Sunday, April 25, 2010

Honoring the California avocado with the Too Hot Tamales

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Me with the Too Hot Tamales at Ciudad

It's Saturday and I've been invited to lunch at Ciudad, one of my favorite downtown restaurants, to talk about avocados with a bunch of other food bloggers. And there's lots to talk about. Ciudad owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the dynamic duo also known as Too Hot Tamales, are huge fans of the avocado, and they work with the California Avocado Commission to spread the avocado love around. I've lived in southern California more than a decade and visited the Tamales' restaurants many times, but I've got butterflies as I turn into the parking garage. I learned to cook watching Mary Sue and Susan on TV in my New York apartment two decades ago, when the only Mexican food I knew came from El Torito. They've been stars to me for a long time.

When I arrive, it turns out that there's more than lunch and a pleasant chat involved. The Tamales, all challenge-happy from Susan's stint on Top Chef Masters Season 2, have set up a little challenge for us. One table holds bowls of quartered California avocados. Another is laden with bowls of possible guacamole mix-ins, from traditional (lemons and limes, chopped cilantro, salsas, onions) to not so much (pomegranate seeds, bacon, all kinds of Asian condiments, bananas?!?). In teams of two, we've got five minutes to create the ultimate guacamole.

Rachael Narins with our Pure Guac L.A.

Luckily, I grab Rachael Narins as my partner. She's one of the brainy chefs behind the phenomenal roaming supper club Chicks With Knives, and she has one of the most refined and creative palates I know. We pull in Marla Meridith of Family Fresh Cooking at the last minute and get to work. Let's go purist, says Rachael, and Marla and I agree and start mashing. Lime, salt, cilantro, a touch of salsa, and a sprinkle of ground dried chipotle, just the tiniest bit. Rachael tastes, sprinkles, tastes, squeezes, tastes. Now I know why her food tastes so good, always: She is not easily satisfied. We write our creation's name on a card - Pure Guac L.A. - and we're done.

Each team talks about the inspiration for its recipe as the judges taste. Our turn approaches, and I'm in front, so I do the talking. "Tell them we wanted to honor the avocado," mouths Rachael to me. Honor the avocado: It's the perfect way to frame what we've done. When you go simple and pure, it's all about the balance, and Rachael's palate comes through for us - the judges comment on how perfectly the flavors come together. Still, our Pure Guac is no match for Spud Not, a concoction loaded with traditional baked potato toppings, including what seems like a full pound of bacon. Bacon always wins. But we're happy with our honorable mention. We followed our hearts and honored our avocados.

Susan and Mary Sue making avocado tacos (left) and skillet chilaquiles

After that, Susan and Mary Sue put on an impressive demo while we take pictures - food bloggers, of course, who would expect us to stay in our seats? - and nibble on what's coming out of the kitchen. Crispy avocado tacos, a tasty salad, skillet chilaquiles with chicken and avocado, a simple mango and avocado plate with honey-sweetened yogurt, an orange and avocado liquado. The avocados add a richness to every dish.

Crispy avocado tacos - Susan and Mary Sue serve these from the Border Grill truck

At the end of the lunch I head to the ladies' to freshen up, and I catch my reflection in the mirror. Am I imagining it, or does my skin look clearer and smoother than it did when I left the house? Not the lighting. Must be those magical avocados.

Orange and avocado liquado

See more photos from this event in Celebrating California avocados at Ciudad with Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken on my LA Cooking Examiner column

More avocado recipes from Erika:


marla {family fresh cooking} said...

Erika what a wonderful post! "Bacon always wins." Of course it does. I am looking forward to getting to know you better at Camp in May! xo

Rachael said...

And people say I'm a control-freak...hmm...LOL.

This post is terrif and I am blushing like a mad woman.

It was a perfect way to spend a few hours. Good friends, good food, great entertainment...and a bottomless bowl of guacamole. Yay for the California Avocado Commission!

Mucho besos!!!

Kate @ Savour Fare said...

Oh man, that looks like so much fun! I wanted to go but my college roommate (who I haven't seen in two years) was in town at the last minute.

Ravenous Couple said...

fantastic write up--too bad we didn't get to meet you formally!

Erika Kerekes said...

@Ravenous Couple - I know, I've been meaning to make sure we connected in person, but that quickfire challenge got me flustered and I forgot! Next time for sure.

@Kate - we missed you - I'm sure your guac would have been a winner too (and I'm quite sure it would have included bacon).

@Rachael and Marla - go team Pure Guac!

Hilary Cable said...

Oh yum! The tacos look wonderful! I used to love listening to the Too Hot Tamales on the radio on Saturday mornings. I'm so glad you had an opportunity to cook with them. Looks like awesome good fun!

Doug said...

I'm so jealous. I miss the Too Hot Tamales and their restaurants. Boston is a long way from LA. Thanks for a great post, Erika! XO Doug

Patti at Worth The Whisk said...

What a terrific opportunity for you to show those two chefs your skills, LOL. You sure get around, this and just a month or so ago, New York with Kelly Rippa!

Sippity Sup said...

How much fun! I was invited to this but was out of town, so I so appreciate your rubbing my nose in what great fun you had! See you at CampBlogAway very soon. GREG

Unknown said...

It was great meeting you Erika!! Thanks for the tip with the camera..! Let's keep in touch! hope your week is going fabulous!

suz said...

What a fun event! I kind of live at Border Grill so I'm very jealous you got to play with them. And it's true, bacon always wins. But I have a feeling your guac was out of this world ;)

Erika Kerekes said...

I think that might be my new blog tag line: "Bacon always wins."

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