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07/18/2014

~ Tex-Mex Campstove or Stovetop Chicken Fajitas ~

IMG_8131Fajitas (fa-hee-tas) -- oh so delicious and oh so easy to make too -- I never had to call my three boys or Joe to the dinner table twice on fajita night.  That was back in the mid-to-latter 1980's when close-to-authentic versions of fajitas surfaced nationwide on good Tex-Mex restaurant menus.  The poor and unpretentious fajita had 'gone Hollywood' --  flamboyant skillets of sizzling steak or chicken served tableside with warm flour tortillas, sauted vegetables and mounds of condiments were a delicious and fun dining experience for the entire family.  Like a wild fire in a dry forest, this meal spread from restaurant to kitchen tables, including mine.  I single out the 1980's because that was indeed the heyday for fajitas.  Why?  By the 90's, like their cousins the burrito and the taco:  they became just another dish of dumbed-down American fast food.

IMG_8163Unlike many mothers of that decade, one of the things I did not buy into were  those 1-ounce, salt-laden, store-bought seasoning packets -- I refused to use them, even for convenience.  I dabbled in making my own blend based upon what I knew to be true and taught hands-on (not told to me by a food manufacturer via the back of a foil envelope).  Just click on the Related Article link below to get ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~ recipe.  This all-purpose mildly-spiced blend is perfect for chicken, pork, shrimp or traditional skirt steak fajitas!

IMG_8242Even if you are using your own seasoning blend (which is certainly your prerogative), my post is full of fajita history, which you probably should know before making them for the first time.  For example: "faja" is the Spanish word for "strip, band, sash or belt", and, with an "ita" added to the end of it, it means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  Back in the 1930's cattle ranchers on the Texas/Mexican border would give throwaway animal trimmings (skirt steak) to the Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) as part of their pay. They would grill this thin, flat meat over a fire, cut it into strips, wrap the strips in tortillas and eat them for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  

Once fajitas got known outside of the isolated cattle ranches of the Rio Grande Valley, Americans started making them with chicken, pork, shrimp or all-vegetable combinations. These variations require cutting some ingredients into bite-sized pieces (rather than strips), but whenever possible, alway try to stick to script and "stick to the strips"!   

In my kitchen, chicken fajitas came first, steak fajitas came later!

IMG_8254Joe and I did a great deal of traveling back in the 1980's, so, by the time I brought my version of authentic fajitas via the ones I had tasted on Southwestern restaurant menus into my kitchen, I was well-educated on what they should look and taste like.  That being said, I almost always made them with IMG_8261sliced chicken strips, rather than the traditional skirt steak.  Why?  Back then skirt steak was sold mostly to restaurants and only occasionally trickled into my local butcher shop. Chicken breasts were always available to me -- I had to special order skirt steak (or get lucky).  It's an entirely different story nowadays. Skirt steak is  everywhere, and, I'll be marinating it and sharing that fajita recipe with you next.

In my kitchen I cook chicken fajitas differently than steak fajitas.

When I'm using skirt steak, I marinate the meat for several hours, grill or pan-sear the entire piece until it is rare, cut it into thin strips then serve it all at once.  It's quick, easy and reliable.  

When you trade skirt steak in for chicken, it's "a different animal":  

IMG_9593Without getting too technical, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are randomly sized, meaning they all cook differently.  On the grill, it's almost impossible to get them all to cook to the desired degree of doneness (just cooked through to the center without drying them out) at the same time.  Recipes that solve the problem by pounding them to the same thickness are just plain wrong: that is not the proper texture for a proper fajita, so please don't do it.  Chicken filets/tenders are far superior in texture, and, I highly recommend you use them for fajita making. One other thing, marinating chicken in general is a complete waste of time.  Take it from me, my method takes all the guesswork and stress out of this and the results are wonderful:  moist, juicy, perfectly-cooked perfectly-spiced chicken with crisp-tender colorful vegetables.

