The Dish: Chef Alex Stupak trades in pastry tools for tacos

Despite garnering critical acclaim for his modernist desserts at some of America's top restaurants, including Manhattan's wd~50 and Alinea in Chicago, Chef Alex Stupak traded in his pastry tools to master the taco. Now he has three successful Empellón restaurants in New York City and a James Beard Award nomination.

Stupak shares some of his signature Mexican dishes: guacamole with pistachios, cochinita pibil tacos, deviled egg tacos with sikil pak, pineapple lardo tacos, a variety of salsas and tres leches cake.

Guacamole with Pistachios

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

½ cup olive oil

½ cup hulled pistachio seeds

Kosher salt, as needed

1 small white onion

1 bunch cilantro

1 jalapeños

3 ripe hass avocados

2 limes

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan or skillet. Add the pistachios and lightly toast them for 2 minutes. Remove the pistachios from the oil and drain them on a plate lined with paper towels. Season them with salt. Reserve the oil and allow to cool at room temperature.

Peel and mince the onion. You only need a ¼ cup of minced onion, so you may need to reserve some for another use. Place the minced onion in a basket strainer and rinse under cold running water for several minutes. Drain the onions and set aside.

Pick about 70 of the best leaves you can form the cilantro bunch. Leave half of them whole and just barely chop the other half.

Cut the top off of the jalapeños and cut them into quarters. Lay each quarter flat and cut away the seeds and white veins. Mince the jalapeños and set aside.

Cut open the avocados and remove their pits. Scoop the flesh out of the avocados and into a bowl using a spoon. Mash the avocados with either a small potato masher or even a whisk. Make sure the avocado still retains its texture.

Juice the limes and pour it over the guacamole. Add ¾ of the pistachios to the bowl, along with the minced onion, chopped cilantro and minced jalapeño. Season the mixture with salt and gently fold the mixture together.

Transfer the guacamole to a serving bowl and garnish with the whole cilantro leaves and remaining pistachios. Drizzle the guacamole with a teaspoon of the reserved olive oil that was used to toast the pistachios. Serve the guacamole with tortilla chips.

Cochinita Pibil Tacos

Advance preparation:

1 recipe achiote paste (see below)

1 recipe pickled red onions (see below)

1 recipe salsa habanera (see below)

For the filling:

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder

1 cup achiote paste

Kosher salt, as needed

2 banana leaves

To assemble the tacos:

1 recipe pickled red onions

1 recipe salsa habanera

2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges

1 recipe corn or flour tortillas

Makes 12 tacos

Make one recipe achiote paste. Reserve 1 cup.

Make one recipe pickled red onions.

Make one recipe salsa habanera.

For the filling:

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

On a plate, slather about 1 cup of achiote paste all over the pork shoulder and season liberally with kosher salt.

Gently unfold the banana leaves, keeping them as intact as possible. Line the inside of a 5½-quart Dutch oven with one banana leaf and lay the second banana leaf over and across. The leaves will hang over the sides of the Dutch oven.

Nestle the pork shoulder inside the banana leaves. Fold the leaves over the pork shoulder and tuck inside the Dutch oven. Pour in 1 cup of water and cover with a lid. Transfer to the preheated oven and cook for 3 hours or until fork tender.

Remove from the oven and let rest undisturbed for one hour at room temperature. Take off the lid and unfold the banana leaves. Transfer the pork to a cutting board to rest. Remove the banana leaves from the Dutch oven and discard.

Set up a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the cooking juices through the strainer. Clean the Dutch oven and add the strained cooking juices back into the vessel.

Use two forks to shred the pork shoulder. Return the meat back to the Dutch oven, mixing to coat it with the cooking juices.

Make one batch of corn or flour tortillas and hold them warm.

To assemble the tacos: lay out the warm tortillas on serving plates. Place a small mound of the cochinita pibil on each tortilla and some of the pickled red onions. Squeeze a couple of the lime wedges over the tacos and serve the salsa habanera on the side.

