Mexican Fish Stew to Warm Your Soul

The first time I tasted Mexican fish stew was at a little taquria in the small town of Alpine, Calif. Now if you know Alpine, there’s really not much going on there. A very active Kiwinis club, an even more active corner liquor store and some major Indian reservation casino action. There’s more but those are the main attractions.

But when you’re somewhere like that and you are stopped dead in your tracks by the smell of freshly, homemade corn tortillas wafting out of a small restaurant storefront, mixed with a savory carne asada and lime aroma, you are remiss if you don’t poke your head in and see what you can possibly dig in to for breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner.

See, most of the time in Southern California these little Mexican restaurants are owned by Mexican families that have their abuela (grandma) working in the kitchen and preparing recipes that go back generations. And I had one of those specialties at that taqueria. The best Mexican stew ever.

And what a relief it was. We were all coming down with the worst case of the flu and this was just the dish to lift my spirits. We ordered a big bowl of it and shared it family style–ladeling out big helpings of white fish delicately simmered in chicken broth perfumed with lime and cilantro, chunky tomato, shrimp, crab claws and corn on the cob. Heaven. And so simple.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I attempted to make this recipe. I wasn’t sure where to start and I began researching ingredients. I found some recipes with potatoes, fennel and other heavier ingredients. Which I love. But maybe not for this stew in particular. I liked the lightness of this stew and decided to create my recipe based on the simple ingredients that make this dish so delicious.

Here is what I came up with.

Ingredients: 

-4 medium-sized tilapia fillets, each cut into bite-sized chunks
-8 large peeled and deveined shrimp
-1 15 oz. can of roasted diced tomatoes
-1 large onion finely chopped
-3 garlic cloves, minced
-1 bay leaf
-3 limes. Juice two and leave one quartered for garnish.
-1/4 cup of chopped cilantro
-1 tbsp. of Mexican or California chili powder (not too spicy)
-1/2 tsp. of fresh thyme taken off the stem and chopped
-2 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil
-2 15 oz. cans of fat-free chicken broth
-2 cups of water
-Salt and pepper to taste

 Preparing

Place the chucks of fish in a bowl and mix with the juice of two limes. Set the fish aside and start heating a dutch oven on medium heat. Once hot, add the olive oil, chopped onion, bayleaf and garlic and saute until onions and garlic are soft.

Next, add the chili powder and roasted tomatoes and stir together with the onion mixture. Then add in the marinated fish and add a good amount of salt and pepper. Simmer in the tomato broth, turning once, for about three minutes total.

Then add the chicken broth and water and bring to a gentle simmer. Once simmering add the shrimp, adjust salt as needed and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Ladle the soup into four separate bowls, top each with chopped cilantro and a lime wedge. Muy delicioso!

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Simple Recipe for Working Moms: Smothered Pork Chops, Crock Pot-Style

Pork chops, especially thin-cut beauties, are a working mom’s best friend. They are super simple to make in so many ways. I usually just douse them with seasoned salt, a little garlic powder and pepper and pop them underneath the broiler. I turn them once and broil the chops until they are brown and sizzling. I even don’t mind if they are a little bit tough this way. My husband and I are a rare breed when it comes to tougher pork chops, I guess. If they turn out a little chewy, we just slap on some hot sauce and eat them like pop cycles. Barbaric, I know. I try to make moister ones for the kiddies.

Anyway, you could also spray them with a light coating of cooking spray, dip them in seasoned bread crumbs and fry them in a little olive oil. Or for a more decadent version, dip them in a beaten egg, then into flour, back into the egg, then into bread crumbs and fry in a deep pan of cooking or olive oil. Yum!

But, my favorite way to eat any type of pork, ribs included, is braised. Totally opposite from the leather-like texture of fully broiled chops. Cooking pork more than an hour achieves wonderfully tender, fall-off-the bone texture that is so comforting and filling. It just makes me think of fall. And using a crock pot to achieve the braising technique is so easy and perfect for a working mom who likes to cook.

So this recipe is inspired by a Vietnamese dish I remember trying when I was really young but it was made with tofu instead (and was probably only cooked for a half an hour on the stove top). But basically, except for the pork and the cooking time, the ingredients are the same. Thin pork chops are slowly braised in chicken broth and stewed tomatoes and smothered with onion and garlic. I also add an Asian flare by adding soy sauce and throw in a little tang with some balsamic vinegar. It sounds odd but it is so aromatic, kind of sweet, and a little exotic. It’s also very low-calorie.

The dish takes a bit of preparation the night before but the greatest thing about it is you just turn on the crock pot in the morning and all you have to do when you return home at night is make a pot of white rice.

Here are the ingredients you will need:

-2 cans of low-sodium, low-fat chicken broth
-2 cans of canned stewed tomatoes
-3/4 yellow onion
-2 smashed and minced garlic cloves
-5 thin-cut pork chops (I like the bone-in kind)
-3 tbsp. soy sauce
-2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
-Seasoned salt and pepper
-Garlic powder
-1 Bay leaf

Season the pork chops on both sides with the seasoned salt, pepper and garlic powder. Place them inside the crock pot. Cut the onion in half and slice lengthwise, using only 3/4 of the onion, and smash, peel and mince the garlic. Place the onions and garlic over the top of the pork and pour in the tomatoes, chicken broth, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and bay leaf. Stir all of the liquid ingredients together on top of the pork. Place the lid on top of the crock pot and refrigerate until the morning. When you leave the next day, set the crock pot for as long as you’ll be gone. When you return home, just make some white rice and serve the pork stew, if you will, over the top. I usually omit the liquid for the kids because it’s hot and a little messy for them. Voila! So good and so comforting. In fact, it’s my husband’s favorite.

