Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blind Burrito Tasting in The Mission

Blind Burrito Tasting of 2011!
The Mission-style burrito is a point of great contention. 
A 14+" tortilla filled to the brim with rice, beans, avocado, sometimes meat, sometimes sour cream and cheese, sometimes lettuce and/or salsa then wrapped tightly in tin foil, the Mission burrito is a behemoth of a thing. 
While some Angelenos have been known to criticize Bay Area burritos, the great debate locally lies in which Mission Burrito establishment can lay claim to title, 'The Best Mission Burrito'. It can become a very heated battle.
colorful decorations at Taqueria Cancun
DH and I are no experts on this matter, though we've each eaten enough behemoth burritos to be. For my money and my vote, I am always split between Taqueria Cancun and El Farolito. DH advocates Castillito is best but is never as heated on the debate and will usually concede to play the peacemaker.
Truth be told, the Mission burritos don't seem all that different in composition or appearance from one another, so how could there be such strong opinions on the matter? The only way to get to the bottom of these subtle differences would be to conduct a blind tasting.
Upon learning that our recent houseguests were not only excited about trying Mexican food in the States, but specifically in trying burritos here, we knew we had to conduct the test with them.
4 bags of burritos; a very beautiful thing
DH and I tag-teamed Mission street, and within 10 minutes time had 4 bags of burritos in our hot little hands!
For the taste test, we opted for our 3 combined favorites: Cancun, Castillito and Farolito. The 4th was Papalote, one we'd never tried but came highly recommended by a trustworthy source. In hindsight, Papalote should not have been included only because it is a completely different style eatery, more upscale Mexican Grill than bare-bones Taqueria. As Shannon said, perhaps it was good to have a 'ringer' in the bunch. 
In an effort to reduce variables, all burritos were vegetarian with black beans, guacamole/avocado, sour cream & cheese. El Farolito & Papalote charge extra for guacamole/avocado, cheese & sour cream FYI.
a very packed Dolores Park
Onto our beloved Delores Park to conduct the Blind Burrito Tasting of 2011!!!
I have never seen the park so packed full of hipsters of all kinds. DH always manages to have a funny insight about the 'scene' at Dolores Park, be it a 'Where's Waldo?' reference or a 'Warriors' reference that really captures the moment perfectly but I digress...
I numbered the 4 burritos, then split them in 2 and each couple shared a half. Since I numbered the burritos, I disqualified myself but happily partook in the eating! 
Burrito #1
The first burrito was met with enthusiastic praise by all three judges. Among the initial responses to Burrito #1:
-"creamy & delicious!"...Shannon
-"well distributed ingredients"...DH
-"muy suave"...Manu
For me, a little toast on the outside tortilla goes a long way. Not only does it add to the overall flavor and enjoyment of the burrito, it shows the burrito-maker cared enough to set the finished burrito on the griddle for just a minute or 2. It's the little things.
Burrito #2
Burrito #2 received a less enthusiastic response. This burrito tasted "heavy on rice" and "light on avocado". The "waxy tortilla" had "very little toast" on it. After only a few bites, the judges were ready to move on to the next.
great toast marks on Burrito #3
The first thing the judges noticed about Burrito #3 was the ample grill work on the outside of the tortilla. What also set this burrito apart was the pico de gallo salsa in the burrito. That said, the burrito was "heavy on rice" and "light on avocado & sour cream". Actually, the sour cream & avocado were all in the 'butt' of the burrito, evidence of "poor distribution". The general opinion of No. 3 was that it's a "good, solid burrito lacking good distribution". For Manu, this burrito was the winner. The way to a Spaniard's heart is through tomatoes! ;-)
Burrito #4
Burrito #4 tasted like "a simpler version of #1". The addition of lettuce in #4 was controversial; appreciated by DH and disliked by Shann, who preferred the onions & cilantro in this burrito. "Good distribution but a little lackluster" was the general opinion of Burrito #4. 
In the end, the votes were in and Burrito #1 was the winner. Burrito #3 was the winner for Manu, and was the close 2nd for Shann and DH. Everyone agreed #2 was the least favorite of the bunch, but no one would refuse any of these burritos given the chance.
And now for the unveiling!...

