Friday, January 16, 2009

Thank God for the Freezer!

On Christmas Eve, I always make my son's favorite dish, Enchiladas Suizas. It's a great recipe from Rick Bayless's Mexico One Plate At a Time cookbook. DS has been a huge Rick Bayless fan since he was literally 4, when we watched an episode of MOPAAT together, and he said, "Mommy, can we get the cookbook?" The dish goes together pretty fast if you have already made the components (sauce, shredded chicken, crema, and cheese), but it's overall a pretty time-consuming dish to make.

This is a tangent, but I have to tell you, Rick Bayless is not only an amazing chef, he is also an extremely kind and gracious person. Rick's restaurant, Frontera Grill, is one of my all-time favorite places to eat-- and DS is fanatical about it. If he had to choose one food to live on, it would probably be Rick's Ceviche Fronterizo. I can't resist: I have to share this photo of DS in his favorite t-shirt (taken at WDW, where I was trying on a Stitch hat).

Last year, when I lived in Chicago, DS and I would make the trek to Frontera and, since they have a first come first served seating policy, we would happily stand outside in the cold for 45 minutes to get seated. The last time we went, we happened to sit next to a couple who are personal friends of the Baylesses. They were intrigued when I told them DS (at that time, 14) had been a HUGE fan of Rick's since he was 4 years old. Well, kind-hearted souls that they were, they snagged Deann Bayless, Rick's wife, and asked if Rick had time to stop by our table. Now, we are completely nobodies-- UIPs, I guess (Un-Important Persons), but a few minutes later, there was Rick Bayless at our table! DS's eyes were as big as saucers! We chatted for a few minutes, and then he excused himself. Oh, how I wish I'd had a camera!

OK, back to today's story!

After coveting a set of Emile Henri gratin dishes for several years, I finally gave in this summer and parted with $120 to get them. While making the enchiladas this Christmas, I was excited to be able to use my gratin dishes for them, so everyone could have their own little dish. (Much prettier on the plate than digging each serving out of the big pan.) I was making 12 enchiladas, 2 to a dish, for 6 servings. Well, we ended up with 3 untouched dishes of enchiladas. Surveying my cram-packed fridge, I stuffed each dish into a gallon size zip-top bag and stashed them in the freezer. Where I mostly forgot about them.

Until yesterday-- my first day out of bed since I got sick. Thinking idly about dinner, I really didn't feel like spending the time or the $$ for us to go out. Then I remembered-- the enchiladas!! A quick check of the fridge revealed I had a viable 1/2 of a leftover red bell pepper. Yay!!! I could make Nathan's Arroz Amarillo to go with the enchiladas! And since I had bought 2 jars of nopalito (they were on sale) at Christmas, I even mostly had the makings of DS's favorite nopalito salad. DC quite graciously agreed to pick up some tomatoes for the salad on the way home from work-- along with the copy of 1984 DS realized he needed for school TODAY. (Teenagers!) DC is pretty much the most awesome person on the planet. :)

Since I wasn't quite sure if the frozen gratin dishes could go directly from freezer to oven, I pulled them out at about 2 p.m. to thaw. I have a quick-thaw trick that often comes in quite handy. I've got a cast-iron griddle that is a griddle on one side and a grill pan on the other. For whatever reason (something about the physics of heat transfer), if you put frozen food on the grill pan side (just on the counter, not the stove), it thaws super fast. So I did that, and they were completely thawed and only a little cool by 6. Well, I mean, they were cool, but not so cold I was afraid of them cracking in the oven. (Well, ok, maybe they were in The Danger Zone, but no one has had food poisoning so far.)

I covered the dishes loosely with foil so they wouldn't dry out and put them in a cold oven and turned the heat up to 325. 20 minutes later, they were hot and ready to eat! It was a real treat, because we don't get to eat these enchiladas very often. (Too time-consuming to make often.) Yum-O!

This is the 2nd time I've made Nathan's yellow cuban rice, and it came out much better than last time (some burned and stuck to the pan). It was really delicious! Since Nathan tells you how to prepare the rice in a rice cooker, and I don't have one, I'll share my technique below. Also, I haven't been able to find Bijol anywhere here in NC, so I use saffon. And, since it's just the 3 of us, and I'm supposed to take it easy on rice (high glycemic index), I only wanted to make 1/2 a recipe.

Here's what I did:

Nathan's Arroz Amarillo (Stove-top version) Makes about 3 c. of rice

2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
2 lg. cloves garlic, flattened with the side of a knife and then minced
1 c. long grain white rice
1 1/2 c. water
1 t. saffron threads
1/2 box frozen baby peas
Salt to taste

First, I put the water into a glass measuring cup along with the saffron and zapped it in the microwave for one minute, so it could be steeping while I made the rest of the dish.

