Saturday, May 31, 2008

RECIPE - Chicken Tortilla Stew

I've written before that I usually fall on the wrong side of the fine line between soups and stews. I try to make a stew and it ends up as a soup. I try to make a soup and it ends up as a stew. In this case, the more widely-known Chicken Tortilla Soup is now Chicken Tortilla Stew. I haven't yet learned how to apply reverse psychology techniques to my own cooking, but here's hoping.

What You'll Need.....

The Stew Stuff
  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, minced
  • 1 white onion, rough-chopped into small pieces
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium tomatillos, husked and minced
  • 1 can black beans (I actually don't prefer frijoles negras, as they're less likely to be organic and usually come in flavored broth and/or sludge)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1.5 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 7 white flour tortillas
The Seasoning
  • kosher salt
  • black pepper
  • cayenne pepper
  • chili powder
  • 1 tsp. coriander
  • 1 tsp. cumin
(You could also use 1 tbs. garam masala in place of the cumin and coriander...I had to because I forgot that I was out of both and didn't feel like going to the store.)

The Other Stuff
  • olive oil
  • canola or vegetable oil
  • mild white cheese such as queso fresco or panchego
***When I'm making something that requires a fair amount of vegetables, I usually prep my vegetables the night before. In this case, I chopped my bell peppers, jalapenos, and onion the night before and stored them in separate baggies.***

What You'll Do....

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. While your oven is preheating, chop your bell peppers and onions (if you haven't already). Combine them for a sort of mirepoix. Set aside.

Spread your thawed corn kernels on a sprayed baking sheet. Season liberally with kosher salt, black pepper, chili powder, and cayenne. Set aside.

Rub chicken breasts with olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper.

Place both corn and chicken in the oven. My oven was built in 1955, so it has two small racks and the heating element from the bottom is strong enough to fight the Russians. Because the chicken needs higher heat and I don't want the corn to burn, I place the chicken on the bottom rack.

(You may want to check the corn at least once and toss the kernels for even roasting. Whatev.)

While your chicken and corn are in the oven, prep your tomatillos, garlic, and jalapenos. Pick firm tomatillos with tight husks. Peel and clean them well; I don't know what the sticky stuff is on tomatillos but it's not pleasant.

Okay, so I said 6 cloves of garlic. I probably used 6 regular cloves and two more smaller cloves because, like butter and booze, I believe garlic makes everything better and I always use a lot of it.

Once your tomatillos and garlic are minced, combine them with your jalapenos.

WASH YOUR HANDS after you chop your jalapenos. Wash them three or four times. I am not kidding. Trust me, my eyes have suffered enough.

Separate your tortillas into two stacks -- one stack of 4 and one stack of 3.

Cut the 4-stack into bite-sized pieces. These will be used to thicken your stew and add a soft, pasta-like texture.

Cut the 3-stack into strips. These will be fried and used as garnish (and create a terrific crunch for your stew).

Remove corn from the oven. It smells pretty awesome.

Toss corn and its seasoning with the jalapenos, garlic, tomatillos, cumin, and coriander (or garam masala).

Remove the chicken when its done but before it starts to get dry (about 45 minutes). Turn oven down to 200, but don't turn it off. You'll need it later.

Shred chicken.

In a stock pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over Medium High heat. Once the oil is hot, add your bell peppers and onions. Stir to coat evenly with oil. Cook until the onions are soft.

(If you happen to be distracted by an episode of Clean House and your onions burn a little bit, reduce the heat and hope no one will notice. If people do notice, tell them your vegetables were fire-roasted.)

Once your sort-of mirepoix is soft (and possibly a little burned), add canned diced tomatoes, black beans, jalapeno-tomatillo-garlic-corn mixture, and chicken. Stir to combine flavors.

Add two quarts of chicken stock. See those fire-roasted vegetables????

Lower heat to Simmer and go watch more crappy TV shows for 45 to an hour or so. It's stew, so you can get distracted all you want. Big deal.

After about an hour, add your bite-sized tortilla pieces. Stir to combine. Cover and wait until the stew has had a chance to thicken (maybe another 30-40 minutes).

