hours. This is an all-day project! Is it worth it? Just look at this next photo. As usual, it got done in time for dinner, and we fell on it like ravenous dogs. It’s very rich, so we divided half of the piece between us – then I realized I had to take a photo fo the finished product – so this is one half of the original piece. Actually, traditionally, it should be a neat square, so this is how it should look, You turn it skin side up to serve – but now the tough pork skin is a thick layer of indescribably delicious pork fat:

And the meat, laced with melting fat, is not too shabby, either. It was like the Ur-pulled-pork. I would like to try to do this “Blackbird” style (at Blackbird, the chef really likes pork belly, and always seems to have it on the menu in one form or another) – I don’t know how they do it, but I would try stewing it with stock and red wine, instead of soy sauce and Chinese rice wine.

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Back again! Recession cooking redux.

Talk about lengthy vacations! What happened is that I lost my job (no biggie – I just took early retirement), right at the time I had several art shows to put on. Then I found that I was reluctant to cook (that old “cooking-versus-the-diet” tug-of-war). But as the economy worsens, and our retirement income seems to shrink (even as food prices rise), I’m beginning to think that I have to cook!

We could all use a few tips – and who better to give them that the home cooks of the mid-20th century? First the depression, then WW II, forced our parents and grandparents to hone their penny-pinching skills. So I spent the morning looking through my collection of old recipes – most of them passed on by my mother – to see what I could stand to make.

One thing I wanted to find out: is it really cheaper to cook a tuna noodle cassarole from scratch – or should I just buy two Stouffer’s frozen tuna noodle entrees? I sat down to do the math: 2 Stouffer’s tuna noodle entrees cost $7.58 (all prices are befroe tax). When making it myself, I use 1/2 bag of Mrs. Grass’s noodles, 2 cans each of condensed mushroom soup and oil-pack tuna, some saltines and 1/4 stick of butter, for a grand total of $7.17 (the dollop of sherry I always add is “free”). This doesn’t look like a huge savings, but I’ll get three servings out of my homemade cassarole, so I’m actually saving more than a third on the cost of the two dinner servings, which I think is worth it. The third serving will be a lunch for one of us, saving the cost of one frozen lunch entree. I feel I can further defray the cost by shopping at ALDI, and since ther’e one nearby, I plan to explore it on Monday.

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The Taste of Beef – Beef Yuan Mei

After the Plain Chicken you’re ready for beef. Of course, the beef is plain, too. The recipe is ridiculously simple – that hardest part was taking the bus to the Paulina Meat Market, to buy a 2 lb piece of beef shin. Removing the tough outer membrane and any embedded fat was also not without difficulty – all I can say is, use a really sharp knife. Here’s a photo of the process:

You can see the outer membrane at the left – it should come off in a long ribbon –  and one piece of shin meat. The connective tissue running through the meat is okay to leave. Here’s the completed dissection:

Cut the pieces into regularly-sized chunks, and place in a heavy pot. Add 1 cup dry sherry and 1 cup water. If you have it, you can substitute Chinese rice wine (Shiaoxing) for a portion of the sherry (I used 3/4 cup sherry and 1/4 cup Shiaoxing). The liquid should cover the meat. Cover tightly and set over the lowest flame for 3 hours, or until the meat is tender. Serve in bowls with some of the wine stock poured over it:

To go with the beef, I cooked a favorite dish from the Time-Life Chinese cookbook: bok choy in a creamed sauce with ham. Sliced bok choy is tossed in a wok with some chicken fat, over high heat. Then it’s sprinkled with salt and sugar, and cooked until tender with chicken stock (here’s where the stock from the Plain Chicken comes in handy!). Then, using a slotted spoon, you remove the bok choy to a plate. Add cornstarch mixed with a little milk to the liquid in the wok, and cook until thick. Then you pour that over the bok choy and top with a good handful of diced ham. This is the most delicious way to eat bok choy ever invented!

For dessert we had very ripe Honeydew melon that tasted great – very juicy and sweet. It was a great meal, and very Chinese.

