I had queso last week, for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city.
Restaurants were still a few days away from partially reopening for dine-in customers, but my kids and I wanted to eat dinner out of the house, so we headed to a picnic in a park.
We hadn’t planned anything fancy: some lunch meat, a sliced apple and fried chicken wings from the Peached Tortilla.
I was there to grab another one of the restaurant’s ram-don kits to make on my weekly livestream on the Austin360 Facebook page — I’ve made it twice, it’s so good — and while I was there, I found out they aren’t selling their kimchi queso at the moment.
But just the thought of queso inspired a craving I didn’t realize had been simmering on the back burner of my mind for weeks. I can make queso at home, but it’s not the same as eating it on a porch, trying to fend off the grackles and keep the margarita-to-chip ratio in check.
A quick turn through the drive-thru at the nearby El Tacorrido solved that problem, and we headed to the park with our dinner. It was a mish-mash of a meal, but that queso is what I’m still thinking about a few days later.
As Cinco de Mayo approaches, I wanted to share Eric Silverstein’s recipe for kimchi queso, which can easily transform into a more traditional Tex-Mex queso by leaving out the kimchi and kochukaru flakes. But Tex-Mex is a blend of cuisines and cultures, and at this point, so is the holiday that celebrates the Mexican Army's victory over the French Empire in Puebla in 1862.
By the time you read this, Cinco de Mayo might even be over, but that craving for tacos, queso and margaritas could still linger. Restaurants are slowly opening, and alcohol-to-go sales continue, which will allow you to have your own Tex-Mex picnic.
Chips and queso shape and define the food scene in Austin. They are right up there with barbecue, which is saying a lot, considering that Texas is the barbecue capital of the world. Tex-Mex joints have proliferated in the Austin restaurant scene, and each has its own play on chips and queso. Here’s our riff. If you have leftover queso, you can always cook some macaroni shells and toss them in the queso that you’ve heated up. You’ll have kimchi mac and cheese in no time. Top the mac and cheese with some fried shallots or panko for crunch.
— Eric Silverstein
4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon flour
2 cups milk
1 pound Velveeta (cut into cubes) or American cheese (shredded)
1/2 cup pureed napa kimchi plus 1/2 cup whole (optional)
1/3 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon kochukaru flakes (optional)
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
1/3 cup green onions, chopped
1/3 teaspoon kosher salt, to taste
1/3 cup cotija cheese, for garnish
Tortilla chips, for serving
In a medium pot, melt the unsalted butter over low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the flour to make a roux. Cook the roux for another 4 to 5 minutes until you start to smell a nutty aroma. The roux will start to turn a slight off-white. Turn the heat up to medium and whisk the milk into the roux. Simmer the mixture until the milk thickens. This should take about 5 minutes. Constantly stir the mixture to ensure you do not scald the milk.
Add the cheese and simmer the mixture until the cheese melts and is fully incorporated. Once the cheese is fully melted, whisk in the pureed kimchi, if using, white pepper, kochukaru flakes, cilantro, green onions and salt.
Garnish the queso with any extra cilantro, cotija cheese and kimchi, and serve it with your favorite tortilla chips. Serves 6 to 8.
— From "The Peached Tortilla: Modern Asian Comfort Food from Tokyo to Texas" by Eric Silverstein (Sterling Epicure, $27.95)
Pork Belly Tacos
Pork belly is one of those things that I cannot get enough of. Now, when you have tacos-meet-pork belly, you are having a party in your mouth. This recipe is definitely an explosion of flavors. These are sweet, spicy, salty and bitter.
— Robyn Almodovar
3 pounds skinless pork belly
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dark chili powder
1/4 pineapple, peeled, cored and small diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the cilantro-lime crema:
1/2 cup Mexican crema
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
Juice from 1/2 lime
1 tablespoon Sriracha
8 to 10 corn or flour tortillas
1 (8- to 10-ounce) bag finely shredded cabbage
1/4 cup cotija cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
1 lime, cut into wedges, for garnish
Place the pork belly in a casserole dish. In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, salt and black pepper, then evenly distribute and rub onto the pork belly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 12 to 15 hours.
