Pickled Carrots, Onion, Jalapeño (aka the “Homage to Humble Taqueria Carrots” Post)

Those spicy carrots. As ubiquitous as fresh chopped cilantro, lime wedges, and an assortment of salsas at any hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Southern California worthy of its Mexican stripes. 

Approaching 10 years of living in NYC, and spicy, pickled taqueria-style carrots are one of the food memories that haunts this California expat yet, go figure.

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I’ve dabbled with pickling jalapeños, pickling carrots and the sum of these parts before. I highly recommend Momofuku’s pickled carrots — the brine has a sweetness thanks to rice vinegar and sugar, and just about anything else you have on hand can go into it, in addition to carrots.

This time, though, I was on a hunt for auténtico. When I discovered a post on Tasting Table for “Taqueria-Style Pickled Carrots,” adapted from Kevin West, a Los Angeles-based blogger and author of “Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving” — I knew I was on the right track.

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I stayed mostly true to the recipe, skipping the sterilization step as these carrots will live in the fridge for the duration of their short life (they’re already quickly disappearing) and also amping up the spice quotient. I used a mishmash of carrots that we had in the fridge and rough-chopped them to approximately the same size. I also used a white onion.

The brilliance of West’s technique lies in toasting the cumin seeds and crushing the peppercorns, two simple steps that really open up the spices and cause them to bloom, so to speak, in the brine.

Here’s the recipe, simplified and slightly modified:

Taqueria-Style Pickled Carrots
(Adapted from Kevin West via TastingTable)
Makes 2 quarts

2 lb. (approx. ) raw carrots, use whatever you have on hand, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
4 to 6 jalapeños, sliced thinly
8 cloves garlic

2 c. water
2 c. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. peppercorns, lightly crushed (mortar with pestle)
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. cumin seeds

1) Toast cumin seeds in a small skillet until lightly browned and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

2) Combine water, vinegar, kosher salt, oregano and peppercorns in a saucepan; bring to a boil at high heat. Add onion and jalapeño and turn off heat.

3) Separately, bring salted water to boil, add carrots and cook until al dente, about 3 minutes. Drain in colander and add to onion and jalapeño in brine; return to a boil and then turn off the heat.

4) Divide cumin seeds and garlic cloves between empty jars. With a slotted spoon, divide carrots, onion, jalapeño between jars. Top off with brine and let cool to room temp before fastening lids and storing in the fridge.

**Pickled carrots will be ready to eat in 24 hours and will take on greater intensity the longer they are in the brine — but good luck keeping them around!**

Now, bring on the tacos… 

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Thursday: Móle, Móle, Móle! (aka the “Margarita/Guacamole/Carnitas Nirvana” Post)

This is how I remember Mexican food: The margaritas are strong but balanced, easy on the sweet and sour; the guacamole fresh and vibrant, with a heat that sneaks up on you; the carnitas tender, glistening and … [insert guttural noises] excellent.

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Carnitas is my barometer. More precisely, the crispy carnitas as I remember it from Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego is my barometer: Pulls-apart-with-your-fork hunks o’ pork, browned and crispy on the edges, accompanied by a basket of hot, just-made tortillas (a couple of women make fresh tortillas all day long in a kitchen with large, street-facing windows), and a plate of simple, fresh, DIY taco fillings: sliced onion and tomato, avocado, fresh cilantro, lime wedges. (For photo, see here.)

When in doubt, just order the carnitas. And that’s exactly what I did at Móle, the utterly charming, seats 25ish Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side that I’d previously blown off because of the sort of obtuse neon sign they’ve hung out front.