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Taking a Plunge

I’ve decided to embark on a new project – I will (over the course of many months, I’m sure) cook the entire “Chinese Gastronomy” – my all-time favorite cookbook. Written by the wife and daughter of my favorite childhood Chinese essayist, Lin Yutang (yes, I know – I was that kind of kid), it is an evocative exploration of the culture and philosophy of Chinese cuisine. Although I have been kicking the idea around for a while, I got all fired up today while reading “The Last Chinese Chef,” by Nicole Mones. I decided to run right out and buy a few chickens. The first actual recipe in “Chinese Gastronomy” is how to boil rice – but I’m going to take a flying leap and assume that everyone knows how to do that. So I started with Chicken Congee and Plain Chicken.

By the way, here’s a photo of my favorite Chinese cookbooks: “Chinese Gastronomy,” by Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin; “The Good Food of Szechuan,” by Robert A. Delfs, and “Chinese Cooking,” from the old Time-Life “Foods of the World” series.

So – I bought a chicken and four leg-thigh pieces, with which to make the stock that the Plain Chicken will cook in. I hacked it all up so that the bones would release all their flavour. The mark of a good home made chicken stock is that when you refrigerate it, it turns solid from all the gelatin in it. I won’t get a chance to see if this is the case with mine, as it’s going right from the stock pot to the stew pot.

Here’s the pot with the chicken in it – I added a few garlic skins out of habit – garlic and onion skins add color to a stock. I tossed in 2 scallions, sliced, and a few round slices of ginger, along with 14 cups (yes, fourteen) of water. I brought it to a boil and then simmered it for 3 hours.

Meanwhile, I made the Congee. I put 6 tablespoons of raw rice (yes, that’s all) in a pot with 4 1/2 cups water. I brought it to a boil, then turned it down to the lowest flame and let it go for 2 hours (you do have to stir it frequently to keep the rice from sticking – even at that, it formed a brown crust on the bottom – this is fine, so long as it doesn’t scorch).

Here’s photo of what the rice looks like after only 45 minutes of cooking, not even at a simmer:

While it’s cooking, take two pieces of skinned and boned chicken breast and slice thinly against the grain. Pound each slice to almost paper-thinness. Put in a bowl with 1/4 tsp salt and 2 T water, and mix. Set aside until needed.

Here’s the congee after 1 1/2 hours – it’s bubbling by now, and I’m stirring almost continually to keep it from sticking:

When it’s done, take it off the heat and immediately add the thinly sliced chicken:

Mix it well and let it sit undisturbed for a few minutes, until the chicken is cooked by the residual heat of the congee. Serve it up:

Yum! It’s amazing that something so simple – just water, chicken and rice, with barely any salt – could be so good. You can do this with thinly sliced fish, also. I’ll try that at a later date (when I can buy good, fresh fish).

On to the Plain Chicken! Strain the stock – you should have about 12 cups. Put it in a large pot and place the chicken in it, breast down – the stock should cover the chicken, which may tend to float. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn off the heat. Weigh the chicken down with something to keep it submerged, and let it cool in the stock for 5 or 6 hours – by which time it should be cooked. Take it out, and chop it into serving pieces.

You can also make some sauces to dip the chicken pieces in. My favorite is very easy, just 2 T. finely minced scallions, 2 T. finely minced fresh peeled ginger, and 1/4 tsp salt. Mix it all together in a heat-proof bowl. Then heat 4 T. peanut oil until just before it begins to smoke, and immediately add it to the mixed ingredients.  Stir, and that’s it. There’s also one that consists just of 4 T soy sauce and 1 T sesame oil. Also good, but not as good as the first one. Then there’s one consisting of oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar. I thought this one was yucky.

My chicken was done at 10:00 at night, so we didn’t eat it last night. If my husband hasn’t eaten it for lunch, I’ll photograph it when I get home from work.

