Cheese Panela

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There is a restaurant in Dallas, Texas, called Javier’s, that specializes in gourmet Mexicano cuisine. No nachos at this restaurant.

I discovered Javier’s in 1979, after moving to Dallas for my first job. Since marrying 36 years ago, we go Javier’s whenever we’re in Dallas, which can be quite often. It’s that good. I just checked the website for Javier’s, and learned the restaurant opened in 1977. And, it’s still open.

Not only is the food exceptional, but also the ambiance and service. The key to its continued success, in my mind, is the fact that the owner, Javier, is always at the restaurant. Saturday, Tuesday, whenever, he’s there.

One entree we’ve always enjoyed is steak Cantinflas, which is a filet stuffed with cheese, topped with an Adobo-style sauce, and served with fresh avocado. There’s also roasted chicken mole, shrimp Guaymas, great margaritas, and coffee drinks made and flambed at the table. Spectacular.

When you’re seated at Javier’s, you are given warm chips served with two warm salsas – a thin tomato salsa that almost tastes like tomato soup, and a thicker green salsa. We’ve never been able to decide which is better. Oh, and there’s fresh butter in case you want to first dip your chip into the butter, then the warm salsa…

As an appetizer, my husband and I have often shared the Cheese Panela, which is prepared at the table. It’s melted cheese with chorizo and green chiles served in warm tortillas. It doesn’t sound extraordinary, but it is.

I never thought about why the appetizer’s name is cheese panela, until I came across the same word in a blog I discovered, Nancy’s blog called Mexican Made Meatless. Her blog is “dedicated to transforming classic Mexican dishes into modern vegan, vegetarian, and pescetarian delight.”

To quote from Nancy’s blog: I was born and raised in a traditional small town Mexican environment, in which my education in Mexican food preparation began early by watching the passion that my mother, grandmother, and aunts all put into their cooking sessions. Though the culinary bug took time to fully infect my soul, when it finally did it instilled in me a fiery passion that has lead me to devour everything about the culinary arts and helped me get to where I am today.

So while perusing her blog, I saw the word panela, and learned that it’s the actual name of a cheese. Because of my memories of cheese panela at Javier’s, I knew I’d be making this recipe, interestingly also reminiscent of the Argentinian baked provolone I made called Provoleta, topped with chimichurri.

Who can go wrong with spicy melted cheese?!!

Cheese Panela
or, Baked Panela Cheese that will Knock Your Socks Off!
printable recipe below

7oz panela cheese
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
1 teaspoon red chile flakes
2 teaspoon parsley (I used fresh)
1 teaspoon thyme (I used dried)
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano (I used dried)
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoon olive or avocado oil

Drain the cheese and set aside.

In a bowl combine the oil and all of the herbs and spices. Poke little holes all around the cheese to help the seasoning absorb better. Place the cheese in with the oil and spices mixture and coat the cheese, cover with plastic wrap and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight if desired.

Because I purchased a 3-pound wheel of Panela, I trimmed it to fit the gratin pan.

Preheat the oven to 190℃ or 375°F for 10 minutes. Place the cheese in the oven-safe dish and bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes.

The cheese will become soft and gooey but not melt completely. Allow to cool slightly.

Serve with either corn chips or country bread or any rustic bread. I baked some tortilla triangles.

As the cheese cools it will firm up again, so try to keep warm when enjoying.

The cheese is definitely reminiscent of what we used to order at Javier’s, although not as melty.

However, this cheese panela recipe is absolutely incredible. I love the aromatics, the spiciness, and the parsley.

The next time I made this recipe I used half panela and half Monterey Jack to make it more melty, which worked, but it’s best served over some kind of warmer.

 

 

 

Chili

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I didn’t have chili, or even hear about it, until I was in my early twenties, after moving to Texas. In “Big D,” it wasn’t long before I was initiated. There still exists a well-known restaurant that specializes in chili, too, called Tolbert’s, that co-workers took me to for my chili introduction. (I thought their chili only adequate…)

The first time I made chili, I followed the recipe in The Great West. It was one of the many books of the Foods of the World series put out by Time-Life a million years ago.
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If I hadn’t made it myself, I might have hated chili. Not to sound horribly critical, but have you ever been to a chili cook-off?!! Oh my. Such terrible chilis. Really inferior meat, chili too often watery, and horribly under-seasoned to top everything off.

But no, I followed a recipe, and fell in love with chili.
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There are a few things about chili about which I feel strongly. The meat, the liquid, and the tomatoeyness.
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First of all, the meat has to be good quality. I’m not saying use beef tenderloin. On the contrary, a good chuck works well. You need some fat, and you need a meat that can hold up to a couple hours of cooking. What I personally don’t like is ground beef. It pretty much dissolves, and you’re left more with a beef sauce than a chili. I like chunks!

Secondly, chili, in my book, should be meaty and thick. That means very little liquid. You need some beef broth in which to cook the beef, but you don’t want to serve the beef drowning in broth. Otherwise, it’s beef soup.

