Migas: Tex-Mex Scrambled Eggs and Corn Tortillas

I guess I’m not surprised that the blogosphere has exploded with Cinco de Mayo recipes and party ideas. This is one psudo-holiday that North Americans have embraced with gusto…er, I mean entusiasmo. Devoid of religious trappings or forced familial obligations, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to let loose with friends, indulge in platter after platter of nachos, enchiladas and tacos, and drink a few too many margaritas — be they strawberry, mango, coconut, guava, or some other tropical but none-too-authentic flavor.

But Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States are unlike those in Mexico. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any real celebrations in Mexico at all. The military defeat of the French army by Mexican troops on May 5th, 1862, in the city of Puebla was indeed historically important to the the Pueblans, but it is not recognized throughout Mexico the way it is north of the border.

I recently listened to an NPR news story that encapsulated my feelings about the holiday. Entitled “Cinco De Mayo: Whose Holiday Is It, Anyway,” the story made the case that Cinco De Mayo celebrations in the United States are really Mexican-American celebrations…a way of recognizing Mexican cultural heritage in a uniquely Mexican-American way. And if Cinco de Mayo is a day to recognize the contributions and influences of the Mexican diaspora on the fabric of American culture, have I got a recipe for you.

Spicy, salty, comforting and crunchy, migas hits the spot at brunch

Spicy, salty, comforting and crunchy, migas hits the spot at brunch…or anytime

Migas are a Tex-Mex dish influenced less by traditional Mexican cooking than by Spanish and Portuguese dishes. In those countries migas are, at their most basic, a mixture of bread and eggs flavored with a variety of savory ingredients. But in the southwestern United States, where the influences of Mexican cooking are most widely felt, migas are a popular breakfast or brunch dish made with leftover corn tortillas, eggs, onions, tomatoes, and a variety of other things that can include bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, hot sauce and cheese.

Curious about migas? Keep reading to learn more and get our recipe for this great breakfast/brunch dish.

Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables with Chickpeas

Once upon a time I thought that good parenting meant protecting my Sprouts from harm. Bumpers around the hearth, child-proof outlet covers and those infuriating two-handed tether locks on bathroom cabinets.

All good ideas, but sometimes our girls have as much to teach me as I have to teach them. Like, good parents also know when to let their kids test their limits. Take, for instance, Daughter 1’s growing enthusiasm for helping prepare meals. For a long time I’ve selected the “safe” kitchen tasks for her and her sister…getting out the ingredients, measuring (great for building math skills!), mixing, etc. Any steps that required the use of flame or sharp implements I reserved for myself. But every self-respecting six-year-old wants the opportunity to prove themselves, to feel a little grown-up and tackle tasks which they previously were not allowed to tackle.

Get our recipe for roasted mediterranean vegetables with chickpeas that is so easy a six-year-old can make it (with just a little help from mom or dad)!

Tempting Vegetable Tempura

That you can make a good tempura at home was a bit of a revelation to me. That it can be part of a healthy diet was even more surprising. Until recently my tempura cravings were usually indulged at Japanese restaurants, and I chose the word “indulged” carefully there because that’s just how the meals felt: indulgent. Piles of shrimp, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, heavily batter-dipped and deep fried, served with a salty soy-based dipping sauce.

Now, there’s no getting around the fact that tempura is, indeed, a deep-fried dish. But even frying has its place when done correctly. Our corn kakiage was one of our first home forays into tempura land, inspired by a recipe from Nancy Singleton Hachisu in her wonderful cookbook Japanese Farm Food. In it, Nancy includes several tempura dishes but casually mentions that tempura is actually quite difficult to get right. Please don’t be dissuaded though. With a little practice, this is a dish that never fails to impress.

Impress away. Get the recipe for tempting vegetable tempura here.

“Real” Fried Rice with Chicken, Broccoli, and Eggplant

Most of the time when we order out Chinese, the first thing I do (after sneaking a bite of lo mien – can’t help myself) is take a close look at the extra soy sauce packets littering the bottom of the take-out bag. The sad reality is that at a fair number of Chinese restaurants, this isn’t even soy sauce but a “complementary” salty caramel-colored liquid. Seriously. Not a hint of fermented soy anywhere in that pack.  Read the ingredients the next time…if it doesn’t have soybeans (and, for most Chinese and Japanese brand soy sauces, wheat or another grain as well) among the first two or three ingredients, all you’re really getting is pre-packaged brown salty water. Toss those babies in the garbage and grab your own bottle of good-quality soy sauce instead.