Then I heated the oil in a 4 qt. saucepan over medium heat and sauteed the onion with salt until translucent. Then I added the bell pepper, more salt, and sauteed until it was softened, about 5 min. Then, I added the garlic and cooked it for about a minute, until fragrant. Don't leave the garlic unattended-- it will burn if you don't stir it. Nathan says if you burn the garlic, you have to start over.

Then, I added the water and saffron mixture to the pan along with about 1 t of salt, and stirred it to get all the flavors up from the bottom of the pan. Then I added the rice,stirred, brought the whole thing to a boil, and covered the pan. I turned the heat down very low (1 or 2 on my electric stove) and left it to simmer for 15 minutes.

I removed it from the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes, without lifting the lid. After 5 minutes, I tested it, and it was PERFECT!! Nice and fluffy, not gummy, not dry, and hooray, not burned. (Rick Bayless says that at this point if the rice is still a little hard, cover the pan and put it back over low heat for 5 minutes. If the rice is completely dry and still hard, add 2 T water to the pan and then return to low heat for 5 min.)

Finally, I stirred in the frozen peas and stirred gently just until they were thawed. It was DELICIOUS!

Here is how I make the nopalito (cactus) salad. It's quite simple. At my house, we love the flavor of the pickled cactus strips-- if you don't like vinegar, this is not the salad for you! The onion and radishes add a nice crunch. The onion pieces are large enough that they are easy to pick out if people don't want to eat them.

Stefan's Favorite Nopalito Salad

1 jar nopalito, drained and rinsed (I think I usually use the Dona Maria brand)
1/2 sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 med. vine-ripe tomatoes, diced
1/2 hothouse cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced (DC doesn't like cucumber, so I left it out)
4 radishes, trimmed and sliced
3 T extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 T red wine vinegar

Place the sliced onion in a bowl with water and ice, and soak for 20 min. Remove from the ice water, drain, and pat dry with paper towel. Soaking in ice water takes the edge off that "raw onion" flavor, and also makes the onion pieces nice and crisp.

Place the onion, the drained and rinsed nopalito (and its accompanying onion slice and pickled pepper, if you wish), the tomatoes, cucumber, and radishes in a medium, non-reactive bowl. Drizzle on the olive oil and toss thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the red wine vinegar, and taste. Add salt and pepper as needed.

NOTE: I've used the classic proportions for a French vinaigrette dressing, 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Of course, you should adjust this to your taste. I find this ratio works well since the nopalito is vinegary to begin with.


  1. Hehe we actually value the burnt crust at the bottom we call it "Raspita" (scrapings) and fight over the golden toasted bottom if we ever do it stove-top.

    It's okay if you can't find "Bijol", you can also use "Annato seed powder" which is almost the same thing also goes by the name "achiote" you can use "Achiote" infused olive oil as a substitute to.

    Saffron is also very acceptable though it's more expensive. Most Cuban dishes are just "Cubanized" versions of Spaniard dishes, it's like Spaniard cooking adapted to local ingredients, although African influence and some Chinese play a roll sometimes. Bijol is just used because it's cheaper, and well achiote seeds are common in the carribean and color things yellow so it was adopted it has a more nutty taste, saffron is good to it's "fragrant' unlike Bijol. If you don't mind using expensive saffron it's a fine substitute for Bijol. Just do not use turmeric since it has it's own unique taste that doesn't go with Cuban food.

    Nice recipe for the stove-top one, you can also choose to wash the rice really well, drain it a bit til it's not wet and "sear" the rice in the "sofrito" this will make every grain be more bold and seperate. Like just lightly toast the rice in teh sofrito then add liquid and spices. You forgot the ground cumin but that's okay :)

  2. That is so interesting about the "raspita"-- I will have to try eating some if it happens again, LOL! Different kinds of rice behave so differently when they are cooked-- there is a big difference even between medium grain white and long grain white rice. Thanks for the tips-- I forgot to put that I did wash the rice in a mesh strainer until the water ran clear. I always "fry" my Mexican-style rice in olive oil, and I bet frying the rice with the sofrito is even more delicious!

    Ooops, I did use the cumin too, but forgot to write that in the recipe. I will have to edit it!

  3. Oh, yes, also, thanks for explaining about the Bijol. I have used achiote/annato in Mexican cooking and love it. I did see some achiote oil at the "Food Lion"-- one of our crazy NC grocery store chains. Food Lion is sort of the K-Mart of grocery stores around here. It does, however, have the best selection of Latin American ingredients, outside of Latin American grocery stores, which I have yet to venture into.

    I was reflecting how similar the Cuban yellow rice is to the Spanish-style rice dishes I've tried in the past-- and you've confirmed the close relationship between the two cuisines!

    My sister gave me a huge tin of really good saffron for Christmas a couple of years ago-- it was what I had on hand so I used it, but I will be very interested to try using the annato oil instead.


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