IMG_94282 1/2-3  pounds chicken  filets or tenders, cut into bite-sized strips and/or bite-sized pieces

6  tablespoons corn oil

6  tablespoons ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~, substitute at your own risk*

1  pound yellow or sweet onion, cut into thin (slightly less than IMG_81891/2") bite-sized strips

8  ounces each:  green and red bell peppers, cut into thin (slightly less than 1/2") bite-sized strips

1-2  large jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely diced (optional)

IMG_8181the juice of one large lime

20  8"-round flour tortillas, warmed

condiments of choice:  Spanish rice, refried beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese and/or chopped cilantro, always served to the side

* I doubt that my fajita spice blend can be substituted equally for those overly-salty seasoning packets.  Each 1-ounce packet contains about 4 tablespoons and instructs you to use 1 packet for each pound of meat.

IMG_9453~ Step 1.  Using a pair of kitchen shears, clip the visible tendon from each filet.  Don't worry about the rest that runs through the center as it is so thin it disappears when cooked.  Cut filets in half, halves into 3-4 strips and pieces.

~ Step 2.  Cut the onion and bell peppers into strips, keeping the onions separate from the peppers. Mince the jalapenos.  Set all aside.

IMG_8193 IMG_8201 IMG_8206 IMG_8215

 

 

 

 

IMG_8218 IMG_8226Step 3.  Heat oil in skillet over medium-high. Stir in seasoning.  Add chicken and saute, stirring constantly, until chicken is turning white, 2-3 minutes.  Add onions and cook until it looks like you have more chicken than onions, 3-4 minutes.

IMG_8238~ Step 4.  Add the bell and jalapeno peppers and continue to saute, stirring almost constantly, until they are cooked through, yet colorful and crunchy, about 4-5 minutes.  Do not overcook. Remove from heat and squeeze the juice of one lime evenly over the top, or, serve with lime wedges for individual portions.

Serve sizzling hot (immediately) with warmed flour tortillas and your favorite condiments to the side.

Mexican1011-1Note:  I place the entire skillet, or individual cast-iron skillets (which is fun), on the table along with bowls of condiments and a stack of warm tortillas so everyone can help themselves.  My family's favorite condiments are refried beans, guacamole, salsa and spicy Spanish saffron rice:

IMG_8275Tex-Mex Campstove or Stovetop Chicken Fajitas:  Recipe yields 16-20, 8" round fajitas, or, 4-6 servings, allowing 3-4 fajitas per person.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen shears; cutting board; chef's knife; large slotted spoon; small gravy ladle; 12" skillet, cast iron or nonstick

6a0120a8551282970b015433345133970cCook's Note:  In the event you are in need of a really good guacamole recipe to serve with your fajitas:  ~ Holy Guacamole!  It's the Second Day of Summer! + (Everything You Need to Know about the Avocado ~ can be found in 1, 4, 8, 10, 13, 14 or 15!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 

07/16/2014

~ Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~

IMG_8163Fajitas (fa-hee-tahs) were originally named "tacos al carbon" and were served ready-to-eat-with-the-hands by wrapping strips of unpretentious and cheap skirt steak, cooked directly over a campfire or a grill, in a flour or corn tortilla.  "Faja" the Spanish word for "strip, band, sash or belt", with "ita" added to the end of it, means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  The dish dates back to cattle ranching life along the Rio Grande Valley regions of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930's.  Throwaway items (heads, entrails and meat trimmings) were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as part of their pay, resulting in some of the first Tex-Mex border dishes: barbacoa de cabeza (head barbecue), menudo (tripe stew), and fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak).  Because of the limited number of skirts per animal, the meat wasn't available for sale, so, for years it remained obsure to everyone except the vaqueros, butchers and their families.  

Tx_satFajitas made their first commercial debut in September 1969 when Sonny Falcon, an Austin meat market manager opened a taco concession in rural Kyle.  The same year, Otilia Garza began selling them in her Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, and, she presented hers on a sizzling platter with warm flour tortillas, condiments and cheese to the side -- for eating taco-style.  In 1973, Ninfa Rodrigues Laurenzo opened Nifa's Restaurant in Houston and sold wrapped "tacos al carbon" called "tacos al la Nifa". 

