I'm P.C., and I have studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France have broadened my culinary skill and palate. But my kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.

I live, mostly in my kitchen, in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Mexican Chocolate Chewies

As Cinco de Mayo approaches, thoughts often turn to tacos, queso and margaritas. But let us not forget the sweet side of life. Chocolate goes with everything and it’s nice to have a little sweet nibble at any fiesta.

These cookies are a classic recipe, one I have made since I was a kid. I pulled it out recently to make a batch to send to my niece in college, and as I was working, I thought a could jazz it up in some way. Then I had a thought – I bought a fancy, Tennessee-made chocolate bar in Mexican Chocolate flavor a few days before, and was really excited about the special treat. But I accidently threw it away when unpacking the huge load of groceries. I’d been kicking myself for the carelessness. So I decided to verve up these cookies to replace my lost candy bar. The rich chocolate cookies get a twist with cinnamon and just a dash of chili and cayenne. The cookies are soft and chewy and chocolate-y and perfect at any time.

Mexican Chocolate Chewies
Yields 20
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Ingredients
  1. 1 (12-ounce) bag semisweet chocolate chips
  2. 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  3. ¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  4. 1 teaspoon vanilla
  5. ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  6. ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  7. 1/8 teaspoon chili powder
  8. 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  9. 1 cup all-purpose flour
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Put the chocolate chips, condensed milk and butter in a large saucepan and melt over medium heat, strirring frequently, until the mixture is smooth and combined. Add the vanilla, cinnamon and cayenne pepper and stir to combine. Add the flour, and stir well to make sure the flour is completely blended in to the batter. Pull the pot of the heat and let the cool for a few minutes.
  3. Scoop the dough by Tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheet. I like to use a medium cookie scoop. Press the dough lightly with your fingers to slightly flatten, then bake the cookies for 12 – 13 minutes until firm. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Queso Fundido Soup

Queso Fundido SoupCinco de Mayo approaches and with it, thoughts of the completely Americanized restaurant specialty, queso, or cheese dip as we used to call it. I, and pretty much anyone from in Memphis, grew up on a thin, cold cheese dip created by the area’s first Mexican restaurant. It is still a favorite and available at local groceries in a plastic tub, and a true guilty pleasure for me. Next came Ro-tel dip, melted Velveeta cheese mixed with canned tomato and green chile mix. No teenage party was complete without it. Then a restaurant opened in town serving the first incarnation of what was considered “authentic” Mexican food. It was the first place in town to serve fajitas. And with it came queso fundido (they title their version queso flameado). Spicy chorizo sausage covered in melty cheese, served in a hot skillet. The restaurant has been opened over 25 years, but that dip was a game changer at the time, adding such zip and interest to an old standby.

I was thinking about that dip, and other delicious versions of queso fundido I’ve sought out over the years, when I created this soup. It’s a flavorful and fun meal-in-a-bowl with lots of toppings and flavor addition possibilities. Start the meal with chips and salsa or guacamole and mix up a pitcher of margaritas and celebrate the spirit of Cinco de Mayo.

Queso Fundido Soup
Serves 4
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Ingredients
  1. 9 ounces Mexican pork chorizo sausage
  2. 1 cup finely diced onion
  3. 1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles, drained
  4. 1 clove garlic, minced
  5. ½ teaspoon mild chili powder
  6. ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  7. 4 cups chicken broth
  8. 1 ½ cups whole milk
  9. ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  10. 8 ounces Monterrey jack cheese, grated
  11. 2 small plum tomatoes
  12. fresh cilantro
  13. tortilla chips or strips
Instructions
  1. Sauté the chorizo in a Dutch oven, breaking the meat up with a spatula as you go. When the chorizo releases some of its fat, add the onion, green chiles and garlic and stir well. Cook until the chorizo is cooked through and the onions and chiles are soft, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the chili powder and cumin. Pour in the chicken broth, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  2. Measure the milk in a 2-cup jug and whisk in the flour until smooth and completely dissolved. Stir the milk mixture into the soup and cook at a low bubble – not a boil – until slightly thickened. Reduce the heat to low. Reserve about a half cup of the cheese to top the soup, then stir in the remaining cheese, ½ cup at a time, making sure each addition is melted and smooth before adding the next.
  3. Serve the soup in large bowl topped with chopped tomato, minced cilantro, a little grated cheese and some tortilla strips.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Chicken Tinga

