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Cinco de Mayo-style Steak Fajita Bowls and Homemade Guacamole! (UPDATED)

I said I would post this recipe later in the week, and I wasn’t just holding out–I was waiting to make it perfectly opportune for Cinco de Mayo!  If you’re not doing a big Cinco party, that’s no problem; you can still have a fun, Mexican-themed dinner at home!

I’m talking about yummy (and healthy!) steak fajita bowls with homemade guacamole!  To put these bowls together, you’ll need to start with the following:

Steak Fajita Bowls

1-2 cups Rice (I used brown basmati rice, and it’s great stuff! I’m falling in love with bulk bins.) Use as much as you need for the number of people you have–for 2 people, about a cup of dry rice should be good.  You can also use instant rice.
1 sweet bell pepper (any color, but orange was the pick of the day)
Half a red onion
1-2 cloves fresh garlic
2 small skirt steaks
Steak marinade (Now, you can of course make your own marinade, but, in all honesty, I took a shortcut and used a bottled fajita marinade from Wegmans. I did get one with pretty few ingredients, though–the fewer, the better.)
Salsa (Also purchased this, but not jarred–I got a fresh medium-heat salsa from Wegman’s salsa bar)
Manchego cheese, shredded*
1-2 fresh limes
Jalapenos (optional) (I did not use, Kevin did)
Fresh cilantro (optional) I didn’t use any this time, which is a shock for anyone who knows me and my borderline-obsession with cilantro. I’d recommend it.
Homemade guacamole (recipe below)

*Manchego cheese is a firm Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. It’s nutty and one of my all-time favorites.  However, it can be expensive. So, if you want a similar flavor, you can pick up some fresh Pecorino or, for something different but still fitting, you can get any good Mexican-style cheese, like Monterey jack, cheddar or pepper jack if you like a kick.

First things first, get the steaks marinating. I like to out the steaks in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag with the marinade. Seal the bag and mix it around so the meat is evenly covered in the marinade. Place the bag in a dish or other container and put it in the fridge to marinate while you do everything else.

Next, get water boiling for the rice.  Start with a one-to-one ratio of water to rice–watch it as it cooks, you may have to add more water as it goes.

Meanwhile, slice the pepper and half the onion and mince the garlic. Set aside a bit of the onion (about a teaspoon or two) and dice. Once the water boils, add the diced onion and about a teaspoon or less of the garlic. Add the rice and let it cook approximately 30 minutes.  (This varies depending on the type of rice you use–if it has a package, follow package directions.)  Add juice of half a lime into rice and water as it cooks.

While the rice is cooking, prep your cook surface for the steak–I used my George Foreman since my outdoor grill’s not up and running yet. You can cook the steak however you’d like–grill, pan, oven, broil. Just make sure you get the cooktop (or oven) nice and preheated. If using a grill (indoor or out), preheat to about a medium heat.

Go ahead and prepare the guacamole ahead of time (recipe below).

**Make sure you’re checking on the rice! Once it’s cooked through, fluff with a fork and add more lime juice, stir it in. If using cilantro, chop and add a handful into the cooked rice and stir through.

Now it’s time to get that steak on the grill! Take the steak out of the bag, and place on the grill or cooktop. Grill the steak on medium heat for about 3-5 minutes per side (depending on the level of doneness you like.) If using a George Foreman, grill about 5-7 minutes total. Remove from heat and put steaks on a plate. Let it rest for at least 10 minutes. Once rested, slice steak into bite-sized strips.

Get a frying or sautee pan hot on the stove with a little bit of oil. Add the peppers, onions and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Sweat the vegetables in the oil until just tender-crisp. Add some lime juice and sautee with the vegetables. Once they’re tender-crisp, remove from heat.

Now, time to assemble! Start by putting a scoop or two of rice in a bowl. Top with veggies and steak, then add all the fixins’: salsa, guacamole and jalapenos. Shred Manchego cheese over the top and sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Delicioso! Now this is a fiesta!

Homemade Guacamole

I have a few secrets about my guacamole that I will share with you. First off, I use dried spices in my guac–dried garlic and dried onion. I find that the fresh, raw garlic and onion flavor is too strong and offputting in the guacamole and kind of overwhelms everything else. Using those ingredients dried still gives the flavor without being overbearing.

Instead of adding freshly diced tomatoes and other various seasonings, I add a tablespoon or two of prepared salsa (whichever I’m using in my dish.) This way, you get tomato, onion, cilantro jalapenos and whatever other flavors are in the salsa. Using a nice chunky, fresh salsa is best. Sometimes, when using jarred salsas, the flavor is there, but the salsa is very thick and red, and the two colors (red and green) mix to create a sometimes-offputting brownish hue.

Also, I use one spice that seems a little unexpected in a guacamole–just a pinch of lemon pepper. You don’t have to use it, but I love the flavor it adds.