Thirdly, many people think that chili requires lots of tomatoes. Much to the contrary, chili doesn’t have a tomato base to it because it’s not a beef stew – it’s a chili. It’s different.

I might mention a fourth aspect of chili that many people can’t agree on – and that’s the addition of beans. There is the no-bean camp and the bean camp. There is only one reason that I add beans to chili, and that’s the health factor. It’s a no-brainer to me, but good chili is good either way!

Chili

5 pounds beef chuck, trimmed
Oil or bacon fat
Salt and pepper
2 onions, chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground chipotle
2 tablespoons ground New Mexico chile powder
2 tablespoons ground ancho chile powder or 2 tablespoons home-made ancho chile paste
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, optional
16 ounces beef broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cans kidney beans, drained well, optional

Cut up the beef into small pieces. They don’t have to be perfectly uniform in size.
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Place a large Dutch oven on the stove. Add some oil, and turn up the heat to high. When the oil is hot, begin browning the beef in batches. Add a generous amount of salt, and some pepper. Brown, moving the beef around occasionally, until very little pink remains.


Although browning each batch of meat takes a while and is a tedious process, it has to be done this way. If too much meat is added to the pot at one time, it lowers the internal temperature of the pot, and instead of browning, liquid is produced and the meat poaches instead. We don’t want that.

When meat is nicely browned, remove it to the bowl, and continue with the remaining meat, adding oil as necessary with each batch.

After browning all of the meat, turn down the heat to medium and add a little oil to the pot. Add the onion and sauté for about 4 minutes.


Then add the minced garlic, the seasoning, and stir well. The mixture will be dark and rich. Cook it for about one minute.

Then add the beef broth and stir to combine, scraping all the caramelized bits of browned meat that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Carefully return all of the meat to the pot, including any juices that have accumulated. Stir well.
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Bring the chili to a boil, cover the pot, lower the heat, and simmer for at least 2 hours. At that time, remove the lid and look at the chili. The beef will have shrunk in volume. If you think there is too much liquid in the chili, raise the heat a bit and let the liquid reduce for maybe 15 minutes or so, uncovered.

Then stir in the tomato paste and the drained beans and heat through. Taste for seasoning. You might need more salt, but taste first!
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There are probably many different opinions regarding what to put on chili. I personally love the addition cheese, and chopped purple onions.
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But sour cream is a lovely addition as well.
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However you serve it, enjoy the richness of the chile peppers and other seasoning that flavor the beef.
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Blogger Visit

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On March 1st, just a few weeks ago, I drove to Dallas, Texas, for a special occasion. My Dutch blogger friend Stefan, from Stefan Gourmet, was visiting our mutual blogger friend Richard, from REM Cooks. For me, it was barely 24 hours, but it’s a visit I will never forget.

Of course, there was fabulous food and wine, and non-stop conversation, but the camaraderie was genuine and lively. It was really special meeting these two other bloggers, both of whom I’ve been following since I began blogging myself about 1 1/2 years ago. There were just so many questions to ask each other, and so many food-related issues to discuss. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever talked food so much before – especially with two men!

After dealing with unsuspected traffic, I reached Richard’s beautiful home by 5 PM, and finally got to meet Stefan and his husband Kees, pronounced case, as well as Richard, who is the larger-than-life Texan you expect him to be. The infamous “Baby Lady,” otherwise known by her real name, Elia, or Richard’s wife, was at a grocery store when I arrived.

Immediately wine was poured and food prep got under way. It was actually a nice break for me to just observe and talk shop. Later, when Elia got back with more groceries, she helped Richard primarily in the kitchen. I was actually amazed that Richard could talk and cook at the same time, although he did go through a few batches of over-blackened jalapenos! (As we all have!)

Elia crisping small, corn  tortillas to use as taco shells

Elia crisping small, corn tortillas to use as taco shells

If any of you aren’t aware, Richard’s specialties in the kitchen are Mexican and Southwestern cuisines. He had originally wanted to become a chef as a young man, but had been persuaded otherwise by his father. So Richard is a lawyer by day, and gourmet chef the rest of the time.

Richard is a huge chile pepper afficionado, and is well known in blogger circles as single handedly changing the course of food history in Ireland and Holland! He sent chile pepper care packages to Stefan and also Conor Bofin, who lives in Dublin. You can read about the “chile challenge” here on Stefan’s blog. It still makes me laugh out loud when I think of Irish Conor and Dutch Stefan opening up the box containing 7 varieties of chile peppers, plus some other chile pepper goodies, having probably never seen anything like them at their local markets before!

Kees, Elia, and Stefan

Kees, Elia, and Stefan

One highlight for me during my visit was witnessing the use of a serious Aga stove. I’ve only seen the ones with the flat tops, but this guy has 8 burners and 4 ovens.

Seasoned corn on the cob roasting under the broiler

Seasoned corn on the cob roasting under the broiler

The dinner Richard planned for that evening was involved, not surprisingly, and there were many elements required.