Chicken Tinga

When I was a kid, taco night mean hard shells, ground beef cooked with a packet of seasoning and shredded cheese. It was fun, because you got to “make” your own dinner, putting as much meat and cheese on as you wanted (though mom probably insisted that I put a little lettuce on it too). And eating with your hands! But my, how times have changed and only for the better. Tacos much closer to traditional Mexican food are readily available, and those kit tacos from my youth seem bland and boring now. That’s not Mexican food anymore, that’s drive-thru fast food now.

But one thing does remain, the fun of building your own dinner. I have often mentioned how much I love an interactive meal – everyone gets involved and talking and laughing and everybody has a meal they love. Chicken Tinga, which is a wonderful name for a dish, is chicken slow-cooked to melting tenderness in a flavor-packed onion and chipotle sauce. It is pretty simple to make for the reward it produces, and incredibly versatile. Use the juicy chicken to fill tortillas for tacos, or spread it over a crispy tostada. Stuff it into bread to make a torta, or use it to top an colorful taco salad. It is wonderful over rice, or serve it on its own, or rolled into burritos. The leftovers can be used for several days, and you can even freeze it.

I love to pull out a full array of colorful toppings to add crunch and creaminess and counterpoints to the smoky chipotle flavor. Simply pickled red onions are traditional and the vinegar tang complements to rich meat perfectly and this creamy avocado sauce cools everything down. Make this for family taco night or invite friends over for a Cinco de Mayo celebration. I think this would also make a great book club meal.

Chicken Tinga
Serves 6
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Ingredients
  1. 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  2. 1 onion, diced
  3. 1 green bell pepper, diced
  4. 1 red bell pepper, diced
  5. 1 tomatillo, diced
  6. 2 cloves garlic, minced
  7. 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (2 if you want), diced
  8. 2 Tablespoons adobo sauce from the chipotles
  9. 1 – 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (fire-roasted adds a little smokiness)
  10. 2 teaspoons oregano (preferably Mexican)
  11. 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  12. 6 chicken breasts
Topping ideas
  1. Creamy Avocado Sauce
  2. Quick Pickled Red Onions
  3. Crumbled cotija cheese
  4. Shredded lettuce or cabbage
  5. Shredded radishes
  6. Pico de gallo
  7. Salsa
  8. Limes wedges to squeeze over the top
Instructions
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot, then add the onion and bell peppers. Saute over medium heat until the vegetables star to soften, then lower the heat a little, add the garlic and cover the pan. Cook until soft and browning a little, about 10 minutes, stirring a few times. Add a little water to the pan and scrape up any browned bits form the bottom of the pan, then let the water cook off. Browning the vegetables a little adds some depth of flavor and richness. Add the tomatillo, chipotles, adobo sauce, tomatoes, oregano and cumin and stir well. Cook for about 5 minutes until the sauce is slightly thickened. Leave to cool for about 10 minutes. When the sauce has cooled a bit, transfer it to a blender and puree until smooth.
  2. Pour the sauce back into the pot and add the chicken breasts, stirring to cover each breast with sauce. Bring the pot to a bubble over medium high heat, then turn the heat to low, cover the pot and leave to simmer until the chicken is very tender, about 1 ½ hours. Remove the chicken breasts to a plate one at a time and use two forks to pull the chicken into shreds, then return the shreds to the sauce in the pot. Continue to simmer uncovered until the sauce reduces and thickens, about 30 minutes.
Notes
  1. You can place the chicken and sauce in a slow cooker and cook over low heat for 4 hours, then shred the meat as above.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/
Quick Pickled Red Onions
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Ingredients
  1. 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  2. 1 cup water
  3. ½ cup cider vinegar
  4. 1 Tablespoon sugar
  5. 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  6. ½ teaspoon pickling spice
Instructions
  1. Layer the onions in a pint jar or glass bowl. Bring the water, vinegar, sugar, salt and spices to a boil in a small pan and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the brine over the onions and leave to cool, then seal and keep in the refrigerator for a least an hour, but the onions will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/
Creamy Avocado Sauce
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Ingredients
  1. 1 avocado
  2. 3 tomatillos
  3. juice of one lime
  4. 2 garlic cloves
  5. ¼ cup cilantro leaves
  6. salt to taste
Instructions
  1. Scoop the flesh out of the avocado and place it in a blender. Chop the tomatillos roughly and add to the blender with the garlic, cilantro and salt. Blend until smooth and scoop into a bowl or jar. Cover and keep in the fridge for up to 5 days.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Baked Coconut Shrimp with Tequila Lime Butter Sauce

