Mexican Rice That Thinks Outside the Box

Mexican rice brings out the best in carbohydrates. It’s warm. It’s aromatic. It even has a soothing red-orange color.

But all too often when we host a taco night, we succumb to boxed Mexican rice. Inevitably, the rice is dry. The flavor packet seasoning is too harsh. The sodium to flavor ratio is a disaster.

Luckily, it is incredibly easy to make your own Mexican rice! Today I present to you my personal favorite: a simplified rendition of Rick Bayless’s Red Tomato Rice from his indispensable cookbook Mexico One Plate At A Time.

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Muse: Focaccia

This week, I realized that I want to learn how to bake bread, and focaccia was the first variety that I attempted. Soft, crusty and liberally flavored with olive oil, it’s a delicious accompaniment to any Italian meal.

Focaccia requires the following ingredients: flour, salt, olive oil, yeast, water, and a tablespoon of sugar. That is it. (Here is the extremely helpful recipe I used.)

The takeaway from making focaccia was the same as every other time I learn how to cook something: holy crap that’s so easy! Why did I buy that from the store before?

Making focaccia dough was so simple and enjoyable that I instantly felt ashamed for buying Trader Joe’s pizza dough all these years. The whole process was incredibly straightforward, and smelled so good. The smell of dough man, it hits you on a deeper level.

My first attempt at focaccia was pretty good. The inside was properly fluffy yet dense, and it paired nicely with balsamic.

IMG_5444.jpgYou know what they say, like it, loaf it, gotta have it.


Carnitas: The Better White Meat

Carnitas are the proper measure of any taco truck. At their best, they are pulled pork plus divinity — a tender, greasy, crispy miracle unrivaled among meats. When they get messed up, they are the most dry and boring meat on the menu.

When my friend decided to have taco night at his house, I saw an opportunity to try my hand at Mexican cuisine’s most thrilling and enigmatic protein. As imagined it, I would be Rumpelstiltskin, spinning carnitas forth from a slab of pork like gold from straw. Only in this version, no one would owe me their firstborn.

I could delight you with references to fairy tales all day, but my track record as a man of substance is well established. Let’s get to the meat of my story:

As always, I found a carnitas recipe by skimming through google until I had a sense of what the average recipe looks like.

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This recipe was one of my favorites.

This food network recipe is very similar to what I ended up doing, but I fiddled with it slightly — adding 2 limes, foregoing the jalapeño, and roughly chopping the garlic (nothing kills taco night like too much garlic).

I planned on buying 6 pounds of boneless pork shoulder (tripling the Food Network recipe), but when I went to Winco, I saw a stack of something called “carnitas” in the deli case. It was ostensibly pork shoulder, but cut this meat was cut into smaller pieces. I decided to grab that instead.

It cost twelve dollars to buy six pounds of pork — I’m not kidding. The meat used in carnitas is so cheap you start to worry that it’s going to be disgusting or expired, but that’s the whole point of carnitas. You cook them so slowly that they have to be delicious.

Six pounds of pork shoulder: in the flesh.

Thus it was that I rinsed six pounds of pork, massaged it with olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and cumin, and tossed it in a slow cooker. At this point, my kitchen already smelled pleasantly aromatic. I threw in the garlic and the onion, roughly chopped. I then juiced two limes and two oranges over the meat and tossed the rinds in with the meat. I set the whole affair on low and walked out the door.

Carnitas require less ingredients that you think.

Eight hours later, my carnitas were cooked and smelled delicious. I removed the meat from the slow cooker and pulled it with two forks. I discarded the citrus rinds and fished out most of the onions, but the cooking juices stayed put.

It was taco time. I heated a generous amount of canola oil in a frying pan. When it was hot enough to make sizzling sounds, I put in my meat — just enough to cover the bottom because you want every piece to be sufficiently browned and greasy. I poured two ladles of the slow cooker liquid over the pork while it fried, which provided essential salt and flavor. I wish I had photos of this part, but frying something in one had with a DSLR the other is a level of douchebaggery to which I cannot succumb.

I opted for a traditional taco bar — guac, pico, jalapeños, sour cream, cilantro, and small corn tortillas. I also included some of my pickled red onions and cotija cheese for extra flair.

I apologize for an unsettling white balance.
Birds eye view.

The carnitas were delicious — salty and crispy just as I had envisioned. Moments after the meat came out of the pan, I built my tacos: Tortilla, carnitas, slab of guac, pickled onions, cotija, cilantro, sour cream.

I rarely delight in my own cooking, but was pleased with the way I visualized, and then executed, my flavor combinations. You can call me Guy Fieri, because these tacos were a quick trip to Flavortown (population: one dude with frosted tips).

Carnitas take a long time, but they aren’t labor intensive. Get out there and spend a shockingly small amount of money on meat. Your taco/enchilada/burrito/tostada awaits.

