Monday, January 9, 2012

Frijoles Borrachos

Yesterday was a pretty and mainly pleasant, mostly sunny January day and so I thought Ann and I might go for a ride along the backroads of Frederick and Shenandoah County and so arrive at Strasburg in time for lunch at Cristina's. I've liked Cristina's for a very long time and always looked forward to Mexican food there, but I noticed each time that I went, the menu was less and less Mexican. And since I was last there—don't often get to Strasburg—Cristina's had relocated down the street and lost the "Mexican" moniker, now called simply Cristina's Cafe.

The new place seems much less restaurant and more funky coffeehouse. I'm OK with that. Everyone around us was drinking some kind of coffee or coffee drink; I was the only one drinking beer. The microbrew list is very, very good at Cristina's. I had a Fat Tire Amber Ale (good, but not as good as Tröegs HopBack Amber Ale) and a Rogue Mocha Porter (also good, but not as good as Tröegs Dead Reckoning Porter). I mention Tröegs because they are my benchmark beers and the beers we serve at the restaurant. I ordered a Left Hand Milk Stout (on tap) but instead our anorectic waif of a server who was clearly out on her own planet brought me the Rogue. Not sure what she was thinking about, but the poor thing was definitely lost in space.

I ordered the only vestige of the old Cristina's on the new menu: chicken empanadas, "the best in the valley," so said the menu. The pastry was excellent and the filling OK, but lacking in flavor. A few green onions and some cilantro would have livened the chicken in red sauce. But what got me was the plate presentation—there was none—two empanadas dumped on a plate with a handful of potato chips. Potato chips? What about a little dish of chimichurri and a sprig of cilantro? A little bowl of frijoles? Nothing. Ann's panino was similarly non-plated. Ladies, have you given up?

All this back story is by way of setting the stage for dinner.

I was in a Mexican frame of mind while sitting at the table finishing my beer, missing a bowl of beans. Ann had asked early in the morning what I wanted for dinner and not really craving anything, I deferred by suggesting that we surf the aisles at Food Maxx when we got back to Winchester after lunch. But after eating lunch, the convo turned back to dinner—probably as a result of our being underwhelmed with lunch—and Ann must have been on the same Mexican wave that I was for she suggested rice and beans. That got my gears racing.

After a leisurely drive back up Route 11 and carefully negotiating the speed traps in Middletown and Stephens City, we ended up at Food Maxx where we scored beans, cilantro, green onions, tortillas, and chorizo. I think we both hit the bean aisle looking for black beans, but then Ann decided she wanted red beans instead so we got a pound of Sangre de Toro (bull's blood) beans, a small red heirloom bean that I had never worked with before. The chorizo that we selected from among the dozen or more kinds was labeled simply Salvadoran. I've never seen links of sausage tied off with strips of corn husk before. Pretty neat idea. And then I got some small fatboy Salvadoran tortillas because I need tortillas with my beans.

These tortillas were labeled hechas a mano, but they looked almost too uniform to have been hand made. What distinguishes Salvadoran tortillas is their small diameter (about 5") and their thickness, thick like an unstuffed gordita, arepa, or pupusa.

While the beans cooked (rinsed, then up to the boil, drained, fresh water, recooked until tender, and then finally drained), I prepped my sofrito ingredients: yellow onion, garlic, ground toasted cumin, sambal oelek, minced cilantro stems, and sliced green onions). While the beans were draining, I returned the pot to the heat and added the skinned chorizos. After breaking them down and browning them, I added the rest of the ingredients and cooked them until the onions were translucent (and all red from the chorizo!). The beans went back in with a bottle of Dos Equis Ambar (the borracho component) and the whole simmered until our movie was done.

I give you the best beans I may have ever had in my life, over rice with a healthy dose of cilantro and a tortilla. These Sangre de Toros are delicious and creamy and the chorizo salvadoreño gave excellent background flavor. I kept saying "These beans are awesome; these beans are awesome!" Now that's how chefs like to eat!

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