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Cooking up a gourmet Mexican Thanksgiving dinner

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Posted 6:23pm on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

I'm not much of a host. The whole idea doesn't really vibe with my obsessive-compulsive cleaning tendencies.

But while the thought of guests spilling red wine on my suede sofa haunts me, I'd be lying if I said I haven't fantasized about throwing a swanky dinner party.

I'm talking about a full-course menu: wine, fancy stemware, cloth napkins and me saying all the rights things while wearing a smoking jacket.

It all sounds relatively easy: Slap together some Mexican recipes (my specialty), pore over wine labels, and print a classy menu, right?

Not even close.

What was supposed to be a simple dinner party has escalated into a full-blown Mexican Thanksgiving with friends and family.

And for me, the path to perfection has been littered with exploding tomatoes (I accidentally flung one against a wall), fallen limes and one tragically incinerated bread loaf. Over the past two months of recipe exploration, I've burned my tongue, my thumbs and the midnight oil fooling around with kitchen chemistry. I usually just cook for myself, but cooking for seven? I need a vacation.

I started by arranging a menu of authentic Mexican dishes, and the whole experience up to now has been nothing less than frustrating, if not dangerous.

One night, I dropped a spatula and, annoyed, let the cat clean it up while I went out for a sandwich. And don't get me started on cleaning cast-iron skillets -- brutal.

It feels like I've been practicing to be on Top Chef. That's really the only way to explain the hasty happenings in my kitchen.

In the end, I created five original recipes, including some of my all-time favorites: molletes, caldo de pollo, milanesa and chilaquiles.

Molletes, the first course, is a Spanish-Mexican dish similar to bruschetta. Toasted bread is topped with butter, a black-bean spread, queso fresco and a spicy-sweet pineapple pico de gallo. Of the five dishes, this is the easiest -- minus the occasional burnt loaf of bread -- since only the beans have to be cooked.

Another course, caldo de pollo, is a soup I grew up with in Mexico. It's relatively easy to make, if you're patient. Simmered vegetables give the soup its earthy flavor and rustic texture, complemented by a shiraz.

Milanesa is a thin, breaded steak, another Mexican food staple. I use my mom's "secret" breading: crackers (instead of bread crumbs).

The main course is chilaquiles. There's really no standard way of preparing the dish, and some cooks prefer green salsa over red, eggs omitted, and so on. Traditionally, the dish is prepared with a tomato-based sauce similar to marinara. I simmer mine for about an hour, and it's made with roasted garlic, peppers, tomatoes, cumin, Mexican oregano and paprika.

Chilaquiles are the most difficult to prepare. The sauce has to be perfectly balanced, and the tortillas have to be slightly crispy, no more or less. More than 100 tomatoes sacrificed their existence for this dish.

To add another layer of complexity and bonus what-the-heck-was-I-thinking moments, I decided to pair each dish with a wine. I'm not a wine pro, but the process is exhausting, and, of course, intoxicating.

Simmer, sip, simmer, sip, drop stuff, curse myself, wash my apron a million times -- that's all I've been doing lately.

And since I'm an all-or-nothing kind of guy, I even converted my home office into a proper dining area, complete with an antique farm table, tarnished silverware I found at an auction, new dinnerware and, yes, cloth napkins.

All in the service of an authentic full-course menu for a gourmet Mexican feast. But in the end, despite a razed kitchen, several nicked fingers and a place that permanently reeks of onions, it was totally worth it. Happy Thanksgiving, amigos!

Salsa fresca de piña (pineapple pico de gallo) for molletes

Makes one bowl

Half a white onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 jalapeños, diced

2 pineapple slices, diced

2 tomatoes, diced medium

Juice of 1 lime

Cayenne pepper (optional)

Salt

Combine first six ingredients in a bowl. Add cayenne pepper to make it even spicier. Salt to taste. Refrigerate mixture to let the flavors settle.

Molletes

Makes four

1/4 stick of butter

2 baguettes, cut lengthwise and then to your desired length

1 can of black beans

Olive oil, for skillet

1 cup queso fresco

1 recipe salsa fresca de piña

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Put a square of butter on each baguette half and toast in oven for 7 minutes or until edges are golden brown.

3. Mash black beans and cook in a skillet on medium heat with olive oil for about 5 minutes.

4. Add black bean spread to baguettes and top with queso fresco. Top each with pineapple pico de gallo and serve immediately.

Chilaquiles

Makes about 3 servings

6 tomatoes, cut in half, plus 1 tomato, diced medium

1 jalapeño, cut in half

2 cloves of garlic

Ground beef (as much as is required to serve your guests)

1 onion, diced

1 teaspoon cumin

1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

1 1/2 tablespoons paprika

Salt

8 yellow corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch squares

Oil, for skillet

Mexican crema

Cilantro (optional)

1. In a comal or cast-iron skillet, roast tomato and jalapeño halves on each side with garlic until charred.

2. In a separate skillet, cook beef. After it's cooked, add diced tomato and lower the heat.

3. Peel charred tomatoes and peppers and combine in a blender; mince the garlic and add, then blend everything together until smooth.

4. Add mixture to skillet with beef. Add onion, cumin, oregano and paprika, and season with salt. Let simmer for about an hour or until most (not all) of the water from the tomatoes has evaporated.

5. Fry tortillas in a separate skillet with olive oil on medium heat until crispy.

6. Plate tortilla squares, top with the beef mixture, drizzle with crema, and garnish with cilantro.

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