The good, the bad, and the ugly...but you don't need any of these for fried rice

The good, the bad, and the ugly…but you don’t need any of these for fried rice

In my mind, there is another frequent soy sauce transgression that is too often tolerated and which I’d like to set about changing.  The American palate — mine included — loves that salty umami flavor. So much so that soy sauce gets added in copious amounts to Americanized versions of Chinese dishes where it isn’t needed and wasn’t traditionally used.

Take, for instance, fried rice. If you’re making your own — and once you do, you’ll realize just how easy it is — you’ll need a good recipe. Until recently nearly every one I came across used soy sauce in some way…either in an oyster sauce/soy sauce “dressing,” or as a base into which other flavors like ginger and garlic are mixed before being added to the rice. They all seemed pretty good until I tried the “real” fried rice in the late Barbara Tropp’s cookbook, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, which gets its cleaner, lighter flavor from regular old salt and Chinese rice wine or sherry.

I’ve since read in a number of places that no real Chinese cook would use soy sauce in a traditional fried rice, though I’m pretty sure there are a number out there — in China, no less — who probably do. But, if you really want to give your taste buds a treat with a dish that actually tastes like the sum of its ingredients and NOT the salty goo you find at the bottom of an empty take-out container…try the recipe I’m about to share.

We based this on Barbara’s “Real Fried Rice” recipes — she has three variations in her book — but took some generous liberties with ingredients to suite ours’ and our daughters’ palates and to use the ingredients we had on hand. Fried rice, after all, originated as a way to make good use of leftovers and anything that may have gone to waste. On the plus side, many of the veggies in this dish came from our farm share and traveled less than 10 miles to get to our kitchen. We also used chicken left over from our Grilled Soy-Ginger-Garlic Drumsticks, so I guess, in a way, some soy sauce did sneak in to this recipe after all. You can use just about any leftover cooked meat instead (pork, beef, etc.), or throw in a handful of small, peeled raw shrimp that will cook with the rice toward the end, or even omit the meat all together for a vegetarian feast. Leave out the egg as well and it’s vegan. See, economical AND good for us, which are two things with which take-out Chinese just can’t compete.

There are several additional points you need to know in order to prepare a fried rice that would make any Chinese grandmother — or grandfather — proud: 1) use day-old leftover rice…or at the very least, make your rice early in the day and let it cool, uncovered, to room temperature before using it in this recipe,  2) cook your ingredients in the same pan but in batches, moving those you’ve finished cooking to a clean plate off the heat before moving on to the next ingredient, and 3) don’t add too much oil at any point during the frying process and make sure the oil is hot and shimmering before adding any ingredient.

Another great tip: have all your veggies prepped in a mise en place (fancy French term for, roughly, “all cut and lined up in little bowls, ready to go”). My French could use some work, I know, but you definitely want to do this — the frying takes nearly no time once you start and you don’t want to stop and cut up the next vegetable in the middle of it all.

Coming together in the sauté pan

Coming together in the sauté pan

So my advice is, save your soy sauce for a recipe in which it’s really needed and give this version of real fried rice a try. It’s incredibly easy, healthier than take-out, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be a convert. And hey, if you like a little soy sauce with your fried rice, try sprinkling some on at the table. It’s not forbidden, just not necessary!

“Real” Fried Rice with Chicken, Broccoli and Eggplant

2 cups long-grain rice, preferably an Asian variety, cooked and cooled, uncovered, to room temperature or refrigerated overnight (this should end up being between 5 and 6 cups of cooked, cooled rice)
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed into 1 inch squares
1 medium head of broccoli, including tender parts of the stem, trimmed into bite-size pieces
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 garlic clove, minced
2 scallions, white and light green parts thinly sliced
1 egg, beaten
2 cups leftover cooked chicken, shredded into bite-size pieces (we used the meat from 6 soy/ginger/garlic drumsticks, but you can use whatever you have available, or omit the meat entirely)
4 1/2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
3 tablespoons dry (seco) sherry or Chinese cooking wine
1 teaspoon Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Salt the eggplant cubes and allow to drain for 30 minutes before patting dry and spreading out on a baking sheet lined with foil (non-stick foil if you have it). Roast eggplant for 30 – 45 minutes until tender. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium high heat in a 12-inch non-stick skillet or wok. Begin by sautéing the celery and carrots until softened. Remove vegetables from the skillet onto a clean plate, wipe skillet clean and return the skillet to the stove top. Add 1 more tablespoon oil. When shimmering, sauté the bell pepper, broccoli, and garlic until crisp-tender. Remove vegetables from the skillet onto the plate with the celery and carrots. Wipe the skillet clean and return to heat. Add 1/2 tablespoon oil and quickly cook the beaten egg, swirling the pan and using an extra set of wooden chopsticks to continually move the puffed up cooked egg from the bottom of the pan to create large “curds.” Do not allow the egg to become too dry or browned. Remove the egg as soon as it’s cooked from the skillet onto the plate with the vegetables.

