Where is home?

I finally had the chance to breathe after returning to Florida from my vacation to my hometown, El Paso.  It was wonderful to see the family and old friends, but upon my return to Orlando, a troubling question danced around my mind….. was I returning home? Had I just not left my actual home to come back to the city I am currently living in? Where is my home by the way? What is Home?

Home: as defined by Merriam-Webster is a place of residence, a domicile. Which will then make my home to be Florida. Yet, as I scroll down, I see another definition: a place of origin, which would make far west Texas my home. So which is it?

Before exploring the question of where home is to me, I had to go back and look at myself. What I have become is a chef, passionate about food and empowered to teach those around me about the importance of a local food movement and supporting farmers who provide the freshest ingredients. I believe in the Food Revolution.  While to some it may seem like a far fetched idealistic fantasy, I stand by my firm belief that proper food education can cure many of the ailments that we suffer as a society, from staggering obesity numbers to contaminated water sources polluted by CAFOs and other corporations that have turned food into a for-profit commodity.  Access to healthy food is a basic human right.

In Orlando, urban gardens in schools and local communities have popped up like wild mushrooms during a rainy tropical season. Edible magazine issues stand proudly stand on the front entrances to many locally owned cafes and health food stores.  There are now more farm markets than fingers on both of my hands. These markets, like the wild mushrooms, pop up in vacant lots, university campuses, and public parks. The people of Florida are demanding fresh, local food; chefs, farmers, and local organizers are delivering.

This issue resonated in my head even more as I embarked in the Saturday ritual to buy fresh produce. I did not have trouble finding a farm market, the trouble was trying to decide which one to go to because I seemed to be flooded with choices. During my visit in El Paso, I cooked  A LOT! My family wanted me to make pizzas, curries, pastas, salads, everything imaginable. Finding the freshest ingredients to make all that food was not so easy. Of curse, El Paso enjoys the culinary delights of Mexican cuisine. Mini markets are present in almost every neighborhood. They offer chiles, tomatillos, avocados, beans, and other staple Mexican foods. However, the most worrying trend I saw in my beloved border city was the presence of the Wal-Mart. Remember those wild mushrooms? The infamous corporate giant is making its way into every area of El Paso, offering its usual serving of market saturation that causes the closure of locally owned grocery stores. What was even more surprising to me was the permanent promotion that Wal-Mart offers its shoppers. They match the weekly specials of ANY other grocery store when the shopper brings in the weekly special flyer!!!!!  And people ( my family included) shop here with so much ease, oblivious to the damage that they are causing other small businesses. This is what was so dissapointing about my trip back home. It seems that I have very strong convictions about food to the point that being in a community that does not value food the way I do is depressing to me.

All of this analyzing brought me to the next question… What do I do about this? Do I stay in a place where I am happily living among those who think just like me? Or do I explore ways to make my HOMEtown a more educated place when it comes to food?  Using my platform as a chef and enlisting the help of other chefs in El Paso who might be as passionate as I am on this subject, the latter seems like a great way to help the community. However, with some of the highest grossing chain restaurants in the nation, I doubt the community wants any help.  And so I remain undecided as to where home is.

The dangers of riding on bicycles and other meatless Monday adventures

In observance of meatless Monday and its message of sustainability and “being green” I decided to ride my bike to work this morning ( my car was also acting up but that’s another story).  Orlando is not the most biike friendly city in the world and so I find myself riding on the sidewalk at a much slower speed all the time. This might have saved me from a great deal of pain this morning because in a not so bright display of common sense, I rode my bike with  my apron rolled up against my handle bar ( we cannot take large personal bags into work so a backpack was not used). As I made my way to work down the cobblestone sidewalks of historic Winter Park, the apron straps became loose and got tangled on my front wheel pulling the entire apron to come between the break pads and the tire and causing a sudden halt. Luckily I was not going as fast and so I simply did a semi front flip over my handle bars and landed on my right arm. So the lesson this Monday is;  Be green but safety first, wear a helmet and do not try to balance anything on your handle bars as you ride (wear a backpack).  However, back to being green, riding a bike to work is the perfect way to complement your going-green-for-meatless-Mondays effort. Seriously, when people at work found out I had ridden to work they seemed so surprised, as if it was an out of this world concept… When did riding a bike become such an archaic way of transportation? I don’t get it? Anyway, on to the food!!

Tortilla Soup! Ah yes, Mexican comfort food at its best. Crunchy baked tortilla strips, creamy, buttery avocado, and a smoky chipotle spice make up this classical south of the border delicacy. I figured it would be fitting to make today because a looong time ago I worked in a Mexican kitchen. My first job ever! Delicious Mexican Eatery is known to El Pasoans as the home of the most authentic Mexican food you can get (other than your abuelita’s home ofcourse). In fact, Julia Child payed a visit long ago and got a few tips herself from the very knowledgable ladies that work in the kitchen. There was a daily special everyday of the week and Mondays was always tortilla soup day.  That tortilla soup had chicken, but today I made mine with veg stock and a side of black beans.