Thanks to folks like Sonny, Otilia and Nifa,  fajitas did gain in popularity, slowly spreading via rodeos, fairs and festivals into the surrounding Southwestern states of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, but, national attention didn't come to  the fajita until 1982.  George Weidmann, a very creative chef at the fancy-schmancy Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin, recognized the potential for putting a home-grown Tex-Mex dish on his menu.  He put the panache into his presentation too, by serving them on sizzling, attention-grabbing cast-iron skillets.  Thanks to George, this now trendy dish was put on Hyatt Regency menus almost everywhere, and, that is when and how I caught fajita-fever (in their Century Plaza resturant in Los Angeles).  

250px-Former_Chi-Chi's_restaurant_in_Alexandria,_VirginiaBy 1990, fajitas were on the menu of every wanna-be Texican restaurant from sea to shining sea.  I know because I was raising three boys and they always wanted to go Happy Valley's only Tex-Mex eatery at the time, Chi-Chi's (which specialized in overpriced margaritas and marginal food).  In 2003, the chain filed for bankrupcy and closed after being hit with the largest hepatitis A breakout in U.S. history, which was traced to green onions at the Beaver Valley Mall restaurant in Monaca, PA.   Then, things got worse. Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell turned a once delicious meal and fun dining experience into an alien form of cardboard tacos and calorie-laden glop!

Meet my all-purpose, homemade fajita seasoning blend!

IMG_8048After having eaten real-deal fajitas on several occasions, once in Los Angeles (mentioned above), once in Tempe, AZ, and twice Texas, it was obvious they are not hard to make -- and, they are not just associated with skirt steak anymore.  They can and are commonly made with chicken, pork or shrimp too, and, I like them all. Depending on the cooking method (which varies) the secret is in the marinade and/or seasoning.  After experiencing real-deal fajitas, what I found out in a hurry was:  I dislike those 1-ounce, salt-laden store-bought seasoning packets -- I refuse to use them even for convenience (for goodness sake, I made this 4-ounce/12 tablespoon container in less than 5 minutes).  Here's my all-purpose fajita seasoning blend:

IMG_80354  tablespoons Santa Fe Seasons Chile Blend*  

4  tablespoons Santa Fe Seasons Six Seasonings*  

1  teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2  teaspoon ground cloves

6  tablespoons ground cumin

1  teaspoon smoked paprika

1  teaspoon sugar

2  tablespoons sea salt

* Note:  Available online at http://www.applecanyongourmet.com/ (Albuquerque, New Mexico). Spice blends in my fajita seasoning?  You betcha.  The chile blend is a melange of pure, dried, and ground chiles along with New Mexico's famous red chiles and contains no salt.  Six Seasonings is a melange of pure and dried herbs, all favorites of Sante Fe, NM.  It would not be cost efficient for me or you to order all of these pure and unadulterated ingredients separately and grind them at home.  For authentic flavor, I highly recommend you give these products a try!

For those of you who don't know, when a product says "chile powder or chile blend", spelled with an "e" at the end, that denotes pure, powdered chile.  When a product says "chili powder or chili blend, with an "i" at the end, that is an Americanized product containing other additives.

IMG_8057~ Step 1.  Measure and place all ingredients, as listed, in a small bowl.  Stir.  You will have 4 ounces or 12 tablespoons.  

IMG_8165Transfer to a 1-cup food storage container, tightly cover, and keep on-hand in a cool, dry pantry for up to 6 months.

Join me over the next couple of days.  I'll be sharing my recipes:  Campstove or Stovetop Chicken or Steak Fajitas! 

IMG_8131Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning:  Recipe yields 4 ounces or 12 tablespoons.

Special Equipment List:  measuring spoons; 1-cup food storage container w/tight-fitting lid

IMG_0250Cook's Note:  For another Tex-Mex recipe, which also uses Sante Fe Seasons Chile Blend and Six Seasoonings,  ~ "White Out" White Chicken 'n Corn Chili Burritos ~ can be found in Categories 13 & 19!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 

07/14/2014

~ Spinach Salad w/Grilled Pears, Toasted Walnuts, Gorgonzola & a Pear-Infused Balsamic Vinaigrette ~

IMG_7891Summer is the season of fresh fruits and vegetables, and, Summer is in full swing.  With each day that passes, our garden and local farmers markets reward Joe and I with something freshly-picked, cool, crunchy and colorful.  With regards to fruit, sweet and savory is my favorite year-round flavor combination.   Whenever I can, I love to to pair fruits, fruity sauces and/or dried fruits with my favorite proteins, cheese included.  Thanks to Joe's fruit trees (apple, cherry, peach, pear and plum + an occasional pineapple), tomato plants, berry bushes and berry patch (blueberry, raspberry and strawberry), I get lots of opportunities to please my fruit-loving palate:

