Mexican Stuffed Shells

A new restaurant opened up in town last year called MexItalian – serving Latin-Mediterranean fusion cuisine. One of my favorite entrées there is a Parmigiana Mexicana, breaded eggplant that’s lightly fried, and layered with Parmesan cheese and salsa picante and then roasted. As I was perusing the many enticing recipes on Jenna’s Cooking Journey, my blog assignment for this “Blogger’s Choice” recipe swap, I came across a recipe for Mexican Stuffed Shells, and immediately thought of that Mexican-style Eggplant Parmigiana. I love fusion recipes, but for some reason tend to gravitate more towards Asian fusion ones (no surprise, I guess, considering the name and story behind this food blog). Well, this recipe broadened my horizons a bit. And when rain graced the central coast’s presence last week,  I was looking for a nice comforting recipe that would require turning on the oven. This one fit the bill.

Jumbo pasta shells are stuffed with ground turkey (or you could use ground beef) that’s seasoned with taco seasoning and made creamy with a little cream cheese. Then you lay the stuffed shells in a baking dish on top of a layer of salsa and cover them liberally with taco sauce. After a good half hour in the oven, you cover them with grated jack cheese and return them to the oven until golden and bubbly. A scattering of green onions and a couple dollops of sour cream finish off this Mexican-Italian fusion dish.

This is one of those recipes that we’d love to try again with some different ingredients just to change it up a bit. While we liked the combination of fresh salsa (we used a locally-made one that we love) and taco sauce from a bottle, I think it would be even more delicious with a home-made enchilada sauce, something with a nice smoky/spicy depth of flavor – one that can only come from your own kitchen, opposed to something from a bottle.

But overall, this is a crowd-pleasing dish, a great twist on your usual stuffed shells, and makes excellent leftovers.Thanks, Jenna!

Click on the icon at the bottom of this post to view all of the blogs that participated in this recipe swap! It’s sure to be a great round-up of recipes.

Mexican Stuffed Shells

(Slightly adapted from Jenna’s Cooking Journey, as seen on The Way to His Heart, from which I then traced back through 5 more blogs until I got to This recipe has sure gotten around the food blog world, which is a good sign!)

1 lb. ground turkey
1 package low-sodium taco seasoning (or use your own, which I should have done, but was feeling lazy :))
4 oz. cream cheese (I used more like 2-3 oz.)
1/2 a box of jumbo pasta shells (recipe specified 14-16 but I didn’t count – was probably over 20 shells)
1 1/2 to 2 cups salsa (I used a fresh salsa that’s made locally – Roberto’s)
1 cup taco sauce (such as La Victoria brand – I didn’t measure, but used almost an entire 8 oz. bottle)
2 cups grated Monterey jack cheese
3 green onions, sliced
Sour cream

  • Preheat oven to 350°.
  • In a frying pan, brown the turkey, using a wooden spoon to break up the pieces as it cooks. Drain, if needed (our turkey was pretty lean). Add taco seasoning and prepare according to the package directions. In our case, add the seasoning packet, 2/3 cup water, bring to a boil, then turn heat down to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add cream cheese, cover and simmer until cheese is melted. Blend well. Turn off heat, set aside, and allow to cool.
  • Meanwhile, cook the pasta shells according to directions, 8-9 minutes in our case; drain. Set shells out individually on cutting board/baking sheet so that they don’t stick together. Allow to cool before handling.
  • Pour salsa into the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish.  Using a spoon, gently fill each shell with the meat mixture and place it in the dish on top of the salsa, open-side up. Cover shells with taco sauce (we drizzled a little over each one – we also spooned a little more salsa on top of each shell). Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, add grated cheese and bake for 10-15 minutes more, uncovered.  Top with green onions and serve with sour cream on the side.

Mexican-Style Baked Potatoes

After pouring my heart and soul into the last post, this one is going to be quick and to the point. Baked potatoes. I’ve never met a baked potato I didn’t like. When we go to the Santa Cruz County Fair every September, and we’re famished after watching cows, goats, pigs, and visiting the poultry barn, the baked potato stand is one of the best dinner options and fuels us for the next leg (the tractor display, followed by the harvest barn and the art exhibits – yes, we have a routine. We’ve been doing this for a while). While a baked potato might not compete with a deep-fried Twinkie or Oreo, it’s loaded with flavor from  the cheese, bacon bits, sour cream, and chives. It’s a challenge to eat with a flimsy plastic fork while sitting on a hay bail, but it hits the spot. The baked potato stand also just so happens to be located across from the beer tasting tent, which features a different brewery every night of the fair. Coincidence? If you know us, you know we love beer and a loaded baked potato is a good match for a micro-brew.

