Ancho-Pomegranate Pulled Brisket Tacos

I've been on a taco binge ever since getting back from L.A.  I miss the beach and the sun, and though I can't deny the turning leaves or the chilly bite that's taken hold in the air here in New York, this is my way of dealing with it. I may be forced into pulling out the stockings and grabbing a jacket each time I leave the door, but nothing can stop me from seeking out those flavors and rolling them into a warm tortilla.

Over the past few days, we've had shrimp tacos and braised pork tacos. At a restaurant the other night, I ordered grasshopper tacos, which were surprisingly good--nutty and salty, like intense crispy mushrooms.

I'm actually typing this while eating my lunch: cilantro-marinated chicken tenders, grilled and topped with spicy mango sauce and Greek yogurt on a warm flour tortilla.

It's an addiction, but I don't want help for it.

In fact, I want you to join me in my obsession.

Because of the Jewish holidays, brisket has been on super sale around here. I recently picked up a small 6-pound one and decided to have some fun with it.

I raided my spice cabinet and mixed up a smoky rub of ground ancho chiles, cocoa powder, ground coffee, smoked paprika, brown sugar, and a few Latin spices.

I rubbed this all over the meat, which I then cut into large chunks for easier cooking.

After searing all the pieces, I nestled them into my heavy Dutch oven with a bottle of pomegranate juice, a few bay leaves and garlic cloves.

Simple and only about 15 minutes of prep time. I left the whole thing simmering on the slowest burner while I went about my day. (A slow cooker or a low oven would work beautifully here, too.)

It wasn't long before our entire apartment filled with that heady, savory aroma; even the UPS guy commented on it as he walked down the hall with a package in hand. While the meat cooked, I quickly pickled a couple red onions (I'll share that easy recipe tomorrow).

I told Eugene the plan and he asked me what kind of wine he should pick up at his brother's store on his way home from work.

"The tequila kind," I said.

Spicy margaritas were also on my menu...

We set up camp in our living room, bowls filled with the tender shredded meat, Greek yogurt, the onions. A pitcher of jalapeno margaritas, clinking over ice and sweating condensation onto my coffee table. I crumbled up some queso fresco for an additional salty bite. Fresh cilantro and my favorite Chipotle Tabasco Sauce, finished off the dish. 

Eugene loved it all so much he couldn't stop thanking me between bites. In fact, he was so overwhelmed he kind of exhausted himself and fell asleep on the couch before 10pm. No complaints from me, though--that just meant I got to finish the margaritas myself!

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Ancho Pomegranate Brisket Tacos

Ingredients
For the spice rub:
2 tablespoons ground ancho chile
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoon ground coffee
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground oregano
3 tablespoons brown sugar
6 tablespoons kosher salt

For the meat:
5-7lb beef brisket, trimmed
Oil for frying
3 cups pomegranate juice (such as POM)
3 bay leaves
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
4 large garlic cloves, crushed

For serving: tortillas, pickled red onions, Greek yogurt, fresh cilantro, queso fresco, hot sauce

Directions
In a small bowl, whisk together the ancho, cocoa, coffee, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, oregano, sugar, and salt.

Cut the brisket into 4 to 6 large pieces, and rub completely with the spice mixture. Reserve any unused spice mixture for future recipes (this is also great on pork shoulder!)

In a large heavy-bottom pot or dutch oven, heat a few tablespoons of oil, and sear the pieces of brisket in batches, turning to sear on all sides. Return all the brisket pieces to the pot, pour in the pomegranate juice. Add the bay leaves, onion halves, and garlic cloves.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to the lowest setting, cover, and let simmer at least 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender. (Can also be cooked in a slow cooker.)

Remove the meat from the pot and use a fork to shred. Serve along with tortillas and other toppings to make tacos.


Quick Shrimp Tacos with Spicy Mango Salsa

If I had to, I'm pretty sure I could live on soft tacos for the rest of my life. (Well, soft tacos and dessert.) (And wine.) (And...well, you get it.)


But tacos...yes...they just hit all my favorite flavor notes: spicy and salty and sometimes even a little bit sweet. I make fish tacos at least once a week, with tilapia or mahi mahi, quickly fried and topped with cumin-spiked sour cream. I make chorizo tacos and pair them with salty cotija cheese. I even make vegetarian tacos, filling them with a mix of chopped mushrooms and nuts in a smokey sauce (get the recipe for my Vegetarian Chipotle Mushroom Tacos over on iVillage.com). 