IMG_7852I like cherries or plums with my duck; apples, peaches or pears with my pork; blueberries, strawberries or raspberries with my poultry; pineapple with my ham, and; tomatoes with my beef. And that's only the short list for the fruits Joe grows here at home.  Melons and citrus or tropical fruits, which I buy at the market, are superb with grilled, broiled or poached fish and seafood.  In the Winter, these pairings come in the form of fruity cooked sauces or condiments with oven roasted or stovetop prepared meats.  In the Summer, fresh or dried fruits go into many of my cold salads and salsas -- along with fruit juices and fruit-infused vinegars for my salad dressings. The grill is usually my tool of choice for cooking the proteins, and, sometimes I grill the fruit too!

IMG_6653I was given a box of organic bosc pears a few days ago and am taking this opportunity to share as many pear-loving recipes with you as I can (before they overripen). When it comes to fruit, pears can be perilous -- no not dangerous.  But, getting optimum flavor from a pear requires pear care.

Underripe = hard, tart, starchy

Ripe = yielding, sweet, juicy & slightly-but-pleasantly gritty

Overripe = soft, tasteless, mealy

IMG_6628Pears ripen after they are picked from the tree, they ripen from the inside out, and, ripen best if stored at a cool room temperature for 1-4 days.  The time depends upon the variety of pear, size of pear, and most importantly, the stage of ripeness when purchased.  If you are like me, my usual test for fruit ripeness is how each piece feels in my hand, which usually equates to: softness = ripeness. This is not the case with pears.  Pears are ready to eat when they yield to gentle pressure next to the stem.  If the wide body of the pear is any more than slightly yielding, it is overripe.

I choose and use only perfectly ripe pears in my recipes!

IMG_7787For the vinaigrette (1 1/2 cups = enough for 6 generous side-salads:

6  tablespoons pear-infused balsamic vinegar

6  tablespoons lemon-infused olive oil 

3  tablespoons walnut oil

6  tablespoons honey

1  tablespoon Dijon mustard

pear nectar to total 1 1/2 cups of liquid, about 10 tablespoons

1/4  teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2  teaspoons freshly-ground peppercorn blend

IMG_8020For every two side-salads:

3 cups baby spinach leaves

1  bosc pear, sliced into 6-8 discs, slightly less than 1/2" each 

4  very thin discs (shaved) red onion, each cut into 4 quarters

6  tablespoons crumbled Gorgonzola dolce cheese

6  tablespoons chopped and very-lightly toasted walnuts

3-4 tablespoons of my vinaigrette per salad, to taste

IMG_5489Step 1.  Prior to preparing salad, in a 2-cup measuring container with a tight-fitting lid, measure and place all of the ingredients for the vinaigrette. Shake  container vigorously and set aside.

IMG_6377~ Step 2. Chop the walnuts. Lightly toast on center rack of preheated 375 degree oven, 6-8 minutes stopping to toss with spoon every 2-3 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.  

Note:  I always chop and toast more walnuts than I need and keep them stored in the freezer.  

IMG_7806 IMG_7792~ Step 3. Remove a slice from the base of the pear and continue to cut the rest into 6-8 discs between 1/4"-1/2" thick.

Using a small round cookie cutter (or just a paring knife)  remove the tough center core and seed section from each pear disc.

IMG_7828 IMG_7819~ Step 4. Over medium-high heat, preheat grill pan, about 1 minute.  While pan is heating, liberally brush the top of each pear disc with

lemon-infused extra-virgin olive oil.

Place the pear discs, oiled side down on the hot grill pan.

IMG_7838 IMG_7832~ Step 5. Liberally brush the second side of the pear discs with olive oil.  Continue to grill, until discs are golden brown on both sides, turning only once, 4-5 minutes per side.  Do not over cook.

