April 13, 2016

Dear friends,

What a sweetheart. Not only did Tony give me a bye on cooking his birthday dinner last week, he chose my favorite restaurant for a celebration. Although we hadn’t been to Russo’s Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls in at least five years because of Tony’s work schedule, I didn’t need a menu. A guy at the bar was working his way through a Navajo taco when we arrived and one glance was all it took.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” I told the waitress.

The dinner plate was a riot of colors. Big, puffy rounds of fried bread peeked out here and there from their blanket of crawfish, scallops, whitefish, sautéed peppers and fresh salsa, crowned with a swirl of sour cream and showered with chopped green onions. This extravaganza tastes as good today as it did 21 years ago when chef David Russo put it on the menu of his previous restaurant, Liberty Street Brewing Co. in Akron.

If your eyes have strayed down to the recipe already, you’re probably snorting. Yes, it is long and involved. But Dave Russo’s Navaho taco is the kind of food that inspires fan followings and twitter accounts (not that the tacos are that social yet). Some people would do anything for one of ‘em – even prepare a four-part recipe.

Russo gave me the directions years ago. I have made the tacos and can report the recipe works perfectly.

If you want to wow friends or family, this recipe will do it.

I suggest you stir together the seasoning mix, chop the vegetables, toast the cornmeal and make the salsa one day, and prepare the filling and fry bread the next. Or if you live nearby and have $30 to spend, just go to Russo’s (www.russoskitchen.com).
Tony poached about half of my Navajo taco, which I grudgingly allowed. It was his birthday.

DAVE RUSSO’S NAVAJO TACOS

SALSA:

•    2 tomatoes, diced
•    1/2 cup chopped onion
•    1/2 cup chopped green pepper
•    1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
•    2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
•    1/2 cup chopped cilantro
•    1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
•    Juice of 1/2 lemon
•    1 tbsp. brown sugar
•    1/2 tsp. salt

Combine everything in a bowl, stirring well.

SEASONING MIX
:
•    1 1/2 tsp. oregano
•    1 tsp. onion powder
•    2 tsp. salt
•    1 1/2 tsp. cumin
•    1 tsp. garlic powder
•    1/2 tsp. black pepper
•    1/2 tsp. white pepper
•    2 tsp. ground New Mexican dried chili pepper
•    2 tsp. ground guajillo chili pepper (or use all New Mexican pepper)

Combine all ingredients in a lidded jar.

FILLING:
•    1 tbsp. toasted corn meal
•    1/4 cup olive oil
•    14 oz. of your choice of chicken, steak (cut into strips about 2 inches long and 1/4-inch thick), or peeled shrimp
•    1 red bell pepper, in julienne (very thin) strips
•    1 green bell pepper, julienned
•    1 medium red onion, julienned
•    1 tsp. minced fresh garlic
•    1/2 cup peeled, seeded and chopped ripe tomatoes
•    1/2 cup chicken or beef broth

In a dry skillet over medium heat, shake corn meal until toasted medium dark. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon seasoning mix over chicken, steak or shrimp, coating all sides. Add the meat or seafood to the hot oil. Brown meat, stirring constantly (if using shrimp, sear on both sides and remove from the pan and set aside).
Add peppers, onions and 1 tablespoon of seasoning mix to pan. Cook, stirring, about three minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
Stir in toasted cornmeal, then tomatoes and broth (if using shrimp, return to pan now). Simmer 3 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened. Keep warm.

FRY BREAD
•    3 cups sifted flour
•    1 tbsp. baking powder
•    1/2 tsp. salt
•    1 cup warm water

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Slowly mix in warm water with a fork. Stir until soft but not sticky. If too sticky, add a touch more flour. Gather into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand 15 minutes.
Pull off egg size balls of dough. Pat or roll into flat disks 1/4-inch thick. Press thumb into center of dough round and pierce several times with fork.
In a large skillet, bring 3 cups of vegetable oil to 350 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry the cakes 30 seconds on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
To assemble tacos, place one fry bread on a plate, spoon on some of the filling, and place a second fry bread overlapping the first. Spoon on more filling. Top with salsa and a dollop of sour cream. Makes about 4 servings.

TIDBITS

You can’t just stop a barbecue binge cold turkey. Tony and I couldn’t, at any rate. The first week after we returned from our jaunt to Tennessee he suggested we visit Carolina BBQ in Akron “just to compare.” Twice.

Then we found Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Medina, which is as close to Memphis-style as we’ve found around here. The restaurant has slow-smoked ribs, beef brisket, chicken and pork, along with ham, turkey and sausage. It also has chopped brisket salad and quality sides including a rich mac and cheese and green beans with bacon.

Dickey’s is at 960 N. Court St. On Sundays kids eat free and everyone gets free soft-serve ice cream.
Takes the cake
Tony’s birthday cake this year was the best yet. Usually it’s pretty sad, because he has eliminated sugar and tries to hold down the carbs for health reasons. This year I discovered Pillsbury Sugar-Free cake mixes, and the chocolate cake I made was tremendous – moist and fine-textured, with a decent chocolate flavor.

To ensure a moist cake I under-baked it slightly, until the cake started to pull away from the sides of the pan but the top was still slightly puffy and could be dented with a finger. When cool, I filled and frosted the layers with whipped strawberry cream cheese and decorated the top with sliced and whole strawberries.

To make the whipped cream cheese, allow an 8-ounce package of low-fat cream cheese to soften at room temperature or zap it for a few seconds (out of the foil liner) in the microwave. Puree a handful of strawberries in a food processer, add cream cheese and process until well combined, sprinkling in Splenda to taste for sweetness if desired.

THE MAILBAG

From Marty L.:
When I wanted to make a strawberry pie for a “taste of spring,” I had a stroke of genius for making the blind pie shell. Instead of using a weighted empty pie pan on top, I found that my silicon lid cover was absolutely perfect. I left it inside the crust until it was set and just starting to brown, then took it out for the last 5 minutes for the inside to brown.

Dear Marty: Good idea, but I still think I’ll just chill the unbaked shell for 15 minutes and do away with weighting altogether.

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