Black Bean, Cheese and Chicken Burritos

We were at a picnic this past weekend when talk turned, as it does in the presence of flaming grills and groaning sideboards, to “repurposing” leftovers. There are two camps that take sides during these types of conversations: the “I can’t get enough” group who happily eats their way through the Tupperware jungle in their refrigerator, and the “give me something new” folks who simply can’t stand to have the same dishes night after night.

Who knew that we were introducing such a heated (pun intended) topic into the conversation! It seems that, once you’ve found your tribe, there is little that will change your perspective on eating leftovers.

Around here we have some cross-pollination of opinions and that makes for an interesting week of menu planning. My “waste not, want not” mindset gets a little trying for the rest of the family, who tire of seeing progressively wilted specimens on their plates as the week wears on.

Which is why I like the idea of “repurposing” as much as I do. It’s not the “same old, same old,” but neither have I resorted to tossing the Sunday leftovers in the trash (for shame!). Personally, I find this to be the mark of a good and frugal cook: someone who can take what they have on hand and serve it up in a new and tasty way. Element of surprise and all that — just don’t get too creative, which is a lesson we learned in the Split Pea Soup with Ham post. Plus, with the busy lives we lead, who really has the time to make a full dinner from scratch every night? Oh, what a luxury that would be, though I think I’d go broke trying to cook that way!

For those like-minded individuals who are trying to use up the last of this past weekend’s barbecue fixings I have this advice: consider the burrito.

A little bit of everything in these burritos: rice, beans, chicken and cheese

A little bit of everything in these burritos: rice, beans, chicken and cheese

I’m hardly being original here, but if you haven’t had burritos at home in a while this is your reminder to put them on the menu this week. Grab a big flour tortilla, fill it with some traditional ingredients like rice, cheese and beans, and then toss in those leftover proteins or veggies. Grilled chicken is perfect. Steak would be great. Lettuce, mushrooms, tomatoes, grilled onions or zucchini….all wonderful in a burrito.

Our Black Bean, Cheese and Chicken Burritos redeem those Memorial Day leftovers. Keep reading for the easy recipe!

Quick Tortilla Soup

Cinco de Mayo has come and gone. We’ve made it to Ocho de Mayo — a date that is arguably more significant to Mexican-American relations than the margarita-fest that May 5th has become. May 8th is the day in 1846 on which the Battle of Palo Alto — the first battle in the Mexican-American War — was fought outside of what is now Brownsville, TX.

The Battle of Palo Alto is a more somber — and potentially more divisive — battle than that of the Mexican army defeating French forces in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. The Mexican-American War that it precipitated still strikes a raw nerve in Mexico and the southwestern United States alike. Indeed, the losses suffered by Mexico following the two-year-long war eventually led the Mexican president to suspend debt payments to other countries for a period of two years, during which time the French, among other countries, sent forces to Mexico to demand that existing debts be paid…leading, eventually, to the Battle of Puebla.

That it took this political turmoil — both in 1846, and in 1862 — to set culinary wheels in motion is somewhat ironic. Mexico ceded over half of its national territory to the United States in the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, but that territory — land now located in the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California — retained and evolved its Mexican culinary origins. These are the places that gave rise to such dishes at nachos, chimichangas, chili, and the modern burrito — none of which are native to Mexico, but which have evolved in the United Sates from Mexican origins.

If all this is a little much to wrap your head around on a food blog, I suggest pondering it over a bowl of what is, actually, a true Mexican dish, but which has itself evolved once north of the border: Tortilla soup.

Simple ingredients result in a spectacular tortilla soup -- don't forget the avocados

Simple ingredients result in a spectacular tortilla soup — don’t forget the avocados

In addition to being a microcosm of Mexican cooking in a bowl, Tortilla soup is a great dish to put on the menu following Cinco de Mayo because it helps any thrifty chef use ingredients left on hand. It’s easy to prepare (this version, at least), packed with flavor and complexity, and a crowd-pleaser. Definitionally, this may be a “Leftover Soup,” but it’s another one that disguises itself as a “Showstopper Soup.” (See our post on Split Pea Soup for an explanation on what we mean by that!)