Wipe the skillet clean one more time and return to heat. Add the last 2 tablespoon oil and bring to medium-high heat. Add the rice and sauté until grains begin to separate. Turn down the heat if rice grains begin to scorch. If rice is sticking, add a bit more oil from the side of the pan. Once rice grains are nicely coated and sizzling, add the sherry to the pan (it should sizzle and begin to evaporate) and mix well. Add the salt and mix again. Add the leftover chicken, the scallion, and then the reserved vegetables including the eggplant and the egg (broken into smaller pieces), stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients.

Correct for seasoning, adding more salt if needed, and serve immediately.

Serves: 6 – 8, depending on whether you serve it as a main dish or generous side.

I heart fried rice

I heart fried rice

Parent rating: Four stars. This is a dish we come back to again and again because it just makes sense and it can be different every time we make it. It’s a great way to use up leftovers though we often make it just because. Because we have a lot of fresh produce on hand. Because we’re craving Chinese and want something better for us than take out. Just because.
Kid rating: Three stars. Daughter 1 and daughter 2 both love rice. And carrots. And broccoli (well…one out of two isn’t bad). Celery, bell peppers, scallions…not so much. And eggplant is a bit of a deal-breaker. So when I serve this I find myself picking through and plating only the approved veggies for them. Which, though time-consuming, works pretty well until an errant scallion is spotted. Still, I appreciate that they do eat fried rice, trying different tastes along the way if prompted. You could leave out anything your family won’t eat, or consider adding ingredients like mushrooms, peas, edamame, etc., to make your own version of this satisfying dish. Don’t overload it too much though. You want a balance of rice and veg to make this a truly satisfying dish.

A final little note: if you’re looking for the cubes of eggplant in the photos and don’t see any, well, that’s because I kept our eggplant off to the side for fear of turning dinner into a “hunt for the eggplant” exercise. My husband and I had some with ours, but the girls did not, and it’s their version I ended up photographing. I still suggest you add it in when cooking unless your kiddos, like mine, might stage a meal-time mutiny if they find it on their plate.

Late Summer Salsa with Grilled Corn, Avocado and Tomatoes

I look forward to the change of seasons with both anticipation and a hint of sadness. How could summer be over so soon I ask myself every year. But just as I’m lamenting the fact that the beach towels have officially entered their winter hibernation in the linen closet, I remember what a great season fall really is.

Autumn arrived this past weekend and with it plans of apple picking, pumpkin carving and hay rides. Mulled cider will soon be on the menu to take the chill of already brisk evenings. All good things, but I still feel the need to send summer off with an appropriate tribute. A “same time, next year” kind of thing.

By the looks of things, the crowd at the local Saturday’s West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market felt the same way. Shoppers are still picking up some lovely late summer produce. The last of the fresh peaches, corn, and plums sit next to pears, kale and other fall crops. I suppose this really is the best of all worlds — a way to transition out of the steamy summer months and into a season that brings us back indoors, to the proverbial hearth…and to weekend afternoons spent watching college football, the MLB playoffs, and Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday) NFL games.

Best of all worlds - summer and fall crops at the West Windsor Community Farmer's Market

Best of all worlds – summer and fall crops at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market

With all that going on, a great summer send off is something that can be eaten in front of the TV, beer (or sippy cup) in one hand, nibbles in the other. If you’re already grilling up some hickory-smoked chicken thighs, a strip steak or sausages and can still get some good fresh corn, I recommend you try:

Salsa with a side of chips...and steak

Salsa with a side of chips…and steak

Late Summer Salsa with Grilled Corn, Avocado and Tomatoes

3 ears of corn
1 ripe avocado, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 large heirloom tomato, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 scallions, whites thinly sliced (discard green tops, or freeze for later use in stocks)
1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1 lime, juiced
1 jalapeño, finely sliced (optional)
Tortilla chips and sour cream for serving
1 tablespoon diced fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)

Prepare your grill for indirect grilling, heating up coals on one side of the grill to a temperature of approximately 350 degrees. If cooking on a gas grill, light only one side of your grill. (For an explanation of direct vs. indirect grilling, see this earlier post on hickory-smoked chicken thighs.) Prep your corn by pulling back — but not removing — the husk. Take the corn silk off each ear of corn as best you can, and bring the husk back up over the ear, securing at the top with a piece of twine or a piece of corn husk. Soak the corn in water to cover for 30 minutes.

