COOL FEST XI
is over and damn if it wasn’t a total and utter blast. When I started working on the menu for the fest’s culinary counterpart (aka COOL FEAST), I wanted it to be something personal, something that related to me in a genuinely intimate way. (I was inspired by Sasha’s
thoughtful approach to the cooking-for-musicians conundrum). I focused on San Diego Mexican food, which is easy to make gluten-free (why is everyone gluten-free these days, anyway?), easy to make in advance, easy to make for huge groups of people, and easy on the wallet. Plus, tacos. Who doesn’t want a taco at a concert? Exactly.
I created a menu full of dishes that I know and love, food for which I barely need recipes. There was a spicy, smoky chipotle-infused ropa vieja (protip #1: flank steak is cheap and braises well!), tucked into warm corn tortillas from Maya
with briny red onions and soft queso fresco. There was a succotash studded with creamy lima beans, kernels of corn, diced jalapenos and poblanos, and the bright, warm kiss of tomatoes.
I soaked rice for two days to make my famous homemade horchata, which has only three ingredients: raw rice, cinnamon sticks, and cold water. (Rick Bayless has a great recipe
that also includes blanched almonds). With the help of a cheesecloth, anyone can make this sweet, milky nectar. (Protip #2: Add a shot of vodka to a cup for an instant Natasha-cocktail classic, the White Mexican, aka the cheaper cousin of the White Russian).
One of my favorite Mexican snacks is a vegetable escabeche
that I discovered through Lottie + Doof. I make this, no joke, all
the time. It keeps for weeks in the fridge, is dirt cheap to make, and is spicy, crunchy, and thoroughly satisfying. My friend Xarah kept sneaking over to the pot to pluck out pieces of fennel and green beans, it was the cutest. The escabeche (usually a technique
reserved for fish) reminds me exactly of the pickled onions and carrots at burrito shops in San Diego, except spicier and fried in oil. So, even better.
What else? I stewed black beans in lard and epazote (protip #3: avoid dried epazote; the stuff tastes and smells like medicine. You’re better off with substituting dried Mexican oregano, or waiting for fresh epazote in the summer) and served it with smoked paprika-scented rice. On day two, I roasted a tray of petite cornish game hens, powdered with cumin and stuffed with garlic cloves and wedges of lime, and then doused the whole charred, juicy bird in a rich tomatillo salsa (protip #4: I always use canned tomatillos. Just so much easier). I also fried a huge pan of spicy chorizo, tossed some cubed potatoes in the sausage grease and a little butter, and blasted it in the oven until crispy and golden.
These was a rich black bean soup, pureed to silkiness, and topped with a tangy cilantro-infused crema and deep-fried chips that I made with the stale tortillas from the night before (protip #5: sneak as many of these salted chips into your mouth prior to serving, or else you will be sorry. Very sorry).
But my favorite thing, and really, it’s a soup I will be making quite a bit this winter, was the rich, spicy pork posole soup I made Friday night. Posole simmers in water for hours with a few chopped onions and garlic cloves while the pork (I used a combination of trotters, pork butt, and pork shank) boils in another pot of water. I added lots of other flavors to enrich the broth, including chipotles packed in adobo, dried Mexican oregano, garlic cloves, dried avocado leaves, bay leaves, smoked paprika, cumin, and ancho chiles.
After a few hours, the pork is shredded and set aside, while the broth is strained and added to the pot of posole. I threw the pork back in, and let it simmer for a few more hours. By the way, this was the biggest pot of soup I have ever made. It was fun to stir it, like I was a witch and the soup was in my cauldron full of secrets. Posole: recommended for maximum witchy vibes.
Adam pointed out that the best part of the soup, really, was the crunchy, fun toppings that were dumped on the soup and flash-cooked in the hot broth, sort of like a Mexican pho. Toppings included shredded cabbage dressed in vinegar, cilantro leaves, and sliced radishes, all of which became slightly supple when demi-poached in the porky broth. This is heartening soup, a soup that makes you feel good, makes you feel stronger, better, and happier.
Ropa vieja + pickled red onions + queso fresco
Stewed vegan succotash + slaw
Paprika-scented rice + creamy black beans
Rojo pork posole + fixings
Spicy veggie escabeche
Homemade (vegan!) horchata
Roasted cornish game hens + tomatillo sauce
Crispy roast potatoes + picante chorizo
Red cabbage + lime vinaigrette + avocado
Black bean soup + cilantro-infused crema
Spicy veggie escabeche + roasted tomato salsa
Mexican hot chocolate
Guys, this was a rewarding weekend. I sold out of everything. EVERYTHING. Saturday night, people were still asking me for food, and I was rummaging through the pantry and fridge, trying to figure out if I could get away with serving the audience things like roasted potatoes in a bowl, doused in crema, salsa, and hot sauce. (I did get away with it). At 10pm, people were still hungry, so I defrosted the rest of my pork posole from the following night and dished it out to relieved concertgoers, for $1 a pop.
And this report isn’t even getting into the tremendously awesome music (Man Made Hill, my favorite musical discovery of 2011), the wonderful and smart people, the genuine sense of community, friendship, and teamwork that I was a part of that weekend. What a way to end 2011.