There’s a time and place for the numbered dishes on a Mexican restaurant menu—you know what I mean, the #11 combo platter of one crunchy taco, one burrito and one enchilada, with a side of rice and flavorless refried beans. For me, the time was in my younger years, before I learned to appreciate the Mexican specialty dishes as I do today, and the place was (obviously) an actual restaurant, which I don’t frequent as much as I did in those days because, frankly, we prefer the food we make at home. It has only been recently that I started considering how to make some of our favorite Mexican meals, and those favorites seldom include items from the numbered combo section, and never any crunchy, from-a-box taco shells that I used to associate with Mexican “cuisine.” It’s funny how much has changed.
At one of our favorite local places, called Señor Bravo, the pollo chipotle is the special menu item that always wins over my husband, Les. The chicken (or pollo, if you wish) is tender and bite sized, and it’s drenched in a spicy sauce that has enough smoky chipotle to warrant being part of the dish’s name, but also enough rich cream to soften the edges and give the dish a special flair. I have tried several times to make this dish at home, and on previous attempts found it difficult to replicate the flavor and texture. It seemed something was missing so I fiddled with the cooking process, added ingredients and spices, tried different types of cream—from half and half to heavy cream—and every addition made it less and less like the restaurant dish. Finally, I dialed it all back and kept it simple. Turns out, simplicity was exactly and only what it needed.
Besides being simple and delicious, this dish is also relatively healthy, as I used cream cheese rather than heavy cream to thicken the spicy sauce. This eliminated the need for flour as a thickening agent. And for our at-home pollo chipotle, I jazzed up a simple pot of brown rice with a shake of cumin and a small handful of chopped cilantro and served it alongside a simple salad with fresh tomato and slices of ripe avocado.
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and sliced
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
Several twists of freshly ground black pepper
1 or 2 Tbsp. pureed chipotle with adobo sauce* (see recipe notes)
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth*
A couple of pinches of dried Mexican oregano*
4 Tbsp. cream cheese, room temperature
The chipotle puree is best prepared in advance, and you may want to start with one tablespoon and adjust up to taste. To make the puree, empty the entire contents of a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. If your processor has a small bowl insert, that will be the perfect size. Pulse a few times, then run the machine continuously until the sauce is completely smooth.
I prefer the more complex flavor of vegetable broth in most recipes, but for this dish, you could certainly use chicken broth. I would still recommend a low-sodium version, as this helps with controlling the overall amount of sodium in the dish.
Mexican oregano is very different from the easier-to-find Mediterranean oregano you are probably accustomed to using. It’s part of the verbena family, with a citrusy, slightly floral flavor. Search it out in an ethnic supermarket, at Whole Foods or the international spice section of World Market. If you can’t get Mexican oregano, dried marjoram would be a better substitute than regular oregano.
To make the cilantro rice, simply cook a batch of your favorite brown rice according to package instructions. Use vegetable broth rather than water for more flavor. Stir in salt, pepper, a few shakes of ground cumin and a small handful of fresh, chopped cilantro leaves before serving.
Before we talk about these amazing chocolate-and-spice brownies, let’s clear this up: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. This has long been the belief of many Americans who assume that all the revelry and celebration associated with the 5th of May must be hugely significant to Mexico’s overall history, but it is not correct—Independence Day in Mexico happens in September. Cinco de Mayo is observed in commemoration of what happened half a century later, in 1862, in one Mexican state.
But the story of Cinco de Mayo is a great tale of triumph by a people whose love for their land outweighed the military might of a wealthy bully, and my brownies pay tribute to their passion. It is a tale so inspiring, it cannot be properly told without an incredible, dramatic anthem, like this one by Ennio Morricone (take a listen as you read). Yes, he is Italian, but Morricone’s composition is perfect for this story of a proud and dedicated people. You may also recognize this stunning piece from the ads for Modelo Mexican beer.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Benito Juárez—who was also the first indigenous political leader of the country—had inherited some economic troubles and overdue loans by European governments, and they were demanding payment. Juárez was able to cut a deal with the leaders of the U.K. and Spain, but the French president at that time wanted to call their loans by foreclosing on the region of Puebla, which was along the main road between the capital of Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz. This obviously did not sit well with Juárez. He rallied the loyal locals to stand with the Mexican Army in holding their ground (figuratively and literally) in Puebla, and when the French troops arrived the morning of May 5, outnumbering the Mexican troops and patriots by nearly 3-1, they were in for a surprise. What the Mexicans lacked in numbers, they more than tripled in might and spirit, and the French troops were forced to retreat by the end of the same day.