The Art of the Quick Pickle

I love pickled onions. They are the perfect bright spot in a meal. They provide the subtle depth of sautéed onions, but they’re tart and acidic rather than sweet. The more I eat, the more I prize the presence of acidity in food — salt and fat without acidity is like Monet without color.

Many of my favorite sandwiches have been adorned with gorgeous pink pickled onions. I am ashamed to say that while I loved these onions, I never pondered the origin. When my culinary sensei Pam Saindon started regularly pulling  jars of this marvelous allium out of her fridge, I knew I had to make some of my own.

Photo credit: Pinterest (sorry I forgot to take a picture of my onions)

As it turns out. These onions are made in a process called the quick pickle (a hilarious name, I know). They are incredibly easy to make — so much simpler than I imagined. Also they look awesome in a jar — top notch Pinterest material.

How do you make quick pickled onions?

  1. Slice a red onion super thin. Put it in a mason jar.
  2. Pour apple cider vinegar into a sauce pan. Add salt and your choice of seasonings. Bring to a boil.
  3. Pour the boiling mixture into the jar. Cover the onions completely with the liquid. Let your onions sit for a while. Cover and refrigerate for 24-48 hours.

THAT’S IT. The resulting onions are delicious and flavorful. I was preparing my onions for a taco bar, so I seasoned them with cumin, oregano and peppercorns for that authentic mexican flavor.

Here is the full recipe I used as a guide:

So go make yourself some quick pickled onions and thank me later.

(PS Always wear eye protection than chopping onions, if for no other reason than the thrill of being impervious to tears. I keep pair of old swim goggles in my pantry for exactly this purpose.)

Superbowl Nachos

Last week I had to face the sad fact that the Patriots were once again in the Super Bowl. This meant that I would once again have to see Bill Belichik’s rumpled visage transformed by it’s biannual grin. (Bill Belichik can only be happy for the first six seconds when he’s holding the Lombardi trophy. By the time the players start giving victory speeches he’s already planning who he’ll cut for next season.)

Between the Patriots and my guilt from enjoying the product of a morally destitute league,  I doubted my ability derive any joy from this game. I decided, instead, to focus my efforts on Superbowl foods.

For too many Superbowls, I have greatly expanded my hors d’oeuvres variety at the expense of quality. Guac, salsa, and potato chips, that’s well and good. Adding hummus and a crudite, that’s pushing it. A cheese plate, smoked meats and corn muffins — now none of these foods go together and I’ll have to lock myself in the bathroom during the third quarter.

This year I knew I couldn’t allow myself the excesses to which I am naturally inclined. I would choose one and only one snackable dish, and I would execute it at the highest level. My choice was nachos.


First things first, if you aren’t making your nachos on a baking sheet, get with the times. Baking sheets provide great surface area and they are the best platform for sensible chip engineering. Additionally, making them on parchment paper makes cleanup easy, and transfer to another plate effortless.

I’ll make this simple and digestible by describing my nachos in terms of layers (but you should understand that these ingredients were repeated at various points based on chef’s intuitution):

Layer 1: Refried Beans (thinned out with water until they take on a mexican restaurant consistency)
Layer 2: Corn chips
Layer 3: Tomatillo chicken thighs (slow cooked for eight hours using this fine recipe)
Layer 4: Black beans
Layer 5: Delicious, delicious homemade nacho cheese

With the base fully realized, I piled on guacamole, homemade pico de gallo, and pre-shredded mexican cheese (I thought it would melt well, but in retrospect I should have shredded my own).

The final touches? Why not some pickled jalapeños, radishes, black olives, cilantro, crumbled cotija cheese, annnnddddd sour cream from a fun squirt bottle.

They almost made up for that comeback.

Handcrafted Spaghetti: Not As Hard As You Think

Spaghetti is too often confined to a rectangular box. I am ashamed to say it, but in the conveniences of modern life I had forgotten that spaghetti could be anything but a brittle dehydrated noodle.

Luckily the ambition of my biology class lab partners reminded me just how accessible a better noodle can be. After an hour of studious data collection, we met in my kitchen set on creating spaghetti from scratch. Combining mixing three eggs slowly into two cups of flour, we we’re able to make a very satisfactory pasta dough.

We ran our dough through a pasta making machine (which I was luckily able to procure from my uncle, though I am sure they are available on the internet) and were quite surprised to find beautiful fresh spaghetti.


Stirred into well seasoned boiling water, the pasta cooked in 4-5 minutes. All it took was eggs, flour, salt and water.

We removed our pasta from the water a few minutes early, and let it finish cooking in a red sauce that was simmering on the other burner. The result was a handmade noodle evenly and delightfully coated in sauce. One mandatory dusting of aged parmesan, and this stuff was ready to eat.


Yum. Cooking continually reminds me that you can make almost anything cheaper and better than a restaurant in your own kitchen — you just need a little extra time.

My bio 191 pal, Tallon Endicott, enjoys his creation.