The Mexican ingredients in Tortilla Soup come together quickly in this satisfying meal. Keep reading for our recipe and more.

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.

Black Bean Soup with Diced Avocado and Mexican Crema

Dinner. Party. Two of my more favorite words which, together, equal a pretty glorious occasion. This week we had the pleasure of hosting two college friends of mine, one of whom is both vegetarian and visiting from Singapore, and the other of whom I owe an undying debt of gratitude for putting up with me for three years as my college roommate. They both reminded me of some of my early culinary endeavors, though I recollect even more clearly the fortune of having our apartment freezer stocked with slice after slice of pillowy Sicilian pizza complements of my roommate’s father, who runs several pizzerias in Pennsylvania. Suffice it to say we never went hungry.

For me, part of the fun in hosting a dinner party is the planning. I run through and mentally savor half a dozen menus the same way some people, I suppose, take enjoyment from planning a vacation. Vegetarian – check. Makes good use of ingredients on hand – check. Can be prepped in advance and won’t keep me away from our guests – check. And kid-friendly – check!

I suppose I could have taken us back to the good ol’ days with a Sicilian pie but there is just no way I could ever top (pun intended) the pizza my college roommate’s dad makes. So this week’s menu went in a completely different direction: Mexican.

Black bean soup, acorn squash stuffed with Zarela Martinez’s recipe for creamy rice casserole, and a departure from the Mexican theme with apple crisp and vanilla ice cream for dessert. If you’ve read earlier posts like my one for Chiles Rellenos, you already know how much I value Zarela Martinez’s “Food From My Heart.” It’s worth seeking out a copy!

Creamy Rice Casserole in Acorn Squash - nice foil to the soup

Creamy Rice Casserole in Acorn Squash – nice foil to the soup

After flipping through cookbooks and online collections for a good black bean soup recipe I struck out on my own and developed the version below; too many recipes relied on smoked meats (bacon or ham hocks) to give the soup a deep flavor. The vegetarian recipes seemed to pale in comparison, using a lot of water as the base and just a smattering of veggies. I could do better, and I hope this recipe does Ms. Martinez proud, even if it isn’t one of hers.

Ready to dig in

Ready to dig in

My tricks for building flavor took a little advance planning but were worth it, giving the finished soup dimension and depth. And they were relatively easy: soaking the beans with a smoked onion and adding roasted tomatoes and a cup of fresh tomato juice to the soup. I cooked the soup in a slow cooker for five to six hours to allow great melding of flavors. I also roasted and smoked some fresh poblano peppers from Cherry Grove Organic Farm, though I didn’t incorporate them into the soup due to the disclosed pepper allergy of one of our guests. If you make this version you may choose to simmer poblano peppers in the soup before pureeing, or serve them diced on the side. You can also substitute one or two canned chipotle chiles which bring both heat and smoke to the party.

Roasted tomatoes, before

Roasted tomatoes,

Roasted tomatos, after

Roasted tomatoes,

A fun trick for making this kid friendly is to serve it with a slew of toppings. We had cheddar cheese, diced avocado, Mexican crema (left over from the creamy rice casserole, this version is sour cream mixed with diced onion and cilantro), plain sour cream, and limes on the table. Also great would be fresh cilantro sprigs and some hot sauce.

Avocado, an essential topping

Avocado, an essential topping

This is a recipe I think you’ll come back to again and again, and maybe even tweak with your own touches. Enjoy!