It was only one battle in a lengthier saga that later ended with the French taking the land for a short few years, but the story rings patriotic for anyone with a heart for civil rights, which was also playing out in the U.S. during those years. Cinco de Mayo is considered a minor holiday in most of Mexico, but here in the States, someone else’s one-day battle victory has become reason enough to throw a party. This one, not surprisingly, works out especially well for the distributors of Mexican beer. Come to think of it, the Cinco de Mayo story itself should be in one of those Modelo commercials. That would make a lot of sense.
My idea of a party, naturally, always comes back to the food. For Cinco de Mayo, I’ve skipped the obvious margaritas in favor of a sweet treat that honors the Mexican tradition of chocolate, which was so revered by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs that they used it as currency. Today, chocolate continues to play a significant role in the traditional moles of the Puebla region. Chile peppers complement chocolate exceptionally well, so I’ve added a hint of chipotle powder to these brownies, which are also kissed with extra dark cocoa, a good dose of cinnamon and real vanilla. And all the Mexican grandmothers shouted, “amén!”
If these brownies sound a bit too gourmet for your kitchen skills, relax, because this decadent dessert begins with a box of Ghirardelli. I’m all in favor of a shortcut that makes sense, and they are, in my opinion, the best box brownies, but use the one you like. The oh-so-easy ganache is optional, but allow me to tempt you further by mentioning that I spiked it with a splash of Patron XO Café Dark, a coffee- and cocoa-infused Mexican tequila. To keep it humble, I’ve baked it up in a cast-iron skillet, but don’t be fooled—this is a rich and decadent dessert for the ages, and it is worth fighting for. Call it “the ecstasy of chocolate,” if you wish.
1 box brownie mix* (I love Ghirardelli dark chocolate, but use your favorite), plus listed ingredients to make them
1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder (Mine is from King Arthur Baking, but Hershey Special Dark would be OK)
1 tsp. espresso powder*, optional (deepens the chocolate, but does not add coffee flavor)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. pure ground chipotle* (see notes)
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1/3 cup Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips
A few pinches of coarse sea salt or kosher salt
Butter, for greasing the skillet or brownie pan*
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 oz. Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 Tbsp. Kahlua or Patron XO Café Dark liqueur, optional
The brownie mix I use produces a chewy, fudge-style brownie. In addition to the mix, be sure you also have the ingredients listed on the box for making them.
Espresso powder is a specialty ingredient that I found in the baking aisle of a gourmet supermarket. You could also substitute a good quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand, or simply omit it.
I am crazy about the combination of chocolate and chiles! Chipotle, which is smoked jalapeno, is especially nice here. You could also use up to the same amount of pure cayenne powder, which is spicier, or pure ancho powder, which is milder and more fruity. Please do not use what is generically labeled as “chili powder,” as these random blends usually also include salt, garlic, oregano and other spices you wouldn’t want in brownies. Check your labels, always.
My decision to use the cast-iron skillet presented a few other adjustments, because a 10.25” skillet means a slightly different distribution of brownie batter. Also, the cast iron is heavy and retains heat differently than my usual 8 x 8 glass dish. I have adjusted the baking time accordingly in my instructions, but please consider your mix recommendations as well as your baking vessel.
According to my digital kitchen scale, 1/2 cup of chocolate chips was only three ounces, which falls short of “equal parts” with the cream. If you don’t have a scale, measure out 1/2 cup, then pile on as many more chips as you can without them spilling, and you’ll be in good shape.
As if the brownies are not decadent enough, believe that the next step makes them even better. If you have ever thought of ganache as “fancy,” you can lay that idea to rest. It is nothing more than equal parts hot cream and rich chocolate. I’ve spiked it with a Mexican liqueur, and it sends these brownies into purely heroic territory.
In our early months of getting to know each as slightly more than “just friends,” my husband, Les, and I took a road trip into southern Virginia for an afternoon of antiquing. He had been working on redecorating his living room and was on the search for an interesting accent table or other cool décor item. And mostly, we were both looking for new ways to hang out together.
Along the way, we found this funky table with an adjustable wooden top that screwed down into the base. It was not very practical, given that the three legs are not properly spaced out and it tipped over if you set something on it. But it was fun and different, and with a fresh coat of paint, it livened up his living space. We also stopped at a few roadside stands, browsing through fresh peaches, honey, jams and preserves, along with all varieties of handmade crafts.
The most fun thing about that day, though, was our visit to a Mexican restaurant called Chile Rojo, just inside the N.C. state line. The music and décor were lively, the food was delish and the company of this guy who once seemed so serious to me was just about the best thing going. Les and I met in a pool hall, where we both played in a 9-ball league, and our first impressions of each other (as is often the case with married couples) were not particularly positive. He thought I was flirty (for sure, I was) and a bit on the flighty side. I thought he was intense and without much sense of humor. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that second part, and it was interactions such as this road trip that really helped me see the relaxed, authentic side of this man who would, nearly two years later, become my husband.
