Cucumber Gazpacho with Lemon Verbena
We just opened up for lunch and we are fortunate enough to have done it in July when everything at the Union Square green market is vibrant and alive. Right now there are plenty of cucumbers, as well as an abundance of my favorite herb, lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is not typical in Mexican cooking but its fragrance is so compelling that we have been scrapping to find a place for it on the menu. I am happy that we finally did. Currently we are garnishing this soup very simply, with some crispy tortilla strips but we are contemplating using it as a unusual dressing for shrimp cocktail very soon.
3 each unpeeled garlic cloves
4 large cucumbers, peeled and roughly chopped
1 each jalapeño, stem cut off, quartered and deseeded
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons of mezcal
1 pinch of kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
10 each fresh lemon verbena leaves
1. Take the corn tortillas and cut them into thin strips about 2 inches long. Fry the tortilla strips in 350 degree F oil until crispy. Drain the tortillas on paper towels and season with salt. Set aside.
2. Take the garlic cloves and toast them in a dry skillet over a medium flame. The garlic will be blackened in spots and the garlic will be soft and aromatic. Allow the garlic to cool and then peel away its skin.
3. In a blender combine the toasted garlic, cucumbers, jalapeños, sherry vinegar, mezcal, salt, sugar, Mexican oregano and lemon verbena leaves. Blend the ingredients until very smooth and pass the gazpacho through a fine mesh strainer. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Allow the soup to chill for several hours before serving.
4. Garnish and embellish as you wish. That's what we always do.
I was six years old when I choked down my first raw oyster on a half shell. I did it on a dare proposed by Al Stupak...my father.
Al is a very unusual guy. Before recently retiring, he was a mechanical engineer by trade. Growing up around him it always seemed like he knew how to do just about anything that required hard work. My dad can build you something out of wood, hang sheet rock or fix almost anything wrong with a car. He’s the type of man who knows exactly what he is looking for when he walks into a Home Depot. What made him unusual was amidst all that busy work, he also managed to find time to grow his own vegetables, brew his own beer, jar his own preserves and smoke his own sausages. What did he do with it all? He would give it away to family and neighbors for the simple pleasure of receiving thanks and compliments.
My dad knows how to season food with salt and he taught me that Diamond Crystal Brand Kosher Salt was the only brand to use long before I read it in The French Laundry cook book. My dad cooked 90% of the suppers I ate growing up. My dad might be the reason I became a Chef and he is certainly a big part of the reason I love oysters.
On the rare occasion that my Dad wasn’t cooking, we would break down and go out to eat. The Weathervane was where we went for seafood. It’s is a chain restaurant that prepares seafood with a distinct New England methodology. That means most things are fried or simmered for hours in salt pork-infused cream. In New England, scrod is in fact a recognized specie of fish and it’s ubiquitously prepared under a pile of Ritz cracker crumbs that have been fortified with freeze dried parsley and melted butter. If I have a true comfort cuisine, beyond the one I’m currently appropriating, it’s all this type of stuff. A dozen oysters, clam chowder and a lobster roll. Any day please.
A meal at The Weathervane always started with six oysters on the half shell for my dad. My mom never touched them and I usually had fried cod or something else from the kiddies’ menu.
I don’t remember everything, but I recall asking about them because they looked weird. I also remember my mom saying I didn’t have to try one if I didn’t want to as my dad held one before me, smirking.
He was always food-daring me...I wasn’t force fed, but he had this way of making me feel like I was missing out on something big if I didn’t try.
I don’t think that first experience made me an instant, six year old oyster fanatic because I have no recollection of enjoying it or asking for another. It did have some lasting impact though, because I am an oyster fanatic now.
I also incidentally married an oyster fanatic. Lauren and I would go to Grand Central Oyster Bar very often until we opened Cocina. The only reason our patronage there has waned is because Upstate on First Avenue is so close, and their selection and hospitality are so very awesome.
It’s important for the cooking at Empellón to be informed by Mexico, but also by all of the personalities involved in cooking the food – so long as those two things don’t clash. Oysters are eaten in Mexico, but even if they weren’t, I love them and there is the opposite of a clash happening here.
You can start any meal with an oyster and be instantly invigorated. It’s not a starter, it’s a reminder that life is good. With Mexican flavors close at hand, oysters seem to be happier than they ever could be with cocktail sauce or mignonette.
Brine, lime, chilies, tequila. Try it if you haven’t so you can know that Mexico has its own version of umami.
If you’re going to serve oysters you have to commit. Taqueria offers eight varieties everyday. Coincidentally, the week we launched our program, Al Stupak came in for brunch. He didn’t order them I think mostly because he was with my mom and she doesn’t seem to care for them. I personally shucked and walked out twelve of them to the table anyway. I knew they wouldn’t go to waste.
The idea of green meat may seem strange, but you will get over it once you make and devour this unusual sausage.
Its color comes from fresh herbs and green chiles, as opposed to the amalgam of spices and dried red chiles that go into red chorizo.
We have green chorizo on both of our menus because we don’t think it gets enough play around these parts. At Cocina we make it into a country style cream gravy for a roast leg of rabbit, while at Taqueria, it’s sprinkled over melted cheese for making tacos at the table.
I suggest frying this chorizo in a pan and serving with scrambled eggs, or simply spooning some into a tortilla as great first ways to experience it.
6 serrano chiles
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 large bunch of cilantro
1 large bunch of flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
4 pounds ground pork (preferably on the fatty side)
2 tablespoons salt
2 each cloves
1 each bay leaves
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1. Heat a large skillet over a medium flame. Place the serrano chiles and garlic cloves in the skillet and turn them from time to time. Both the garlic and chiles should be soft and blackened in spots. Allow the garlic cloves to cool and peel them.
2. Pick all the leaves off of the cilantro and parsley. Place the leaves in a blender along with the serranos, garlic and sherry vinegar. Purée until smooth.
3. Place the pork in a large mixing bowl and pour the green purée over it.
4. Place the salt, cloves, bay leaves, Mexican oregano, cumin, coriander and black pepper in a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Sprinkle the ground spices over the pork.
5. Mix the sausage together with your hands. Refrigerate the sausage for at least 12 hours before using.