Anyway, you’ll need:

1/2 a fresh avocado (a full avocado if making this for a crowd)
1-2 tbsp prepared salsa
Juice of 1/4 to 1/2 of a lime
Dried garlic
Dried onion powder or dried diced onion
Pinch of lemon pepper seasoning
1-2 tsp Chopped cilantro

To halve an avocado, take a large knife and cut along the middle of the avocado, along the outside. Avocados have a huge pit in the middle, so you have to cut around it. Twist the two halves to separate. Hit the knife into the pit with a bit of force and twist to remove. Scoop the avocado flesh out of the skin and mash with a fork. Add lime juice to soften and keep from oxidizing (turning brown.) Once mashed, add salsa and continue to mix/mash to get the desired consistency. Add spices and mix, tasting as you go. Add any salt and pepper and adjust spices if necessary. Mix in chopped cilantro, add a bit more lime juice and serve.

*To store leftover guacamole or avocado, sprinkle some diced red onion over the top, seal in a bowl with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. The onion helps prevent oxidation and keeps the avocado fresh and green! When you’re ready to serve again, either brush off the onion or mix it into your guac.*

This makes a fun, healthy and oh-so-tasty dinner any night of the week, but it’s especially fun for a Mexican-inspired Cinco de Mayo meal. If you’re really feeling the Cinco spirit, go check out my post on fun margaritas to pair with your meal. Or just pair it with a citrusy, summery beer like I did!

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Thai-Style Lettuce Wraps: It all started with a jar of peanut butter

A jar of spicy peanut butter, to be exact. My mom bought Kevin a jar of Peanut Butter & Co. “The Heat is On” peanut butter as a stocking stuffer this holiday season, and ever since, I’ve been dying to make some kind of Thai-style peanut butter sauce with it.

Peanut Butter & Co. "The Heat is On" spicy peanut butterBetween the two of us (Kevin and I), we decided to make Thai-style lettuce wraps inspired by the ones at the Cheesecake Factory. (Side note: yes, I know it’s a chain, yes I know most of its menu is terrible for you. Nonetheless, those lettuce wraps are awesome. And Kevin’s favorite.) I found various recipes online for all the components, and made some changes along the way. Inevitably, with that many parts, there were some successes–and some failures. (See: peanut sauce. More on that later.)

As I said, there were several components to this recipe. So, to start, here’s the breakdown:

Boston or bibb lettuce leaves (for the wraps)
Thai-marinated grilled chicken
Spicy peanut sauce
Thai sweet chili sauce
Coconut curry noodles
Marinated cucumbers

Extras:
Chopped green onions
Cilantro
Rainbow salad

For many of these, I used recipes based on the actual lettuce wraps served at the restaurant. The rest I found on other Web sites, and some I tweaked.

First things first, make the marinade for the chicken and let the it sit while you prepare other components.

Thai-marinated grilled chicken

1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts (I used about 1.1 lbs)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cloves garlic, minced (or pressed)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons water
Pour all ingredients (except chicken) into a large shallow dish or large plastic zip-top bag. (I used the bag method.) Add chicken and stir or toss to coat. Set in fridge to marinate for at least 30 minutes.Marinating chickem
To cook, remove chicken from marinade and place on either a grill, grill pan or indoor grill (I used a George Foreman grill.) If you don’t have access to a grill, go ahead and cook in a pan. During cooking, brush or baste with extra marinade. If using a traditional grill or pan, turn chicken halfway through cooking (just a few minutes on each side, depending on thickness of chicken.) If using a George Foreman or some other kind of press, leave in to cook for about 5 minutes, or until completely white inside.
Remove from cooktop and let rest for a few minutes before cutting into small strips.
Cooked chicken
While the chicken marinates, go   ahead and start making the other components of the dish. I made the marinated  cucumbers next so they could sit in the fridge for some time, as well. (Note: This recipe came from the blog “Meemo’s Kitchen” and I followed it exactly as is. And they were delicious! The marinade would actually make a great salad dressing on its own.)
Marinated cucumbers
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon course ground black pepper
1 large cucumber seeded
In a small pan, combine vinegar, sugar, water and salt; cook over medium heat, stirring, until liquid boils and sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Peel or score cucumber, if desired and cut lengthwise into quarters; then cut quarters crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Place in a serving bowl, pour marinade over cucumbers; stir to blend. If made ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