Remove from the fridge, unwrap and pat the moisture from the pork belly. Heat your oven to 450 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine the cayenne, smoked paprika and dark chili powder. Rub the pork belly with this mixture and place, fat side up, in a Dutch oven. Place in the oven and roast the pork for 30 minutes. At the 15-minute mark, mix the pineapple with the oil and place on a rimmed cookie sheet. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Lower the oven temperature to 225 degrees. Roast the pork belly for an additional 1 hour, 45 minutes, or until fork-tender.
Remove from the oven and let the pork cool completely, at least 1 hour. Slice into 1/4-to-1/2-inch slices and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the cilantro-lime crema. Mix well and set aside.
Reheat the sliced pork belly in a sauté pan over medium heat until golden brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
To serve, heat the tortillas and place several pieces of pork belly on each tortilla. Add some shredded cabbage, drizzle with the crema mixture and top with the pineapple and cotija cheese. Garnish with the cilantro and lime wedges. Serves 4.
— From "Low & Slow Cooking: 60 Hands-Off Recipes That Are Worth the Wait" by Robyn Almodovar (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)
Ceviche de Palmitas (Heart of Palm Ceviche)
Growing up in Los Angeles meant eating plenty of seafood. My family would drive down to the Port of San Pedro a few weekends a month to indulge in fresh fish and crab. When I started my plant-based journey, this was one of the hardest things to let go. But this ceviche recipe takes me right back to those fresh flavors.
Mexico is known for fresh seafood and beautiful ceviche dishes, so I knew I had to find a way to create the same flavor. In this version, I’m using heart of palm or palmitas marinated in lemon and olive oil, because it has a core texture similar to crabmeat. The flavor pairs well with juicy tomato, creamy avocado, fresh cucumber and spicy jalapeno to make it a well-rounded flavorful dish. Serve your ceviche with a side of chips or on a tostada, and pair it with a shot of smoky mezcal.
— Jocelyn Ramirez
1 (14-ounce) can heart of palm
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tomato, diced
1 avocado, diced
1 cucumber, diced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
1 bunch cilantro, minced
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, to garnish
Tortilla chips or tostadas, to serve
Drain the heart of palm spears in a medium strainer. Slice the palm spears into 1/4-inch bite-size slices. (As you slice the heart of palm, some of the pieces will separate into rings.) Add to a medium bowl with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to marinate. When adding the salt to taste, start with 1 teaspoon. The marinade may taste slightly salty, but it will balance out once you add the other ingredients. Let the heart of palm marinate in the fridge for about 30 minutes to absorb the flavors.
While the heart of palm marinates, prepare the vegetables and cilantro. Combine the veggies with the marinated heart of palm, reserving some of the cilantro for garnishing. Fold together with a spatula or your hands to incorporate well. (Be careful as the heart of palm is delicate and can break easily.) Add additional salt if needed. Top with black sesame seeds and reserved cilantro, and serve with chips or tostadas. Serves 4.
— From "La Vida Verde: Plant-Based Mexican Cooking with Authentic Flavor" by Jocelyn Ramirez (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)
Shrimp and Pineapple Fajitas
This dish would also work well with white fish, salmon or chicken. For a vegan option, replace the shellfish with a (14-ounce) can of drained kidney beans or black beans and use a dairy-free yogurt. Tip: You can buy a fajita spice mix in most supermarkets; to make your own, mix together 1 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger. Store the leftover mix in an airtight container.
— Charlie Watson
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 red onion, finely sliced
2 bell peppers, seeded and sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2-inch piece fresh root ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 tablespoon fajita spice mix
10 1/2 ounces raw jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 1/2 ounces fresh or canned pineapple, chopped into 1-inch cubes
Large handful fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lime, plus extra to taste
8 flour or corn tortillas
1 ripe avocado, cut into slices
Full-fat plain yogurt
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over a low heat, add the onion and peppers and gently fry for 10 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and fry for another 1 minute. Stir in the ginger and fajita spice mix, then add the shrimp and cook for 5 minutes, stirring, until pink and cooked through. Add the pineapple and half of the cilantro, gently heat through, then squeeze over the lime juice and season to taste.
