Chicken Fajitas – in India

I was on a business trip to India for the month of May, and stayed at a hotel with a kitchen. That gave me the opportunity to cook dinner in my room in between late night conference calls back to the US when I didn’t have time to go to the restaurant.And how many times can you have the paneer butter masala with garlic naan, anyway?  (this place had a good one). Actually, I can answer that question. Three times.

On the weekend, I was determined to make some Tex-Mex for my colleague and me, just to get a break from the standard fare of curries and kebabs. So I ventured out and found a grocery store full of imported goods.  Things like Maxwell House coffee (oh my!), De Cecco pasta, and other good western foods. No tortillas though (and frankly, I won’t even buy tortillas in New York or Arkansas, let alone India).  So I had to find some ingredients for my own fajita fest.  I bought flour, olive oil, salt, cumin (fortunately, I knew the Hindi word for that – jeera), and red pepper.  I had to search for a rolling pin, as my kitchen was not outfitted with one.  Later, I went to the local supermarket (basically, a little one room store, smaller than Imelda Marcos’ shoe closet) and asked, “Aap ke pas rolling pin hai?” (do you have a rolling pin?) while making the universal rolling pin motion.  “Chapati karna ke liye”  (to make chapatis, an indian flatbread).  Ahh, their eyes would light up and they’d be on the floor digging around behind toys, kitchen goods, you name it in search of that elusive rolling pin.  In two places, they came up with the base – something that looked like a tambourine – it seems making a chapati requires a rolling pin and a counterpart underneath.  “Uper, uper” I’d say, again making that rolling motion.  After a couple of stores, I walked back to my hotel, the proud owner of a proper Indian chapati rolling pin.   I was able to find baking powder at the first place I went.  It had a nice layer of dust on top of the lid, so I imagine this was aged baking powder, but why be picky?  I went to the local subzi walla (vegetable vendor) and picked up some of the wonderful red onions they have in Maharashtra along with some chili peppers, limes, and garlic.  These red onions are so sweet, they are served in many restaurants as side dishes – peeled and whole, smaller than a golf ball, you just pick them up and eat them like fruit.  Man, those are good.  And the limes you get in India are smaller even than the Key limes we buy in the US, with very thin skin.  You have to only slice them in half to provide a perfect fit between the thumb and index finger and complement any spicy kebob. 
But I digress.
To make the tortillas, I found a recipe on You Tube.  I don’t remember the specifics – many recipes call for shortening or lard, but I went with olive oil for health reasons (and that’s what i had).  Tortillas call for only flour, salt, water, baking powder, and oil (or shortening).  The key is to use warm water – it makes the dough more pliable.  The recipe I found had me making the dough, letting it rest for 5 minutes, then rolling golf sized balls, and let them rest for some time before rolling out the tortillas and frying them in a skillet.  They turned out pretty good, although I think you need higher heat than what I had and cook them very quickly (grrr – trying to cook on an unfamiliar electric range is no fun).  If you cook too long on lower heat, they’ll be a bit stiff.
To make chicken fajitas, marinade chicken breasts in olive oil, chopped garlic, cumin, red pepper, and lime juice for at least an hour.  Back home, I’d use cilantro too, which they have in India – I just couldn’t find any on this particular day.  These are best when grilled, but you work with what you have.  I sauteed some onions and peppers in olive oil after sauteeing the chicken, chopped it up and rolled it into my freshly made tortillas.  One thing I didn’t find was cheddar or jack cheese.  Even though I used most of the ingredients I use back home, these had a distinctly Indian flavor to them.  I don’t know if it was the flour, the red pepper, cumin, or onions, but it just wasn’t the same as the Tex-Mex I know.  Regardless, it was a nice variant on a long trip.  Of course, my colleague and I found a baseball game to watch while we ate, so we felt like we were back in Houston, having a little cookout.

Recipe: Back to Basics – Macaroni and Cheese

Quick show of hands – who grew up on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese?  Who still feeds that to your kids?  OK, that’s everybody. Now who has ever made macaroni and cheese without opening the “cheese packet”?  I thought so.