It didn’t hurt that we both have a passion for great food and adventurous palates that make us open to trying each other’s favorite things. On this visit to Chile Rojo, his eyes scanned the menu, landing on their choriqueso dip, which he called “queso fundido.” It was a typical Mexican queso dip—creamy, melty and salty—but this one had spicy, crispy bits of chorizo sausage floating around in it, causing a flavor explosion in every bite. Truth be told, I had probably experienced this stuff at some point in my past, and maybe I had just never heard the name of it. But in the heat of that July evening, as Les and I sipped our Mexican lagers and enjoyed dragging our crispy warm tortilla chips through this queso fundido dip, everything seemed new and delicious.
That first of many road trips for us as a couple is still on my mind whenever we order queso fundido, and in honor of Cinco de Mayo this week, Les and I decided to put those fabulous flavors onto a pizza. My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough went south of the border for the occasion, as I subbed in a portion of corn flour for the usual amount of whole wheat flour, a subtle nod to the tortilla chips we like so much. Shredded pepperjack cheese provided a base for the toppings. The chorizo sausage was browned up with chopped onions, and accompanied by fire-roasted corn, pickled jalapeno and fresh slices of fresno chiles. The hot oven transformed the dollops of melty queso dip into blistered patches of ooey-gooey deliciousness, and when we pulled the pizza from the hot steel, we topped it with cool cubes of avocado and fresh cilantro leaves. Like all of our adventures, this pizza was awesome.
Oh, and it turns out Les isn’t always so serious. Thank goodness, because neither am I. ❤
2 chorizo sausage links, casings removed
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 cup cream, half and half or whole milk* (see notes)
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese (or Monterey Jack for less heat)
1/2 avocado, cubed
Handful fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
Fresh squeeze of lime
Depending on the type of dairy you use (cream, half and half or milk), you may need to adjust the ratio a bit. Cream, of course, has the highest fat content and whole milk has the lowest. I do not recommend 2% or skim milk for queso, as they don’t have the fat content to support the melted cheese. For readers abroad, “half and half” is a popular product in the U.S. that is essentially a 50/50 mix of cream and milk, and it amounts to about 12% milkfat.
I always use American cheese for its incredible meltability. I’m not sure if that is a word, but I think you understand my point! Regular cheddar has great flavor on its own, but without the special enzymes that exist in American cheese, a sauce made with only cheddar will break in the heat of the oven. I purchase American cheese in chunks at the deli counter of my supermarket, rather than the dairy aisle.
Our pizzas are baked on a steel, preheated at 550°F for an hour before baking. If you bake at a lower temperature, you will need to adjust baking time, and consider turning on the broiler for a brief minute at the end, to put a nice blister on the queso topping.
Note also that this pizza is par-baked before the queso dip is added, then returned to the oven for final browning. Do not add the queso at the start of the baking time, as it will burn and may prevent even cooking of the dough.
First, the queso dip, which we love on its own, so we made more than we needed for this pizza. Without question, we will enjoy the rest on homemade nachos or just snacking with tortilla chips. If you make the queso ahead of time, note that it will become solid in the fridge. No worries, just warm on low heat to creamy consistency again, and cool to room temp for topping the pizza.
When you are ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 550°F if using a steel, or the recommended temperature for your pizza stone. Your oven rack should be about 8 inches from the top of the oven. If you are using a pizza pan, place the rack in the lower third of the oven to ensure thorough baking of the crust, and plan to adjust your baking time.
As we inch toward some new variety of normalcy in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, my husband, Les, and I have been making an informal list of the top things that helped us get through the past year. Beyond the obvious things, such as face masks and avoiding crowds, we leaned into a few new routines as we fumbled through a year in lockdown.
Last week, I shared one of our favorite rituals—our Friday night menu of homemade pizza and smoked maple old-fashioned cocktails, our “quarantini” of choice. Today, I’m offering up a slice of this easy, no-cooking-involved spring dessert, in honor of the musical duo that has provided the soundtrack for our Friday nights at home for the past year.
My “tequila and lime” pie is obviously a riff on a margarita cocktail. It is bright and citrusy, sweet but tart, with refreshing lime juice plus two shots of tequila and a splash of orange liqueur. The crust, though similar in appearance to a graham cracker cheesecake base, is made from buttery crushed pretzels, a salty accent just like the one you’d expect on the rim of your margarita glass. I’ve made this pie for many years and always called it “margarita pie,” but it shall be known henceforth by its new name, “Tequila and Lime,” which also happens to be the title of a song by our Friday night friends.
