The Best Diet

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So I’m on this Cemita Diet. And it’s working out pretty well so far. You see, I am constantly recipe testing everything I make for this blog (and for my full-time job as a cook). Most of the things I note while I’m recipe testing, is of course, the taste of the products I’m making, the shelf-life of the food, and if it’s so good I can eat the product repeatedly. This tested true for this Cemita recipe, which I ate 4 times within the last 2 weeks. Hence, the Cemita Diet. And it’s not a bad diet to be on.

And what makes this sandwich even better? The FRESH BREAD I made. That’s right, fresh sesame seed buns. As Sir Mix-A-Lot protested: My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun. Clearly he was talking about bread buns, AMIRITE?

I can attest that this sandwich, a Mexican torta, native to the Pueblo region, is as tasty as it is beautiful. Layers of your choice of meat (in this case, I made shredded chicken), Panela cheese (a Mexican soft, white cheese, similar to Queso Fresco and Mozzarella), ripe avocado slices, chipotle aioli, crisp butterleaf lettuce, tomato and red onion, and a pápalo* salsa roja on a sweet and soft sesame seed bun. If you’ve never tried a Cemita, you’re in for a real treat–every bite is tastier than its predecessor. Perfect with an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day, I’m almost positive the next Big Diet trend, is gonna be that of the Cemita.

(*Cook’s Note: pápalo, also known as Bolivian Coriander, tastes a bit like cilantro, but isn’t actually related to either herb. It’s a relative to the daisy plant, and has a very astringent, floral and minty taste. All the reasons certain people who hate cilantro, are all the qualities that make the pápalo plant so refreshing and delicious.)

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Cemita Poblano de Pollo
(Pueblan-Style Chicken Torta Sandwich)
Yields 2-4 sandwiches

INGREDIENTS
2 each Cemita rolls (recipe HERE)
1/2 cup prepared chipotle aioli (aioli recipe HERE)
2 avocados, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
5 ounces Panela cheese (about half a wheel), cut into batonnets
1 cup shredded chicken (recipe HERE)
1/2 cup pápalo* salsa roja (24 ounces canned tomatoes; 2 cups papalo leaves; 1 sprig fresh oregano, picked; 2 jalapenos, tops cut off; roughly chopped; 2 garlic cloves; 1 small red onion, peeled and roughly chopped; 1 lime, juiced, salt to taste)
4 pieces butterleaf lettuce
1/2 tomato, thinly sliced into 4 slices
1/2 small red onion, sliced into a fine julienne

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METHOD
Make the chipotle aioli. Add 1/2 cup of canned chipotles (with sauce) into 2 cups of aioli. Mix together. Place in refrigerator.

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Make the pápalo salsa roja. In a food processor or blender, combine all of the ingredients till well incorporated. Season to taste. Place in refrigerator.

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Slice each roll in the center horizontally. Place into a toaster oven or oven at 375 degrees for about 7 minutes, or until lightly brown.

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Liberally spread both inner sides of the rolls with the chipotle aioli.

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Add the avocado slices and Panela cheese to both sides.

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Place about 1/2 cup each of shredded chicken on the bottom halve of the cemita roll for each sandwich.

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Spoon 1/4 cup each of the papalo salsa over the chicken.

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Add the lettuce, tomato and onion.

Cover with the top halve of the cemita roll. Slice the sandwiches in half. Enjoy

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Marta! Marta! Marta!

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And now a scene from one of my favorite movies:

(This scene in Clueless always makes me laugh. Cher is so ignorant clueless, she doesn’t realize that her maid, Lucy, is from El Salvador, not Mexico. And that they are, in fact, two different countries. Luckily, hunky Josh sets the record straight.)

I first learned how to make traditional El Salvadorian pupusas with a very fiesty 50-something-year-old woman named Marta. I worked with Marta at a restaurant a few years ago; she was our dishwasher who’d come into work every day with the reddest lipstick and a full face of makeup and her curly hair all styled perfectly. You wouldn’t think she came into work to wash dishes by the way she presented herself. She took pride in the way she looked, and always joked to me and the other cooks that she was a “hot mama.”

Marta didn’t speak a word of English, so we communicated with each other in Spanish. Marta called me “Selena” because I would often belt out a song by the Tejano singer when I’d bring dishes to the dishpit, and she would be there, smiling brightly as I sang the words to “Como La Flor” with such passion and conviction. (Marta was one of my biggest fans.)

I learned in our conversations that she owned a pupuseria in El Salvador. How fortunate was I to work with a real pupusa expert?! “Mira, Selena,” she’d say, as she brought me and the staff pupusas con chicharones (shredded pork) and share them with the staff. I wanted so desperately to pick her brain and learn how to make the pupusas myself. So after a while we began serving her pupusas once a month in the restaurant, and guess who made them with her? Yep, me. Working next to her as she formed and shaped the pupusa balls at lightning speed was so impressive. It was, at first, quite difficult catching up to her. (She had been making pupusas for 40+ years.) But I was determined to be well versed in pupusa-making. And after a while, I got pretty good at it! Here are the recipes I remember making with Marta.