Achiote Paste

Ingredients:

1 4-inch piece Mexican canela

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

2 tablespoons allspice berries

3 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano

½ cup achiote seeds

40 garlic cloves, skin on

Makes 1 3/4 cups

Set a cast iron skillet over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

In the skillet, combine the Mexican canela, black peppercorns, allspice berries, dried Mexican oregano and achiote seeds and toast briefly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat and, working in batches, transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Set aside.

In the skillet, roast the garlic cloves, turning them from time to time until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves and discard the skin.

In the jar of a blender combine the toasted ground spices and seeds, roasted garlic and cider vinegar and purée until as smooth as possible. You may need to add a tablespoon of cider vinegar to the blender in order to get the mixture to pass easily through the blades. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Black Ayocote Beans

Ingredients:

2 cups dried black ayocote beans or dried black beans

3 cups water

1 medium white onion, peeled, cut in half

4 garlic cloves, peeled

2 dried bay leaves

1 epazote branch

Kosher salt, to taste

Makes 5 cups

Carefully sort through the beans and remove any stones or debris. Soak the beans in the water 12 hours or overnight.

Transfer the beans and their soaking liquid to a 6-quart stockpot along with the onion, garlic, bay leaves and epazote branch. Bring to a simmer and cook gently until the beans are completely tender, about an hour and a half.

Remove the beans from the heat and let them cool in their own cooking liquid, about 20 minutes. Remove the onion halves, garlic cloves, bay leaves, and epazote branch from the beans. Season to taste with the kosher salt. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Pickled Red Onions

Ingredients:

4 red onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 dried bay leaf

¼ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

2 cups cider vinegar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Makes about 7 cups

Place the sliced onions in a nonreactive bowl.

Set a cast iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes.

In the skillet, combine the black peppercorns, dried bay leaf, cumin seeds and coriander seeds and toast briefly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl with the onions.

Set a small 1-quart saucepot over medium heat and add the cider vinegar, kosher salt and sugar. Bring to a simmer, remove from the heat and pour over the onions.

Cover the container with a lid and store in the refrigerator. Let the onions pickle for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours before ready to use.

Salsa Habanera

Ingredients:

½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

10 habanero chiles

½ medium white onion, cut into ¼-inch thick slices

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 orange, zest and juice

1 lime, zest and juice

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Makes 1 cup

Set a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, add the dried Mexican oregano and toast briefly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat and transfer to a molcajete.

In the skillet, place the habanero chiles and roast, turning the chiles from time to time until blackened in spots, about 15 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool at room temperature.

In the skillet, roast the onion slices, turning them from time to time until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool at room temperature.

Roughly chop the roasted onions and add to the molcajete along with the kosher salt and sugar. Using the pestle, crush into a paste.

Remove and discard the stems of the roasted habanero chiles, and cut into quarters lengthwise. Roughly chop the chiles and add to the molcajete followed by the orange and lime zest and citrus juices. Continue working the salsa to a coarse texture.

Stir in the cider vinegar to combine. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Deviled Egg Tacos with Sikil Pak

Advanced preparation:

1 recipe sikil pak (see below)

1 recipe salsa habanera (see above)

Ingredients:

12 eggs

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

½ teaspoon salsa habanera

Kosher salt to taste

½ medium red onion, minced

60 each cilantro leaves, rough cut

2 limes, each cut into six wedges

1 each recipe corn or flour tortillas

Make one recipes worth of sikil pak and set aside

Make one recipes worth of salsa habanera and set aside

Makes 12 tacos

Place 12 eggs in a pot, and cover them with enough cold water to cover by 3 inches. Place the pot over a high heat. When the water begins to boil, set a timer for 8 minutes.

Combine 8 cups of ice an 8 cups of water in a bowl, to create an ice bath.

When the eggs have cooked for 8 minutes, transfer them to the ice bath to cool.

Peel the hard boiled eggs and rinse them of any bits of shell that may be clinging to them.

Cut each egg in half lengthwise and carefully scoop out the yolk into a bowl.

Add the mustard, mayonnaise and salsa habanera to the bowl. Whisk the mixture together until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

Place the egg yolk mixture in a piping bag fitted with a small star tip.

Pipe a rosette of the egg yolk mixture into each of the yolk cavities. Set the eggs aside on a plate in the refrigerator.