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The Great Chili Cook Off: A Quest to Feed Some Hungry College Kids When They’re In Town

I don’t want to mention my age, but I have a much-younger cousin who is 22, is finishing up college, has only been to California twice now–and wow, can he and his friends eat! To me, that’s a good thing but if he and his friends were going to stay the weekend at our house as a stop-over on a road trip from Iowa, I had to switch my thinking to what I can make for a crowd since my family would be eating too.

I knew I could drum up something for at least one of the nights that would feed these hungry college kids without us all having to spend a small fortune on going out to eat or ordering take out. So I asked the big question: Do you like Chili? The answer was a resounding “yes!” Good!

I knew what I needed to do. Get some hamburger, canned stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, onion and garlic and make sure I had enough good chili powder and a bay leaf (it really does make a big difference). That’s it! Chili, I think, is all about the technique you use to make it. And to go with it, I thought a good brand of corn bread mix would be great to make into individual muffins.

Here’s what I do and have been doing since my mom passed on the recipe to me when I was a teenager.

Gather the ingredients (You can also divide the recipe in half for a smaller portion):

-2 pounds of 15% hamburger
-Three regular cans of stewed tomatoes
-1 large can of good tomato sauce (the cheaper brands can taste tinny or more sour)
-1 yellow onion, finely chopped
-1 can of red kidney beans or pinto beans rinsed and drained (optional)
-6 cloves of garlic finely chopped
-2 bay leaves
-3-4 tablespoons of chili powder or more to taste
-Seasoned salt and pepper

Start by heating a large stockpot on high and adding the hamburger to the hot pan. Stir to break up the meat but try not to break it up too fine. Drain off any water that accumulates in the pan by placing a lid ajar over the pot and catching any meat that might fall into the sink. Draining the liquid helps the meat to brown and obtain some flavor. Next, salt the meat with the seasoned salt and pepper to your taste. Salting the meat helps the water to evaporate and the meat to brown further.

Zachary helps mom stir up the corn bread mix.

When the meat is brown, add your chopped onion and garlic and stir on medium-high heat until the onion and garlic are soft. At that point turn down the heat and add the chili powder. You don’t want to burn the chili powder because it will taste bitter. Add more if needed. Adding the spice at this point helps to impart flavor into the meat before you start to simmer the chili. Add the bay leaf now too, for the same reason.

Then add the stewed tomatoes and stir until they are hot and coated with the seasoning. Next, add the tomato sauce and about 2 cups of water. You will need this extra water since liquid will evaporate from the chili as you simmer it. Add more if you think it looks too thick compared to the time you will be cooking it. (The longer you cook it the more intense the flavor.)

Sophie gets in on the “mix” and can’t help herself to help!

Cook on low for about an hour, stirring occasionally. I usually place a lid on top but leave if off slightly. After about an hour you should be able to feed about six people! As for the corn muffins, just mix and bake the last 15 minutes before the chili is done. I usually serve my chili with condiments such as shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped tomatoes and chopped onions or scallions. We had some happy college students. My cousin even went back for fourth’s. Lucky my husband gave up his second bowl! That’s ok, cousin. It’s your second time to California and you deserve it!

Comfort Found In a Bowl of Beef Stew

beef stew

What do you make for dinner when you are trying to stay on a tight budget? For me, frozen chicken nuggets and french fries just won’t cut it. (Well, sometimes in emergencies.) And only rarely do we make that trip to McDonalds for the coveted kids happy meals and whatever random combos for us in order to have dinner on the cheap. No, I actually like the challenge of making something awesome out of meat and produce that is affordable but delectable when you combine it the right way.

Such is the case with beef stew. You just can’t go wrong with a steaming bowl of thick, rich stew with tender chucks of beef, carrots, celery and onion. The only drawback to making this dish is the time it takes to cook it. But, when it’s done, beef stew is a dish that my kids gobble up and my husband finishes with a satisfied smile on his face.
Here is what I put in it:
– 1 pound of beef stew chunks
– About four cups of water (or 2 1/2 cups water and 1 beer)
– 1 stalk of celery cut into small chunks
– Two carrots cut into small slices
– 2 potatoes peeled and cubed
– 3 cloves of minced garlic
– 1 small red onion cut in half and sliced into thin slices
– 1/2 tablespoon of Italian seasoning
– 2 bay leaves
– 1/4 cup of flour
– 1 teaspoon garlic powder
– Seasoned salt
– Black pepper
Prepare veggies and garlic ahead of time (save preparation of the potatoes until right before water is added to stew so they don’t turn brown). Heat oil in a cast iron dutch oven on the stovetop. Add the garlic powder, seasoned salt and black pepper to the flour. Using tongs, coat the meat in the flour mixture and shake off excess. Place the meat in the hot oil and cook on one side until golden brown. Flip and brown on the other side.
Add onions and garlic to the pan and stir, scraping up the brown bits from the pan. Add the Italian seasoning and bay leaves. Add water and reduce heat to medium/low, place lid on top and cook for about an hour and a half, stirring periodically.
Add carrots, celery and peeled and cubed potatoes and cook for 20 minutes more. You might want to add a bit more water before continuing to cook since the potatoes will thicken the stew. Add regular salt to taste.
I usually cool the meat and cut into small pieces for the kids and serve the veggies on the side. Talk about a wholesome, one-pot meal for the whole family. And cheap too. Definitely less than $10 for the whole dinner!