As much as we love the traditional toppings for a baked potato (especially the butter), we wanted to go a different route, topping them with crumbled chorizo, cheddar cheese, green onions, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, and cilantro. Don’t forget about the skin, an often neglected part of the potato that’s good for you. We rubbed our potatoes with olive oil and kosher salt before baking, making the skin crisp, flavorful, and irresistible. A simple salad of red leaf lettuce, thinly sliced radishes, and cilantro was a refreshing counterpoint to our loaded Mexican-style baked potatoes, which we enjoyed with a crisp lager. We hope you’ll enjoy these on a weeknight as we did. Load ’em up! They’re much easier to eat at your dining room table than on a hay bail.

Some day you just might be able to enjoy  a baked potato with a sample of our beer at the fair. Crazier things have happened. Have you heard that my parents, my brother, Dustin and myself are opening a brewery this summer? Crazy, huh. Discretion Brewing. We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you really must make these potatoes.

Mexican-Style Baked Potatoes

4 russet potatoes
olive oil
Kosher salt
1/3 lb. Mexian chorizo
cheddar cheese, grated
salsa (we used Roberto’s tomatillo salsa, a local company)
green onions, diced
sour cream
fresh cilantro

  • Rub the potatoes with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Poke several holes in them with a fork. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 1 hour or until you can easily pierce them with a fork.
  • Meanwhile, add a little drizzle of olive oil to a skillet over medium high heat. Add the chorizo and cook until cooked through and lightly browned, using a wooden spoon to break it apart.
  • Cut a slit on the top of each baked potato and split apart. Fill with the cooked, crumbled chorizo, cheddar cheese, guacamole, salsa, green onions, cilantro, sour cream, and cilantro.
  • Dig in. Make you sure you eat the potato skin too. It’s good for you 🙂 And wash it down with your favorite local beer.

Flank Steak Tacos with Chipotle Sour Cream

It’s no coincidence that the last five post titles have the word grilled in them. We’ve been embracing warm evenings and hot coals while we can! A quick rub of cumin, paprika, and hot sauce gives this economical cut of steak lots of flavor. Then you slice it thinly and pile it on top of flour tortillas that have been heated up on the grill. A dollop of chipotle sour cream adds a cooling component with a little heat that sneaks up on you. Other taco toppings are optional, but we thought that guacamole, chopped red onion, and a little crumble of queso fresco were good additions. A pitcher of your favorite sangria wouldn’t hurt either.

While the man in your life ‘mans’ the grill (at least that’s how we roll around here), try this easy cilantro-lime rice to accompany your tacos. Combine 1 cup long grain rice with 1 3/4 cup chicken broth in a sauce pan with a lid. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pot sit (don’t uncover it!) for 10 more minutes. After those 10 minutes are up, stir in a generous handful of chopped cilantro and the juice of 1 small lime. Taste and season with salt. For a little hint of creaminess, try mixing in a spoonful or two of plain sour cream into the rice. Voilà!

Flank Steak Tacos with Chipotle Sour Cream

1 1/2 lbs. flank steak
Cholula (or other favorite hot sauce)
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 chipotle pepper (from a can of chipotle peppers in adobo) + 1 tsp. of the adobo sauce
1 cup sour cream
flour tortillas
Chopped red onion
Queso fresco, crumbled

  • Prepare a charcoal grill for medium-high heat.
  • Season both sides of the flank steak with cumin, paprika, Cholula, salt & pepper (you don’t really need to measure anything – just don’t go overboard on the salt because the Cholula contains salt as well).
  • Finely chop the chipotle pepper and add it to a small bowl with the sour cream. Add the adobo sauce and stir to combine. Season with salt to taste. If it’s too spicy for your taste, add more sour cream until it’s perfect. Set aside.
  • Grill the flank steak until a nice medium rare, about 6-8 minutes per side. Let rest for a few minutes, then slice thinly against the grain. Transfer slices to a serving bowl.
  • Right before eating, put the tortillas on the grill to warm them, just 1 minute or less per side. Transfer tortillas to your plates and pile on the sliced flank steak, a spoonful of the chipotle sour cream, guacamole, chopped red onion, and some queso fresco. Enjoy with cilantro-lime rice!