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El Salvadorian Pupusas with Curtido and Salsa Roja
Yields 5 pupusas; 1 quart curtido; 1 pint salsa roja

INGREDIENTS
FOR THE CURTIDO
1/2 head of small green cabbage, julienned thin
2 each carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1/2 white onion, julienned thin
1/2 cup white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
1/4 cup fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

FOR THE SALSA ROJA
1 each canned tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bunch cilantro, stems removed
1 bunch fresh oregano, picked
1/2 white onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeño, tops cut off and deseeded
1 each lime, juiced
Kosher salt, to taste
splash olive oil, to taste

FOR THE PUPUSAS
2 cups masa harina (corn flour, I used Maseca)
2 cups water
1 cup shredded habanero jack cheese
2 jalapeños, minced
oil for frying

METHOD
FOR THE CURTIDO (cabbage slaw)
Mix the shredded cabbage, onion, carrots in a large bowl. Sprinkle salt and add in the vinegar and herbs. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Set aside for at least 1 hour to allow the cabbage to break down.

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FOR THE SALSA ROJA
Place all ingredients into a blender or food processor till fully incorporated. Add salt to taste. Set aside.

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FOR THE PUPUSAS
In a large bowl and with your hands, mix the masa, salt and water till the dough is thoroughly mixed and feels like slightly wet clay or Play-Doh.

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Divvy up with dough and form into large balls. You should have about 5. In a small bowl add the minced jalapeños and shredded cheese. Add a splash of water to help bind the cheese-chile filling together.

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Fill a small bowl with lukewarm water. This water will help you when working with the pupusa dough, as it may harden and may become difficult to shape. Take one of the masa balls into your hand and flatten it onto your palm, creating a plate-like shape. Place a dollop of the cheese-chile mixture into the middle of the masa ball.

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Bring the outer sides of the masa to the other side to close the filling. Press down on the sides together to seal the seams. Shape the pupusa balls into a saucer-like shape. Dip your hands into the water bowl to add moisture to the dough if needed. Using some of the water also helps to close the seams and any cracks the dough may create.

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Fill a cast-iron skillet or shallow pan with about a half-inch of oil and turn the heat onto medium. When the skillet is hot and a little haze is over the oil, slowly add in the pupusas without overcrowding the pan.

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Allow the pupusas to cook for about 5 minutes per side. Using a heat-resistant spatula, place the fried pupusas onto a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat till all pupusas are cooked off. Serve with curtido and salsa.

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A Sweet and a Meat

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I last travelled to the Philippines over 15 years ago with my family. My aunt and her husband were renewing their vows on their 25th wedding anniversary in the Philippines where they met as teenagers. At least, that’s how I remember the story. Our entire family on my mom’s side went to the islands to celebrate this beautiful occasion.

My mom, born and raised in the Philippines, had not been back to the homeland since she was about 20 years old.  My mom was really excited to show me, my brother and father, where she grew up. We got to see the grade school she attended and the house she lived in as a child with her other nine siblings. It was a sweet and humbling experience.

Being half-Filipino, I was only exposed to, I guess you can say, half of the cuisine. While my other half was exposed to the Italian-Spanish-German American cuisines my dad was brought up with. When we stayed in the Philippines for the month we were there, my brother and I had the same breakfast every day: longanissa (Filipino sweet pork sausage) or beef tapa with garlic fried rice and a fried egg (a longasilog) with ube ice cream. (We indulged. We were on vacation!)

A recent trip to the local Asian food supermarket gave me flashbacks to my childhood and that family vacation, where I found longanissa and ube ice cream in the frozen food aisle! I was giddy with excitement. For this week, I posted a recipe on homemade English Muffins. Then I thought afterward, why don’t I make my own sausage breakfast sandwich with the muffins and longanissa? Why not add an egg and cheese, too? This dish is a sweet little mish-mash of my Filipino-American heritage. And I’m happy to share it with you!

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Filipino-Style Breakfast Sausage Sandwich
Yields 1 sandwich

INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 links longanissa sausage, casings removed
1 slice sharp cheddar cheese
1 egg
salt and pepper, to taste
1 ea. sandwich-size English Muffin
butter, for spreading

METHOD
Defrost the sausage (if frozen). Remove the sausage from the casing by using a knife to cut a small slit. Shape the meat into an equal-shaped patty. Heat a non-stick skillet or cast-iron to medium-high heat. Drizzle the pan with the oil and place the sausage patty onto the skillet, creating a nice sear on the side. Cook it for about 4 minutes. Flip the patty and cook for another 4 minutes. Check the center for doneness. Cook further if needed. Turn off the heat and place the cheese on top of the sausage patty. Use the skillet’s lid to cover the patty, allowing the residual heat to melt the cheese.

