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Monday, July 11, 2016

Taqueria del Sol – Mexico in Atlanta? No, BETTER!

Long time no blog.  Been traveling.  Beaches, sunshine, fried shrimp, plump oysters on the half shell.

But (yawn), you don’t want to hear about my vacation.  You’ve already browsed stacks of Facebook photos.  Same silly, squinty grins. Same wind blown hair and and salty tans.

Let’s move past grinning on the beach and get to very serious Mexican style food.   So, you noticed the sly injection of ‘style’ in the last sentence?  No mystery.  Succulent dishes at the Taqueria del Sol in Atlanta, Georgia go far beyond the expected.  Just in the mood for a quick Mexicanish snack?  Fine, go through the drive through at Ring-a-ding Bell.  But, if you’re serious about the unexpectedly wonderful cuisine that exploits the grand horizons of South-of-the-Border kitchens, head to Taqueria del Sol, or ANY restaurant where Eddie Hernandez dons his apron and lights the fires.  No need to wear a suit, or take out a loan.  This stupendous food is very affordable and the service is casual.

More than likely, Eddie doesn’t remember my various trips to his Azteca Grill in Jonesboro (no longer his), but I remember him and I take pains to follow wherever his culinary travels take him.  Can’t get to one of the two Taquerias in Atlanta?  Try the one in Athens or Decatur Georgia, or Nashville Tennessee.

A tiny vignette concerning Eddie and what makes him special.  I have a couple of friends, actually a married couple, who’ve been Eddie Hernandez groupies for years. One night at the Azteca Grill, Eddie dropped by their table, as he often did, and recommended the turnip greens.  Really?  Turnip greens?  Yep.

How did that happen? They asked.  “A friend brought me a bunch of turnip greens.  I didn’t know much about these greens, but the friend brought me a lot of them, so I figured I’d better learn.”  Learn he did.  They’re still hauntingly delicious and on the menu at Taqueria del Sol.

Eddie has the kind of magical mind that turns a common southern staple into something so fragrant and flavorful you find yourself dreaming about it and waking up in the middle of the night.  What did he do that was so different?  Turnip greens need to have the fool cooked out of them.  Eddie did that, and my guess is, he added chicken broth, onion, garlic, cilantro, and enough jalpeños to tease, without startling.  But, even with those ingredients, make no mistake, the star of the show is still the bowl full of  luscious turnip greens.  Even if you try making them at home, they’re not going to taste the same because, as I said, Eddie has magic.

Enchiladas swimming in the best enchilada sauce I've ever tasted

Soft taco featuring smoked pork.

Three salsas for chips and food!

Eddie’s magic transforms everything.  My go-to tests for Mexican food are enchiladas and chili relleños.  Why?  Because you can tell with one taste if this restaurant is worth the money.  Is the enchilada sauce homemade?  Does cheese flow out of the chilis, and have they been dipped in a light enough batter to make them crispy on the edges, without a heavy flavor of cooking oil?

At the Taqueria del Sol, the enchilada red sauce is far and away the most delicious I have ever tasted. Made and flavored right in Eddie’s kitchen.  No shortcuts and every forkful a delight. And, yes, I have been to Mexico City, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California.  The relleños?  The green chili flavor pops through the mild cheese and lightly fried batter.  You have no idea how many times I’ve been disappointed at pseudo-Mexican joints, but like your first girlfriend’s kiss, Taqueria del Sol’s are relleños that make you salivate, then lock away in your box of culinary memories.

The restaurant's fabulous crab cake sandwich.
But, standard fare is not the half of what this restaurant’s out-of-the-box approach offers.  The day we visited, the specials included a crab cake sandwich, a chicken fried steak with roasted jalapeño gravy, and a taco with Latino marinated pork and Chino kimchee!

Even the folks in Maryland would marvel at the crab cake sandwich. 

Everything on the menu is fine and richly flavored cuisine at bargain prices.  Just to give you a hint, the crab cake sandwich was $9.99 and the previously mentioned turnip greens are $2.49.

Margaritas as they should be: Tequila, lime, and only a hint of sugar.

How about drinks?  Margaritas as they should be mixed!  No syrupy goop.  You wanted to sparkle brightly at the first taste of tequila, right? You like the bite of lemons and limes.

But, maybe a Margarita (Daisy in English) is not on your mind.  Maybe you need a shot or two to lighten your burdens and sooth your savage soul.  At Taqueria del Sol, more than fifty tequilas and mezcals stand at attention, waiting to follow your orders.  Need a chilled brew?  Oh, yeah, all your Mexican brewed favorites, plus many more native species and even more bottles from around the globe.

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

Anything else?  Of course.  Don’t you dare leave without at least a cup of the Shrimp Corn Chowder and a dish of the Jalapeño Cole Slaw.