Make on batch of corn or flour tortillas and hold them warm.

To assemble, lay out your tortillas on serving plates. Place a couple of generous tablespoon full of the sikil pak onto each tortilla and spread it out a bit with the back of your spoon. Place two of the deviled eggs on each of your tortillas.

Dress the tacos further some of the minced red onion and chopped cilantro leaves.

Dot a tiny bit of the salsa habanera on each of your tacos and squeeze a couple of the lime wedges over the tacos and serve the rest on the side.

Sikil Pak

Ingredients:

1 plum tomato

One 2-inch stick of Mexican canela

2 cups raw, hulled, unsalted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

1 habanero chile

3 garlic cloves, skin on

½ medium white onion, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 sour orange (substitute a lime if you can't find this fruit)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

60 cilantro leaves

Makes 2½ cups

Preheat the broiler. Roast the tomato on a baking sheet under the broiler until blackened in spots, about 7 minutes. Turn it over and continue to blacken, another 7 minutes. Remove from the broiler and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once it is cool enough to handle, peel the tomato and discard the skin.

Set a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the canela and toast, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat, transfer to a spice grinder, and grind to a fine powder.

Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Toast the pepitas until they puff up and turn brown, shaking the pan constantly to prevent them from burning. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Grind the pepitas until a powder forms and begins to stick to the sides of the bowl.

Reheat the skillet, then roast the habanero, garlic cloves, and onion slices, turning them from time to time, until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the vegetables from the skillet, and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves and discard the skins.

Add the roasted tomato, garlic, onion, and half of the habanero to the bowl of the food processor with the ground pepitas. Cut the sour orange in half and squeeze over a medium-mesh strainer directly into the bowl. Add the ground canela and the salt and cilantro leaves, along with 3/4 cup water; pulse to a coarse puree. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use. The sikil pak will keep for up to 3 days.

Corn Tortillas

Ingredients:

1 pound fresh masa

or

1½ cups masa harina, such as maseca, rehydrated with 1 cup water

Makes 12 tortillas or about 1 pound of masa

Inspect the dough: Whether you're using fresh masa or rehydrated harina, you want the texture to be as soft and moist as possible without sticking to your hands. If the dough develops small cracks when squeezed, it is too dry and needs more moisture. To correct this, knead 1½ teaspoons of warm water into the dough until it becomes malleable and forms into a ball.

Divide the dough into 12 equal balls, cover with a wet towel and set aside.

Set up a double-griddle or two cast-iron pans over two burners. Heat one side of the griddle (or one pan) over a low-medium flame and the other over a medium-high flame for about 5 minutes.

Prepare the tortilla press: If you're using a 7"-diameter tortilla press, cut two 8"x8" squares of unused, medium-heavy plastic (a Ziploc bag works nicely). Open the tortilla press and place one square on the bottom plate and the other on the top plate, making sure the plastic does not wrinkle.

Position the tortilla press with the pressure handle on the side of your body you favor - if you're right-handed, the handle should be on your right. Open the press, keeping the plastic squares on each plate. Center a ball of masa on the bottom plate and gently flatten it into a rough disk. Close the top plate, ensuring that the second piece of plastic lands squarely on top of the dough. Fold the handle and apply even pressure. Fold back the handle and open the press. Peel the top plastic from the tortilla. The tortilla should be 5 ½ inched in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick.

Pick up the bottom plastic square with the tortilla stuck to it. If you're right-handed, pick it up with your left hand. If you're left-handed, pick it up with your right hand. Flip the tortilla over to your empty palm; the upper edge should run along the tops of your index and middle fingers. Peel off the plastic.

Position yourself over the cooler end of the griddle (or the cooler pan), with the tortilla draped over your palm and the top of your hand parallel to the hot surface. Slide the tortilla onto the griddle very quickly; it should stick right away. If you're too slow, the tortilla will fold and cook unevenly.

Cook for 15 seconds. The tortilla will begin to change color after 10 seconds. Using a metal spatula or your fingers, flip it onto the hotter side of the griddle and cook for 30 seconds. Flip the tortilla again, leaving it on the hotter side of the griddle and cook for another 10 seconds before flipping a final time. Cook for an additional 10 seconds. When the tortilla is done, its edges will begin to release from the griddle and it may Inflate slightly. Pull the tortilla from the heat and place in a basket lined with a tea towel.