Baked Coconut Shrimp with Tequila Lime Butter Sauce

Crunchy coconut shrimp are sort of a secret treat for me. I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants, but there are a few that really excel and I make the occasional visit to sample them. The first time I had coconut shrimp years ago, I was attending the trial run of a chain restaurant opening its first branch in town. The night was a real disaster…the waiters were not ready, there were problems with the lighting and the piped in music. One of the bathrooms hadn’t been finished and the bar wasn’t opened. But the shrimp sure were good.

I generally can’t be bothered with frying at home and this baked version is a bit healthier…leaving room for this creamy tequila lime sauce. I think it adds a little Cinco de Mayo tropical flair to the crispy shrimp. Serve these as a starter to a larger Mexican meal, or make this the main with some rice with lime and cilantro stirred through. Pop open a cold beer with a slice of lime and celebrate.

Baked Coconut Shrimp with Tequila Lime Butter Sauce
Serves 4
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Shrimp
  1. 1 ¼ cup panko bread crumbs
  2. ½ cup shredded sweetened coconut
  3. 1 teaspoon salt
  4. 1 pound large shrimp (26- 30 count), peeled, deveined, tails intact
  5. 1 egg
Sauce
  1. ½ cup tequila
  2. 6 Tablespoons heavy cream
  3. 2 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
  4. 3 teaspoons lime zest
  5. 1 ½ Tablespoon chopped cilantro
  6. ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, sliced
For the shrimp
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°
  2. Stir the panko, coconut and salt together in a large, deep skillet and place over medium heat. Stirring and flipping the crumbs constantly, toast until evenly golden brown. Be careful not to burn the coating. Spread the crumbs on a plate and leave to cool.
  3. Place a rack in a rimmed baking sheet and spray with cooking spray. Beat the egg with 2 teaspoons of water in a small bowl until blended. Pat the shrimp dry, then dip by the tail in the egg. Place the shrimp in the crumbs and press to coat each side fully. Place each bread shrimp on the prepared rack.
  4. Bake the shrimp for 10 – 12 minutes until opaque and cooked through.
For the sauce
  1. While the shrimp are cooking, stir the tequila, cream, lime juice, zest and cilantro together in a medium skillet. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently until reduced by half and thickened. Stir the butter in a piece at a time, stirring to melt after each addition.
  2. Serve the shrimp immediately drizzled with the sauce, or with the sauce on the side as a dip.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Posole (Mexican Chicken and Hominy Soup)

Posole (Mexican Chicken and Hominy Soup)

One of the great joys of my life in food is meeting other food writers in amazing places. This winter, I had the great pleasure of spending an amazing week at a writing workshop in Tepotzlan, Mexico at Cocinar Mexicano.  Iconic food writer Betty Fussell lead a spectacular group of women through the birth of some great writing projects.  Tepotzlan is nestled in the mountains of central Mexico and the stunning scenery lends a magical air.  And it is the loudest place I have ever visited.  I was there for the festival of the Three Kings, which went on for days, but there were several other festivals that week as well.  Locals assured us that with the different barrio festivals, saints’ days and general holidays, there is pretty much a festival every week of the year. The sounds of bands playing in processions, cars honking in celebration, dogs barking with excitement, church bells pealing and intermittent bursts of fireworks makes the town a cacophonous but joyous place. The experience inspired me and opened my mind and really got my creative juices flowing.