Meanwhile, put the tortilla wraps in the oven to warm through. Divide the filling among the tortilla wraps and top each with a few avocado slices, a sprinkling of coriander and a dollop of yogurt, before rolling up. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
— From "Cook, Eat Run: Cook Fast, Boost Performance with 75 Ultimate Recipes for Runners Paperback" by Charlie Watson (Quadrille, $22.99)
My citrus-laden salsa and the spicy sour cream are best friends with the smoky mackerel. These are fun, quick and easy to rustle up, perfect for sharing with friends and a cold beer.
— Lola Milne
1/2 small red cabbage, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine salt
For the salsa:
4 tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped
1 small red onion, minced
Large bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
Juice of 2 limes, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
For the spicy sour cream:
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons hot sauce (or more if you like heat)
2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced
8 small corn tortillas
1 (12-ounce) can canned smoked mackerel fillets in oil, drained and flaked into large chunks
Put the cabbage into a colander, and sprinkle over the salt. Rub it all over the cabbage, and leave to drain over the sink for 20 minutes.
To make the salsa, put the tomatoes in a bowl and mix in the onion, cilantro and half the lime juice, then season with black pepper, and set aside.
In another bowl, mix the sour cream with the hot sauce for your spicy sour cream. In a small bowl, squeeze the remaining lime juice over the avocado slices.
Squeeze any excess moisture out of the cabbage, then set aside in a clean bowl.
Heat a large griddle or frying pan, then cook the tortillas for 30 seconds or so per side, until warm and with brown spots. Stick the stack of warm tortillas on the table with the bowls of spicy sour cream, salsa, cabbage, avocado and the flaked mackerel so each person can make the taco to their liking. Serves 4.
— From "Take One Tin: 80 Delicious Meals from the Cupboard" by Lola Milne (Kyle Books, $34.99)
Gobernador Tacos (Shrimp, Poblano and Cheese Tacos)
Tacos de Gobernador are a cultural import that crossed the Sea of Cortez. They come from Sinaloa, where they are supposedly named in honor of a local mayor who liked his shrimp tacos topped with cheese and chiles. The name of the politician is lost to time, but the name of the taco has become very popular in northern Baja California and also across the border in San Diego and Los Angeles.
As a fairly new folk food, gobernadores tend to be different any place you have them. In fact, I think there are as many versions as there are mayors! The one constant is that they include shrimp. Sometimes they also incorporate smoked marlin. They usually include some kind of mild chiles. More often than not, cheese, which is included here, is melted on them. This recipe also integrates a little bacon, giving it a surf-and-turf feel that is a signature of contemporary Baja food.
— David Castro Hussong
4 teaspoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 poblano chiles, stems removed, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
8 corn tortillas
Juice of 3 limes
1 slice bacon, diced small
8 ounces peeled and deveined medium shrimp (preferably sizes 36/40 or 41/50; if you have bigger shrimp, slice them in half lengthwise)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup queso asadero cheese (can substitute Monterey Jack)
2 limes, cut into wedges
Warm 3 teaspoons of the oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring gently. Add the garlic and continue to cook for 3 minutes. (If, at any time during the cooking process, the items in the pan dry out at all, deglaze the pan with some lime juice, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon, and continue.) Turn the heat to medium and add the chiles. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the chiles are thoroughly cooked.
At this point, warm a separate frying pan over medium heat and add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil. Interleaved with finishing the rest of the recipe, heat each tortilla in the oil-coated pan for about 20 seconds per side, just long enough to make them the slightest bit golden but still pliable, and put between two towels to stay warm and wick away any excess oil.
Once the chiles have cooked for 10 minutes, pour the lime juice on the ingredients in the pan. Add the diced bacon to the pan and turn the heat to medium-high. When the pan has heated up and the bacon has started to change color, add the shrimp and use the salt to season everything in the pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and flipping the shrimp as necessary to cook them evenly. The shrimp should be bright pink and white and opaque. If they are still translucent, cook them a little longer.
Sprinkle the cheese over everything in the pan and turn the heat to low. Continue stirring until the cheese is melted. Remove the pan from the heat. Distribute the cheesy shrimp mixture equally among the tortillas, making a plate full of tacos. Serve along with the lime wedges and red salsa, if desired.
— From "The Baja California Cookbook: Exploring the Good Life in Mexico" by David Castro Hussong and Jay Porter (Ten Speed Press, $30)