Think this restaurant is a secret?  Here’s a hint.  People are lined up for a city block when it opens for dinner, and even with the restaurant bulging to capacity, there’s still a line.  Taqueria del Sol is THAT kind of special and Eddie is THAT kind of chef.

Read more about Taqueria del Sol here:  menu, hours, locations:


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Beef Bourguignon: My version

Not being French myself, you may scoff at my taking liberties with one of the Frenchy-est of dishes.  I assure you, I mean no disrespect, especially when cooking with good French wine. My recipe calls for a whole bottle!  And truly, as in so many French wonders of la cuisine, I feel certain that every French chef, from amateur to mother-teur to master-teur painted their own shades of culinary color on Burgy-Beef.  Vive la difference!

To be brief, Beef Bourguignon is really beef stew, but cooked with wine, herbs, and vegetables, over time, the flavors of this stew become magically and delightfully complex.

The one thing to remember about Beef Bourguignon is IT TAKES TIME.  Try to do this recipe in an hour and your guests will stomp out in disgust, leaving your reputation in tatters, your spouse sobbing, and your children fighting over the peanut butter.

The good news is, you can make this dish a day or two before, and the flavor becomes even better.

I know you would feel slighted if I let l’histoire, the story of Burgy-Beef, end after that breezy intro.  Your well-traveled imagination needs to savor a bit of history and intrigue.  I strive to allay your fears and feed your lust for knowledge.  I see you’re quivering in anticipation. You YEARN to know who started this delicious beef stew and so forth. Quiver no more.

It began with cattle, as you might guess from the name, which is not Caterpillar or Muskrat or Hind-end-of-Donkey Bourguinon.  In a short phrase, it began with Charolais cattle, known for their tender, lean meat.  These hoofed wonders come from the Charolles region of southern Burgundy.  I confess I do not know who started this marvel of the French kitchen, but I feel safe in saying it was not a highly paid chef in a restaurant with more stars than the five Chiefs of Staff.   I do know it who made it famous.  Chef Auguste Escoffier with his 1903 cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire.  Now, here’s the intrigue.  Escoffier was later fired from London’s Savoy Hotel for cooking the books.  That really stirred things up.

Julia Child made some changes to Escoffier’s original recipe, the main one being that she chose to cut the beef into cubes rather than cooking it whole.  As for your chef de jour, I follow Julia.

Rather than continuing with things you will not even remember between text messages, here’s the recipe:

Beef Bourguignon Chez Stroud

3 ½ pounds (approx. 1.6 kilos) chuck roast, cut into 2 inch cubes.  Don’t remove too much fat, but do remove any tough connecting tissue
750 ml Burgundy wine, or another heavy red wine
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks of celery, thin sliced
2 medium sized tomatoes, seeds removed, blended into a purée
20 medium sized mushrooms, trimmed, washed, and quartered
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into thick chunks
2 cloves garlic, diced
4 slices streaky bacon, roughly chopped
2 heaping tablespoons of Bovril or another beef concentrate
1 heaping tablespoon herbs de Province (No H de P? Use thyme, parsley, bay leaves or just use your imagination…Hey!  You’re the Chef!)
olive oil, salt, pepper
1 cup water
Roux:  make a paste of two tablespoons of butter mashed into two tablespoons of flour.  This will be used to thicken the stew after it comes out of the oven.

You’ll also need:  a large heavy bottomed pot with a lid (Dutch oven).

Put the cubes of beef in a large bowl and pour in the entire bottle of wine.  Cover and let the beef marinate for a couple of hours.  Why?  Wine tenderizes.

Heat the oven to 250ºF  (130ºC)

Remove the beef from the bowl, but save the marinade.  Splash some olive oil in your large pot and brown the beef in batches.  I did it with three batches.  When the beef is browned, place it in a colander over a bowl (to catch the juices).

When all the meat is browned and removed, splash some more oil in the pot, then toss in the onions, garlic, celery, and bacon.  Cook at medium heat until the onions are wilted and beginning to turn amber.  Mix in the tomato purée, stir and cook only a few moments.
Return the beef to the pot and pour in the wine marinade and the dripping from the beef.  Bring to a boil and stir in the Bovril.  Add the cup of water.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Put the top on the pot, slide it in the pre-heated oven and cook for about four hours.

At the three hour point, add the carrots and mushrooms.

I like my Burgy-Beef rich and thick, so after removing the stew from the oven, I put it back on the stovetop at low heat.  As it bubbles, I stir in the roux (paste) and cook the stew for a few minutes more, until thickened.

I like to serve this with plain mashed potatoes and as much wine as I can drink.  The French would also accompany the meal with slices of crusty baguette. The French don’t even brush their teeth without a baguette close by.