While you're waiting for the stew to thicken, start frying the tortilla strips.

Pour a thin layer of vegetable or canola oil into a saucepan and turn to high. Once the oil is hot, fry the strips. Depending on the size of your saucepan, you should do this in phases. Only a single layer of strips is going to fry properly.

Once the tortilla strips are fried to a golden brown, spread them on a baking sheet and place in the oven until the stew is done. This will keep them crisp.

Once the stew is done, turn off the burner and oven heat. Remove the tortilla strips from the oven so they don't dry out.

(When you store the strips for leftovers, use a baggie with a paper towel inside. This can soak up excess oil.)

Some people serve Chicken Tortilla Stew (or soup) with garnishes like salsa, avocado, or other vegetables. I'm a meat-and-tortillas kind of person, and I think I put enough vegetables into the stew already.

For me, crispy tortilla strips and some mild, creamy panchego cheese crumbles provide the ideal textural contrast to the meaty, spicy, smoky, toothy, and, yes, veggie stew.

Friday, May 30, 2008

How To Sound A Gulp...Barbarically

Alert for a pretty little St. Louis food blog....

Sounding My Barbaric Gulp! by Kelly Schmickle (met her at a sneak preview of The Stables, can't wait to have another drink with'll see).

Go there. Read her. Learn about fiascos.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Best Sandwiches in St. Louis

For the best-looking version of this post (including one containing working links), please visit the MySpace home of STL Delicious. Also featured on that site are answers for Best Gyro (The Gyro Company on Gravois, per Julia Gulia) and Best Veggie Sandwich (Adrianna's on The Hill, per Lizzzzzzzz). Anyway....

After reading a recent New York Times article about the best new sandwiches in New York, I was inspired to write my own list of what I find to be the best sandwiches in St. Louis. I'm not sure how these rank with everyone else; if the RFT's Best Of list has taught me anything, it's that most St. Louisans don't share my tastes. My apologies to Tin Can. I heart your meatloaf but who the hell thinks that's the best mac n' cheese in the city? Cheese don't need sugar, people.

STL Delicious List of the Best Sandwiches in St. Louis

1. Best Overall Sandwich -- Cubano Sandwich at La Tropicana. Pulled pork roasted mojito-style (with rum!), ham, cheese, and pickles on pressed bread. I love pork, cheese, and bread. I hate pickles. But at La Tropicana, I eat the crisp, briny slices anyway. And I like them.

2. Best Burger -- O'Connell's. I've heard they simply throw them in the deep fryer, but I don't care.

3. Best Chicken Sandwich -- Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich at Square One Brewery. I admire any restaurant that can take something so simple, plain, and often abused and make it downright great. This sandwich comes on chewy ciabatta bread with thick bacon, scallions, a blend of cheeses (don't know which ones, don't care), and the absolute best honey mustard sauce ever. Seriously. It converted my formerly honey mustard-hating friend with a single bite.

4. Best Turkey Sandwich -- Southwest Turkey at Macklind Avenue Deli. Ah, my first ever STL Delicious review and the very first thing I tried on their menu. It still gets my vote for the cool lettuce, fresh red onion, and the addictive chipotle sauce.

5. Best Hot Roast Beef Sandwich -- Mama Toscano's. Despite the wonky hours of this Hill classic (perhaps better known for supplying area restaurants with my nemesis, toasted ravioli), the Hot Roast Beef is a tender wonder that moistens and flavors the bread without drenching it in salty, manufactured broth like you'll find in some other delis.

6. Best Meatball Sub -- Gioia's. It's not only the fat meatballs that make this sandwich great, it's the luscious marinara and the gooey, milky cheese. Extra points for eating it across the street in Berra Park.

7. Best Fish Sandwich -- Grilled Salmon at the Schlafly Tap Room. Simple. Tasty. Not fried (don't get me wrong, I do love me some fish and chips on occasion). Super red pepper sauce. Now, if they'd only put the same amount of energy into running their frequently-down Web site.

8. Best Seafood Sandwich -- (because there's a difference between freshwater fish and food from the sea) Louisiana Crab Cake Sandwich from Sage. You'll read all about it in the review I'm writing this weekend.