Blending the roasted tomatillos and chile peppers for a chili verde sauce

Blending the roasted tomatillos and chile peppers for a chili verde sauce

I meant to take a little notepad with me on this visit, knowing I would want to write everything down, but I managed to forget it. It’s embarrassing to not have everything documented, and not remember the name of every single element that was prepared that evening, but I can tell you that it was all spectacular.

A lesson on removing pin bones from salmon

A lesson on removing pin bones from salmon

Both salmon, swordfish, and tuna were prepared for the meal. The swordfish is being seasoned with Richard’s famous ancho chile rub.

Spicing up the swordfish

Spicing up the tuna

I could tell that Richard and his wife cook together, because they had a real natural rhythm.

Richard, Stefan, Elia

Richard, Stefan, Elia

Richard, with some help from Stefan and Elia, prepared a prickly pear mixture for the dessert sorbet. Stefan, a true gentleman, was willing to help in any way, including refilling my wine glass.

Squeezing limes

Squeezing limes

Elia peeled the prickly pears, and told me that it’s easy to hurt your hands from the cactus needles that remain in the skins, so I let the expert do the prep work!

On the way to becoming sorbet

On the way to becoming sorbet

And then it was dinner! Here is the dinner menu:

The first course was a salmon ceviche, and a mini taco trio – fresh bigeye tuna (sushi style) with avocado cream and lime pickled red onions; ancho crusted, seared swordfish with avocado cream and pico de gallo; and shrimp tacos al mojo de ajo (with garlic salsa).

So fresh and colorful

So fresh and colorful

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen these little metal contraptions that held up the tacos. What will they think of next?!!!
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And then, a second course, was Duck carnitas (carnitas de pato) with radishes, avocado cream, pico de gallo and lime pickled red onions.

This was exceptionally good

This was exceptionally good

Dessert was red prickly pear fruit sorbet, or Sorbete de tuna rona. It never got photographed by myself, and I can probably blame too much wine on that. It was served with champagne, and I can tell you that it was delicious and refreshing.

Me, Stefan, Kees

Me, Stefan, Kees

The next morning was spent on more food-related conversations, and then Richard and Elia put out a fabulous cheese platter and poured Sauterne. Unfortunately it started sleeting outside, so I had to bid my goodbyes and leaver sooner than anticipated.

But all-in-all it was a delightful visit, and I feel very blessed to have been allowed in to these two families. Maybe one day we can all meet up again!

Cajeta Crêpes

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I’ve only had cajeta crêpes at one restaurant, and that restaurant is Javier’s, in Dallas, Texas. They’re so good we keep ordering them when we’re lucky enough to go there, even when we’ve overeaten after appetizers and dinner. And we’re not even dessert people!

They’re very simply prepared and served – crêpes folded in quarters, topped with cajeta*, which is essentially caramel made from goat’s milk.

I’ve been going to Javier’s since shortly after I moved to Dallas, which was in 1978, for my first job. It was the first time I learned about cajeta. But it was in the book, New Southwestern Cooking, by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, where I saw the first recipe for cajeta. The book was published in 1985, and I still reference it.
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However, their recipe is involved, and I’m not sure why. Cajeta is simply the reduction of goat’s milk with sugar. But in their recipe, some of the sugar is caramelized first, and then added to the milk, which is a combination of goat and cow milk. Plus, their recipe includes cornstarch and baking soda. Maybe I’ll try it one day.

But for now, here’s my version of cajeta. Just like many of the best recipes, this dessert is so simple, yet so perfect.

Cajeta Crêpes

1 dozen prepared crêpes
24 ounces (2 – 12 ounce cans) goat’s milk
3/4 cup sugar

Combine the goat’s milk and sugar in a medium-sized enamel pot. Stir well, then turn on the heat and simmer over the lowest possible heat. It will take about 1 1/2 hours to complete.
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Continue stirring with a rubber spatula throughout this process, scraping down the sides of the pot occasionally. A whisk isn’t necessary, because any cajeta that is scraped off of the pot sides gets remelted into the bulk of the hot cajeta.
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You can see the goat’s milk and sugar mixture get darker and thicker as it reduces, until it’s ready to use. The cajeta should be still a little thin when it’s hot, but it will thicken as it cools slightly.
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Have the prepared crêpes on the serving plate, and drizzle the warm cajeta over them.

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Serve these crêpes warm or at room temperature.
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They would also be good with some whipped cream, but it’s totally unnecessary to me.

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*It’s really hard to decipher the difference between cajeta and dulce de leche. The very similar product is made in Spain, Mexico, and in many South American countries. Sometimes it’s only from cow’s milk, sometimes only goat’s milk, and sometimes a blend of both. I’m sure they’re all good, but I like my cajeta from pure goat’s milk!

note: This recipe can be doubled or tripled. I just didn’t want to make a huge batch. This recipe made almost 1 1/2 cups.
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