Fresno Tacos

Fresno’s two most prominent ethnic groups are Hispanics and Armenians. We have no prior experience with Armenian food, but I was intrigued by the big jar of bright red stuff I found on a shelf at Whole Foods along with other jarred spreads. It was labeled “Ajvar,” and “Hot,” and the brand name was “ZerGut,” which Michael assures me is not German but which sounds like the German words for “very good.” So after looking at it on the shelf for a number of weeks, I bought it and decided we would try it. It is an eggplant spread – the second ingredient is sugar – and there are a respectable number of red peppers in it. It’s a stunning bright red-orange color. It wasn’t actually made in Armenia but in Turkey, and Michael found results on the web that led him to think that it was Macedonian, but I figure there’s eggplant spreads from there to India, and if I’m one country over, it probably means the grandmothers just make it with at least one difference substantive to the people in either country. This is sort of like the two different older women at the Aphrodite market in Arlington who both told me, on two successive visits to the store, the only proper way to make tabouli. One was Bulgarian and one was Lebanese. They both said, “Now the Lebanese/Bulgarians, they’ll tell you a different way, but this is the Bulgarian/Lebanese way, which is the real way to make it…”

So home we came with our ajvar, and since it was heavy with red peppers, I decided I would use it in some Mexican application. We made black bean tacos, and instead of putting salsa on them, we spread the fried corn tortillas thickly with ajvar before putting the beans and other toppings in. They look very dramatic with the red spread against the black beans and yellow tortilla.

They were good. It didn’t occur to me until we were eating that the incorporation of ingredients reflected the mix of populations in this strange place we’re living. If I had some Armenian cheese, we could have struck a better balance between the ethnicities – and I’m sure there’s someplace in Fresno where I can get Armenian cheese. If you can find some Ajvar in an ethnic market where you are, give it a try.

For the beans:
oil for the pan
2 c. dry black beans, soaked 8 hours or overnight and drained
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 chipotle chili, minced
1/2 t. cayenne pepper

Saute the onions until almost translucent, then add the garlic, chipotle chili, and cayenne pepper. Place the beans in the pot. Add water to cover plus an inch or so. If using a pressure cooker, bring to pressure and cook for 25 minutes. Otherwise, cover the pot, bring the beans to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until tender, which may take a couple hours. When tender, drain and season with:

salt and pepper
hot sauce if they need it

While the beans are cooking, fry corn tortillas in oil for the tacos. Two taco-loving people can easily go through a dozen tortillas with this recipe. Corn oil gives the best flavor, but since I don’t usually have it in the house, I use canola oil. Use a small frying pan, slightly larger than the diameter of the tortillas, and cover the bottom with a puddle of oil. Heat it over slightly higher than medium heat, and fry the tortillas one at a time, turning once, just until they lose their dull color. A pair of forceps-style tongs (not salad tongs) or a small metal spatula is the best tool for this. As you remove the tortillas from the pan, let the oil drain off of them, then place them on a plate with folded paper towling between them. Once they’re fried, you can cover the plate with foil and pop them in a 200 degree oven to keep warm.

Taco toppings:
For these tacos, we used just lettuce and shredded sharp cheddar cheese as toppings. Assemble the tacos by warming a small bowl of ajvar in the microwave, spreading it on the tortilla, then topping with beans, cheese, and lettuce.

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Arichokes Stewed with Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Mint

What did I learn from this? It’s better the second day, like many stews. It’s astonishing how much the flavor of potatoes changes in 24 hours. This was only passable on the first day, but on the second it was enjoyable. This originally called for fresh baby artichokes, and you can get those in California (or at least in my Whole Foods you can) but I know that nobody but me would ever even bother with them in their raw state. I used canned artichoke hearts in this, which changes the dish somewhat, but it’s still good.

1/4 c. olive oil (hey, the original calls for 1/2 c.)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 bunch (8 –10) scallions, trimmed and cut into thin rounds, including as much of the green as possible
8 artichoke hearts
8 – 12 small red potatoes, washed and halved
1 c. peeled, chopped plum tomatoes (canned is fine, says the original recipe – that’s what I did)
1 bay leaf
2/3 c. packed, chopped fresh dill
1/2 c. packed chopped fresh mint leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
strained fresh juice of 1/2 a lemon

Heat the olive oil in a large stewing pot and sauté the garlic and scallions over medium heat for a few minutes, until soft. Add the artichokes and the potatoes (if using hearts you may want to add them later so they disintegrate less) to the pot, toss gently with a wooden spoon to coat with oil, lower the heat, and cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, and enough water to barely cover the vegetables. Season with salt and simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. About halfway through cooking, add the herbs. Just before removing from heat, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and add a little lemon juice, if desired.