But wait….there’s just a bit more.   What does Bourgignon mean?  Well in English, we say Burgundy, but in French it ‘s Bourgogne.   And the French word Bourgignon (Boor-gig-yawn) comes out Burgundian in English.  Beef Burgundy style!  Voilá!

A votre santé!

browning the beef

sliced onions, celery, and finely diced garlic

tomato purée

draining the beef, but catching the juices in a bowl below the colander

I never make a beef stew or soup without the magic of Bovril

Friday, June 3, 2016

Down in the Caverns at Patriarche in Beaune, France

“Wine enters through the mouth,
Love, the eyes.
I raise the glass to my mouth,
I look at you,
I sigh.”

Patriarche Père & Fils winery has been a landmark in Burgundy’s wine industry since the Romans left Gaul.  For those with a master’s degree, but lacking a proper high school education, Gaul was the Roman name for France…is it coming back to you now?  Julius Caesar, veni vidi vici and all that?  By the way, the Romans left in A.D. 486.

Ok, so I exaggerated Patriarche’s longevity by 1200 years or so.  The winery truly emerged in 1780.

Enough history.  Let’s jump forward to 2016 and a visit to the caves of P P & Fils.  I’ve gotten you past the tollgate (€17.50 pp), the oaken-barrel-lined hallway leading to the beautifully restored Chapel, and you’re ready to descend into the underground.

In the Chapel

What’s in the caves?  Wine tasting, while wandering like lost souls in the caverns of Hades.  Dark?  Yes, it is.  Lit only enough to cut down on stumbles and lawyers' fees. But not to worry.  You're greeted by an astute and friendly guide who offers an intro to the wines.  And after your guide slips quietly into the shadows, there's an audio-visual to help you at every tasting station. Four or five kilometers (about 3 miles) of caves hold hundreds of thousands of bottles, some of which date to the turn of the century.  I’m speaking of 19th to 20th.  Everywhere you look, dusty bottles lie patiently stacked, like the sleeping soldiers of Charlemagne. The caves themselves are part and parcel of the Visitandines  convent, which Partriarche purchased in the 1700s.

So, what are the Visitandines?  Very short answer:  nuns.  A bit more?  Ok, Visitandines is only one of several sobriquets for The Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.  Need more?

Now, how about some tasting?  Your toll taker gave you little silvered metal tasting cups and you’re welcome to help yourself, on your stroll from station to station.  You’ll sample more than a few whites and more than twice that many reds, including a couple of Grand Cru.  By the way, in Burgundy, reds are overwhelmingly Pinot Noir, and whites are Chardonnay.  But, what is Grand Cru?  Let’s leave it at ‘the best of the best.’  In Burgundy only 2% of the 69,000 acres (28,000 hectares) are classified as Grand Cru, but the caveats are many.

 General comments about Burgundy wines.  No use giving details about my tastings since offerings change.  But in general:

-       Dry as your mouth, while riding a camel through a sandstorm in the Sahara
-       Aroma and flavor held in high esteem by the dirt eaters of Mississippi and Georgia
-       Lingering tannins that strike the back of the throat like well driven nails

In French Wine for Dummies By Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, I found a remark I wholeheartedly agree with:  “Nothing quite compares in aroma and flavor to a great red Burgundy.”  Yes, and nothing says I love you like a good spanking.

If you’re like me, you enjoy a fruity nose, smooth flavor, from the start to the mellow, well-rounded finish.  In which case Burgundy may not be your first choice.  A big HOWEVER.  I did find several eminently drinkable bottles in sidewalk cafés.

 Also, if you’re used to paying $10-12 for a rather nice accompaniment to lunch, the Burgundy prices may leave your mouth even drier and your bank account treading water.  The cheapest bottle on any menu runs about $28.50 and most are quite a bit more.

Still, touring Patriarche caverns is a picturesque step into the bowels of the wine business and the varied Burgundy vintages.  No way to tell without tasting.  I’ve found that two red wines  (or whites) from the same vineyard may taste entirely differently.  It may be due to different slopes with different sun exposures, different soil compositions, or any of a hundred other reasons.

My advice?  Taste. Period.  Don’t be swayed by wine snobs.  Don’t rely on large black rating numbers from a magazine.  Don’t even listen to me.

Although I may personally get astonishingly pensive and shaky at the mention of a bottle of Burgundy, you may find yourself celebrating the very same wine at the pop of the first cork.

And even if the wines of Patriache are not to your taste, a stroll through the caverns is worth every cent to a photographer, or anyone who wants a shortcut education in the fermented grape, its heritage and possibilities.

“High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

“What wine goes with Captain Crunch?”

“Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, sermons and soda water the day after.”