Taste your first tortilla. If the dough is too dry the texture will be heavy and the edges will begin to crack. If needed, gradually add ½ teaspoon of water to the dough until it is moist and malleable.

Once you're happy with the texture, repeat the process with the remaining dough balls. Place the cooked tortillas in the towel-lined basket and keep them covered to retain their temperature until ready to serve.

Pineapple Lardo Tacos

Advance preparation:

1 recipe achiote paste (see above)

1 recipe raw salsa verde (see below)

1 recipe salsa de arbol or salsa roja (see below)

For the filling:

1 ripe pineapple

1 cup achiote paste

½ pound lardo, thinly sliced, preferably by your local delicatessen

Maldon salt, to taste

Vegetable oil, for the grill

To assemble the tacos:

1 recipe raw salsa verde

1 recipe salsa de árbol or salsa roja

½ medium white onion, minced

60 cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges

Make one recipe raw salsa verde.

Make one recipe salsa de arbol or salsa roja.

Make one recipe achiote paste.

Make one recipe corn or flour tortillas

Makes 12 tacos

For the filling:

Prepare the pineapple: Cut the top and bottom off the pineapple and remove the peel and eyes. Cut the pineapple in half across the equator and reserve one half for future use. Cut the remaining pineapple half in quarters and slice off the core from each piece. Slice each pineapple quarter into 3 pieces; you should have 12 pieces total.

On a plate, slather about 1 cup of achiote paste all over the pineapple pieces and set aside.

Preheat a grill and brush with some vegetable oil. Place the pineapple pieces on the preheated grill and cook for 2 minutes. Rotate the pineapple pieces 45 degrees and cook for 2 more minutes. Turn the pineapple over and cook for 2 minutes before rotating 45 degrees and cooking for another 2 minutes. Carefully remove the pineapple pieces from the grill, transfer to a plate and let rest.

Make one batch of corn or flour tortillas and hold them warm.

To assemble the tacos: lay out the warm tortillas on serving plates. Place one piece of grilled pineapple on each tortilla and gently drape 3 slices of lardo over each piece. Season the lardo with some maldon salt. Drizzle some raw salsa verde and salsa roja over the tacos. Sprinkle some of the minced onion and chopped cilantro. Squeeze a couple of the lime wedges over the tacos and serve the rest on the side.

Salsa Roja

Ingredients:

2 plum tomatoes

10 guajillo chiles

1 chipotle morita chile

½ teaspoon dried mexican oregano

1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds

5 garlic cloves, skin on

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

¼ cup water

Makes 2 cups

Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet under a hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 5-6 minutes. Turn them over and roast on the other side for another 5-6 minutes. Remove from the broiler and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the tomatoes, discard the skin.

Prepare the dried chiles: remove the stems from the chiles and tear them open. Shake out the seeds, remove and discard the seeds and veins.

Set a cast iron skillet over medium heat and toast the dried Mexican oregano and cumin seeds and toast briefly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat, transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.

In the skillet, toast the guajillo and chipotle morita chiles, turning from time to time until the first wisp of smoke, about 45 seconds. Transfer the chiles to a bowl, cover with hot tap water and place a heavy plate over the chiles to keep them completely submerged. Set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

In the skillet, roast the garlic cloves, turning them from time to time until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves, discard the skins.

Remove the plate from the bowl covering the soaking chiles. Drain the chiles and place the soaked chiles into the jar of a blender along with the ground toasted spices, roasted garlic, salt, sugar, cider vinegar and water and purée on high speed until completely smooth (work in batches if necessary). Set up a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the purée through the strainer. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Salsa de Arbol

Ingredients:

1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds

6 all spice berries

3 whole cloves

½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

40 árbol chiles

4 garlic cloves, skin on

4 tablespoons sesame seeds, hulled and raw

4 tablespoons pepitas (pumpkin seeds), hulled, raw, unsalted

1 cup cider vinegar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Makes 1½ cups

Set a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat and combine the cumin seeds, allspice berries, whole cloves and dried Mexican oregano and toast briefly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat, transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.