To make a hearty and healthy tortilla soup you need to saute a small onion in a deep pot.  Add small diced celery and garlic. Sweat for 5 minutes the add 1 tbs of chipotle powder, 1 tbs ancho chile powder, and 1 tsp of cumin. I like to get my chile spices from Pensey’s spices because they are always so fresh tasting, but you can actually grind up the dried peppers yourself if you have time.  Now add 1 cup of finely diced tomatoes and allow to simmer for five minutes.  This will build the foundation to all the flavor in your soup.  Now you’re ready to add veggie stock. If you don’t have any stock you can use water instead or even chicken stock if you decide to make this soup some other day! I used 2 qts of veg stock.  Allow the broth to simmer for at least 30 minutes so that all the flavors can concentrate and you get a richer soup. While the soup is simmering, bake a corn tortilla until crisp and golden. Please don’t burn it. I always burn mine =(.  To serve ladle some soup broth into a bowl, top with crunchy tortilla pieces, avocado wedges, a bit of grated queso blanco ( found in any supermarket), and lots of cilantro, epazote, and lime!!!! Eat with black beans on the side for the perfect dinner! Enjoy and happy M. Monday!!

Cheese Enchiladas

I cook healthy Mexican food, and yes, it is absolutely possible!

I have always enjoyed good food, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I decided to get serious about learning more about my passion. The first place to look was into my own traditional food, Mexican food. What I learned right away was that Mexican food was not the same in the southern Mexican regions as it was in the northern part of the country, in fact, they were eating things down south that I did not even know existed. It was a marvelous discovery. I grew up eating chiles rellenos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, rice, mole, beans, quesadillas, burritos, and a lot of queso fresco (fresh cheese). But the first time I traveled to Yucatan, in a small little town of Villadolid, deep in the jungle and very close to the great Chichen Itza pyramid, I discovered a huaraches ( mashed beans spread on a corn patty with cactus sprinkled on top) I also had many seafood dishes with chili and chocolate based sauces. The food was an adventure in itself.

When I came back to the United States, I began to research the ancient food staples of the Mayan and Aztec people and how the European influenced their diets after the conquest.   As it turns out, many of the foods that we consider a part of traditional Mexican cuisine, were not always in the ancient Mexcian’s diet. While nachos are considered a popular Mexican food in the United States, they are hardly eaten in the southern parts of Mexico. Cheese is not used very often, and contrary to popular belief, Mexican food is not fattening and greasy.

My family comes from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. I grew up eating enchiladas with lots and lots of cheese. Chiles rellenos were oozing with it and we sprinkled cheese on top of tostadas as well. The most sought after cheese in the area was “queso menonita” which is the cheese made by the Amish community in Northern Mexico. It is made fresh from cow’s milk.

Now, when I make my everyday meals at home I try to make them as healthy as possible. Since I just took a course in nutrition science for culinary professionals at school, I have knowledge and some tips to make good food the healthy way. In the case of cheese, the healthiest tip that I can provide would be to use restraint. sure, cheese can be made with skim or whole milk, and true, that can make a lot of difference when it comes to fat, but we must also consider things like sodium, which is more than abundant in cheese.

I used queso fresco made from skim milk for the filling in the enchiladas. I only used 2 oz, grated. I also refrained  from frying the tortillas before rolling them with the cheese.

Ingredients (for 3 enchiladas)

3 Corn Tortillas (I use thin yellow corn tortillas)

2 oz grated cheese (queso fresco)

1/8 c minced  sweet onion

8 New Mexico  dry chili pods (stems removed)

1/4 c tomato paste

2 garlic cloves

1 tsp cumin

2 tsp salt

1. Bring 2 cups of water, salt and garlic cloves to a boil and drop the chili in the water. Turn off the heat and let the pods soak until they become soft.

2. Transfer the ingredients into a blender and puree. Slowly add the tomato paste. Less than 1/4 c of paste may be used as it serves to balance out the heat of the chili pods, but if very little heat is desired, then you may add the entire 1/4 cup. Add the cumin and blend some more until it all becomes a puree. Pour the pureed contents into a colander or sieve with a container in the bottom to remove the seeds from the chili puree.

3. Pour sauce into a stainless steel pan and heat on low.

4. On a different container mix onion with grated cheese

5. Finally heat up the tortillas on a cast iron skillet or for 15 seconds in the microwave. Dip each tortilla into the sauce and remove, lay flat on a plate and place some of the cheese/onion mix inside. Roll up like a burrito.  Do the same for each tortilla. Finally sprinkle any  leftover  cheese on top of the tortillas.

 


During my high school years I worked in a Mexican food restaurant and I remember that many of the foods served there were fried. Even with enchiladas, it is common to fry the tortilla to soften it up and add flavor before dipping it into the chile sauce. I believe that we really have to step away from using fat as a primary source of flavor, specially if the chile sauce is boasting with a tangy and spicy flavor.  Chili pods can be great to experiment with. You can mix and match the pods you use for a sauce, or if you want a deeper and bolder chili pepper, you can try using ancho peppers (dried poblanos)  instead of the New Mexico peppers.

Pico de Gallo

This can only mean one thing; I got El Paso Texas on my mind! Since I get a mini break from all the hustle and bustle of culinary school, I decided to visit my parents in Texas. This is not your typical cowboys-&-cattle-wild west  Texas town though,  it is actually quite the opposite.  It is the town where I grew up and I don’t remember seeing much cattle or cowboys for that matter. Also, we seem to be so far away from the rest of Texas that people either think we are in New Mexico or Mexico. Many others don’t even know the difference between the two. Nonetheless, there is some amazing food to be eaten in El Paso. This little border city has the best Mexican food outside of Mexico. Of course, the best part of Mexican food in El Paso is the salsas. red, green, roasted pepper, with avocado, with cilantro, onion, garlic, lime….etc. No matter what you find in your salsa it will be hot and spicy!!

My flight leaves early in the morning, and during my time there I will make some amazing Mexican food! I promise I will share!