I had a wild hare last week and bought some elbow macaroni. I’ve had a hankering for some mac n cheese lately, but just couldn’t bring myself to buying a box o’ product. I’m also trying this Barilla pasta product – it tastes a lot better than whole wheat pasta and is better for you. It’s made from a variety of whole grains and legumes and has protein and omega-3s so it’s all good.  So why not add a whole bunch of dairy fat to make it even better? Beats me.
You’ll find that this may take about 5 minutes of work instead of 30 seconds like the Kraft stuff, but what were you going to do with that extra 4 minutes and 30 seconds, anyway? Elapsed time, this will take you 45 minutes, but that’s no big deal. You pop it in the oven and then you have 30 minutes to make the rest of your dinner while this bad boy heats up.
  • 8 oz elbow macaroni
  • 1 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 8 oz grated cheese
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 to 1 serrano pepper (or 1/4 jalapeno or red pepper flakes)
The Betty Crocker recipe calls for American cheese or Velveeta, but I stay away from that stuff. But you do want at least one decent melting cheese like a mozzarella or quesadilla. I used a blend of jack, white cheddar, swiss,) and mozzarella. I topped it with parmesan.
Cook macaroni and set aside. While that’s going, go ahead and preheat your oven to 375. Warm the butter and saute onions until they’re translucent. Add flour slowly and stir with the butter until you have a paste – you may not need all the flour. Add milk and bring to a boil – then remove from heat. 
Put the macaroni an an uncovered baking dish, and toss with grated cheese. Pour in the milk mixture, add the peppers, about a teaspoon of salt, and a few turns of freshly grated black pepper. Stir the mixture to distribute contents evenly and bake uncovered at 375 for about 30 minutes. 
Damn. That’s some good stuff. I don’t think I’ll go back to the “side dish in a box” after this.

Recipe: Ancho Chile Paste

Forwarning – this isn’t a meal unto itself, so don’t make a batch of this and call out, “honey, dinner’s ready!” You’ll be facing a big letdown. Note: this recipe calls for a food processor.

  • 6-8 dried ancho chiles
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic – roasted
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • up to 1/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon comino (optional)
This is a variant of the recipe found in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen cookbook.
Ancho chiles are very mild and pungent, and when soaked, smell more like raisins than hot peppers you may be accustomed to. I add this paste to just about anything southwestern that I’m making, whether it’s a fajita marinade or a mess of beans. I’ve even attempted to make a pasta sauce with this a few times, but I have to say that one is still in the developmental stages. If you do use this in a recipe where you want a spice kick, you’ll need to get the spice kick elsewhere, as the paste is more for enriching your dish with an earthy complex flavor that you won’t find by just chopping up some jalapenos.
Cut open and deseed the chiles, and open them up enough so that they can be pressed flat. The last time I bought anchos, I saw some chipotle chiles at the same store, so I added some of these to the mix – they really livened up matters from a spice perspective. Briefly broil or sear the chiles. If you broil them, make sure you do not over cook, as they will burn quickly and not taste so good. I prefer to sear them in an iron skillet – just get the skillet good and hot, and press the chile down briefly on each side for less than a minute until you hear a crackle and see a wisp of smoke (or is it the other way around?).  Once the chiles have been properly singed, soak them in water for about 30 minutes. While this is going on, roast the garlic. You can bake on 350 for about 25 minutes, or broil (but ten cuidado! you don’t want to burn it).  Squeeze the roasted garlic from its peel and gather the soggy anchos and place in a food processor. Add the olive oil and a little broth and process. You may not need much of the vegetable/chicken broth – it’s just there to keep the chiles honest and smoothen the paste as it spins around in the food processor.
This will make about a cup and a half. I store it in the refrigerator in a jar, and it keeps for some time. I can’t say how long, as I usually consume it within a month or two.
BTW – I don’t think I’ve ever listed comino as optional in a recipe before, but i typically don’t add it to my chile paste, as any recipe that calls for the paste calls for the comino, anyway, so why worry about it here? The same goes for other spices – if you wanted this to stand alone, you’d want some salt, freshly ground black pepper, etc. But here, we’re just making a paste to add into whatever recipe calls for it and worry about the complementary ingredients at that time.