Adding to the wall-to-wall inspiration was some of the best food I’ve had the pleasure to eat.  The central market is bursting with chilies of every type, fresh and dried, and more varieties of corn than I can begin to list.  Stallholders make and sell fresh tortillas made to order from that corn, filled with all manner of delicious things.  I ate squash blossoms every day, sampled several delicious mole sauces, experienced huitlachoce, a rich, mushroomy corn fungus, in all manner of dishes and even crunched on some fried crickets. I learned to make tamales and tortillas myself, and reveled in devouring the results.

But I knew pozole was the dish I would try to re-create at home.  I had a number of versions of this classic Mexican hominy soup, at the cooking school, the lovely hotel and in the market.  Some were red with chiles, others were so rustic, the bones were still in the bowl.  I had it with pork, chicken and a combination of the two. The prettiest and freshest version was served by the wonderful cooks at Cocinar Mexicano,  a simple, rich, flavorful broth with tender meat and hominy , served with a beautiful array of toppings. And this dish is all about the toppings.  Bright and colorful with different textures, they elevate this soup.  This is interactive eating at its best.  I had never had radishes as a soup garnish, but I am a convert and I promise the slight peppery crunch adds a wonderful touch.

Posole (Mexican Chicken and Hominy Soup)

When I make stock and want to include the meat in the finished dish, I use chicken pieces instead of a whole bird because you end up with more meat.  You’ll have some leftover, which is never a bad thing.

3 bone-in, skin on chicken breasts

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 ounces salt pork

1 large white onion, cut in half

3 celery sticks, cut in half

2 carrots, cut in half

1 jalapeno pepper

1 red pepper, like Fresno

1 head garlic, cloves separated

7 – 8 stems cilantro

2 limes, cut in half

1 (30-ounce) can white hominy

Toppings:

Finely diced radishes

Diced avocado

Finely diced red onion (I soak the diced onions in water about 30 minutes to take away the bite)

Chopped cilantro

Crumbled queso fresco cheese

Lime wedges

Crispy fried tortilla strips or crushed chips

Chili powder

Place the chicken pieces, pork and vegetables, cilantro and lime in a large (at least 7-quart) Dutch oven or stock pot.  Add 12 cups of water.  Bring almost to a boil over high heat, turn down to low, cover the pot and simmer for 4 – 6 hours, until you have a nice, rich stock.

Line a large colander with cheesecloth and set it over a large bowl.  Remove the chicken pieces to another bowl or plate, then carefully strain the stock through the colander. Let the stock cool, then skim the fat from the top.  I always refrigerate the stock, then simply remove the solidified fat from the top of the liquid.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat from the bones, removing any fat or gristle as you go.  Shred the chicken into thick strands.

You can make the stock up to two days ahead.  Place the chicken meat in a ziptop bag, cover the stock and keep in the fridge.

When ready to serve, transfer the stock to a large pot and bring to a simmer.  Rinse the hominy thoroughly and drain.  Add to the simmering stock, cover and cook for 30 minutes until the hominy is tender.  Add about 4 cups of shredded chicken and simmer until heated through.

Spoon the soup into large bowls, making sure there is plenty of hominy and chicken in each bowl.

Serve with the beautiful array of toppings for everyone to add as they please.

Serves 6

Tequila Chili Almonds

I love a nutty little nibble with cocktails, and I have developed many versions over the years.  These almonds are a riff on my Lemon Garlic Cashews, with a nod to the Bourbon Rosemary Pecans.   Whip up a batch of Fresh Citrus Margaritas and get ready to celebrate!

Look for raw, blanched almonds (with no brown skin) in the bulk bins or a Middle Eastern section or grocery.  I don’t like too much spice, but if you do feel free to add a bit of cayenne.

Tequila Chili Almonds

¼ cup fresh lime juice

1 Tablespoon tequila

1 teaspoon mild chili powder

¼ teaspoon cumin

2 Tablespoons kosher salt

3 cups raw, blanched almonds

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil (preferably non-stick) or parchment paper.

Mix together the lime juice, tequila, chili powder, cumin and 1 Tablespoon salt in a measuring jug.  Place the almonds in a bowl and pour over the lime juice.  Stir to coat the almonds and leave them to soak for 30 minutes, stirring a few times.  Scrape the sides of the bowl to make sure the chili powder gets onto the nuts.