But I think shrimp tacos are the ones I make most often, just because they are so quick. Shrimp are the ultimate convenience food. They cook in mere minutes and pair so well with any number of flavors.

If I'm starving and in a real rush, I'll just toss them with a little bit of chipotle-flavored Tabasco sauce (my ultimate #1 favorite favorite favorite!!! hot sauce) and sear them up quickly on a hot skillet. Over mixed greens or rolled into a soft tortilla with a bit of Greek yogurt and maybe an avocado, and you've got the perfect quick meal.

This version here has a couple more steps, but they're barely any more complicated. I pair them with a super quick cabbage slaw and and equally super quick spicy mango salsa. The results are sweet and spicy and tangy--add a cocktail and close your eyes; it's like an instant vacation!

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Quick Shrimp Tacos with Spicy Mango Salsa Recipe

Ingredients
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, cleaned, tails off
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup purple cabbage, shredded
1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 large lime, juiced
1/4 fresh cilantro, minced, plus more for garnish

For the mango salsa
1 large ripe mango, peeled and finely diced
1/2 jalapeno, finely diced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large lime, juiced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely minced
Kosher salt and black pepper

Soft corn or flour tortillas, for serving

Directions
In a large bowl, toss the peeled shrimp with olive oil, paprika, and a teaspoon each of kosher salt and black pepper. Set aside.

In a second bowl, combined the shredded cabbage, cucumber, onion, buttermilk, lime juice, and cilantro. Toss to coat, then season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper, set aside.

In a third bowl, combine the mango, jalapeno, olive oil, lime juice, and cilantro. Season with kosher salt and black pepper and set aside.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and let cook about 2 minutes per side, until golden.

Warm the tortillas on a skillet or in the microwave. Assemble the taco by first adding the cabbage slaw, topped by the shrimp, and finally the mango salsa. Garnish with additional fresh cilantro, if desired. Serve immediately.


How to Make Stovetop Mac & Cheese

When it comes to comfort food, Mac & Cheese is my ultimate.

It's my lazy day food. It's my sad day food. It's my "damn it! nothing is going right today-food." It's what I want more than anything else on the days I'm feeling a bit low or exhausted, and it's usually the most reliable way to know that I'm coming down with something.

Forget the sniffles; it's the mac & cheese cravings that give it away!

Growing up, I was always a fan of the Velveeta kind. I was probably about 8 or so when I started making it myself, and can remember standing just barely over the stove, pouring in the box of shells, letting them clatter loudly into the pot of boiling water.  The sauce came in a foil packet, and would have to be squeezed out like toothpaste, falling over the pile of drained pasta in a thick, cheesy coil that would melt into a salty, creamy sauce when stirred.


When I was about 14 or 15, my friend and I were occasionally asked to babysit our pastor's younger sons, Nicky and Joseph, along with a few other kids from the church. Their mom left us boxes of Kraft Easy Mac to make them, my first experience with the "blue box."

I'd let the boys help stirring in the butter and milk and neon orange cheese powder. I didn't like the bland, chemical-y way that kind tasted, but they gobbled it up, along with the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies we baked for dessert.

Those boys grew up to become international super stars, so now I can add "cooking mac & cheese for the Jonas Brothers" to my resume.  (I've bathed and dressed them, too, but that's a totally different story.)

These days, I much prefer the homemade kind of mac & cheese--still creamy and pretty much just as quick, but oh. so. much. better.

A few days ago, a friend and I entered into a bit of a wager...and I lost. As his prize, he requested a recipe for "really good homemade mac & cheese." He also confessed that his microwave is his "#1 cooking implement" and that he's scared of the stove. A challenge if I've ever heard one!

Homemade mac & cheese basically consists of four elements:

Pasta + Seasonings + Cheese + White Sauce = Mac & Cheese!

Let's break it down.

Step 1. Pasta!
The pasta part is super easy. You can use any kind of boxed pasta that you like, from dried shells or elbow to large penne. My favorite is gemelli--little twisty pasta that just feels really fun to eat, and is what you see pictured here. But really, it's up to you.

Pick your favorite, cook the entire 16oz box according to the directions on the box in lots of salted water (typically about 8 minutes), drain it (don't rinse it!), and set it aside while you make the sauce.