#1 Taqueria Cancun:
Taqueria Cancun exterior
Cancun Burrito; winner!
8.6 score
$5.41; including chips & (2) 1 oz. salsa containers (cheapest; 1st place!)

#2 Papalote Mexican Grill:
5.7 score
$6.83; including paltry amnt. chips & (1) roast tomato salsa (last place)

#3 Taqueria El Farolito:
7.9 score
$6.87; does not include chips, unlimited salsa
(largest/ most expensive) 2nd place!

#4 Taqueria El Castillito:
7.5 score
$5.62; includes chips & unlimited salsa
Castillo Burrito

All in all it was successful burrito tasting. By no means was it a definitive tasting, but everyone learned a lot and ate a lot more; a true measure of success in San Fran!
The Butts!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A perfect cure for a case of the Mondays...

simple dinner, padron peppers, wine & word games!
Sundays are bad but Mondays might arguably be worse. At least on Sundays there is still the freedom of free time. Mondays are back to work, back to reality...Bleck!  Mondays are particularly rough after the departure of fun houseguests, as was the case this past weekend.
Feeling low-down, DH and I decided to lift ourselves by the boot straps and go for a beautiful run along the Bay in Berkeley. Exercise can be an excellent anti-depressant.
from L to R: padron peppers, quinoa, big eye tuna
On the way home, we picked up some sushi grade big eye tuna & salad greens at BB.
I threw some quinoa on the stove while DH heated the panino press. Once the press was smoking hot, he threw the tuna on to sear for a minute or two on each side. We fried up some padron peppers we'd bought the day before at the Oakland farmer's market. (sidebar: Padron peppers are my latest obsession...the perfect snack, morning noon and night!)
seared cherry tomatoes
Once the peppers were finished, I threw some farmer's market tomatoes in the same hot pan to sear, then placed them atop lemony-dressed greens. 
The whole meal was as simple as simple can be and so perfect for the moment.
Nothing like a quick, 100pt. Scrabble game to cure even the worst case of the Mondays. ;-)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Spanish Tortilla with a Madrileno

