Chilaquiles

MANUELA
907 East 3rd Street
323.849.0480


I'm embarrassed to admit that, although I grew up in Texas–the birthplace of Tex-Mex cuisine–chilaquiles was a dish unknown to me until I lived in New York and my friend Hitha told me about it. I rarely see it on brunch menus but, then again, I also rarely go to Tex-Mex restaurants for brunch. I did, however, discover them on the menu at Manuela in DTLA, whose chef has a Texan background. 

Chilaquiles are sort of that fabulous thing you didn't know you wanted until you order it. Then, you're like, "Oh yeah... I totally wanted tortilla chips sautéed in spicy salsa with cheese and a fried egg on top!" It's also a great brunch dish to make at home after a party the night before, when you have plenty of leftover tortilla chips on your hands and a hangover to cure!

Chicharrón and Pickled Okra

2014-01-03 17.48.39.jpg

I'll have to admit that I have strange cravings. Sometimes I'm in the mood for something funky and off-beat to nibble on–something other than cheese and crackers... Something like chicharrón (Mexican fried pork rind) and pickled okra! It's Texas on a plate for me, those two flavors. Don't confuse chicharrón with the processed, puffed up pork rinds that you find sold in convenience stores. The Mexican version is more substantial and has a hearty crunch to it. We found a Mexican butcher shop in a nearby town that makes it fresh daily. I can't help but fill up a brown paper bag with the choicest pieces from the glass case every time we go. When we get home, I shake them into a large glass jar and keep it in the pantry, just in case I need a snack with my Corona. When I need a spicy kick, I'll add a few dashes of Cholula on top. Pickled okra's zippy tang is the perfect antidote to this fried snack!

How to Not Pluck a Chicken

Now here's something I wouldn't necessarily be doing as a couple if we were in New York: looking up videos on YouTube on how to respectfully and humanely kill a chicken... So that we can actually do it ourselves. Welcome to ranch life. Growing up in Texas, my parents would butcher a chicken in the backyard from time to time, so I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the process, however, I always preferred being a spectator rather than a participant in such activity. 

I can't really escape it now. We raise chickens on the ranch–some are meant to lay eggs and some are mean for, well, dinner. We do love our chickens, though. They don't live in a coop. They live in what we call the "chicken house", a stunning architectural structure that mirrors the big house. Their home is outfitted with fresh hay, numerous artworks, and a stone Buddha statue at the entrance. They also have Wi-Fi. (Just kidding about that last part.)

I was happy with the way things were going: He was doing the killing and the cleaning of the chicken, while I did the cooking of it. But, apparently, there were only so many times I could dodge the bullet. One day, I saw him walking up to the house holding a dead chicken by its feet, gesturing it at me. Too late for me to disappear.

"Honey, pluck this chicken while I go fix the roof, and I'll come back to do the rest," he ordered, handing it over to me. 

And that was that. He walked off, leaving me with my jaw dropped at the sight of a limp chicken's body dangling from my hand. I guess he wasn't kidding. I held it as far away from my body as possible and took a few deep breaths. Must. Embrace. New. Life.

I decided to approach this task like a real woman: as confidently as possible. You have to fake it until you make it, right? I placed it in the kitchen sink and put a large pot of water to boil. The lady in the YouTube video that we watched was some kind of pioneer woman who was taught how to kill and clean chickens by her grandmother. She said that the feathers come off easily after dunking the chicken into boiling water a few times and, in her demonstration, the downy white feathers stripped away from the skin as though her hands were a lint roller. 

I dunked it once for three seconds and pulled at one of the big wing feathers. Nope, not ready yet. I dunked it again for three seconds and checked again. Hm. Not looking good. I was having a terrible vision of yanking feathers off of its body with all of my might, which made me cringe. So, what did I do? I submerged the full chicken into the pot and started stirring it around in the boiling water by its feet until I thought, "OK, should be good now." 

It was only after I clipped its feet to the kitchen faucet and tried to pull out the feathers that I realized this was a bad idea. I had basically poached the chicken and now it was impossible to pluck the feathers out without ripping off the skin. A few dunks would've sufficed. Basically, by the time my strapping cowboy made it back to the house, I f*cked it up. 