Want a cool tip? People never really know how much to salt their pasta water, and usually don't add enough. The best way to remember is that pasta water should be salty like the ocean. Remember the last time you went to the beach and got hit in the face with a mouthful of saltwater? That's what you want in order to get the best tasting pasta (same goes for boiling potatoes, vegetables, etc.)

Step 2. Cheese!
The cheese is also super easy. You can really pick any kind you'd like or even mix a few kinds. My go-to is using half a pound of extra sharp yellow cheddar cheese and half a pound of a slightly milder white cheddar. I then stir in a cup of grated Parmesan for a tangy kick. You can do all cheddar or even something like Gruyere or fontina, for a stinkier more "adult" version.

One thing I do recommend is buying the kind of cheese that comes in a block and grating it yourself; it'll melt better and give you a creamier sauce. The cheese that comes pre-grated has fillers added to it to keep it from melting in the bag so it won't melt as smoothly and you'll get a grittier texture.

(If it's all you can find, though, go ahead and use it. It'll still be delicious!)

Step 3. Seasonings
Seasonings for mac & cheese are very personal and completely customizable based on what you have and what your personal tastes are. I like to use the combo of seasonings above: dry mustard, paprika, black pepper, salt, and a bit of cayenne for spice.

You can use all of these or just some.
  • Salt and pepper are definitely necessary. Do NOT skip these.
  • I like the tang that the dry mustard powder adds (I use Colman's), but you could also replace it with regular (wet) yellow mustard or just skip it completely
  • Paprika is pretty much just there for color, although sometimes I use smoked paprika for a smokey final dish. 
  • You can use cayenne or replace it with Tabasco. If you prefer milder foods, just skip it. (I, personally, like the bit of heat it adds)
Just make sure to have everything measured out and ready to go before you start your white sauce!

Step 4. White Sauce
I think this is part that freaks most people out about homemade mac & cheese, but I assure you it's simple. And once you learn how to make it, you'll be able to make SO MANY AWESOME DISHES. White sauce is another name for "bechamel," which sounds terribly fancy and complicated, but is really just milk thickened with flour and butter.

You start off by melting half a stick of butter (4 tablespoons) into a pot set over medium-high heat, letting it melt completely and get foamy.

Then you dump in 1/3 cup of all purpose flour (you can also use whole wheat flour for a "healthier" version, but let's not kid anybody here).

Immediately stir that flour into the butter and let it cook for about a minute, stirring the entire time. It'll start to smell a little bit nutty and get just the tiniest bit golden.

You then pour in four cups of milk and stir into the flour mixture quickly. I like to switch to a whisk here for a smoother sauce, but don't worry if you don't have one. Just use what you have. I once made this using a pancake spatula because my friend didn't have anything else.

Don't stop stirring it! This part will take about 3 or 4 minutes, and you have to keep stirring it pretty much the entire time until it thickens. (You can take a few breaks, but don't walk away.) It's a good arm workout!

You're looking for the sauce to get thick and start to coat the sides of the pot and the back of the spoon.

When the sauce is coating the spoon, you can pass your finger through the back of it and see if it makes a line (like the photo). If it does, you can stop. It's perfect! Next, lower the heat to the lowest setting, leaving the pot there.

Tip: Did it get too thick, too quickly? No worries! Just add another 1/2 cup of milk and stir it in until it's perfect. 

Now it's fun time!
Add your spices, and stir them in until completely incorporated.

Add all your cheeses! Stir those in really well, too. You want them to melt completely into the sauce (about 30 seconds to 1 minute).

Now add that cooked pasta you already made and stir it into the cheese sauce until it's all coated.

Taste it! Is it good? Does it need more salt? Maybe more pepper? Maybe a little bit more spiciness? Go ahead and add it.

Now serve yourself a big bowl, and enjoy!

By the way...this recipe makes a lot because this keeps and reheats really well. I like to divide it into containers and put some in the fridge and some in the freezer for future mac & cheese eating. To reheat, just put it in a pot with about a 1/4 cup or so of milk and stir it for a minute or so until it's heated through and creamy again.

(And yeah, you can use the microwave if you prefer, too.)

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Easy Homemade Stovetop Mac & Cheese Recipe
This comes together really quickly, so make sure you have all your ingredients measured out and ready to go when you start making the sauce. You'll have homemade mac & cheese in less than 30 minutes!