Components of the Spanish Tortilla
Spanish tortilla, or 'tortilla de patatas' as it is known in Spain, resembles in no way, shape or form a Mexican tortilla. Rather, the Spanish tortilla consists of four simple ingredients: potatoes, olive oil, eggs and onions. 
A dash of milk and a sprinkling of salt is added toward the end for good measure.
These plain and simple ingredients that are in most kitchens at most times combine and transform into the most decadent, delicious and versatile dish around.
I've attempted to replicate the Spanish tortilla in my domestic kitchen several times and even once while camping, each time to varying success but they never tasted as authentic as in Spain.
Cooking w. our visiting Madrileno, Manu
My cousin, Shannon came to visit this past weekend with her boyfriend, Manu, who was born and raised in Madrid, Spain. Naturally, I decided to take advantage of the real Madrileno knowledge of our houseguest and put the Madrileno to work!
To be honest, I was secretly ecstatic Manu was willing to share the trade secrets of his mother's prized tortilla recipe. Upon preparing the dish, I learned no two tortilla recipes are the same and 'my mother's is better than yours' is the general opinion throughout the country.
Spanish Tortilla is often (deceivingly) translated into English as Spanish Omelet but the beauty and focus of the tortilla is all about the potatoes.
peeled potatoes sliced 1/8" thin
In order to accomplish the exquisite, oil-infused potato flavor of the tortilla, the potatoes are peeled, sliced 1/8" thin, then fully submerged in olive oil and cooked at a very low heat. 
In this way, the potatoes loosen up slowly, absorbing the aromatic olive oil along the way. 
Olive oil on very low heat
add peeled, sliced potatoes to the low-heat olive oil
next add the finely diced onions
Heat the oil to just above room temperature then add peeled, sliced potatoes. 
Add diced onions 1-2 minutes later. 
lightly beat eggs & a dash of milk in a SS bowl
oil-infused potatoes, ready to mix with eggs
drain potatoes and add to eggs
quickly mix potato mixture with eggs
While the potatoes are cooking, crack 4-5 eggs into a stainless steel bowl. 
Add a dash of milk and lightly beat the eggs. 
Once the potatoes are soft to the touch, scoop the oil-soaked potatoes into the eggs. The heat of the potatoes will slightly cook the eggs so work quickly to mix the eggs and potatoes mixture together. 
Once incorporated, pour the mixture back into the hot NONSTICK skillet pan. A good, nonstick pan is as important to the success of the dish as the potatoes and eggs.
Spanish tortilla setting over the heat
bravely & carefully flipping the tortilla
Within about 5 minutes, the tortilla is ready to be flipped. Use a flat plate, wide enough to cover the pan and bravely flip the tortilla from the pan onto the plate.
Slide the tortilla into the pan once more and cook for a few minutes more to ensure both sides are cooked.
2009 Auteur Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Spanish Tortilla w. baguette
We enjoyed our tortilla for dinner with a warm baguette and a superb Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from Auteur. The cold climate, rocky soil of the Durell Vineyard produces consistently exquisite wines for the best of the best California wineries, Auteur on that shortlist. The crisp, mineral-rich Chard was a delicious contrast to the rich, aromatic tortilla.
Spanish Tortilla as tapas
In Spain, the tortilla is eaten hot, cold or at room temperature any time of day. Often, sliced tortilla is placed into a baguette to make a bocadillo,or Spanish sandwich and it can be found sliced into bite-size pieces and served at any self-respecting tapas bar. 
Butterdate readers know well I fall hard for certain dishes and dream about them long after they are gone. I still dream of a bocadillo I ate every morning I was in Granada, 3 years ago. It consisted simply of a delicate slice of tortilla and a grilled pasilla-like green pepper between a crumbly baguette. Perfection!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Birthday Campout Cookoff