Recipe: Tequila Lime Salmon with Pico de Gallo

I love how a good fresh salsa of any sort complements the flavor of smoked or grilled salmon. I had grilled salmon with a tomatillo salsa in a restaurant last week, and thought, “I can do that!” I did something a bit different, but it was good! (as my Italian friend says, gnam gnam!)

  • 4 salmon filets (about 2 lbs / up to 1 kg)
  • 1/2 cup (any grade) + one shot (good) tequila
  • two beers
  • 1/3 cup ancho chile paste – or 1 tablespoon chili powder or both
  • 1 tablespoon comino
  • 1 lime wedge plus juice from 1 lime
  • pico de gallo
  • 2 avocados
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt (optional)
This recipe will take at least two hours counting marinade time, so you need to get started quickly. One hour in the marinade is sufficient, but I prefer two or three hours if you have the time. I listed the salt as optional, as some folks are watching their blood pressure.  Salt adds a bit of flavor, but I don’t find it necessary. I will have another blog entry on the ancho chili paste – this is a staple in my house, and I always have some in the fridge, so I use it with just about any southwestern-style recipe.
Drink the shot of tequila, then squeeze the lime wedge into your mouth. Now you’re ready to get started.

For the marinade, combine the rest of the tequila, juice from the lime, comino, cilantro, salt, and chili paste / powder in a shallow dish. Place the fillets in here, skin side up. Make sure the liquid is at least half-way up the sides of the fish, so you get a good soaking going on. I’ll usually  just add a little tequila to get the marinade to the optimal level. You could also have another tequila shot at this time, depending on the effect you’re looking for.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours.
To cook the fish, I prefer smoking. I wax eloquently about the benefits of smoking fish in my blog entry from December 2007. Smoke these filets about 45 minutes to an hour based on how hot your smoker gets. Or if you’re not that ambitious, you can grill, bake, or broil these bad boys.  For broiling, see my sea bass recipe from last month (the sear, flip, and broil method), or just bake on 400 for about 25 minutes.
While the fish is smoking, drink the two beers, and make the pico de gallo and prep the avocado. If you’re not from Texas, pico de gallo is just a nice fresh topping made with tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and serrano or jalapeno peppers and a squeeze of lime juice. Google it if you can’t figure it out from that. Some folks like to mix it up with a little mango or grapefruit, which I’ve done once or twice, myself. I’ll partake of that mixture in a restaurant, but at home I tend to stick to tradition and leave the fusion to the fusionistas in the restaurant trade.
One last thing – I love to drizzle a really high grade olive oil over sliced avocado and add a few twists of fresh ground pepper. I’ve also got pictured a slice of my rustic sourdough rye – I can’t have a meal without bread or rice or pasta of some sort. Bread in this case is perfect for mopping up any garlic, salmon bits and pico de gallo, so you can just put the plate right back in the cupboard without washing.
Y’all enjoy now, you hear?

Recipe: Seared Sea Bass Steaks with Lemon Butter Sauce

Sea bass is so good that all you really have to do is make sure it’s heated all the way through and then get out of the way and eat it. You could probably just toss a couple of sea bass steaks in the microwave and they would be delicious.

Now, I wouldn’t try that, myself, but I’m just trying to make a point here. With some foods, it’s not the cook, it’s the ingredients.

This dish can be whipped up in about 10 minutes + whatever time it takes to make your side dishes. I conveniently had a nice couscous salad with feta, olives, and tomatoes in the fridge, so I didn’t have to do much else here.

Preparation: pull that sea bass out of the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature prior to cooking – 30 minutes should do the trick. I like to start up the lemon butter in advance, so I’m not distracted from the delicate art of cooking the fish. The thing about fish is you just don’t want to overcook it. One or two minutes can mean the difference between creating a moist juicy meal that you would recall for the next week with loving affection versus ending up with a heated old tennis shoe with a distinct fishy taste.

