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Flavorful Mexican Dishes

We're heading South of the Border for our latest Chef on a Shoestring challenge.

Scott Linquist, executive chef at the popular New York City restaurant Dos Caminos, created a Mexican-influenced meal for four on our $30 budget.

Linquist says he has loved Mexican food since he was young. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and had access to great, flavorful Mexican food. The graduate of the Culinary Institute of America has worked at Boulevard in San Francisco, as well as Lutece and Gotham — both in New York City.

He later returned to California to cook Mexican-influenced food at the Border Grill. He took a short break from the restaurant business to teach at the California School of Culinary Arts. But Linquist says he realized that although he enjoyed teaching, he really missed working in a kitchen.

His Chef on a Shoestring menu: an appetizer of Jicama, Orange and Avocado Salad with Chile Lime Vinaigrette; an entrée of Roasted Chicken with Mole Verde and Sweet Corn Polenta; and for dessert, Pumpkin Flan.

Terminology:

Jicama (HEE-kah-mah): Also called Mexican potato, jicama is a root vegetable originally from Mexico and South America. It has a thin brown skin with white, crunchy flesh. Its nutty, sweet flavor makes it delicious both raw and cooked. You can steam, bake, boil or even fry jicama. Linquist uses it raw in his salad.

Mole (MOH-lay): The word "mole" comes from the Aztec word "molli," meaning concoction, stew or sauce. There are many stories about the historical origins of mole, Mexico's version of gravy. Almost all agree that mole was born between 1680 and 1688 in one of the convents in the Mexican city, Puebla de los Ángeles. The most frequently told story is that Sor Andrea, sister superior of the Santa Rosa Convent, created the dish to honor the Archbishop for having a convent built for her order. Another version suggests she was honoring the Viceroy, Don Tomás Antonio de la Cerda y Aragón. She wanted to create the perfect dish, trying to blend the ingredients of the New World with those of the old.

There are two regional focal points for Mexican mole: Puebla and Oaxaca, though Veracruz is famous for "mole verde" (with tomatillos and no nuts or seeds).

The smooth sauce of mole traditionally is a blend of onion, garlic, several varieties of chiles, ground seeds (such as sesame or pumpkin seeds) and a touch of Mexican chocolate. Traditionally the unsweetened chocolate is added to provide a richness and offset the heat from the chile peppers.

Chile de Arbol: A small, dried, hot red pepper. Arbol is Spanish for small tree, which is exactly what the slender tapered chiles resemble. Mexicans also call them "bird's beak" or "rat's tail." This chile is not very flavorful but it's often used for extra heat in dishes or sauces. Linquist uses chile de arbol in his salad, preferring it to cayenne because cayenne, he says, is "too dense." If you can't find chiles de arbol Linquist suggests using red pepper flakes instead, but more may be needed to get the same kick.

Recipes

Jicama, Orange and Avocado Salad with Chile Lime Vinaigrette
Serves 4

Salad Ingredients
1 large jicama, peeled and julienned
1/2 pound mixed greens, washed
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
2 oranges, peeled and segmented

Vinaigrette Ingredients
juice of two limes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon chile de arbol, toasted and ground (see method below)
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a non-reactive bowl, combine the lime juice, olive oil, honey, and chile to make the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the jicama, mixed greens, orange segments and avocado. Drizzle in the vinaigrette. Toss until the salad is lightly coated. Season with salt and pepper. Serve on chilled plates.

Chef's note: Squeeze a little lime juice over the avocados so they don't turn brown while you're preparing the rest of the salad.

Chile de Arbol:

Depending on the size of the chile, use one or two chiles for this recipe. Place a dry non-stick saute pan on high heat. Place the chile (or chiles) in the pan to lightly toast. This will bring out a nice smoky taste. This should take about 2 to 3 minutes if your pan is nice and hot. Remove from heat. Using a coffee grinder or a small food processor, grind the chile until it's finely ground. If you can't find chile de arbol, use red pepper flakes.


Roast Chicken with Mole Verde and Sweet Corn Polenta
Serves 4

Chicken Ingredients
2 1/2 pounds of chicken legs and thighs, skin on
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F. Season the chicken legs and thighs with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, place the chicken legs and thighs into the pan skin-side down first. The chicken should be brown on the skin-side, which should take about three to four minutes (depending on how hot your pan is). Then place the pan into the oven. Let it roast for six minutes. Then using tongs, flip the chicken legs and thighs. Let the chicken legs and thighs roast for another six minutes.

