Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Home-made Mexican Meal

September 9, 2012
Simple Beef Fajitas
Refried Beans
Chunky Guacamole

How often do you build the menu for a meal around the choice of beverage? Perhaps if you're a wine or beer connoisseur you'll create a menu to complement some special drinks, but in general home cooks choose the entreé first then choose side dishes and beverages to complement it. One of our favorite drinks to have with dinner (and Diane was home this weekend to share this meal) is sangria, an easy-to-drink, fresh tasting, wine punch made with wine, sugar, and fruit juice. For some reason I wanted sangria for Sunday dinner. I even went to the supermarket a few days early and purchased a bottle of one of our favorite brands to have on hand. We usually drink sangria with Mexican food but I wanted to do something different than prepare our usual (though very good) tacos. Sitting on my night stand was the September-October 2012 issue of Cook's Illustrated. The cover listed the contents including a new recipe for chicken fajitas. This provided the inspiration I needed. I went to The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook and found four recipes that I used to create this meal. This included making Sangria, but, not to worry, the store-bought stuff didn't go to waste.

The first thing made was the sangria as the mixture of wine, sugar, and citrus needs time for the flavors to mix and meld into a delicious, mellow final product. For wine, which is the base for the beverage, the recipe calls for Merlot and specifically says that an inexpensive wine is good for making sangria. Our everyday red wine is Vella Merlot. It comes in a 5-liter box which holds the equivalent of 6⅔ bottles and you can usually get it for less than $15. (We normally also have a box Vella Chardonnay on hand as our everyday white wine.) Wine deteriorates quickly when it comes into contact with oxygen but this is not a problem with a box wine where the wine resides in a plastic bag. As you remove the wine the bag collapses, no air is introduced to replace the liquid, and thus the wine is in an oxygen-free environment.  The wine keeps well for as long as it takes you to finish off the box. The recipe also calls for the orange liqueur, Triple Sec, and I substituted a different liqueur, Orange Curacao, because we had it on hand. The end result was a very good sangria that was notably better than any of the store-bought brands that we drink. It was much fresher tasting and more fruity though there was also a slight bitter note from the pith of the oranges and lemons. It is not as convenient as a bottle of store-bought sangria, but the extra effort is worth it for a special meal.

In the late 1970s we lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, having moved there from Irvine, California. We were accustomed to buying refried beans at the supermarket but, to our great surprise, they weren't available in Pittsburgh in 1978. Fortunately we could buy canned pinto beans which  we mashed and fried to make our own refried beans. The recipe I used here is similar in using canned pinto beans but it adds onions and peppers and pork fat to boost the flavor. I included the japapeño pepper called for in the recipe; Diane thought the beans were too spicy while I thought the level of spice was OK. They were a little dry but that was my fault; the beans were done too early and dried out sitting on the stove over low heat while other components of the meal were prepared.

I'm not a big fan of avocados and thus of guacamole, but it is a favorite of Diane's and I thought it would make a good side dish or condiment for the fajitas. One of the keys to good guacamole is getting ripe avocados. This was a challenge. I did the shopping the same day as I was going to be making the guacamole so I had to get ripe fruit from the store, I didn't have time to let it ripen on the counter. I found one good ripe avocado and two that were probably a day or two away shy of ripe. I left the spicy jalapeño and cumin out of the guacamole so the focus would be on the flavor of the green creamy fruit. Despite the less-than-ideal avocados it came out well. Diane and I both ate it on the side rather than adding it to our fajitas.

These fajitas were simpler than those we have made at home before which used one of those gravy-mix packets you can get in the supermarket. Grilled beef, onions, and peppers on a flour tortilla is all there is to it. There was no sauce and nothing spicy and just a few good ingredients. We both thought they tasted a lot like that County Fair staple, the pepper steak sandwich, and for good reason as the ingredients in the two are essentially the same. We used some store-bought salsa and sour cream as condiments for our fajitas.

Sangria from America's Test Kitchen
Refried Beans from America's Test Kitchen
Chunky Guacamole from America's Test Kitchen
Simple Beef Fajitas from America's Test Kitchen

Like steak, pork chops are difficult to reheat without overcooking them, but even more so, I think. The nice, juicy chop that I started with ended up tough and dry. Not good. I warmed it up in the microwave, gently, but it still came out overcooked. Perhaps a gentle warming in a low oven would work better?


  1. I have been on a sangria kick lately but when I've been out not homemade. I do have a recipe to make it though.

    FYI, Dena wants you to make bread for Thanksgiving, if that's okay :-)

  2. Yes, Dena and I had talked about that. I would bake it at your house on Thanksgiving morning. I wonder, though, if one loaf is enough. Maybe I should make two in which case I'll need two dutch ovens, or something similar. I could make one white and one whole wheat.