Note: this dish calls for 1 iron skillet.

Lemon butter can be done in a variety of ways. Sometimes you put the butter in first and sometimes the lemon. I’ll use about a 1 stick of butter to 1 lemon ratio, and whisk in about a tablespoon of flour per stick. Sometimes, I’ll thin this out with white wine if I want a more delicate sauce – about 1/2 cup per stick of butter. If you’re going to add wine, double the flour ratio and whisk that into the butter prior to adding the wine, to avoid lumps. In general, I like to start with the amount of butter I’m planning to use (maybe a quarter stick per person), then add the lemon to taste. If you start with too much lemon, you’ll end up adding more and more butter to get the taste right resulting in far more sauce than you need, and this goes a long way. You need only a tablespoon of sauce drizzled over the fish to give it just that little je ne sais quoi. You can let the sauce mellow in a small saucepan at warm temperature while you get the fish going.

Get that iron skillet of yours smoking hot on the stovetop – about a medium high setting. Oil it very lightly with olive oil, as too much oil will cause a lot of spitting and spattering at a later stage of the recipe. Ideally, the skillet is large enough to accommodate all of your steaks without crowding.

Prepare the steaks by grinding black pepper over both sides. (remember – they should be at room temperature by now – we are going to be cooking these at high heat but briefly, so we want to make sure they’re cooked all the way through)

Prepare a measuring cup with 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup of any type of cooking wine. Warm this in the microwave – you don’t need to bring it to a boil – you just don’t want it to be ice cold, either. Turn your oven broiler on high, and position a rack in the top half of the oven that will fit your skillet.

Sear the steaks in the skillet for 1-2 minutes and flip. Last night, I seared them for 1 minute per side, and I felt like they could have gone a bit longer – I really enjoy the crispy texture of the seared edges and I think another 30 seconds per side would have been ideal.

After 1-2 minutes on the other side, remove from heat, and pour the wine/water mixture slowly into the skillet (not directly on top of the fish) until there is enough to cover the bottom of the pan. You don’t need to use the full cup of liquid. Be careful, as this can spit and spatter as the liquid comes to a boil.

Park that skillet in the oven with the broiler on high. Broil for five minutes, remove from heat, and serve. As pictured, I served with sliced avocado and a drizzling of lemon butter wine sauce.

Bon appétit!

Smoked Red Pepper and Tomato Cream Soup

  1. This recipe is great – my buddy Mike sent it to me, and I finally concocted it this afternoon. I halved this recipe and it was plenty of soup for four people.

  • 8 large red bell peppers cut in half and seeded
  • 2 lbs tomatoes, cored
  • 1large onion quartered
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 5 sundried tomatoes, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes & halved
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 ancho chile pepper, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes & chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with enough water to make a paste
  • 1 cup corn kernels, lightly roasted
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne or your favorite spice

Smoke peppers, tomatoes, corn, onion and garlic for 30 minutes. If you don’t have a smoker you can put the peppers and tomatoes under the broiler & char the skin. Then put in ice water for a few minutes and remove charred skin then chop.

If you have the smoker, make sure you peel the tomatoes and peppers before chopping.

Chop onions and garlic and saute for a few minutes in a large soup pot. Stir in red peppers, tomatoes, tomato paste, sundried tomatoes, ancho pepper and chicken/vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. While this is going on, slice corn kernels from the cob (one cob makes about 1/2 cup of corn).

Add heavy cream, cilantro salt and pepper, and cornstarch (or flour) and simmer for 5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes and run through blender in small batches to puree (don’t fill blender more than halfway; use a towel over blender; hot soup!) I’m serious about covering the blender – I didn’t use a towel on the first batch and it spewed all over the wall!

Serve with with bit of sour cream and some chopped cilantro and corn on top. I like Mexican cornbread with this dish (or with any tortilla soup or pinto beans recipe). I think a nice ripe avocado would also go nicely with this (that was my intention today, but I forgot).

This makes 4 quarts.