Mole Verde Ingredients
1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 jalapeno pepper, halved, stem and seeds removed
8 tomatillos, peeled
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 cup corn flour
1/4 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
1 pint chicken broth
1 tablespoon lime juice
salt to taste

In a 4-quart sauce pot over high heat, add the olive oil, onion and four whole garlic cloves. Sauté until onions are translucent, stirring frequently, approximately 5 minutes. Add tomatillos and jalapenos and saute for an additional five minutes. Then add the chicken broth, and bring to a slow simmer on medium heat. Allow it to simmer for about 10 minutes, then stir in the mint and cilantro. Remove from heat.

In a blender, puree in small batches until smooth and strain. Return 2/3 of the strained sauce to the pot and leave the remaining 1/3 in the blender. Add the corn flour to the sauce that is in the blender and puree until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add the sauce in the blender to the rest of the sauce that is in the pot. Bring sauce back to a slow simmer on medium heat. Allow it to simmer for another ten minutes. Season to taste with salt. Add lime juice right before serving.

Sweet Corn Polenta Ingredients
1 quart whole milk
1 cup instant polenta
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup corn kernels (fresh, frozen or canned)
salt to taste

Place a non-stick saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 tablespoon of butter to the pan. Once the butter has melted, add the corn kernels. Saute for about two minutes. Season to taste with salt. Remove from heat. Set aside.

In a saucepan, bring milk to a simmer over medium heat. Season to taste with salt. Slowly sprinkle in the polenta, stirring constantly. Continue stirring for about ten minutes until a creamy, smooth texture is achieved. Fold in the sauteed corn kernels and the remaining tablespoons of unsalted butter. Season again to taste with salt.

Spoon polenta into the middle of each plate. Divide the chicken among the four plates, placing the legs and thighs on top of the polenta. Then spoon the mole verde sauce over the chicken pieces.


Pumpkin Flan
Serves 4

Ingredients for preparing the molds
1/2 cup sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons water
4 ramekins, 4-inches in diameter

Flan Ingredients
1 cup sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup condensed milk
5 eggs
1 10-ounce can of pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Preparing the Ramekins

Place 1/2 cup of sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and moisten with a small amount of water. Start with two of the three tablespoons of water. You simply want the sugar to dissolve. Place over medium heat until a light caramel color is attained. It is important not to stir. If you stir with a spoon or a spatula, the sugar will cling to the spoon or the spatula. This is also why it is important to make sure your hand does not come in contact with the sugar as it is melting, because the sugar will stick to your hand and burn your skin. Make sure to just swirl the pan to keep the color even, but do not stir. Once it has reached a light caramel color, immediately remove from the heat and pour the mixture into each of the ramekins. Make sure the entire bottom of the ramekin is covered.

Chef's Note: Keep a bowl of ice cold water close by just in case your hand does come in contact with the hot sugar.

Preparing the Flan

Pre-heat oven to 300-degrees F.

Over high heat in a saucepan, combine the sugar, condensed milk, evaporated milk and whole milk. Scald the milk/sugar mixture by bringing it to a boil for about two to three minutes. Remove from heat and pour into a Pyrex (heat-proof) measuring cup.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine the eggs, canned pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger and allspice. Using the paddle attachment, combine all the ingredients until smooth. With the mixer still running, gradually add the hot milk mixture to the pumpkin mixture. This must be done slowly so that the hot milk won't cook the eggs. When the two mixtures are completely combined, strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove any lumps and divide among the four ramekins.

Create a water bath by placing the four ramekins in a baking pan or oven-proof dish. Fill the baking pan halfway up the sides of the ramekins with hot water. Cover the entire pan with aluminum foil and bake in a preheated oven at 300 degrees F for approximately 35 minutes.

Remove the ramekins from the oven and let them cool slightly. Then gently run a sharp paring knife around the inside of each ramekin to loosen the flan. Place a serving plate on top of the ramekin, invert the ramekin, so the custard comes out in one piece. Repeat this process for the remaining ramekins.

You may garnish each flan with a dollop of whipped cream if you like.

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