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In another skillet, heat the oil over medium heat, making sure the entire base of the pan is coated evenly. Crack the egg into the pan, allowing the egg to cook fully. Swirl the pan a bit to make sure the white is entirely cooked. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

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Cut the English muffin in half and place into the toaster to re-heat. Spread some butter on the inside of the bread and place the sausage with cheese onto the base. Top with the egg and cover with the other half of the muffin. Easy.

Body by Pizza

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As a professional cook, I’m often asked what is my favorite thing to make at home. My answer is always breakfast; it’s my favorite meal. And the best thing about breakfast is that you can essentially eat it any time of day, sans guilt. (At least I don’t think so, anyway.) My go-to breakfast food that I usually make at home is chilaquiles. I usually have made-ahead enchilada sauce, tortilla chips, cheese and eggs in my pantry, so it takes just a few minutes to put it all together.

After a year working at an Italian restaurant, I became a bit of a pizza expert. I lived and breathed pizza. If you thought eating pizza every day would be tiresome, it’s surprisingly not. The pizzas we made changed daily, so there was always something new to try. I thank that job for these rock-hard abs I’m sporting these days. (That’s completely false, by the way. Purely fiction. The only thing hard on me is my inability to give up major vices: namely cookies, coffee, beer, hot men and, of course, pizza.)

After one night of not being able to decide between making chilaquiles or pizza for dinner, my brain had a ding-ding-ding! moment, where I thought: Why don’t I just put them together?

And that, I did.

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Chilaquiles Pizza
Serves 1-4

FOR THE RED SAUCE
Recipe slightly adapted from A Cozy Kitchen

INGREDIENTS
1 pasilla chile, charred and scraped
15 ounces (1 can) tomatoes
1 medium shallot, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons of tomato paste
3/4 cup beer
2 handfuls, tortilla chips
salt and pepper, to taste

METHOD
Place the pasilla over the grates of a gas stove. Heat the chile, rotating it on medium-high heat and char till it’s evenly blackened. Place the charred pasilla in a medium-size bowl and tightly cover with plastic wrap. (The lack of released oxygen will cause the charred skin to easily separate itself from the flesh of the chile.) After about 5-7 minutes, remove the chile from the covered bowl and scrape apart the charred skin using a knife. Chop the pasilla’s flesh, removing the seeds and thick membrane. Place the chopped pasilla and canned tomatoes into a blender and pulse till smooth.

Meanwhile, in a medium-size skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook till lightly browned (but not burned), about 7 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the beer. Stir to get all the tasty, sugary bits incorporated. Pour the tomato/pasilla sauce mixture and tomato paste into the skillet. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, until reduced by about half, about 10 minutes. Make sure to stir the mixture often, to avoid scorching. Add the tortilla chips and stir till softened. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

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FOR THE SALSA VERDE

INGREDIENTS
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 bunch parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 red onion, small dice
1 jalapeño, charred, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 poblano, charred, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 lime, juiced
1/2 – 1 cup olive oil

METHOD
Add all the ingredients except the oil into a blender and pulse till incorporated. Stream in the oil to create an emulsion. Add more oil if too stiff. Season with salt, to taste.

FOR THE PIZZA DOUGH

INGREDIENTS
2 teaspoon active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water**
2 cups flour
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

METHOD
Place the room warm water and yeast into a KitchenAid mixing bowl and quickly whisk till incorporated. Allow to rest for 5 minutes to activate the yeast. **The yeast won’t properly activate if the water is too cold. And thus, will over activate if it’s too hot.**

Add the flour and then the salt. (Adding salt directly to yeast can kill it.) With the dough hook attachment, start mixing the dough for about 3 minutes on the medium speed. Slowly stream in the olive oil. Mix till fully incorporated and a little sticky.

Transfer the dough onto a well-oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rest in a warm spot in the kitchen. (I usually have it placed on top of the stove while I’m heating up the oven.) Let the dough proof until it doubles in size (about 1 hour, depending on the room temperature).

Once the dough has been proofed, roll out onto a well floured countertop. Knead the dough with your hands and divide into two equal size balls. Set one ball aside for later use by tightly wrapping and placing in the fridge or freezer. Roll the other ball evenly. Using a a floured rolling pin, roll out until evenly sized on a baking or pizza pan.

**PIZZA ASSEMBLY**

INGREDIENTS
1 pizza dough, rolled out
olive oil
1-2 ladles chilaquiles sauce
1 cup mozzarella cheese
1 egg
salsa verde, garnish
Mexican crema (optional)

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METHOD
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush three dots of olive oil onto the pizza dough. Sprinkle a bit of salt onto the dough, too. Using a ladle, spoon the chilaquiles sauce onto the surface evenly. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Create a little well in the center of the pizza to add the egg at the last few minutes of cooking.

Bake for 8 minutes on the bottom rack of the oven. Rotate pizza to make sure all sides cook evenly. Check for doneness. Cook for another 5 minutes. When the dough is 1/4 done (just slightly doughy) Slowly crack in the egg. This should cook for an additional 1-2 more minutes, till set but still runny.

When fully cooked, remove and place onto a cooling rack. Drizzle with salsa verde and crema, if desired.

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