One note about the ancho chiles – I find rehydrating ancho chiles a drag sometimes and they are so good, so what I do is make a big batch of ancho chile paste and keep it. I get about 8 ancho chiles, and char them briefly in an iron skillet before soaking. I roast 6 cloves of garlic, add some cumin and maybe 1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable broth to this in a mixer to make a nice smooth paste. The ancho chiles are not hot – they smell and taste more like raisins than chipotle japapenos, but they add a nice flavor to any mexican dish. I store a jar of this in the refrigerator so I can grab a couple of tablespoons on demand.

Hurricane Cooking

I live in Houston, and for those who pay attention to the news may have noticed that a big ol’ hurricane rolled through here Friday night. I was watching Prison Break on my DVR and missed the end of the episode when the lights went out. Bummer.

One gift Ike gave my family was a power outage. We were still out Sunday night. Fortunately, I’ve got a propane grill and a smoker, and for hurricane prep, I bought a big bag of charcoal. I happened to have a freezer full of meat, so I got to smoking. I smoked chicken Saturday, chicken and pork roast Sunday. Now, I think it’s too late to smoke anything else, as the food’s going to start spoiling.

I went to check on my Dad Sunday morning, and he had his two Coleman camp stoves out on the patio, and had just finished a breakfast of scrambled eggs with peppers, mushrooms, and onions, and a pot of coffee. So I didn’t feel too bad for him. We’re all weathering this ok.

Now it’s going to get boring – rice and beans and pasta is what I’ve got in the pantry. I try to remember to keep pretty well stocked on dried goods during the hurricane season, so I’m not one of those desparate people running to the store at the last minute. I went Monday night, just in case, and just bought a bag of charcoal and a couple of bottles of pasta sauce. Thursday afternoon, I dropped by the liquor store, and the place was packed! Everybody was buying beer by the case, two liter bottles of vodka, you name it. Hey, if you’re gonna ride the storm out, you may as well have something to do!

Recipe: A Celebration of Circles (pasta, sausage, and zucchini)

I love this recipe – it has fantastic visual appeal, and it is very easy. This came out of the Williams-Sonoma Pasta cookbook.

  • four links fresh hot Italian sausage
  • two zucchinis
  • four cloves garlic, crushed then chopped
  • 1 cup dry white wine (red’s OK, too, but white will not turn the zucchini purple)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (although I guess salted is OK – we’re adding salt to this dish, so why should it matter?)
  • 12 oz. rotini (the wagon wheel type)
In a heavy saucepan, heat about a teaspoon of olive oil and saute the garlic until it’s translucent – do not brown. It’s better to undercook the garlic at this stage than to overcook, as there’s plenty more cooking that this stuff will be involved in. Add the sausage, wat

er, and wine. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. If the sausage is not covered by the liquid, turn them over half way through. Remove the sausage and set aside, and let the liquid continue to simmer until it’s reduced to about a tablespoon or two. In the meanwhile, get get a large pot of salted water boiling for the pasta, and slice the zucchini into nice little circles about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Slice the sausage the same way. Once the wine has been reduced, add the zucchini, sausage, butter, and a tablespoon of olive oil and stir it all up. Add about a half teaspoon of salt, a few turns of freshly grated black pepper, and a pinch (or more) of red pepper flakes. Stir well, and heat on low while you attend to the pasta. Just make sure the sausage has cooked through.
When your pasta is finished (al dente, mind you!), drain, add the remaining olive oil (about 2 teaspoons), and toss. Serve in a large warmed bowl – just mix all of the ingredients together, and top with freshly grated parmesan. With dishes like this, I eyeball the pasta to make sure my proportions are right – I frequently make too much, so put about half the pasta in the bowl, add the sausage / zucchini mix, stir, and then add pasta until it meets your satisfaction from a visual perspective. Serves four.