Cucumber marinade/dressing

Now the chicken and the cucumbers are marinating and its time to move on to the sauces and the noodles. First, the spicy peanut sauce:
I adapted this recipe from two recipes that I combined, and I added the spicy peanut butter in addition to the regular to give it more of a kick. I actually had to make this sauce twice, though, as the first attempt was an utter disaster. (Yes, I see the irony there.) When I first followed the recipe as it read, the sauce became thick and caramel-like and I had to add water and vinegar as it cooked to bring it to a sauce-like consistency. Then the sauce separated and took on a very unpleasant texture, and it was too spicy for my taste. (Originally I used half spicy peanut butter and half regular. If you like heat, you can still try that ratio, but for me it was too much.)
The second time around with the new adapted recipe worked much better, though the sauce still thickened more than I would have liked as it sat and was not nearly as smooth as I expected. By the time we ate, it had only a slightly thinner consistency than regular peanut butter. It tasted great, but we had to spread it on the lettuce rather than drizzle it over. So, this is the adapted recipe I used, but I’m still searching for a better recipe for a smoother, thinner peanut sauce. (If anyone knows of one, please pass it along!) In the meantime, I’ll have to use trial-and-error.

Failed peanut sauce--Take 1

Spicy peanut sauce
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
3/4 tablespoon spicy peanut butter (or 1 full tablespoon to up the spice)
3 1/4 tablespoons regular peanut butter (or 3 to 1)
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over low to medium heat. Continue stirring over heat until mixture is combined and smooth and thoroughly heated through. Remove from heat and transfer to serving bowl.
Of course, if you want this recipe less spicy or don’t have spicy peanut butter on hand (because, really, I know it’s not common to), use 4 tablespoons (or 1/4 cup) regular peanut butter and add spices if desired. Try chili powder or chili oil, garlic, cayenne, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and/or ginger.

Peanut sauce Take 2--Success!

The second sauce, the sweet chili sauce, was also a tweaked recipe. I couldn’t find any red hot chiles in the produce aisle of my supermarket or any plain red chili paste. So we bought one Serrano chili and one green long hot. Most recipes also call for cornstarch as a thickener to create a more gelatinous texture, but we didn’t use it and created a more vinaigrette-style sauce. We grated down the chiles to create something almost paste-like and so there were no large pieces of chili since the original recipe I worked from called for chili paste.
Thai sweet chili sauce
1 fresh Serrano chili, grated
1 fresh long hot pepper, grated
2 teaspoons minced (or pressed) garlic
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Combine everything except cilantro in a small sauce pan and mix. Once blended, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool and stir in cilantro. Sweet chili sauce
If you want the thickened sauce, add 4 teaspoons of cornstarch to the recipe with everything else in the saucepan. As it cooks down, the cornstarch will thicken the sauce to create more of a dipping sauce than a dressing.
Finally, the last component of the dish is the coconut curry noodles. Again, I adapted this recipe by paring it way down, but it still came out tasty. I made mine with only part of the noodles in the package, but I ended up with way more sauce than noodles and they were a bit over-saturated, so I recommend using the entire package to create a more even noodle-to-sauce ratio.
Coconut curry noodles
1 package flat rice or egg noodles (I used rice noodles)
1 tablespoon minced (or pressed) garlic
1 cup coconut milk + extra for topping
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock (I used vegetable)
1/2 tablespoon to 1 tablespoon curry powder (based on taste)
1/2 tablespoon to 1 tablespoon soy sauce (again based on taste)
1 tablespoon lime juice
Coconut curry noodles
Separate noodles in hot water, as per instructions on the packet. Drain & keep warm. In a medium saucepan, heat the coconut milk on low heat. When it begins to simmer, add in the remaining ingredients. Heat and stir approximately 2 minutes to heat through. Stir in the noodles, drain any excess sauce and serve. If desired, toss with more coconut milk before serving. (I felt it needed more coconut flavor, so I added some more coconut milk and it helped.)
To serve the lettuce wraps, tear full leaves off of a head of Boston lettuce for the wraps and fill with the ingredients however you’d like. Add some bagged rainbow salad (carrot, broccoli, cabbage) or any other vegetables you’d like–bean sprouts, grated carrots and shredded cabbage would work well. Chop plenty of green onions and fresh cilantro for topping.
All in all, it took about two hours from start to finish, including remaking the peanut sauce. It was a lot of work, but so worth it in the end. All of the components of the dish work wonderfully together, and I really believe that is the point. Some of the parts tasted only okay on their own (I kept trying to figure out what the noodles were missing, and the sauces were pretty spicy) but when put together, magic. Crunchy, fresh, spicy, sweet and exotic.

It took all this...

It was a lot of work and time, and I can still see the appeal of going out for Thai food, but it was definitely an experience, and when you consider the amount of leftovers I have (at least one or two more meals’ worth), the time involved doesn’t seem so bad. Also, some of the individual components can make good meals on their own–the marinated chicken would be delicious with just some veggies and rice; the cucumber marinade would make a great dressing. So go ahead and try making some Thai-style food at home. It’s refreshing, delicious and fun!

...to get this. The finished product. Yum!

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