Celebrations are fun. Holidays. Graduations. Engagements. New houses. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Even Fridays evenings are worth celebrating for those of us who work!

Celebrations bring friends together. And what would they be without a special meal?

Recently, our friends Lynn and Lee were in Tucson checking on the progress of the home they are building in the Sonoran Desert.

They come to Tucson frequently because they, like us, truly love the desert and are excited about living here. This particular visit coincided with two special events - their wedding anniversary and Lee’s birthday.

We invited them to dinner to celebrate. And what better way than to present them with a Mexican feast?

I was recently given a copy of México, The Beautiful Cookbook, and I planned the entire meal around an Albondigón Relleno de Rajas recipe I found there – essentially a stuffed meatloaf

When the book said the recipe would feed 6-8, its authors must have had hungry charros in mind. It was huge and could easily feed 12! It was very subtly seasoned using both herbs and spices, stuffed with copious amounts of rajas (roasted and sliced poblano chiles), and served in a light tomato sauce.

Being truer to myself than to the recipe, I made a few changes — I use Mexican oregano instead of the run-of-the-mill variety generally used, and I substituted thinly sliced pancetta for the bacon. The latter decision reflects my displeasure at getting dishes wrapped in a layer of rubbery, insufficiently-cooked fat. The pancetta cooked beautifully and nicely enhanced the dish. To get the smoky flavor of bacon without actually using it, I simply added some chipotle chiles in adobo to the tomato sauce.

I think my only other change was using ground cloves instead of whole ones.

The yellow rice is a very subtly flavored dish made using an annato-infused oil in which I sautéed the rice before adding a very light chicken broth.

The calabacitas were made using patty pan squash instead of the traditional grey Mexican squash, because the latter was not available.

I pretty much made up the method for the recipe but first chatted with my friend Eunice at her stall (Larry’s Veggies) at the farmers market. She told me what she uses in her calabicitas.

I have never had Eunice’s calabacitas, but I know to trust her! I took her list of vegetables (all of which I bought from her!) and created a really flavorful recipe — everything except the roasted chiles she suggested. As the meatloaf was stuffed with them, I wanted to make sure that there were some contrasting flavors on the plate.

Everything worked out perfectly - the balance of flavors and textures was just what I wanted.

I definitely recommend this cookbook - I have quite a few in the “Beautiful” series and enjoy the authenticity of the recipes.

And speaking of celebrations, happy Mexican Independence Day! (September 6)

~ David

Albondigón Relleno de Rajas
Meatloaf stuffed with poblano chiles
From México, The Beautiful Cookbook

2 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle chiles
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 bolillo (bread roll), sliced and soaked in milk
1 large shallot
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds ground beef (85%)
1 pound lean ground pork
3 eggs
1 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
3 poblano chiles, roasted, membranes and seeds removed, cut into strips
1 red pepper, roasted, membranes and seeds removed, cut into strips
1/4 pound thinly sliced pancetta

Make the sauce: cut the tomatoes in half across their equator, and grate them using the large holes on a box grater into the jar of a blende. (Place the cut side on the grater and use the palms of your hand and then your fingers to guide the tomato on the grater. This method takes everything but the skin — you will be amazed how little pulp is lost.)

Add the onion, ground chipotle chiles, dried thyme, ground cumin, ground cloves, and water; purée for 15-20 seconds until smooth.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat and add the tomato purée, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then lower heat and cook for 30 minutes, until sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon. Set aside to cool. This can be done a day or two in advance.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place the beef and pork on a large bowl. Drain the bolillo, crumble, and add it to the meat. In a spice grinder, purée the shallot, oregano, cumin, cloves, salt, and pepper. Pour this mixture over the meat. Add eggs and dried breadcrumbs. Using your hands, mix the meats with the added ingredients to combine thoroughly.

Place a long piece of parchment on the countertop - about 20 inches long. Transfer the meat to the parchment, and pat into a rectangle about 18 inches long. Arrange the RAJAS (slivered poblano chiles) and roasted red pepper strips down the center. Then, use the parchment to bring both sides of the meat up and over the chiles and seal. Using the parchment, transfer the meat roll to a large baking sheet (with sides). Flatten out the parchment, which will remain under it during cooking. Top the meat roll with thin slices of pancetta. Bake for one hour.

When it is done, let it sit for 10 minutes covered with foil, while you reheat the tomato sauce. Cut the meatloaf in inch-thick slices and arrange on a platter. Pour tomato sauce around the sides and serve.

Serves 10-12. 


3 ears fresh corn
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 white or yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 small green bell peppers, seeded and diced
2 pounds summer squash *
1 roasted poblano chile, seeded and diced (optional)
24 cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half.
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

* The most authentic squash for calabacitas is Mexican gray squash, 

   but when out of season, I used patty pan squash; zucchini and 
   summer squash may be used as well. 

Cook the corn using whatever method you prefer - boil, steam, grill, microwave. Let cool, and cut kernels off the cob. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet and add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes to soften. Add the squash, cherry tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cook until vegetables are sizzling. Cover, lower the heat and cook on low for about 5 minutes — add the corn, re-cover, and cook another 5 minutes until zucchini is tender and corn is heated through.

Serves 6-8 

Yellow Rice

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon annato seeds
2 cups long grain rice
4 cups hot water

In a very small saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the annato seeds. Cook over low heat — stirring occasionally — until oil turns bright orange, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep 10 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into the saucepan you will use for the rice. Discard the seeds.

Heat the scented oil and add the rice. Cook over medium-high heat until rice is thoroughly coated and has begun to turn opaque. Season with salt, and add the hot water. It will sputter and steam. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Fluff rice and serve.

Serves 6-8.

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