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The enchilada sauce and skirt steak challenge

I serendipitously discovered a Mexican dish today through my experimentation. I created a fusion meal by combining it with a traditional Italian dish.



Basket ingredients:

  1. Skirt steak

  2. Mango orange blended juice

  3. Sriracha gouda cheese

  4. Green chili enchilada sauce

The challenge:

  1. Prepare a meal highlighting the basket ingredients

  2. Use any pantry ingredients as needed

  3. Cook within the time constraint of one hour

Judging criteria:

  1. Creativity

  2. Presentation

  3. Taste

 

First reactions:


The first thing that caught my eye when I opened the basket was a can of enchilada sauce. I couldn’t decide whether to be excited or worried about this. The picture on the packaging didn’t help much either. It had a plate of enchiladas on it, and I felt influenced to make what I was seeing. I had to shake that off and remind myself to think of an unconventional way of combining the ingredients. Also, what would I do with the mango orange juice concentrate? 🙀 This, I knew, would trouble me today.


A few ideas I blurted out to my husband:

  1. As a nod to my husband’s West Virginian roots and my Indian roots, the first idea was to prepare a steak and potato curry. (I’ve made a few versions of this before and it’s a hit. I’ll add a recipe soon to the site.)

  2. The second idea was to make skirt steak tacos with mango-orange pico de gallo and green chili salsa. It was too close to the tostada kitchen sprint, so I decided to steer clear of this.

  3. I started thinking... what if I combined two different cuisines? The first thing that popped into my mind was manicotti. I’m not entirely sure why but maybe because it also is covered with a layer of tomato sauce? I liked this idea. So what if I made a spruced-up enchilada sauce with steak to use in the place of pasta sauce to cover stuffed manicotti shells?

Well, this would make my husband very uncomfortable. See, Nathan is a traditionalist when it comes to cooking. Being part Italian, he was handed down pasta sauce and manicotti recipes that he follows to a T when he’s cooking, and this would test his comfort levels. I felt a little rebellious and creative at this point, and decided to roll with the idea. 😈


When I told him about the steak enchilada sauce idea, he said, “so, you’re making a Pozole?!?”. And that’s how I learned what pozole is. 😀

Pozole, I learned, is a Mexican stew made with pork, hominy, and red chilies, which is eaten with fresh toppings like lettuce, avocado, radish, and fresh lime. I am going to do a play on pozole today using steak as my protein.

A quick breakdown of the meal today before I started preparing the ingredients.

  • Component 1: Manicotti shells and the cream cheese stuffing

  • Component 2: Pozole (Steak enchilada sauce)

  • Component 3: Garnish


The process:

Pre-cooking rituals:

  1. Preparing the scene:

    1. As usual, I set the oven to preheat at 400° so that it’s ready for me when I need it.

    2. I also started boiling a pot of water to cook the manicotti shells.

    3. Finally, I got cream cheese out of the freezer and started thawing it out in a bowl of warm water.

  2. Prepping the ingredients:

    1. I started by finely chopping an onion for the sauce and set it aside.

    2. Next, I got some Baby Bella mushrooms from the fridge and diced them.

    3. I also chopped a few garlic cloves to add some freshness to the sauce.

    4. I then diced the gouda cheese and snacked along the way. The addition of sriracha to gouda made it irressitable. 🧀 😋

    5. Finally, I moved to prep the steak. I laid it on a cutting board and flattened it gently using a meat tenderizer. I went over it one last time with the spikes-side of the tool before cutting it into small pieces.


Pozole:

  1. Now that the prep work was done, I heated some olive oil in a pan and sauteed the onions with the chopped garlic. I added some chili flakes and salt before adding mushrooms to the pan. Once the mushrooms sweat a little, I added the steak in. The steak pieces were so thin that they cooked within a couple of minutes in the hot pan. I then poured in the enchilada sauce and let it all simmer together.

  2. The look of the sauce gave away the fact that it came from a can, and I didn’t want the taste to reflect that. To add some freshness to the dish and brighten the flavors, I decided to add a couple of tablespoons of guacamole salsa verde, a grated habanero chili, and fresh cilantro. I also added a couple of teaspoons of mango-orange juice to balance the sourness of the enchilada sauce with the sweetness of the juice.

  3. I then added a few pieces of gouda cheese to bring creaminess to Pozole before turning the stove off.


Manicotti:

  1. While the pozole was cooking, I dropped some pasta shells into the boiling water and cooked them for about 7 minutes until al-dente. I dished them out into a baking pan to cool down.