Black Bean Soup with Avocado and Mexican Crema

1 pound dried black beans, picked
over and rinsed
1 onion, halved and smoked*…or, substitute
a regular onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
3 ribs of celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
5 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
Several grinds black pepper
3 bay leaves
1 cup, packed, of freshly roasted tomatoes** or about 1/2 cup of packaged sun-dried tomatoes or a very generous dollop tomato paste
1 cup tomato juice, reserved from prepping the roasted tomatoes if you have it
1 roasted, skinned and smoked* poblano pepper that has been seeded and diced — if you’re short on time, you can use a fresh poblano that has been seeded and diced…or even a green bell pepper if you’d prefer
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups water
Garnishes for serving (use as many or few as you like): diced avocado, shredded white cheddar cheese, sour cream or Mexican crema***, the diced roasted poblano pepper (if not already incorporated into the soup), lime wedges, cilantro sprigs, hot sauce

Begin by soaking the beans to soften, either overnight or via the quick soak method in a large Dutch oven: add
enough water to cover the beans, toss in the smoked onion, and bring to a boil before turning off the heat and covering for at least an hour. When soft, strain, rinse and reserve the beans and discard the onion.

Using your slow cooker’s “brown” or “sauté” feature (or in a second Dutch oven set over medium-high heat), heat the olive oil and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and a generous pinch salt. If using a fresh poblano or bell pepper, add that now too. Sweat vegetables to soften for 5 to 10 minutes and add cumin, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves. Sauté for another minute until fragrant and add the soaked black beans, the tomatoes, tomato juice, vegetable stock and water (if using a roasted poblano and you want it incorporated into the soup base vs. used as a garnish, add that at this point as well).

Bring to a boil and then set the slow cooker to high, attach lid, and allow to bubble away for another five to six hours, stirring occasionally, until the stock is thick and the beans are quite soft. If cooking in a Dutch oven, bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low and cover, allowing to simmer for five to six hours with occasional stirring.

When ready to serve, remove the bay leaves and purée the soup in small batches in a blender, taking care not to overfill the blender or the hot soup will create steam and pressure in the container and explode out the top. You do NOT want to be scraping black bean soup off your ceiling. Return the puréed soup to the slow cooker or Dutch oven to keep warm. Taste and correct for seasonings, adding more salt if desired and several grinds of fresh pepper.

Serve in deep bowls, passing the toppings separately.

Serves: 8 to 10 adults and kiddies

*If you have time in advance, build an indirect fire in an outdoor grill and throw some wet hickory chips on the fire. Place the halved onion and the roasted and peeled poblano pepper on the cool side of the grill on a tin foil tray and allow to smoke for 15 to 30 minutes. The day before the party we were making grilled chicken anyway, so I used the opportunity to smoke the veggies after taking the chicken off the grill.
** To roast tomatoes, take 10 – 15 Roma or paste tomatoes, halve them and seed them over a colander and collect the juice, and roast them in a 350-degree oven on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet for several hours, until most of the moisture has evaporated…take care not to burn them though.
***Zarela Martinez’s version of Mexican crema is 1 cup sour cream mixed with 1/4 cup finely diced onion and 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. Add a squeeze of lime juice to take it over the top.

Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. Really lovely, with a complex flavor complemented by the fresh avocado and the crema. Not a drop remained in anyone’s bowl.
Kid rating: Four-and-a-half stars. When I say not a drop remained, I mean it…kids too! Both our girls had seconds and LOVED stirring in the cheddar cheese (it got all stringy and soft…lots of fun) and eating the avocado both in the soup and on the side. And while I thought the creamy rice casserole was going to be their favorite dish of the night, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the black bean soup was the real star of the party. Winner!

Chiles Rellenos with Chicken Picadillo and Spicy Tomato-Chilpotle Sauce

First came the chile relleno, and then came the epiphany.

I grew up in the 1970’s in a central Pennsylvania family that, atypically, ate a lot of Indian and Southeast Asian foods in addition to the rather died-in-the-wool American fare that was popular in our community. In addition to  jello salads and meat loaf we were treated to Vietnamese minced fish balls and Indian Umpa with Cream of Wheat, potatoes and peas, thanks to the friendships my parents forged with new town residents. But when it came to Mexican cuisine, we, like so many others of our generation and geography, were pretty much stuck with the taco. Don’t get me wrong: taco night was an occasion to behold with a big plate of warm corn tortillas glistening with hot oil and a half-dozen taco fillings including ground beef, chopped tomatoes, grated cheese, onions, sour cream, and salsa. I loved taco night. Which is probably why I loved it when we finally got a Chi-Chi’s. It was there that I had my first chile relleno, stuffed with cheese, batter-dipped and deep-fried. This was “new” Mexican, and it was tasty.