Grilled Shrimp Tacos with Jalapeño-Ranch Sauce

It’s recipe swap time again! This week’s theme was Mexican. Both of us have been fortunate enough to grow up in California where we have eaten some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, something we missed greatly while we were in Japan, where there wasn’t an enchilada or a torta in sight (nor was there knowledge of either of those things). This recipe was a little different, so I can’t compare it to the tacos I ate at a little stand down in San Diego or Ensenada, but if you put it in a different category, perhaps Tex-Mex or American-Mexican, it’s a meal that definitely delivers on flavor, from the charcoal flavor of the grilled shrimp to the kick of Jalapeño in the zesty ranch sauce.

Ranch isn’t usually a staple in our house, so I was actually excited to have an excuse to buy the seasoning mix from the store and mix it into sour cream. When I added the grilled jalapeño and whirled everything up in a food processor, I decided this would be the perfect dip for potato chips (I may or may not have tried this while Dustin was grilling the shrimp). Next time, I would up the seasoning in the shrimp marinade – definitely more salt and more chili powder/cayenne, and maybe even add something sweet like honey or agave nectar to balance the flavors, but over all, this is a great meal to enjoy in your backyard on a warm evening with a glass of dry white wine. And I’m telling you, that Jalapeño-Ranch sauce just calls out for potato chips!

Grilled Shrimp Tacos with Jalapeño-Ranch Sauce

(From Sarah of A Taste of Home Cooking)

1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined (we used small prawns)
Olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
Chopped garlic
Chili powder or cayenne pepper (or both! We also recommend adding salt & pepper to the marinade)
1 jalapeno
1 packet ranch dressing mix (we used what was labeled “ranch dip seasoning”)
1 cup sour cream
Flour tortillas
Shredded lettuce
Diced tomatoes
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese 
Your favorite hot sauce (we used Cholula)

  • Prepare a charcoal grill.
  • Combine shrimp, olive oil, lime juice, garlic and chili/cayenne in a bowl. Marinate shrimp for up to 30 minutes. Lightly oil the jalapeno and grill until nice and charred on the outside, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then discard the stem and cut in half lengthwise. Discard the seeds.
  • Meanwhile, combine the seeded jalapeno with the ranch mix and the sour cream in a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer sauce to a small bowl and refrigerate until use. Cook the shrimp on the grill until they are done, and have nice grill marks. Warm up the tortillas on the grill.
  • To assemble the tacos: spoon some Jalapeño-Ranch sauce on a tortilla, then top with shrimp (after removing the tails!), shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Drizzle with extra sauce and a few drops of hot sauce.

Camarones a la Diabla

Among many things, my friend Miriam and I share an affinity for making lists, browsing the store Anthropologie, and putting Sriracha on everything (except popcorn; we tried that; too soggy). We also love the same dish at Los Pericos, a taqueria in downtown Santa Cruz – Camarones a la Diabla, shrimp in a spicy, smokey chilie-tomato sauce. It’s the kind of dish that is painful to eat, but so enjoyable that you just keep going. A cold beer helps. Los Pericos serves their fiery shrimp next to cooling guacamole and sour cream (thank goodness), as well as rice, refried beans, corn tortillas, shredded iceburg lettuce, and a slice of (unfortunately pale, flavorless) tomato. But that’s ok because the rest of the dish is zesty and flavorful to make up for this unfortunate garnish. The entrée is a big commitment because of its size, but we usually do pretty well. So, if Los Pericos already makes our perfect spicy meal, why make the dish at home?  Well, because there’s a recipe for Camarones a la Diabla in The Sriracha Cookbook! After our successful Ultimate Sriracha Burgers, we decided to tackle a second recipe from the book together (with the help of our significant others).

What makes Camarones a la Diabla special is the addition of dried chilies in the sauce, three varieties, in fact. They are worth seeking out because their flavor is so unique – smokey, earthy, subtly spicy, and they are really what makes Camarones a la Diabla Camarones a la Diabla. Of course, this recipe includes Sriracha as well, which adds another dimension of flavor, that familiar combination of spicy, sweet, and tangy. We were surprised, though, that the Sriracha flavor wasn’t as prominent in the final dish. Setting the bottle on the table for people to add to taste was a good way to remedy this. We served our version with cilantro-lime brown rice, refried black beans, and a big salad. It was different from Los Pericos’ version; a little sweeter and more tomato-y, and didn’t quite pack as much punch as the recipe promised, but it was still “devilish” enough to keep us coming back for more.