Spread the nuts in one layer on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle the remaining 1 Tablespoon kosher salt evenly over them.  Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until a nice amber brown color.  Stir the nuts every 5 minutes, flipping them over and spreading them out evenly again.  Watch the last bit of cooking carefully, as these can burn quickly.  The nuts may feel a bit soft when you remove them from the oven, but they will crisp up. Cool on the pan.

The nuts will keep for a week in an airtight container.

Makes 3 cups

Creamy Hominy Bake with Green Chiles and Cheese

My primary memory of hominy is a quick Sunday night dish my mom used to whip up with eggs and sausage, but I love hominy as a more unusual side for a good Mexican meal.  I recently made this dish for a gathering of my parents’ friends, and when they realized it was hominy, I got a few looks.  One friend told me she hadn’t had hominy since early childhood, when it was served in the cafeteria during wartime rationing.  Another echoed basically the same idea – it was something only served at school lunches.  Perhaps politely, they all dished out some hominy. And went back.  And scraped the dish clean.  And their plates.  It was also a big hit with my young nephew and niece, who were also interested to learn when one of the guests explained that hominy is basically grits before they are ground up.

This is my jazzed up version of an old community cookbook recipe, sans condensed soup and processed cheese.  It has a bit of a kick, but not so spicy that my spice adverse family couldn’t stand it.  But feel free to pump it up to your taste.  Readily available Monterey jack cheese is perfect for this, but when I find a blend of Mexican cheeses like cotija, queso asadero and queso quesadilla, I prefer that.  You could of course, make up your own cheese blend.  Try this beside Smoky Beef Tacos with a side of Charro Beans.

Creamy Hominy Bake with Green Chiles and Cheese

2 (30-ounce) cans hominy, white, golden or one of each

8 ounces of sour cream

1 cup heavy cream

1 (7-ounce) can diced green chiles

1 Tablespoon lime juice

3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups grated Monterrey jack cheese, or a blend of Mexican cheeses

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Spray an 8 by 10 inch casserole with cooking spray.

Thoroughly rinse and drain the hominy.  In a large bowl, stir together the sour cream, cream, green chiles, lime juice, salt cumin and pepper.  Blend until completely combined.  Add the drained hominy and gently stir to thoroughly coat the hominy.  Spoon the hominy into the prepared casserole.  Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top.

Cover the casserole with foil and bake the hominy for 40 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake a further five minutes until the cheese is melted and gooey.

The casserole can be refrigerate for several hours before baking.  Serve piping hot.

Serves 8

Mexican Corn Salad

My favorite summer treat is definitely fresh corn, straight off the cob. I eat more corn in summer than I ought to admit.  Usually just straight up, with a little butter and salt.  When corn starts appearing in the farmers market, I buy bushels of it to put up for the winter. I ration out those little frozen bags of golden jewels like they really are precious gems.  And when I light up the grill, I love to throw on some corn.  Usually way more than my guests and I will eat, so I can cut the leftovers off the cobs and enjoy it later.

Mexican-style grilled corn, or elote, is another one of those food ideas that I read about for years before ever actually trying it.  When I finally did take the plunge, slathering a freshly cooked cob of corn in mayonnaise and rolling it in salty cheese, I was hooked.  This is now my favorite way to eat corn on the cob.  When I started serving it at cook-outs, many friends were reluctant to try mayo on their corn, but the brave ones who did were hooked too.  Now there is an amazing Mexican deli in town that serves elote, and when I hear folks rave about it, I love to say I told you so.

When I have a smaller group of friends to serve, I grill the cobs and put them on a big platter.  Next to that I put a bowl of mayonnaise for spreading, a dish of chili powder for sprinkling, a plate of crumbled cheese for rolling and some lime wedges for squeezing.  Interactive food is always fun.  But with a larger group, that is not always practical, in part because I only have corn cob holders for six ears.  So when planning a larger gathering once, it occurred to me that maybe I could transform the idea into a salad.  It works beautifully, with all the flavor of a traditional elote.  It’s great for a crowd, but is also a great way to take fresh corn along to a party.  If you don’t have the grill going, it is perfectly fine with just-boiled kernels.