9. Best Muffaletta -- Blues City Deli. I'm sure you've seen them near the top of my friends list. Trust me, they wouldn't be there if their sandwiches weren't spectacular. A good portion of my newer friends were culled from their list, too, and I've had more than a few of you write to tell me your favorites on their menu.

10. Best Falafel -- Al-Tarboush. As a sucker for independent, family-owned, dead honest places in St. Louis, I cannot get enough of Al-Tarboush in The Loop. It helps that their falafel is crisp, warm, spicy, cool, and tangy at the same time. It helps that it goes so well with their lemony hummus platter. Lastly, it super helps that the owner is a nice guy who recognizes a girl in need and kindly lifts the "No Public Restroom" rule.

11. Best Burrito -- Chicken Mole Verde or Pork in Red Sauce with Spicy Potatoes at El Burrito Loco. Available in small, medium, or large sizes. Two mediums last me a couple of dinners. Another family-owned place that I'm thrilled to see doing well.

***Yes, I'm aware of the taquerias on Cherokee, but in this blog, tacos aren't sandwiches. Some other time, okay?***

12. Best Gyro -- I honestly don't know. Suggestions?

13. Best Breakfast Sandwich -- I'm about to lose any shred of credibility I have and Rooster is way cooler, but I'll always go for Hardee's Bacon Egg and Cheese Biscuit.

14. Best Breakfast Sandwich That Really Isn't a Breakfast Sandwich -- Bacon and Eggs Sandwich at Niche. Damn you, Gerard Craft, damn you for being so good. Congratulations on the Food & Wine Best New Chef nomination and everything, it's just that reservations will be hard to come by now. Just keep on with that so-super-succulent pork belly, okay?

15. Best Banh Mi -- Umm, Banh Mi So. Duh. Another one of those Al-Tarboush-like local suckerpunches to my belly. Banh Mi So is a place I'll probably never review because I love it so much. It's difficult to get me away from the pho, but their banh mi with crunchy veggies, peanuts, and juicy pork on french bread is my second favorite menu item.
16. Best Sandwich I Can't Categorize -- Peppered Pork Sandwich at Iron Barley. Bring a napkin. Better yet, bring eight.

Oh, I heart you Macklind Avenue Deli....

Where I've Been -- Excuses, Other Stories, and a Double Review!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's been awhile. Aside from the usual excuses (work, friends, laziness, fickle wireless connection), I've also been building the STL Delicious MySpace page. One of the MySpace posts, "Best Sandwiches in St. Louis," was unfortunately posted on MySpace before Blogger, meaning that it'll be a pain in the ass to re-type. Damn Ruper tMurdoch for poor formatting.

I'll post it here. I promise. Sometime.

Go out to MySpace if you just can't wait.

Anyway, I was all set to post a review of Sage, someplace I went nearly a month ago and just haven't gotten around to writing about yet. Then I realized that I'd been quite a few places and perhaps my inability to hammer out the entire Sage review wasn't such a bad thing. It was looking a little long, besides.

With this in mind, here's a rundown of where I've been lately and what I've been eating....

1031 Lynch St.
St. Louis, MO 63118
(314) 256-1203

Sage is located in the old Lynch Street Bistro space and looks about eight billion times better. The colors are softer. The bar is more welcoming. The crowd, at least the one that gathers around 7:00pm, isn't as business-heavy.

The bar itself stocks a decent wine selection, your typical liquors, and, of course, is heavily leaning towards the A-B portfolio for beer. I've got a wide range of tastes, so I was glad to order an elegant tulip glass of Shock Top Belgian White, a new seasonal-turned-year-round brew that's good enough to shut up the beer snobs. At least from what I've seen on the Internet, anyway.

The appetizer menu at Sage isn't particularly inspired, but it skews comfortably far from the toasted ravioli list so typical of just about every joint in Soulard. Our choices, the Trio of Mini Sandwiches and Cha-Cha Calamari, were pretty superb.

Sort of.