Transfer pear slices to a plate and allow them to cool.  Meanwhile:

IMG_5548 IMG_5482~ Steps 6 & 7. Slice the red onion as directed (1/2 of an onion is enough for 6 salads).  Just prior to assembling the salads (it dices easiest if kept cold),  crumble or dice the Gorgonzola dolce.

I like to assemble this decadent salad rather than toss it:

IMG_7862~ Step 8.  This is not a salad I toss, opting instead to assemble them on individual plates:  On each plate, make a bed of 1 1/4 cups of spinach leaves.  Distribute the onions over the spinach. Place 3-4 slightly-warm or room-temperature grilled pear slices over the spinach leaves.  Top each salad with a small mound of remaining spinach leaves, then scatter the Gorgonzola crumbles and toasted walnuts over one and all.  Serve and drizzle with dressing at the table.

Judiciously drizzle dressing on each salad at the table...

IMG_7952... because a little dressing goes a long way!

IMG_7992Go ahead, you've waited long enough for your first bite: 

IMG_7995Spinach Salad w/Grilled Pears, Toasted Walnuts, Gorgonzola & a Pear-Infused Balsamic Vinaigrette:  Recipe yields 6 generous side-serving salads.

Special Equipment List:  2-cup measuring container w/tight-fitting lid and pourer top; cutting board; chef's knife; 3/4"-1"-round cookie cutter; grill pan; 8" x 8" baking pan or 9" pie dish (for toasting walnuts)

IMG_7313Cook's Note:  This scrumptious pear salad pairs perfectly with succulent grilled pork chops.  

For a divine way to end the meal, click into Categories 6, 9 or 21 to get my ~ Simply Splendid Lemony Pear Almond Coffeecake ~!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)

07/12/2014

~ Lemon-Pepper Pear-Infused Balsamic Vinaigrette ~

IMG_7952I rarely write a post that requires readers to search for a specialized ingredient not readily found at the market, and, when I do, I usually include a uncompromising substitute for that item (or items).  I am what I refer to as an equal opportunity recipe developer.  From time to time it's my job to work with unusual or extravagant ingredients from around the world.  Sharing them in my recipes is fun, but, it's also my responsibility, via a substitute ingredient, to make sure the recipe is user-friendly and economical for all -- we are all in this food world together, and, fair is fair!

IMG_8027Having said that, you are going to need two specialized ingredients to make this  luscious vinaigrette:

Pear-Infused Balsamic Vinegar

Lemon-Infused EVOO

IMG_6602The good news is: on amazon.com I found a very nice brand that sells infused vinegars and olive oils in gift sets of four for about $30 per set.  The vinegar flavors are: fig, pear, pomegranate and raspberry.  The IMG_8021oil flavors are:  basil, garlic, lemon and chili.  I recommend them, and, I promise to put them all to very good use for you in the very near future!

IMG_7787For the vinaigrette (1 1/2 cups = enough for 6 generous side-salads:

6  tablespoons pear-infused balsamic vinegar

6  tablespoons lemon-infused olive oil

3  tablespoons walnut oil

6  tablespoons honey

1  tablespoon Dijon mustard

pear nectar to total 1 1/2 cups of liquid, about 10 tablespoons

1/4  teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2  teaspoons freshly-ground peppercorn blend

IMG_5489~ Step 1.  Combine all of the vinaigrette ingredients in a 2-cup measuring container with a tight-fitting lid.  Vigorously shake prior to serving drizzled judiciously on salad(s) --  a little goes a long way. Note:  Keep leftovers stored in the refrigerator (this vinaigrette will keep for a least a week).  Return to room temperature and shake vigorously prior to serving.

To get my recipe for my ~ Spinach Salad w/Grilled Pears, Toasted Walnuts and Gorgonzola ~, click on the Related Article link below!

IMG_7891Lemon-Pepper Pear-Infused Balsamic Vinaigrette:  Recipe yields 1 1/2 cups.

Special Equipment List: 2-cup measuring container w/tight-fitting lid & pourer top

IMG_5609Cook's Note:  Back in June I posted two salad recipes made with citrus fruits.  ~ One Recipe = Two of Mel's Favorite Citrus Salad Dressings: Pink Grapefruit or Sun-Kissed Orange ~ can be found in Categories 8, 9, 10 & 20.  Fruity salads tossed with salty cheeses never EVER tasted so good!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)