Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The kind of place you want to be in June

As any regular reader of this space knows, I grew up in a wonderful kitchen full of creative recipes, memorable meals and parents who were skilled and imaginative cooks. My life is full of many blessings for which I thank Mom and Dad; chief among them is the ability and desire to experiment in the kitchen. As often as Mom was trying a new recipe or lovingly preparing a tried-and-true favorite, Dad was braiding a loaf of homemade bread or shelling Texas pecans or baking a pie. That kitchen was (is!) a glorious place and the positive effect all that chopping and sautéing and kneading had on my life is immeasurable.

Even so, nobody is marvelously innovative and culinarily adventurous all the time. Which is to say, from time to time Mom got into ruts. Every so often she would find a new recipe that really hit the spot, and then we'd eat it seemingly night after night and serve it to each and every guest that darkened our doorstep. First there was a recipe for chicken wrapped in phyllo. Everyone in a 20-mile radius sampled those little savory parcels. Then came chicken in a sun-dried tomato cream sauce. You would have thought sun-dried tomatoes were the vegetal equivalent of the second coming. Finally there were the black bean tostadas with goat cheese, which Mom served on the same plates each time -- gorgeous blue Bybee fluted pie plates that my family affectionately nicknamed "dog dishes."

The phyllo and sun-dried tomato chicken dishes will make their way to this blog in due time, but today I will focus on the black bean tostadas. They are bright and flavorful and colorful -- perfect for enjoying on a June evening.

This recipe is from the June 1992 issue of "Bon Appetit." The tostada is featured on the cover, beckoning the reader to welcome summer with some spicy beans, tangy goat cheese, grassy cilantro and zesty lime. When she saw the issue, Mom was smitten. She placed the magazine on her pull-down recipe holder underneath the microwave and there it has stayed -- 16 years at her fingertips. I am tempted to say that so much has changed since we first started cooking this dish, that the recipe itself and those blue dog dishes are constants in a dynamic world, but as I think about it, that's not true. In June 1992 I was thinking mostly about Australia: I had been an exchange student there in 1990 and returned in the summer of '91 to visit my host family again. I still think mostly about Australia: how much it rules, how and when I am going to get back there. And my host family is coming to visit us this summer! In 1992 there was a Bush in the White House and a young, slick Democratic hopeful with his eye on the job. INXS was popular. OK, two out of three ain't bad.

In truth these beauties are salads built upon a foundation of tortilla. The ratio of toppings to corn tortilla is way off, in a good way. So grab a knife and fork and dig in. The mix of taste and texture in this dish is legendary: jalapeños add a kick to the beans, radicchio contributes a slight bitterness that adds contrast to the dish, the marvelous cumin laced throughout the beans and chicken ushers in a wonderful smokiness, the goat cheese offers a tangy dimension, the avocado is rich and creamy and plays very nicely with the sharp acidity of the lime juice, the crisp fried corn tortilla brings a tasty crunch...and the cilantro! Yes, bright, happy cilantro. The cilantro elevates the dish to a light, fresh place. The kind of place you want to be in June.

Black bean and goat cheese tostadas should enjoy their rightful place in your recipe box. Just don't blame me if you cook them so often that your friends and family start to make fun of you.


Adapted from "Bon Appetit"

For the salsa:

2 large tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped

1/2 c. fresh cilantro, chopped

1/4 c. olive oil

2 T. freshly-squeezed lime juice

1-2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and minced (or to taste)

1 large avocado, diced

Kosher salt to taste, about 1/4 t.

For the salad:

4 c. romaine, sliced into bite-sized pieces

1 medium head of radicchio, sliced into bite-sized pieces

1/2 c. fresh cilantro leaves

1/4 c. olive oil

1 T. freshly-squeezed lime juice

Kosher salt to taste, about 1/4 t.

Freshly-cracked black pepper to taste, about 1/4 t.

For the beans:

2 T. olive oil

1 medium red onion, chopped

2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and minced (or to taste)

1 t. chili powder

1 t. cumin

2 15-oz cans of black beans, rinsed and drained

2 T. freshly-squeezed lime juice

For the chicken:

2 T. olive oil

1 1/2 lbs. skinless boneless chicken breasts, cut into 3/4" chunks

1 1/2 t. chili powder

3/4 t. cumin

Kosher salt to taste, about 1/4 t.

Freshly-cracked black pepper to taste, about 1/4 t.

For the rest:

Vegetable oil

6 corn tortillas

1/2 lb. goat cheese, crumbled

6 fresh cilantro sprigs

Make the salsa, which can be done up to 2 hours ahead, covered and refrigerated. Combine the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, olive oil, lime juice and jalapeño chiles in a medium bowl. Season with salt to taste, about 1/4 t. Add the avocado to the salsa just before serving.

Combine the romaine, radicchio and cilantro leaves in a bowl to make the salad. Add the olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper and toss.

Prepare the black beans. Heat the olive oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the red onion and jalapeños and cook until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add the chili powder and cumin; combine and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the black beans and the lime juice. Cook until the mixture is heated through, stirring and slightly mashing the beans with the back of a spoon, about 4 minutes. Note: the beans can be prepared up to 1 day in advance; just cover and chill.

While the bean mixture is cooking, make the chicken. Heat olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken to the skillet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Add the chili powder and cumin; stir to combine. Cook for another 1-2 minutes to finish cooking the chicken and warm the spices. Remove from heat.

Pour vegetable oil into a heavy medium skillet to a depth of about 1/4". Heat the oil over medium heat until it just begins to smoke. Add the tortillas, one at a time, and cook each until it's crisp, about 30 seconds per side. Drain on paper towels or on a rack set over a baking sheet.

If you've made it significantly ahead of time, re-warm the black bean mixture over low heat, adding about 2 T. of water to thin if necessary.

Place one tortilla on each plate. Spread with a few spoonfuls of the bean mixture, then sprinkle with just over one ounce of goat cheese (about 2 T.). Top with about 1/2 c. of the salad mixture, 4 oz. of chicken, 1/4 c. of the salsa and a fresh cilantro sprig.

Makes 6 tostadas. I feel like I should mention that the avocado salsa is outstanding outside of this recipe as well. It's great as a topping for tacos, or as a dip for a big, salty batch of corn chips. I make it often just to have around -- it is so delicious and fresh-tasting.

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