The Trio of Mini Sandwiches includes the following sandwiches: Beef Tenderloin with Horseradish Cream (hot-tangy horseradish butter, peppery beef, surprisingly tender for such a small piece), Louisiana Crab Cake with Roasted Red Pepper Spread (silky crab meat seasoned perfectly and not drowning in mayo or breadcrumbs), and Tuscan Chicken with Honey Mustard (kind of pointless, tasted like something from Wendy's).

With the exception of the "Tuscan" Chicken, the sandwiches were just fine...until we got to the calamari.

The Cha-Cha Calamari is listed on the menu as tossed in a Asian cream sauce, but it really tasted more like a honey and ginger glaze. While there were hints of fire and a subtle, lingering heat from the chiffonaded chilis, the real selling point of the calamari was its size and texture. The thick, meaty tendrils were cooked until just done, the light breading hadn't gone gummy, and the scallions provided just the right amount of crunch to keep the dish from turning leaden after one too many chews.

Which wouldn't have been necessary, anyway.

Forgive the poorly-lit picture, but below are our entrees, Boursin and Sun Dried-Stuffed Chicken Breast (foreground) and Sage Seafood Capellini (background).

I don't normally order chicken.

It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I rarely see the point. Chicken is boring. Chicken is bland. Chicken's got no cojones, at least not in 99% of the restaurants I've been to. But this one is made with pancetta gravy.

Mmmm, pancetta. Mmmmm, gravy.

After checking with our server, I was told that the pancetta gravy was not a "lame sauce" as I'd feared, but that it was indeed meaty, smoky, salty, and creamy enough to make me like chicken. Our server's assurance combined with the promise of boursin made me slightly disappointed when I actually tasted it.

The pancetta gravy was incredible, okay? Shredded pancetta studded the velvety gravy and caused me to reconsider my problems with breakfast gravy. The rest of the dish, however, was pretty underwhelming. The boursin might as well have been Philly cream cheese and the "sun dried tomato" was as neon orange and flavorless as cheap tomato powder.

What I tasted of my friend's Sage Seafood Capellini was decent. The pasta was slightly overcooked, but the clams, lump blue crab, and lemony artichokes (lots of artichokes) provided a double wallop of flavor and texture for a satisfying dish.

Sage's dessert menu relies on the shooter concept, that is, tiny shot glasses of dessert cakes, sauces, puddings, etc. that can safely be enjoyed after a huge meal. My decision, the blueberry bourbon brioche with a small puddle of vanilla cream, was FREAKING. FANTASTIC.


La Tropicana
5001 Lindenwood
St. Louis, MO 63109
(314) 353-7328

This isn't really a review.

How can it be? Everyone in St. Louis has been to La Tropicana. They know about the outstanding pernil, the roasted chicken, the cubano sandwich, and the charming patio. What does anything I have to say matter?

Well, it doesn't, but I feel guilty about the laziness and feel compelled to include a few things here. So here goes.

My most recent visit to La Tropicana was Cinco de Mayo. Luckily, Cinco de Mayo is the day before my birthday, a happy little circumstance that gives me double license to enjoy the hell out of some margaritas. La Tropicana gives me license to enjoy the hell of of them along with the very best sandwiches and roasted meats in the city.

As you'll see when you visit my Best Sandwiches in St. Louis post on MySpace, La Tropicana has the very best all-around sandwich in St. Louis. To quote myself....

Best Overall Sandwich -- Cubano Sandwich at La Tropicana. Pulled pork roasted mojito-style (with rum!), ham, cheese, and pickles on pressed bread. I love pork, cheese, and bread. I hate pickles. But at La Tropicana, I eat the crisp, briny slices anyway. And I like them.

I was all sandwiched out by Cinco de Mayo, so below you can check out the gorgeously caramelized roasted chicken, the blurry-yet-unbelieveably moist pernil (like I said, margaritas), and the addictive maduros, yuca, and spicy rice and beans paired with each one.

Terrific pane, too.

And I honestly don't remember how many of La Tropicana's margaritas I'd had by this point. I was with people, there were pitchers, I can't be expected to keep track of these things. I will say that La Tropicana's margaritas are far and away better than Chimichanga's, not quite as tasty as Lily's, but certainly bigger than both and absolutely heaven when paired with the food.