Fast forward a number of years to New York City the 1990’s. As I was cutting my teeth in the advertising business I was also sampling my way around town, happily trying new restaurants and cuisines. Someone recommended Zarela’s, where Zarela Martinez was cooking the true Mexican food of northern Mexico. Regional, rich, and certainly NOT the Tex-Mex take on Mexican to which I was accustom. I ordered the chiles rellenos and was blown away to find them stuffed with a sweet/savory filling of shredded chicken, dried fruit, onions and olives, bathed in a complex tomato sauce without a hit of batter dipping or frying. And the pomegranate seeds were such a nice touch that I don’t think I’ve been tempted to order the “old” version since.

I promptly got myself a copy of “Food From My Heart,” in which Ms. Martinez tells as much a story about HER Mexico and food memories as she shares recipes. I was thrilled that it includes a recipe for poblanos rellenos which became such a signature dish at her now-closed restaurant in New York City that at one time she made it for Julia Child (and shared the recipe) on the PBS show “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs.” The version she made for Julia used shredded pork, but I’m still partial to the chicken that I first tried years ago.

Well, poblanos are now in season. My daughters and I just picked several nice ones at Cherry Grove Organic Farm outside of Princeton, NJ, this past week, and I decided it was time to try the chiles rellenos recipe with them. This was also a bit of an experiment in tasting and in plating…and when all was said and done this was one instance in which the things that made it on to the kids plates vs. the parents plates ended up being somewhat different. Those poblano chiles…parents only. But all of us enjoyed the lovely chicken picadillo.

Kid's plates, parent's plates...and yes, there are differences

Kid’s plates, parent’s plates…and yes, there are differences

Follow the link above to the full recipe on the PBS website and you’ll be very happy. My only adjustments after years of making this recipe include less butter (a scant 1/4 cup vs. the full stick in Zarela’s version), using the afore-mentioned shredded chicken vs. pork, and plating with a slightly spicier sauce that takes less time. Here’s how I made my tomato-chipotle sauce:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 14-ounce can of whole tomatoes in juice (not seasoned)
3-4 chilpotle peppers from a 7-ounce can of chilpotle peppers in adobo sauce, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream

Put the entire contents of the can of tomatoes into a blender and purée along with the chilpotle peppers and approximately 1 tablespoon of the adobo sauce.

Heat oil in a sauce pan. When hot, add the pureed tomatoes and chilpotle peppers. Reduce by about 1/4, or until slightly thickened. Turn heat to medium low and add the cream. Continue to simmer, taking care not to bring to a boil.

Serve with the chiles rellenos and a side of rice.

Serves 8.

The chopsticks were her idea...but note the almost empty plate

The chopsticks were her idea…but note the almost empty plate

Dried peaches, prunes and apricots

Dried peaches, prunes and apricots

Poblano peppers waiting to be peeled

Poblano peppers waiting to be peeled

Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. Spicy, savory, sweet — an all-around lovely meal worthy of company or Sunday supper with the kids. The spicy quotient should be adjusted according to taste though, and you never quite know whether your poblanos will be hot or mild.
Kid rating: Three-and-a-half stars. Rice was the first thing consumed on the plate. Our daughters got the chicken picadillo but no spicy tomato-chilpotle sauce. They also got cucumbers — gotta love cucumbers. They are green, crunchy, and rounded out the kid version of the meal. Daughter 1 finished her meal. Daughter 2 hit “cranky time” somewhere around 3/4 way through dinner and we let it go at that. All in all, I was proud that they tried — and liked — the picadillo since it is a real mix of ingredients. We’re making progress!