After a lovely, bubbly happy hour at the Living Room bar at The W Hotel in Union Square, after an all-star appetizer lineup of not one, but two orders of guacamole prepared tableside; an order of queso fundido, that molten, cheesey, chorizo-y, goodness, and an order of flame-grilled asparagus topped with melty sheaths of manchego cheese…

…I was stuck in an infinite loop of indecision. Do I order:

a.) The diver scallop tacos special. Hands-down the most intriguing item on the special board, I just couldn’t commit. Too many sketchy scallops have made me skittish about eating any that aren’t seriously vetted. (I’m sure I’ll come around again.)

b.) The fish tacos. My friend was looking to share an order of her favorite tacos — Baja-style battered-and-fried tilapia fillets, topped off with a creamy sauce and some serious lettuce plumage (they were beautiful). Yes, we had all consumed our fair share of guac, fundido, and more guac, and cheesy asparagus (not to mention tequilla) — but would it be enough? I couldn’t commit.

and c.) The conchinita pibil? The pollo en mole poblano? Camarones al mojo de ajo? One of the other, “fancier” items from the especialidades de la casa list that I ordinarily wouldn’t order, except that it was a special occasion? But which one? What if I got this fish Veracruz … and then realized that all I really wanted was …

“Um, I’ll have the carnitas plate, please. With corn tortillas.”
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Breakfast: $2 Gordita Discovery Post (aka “the Las Poblanitas for Breakfast!” Post)

I never realized that there was an the original thing that Taco Bell was mimicking when it introduced the gordita to its menu however many years ago (speculation: greater than three years, less than 10).

photoIn fact, I never knew that the gordita wasn’t entirely a Taco Bell invention until, famished at 11 a.m. and needing a break from the usual neighborhood suspects, a tiny thought popped into my head: I wonder if Las Poblanitas does breakfast?

Hmmm …

The answer: Yes, yes they do. And, like the majority of the lunch options I’ve tried here, it’s damn cheap and good.

However tempted I was by the $1 breakfast burrito ($1!!), I had to have a gordita, just to put this whole Taco Bell inventing-the-gordita fallacy to rest. (For the record, Taco Bell’s gordita is basically a taco, wrapped in a second, thicker, soft pita-taco shell.)

photo-1photo-2 So, what does a $2 gordita consist of? As Las Poblanitas does it, a gordita begins with a lightly-fried pita pocket made out of corn masa — think, the softness of the masa part of a tamale, but pita-thin, with browned exterior, plus warm tortilla chip smell. The shell is then stuffed with chicken or pork, warmed, and further stuffed with some cojita cheese, lettuce, the diced onion, cilantro and tomato mix.

All in all, a really satisfying savory snack. Toward the bottom, as the fillings taper off, I topped off the rest of it with a good shake from my desk-size Cholula hot sauce (yes, really).

Lunch: The Las Poblanitas Fail-Safe (aka “the Corona Ladies” Post)

Las Poblanitas‘ lunch-sign specials are my fail-safe option when payday is around the corner and I’m picking at the lint in my pockets, scraping together a few bucks for lunch.

photo(2)Today I tried the $6 chicken tostadas, a new lunch special written on a whiteboard that’s shown up outside the restaurant recently, some sort of addendum to the lunch specials posted on this sign that you’ll see most days on the southwest corner of W. 38th Street and Eighth Avenue.

The tostadas didn’t unseat the carnitas tacos as my favorite option off the cheap menu, but they did satisfy my craving for that crunch of tortilla chips that I miss when I order a burrito or tacos, neither of which come with chips (at least for free).

photo(3)Three large tostada rounds (all tostadas start with what is basically a big, circular chip) emerged from the kitchen smeared with beans and topped with diced chicken, ready for the the receiving line treatment: shredded iceberg lettuce; diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro; pickled jalapenoes; cojita cheese. White sauce? Yes, please.

Only then did it become apparent that Las Poblanitas is clearly unprepared to serve this special as a take-away order; the only way they fit into the take-out container was by stacking the third one on top of the other two and pressing down until the lid locked into place. I had strange flashbacks to when I’ve had to sit on an over-stuffed suitcase to get the zipper zipped.

photoIn my mind, one of the charms of Las Poblanitas is the no-frills decor, which includes the Corona ladies on the ceiling. It’s festive, in a basement-hangout sort of way. Cold beers in the fridge, decent Mexican food, Corona models beckoning: What more can one ask for from a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint?