Most of the dishes I’ve now cooked for this column have been totally new to me. So you can imagine how delighted I was to finally prepare two of my all-time favorite Mexican dishes: tortilla soup and guacamole.
If it weren’t for the photographer documenting my every move, I probably would have started doing the cabbage patch right there in the kitchen of La Calaca Feliz. Tucked away on Fairmount Avenue, the restaurant is deceivingly large inside. As Chef Lucio Palazzo was busy getting everything ready, I roamed the space, admiring all the unique Spanish light fixtures, Day of the Dead figurines and vibrant murals blanketing the walls. By the time I joined him in the kitchen, our array of ingredients were already chopped, pureed and perfectly portioned, the chicken stock was boiling on the stove, and there was a tiny bowl of what Lucio described as an “earthy brown puree,” which conjures up an image of, well, you know. But don’t worry—that’s just what Pasilla chilies look like blended.
While my knife skills could have certainly used the practice, I can’t say I missed assisting in the prep work. Because never mind the individual steps—the nuggets of wisdom Lucio dropped along the way made for a memorable lesson all on their own.
Tip #1: Salt is your friend! Although several local chefs have now stressed to me the importance of salting your dishes throughout the cooking process, I think Lucio may have officially driven the point home. “One of the things that differentiates home-cooking from restaurant-cooking is salt and fat,” he says. “My wife yells at me when she’s watching me cook; she always says I’m using too much.”
To ensure you’re in control of the seasoning, Lucio recommends buying low-sodium foods, especially the chicken broth. “You don’t want the food companies to tell you how much salt is in stuff cause they’re going to overload ya,” he says.
Tip #2: Flavors don’t just happen—they need to be developed. This is another key difference between home-cooked and restaurant-quality food. I mean, I know if I were making guacamole at home, and the recipe told me to let it sit for 30 minutes, I’d probably just think the person who wrote it was an idiot and dig on in anyway. And, apparently, I’d be wrong. According to Lucio, when you let guac sit for a bit, “all of the flavors tend to develop.”
The same goes for the veggies. Before we could even add them to the soup, we had to char them, a method Lucio says is key to getting that authentic Mexican flavor. Then we had to sweat them, meaning we fried ’em in a pan with oil on low to let them “release some of their juices.”
Tip #3: If you can’t find shredded tortilla chips to put on top of the tortilla soup, just use Fritos. Lucio’s words—not mine.
Tip #4: You can’t always rely on typical kitchen appliances. Watching Lucio mash the guacamole in a stone lava bowl, I couldn’t help but wonder why the hell we weren’t just throwing it into a blender or food processor.
“If you throw it into a blender, I feel like it muddles the flavor a little bit,” he says. “It also it can tend to brown a lot faster because you’re introducing more air into it.”
For those who don’t happen to own a fancy stone mortar and pestle, you’re just going to have to find some other device that’ll get the job done—potato masher, two large spoons, a hammer, a remote control, your fists, the end of a bowling pin, paperweight, etc. To puree the soup, again Lucio opted not to use a regular blender, but rather a hand-held immersion bender—one the size of a weed-wacker. After all, he’s used to making soup by the gallons.
Even having bypassed the preparation stage, the tortilla soup wound up being a pretty time-consuming dish. Luckily, it was worth the wait. The chunks of poached chicken at the bottom were a nice touch. The guacamole, on the other hand, was about as simple as one could possibly hope—you peel, you chop, you mash. Done. Having recently vacationed in Mexico, where I ate guac for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was skeptical of how La Calaca’s would stack up. Surprise, surprise—it was actually better than any variety I had eaten in Mexico.
“People always ask us what the secret is to our guacamole, but we keep it pretty simple,” Lucio says. “We’re purists here. The big key is that we season it correctly.”
With Cinco de Mayo just around the corner (Sun., May 5), I recommend whipping up a batch and washing it down with a round of your favorite Mexican beer. I’ll leave you with Lucio’s general rule of thumb when it comes to soups, sauces and dips, which also happens to be my motto when it comes to men: “A little chunky is OK.”
Find all the recipes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far online at forkingstupid.com.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014