Place the ears of corn on the cooler side of your grill and cook for 15 – 20 minutes, rotating the ears of corn several times during the grilling. The corn will cook inside the husk. Be careful not to burn the corn husks, though they may get a little charred in places and this is NOT a bad thing…just adds some smoky flavor to the dish.

When the corn is tender, remove from the grill and allow to cool before husking. Then break each ear in half and, on a large cutting board, cut the kernels off each ear (you don’t have to break the corn in half, but I find it easier to handle this way).

Note – if you want to skip the grilling and just husk and boil your corn on the stove top, go nuts. Your salsa will not be as smoky, but you will save time.

Corn off the cobs

Corn off the cobs

Put the corn into a large mixing bowl and add the avocado, tomato, scallions, bell pepper, lime juice, jalapeño slices, and salt and pepper to taste.

You can serve this in a variety of ways but we scooped sour cream into dipping bowls and topped with the salsa, a sprinkle of cilantro, and served the chips on the side. You could just as easily serve the sour cream and salsa separately, or forgo the sour cream entirely.

Serves: 4 – 6

One of our favorite kitchen gadgets - the lime juicer

One of our favorite kitchen gadgets – the lime juicer

Parent rating: Five stars. Great go-to on game day. It makes great use of the last corn, tomatoes and peppers of the summer, plus I feel like the family gets an extra serving of veggies while noshing. This even makes a good dinner when served with chicken or perhaps a side of rice and beans.
Kid rating: Five stars, without jalapeños. One star with. Our girls with gobble this down as long as it’s not too spicy. Dips are always fun. Dips with lots of veggies = touchdown!

The Mighty Rice Bowl: Brown Rice with Oven-Roasted Vegetables

It’s back to school week in New Jersey and time seems to be at a premium. Backpacks to be packed, teachers to meet, and, thankfully, end-of-summer play dates squeezed between it all to take our minds off the colder seasons ahead (not that we’re complaining…I love autumn in the Northeast!).

This week’s CSA pick-up got squeezed in around all of that. Daughter 1 and daughter 2 followed me around the farm this week for pick-your-own cherry tomatoes (Sun Golds, red, and grape varieties), okra, peppers, herbs and flowers. We also came home with onions, squash, scallions, lettuce, beets…made me almost want to find an actual cornucopia and fill it. Almost. But, pulling in the garage at 6:00 PM without a dinner plan could have spelled disaster. I was thinking on my feet by that time and, wanting to avoid a total evening meltdown, turned to the ever-popular but sometimes forgotten rice bowl.

Pick-your-own at Cherry Grove Organic Farm. Does that include clover?

Pick-your-own at Cherry Grove Organic Farm. Does that include clover?

Looking back, the day daughter 1 actually agreed to eat rice was a turning point in our dinner preparations. I should be able to remember exactly when that was but it was probably the frustration of serving chicken nuggets and tater tots one too many times combined with far too many “please just try it” moments that has somehow blotted that memory from my mind (kind of like childbirth, I suppose…which, though more painful, certainly ended sooner).

We now have no fewer than five varieties of rice in the pantry and our Zojirushi rice cooker spends more time on the counter than on the shelf. (Don’t have one? Go splurge for one right now and thank me later!)

For our rice bowl dinner we choose short grain brown rice, ready in under an hour (just enough time to get the kids in and out of the bath — I was multitasking here and made good use of the “down time” while things cooked). And with all those super fresh veggies our plan came together pretty quickly.

This is a great meal to have in the repertoire because you can tailor it to suit any given food whim or craving. At its most simple, it’s just a bowl of rice topped with, well, stuff. Our stuff this week was roasted veggies — and I had a portion that was completely vegetarian. You could just as easily cut up some cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes and have a kind of hot/cold salad combo. Or, stir fry broccoli, carrots, ginger and scallions and top with a fried egg. Add meat. Or don’t. The rice is just a blank canvas — add whatever you like!

