With my Corazón on my Sleeve: My Attempt at Mexican.

25 Sep

I grew up in a town surrounded by shitty Mexican food.  In Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, the best Mexican within a ten minute drive was a burrito as big as me filled almost completely with rice.  Cheap, bland, and filling were the words I associated with some of our Mexican restaurants.  Or maybe the words “fake cheddar.”  After being let down by stringy, oily, overly tangy and smooth commercial Cheddar too many times, I had had enough.  Sure, I liked a good guacamole, and my mother’s fajitas were one of my favorite childhood foods.  But given the choice of cuisine to cook, Mexican was on the tail end of my list, perhaps followed by airplane food.  I knew there was a world of beautiful Mexican food out there, but I was so turned off by Ho-Ho-Kus Mexican (Fauxican), that I could not quite bring myself to embrace Mexican as a common cuisine in my repetoire.

Well, that all changed yesterday.  When I found out I’d be advancing to the next round of Project Foodbuzz, I was busy preparing for a packed weekend.  This weekend is homecoming here at Cornell, so I was helping my classmates cook for the Hotel School tailgate.  Furthermore, I have a ton of assignments and studying to complete.  So when I realized my only chance to make an ethnic meal for the Foodbuzz competition was last night, I kind of freaked.

I mean, I had little to no ingredients.  Some spices, leftover ricotta, onions, garlic, eggs, wine, milk, and some other random things screamed “there is no protein here for you to cook!”  Until I spotted my guanciale.  For the past 3 weeks, I’d been curing a pork jowl (yes, it hung proudly above my desk), and it was supposed to be done in a few days.  I could sear it…  And shit!  that decorative pumpkin on my desk was edible!  I would use them both…

guanciale...now hanging to cure from my doorknob...

this decorative pumpkin would look better in my stomach!

But what cuisine?  Well, I knew good Mexican cuisine included pumpkin or squash and mole sauce (not necessarily together), so I decided to make a mole with all my spices, etc.;  roast the pumpkin; and sear the guanciale.

First order of business: get the pumpkin roasting.  I cut it into two-inch wedges and applied some vegetable oil and salt to aid the wedges in roasting to perfection.  Because I love pumpkin seeds, I tossed them with some salt and oil as well and put them in the pan with the pumpkin.  With the mole, they would give an excellent savory crunch.  While the pumpkin roasted, I moved on to the mole sauce…

As I sauteed a thinly sliced onion, I gathered smoked paprika (my favorite spice), cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, garlic, black pepper, and salt.

cumin, pepper, cinnamon, smoked paprika, cayenne, and my owl teacup full of bacon-chocolate ganache!

After adding the aforementioned ingredients and basking in the smell of toasting spices, I contemplated what I could use for liquids…all I had was pumpkin puree.  But I had to add liquid.  So I added it.  Pumpkin puree and water were the perfect addition for liquid, and a little lime juice gave the mole a perfect balance of acidity.  To thicken things up and apply some traditional ingredients, I wanted to go with some chocolate and ground nuts.  The two most appropriate ingredients I had were Justin’s Almond Butter, a favorite snack of mine, and some bacon-chocolate ganache I had left over from making some cupcakes earlier this week.  In my mind, those were both more interesting than plain ground almonds and unsweetened chocolate!  After I added the almond butter and ganache, the sauce was everything I could have asked for.  Spicy, complex, smoky, thick, and rich yet intricate.

The guanciale (cured pork jowl) would be great seared; it was mostly cured but not hard.  I sliced off a four ounce piece (give or take) as I waited for the pumpkin to finish roasting.  I had simply seasoned the pumpkin and its seeds with oil and salt, and when I opened the oven, the kitchen finally smelled of autumn.  Oh pumpkin, how do I love thee?  Let me cook the ways…

When all my elements were complete, I plated: a swirl of mole sauce graced the plate, and the pumpkin wedge and pork sat gracefully on top.  I could not resist adding a light, fresh component to a spicy, heavier dish, so I placed a quenelle of ricotta on top, mimicking the flavor of a queso fresco addition.  The roasted pumpkin seeds looked great sprinkled on top of everything, and I was extremely pleased with the outcome of the dish.

seared guanciale with roasted pumpkin, ricotta, and mole sauce

As I had already eaten dinner, I brought out the finished plate to my friends to share as we studied.  What the hell is it? one of the guys on our floor asked.  Mole, I said.  But inside, I asked myself the same question: what the hell was that? All my life, I’d gone overlooking Mexican food as a gourmet cuisine, never stopping to think about the complexity and pride its dishes harbor.  Now, after using what I had on hand to make my version of a  Mexican mole, I am exited about exploring what Mexico’s food scene has to offer.

Sure, I concede that my dish was not spot-on with indigenous ingredients, but hell–I’m a college student!  If the only edible vegetable in my room is a pumpkin I was using as a fall decoration, I’ll cook it!  If the meat I’m hanging from my doorknob to cure is my only protein, I’ll use it, damn it!  And if it tastes great–and it did–I have a much greater meal than anything the dining halls are serving!


10 Responses to “With my Corazón on my Sleeve: My Attempt at Mexican.”

  1. loyola September 26, 2010 at 3:59 am #

    Shaina I thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs,you are so honest and funny and my mouth always waters just imagining tasting your creations.I have no doubt that big things are in store for you.Your on show on the food network perhaps? Luv u Girl!!

  2. holly September 26, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Looks yummy Shaina! Ever hear about the West Phailian ham grandpa hung in our garage for a year? xo

  3. Nancy Walters September 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    I’m a California friend of your grandparents who agrees with your rating of Mexican and airline food.

    You are truly a chef. Your creative pumpkin mole menu was impressive.

  4. Judy Loew September 26, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

    I sent it to several of my friends that I knew
    would enjoy reading this.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. onlinepastrychef September 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    What a great,intuitively-made dish! Best of luck in Round 2. I think yours is the only entry that I’ve read that used a Decorative Item (shit! That pumpkin is edible!!) as a main ingredient! 😆 You get extra points for that!!

  6. Roseanne Post September 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

    Dear Shaina, Totally enjoyed your blog. I swear I could smell the roasting pumpkin as you were describing it. Best of luck, but I have a feeling the NY Times are going to be looking for you someday to be their #1 Food Critic! (Just my little prediction.) Keep cooking girl! Roseanne

  7. foododelmundo September 28, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

    Very unique! I hear ya on the last minute ‘surprise’ but it’s all worth it I’m sure.
    Sending some Foodbuzz ♥ your way. Hope we both make it to the next round 😉

  8. jacobskitchen September 29, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    Great post! Sounds delicious. I voted for you!

    Good luck! =)

    You can check out my PFB post at : http://www.foodbuzz.com/project_food_blog/challenges/2/view/864

  9. @lickmyspoon September 29, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    What a beautiful plate! Dorm room guanciale is pretty impressive, reminds me of my dorm room chocolate truffles. You’ve got my vote, good luck this week!

    Lick My Spoon


  1. My 2010 in review, as reported by Wordpress « Getinmebelly - January 2, 2011

    […] The busiest day of the year was September 27th with 227 views. The most popular post that day was With my Corazón on my Sleeve: My Attempt at Mexican.. […]

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