Mexican Corn Salad

Cotija cheese is a salty Mexican cheese you’ll find in with other Hispanic cheeses at most god groceries.  If you don’t find cotija, queso fresco is a good substitute.  I prefer to buy blocks and crumble it myself to get even chunks.

¼ cup mayonnaise (or more to taste)                                                                       

Juice of 2 limes

1 teaspoon mild chili powder

½ teaspoon ground cumin

8 ears of fresh corn, shucked and silks removed

1 cup crumbled cojita cheese (about 4 ounces)

Salt to taste

In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, juice of one lime, the chili powder and the ground cumin.  Blend well and set aside.

Cook the corn on the cob. You can bring a large pot of water to the boil, drop in the cobs and bring the water back to the boil.  Remove the pot from the heat, cover it and let the cobs cook for five minutes. If you’ve got the grill going, you can then place the cobs on the grill to get a nice char on the kernels, but its fine if you don’t grill.  When cool enough to handle, cut the kernels from the cobs using a sharp knife.  Place the corn in a large bowl and squeeze over the juice of one lime.  Toss the kernels around to absorb the lime juice.  Add the cotija cheese and toss to combine.  Stir in the mayonnaise dressing to coat all the corn kernels.  Add salt to taste and mix well.

This salad will keep covered in the fridge for 24 hours.

Serves 6 – 8, can be doubled or tripled

Charro Beans

I’ll be honest, I don’t actually know the history of Cinco de Mayo, I just know it’s a perfect excuse for a slap-up Mexican meal, and that is always a good thing.  And there is something so friendly and communal about a Mexican feast.  It’s a great way to gather friends and family, its interactive eating that everyone can enjoy. So for your own celebration, serve up some Smoky Beef Tacos or Green Chicken Chilaquiles, along with a side of Charro Beans.  Start your party off with some Green Chile Cheese Puffs.  And of course, don’t forget the Fresh Citrus Margaritas!

I have found some gorgeous red kidney beans at my local Latin/Asian/Caribbean/Middle Eastern supermarket from Guatemala called Frijol Pilay, but look for any dark burgundy, plump beans. Epazote is a popular dried herb in Mexican cooking, and I have been told that not only does it improve the flavors of beans, it aids in their digestion – and some of the impolite side affects. You’ll find it in the herb and spice section of Latin markets, but I pick it up at Penzey’s.  Mexican oregano has a more distinct flavor than standard (usually Turkish) oregano and is worth having around if you cook a lot of Latin dishes. My favorite restautant charro beans come with diced pieces of jalapeno floating in the broth, but I prefer a halved, cleaned pepper in to flavor the cooking liquid, instead of biting into pieces.  Do what you like, and add another pepper if you like it spicy.

Mexican chorizo is a soft, well-seasoned sausage (Spanish chorizo is hard and dry).  I buy freshly prepared at the Latin market, but it is readily available at many grocery stores.  It can range from mild to spicy, and if it’s labeled, choose mild so you can monitor your own flavor level.

Charro Beans

3 cups dried red kidney beans

1 small onion, diced

1 teaspoon epazote (optional)

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 jalapeno pepper, stem, seeds and ribs removed

5 cloves garlic

Handful cilantro (stems and leaves)

1 pound fresh Mexican chorizo, casings removed if necessary

6 strips bacon, cut into small pieces

Sort through the beans and pick out any that are shriveled or imperfect.  Soak the dried beans in 6 cups of water, uncovered, overnight. The next day, drain the beans, rinse well and place in the crock of a large slow-cooker.  Add 6 cups of water, the diced onion, epazote, oregano, jalapeno pepper and garlic cloves and stir well.  Cover the crock and turn the pot to high, 6 hour setting.

When the beans are halfway cooked (3 hours), sauté the chorizo until brown, breaking it up into small pieces.  Remove to a heavy layer of paper towels on a plate to drain using a slotted spoon.  Drain off the oil, then sauté the bacon pieces until crispy.  Remove the bacon to paper towels to drain.  Pat the chorizo to remove as much grease as possible.  With a good chorizo, it will be bright red, so try not to stain your clothes.  Add the chorizo and bacon to the beans in the slow cooker, stir, replace the cover and continue cooking until the beans are tender.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can cook the soaked beans in a large Dutch oven over low-heat for 2 – 3 hours until tender.  Check the beans occasionally and stir to prevent scorching on the bottom, adding water as needed.