Camarones a la Diabla

(From The Sriracha Cookbook)

6 dried guajillo chilies
4 dried arbol chilies
2 dried ancho chilies
1/3 cup Sriracha
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree
3 tablespoons butter
1 large red onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 pounds tail-on shrimp, peeled and deveined
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (we used cilantro instead; it is a Mexican dish!)
warmed corn tortillas, for serving

  • Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat, 3 minutes per side. They will get really fragrant and their skin slightly charred. While the chilies are toasting, bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  • When the chilies are toasted and the water is boiling, drop the chilies in the boiling water, cover, remove from heat, and let steep for 20 minutes.
  • Drain the chilies, reserving 1/4 cup of the liquid. Discard the seeds and the skins as best you can (I was impatient and tried to do this while they were still kind of hot, which made it difficult). Throw the seeded, skinned chilies into a food processor, along with the reserved liquid, the Sriracha, and 2 TBS. of  the vegetable oil. Puree until smooth, using a spatula to wipe down the sides in between pulses.
  • Place a large pot with a lid on the stove and set a mesh strainer on top (or someone can hold it over the pot for you). Spoon the pureed chile mixture into the strainer and use a wooden spoon to force it through. At first it will seem like there’s not much to push through, but be persistent with the spoon, using a stirring motion, and eventually you’ll end up with a smooth puree at the bottom of the pot.
  • Add the can of tomato puree to the pot. Simmer the tomato/chili mixture over medium heat, 12-15 minutes or until thickened. I found the mixture to already be pretty thick and it started splattering everywhere like crazy (which is why the lid is helpful), so I didn’t simmer it for the full time – maybe only 10 minutes.
  • Heat the butter and the remaining Tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for 6-7 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the shrimp and cook for another minute, stirring, until they get some nice color on them. Add the tomato/chile mixture to the pan with the shrimp, onions, and garlic. Stir to combine and continue cooking until shrimp are cooked through. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve over (or next to) rice and refried beans, and warmed corn tortillas. Makes 6-8 servings.

Taco Night!

Sometimes I wonder what dinners Levi will get excited about when he’s older. I used to (hey, still do!) love pigs-in-a-blanket. My mom would wrap hot dogs in a homemade biscuit dough that had grated cheddar cheese in it. Whenever we make tacos, I think that maybe “Taco night” will be one of those meals that Levi anticipates when he’s old enough to care. In Japan we would stock up on Lawry’s taco seasoning at the import store and treat ourselves to a weekly taco night, but then we discovered we could make our own seasoning blend at home with cumin, chili powder, garlic, and onion powder that was just as good. What makes taco night at our house special is Dustin’s crispy corn shells. I don’t have the patience for frying them, but he does a great job of doing whatever he does with corn tortillas, two forks, and a small frying pan of hot vegetable oil, resulting in the perfect crunchy vessels for seasoned ground meat, guacamole, shredded cheese, and spicy, pickled radishes. Everyone has their version of tacos, but I thought it was time to share ours!

For the Pickled Radishes:

1 small bunch of radishes, thinly sliced
1 small jalapeño, seeded and diced (use 1/2 for less heat, obviously)
1 small lime
agave nectar to taste
salt & pepper to taste

For the Taco Meat:

1 pound ground grass-fed beef
2 cloves garlic, minced
chili powder
onion powder
salt & pepper
a couple splashes of good, medium bodied beer (or water)

For the Crispy Taco Shells:

corn tortillas
vegetable or canola oil

Other Toppings:

grated cheese
chopped green onion

  • In a small, non-reactive bowl, combine the sliced radishes, jalapeño, lime juice, agave nectar, salt & pepper. Stir together and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the meal.
  • In a large skillet over medium high heat, brown the meat, stirring to break it apart with a wooden spoon. Drain fat, if necessary (our ground beef was pretty lean). Add the minced garlic and stir to combine.  Add cumin, chili powder, onion powder, and salt & pepper to taste. Add a couple 2-second pours of beer (or water), and cook, stirring occasionally, for at least 10 minutes, until liquid cooks off and spices are well-incorporated. Taste meat and add more seasonings as necessary.
  • In a small frying pan (wide enough to fit a corn tortilla), add enough vegetable oil so it reaches a depth of about 1/2 an inch. Heat over medium heat. Working with one tortilla at a time, place it down in the pan and use two forks to keep it submerged under the oil for a couple seconds. Then use the forks to flip one side of the tortilla over, forming a shell. Hold it there in the oil until it stays. Flip and fry the other side of the shell. Repeat with as many tortillas as you have. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
  • Fill your shells w/ the seasoned meat, a couple spoonfuls of your favorite homemade guacamole, some grated cheese, a few spoonfuls of spicy, pickled radishes, and some chopped green onion.