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Mixing it Up

We love the new emphasis in restaurants on “made-up” mixed drinks. They’re fun and, although I haven’t read any statistics, I would think they give a boost to sales of old bar standbys like Grenadine, Angostura Bitters and Triple Sec, that may have been forgotten in the recent Martini madness. We have also invented our own mixed drinks, usually involving rum or tequila, and a number of bright mixers, like orange juice, guava juice, or an infusion of dried hibiscus flowers. Not only are the drinks made with these colorful mixers beautiful to look at (they really dress up a dinner table, too!), but they’re healthy – packed with vitamins and flavenoids.

There are many, many tequilas out there – it’s become a popular spirit (for Margaritas, or taken neat), and Chicago has a huge Mexican population – so good tequila isn’t hard to find in our town. Here’s a link to a site with good information about tequila: http://www.itequila.org/index.htm

If you don’t have a good source for premium tequila (and Mezcal!), here are a few links to online stores: http://www.internetwines.com/   http://www.mountcarmelwines.com/

Now that summer is coming (some day), I’m looking forward to frozen banana daquiris, concoctions of orange juice and Orgeat, Jamaica mixed with tequila, and other stranger combinations (one drink we invented involved buttermilk and Triple Sec). Link to this page to see some of our favorites.

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Favorite Gadgets and Cookware

Let’s face it – there are a few kitchen utensils or cookware items that really make a difference when you’re cooking ethnic food:

Mortar: I can’t imagine trying to cook Southeast Asian food without a good mortar (and pestle, of course). I like the very heavy stone one that I bought at a local Thai grocery. It holds about 2 cups – not that you ever grind that much, but it’s nice to have the room when you’re mashing things. They also sell eathenware mortars with wooden pestles, but if you come down with the pestle at the wrong angle, you can crack them. Still, they’re an inexpensive option. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can grind things in your food processor or blender, buy it’s laborious, and the texture is not the same.

Rice Steamer: I cook a lot of Lao food, so a stove-top rice steamer is indispensable for me (the Laotians eat glutinous rice, which is always steamed over simmering water). I also use my rice steamer to re-constitute left-over regular white rice. A Lao or Thai rice steamer is a two part item – an aluminum bottom to hold the water, and a woven bamboo top to hold the rice. You can substitute any other type of two-part steamer, with the top part lined with cheesecloth to hold the rice.

Paella Pan: Paella is so easy to make, and turns out so well if you use a paella pan, that (imho) it makes a very useful addition to your pots and pans collection. You can make paella in a skillet set in the oven, if you insist.

Wok: I hope everyone have a wok by now! I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely indispensable, but it does make stir-frying a whole lot easier. I use one that I bought in Chinatown. Sorry, but the teflon-coated ones I see for sale in fancy cookware shops are not the thing to use. The whole point of stir-frying is to use high heat for a short time – and you can’t heat teflon to the very high temperatures called for in Asian cooking. So buy a cast iron wok, and season it – it’s worth the time to do it right. Here’s a link that says it all: http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/wokcare.html

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It’s Not Just Sushi

I live in a sushi-loving town. Oddly enough, it’s Chicago. A lot has changed in the past 30 years in the former home of the Stockyards, Hog-Butcher to the World. Back in the 70’s, when I was in college, I tried to get a classmate to eat a piece of raw tuna sashimi. He recoiled in horror. I’ve since lost touch with that guy, but I’m willing to bet that he’s currently scarfing down sushi and sashimi on a regular basis with the rest of the Baby Boomers and Yuppies.

It’s easy, amidst the sea of nigiri and makimono, to forget that there’s more to Japanese cuisine than raw fish and vinegared rice. My own love of Japanese food began with noodles eaten at a Japanese dive on north Clark Street (which used to be the heart of a big  Japanese community back in the 50’s). Now most of the Japanese restaurants along that stretch of Clark Street are sushi parlors. There are very few of the old places left, and that’s a shame. A few of our favorite recipes from the “cooked cuisine” of Japanare: Sukiyaki, Carrot Kimpira and Yams in White Miso Sauce. Look for them on the Japanese Cuisine page.

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