Well, folks, it’s now been four months since I first embarked on my journey of culinary enlightenment. In that time, several of the city’s finest chefs have been kind enough to let me inside their kitchens and teach me, an inveterate candy-for-dinner eater, how to cook a relatively easy and inexpensive meal.
The question is, how much have I actually learned?
That’s what I hoped to find out this week as I headed into my own kitchen and attempted to recreate two of my favorite dishes from the column thus far: Le Virtu’s pasta con le zucche and El Rey’s chicken enchiladas. Hopefully, I thought, by documenting my own trial and error while cooking, I could offer a little enlightenment to other inept home cookers out there.
Although, it appears I still have a long journey ahead.
Cost: $20 (approx.)
Stress Level: High
Time: 2 hours
Challenge #1: Shopping for all the ingredients. Although I happen to live a five-minute walk from the Italian Market and the dozen or so nearby bodegas, since I was going to be making a trip to Walmart anyway, I figured I’d look there first for the Chihuahua cheese, crema, queso fresco, chicken and tortillas. In hindsight, this wasn’t the smartest decision—but it did teach me a valuable lesson about the culinary sacrifices often made when attempting to save a little bit of time and money. Aside from having to buy twice the amount of crema and quesco fresco I actually needed, I also had to settle for a 30-pack of corn tortillas that were smaller and thinner than the ones Chef Dionicio Jimenez used. No biggie, I thought. I’ll just have to make my enchiladas smaller.
Over at the Italian Market, it took me less than five minutes to find all the vegetables—yet, once again, I wound up going home with far more than necessary: I may have confused five “cloves” of garlic with five “bulbs” and two “bunches” of cilantro with two “bushels.” The only truly elusive item on my grocery list was the Chihuahua cheese: Four bodegas and three Italian cheese/meat shops later, still no Chihuahua. NOOOO!!!
Challenge #2: Remaining calm. Having offered to make dinner for everyone in my house, I was under a bit of pressure. Not only did I want to deliver an appetizing meal, but I soon found myself racing against the clock. The preparation stage alone took about an hour, largely thanks to the wheel of queso that I had to shred one small sliver at a time and the two pounds of tomatillos, which, it turns out, are covered in a sticky film and therefore a huge pain in the ass to peel. Once I got down to cooking, I ran into a few problems with the salsa. First, because I don’t own a professional blender, I was forced to divvy up the cooked veggies and blend them in two separate batches. Then, despite following instructions and blending the salsa with a handful of ice cubes to keep it from turning brown, the mixture was still warm. While waiting for both batches to cool in the fridge, I decided it was time for a margarita break.
Challenge #3: Tackling the leftovers. In addition to having made a quart and half of salsa verde, when it all was said and done, I essentially still had half of everything. Getting rid of it all took four people and five days. With the chicken stock, my roommate made a heavenly soup. With the salsa, another roommate made rice and bean enchiladas. With the cilantro, another roommate made a Mexican pesto/cilantro mush. I myself whipped up a stellar late-night snack deep frying the tortillas, sprinkling queso on top and using the salsa as a dip. There is a full bottle of crema still sitting in my fridge if anyone’s interested.
Final Verdict: Since there’s four other people willing to back me up, I don’t mind boasting: My salsa verde was just as good as El Rey’s. Thankfully, I heeded Dionicio’s advice and only blended one jalapeno at a time as mine weren’t nearly as mild. And much to my surprise, the combo of crema and queso fresco was so rich and creamy that I didn’t even miss the Chihuahua cheese. Ultimately, though, no amount of salsa or creamy goodness could save the enchiladas from the dry, flaky and overwhelmingly blah tortillas that they were wrapped in. Seriously, paper towels have a better taste and texture. Now I know that all white corn tortillas are not created equal. I’ll be taking all of my future tortilla business to a bodega.
Pasta con le zucche (Fink’s Zucchini Fettuccini
Cost: $15 approx.
Stress Level: Low-medium
Time: 15 minutes
Challenge #1: Remembering what the hell a zucchini looks like. Weaving through the endless produce stands in the Italian Market, I kinda felt like I was trying to hunt down Waldo, except instead of a sea of red-and-white striped shirts, I was wading through a sea of oddly shaped green vegetables. It turns out, there was no baby green zucchini to find. All they had were full-grown mama zucchinis. Oh, and you can just forget about finding zucchini flowers in the dead of winter.
Challenge #2: “What type of pasta do you want?” It was like déjà vu. While this time I at least understood the difference between fresh and dried pasta, it still didn’t occur to me that I was going to have to specify a particular “style.” What do you call a few flat slabs of pasta? I proceeded to give the cashier the same dumbfounded look that I gave Chef Joe Cicala when he first asked me this question, until she directed me to their menu. Rather than trying to explain what I actually needed—or simply ordering lasagna because it was the closest thing—now that I was suddenly being given options, I decided to consider them. I wasn’t sure if a thinner style of pasta would alter the recipe in any way, but I did know that it meant less time cutting perfect “obtuse quadrilaterals.” And so, after three awkward minutes of silence at the register, I finally responded: “Fettuccini!”
Challenge #3: Actually cutting the zucchini. I really had no idea what to do with the thing. I just hacked off the ends, cut it in half then experimented with a few different cutting techniques in order to achieve the thinnest slices possible. Having loved the harmonious texture of the original dish, my logic was, the thinner the slice, the softer they’ll get.
Challenge 4: Knowing when to stop. I was able to sync the individual steps almost exactly up until the end. Though the pasta was done in three minutes flat, the zucchini appeared unchanged. I guess I was expecting it to brown, because I continued to let it sauté for far longer than instructed. At the same time, I couldn’t judge whether the sauce was an ideal consistency, so I just kept adding more pasta water and cheese to the pan. I eventually called it quits when the pasta started getting cold.
Final Verdict: Not too shabby for my first attempt, but the dish definitely didn’t elicit the same sort of enthusiasm as it did before (“It tasted like summer. In Italy. On a gondola. Wearing a fedora. Having sex.”) Just as I feared, the zucchini slices were quite pronounced in the pile of super-soft, amazing fettuccini. Also, despite having added extra zucchini, garlic and cheese, my version still seemed to be lacking in the flavor department. Perhaps I underestimated the importance of the zucchini flowers. Or perhaps Le Virtu’s olive oil and parmigiano reggiano were simply a far better quality. I think I’m just going to blame my dish’s shortcomings on my complete lack of Italian blood and the stupid mama zucchini.
Find all the dishes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far, online at forkingstupid.com.
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PW's Taste of Philly 2014