  2. The cream cheese was thawed at this point. I transferred it into a bowl and added cilantro to it in place of chives. My plan was to incorporate the gouda into the cream cheese filling but I knew it would be impossible to get an even mix. Nathan offered to melt the gouda in a double boiler and I immediately took him up on it. In just a few minutes, the melted gouda was ready to be mixed into the cream cheese. It was a workout to mix the two kinds of cheese, but it paid off when they blended nicely. 💪🏽

  3. I was running out of time, and I needed to find a quicker way to fill the pasta shells. We usually use a piping bag to fill the shells but that would take too much time and effort. I opted for a small spoon, and stuffed all the shells in just 4 minutes! I’m making a note to ditch the piping bag and go with a spoon in the future! 💡

  4. As the last step, I covered the manicotti shells with pozole sauce and topped them with more gouda cheese before popping it into the oven. 🧀 After 15 minutes, my fusion dish was ready to be plated. 🥘



Garnish:

  1. Caramelized cherry tomatoes: While the pozole and pasta shells were cooking, I went into my garden and got a few golden yellow cherry tomatoes and habanero chili. I cut the tomatoes into halves and caramelized them in a hot pan in a little bit of olive oil and sea salt. The tomatoes cooked to perfection and I was happy about how this would add a little bit of depth to the look and the taste of the dish. 🍅

  2. Cilantro: I decided to add a few leaves of cilantro as the final garnish to add some much-needed freshness to the dish. This would also highlight the Mexican side of the fusion dish. 🌿




Plating

The final dish turned out to be a one-pot dish, which meant garnishing would be the only heavy lifting I would be doing today.🏋🏽‍♀️

I placed the stuffed manicotti shells right in the middle of the plate. I topped them with a few caramelized cherry tomatoes and placed a few cilantro leaves to add some much-needed color and freshness to the dish! Easy peasy! 🙌🏼



Final dish:

Gouda Cheese Manicotti topped with Skirt Steak Pozole Sauce


Verdict:


Feedback from Day #1 (the day of the kitchen sprint):

  1. Nathan (husband and Judge #1) was pleasantly surprised by how well the manicotti shells and the pozole worked together, and how tender the steak turned out. He also commented how the caramelized cherry tomatoes added a burst of fresh taste to the dish. The two pieces of critical feedback I got from Nathan were:

    1. He felt that the dish was a bit cream cheese-heavy. This feedback was spot on because the traditional manicotti filling has three kinds of cheese: cream cheese, ricotta, and mozzarella. Because I didn’t have all the components, I made the filling with what I had at hand and as a result, it suffered.

    2. The second piece of feedback was that the dish could’ve used a fresh topping like sour cream. I agree with this and the feedback has been noted! 📝

  2. Judge #2 (my son) decided to judge with his eyes first which rarely means anything positive. 😳 He reluctantly tasted the dish before deciding that pozole was not for him. He decided to eat just the manicotti and gave me only half the points for the dish.

Feedback from Day #2 on leftover pozole:

  • Nathan had the leftover pozole the following day and liked it better than Day 1. He said the pozole stood on its own without the manicotti, and we decided to add this to our list of go-to weekday meals. 🙂


What I could have done differently:

  1. First, I felt like the dish came together too easily. This might mean that I’m getting better at cooking with surprise ingredients, but nevertheless, I felt like I could’ve challenged myself more to see what else I could’ve done.

  2. Second, I played it safe with how I incorporated the mango-orange juice concentrate in the dish. I’ve been bolder in the past with similar ingredients where I transformed them into a sauce, a jam, or a glaze, and I should remember to continue on that path.

  3. Last but not least, I wasn’t thrilled by the color of the sauce. My decision to use it in a large quantity meant that I wouldn’t be able to alter how it looked very much. A better approach would’ve been to make the sauce from scratch and use the enchilada sauce as a component in it.


A special shout-out:

Today was special because my friend, Kejia Shao, did the kitchen sprint with me! It was fun to see how differently we brought the basket ingredients together. Kejia shared that she marinated the steak with enchilada sauce and mango-orange juice and also used them to make a dressing for the salad. Her final dish was "Cut steak salad with mango-orange juice and enchilada sauce dressing". What a perfect summer lunch dish! 👏🏼

Final thoughts:

  1. A big takeaway this week for me was to challenge myself more and be bolder with the ingredients. Making a note for my next kitchen sprint to kick the creativity gear up! 📝

  2. I've come to the realization that cooking comes more naturally to me compared to writing. I have a few kitchen sprints that I need to pen down, which means I'll be focusing the next few weeks on writing and not sprinting. 😀


Star sightings

Willie and Sam cared less about my hustle in the kitchen today or even the gouda cheese. Both the dogs exhausted all their energy during our morning hike, and napped for most of the kitchen sprint today. 🐶 💤




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