Nearly every week during lockdown, we have cozied up in front of our big wall-mounted TV for “Quarantunes,” streamed on Facebook Live by Glenn Alexander, an awesome musician and all-around good guy, and his lovely and talented daughter, Oria, who graces us with her phenomenal voice and occasional playing of flute and turkey legs. Yes, I said turkey legs—you must press “play” and see it to understand.
Together, they are “Blue Americana,” and both Glenn and Oria (pronounced “oh-RYE-uh”) are equal parts gifted and goofy, and their weekly concert, staged from a table in their home kitchen, has helped us maintain humor and a sense of normalcy throughout the turbulence of the past year. We first met Glenn from his role as lead guitarist for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a Jersey-based bluesy rock band that my husband has followed for about four decades. Not coincidentally, a Southside concert was the first date that Les and I had in 2015, though Les insists it wasn’t a date and maybe it wasn’t for him, but I still remember how he looked in black jeans that night, and how I wondered to myself, “why have I not noticed this before?” But I digress.
When COVID was still making early headlines, Les and I had gone to one of our last live music shows—a “Jukes” concert, just one night earlier than the Little River Band show I wrote about in my previous post, “Reminiscing.” Yep, for two consecutive nights, just ahead of the first COVID surge, we were nuzzled next to strangers in busy music venues. The reality of the virus obviously had not yet hit us. At the start of the Jukes concert, Southside Johnny strolled onto the stage with his shirt untucked and his usual sense of humor, telling the crowd not to get too close, because they had found the first “coronavirus person” in North Carolina, and he pointed to his left, directly at Glenn Alexander, who replied with his own swagger and wit, “I’m more of a Dos Equis person.” And then they rocked the house.
When we learned later that Glenn was streaming Facebook Live shows on Friday nights, it was a no-brainer—of course we would be watching, whenever we didn’t have plans. Which turned out, of course, to be the whole next year. Little did we know that these two—Glenn, with his virtuoso guitar skills and a side shot of tequila and lime, and Oria, with her sultry, soulful voice and adorable, unapologetic silliness, would become part of the family.
Glenn and Oria, we love and appreciate you! Here’s a delicious slice of “vitamin T” for you and Dr. Fauci!
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) salted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups finely crushed salted pretzels* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. coconut sugar (or regular sugar)
14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, from about two large limes* (see notes)
Zest of one lime*
2 oz. (1/4 cup) 1800 Silver tequila*
1 oz. (2 Tbsp.) Grand Marnier orange liqueur*
8 oz. heavy cream, whipped
A few drops of green food coloring (optional)
The measurement of pretzels is after crushing, so you will probably need to crush about 2 cups of loose pretzels to get this amount. Crumbs should be small and uniform, but not as fine as powder. If you have any leftover crumbs, you can use them to garnish.
Use a microplane to remove the zest of one lime before you juice them, and it’s best to use organic citrus anytime you will be eating a portion of the peel. Here’s a tip for getting the most juice out of your fresh limes: microwave them on high for about 40 seconds. Cool until they are easy to handle, then roll under your hand on the counter before halving and squeezing them.
This time around, I used 1800 Coconut tequila, for a little extra tropical flavor. I have also used Cuervo gold tequila with excellent results, so use whatever brand is your favorite, but remember that with so many mixers in this pie, it is not necessary to use a top-shelf tequila. Save the really good stuff for Quarantunes!
I use Grand Marnier in my margaritas, so I have also used it in my tequila and lime pie. Use a splash of triple sec if you prefer or if it is what you have on hand.
Here we go!
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Use a fork to combine pretzel crumbs and coconut sugar into the butter. Press into a 9” freezer-safe pie plate, using the bottom of a small dish to compress the crumbs. Put this into the freezer for at least 20 minutes to firm up the crust while you make the filling.
In a large bowl, whisk together condensed milk, lime juice, tequila and triple sec. Stir in green food coloring (if using) and lime zest.
Use a spatula to gently fold in the whipped cream.
Pour mixture (slowly) into the chilled crust and chill or freeze until serving time. For a chilled pie, give it at least two hours in the fridge; for a frozen slice, freeze at least four hours, preferably overnight.
Place the pie plate in a shallow skillet filled with about an inch of warm (not hot) water, just a minute or two until the buttery crust is loosened enough to remove.
Top each slice with a dollop of additional whipped cream (spike it with Grand Marnier if you wish), a little lime zest and leftover pretzel crumbs.