Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mexican Steak Sandwiches

If you're a foodie, you love a well stocked supermarket, and I could spend the whole day just browsing around the large and boldly colorful, sparkling clean Mexican Mercado (supermarket) in my California town. For those who are accustomed to the typical American grocery, the Tortilleria (the tortilla factory), the Taqueria (the food court) and Panaderia (the bakery) are a terrific bonus, but the CarnicerĂ­a (the meat dept) where meat does not come in plastic trays, is my first stop.

With so much to see, it can be somewhat confusing to a gringa like me. The courteous and helpful Mexican Carnicero (butcher) offers a huge selection of every sort of fresh USDA meat imaginable, all displayed in a gleaming meat case that must be a hundred feet in length. The customers cue up to select from a dizzying variety of cuts that will be wrapped up in butcher's paper for you. Even the cuts of meat may look unfamiliar because it is usually cut along the muscle groups, so there is less bone included... more bang for the buck! American butchers cut cross several muscle groups and take a crosscut section of bones along with the meat, which of course adds to the overall cost we pay.The first thing you'll notice is that Mexican Carne De Res (beef) is generally cut very thin, and its only about 1/4 inch thick. While you may not see large roasts or thick, juicy American style steaks, you can certainly ask the Jefe de Carniceros (Chief Butcher) for any special cut you'd like or preorder in advance.

Mexican cuts are thinner for two reasons; first, like most other countries, meat is not consumed as a high percentage of the diet in Latin America. Secondly, the wonderfully complex flavors of Mexican cuisine make the most of thin cuts of meat to stretch the food budget with traditional recipes that add delicious combinations of robust ingredients and piquant seasonings.

Another thing that you will notice in the CarnicerĂ­a is that the beef also looks leaner and less marbled than its fatty, corn fed American cousin, and the meat is not generally aged so its very bright red in color. The fat may have a yellow tint due to the vitamin A in grass from cattle that are raised on pasture rather than feedlots. Not only does the Carnicero do a painstaking job of removing most of the fat, but a leaner beef carcass is preferred... a plus if you're trying to eat healthier meals.

This makes Mexican beef an excellent choice for the pressure cooker where it benefits from moist heat cooking methods like braising, steam-roasting, poaching, or stewing. For this recipe, the cut of beef I bought at my local Mexican Mercado, was a Clod Steak. This is just one of the many different names for a Boneless Shoulder Steak, which can also be labeled as an English Steak, a London Broil, or Swiss Steak. It's a fairly cheap cut of beef from the chuck, that's the shoulder section of the steer between the ribs and the front chest (brisket). Because the big muscle groups in the chuck are heavily exercised and contain a lot of connective tissue, they are naturally very flavorful, but less marbled and tend toward toughness… perfect for the pressure cooker.

The pressure cooker, with its thick base does a very good job in caramelization, an important cooking trick that not only adds color, but also flavor, to many foods. Caramelizing onions is just cooking them for 10 to 20 minutes to get a nice caramel brown color which develops a rich, sweet flavor as the natural sugars within the onion begin turning to caramel. It's important to have all the onion pieces roughly the same size and shape so they cook evenly otherwise the smaller pieces will start to burn before the larger pieces can caramelize.

The onions will lose as much as two-thirds of their volume as the water within them evaporates. Stir them often as they begin to brown, and watch closely as they'll quickly go from light tan, to golden. The deeper the color; the richer the flavor, and with care, you can get a deep mahogany brown, but the danger of burning is high, so I'm happy with the golden brown.

Lightly brown the strips of beef in hot oil and then toss in the green stuff. If you are shopping at the local mercado, buy a mild Mexican chile pepper to add a zesty piquant flavor without too much heat, and you'll also need some peppery cilantro leaves add to the unique Mexican taste. Add other hot peppers if they appeal to your taste buds, or just stick with an assortment of colorful bell peppers if you're more timid.

The peppers will loose a lot of water during cooking, but that ads to the flavor of the au jus dipping sauce. When you remove the lid, divide the meat mixture between the sandwich rolls and top with a slice of Jack cheese while its still hot.

Taste the dipping sauce and adjust the flavors to your taste. I added more salt and a big splash of Mexican style jalapeno hot sauce before spooning it into small ramekins on each serving plate.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Honey Glazed Herbed Carrots

Don't use your Pressure Cooker to boil veggies;

STEAM them!

Vegetables are a great match for the pressure cooker. Since they are steamed, not boiled, they retain more nutrients and the faster release methods keep the bright colors and texture. All that translates into wonderful taste and flavor, and as a bonus, of course, they only take a few minutes to cook.

I like to cook vegetables in the smallest size pressure cooker possible because it will pressurize and depressurize much faster. Also, the newer brands that only need a 1/2 cup of liquid will really speed the process, and the less time foods are exposed to heat, the better. This is always an important consideration when cooking vegetables. If you have a 4qt pressure, which is often sold as part of a set, now is the time to use it.

Steamed baby carrots in a handy accessory pan included with most pressure cookers.
A perforated steaming tray is included with most pressure cookers, and it's a very valuable accessory to have in your cupboard. Test the carrots for doneness; they should be tender, but not soft or mushy. Pour out the water and wipe the inside of the pressure cooker dry. You'll want to use real butter for this dish because margarine contains water that will prevent the honey and herbs from sticking and coating the carrots.

I use a medium high heat to get a nice glaze on the carrots as they get well coated by the honey mixture. Stir frequently, gently moving the carrots around to get them completely covered with the glaze. Keep stirring as the glaze thickens and the little bits of herbs start sticking to the carrots. When it begins to look like there is less glaze in the pan and you can see the bare metal, then the glaze is set. When you dish the carrots, pour any remaining honey mixture over the top.
Sweet and tender enough to appeal to children, the scent of herbs and flavors will tempt adults as well.

Honey Glazed Herbed Carrots

A quick and tantalizingly sweet way to serve carrots with just a hint of dill. It's sweet and savory at the same time, and the aroma of thyme and dill will tickle your taste buds.

1 lb fresh baby carrots, or carrots cut to a similar 2 inches x 1/2 inch thickness
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon dried dill
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons butter, not margarine

Add 1/2 cup water to the pressure cooker. Wash the carrots and place them in a steamer tray. Place the tray in the cooker, using a cooking rack if needed to elevate it above the water level. Lock the lid in place. Bring to 15psi over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure. Cook 3 minutes. Remove from heat and use the quick release method before opening the lid. Pour off the water and wipe the pressure cooker dry. Melt the butter in the pressure cooker over medium heat. Add the dill and fry a couple of minutes or until the aroma if released. Add salt and honey, stirring to blend. Add the cooked carrots and saute, turning gently until they are well coated with the honey mixture and heated through. Serve hot, spooning any remaining honey butter over the carrots.

Try this dish and let me know how you like it.
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