Remove the stems from the chiles. Place the chiles in a food processor and pulse 2-3 times to break them open. Transfer the chile pieces to a colander to sift out the seeds. Discard the seeds.

In the skillet, toast the chile pieces, shaking the pan from time to time until the first wisp of smoke, about 30 seconds. Transfer the chiles to a bowl, cover with hot tap water and place a heavy plate over the chiles to keep them completely submerged. Set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

In the skillet, roast the garlic cloves turning them from time to time until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves, discard the skins.

In the skillet, toast the sesame seeds until dark golden brown, shaking the pan constantly to prevent them from burning, 15 seconds. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl with the ground spices.

In the skillet, toast the pepitas until golden, shaking the pan constantly to prevent them from burning, 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl with the ground spices and toasted sesame seeds.

Remove the plate from the bowl covering the soaking chiles. drain the chiles, place into the jar of a blender along with the roasted garlic, ground toasted spices, seeds, salt, sugar and cider vinegar and purée on high speed until completely smooth (work in batches if necessary). Set up a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the purée through the strainer. Set aside. Set up a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the purée through the strainer. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Salsa Verde

Ingredients:

1 garlic clove, peeled (no skin) and roughly chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 serrano chiles, stemmed and roughly chopped

½ medium white onion, minced

3-4 medium (5 ounces) tomatillos, husked and rinsed, cut into ¼-inch dice

1 teaspoon honey

40 cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Makes 1 cup

Place the garlic into the molcajete with the kosher salt and, using the pestle, crush to a paste.

Add the serrano chiles to the paste and crush to a coarse texture, followed by the minced onion. Continue working the salsa to a coarse texture.

Add the tomatillos to the molcajete and continue crushing with the pestle. Season with the honey and stir with a spoon. Add the cilantro leaves and stir to combine. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Tres Leches Cake

Ingredients:

For the cake:

3½ cups all purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¾ cup butter (at room temperature)

3 cups sugar

3 each eggs

1 cup cream

1 cup Greek yogurt

For the soak:

1 (12-ounce) can sweentened condensed milk

1 (14-ounce) can evaporated milk

1 cup whole milk

For the whipped cream topping:

2 cups heavy cream

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat an oven to 350F. Lightly oil a 13 by 9 inch rectangular cake mold (although slightly larger or smaller sizes will work too) and set aside.

Pass all of the dry ingredients through a fine mesh sieve into a dry bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and the sugar on medium speed until light, white and fluffy.

In a separate a bowl, mix the cream and yogurt together.

Add one third of the cream and yogurt mixture to the butter and sugar mixture, and paddle on low speed until combined; then incorporate one third of the dry mixture and continue to paddle.

Repeat the two previous steps alternating additions of the wet and dry mixtures, until all are incorporated fully. Scrape the sides of the mixer bowl between additions.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan until it sits 1 inch below the edge, and spread to form an even surface. You may have extra.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 25 minutes or until the cake is lightly browned.

Reserve the cake (in its pan) to a cooling rack and allow rest for an hour. Using a fork poke holes all over the surface of the cake.

Prepare the tres leches soak by mixing the three milks together with a whisk. Pour the soak over the cake and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.

Place the sugar, cream and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.

Turn the mixer onto medium speed and whip until stiff peaks are formed.

Using a cake or rubber spatula, spread the frosting over the cake as you like.

Refrigerate your tres leches cake until ready to serve.

Michelada

To make the sauce, combine:

8 oz fresh orange juice

8 oz fresh lime juice

4 oz agave syrup (1:1 agave nectar:water)

1 oz white soy sauce

1 chipotle pepper (canned in adobo style)

Blitz all ingredients in blender until the chipotle is very well incorporated. (This yields a healthy amount, but it's hard to make in a smaller quantity as using less than a whole chipotle pepper is difficult)

To build the drink:

Half-rim a highball glass with chile salt

Add 1.5 oz of sauce

Fill glass with ice

Add Mexicali

Garnish with a lime wedge