I’m always on the lookout for anything that could spark a little inspiration in the kitchen. I travel with my trusty moleskin notebook. I even leave it on my bedside when I’m being diligent. And in the times it is not handy, I’ve been known to scribble an idea or two down on a Post-It and stick it somewhere extra visible so I won’t forget. Sometimes I fall into a rut and inspiration is hard to come by. Other times it falls effortlessly into my lap.
Such was the case recently when I had the opportunity to attend a dinner put on by the Mexico Tourism Board.
Held at Mexique, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Chicago, the dinner was a celebration of UNESCO’s recent recognition of Mexican cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage. Accordingly, they wanted to show people that Mexican cuisine is about more than the standard nachos and enchiladas that we Americans have become so accustomed to.
Having dined at great upscale Mexican restaurants like Chilam Balam and Frontera Grill in Chicago and Ole in Cambridge I was already fully convinced of the merits of Mexican cuisine. But never having been to Mexique, I couldn’t pass up the chance to try the restaurant out and learn more about Mexican cooking in the process. The entire dinner was fabulous, as anything that starts with ceviche and ends with a chocolate tamal should be.
Chef Carlos Gaytan did a lovely job of presenting a range of dishes and sharing his personal philosophy about Mexican cuisine. Among one of the many antidotes he shared was a personal philosophy that mole sauces should be served with simple meats like chicken or pork, not duck or exotic game. His reasoning? In every dish something has to lead otherwise the flavors will compete and drown each other out. When he’s serving mole he wants it to be the star of the dish, hence his desire towards a more simple pairing. And his mole was spot on – rich, layered and only lightly spicy, it served as the perfect balance for a lusciously rich pork belly.
But the star of the night, and there can only be one in every dinner, for me was a silky Chipotle and Goat Cheese Fondue that accompanied the man course of a grilled flank steak. It was an ingenious pairing that despite my undying love for goat cheese, had never occurred to me until that day. I loved how the chipotles added smokiness and a very gentle heat to the sauce so that they didn’t overpower or dominate the goat cheese. I found myself lapping up every last drop greedily from the plate. And as often happens when I eat something spectacularly good, I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days. And then I finally decided I had to recreate it. It also didn’t hurt that I still had some Chavrie fresh goat cheese on hand that I had been sent as a complimentary sample.
What follows is my interpretation. Like the Mexique version, I used the goat cheese and chipotle as the foundation of my sauce. I opted for dried chipotles since I already had them on hand in my pantry, but I imagine chipotles in adobo would be fabulous in this as well.
But I switched it up from there. Mexique’s version also included cream for richness, but I craved something more appropriate for everyday meals and used fat free evaporated milk instead. I must say that lately I’m a bit obsessed with cooking with evaporated milk. It lends a great richness and creaminess to sauces but without the fat of cream. I also love that it’s pantry-stable so it’s easy to keep on hand.
I kept their marinade fairly light and neutral, so as to not compete with the flavors of the Chipotle Goat Cheese Sauce. A bit of olive oil, champagne vinegar, pepper flakes, garlic, and honey make for an easy marinade that enhances their savoriness without overpowering their natural flavor.
To make the dish more of a meal, I served the mushrooms and sauce atop whole wheat penne. However, you could easily do this with a side of broccoli or quinoa instead. Anything that could serve as a vessel to sop up every last drop of the sauce works well here.
And like its restaurant predecessor this was one satisfying dish. The mushrooms were a perfect stand in for steak. Earthy and meaty, I enjoyed them immensely. And the sauce itself, the star of this dish, didn’t disappoint either. The smokiness of the chipotles were such a natural pairing for the tangy goat cheese, each seeming to bring out the strengths of the other. I found this to be a great dish for someone who wants to experience the taste of smoked chiles, but isn’t interested in intense heat.
Not only was this one of the simplest meals I made all year, it was surprisingly also one of the most memorable. I’ve already been thinking about how good this sauce would be atop a cheesesteak (And with some leftover prime rib in the refrigerator from Christmas Eve it is a definite possibility.), as the inspiration for a pot of macaroni and cheese, or drizzled atop some nachos. Basically the possibilities are endless and regardless of the permutation, oh so satisfying.
Serves 4 as a light main dish
-1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon olive oil, divided
-1/4 cup white wine or champagne vinegar
-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
-2 garlic cloves, finely grated
-1 teaspoon honey
-6 portabella mushrooms, stems removed
-1 tablespoon chopped dried chipotles (this yielded a mildly spicy sauce, but feel free to scale up or down to meet your personal spice preferences)
-1/4 cup boiling water
-1/4 cup diced shallots
-1 12-ounce can fat free evaporated milk
-4 ounces chevre
-Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the marinade for the mushrooms, combine olive oil through honey in a large plastic food storage bag. Whisk ingredients or shake with bag closed until well combined. Add portabellas turning the mushrooms over in the mixture until well coated. Set aside to marinade for at least 30 minutes.
While mushrooms are marinading, rehydrate your chipotles for the sauce. Place the dried chipotles in a bowl, pour boiling water over the top, and let set until rehydrated about 15-20 minutes.
When mushrooms have almost finished marinading and chipotles are rehydrated, make your sauce. Add the remaining teaspoon of olive oil to a frying pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once pan is hot, add shallots and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chipotles and their soaking liquid to the pan. Cook until the liquid has evaporated.
Add the evaporated milk to the pan. Cook until the mixture is gently bubbling, then turn the heat down to low. Cook until the mixture has reduced by about half.
Stir in the goat cheese until well combined and by adding the mixture to a blender or using an immersion blender, blend on high until the mixture is smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare grill or grill pan to medium heat. Place mushrooms on grill and cook for 5 minutes on the first side. Turnover and cook three minutes more.
Slice and serve with sauce drizzled over the top.