Black Bean Tostadas

First order of business: I need to share these pictures of Levi in the snow. Last month we went to Utah for a weekend to celebrate Dustin’s Great-Aunt’s 90th birthday. It was a quick trip, but we still had time to visit several micro-breweries, (the highlights were the Elephino Double IPA from Red Rock Brewing in Salt Lake City, and the Winterfest from Wasatch Brewery in Park City), as well as stick Levi in his snowsuit and plop him down in the snow to see his reaction. It was a mixture of confusion and delight. Then he tasted it 🙂

You know, traveling to other places, whether it’s a few states over or all the way to Japan, really makes us appreciate the abundance of Mexican food that we have here in California. Especially Japan. I think that’s why we used to make quesadillas every day for lunch (with our extremely expensive imported cheese and tortillas), in an attempt to fill that Mexican food void. Now that we’re back at home, any Mexican-inspired dinner feels like comfort food to us. This meal was both comforting and light (aka it didn’t give us that “OMG I just ate 3 chili rellenos and a side of rice & beans; I’m going to die” feeling). Our version of a tostada is a crispy corn tortilla, a thin layer of beans, a thin layer of guacamole, some shredded cheese (next time we’ll use queso fresco, but we didn’t have that on hand this time), and a lightly dressed salad of mixed greens, cilantro, and carrot.

Black Bean Tostadas

(Makes 4 tostadas)

1 TBS. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
a couple splashes of medium-bodied beer (no Coors here, people)
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
ground cumin
1 lime, zested + the juice (divided)
1 avocado
a spoonful of your favorite spicy salsa (here is ours)
2 small handfuls of grated cheese (we used colby jack)
2 handfuls of mixed greens
1 handful of grated carrot
1 handful fresh cilantro
your favorite vinaigrette (we just used olive oil, red wine vinegar, a little agave nectar for sweetness, and salt & pepper)
4 corn tortillas
canola oil for frying

  • Begin by making preparing your “refried” black beans. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add 1/2 the garlic and cook over the low heat so that it can really infuse the oil with flavor, rather than browning too quickly, about 4 minutes. When it starts turning golden, add the black beans and stir to combine. Turn up heat to medium and add a few splashes of whatever (good) beer you’re enjoying while you cook (come on, I’m not the only one who does that), and season with salt, pepper, and cumin to taste. Allow beans to cook for 5-10 minutes. Add the lime zest and stir to combine. Start to mash the beans with a wooden spoon (a “rustic mash” – some of the beans will remain whole-ish, but that’s ok) and continue stirring. Add a little more beer if the skillet becomes dry. When the beans are mashed the way you like them and are seasoned to your liking, turn off the heat and stir in the juice of 1/2 the lime (reserve the other 1/2 for your guacamole). Set aside.
  • Prepare your guacamole. In a small bowl, mash the avocado together with the remaining minced garlic and a spoonful of salsa. Season with salt & pepper. Nice and simple. Set aside.
  • Now, prepare the salad: Combine the mixed greens, grated carrot, and cilantro. Lightly dress with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a little agave nectar (or honey), salt & pepper. Set aside.
  • Heat enough canola oil in a small frying pan so that it reaches a depth of a 1/4 inch. When hot, fry the corn tortillas one at a time, using 2 forks to hold then below the surface of the oil. After a couple minutes, carefully flip the tortilla and continue frying for 1-2 more minutes or until crispy. Let drain on paper towels.
  • Assemble your tostadas: Place a crispy tortilla on your plate, spread a thin layer of black beans, followed by guacamole, a little handful of shredded cheese, and a handful of the salad. Sprinkle with a little more salsa on top of the whole thing if you want a little more heat.

And here was Levi’s version. He had some of the black beans, some guacamole (before I put the salsa in) some corn tortillas (not fried, just heated on the burner), and some carrots that I simmered in a little water with cumin and black pepper until soft. Bon Appetit, little boy!

Some sliced oranges were the perfect accompaniment for our tostadas.