Serves 8- 10

Smoky Beef Tacos

For most of my life, a taco was ground meat, a package of seasoning and hard shells from the box, with lots of cheese and maybe a little lettuce on top.  And I will tell you, I have nothing against that version.  But in the last few years, there has been a proliferation of Mexican restaurants in Memphis that serve what is considered more authentic Mexican food.  And I haven’t looked at a taco the same way again.  Real tacos, with homemade tortillas, complexly seasoned shredded meat, and a variety of fresh and unique toppings are a real revelation.

I said above that these restaurants serve what we are told is more authentic Mexican food, and I had no reason to doubt that, but no real proof either.  I visited Mexico with my family as a teenager and it was an amazing trip – Mexico City, Taxco and Cuernavaca.  I remember the food, particularly some very subtle and unique dishes, but I was not as adventurous then.  We ate mostly at restaurants – I wouldn’t have considered a taco at a roadside stand.  As far as I remember, I never tasted a real Mexican taco on that trip. 

But last year, I had the great good fortune to attend Food Blogger Camp in Ixtapa, Mexico.  And clearly, in the company of all those food bloggers, eating was our primary activity.  The resort offered a generous buffet at every meal, and I invariably made my way to the Mexican section and sampled some amazing food.  Tacos were a feature, with a lovely woman hand rolling and cooking tortillas, and a variety of meat fillings simmering away – from beef to pork to tongue to seafood – and an array of toppings to make your head spin.  One day, we ventured into the town of Zihautenjo for a market tour, and just to be sure, I sampled several tacos at market stalls.  I can hardly call myself an expert now, but I do know that the new breed of restaurants in Memphis do offer authentic Mexican tacos, and boy am I glad of it.

When I got home from camp, I set out to replicate a taco filling worthy of what I’d sampled in Mexico.  I started with some relatively complex procedures – roasting a variety of peppers, rehydrating dried ones, charring tomatoes, marinating meats, layering complex sauces with a multitude of ingredients, many of which required a trip to specialty Latin markets.  I had some great results, but in the end, realized these dishes where not something I’d put in regular rotation because of the time and effort.  And though I am glad I figured it out, what I was really after was an amazing dish for a casual, anytime taco night. So this is where I ended up.  Good meet, simmered in a smoky sauce quickly made from ingredients readily available. Saucy and smoky with warmth, not heat, this taco filling is a canvas for creativity in toppings.  I’ve made a list of suggestions, but it is up to you and your imagination.   I do make a special stop for fresh tortillas, and heat them quickly over the open burner on the stove.

Smoky Beef Tacos

4 pounds eye of round roast, excess fat removed (this may be 2 pieces of roast)

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 (3.5-ounce) can chipotle chiles in adobo, including the sauce

Juice of two limes

1 ½  teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

Handful of cilantro leaves

5 cloves garlic

Fresh corn tortillas

Suggested toppings:

Crumbled cotija or queso fresco cheese

Finely chopped cilantro

Sour cream or Mexican crema

Diced avocado

Diced fresh pineapple

Diced red onion

Chopped green onion

Fresh salsa

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place all the sauce ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth.  Pour enough sauce in the bottom of a 5 quart Dutch oven to cover the bottom.  Place the roast in the pan and season with salt and pepper.  Pour over the remaining sauce.  Cover and place in the oven and cook for 3 hours, until the meat will shred easily with fork. 

Remove the meat to a bowl and shred using two forks.  Return the meat to the sauce in the pot and stir to coat.  Keep warm.

Heat the tortillas.  I think the best way to do this is to hold them over the open flame on the burner for a few seconds until they puff and go golden in spot, but you can also wrap them in a damp towel and heat them in a low oven.

 Serve the meat with the tortillas and a variety of toppings.

Will serve 8 hungry folks, with some extra meat leftover