Los Padres National Forest
For the second year in a row, we loaded up the wagon once more and headed to Los Padres National Forest. The Los Prietos Campground is a lovely, oak-lined spot in the heart of the valley. The campsite is very convenient to LA and slightly less so to East Bay...the 5+ hour drive was well worth it though to be with old friends for my birthday.
two of our best cooks
Because there are so many food-focused friends among the pack of campers we split up the meal duties...and may I say, it could not have been more successful!
Every meal was delicious and delightfully different from the next.
It added a wonderful dimension to the weekend.
yes, that is walnut oil at the campsite!
For a low-key, lovely Thursday night, Satbhajan and Alice fired up some tasty chicken and veggie sausages and brought along homemade potato salad, pickles and pickled red onions to class up the joint.
veggie kilbasa w/ homemade pickled red onions, potato salad & pickles
homemade fixin's
DH and I mixed up some Nepenthe pancakes and slow-cooked scrambled eggs for Friday's breakfast.
Nepenthe pancake batter
our fearless leader, slow-cooking eggs
After a leisurely afternoon of wine tasting and picnicking at Brander Vineyards and Rusack Winery, we headed back to the campsite to swim in the river and greet the bulk of campers arriving Friday afternoon.
Alice, Sbjn & Juno at Brander
Sbjn & Juno at Rusack
Ziggy, in character
Brendan & Amanda at Rusack
Brendan, a.k.a. 2Pac, a.k.a. Paco pulled out all the stops for Friday night's dinner. Rolling 25+ deep, tacos were a fitting choice to feed the many hungry Panthers, ahem, campers! B cooked up an entire pork shoulder in the camping dutch oven using only a few choice spices and the heat of burning coals.
Grant F. assisting Brendan with hot coals
an honest to goodness oven! 
an entire pork shoulder
Amanda, his champion sous chef, prepped what must have been kilos of onions, cilantro and cojita cheese. Mike G. covered the vegan/veggie bunch with crispy kale and onions for the taco fixin's . Both taco options were perfectly suited for a lively night.
vegan vs. pork tacos 
amanda, master sous chef
Sally and Farah laid out an incredible spread for Saturday's breakfast. Poached eggs with garden fresh chives, matchstick potatoes with rosemary and buttery grilled bread sound more like high-end brunch menu offerings than camping cooking. Leave it to Sally for that.
Sally poaching, Farah frying
poached eggs w chives, grilled bread, rosemary potatoes & watermelon
Our pack of campers made their way to the river/watering hole up the road to lounge in the icy cold water for the afternoon. DH once aptly said "jumping off something, into something is the height of summer fun." 
Agreed DH, agreed.
Ziggy eyeing the agua
a beautiful day for a dip
A camping trip to the Los Padres National Forest would be incomplete without a proper trip to Cold Springs Tavern. If you've never made your acquaintance to the 'Tavern', make your way there immediately. Housed in an 1860's stagecoach, Cold Springs Tavern heralds icy cold beers, live music and some of the very best Tri-Tip sandwiches in the valley, and that's saying a lot. On any given day, there is a line of serious-as-a-heart-attack Harley bikers, taking a load off from the breathtaking routes of San Marcos Pass.
Cold Springs Tavern 
enjoying tri-tip sandwiches
Tri-Tip with salsa & dijon mustard
Cold Springs sandwiches were the unspoken highlight for most of our meat-eating campers. I am not much of a meat-lover myself and rarely miss it at veggie or vegan meals but when meat is this good, I can't get enough. My only regret of the day...hell!; the entire weekend, was not eating an entire one on my own! Sharing is for suckers when it comes to these sandwiches!
Stuart storytelling

Shannon, Marty & David
While we were all ready for a nap, Brendan insisted instead we venture out to Knapp's Castle instead. Just up the road from the campsite is one of the more extraordinary sites I'd never known existed. Built in 1916 at the edge of the world in the Los Padres Nat'l Forest, Knapp's Castle provides a breathtaking view of the Santa Ynez Valley. The impressive castle was the victim of a forest fire shortly after it was built but the foundations that remain resemble ancient ruins. 
Knapp's was a world better than a nap. ;-)
meghan m. at the edge
DH & matt btwn the walls
mike g.
ballerina amanda
josh b.
emily m. acrobatics in the amphitheater
After a whirlwind day, everyone was ready for a mellow evening cuddled up by the campfire. And what better way to unwind than with Chilean hot dogs made by our fellow Chilean camper, Sebastian. David and Sebastian grilled up traditional, turkey and veggie dogs and topped them with mashed avocado, diced tomato and mayonnaise. So simple and so so delicious.
Chilean completo hot dog

david v. mashing avocados
fresh diced tomatoes
master and creator
For the grand finale, Amelia and Amanda M. made happy campers of us all with the much talked about doughboys. Doughboys, if you haven't had the pleasure of making and eating one, consists of Pillsbury crescent rolls (resist judgement, you'd love it) wrapped around a wooden dowel, toasted over the campfire, then filled with butter, jam, ect. I opted for orange marmalade and dubliner cheese in mine.
Amelia schooling the doughboys
bread & egg dish above; doughboys on the fire below 
finished doughboy
empty inside of the doughboy
orange marmalade & cheese inside
The doughboys were the surprise hit of last year's camping trip and have come up in in concert with camping conversations ever since. The girls made 2 delicious egg dishes and soyrizo with potatoes but let's get real, doughboys are where its at.
Amanda M. working the soyrizo potatoes
bread, egg & tapenade dish
frittata birthday 'cake'
A big thanks to all who came out and cooked their hearts out. It was an incredible birthday and a legendary weekend.
I'll leave you with another DH truism...
'weekends shouldn't be this fun'