February 25, 2010

Sunday Night Dinner with Rich - The Tortilla Book Edition (la sopa de tortillas)

We are lucky to live in a multicultural city.  Want Ethiopian food? No problem.  Korean, Thai, Afghan, Cambodian? We've got it. From Argentinian steak to Ukrainian perogies, Toronto has it all.  Our neighbourhood is experiencing an interesting evolution.  Once the heart of the city's original Little Italy, the area has been home to as many Jamaicans as Italians, giving rise to the moniker "Rasta Pasta". 

Of late, though, there's a decidely Latin flavour in the air.  Imperial Fruit Market, run by a very nice Asian man, sells epazote and five kinds of chiles. Tiny shops specialise in Latin music and DVDs.  Within several blocks, there are countless Latin cafes and restaurants, from Mexicano Grill and El Ranchenita Asa Dos to Dona Luz Pancho Villa and Motivos Latin Bar-Club. 

This boded well for this week's Sunday Night Dinner series - a meal cooked from Diana Kennedy's The Tortilla Book.  Not counting a tortilla press amongst my many kitchen gadgets, we were on the hunt for fresh corn tortillas and found them at La Tortilleria.  Hot, fresh, completely delicious and inexpensive (less than $3 for 20 freshly made tortillas), La Tortilleria promised to form the foundation for an authentic Mexican sopa.

The menu was simple: Tortilla and Black Bean Soup, followed by Baked Shrimp Tacos and a simple green salad.  Note to self: these are the types of recipes that are like layers of an onion; the list of ingredients are recipes unto themselves (eg. Prepared Sour Cream, see pg 27; ½ lb cooked black beans, see pg 18).  A little Patron to start the meal, some Negra Modelo cerveza to accompany the eats, and a Mexican fiesta is well underway.

Truth be told, I have never bought fresh tortillas before.  It seems I've eaten them in every permutation, from crispy chips and shells to soft rolls.  In making this meal, we prepped them a number of ways: into thin crispy strips for the soup, fried very lightly for the tacos, and then rolled and baked with a rich tomato sauce.  But even just plain, these tortillas were simply delicious.

What I loved most about making this meal was buying ingredients I seldom use, or never heard of before, like epazote. It was also fun to have enough beans left over from the soup to make refried beans - the real deal - and freeze them. 

Pot Beans*
from The Tortilla Book by Diana Kennedy

1 lb. black beans
10 to 12 c. cold water
2 tbsp lard or peanut oil
¼ medium onion, roughly chopped
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
2 sprigs epazote (optional; I used dried epazote)

1. Cover the beans with the water, add the lard and onion, and bring to a boil. 

2.  Cover the pan and simmer until the skins are soft and breaking open, about 1½ to 2 hours.

3.  Add the salt and epazote and simmer for another 45 minutes.  The beans should be soft, almost mushy, and there should be plenty of broth.

*To make refried beans, use about half the quantity of beans and broth from the Pot Beans recipe (beans and broth measuring about 4 cups). Blend the beans and broth in batches in a blender until you have a rough puree.  Set aside.  Heat 5 tbsp. lard or vegetable oil and fry ½ onion, roughly chopped, until the onion is soft (do not brown).  Add the bean puree, a bit at a time, cooking over medium high heat, until the beans start to dry out to a thick consistency.  Be sure to scarpe the crusty bits into the beans until well incorporated.  The beans are now ready to use, or can also be frozen.

Tortilla and Black Bean Soup
from The Tortilla Book, by Diana Kennedy 
makes 6 servings

6 oz. bacon
2 c. cooked black beans
2 c. + 2 c. broth from cooking the beans (or use a combination of chicken broth and water)
¼ medium onion, roughly chopped
4 whole chiles serrano
2 sprigs epazote (or 1 tbsp dried)
Peanut oil for frying
9 stale tortillas, cut into thin strips
6 tbsp finely grated Romano or Sardo cheese

1.  Cut the bacon into very small pieces, and cook over low heat in a large heavy saucepan until the fat renders out (do not brown)

2.  In a blender, blend the beans with 2 cups of the broth and the onion until smooth

3.  Add the bean puree and the whole chiles to the bacon in the pan, cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 8 minutes.

4.  Add the remaining 2 cups broth and the epazote, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a bare minimum to keep soup warm.

5.  Pour peanut oil in a frying pan to a depth of ½ inch and heat.  Fry the tortilla strips , one third at a time, until they are stiff but not brown.  Drain well and add to the soup.*

6.  Simmer the soup for 5 minutes, then serve garnished with the cheese. 

If not serving all of the soup at once, add only some of the tortilla strips.  The soup base can be made ahead and frozen; add tortilla strips when the soup is thawed and reheated.