Roasted eggplant, peppers, carrots and onions atop a bed of brown rice

Roasted eggplant, peppers, carrots and onions atop a bed of brown rice

Here’s what went into ours:

The Mighty Rice Bowl: Short Grain Brown Rice with Oven-Roasted Vegetables

2 cups short grain brown rice
2 medium eggplants, trimmed and cut into 2 inch cubes
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch sections
1  red bell pepper, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 green bell pepper, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 onion, sliced top-to-bottom into 1/2 inch strips (not rounds)
1 large handful — about a cup — of cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Several grinds pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon basil chiffonade
A drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for serving
Protein of choice…I used 2 ounces of feta cheese, crumbled, but you could also top with several ounces of poached and seared shrimp, or several links of Italian sausage, cooked and cut into rings (or some combination of any of those ingredients)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cook the rice according to directions and, when finished, keep warm.

While the rice cooks combine all the cut vegetables in a large bowl and stir in the olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme, coating the veggies well. Spread the veggies into one layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for approximately 30 minutes, until the carrots, eggplant and tomatoes have softened and the peppers and onions have just barely started to brown. Don’t let the veggies burn though — you might have to keep your eyes on them during the last 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

Reduce oven to 350 degrees and roast for another 30 minutes until quite tender. You may want to stir the veggies slightly during this time to redistribute on the baking sheet and to make sure they cook evenly without scorching.

To serve, put approximately 1 cup of cooked rice into each serving bowl and top with equal amounts of the veggies. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and about 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar. Top with some basil and a small amount of crumbled feta or whatever protein you choose to use (or not…the veggies are quite good on their own).

Serves: 4

Parent rating: five stars. I went for the all-vegitarian version with a little feta. The basil was the unsung hero of this dish, added at the end for a light, fresh note. Delicious, reasonably fast, and if you double the quantity it makes a great day 2 lunch. Also packs quite easily, so I sent daughter 2 to school with leftovers (she requested it, over a turkey and cheese sandwich offered as an option!).
Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. I cheated a little bit and didn’t serve any eggplant or basil in their portions, which neither of them particularly like. I loaded up on the carrots for them though, and also put a couple of shrimp on top. Also, daughter 1 didn’t get any balsamic. I think that really talks to the versatility of this dish…add what you want, omit what you don’t like. It’s all good. Very, very good.

Penne with Italian Sausage, Summer Squash, Green Beans, Feta and Olives

This was another fast and easy beach house dinner, pulled together in the short time between coming in from the ocean and heading back out to the boardwalk in the evening (I recommend cooking with sand between your toes at least once in your life – it will do you well). It made good use of the farmer’s market veggies in the crisper as well as the pantry staples we’d brought with us.

Jersey fresh produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer's market

Jersey fresh produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer’s market

One pot, one sauté pan, and a cutting board. Prep and clean up were a snap.

Best of all, everyone liked this dish with daughter 1 calling it “yummy.” We even got both girls to try different flavor combinations (the feta with a bite of squash, a green bean with a bit of sausage…).

You could freelance on this recipe quite a bit with equally good results. We added just two links of Italian sweet sausage but this recipe could be made without meat just as easily. Use zucchini instead of summer squash. Put in a red or green bell pepper instead of the purple one I used. Or use an Italian frying pepper instead. Have some broccoli? Throw that it. Don’t like feta? Use goat cheese, or even cubed Parmesan. I think you’ll find it all works.

Full plate, pretty colors

Full plate, pretty colors

Have fun with this one! And then, go out and have some fun after dinner too.

Penne with Italian Sausage, Summer Squash, Green Beans, Feta and Olives

1/2 pound penne pasta
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (I used a purple bell pepper)
2 medium summer squash, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 cup green beans, washed and cut to 2-inch lengths
1 garlic clove, diced
2 sweet Italian sausage links, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
4 ounces feta cheese, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, sliced
1 tablespoon diced parsley

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook penne pasta according to directions.

As penne is cooking, heat olive oil in sauté pan over medium heat and add onion and bell pepper. Cook 1 – 2 minutes, until slightly softened, and add squash and green beans. Cook, stirring, until squash has begun to soften and brown slightly at the edges and green beans are tender – another 5 minutes. Add garlic and sausage and continue to cook another 3 – 4 minutes.

When pasta is done and drained, add it to the sauté pan with the vegetables and sausage. Mix in the feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and parsley, and serve.

Serves: 4 – 6

An almost-finished dinner

An almost-finished dinner

Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. Plates were nearly cleaned at the end of the meal and we actually had good dinner table conversation about the ingredients and how they tasted. Daughter 1 talked about the “tang” of the cheese (really!). A win.
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. For a quick and easy pasta/veggie dish, this was one of the better ones we’ve had in a while. Maybe it was the way the saltiness of the feta and olives complemented the squash, or how the sausage blended so nicely in with the other elements to create a bit of a sauce for the pasta. Regardless, this one is a keeper.