The good news is that I was still able to produce a delicious homemade chicken soup from it.

 

 

Is That All There Is? Que Sera Sera.

I've been reading my daily horoscope on a near-religious basis since I was eighteen years old and there's only one astrologist that I turn to for these forecasts: Holiday Mathis. She's masterful and wise and eloquent. I haven't found a better written horoscope column than hers, though, I can't take full credit for discovering it.

It was the year 2000 and I was hostessing that summer at a swanky restaurant in Downtown Houston to make extra money before moving to New York that August. I noticed that an attorney from L.A., who was in town on a three-month long case, would ask for the Houston Chronicle every time he came in for lunch. He told me that, despite traveling far and wide, he had never read a better horoscope column than Holiday's. Like him, I became hooked.

What I love about the way Holiday Mathis writes her forecasts is that there's always some guiding principle in it. She never says bogus things like "You will meet your one true love at the coffee shop around the corner at 3 p.m. on Friday." Her words paint a bigger perspective about life, and the beauty in her art lies in how she connects all of that greatness to you as an individual. "How does she know?" you'll wonder.

There are indeed times where you wish she didn't know. Like on the morning of Wednesday, June 19th, 2013, when I read this:

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 23). It goes something like this: You stray from the boring path, get lost, struggle, think you know where you're going, wind up worse off, try again, find your way back and are happy for the adventure of it all.

I mean, the woman summed up my whole adulthood in one sentence! If that's not talent, I don't know what is. I couldn't have said it better myself. You'd think she had to have lived a hundred lives to be that wise.

Please, oh please, tell me that this is not the story of my life, Holiday Mathis. 

This particular forecast really scared me because it's true. If you were to follow my life story up until now, you'd find that it's a bunch of scribbles instead of a strong, steady line. If you want to experience what that might feel like, imagine a really bad parallel parking job where you have to make a million minor adjustments before fitting into a parking spot. Yeah. That. It gets to the point where you wish the universe will just throw you a bone. Or, better yet, a fortune cookie. With the answer to all questions inside.

Then again, I'd have no material for this blog. (Could enough scribbles become a masterpiece? Like a Cy Twombly?)

Anyway, point is, I'm taking matters into my own hands. I'm going to consult a psychic. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matzo Ball Soup

As a Vietnamese girl who grew up in Texas, one wouldn't think that the Yiddish phrase "Oy vey!" was a part of my childhood vernacular, but it was something that I picked up, thanks to my older, then-teenaged cousin Jennifer, whose father was Jewish. She would say "Oy vey!" with a sigh whenever she was exasperated with something. 

Anything remotely Jewish was fascinating to me. On the weekends, my aunt would sometimes have a spread of lox, bagels, cream cheese, and caviar laid out on the dining table with plates of thinly sliced onions and tomatoes. This was a departure from our usual eggs/toast/pancakes, or even from our Tex-Mex tacos filled with scrambled eggs, chorizo, and queso fresco. Lox and bagels were a much more exotic combo in my eyes.

It wasn't until I heard "matzo ball soup" on Seinfeld that I started to wonder what a matzo ball was. Believe me, this was not something routinely found on a menu in Texas. When I moved to New York, one of the first things I wanted to do was sit down at a diner, order a bowl of matzo ball soup, and be neurotic about things like airline food with a posse of like-minded pals.

Soup was never a starter course in our household—it was a full meal in and of itself. A Vietnamese broth alone could take up to a day of simmering away before coming into its own. The final result was served with a smattering of ingredients, including noodles, a cacophony of meats, a jungle of fresh herbs and various condiments. The broth is very much like a Jackson Pollock painting—a canvas that holds layers and layers of tangled flavors.

A bowl of matzo ball soup, on the other hand, was more Bauhaus in nature. Restrained. No frills. It starts with a clear, golden chicken consommé into which large fluffy dumplings shaped from matzo meal, eggs, and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) are plopped. Sometimes you might find a punch of color from blanched carrot and celery in your bowl, but the ultimate is when it's just one giant matzo ball and that delicious broth. It's one of my trusty #singlegirldinner go-tos, a full meal in a single bowl.