Ingredients
1 pound (16oz) box of small dry pasta (such as elbow macaroni, penne, gemelli, or shells)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup all purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon paprika (optional, used smoked paprika for a smokey taste)
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder or wet yellow mustard (optional)
1 pound (16oz) extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated (or use an equivalent mix of cheeses)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (the fresh kind, not the dry powdery stuff!)

Directions
Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt generously, and cook pasta according to box directions until "al dente." Drain pasta and set aside.

Make the white sauce. Before starting, make sure you have measured out and prepared all your spices, the flour, the milk, and the cheese you will be using in the sauce.

Place a large pot over medium-high heat and melt the butter until foamy. Add the flour and stir in for one minute until fully incorporated with the butter. Slowly pour in the four cups of milk and stir continuously until the sauce thickens and coats the back of the spoon.

Add the spices, and stir in. Add the cheeses and stir in until completely melted and incorporated. If the sauce seems a bit thick, add in a 1/2 cup or so of milk and stir in completely to thin. Add the cooked pasta and stir in until completely coated.

Serve immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for up to six months. Reheat on the stove with additional milk to thin the sauce, or in the microwave.




Irish Nachos


About 5 year ago, I met up with a couple of my best girlfriends in the city, with the intention of grabbing a late lunch somewhere. We were all going through various disastrous relationship situations and craving a cozy, girly afternoon together away from the guys. It was the middle of January, and freezing, and after a couple blocks of not finding any place interesting, we gave up and decided to just go into the first place that looked warm and had seating.

That's how we ended up having our girls night at Rogue, a sports bar on a random corner in Chelsea. There was a football game on and the place was filled with men in jerseys rooting loudly for one team or another. We were the only girls in the place and had no interest in the game, but we were too cold and too hungry to care. We were seated in the middle, and buckets of Corona appeared on the table, courtesy of the guys at the bar.

The menu was made up mostly of the usual bar appetizers--wings, fries, mozzarella sticks, etc., but there was one thing that caught our eye: Irish Nachos.

We ordered it, and it was the perfect thing to warm us up. Hot, thick slices of potato baked to a slight crisp topped with cheese, sour cream, bacon, salsa, and spicy jalapenos. We fought over each other to devour them and then requested a second and third order to accompany the additional buckets of beer that kept arriving thanks to the generous guys.


The free beers and salty food soon started to take effect, and it wasn't long before we were shouting at the TV along with the guys, laughing hysterically because we didn't even know who we were meant to be rooting for, but enjoying it all the same.

Not exactly the girly day we'd been hoping for, but still somehow, surprisingly, perfect.


Those Irish Nachos have been on my list of things I'd like to recreate for a while now, and seemed like the ideal dish to finally tackle now that the weather is starting to cool and the games are back on.  The thick, crispy slices of potato stand up to the hearty toppings much better than the usual tortilla chips, which have a tendency to get soggy.

I keep my version simple, but it's definitely the sort of thing you could have fun with, adding things like refried beans, pulled pork or brisket, and any manner of salsas.

Just the thing, no matter whom you're rooting for.

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Thanks for reading & sharing!    


Irish Nachos Recipe
Serves 4 as an appetizer or snack

Ingredients
6 large russet potatoes
Olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
6 strips bacon
1/2 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/3 cup pickled jalapeno slices
1 cup sour cream or full-fat Greek yogurt
3 green onions (scallions), minced--green parts only
Chipotle-flavored Tabasco sauce (optional)

Directions
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a large baking or cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Rinse and scrub potatoes well under running water to remove dirt. Dry well with paper towels and slice into 1/2" thick slices (leave peels on). Place in a large bowl and toss potato slices with a few tablespoons of olive oil until well coated. Sprinkle generously with salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, and toss again to coat. Spread out on the prepared baking sheet, making sure none overlap, and bake about 20-30 minutes, or until the slices are cooked through and just a bit golden and crispy on top.

While potatoes bake, cook the bacon strips until crisp. Drain on paper towels, chop into small pieces, and set aside. 

When ready, remove cooked potatoes from oven and arrange potato slices in a round oven-safe baking dish or cast iron skillet. (Do not turn the oven off.) Top with the chopped, cooked bacon, followed by the shredded cheese and jalapeno slices. Pop the baking dish back into the still-hot oven and let cook 2-5 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and is bubbly. Remove from oven and top with sour cream, green onions, and Tabasco sauce (if using). Serve immediately.


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