Recipe: Butter Chicken (Murg Makhani)

With all of the globalization of the economy going on, I spend quite a bit of time in India – about two to three months per year. I’ve never been a big fan of Indian cuisine, although I’ve developed a taste over the past couple of years. I still don’t know what the hell anything is when I eat in the cafeteria at work – it’s a bunch of chafing dished filled with veg curries. I’ve found that yellow and orange are usually pretty good. If it’s in the dish after the rice, put it on your rice. Grab some chapati. Life is simple.
Anyway, I thought I’d try my hand at making some of my own Indian food at home this week. I broke what I usually consider a cardinal rule – don’t try more than one new recipe for any single meal. I wrote that rule when I had a dinner party and we ambitiously tried three or four new recipes including dessert. There were tamales, some kind of ancho-chile peppered and honeyed yams, and cream of jalapeno soup. Needless to say, our guests had to help us finish all of the cooking, and we served dinner about two hours later than planned.
However, I’m on vacation, so I threw caution to the wind, and made daal, butter chicken, and naan for dinner last night. The daal was OK, but nothing like what I’ve experienced in India – I prefer the moong daal (the yellow daal) and didn’t see it at my local grocery store. I will find some and do this again. The naan turned out very tasty – the recipe I used had some flour, water, yeast, yoghurt, and some of my sourdough starter. You need only about two hours of leavening time, and cook on a stone in a 550 degree oven. I made it a bit too thick, and it had a nice pocket like pita bread, and it was a bit stiffer than the good soft naan I’ve had in restaurants in India. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and will make this again.
Now to the butter chicken. If you haven’t had butter chicken, it’s much like chicken tikka masala, although generally, it’s not made as spicy. It has a creamy tomato gravy.
I found this nice recipe online – I substituted walnut oil for canola oil (I prefer olive oil or walnut oil to the other popular frying oils).  I found that I hadn’t added enough cayenne, as I would have enjoyed more kick. However, you can spice to the needs of your palate. Also, if you have fresh peppers around, I think those should be added at the stage where you’re sauteing the onion and do this instead of the cayenne. I think a habanero pepper would go great with this dish.
Here’s a link to the recipe.  Note:  this will take about an hour.

Recipe from Sapna Magazine

BTW – I found something funny on wikipedia – I was looking up chicken tikka masala and found this hindi translation:
Hindi: चिकन टिक्का मसाला
The first word (चिकन ) is just a direct transliteration of the English word “chicken” rather than the Hindi word for chicken, “murg.” Maybe that ties to the fact that the article says this dish was actually invented in the UK, so there is no such thing as murg tikka masala. Hell, I don’t know.


I’m a southern boy, so I really like corn grits. (as if there’s any other kind of grits – but I’m just throwing a bone to my culturally disadvantaged readers here)

I still remember the day when I went to some fancy Italian restaurant and discovered that they had grits with class. Only they called it “polenta.” That was a revelation to me. For the first time, I saw the possibility of ordering a $15 entree with grits (i mean, polenta) that didn’t include bacon, eggs, or milk gravy.
When I make grits at home (it’s been awhile, I admit it), I use the real grits – I’m not a big fan of the instant stuff. That’s probably why I don’t do it all the time, as it makes a big mess of your saucepan. Regardless, it’s just the right thing to do. 
The funny thing is, the last time I had grits, I was in India. Don’t even ask me how that worked out – it’s a long story. Let’s just say it was Monday morning at 5AM and I was watching the Superbowl, eating grits and bacon. with a colleague, while trying to explain the game of football to our Nepalese cook. 
Back to the topic here – I bought a tube of readymade polenta the other day. I wanted to try out an Italian recipe with the stuff at home, and if it worked out, then I figured I’d move it into the rotation using the actual home made stuff. It worked out.
  • 1 pound polenta
  • pasta sauce
  • olive oil and butter
I just heated up about 1/4 cup of olive oil and about 1/4 stick of butter and fried the polenta pieces sliced about 1/4″ thick.  They came in a tube, so it was basically a cylinder of about 2″ diameter. Saute the polenta for about 5 minutes. If they’re not covered by oil, you’ll need to flip them. Serve with pasta sauce (arrabiata, puttanesca, or marinara) and top with parmesan. This is a nice side to any Italian meat dish.