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Counter Intelligence: Authentic Mexican flavors in a packet?

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When time is tight, I love a kitchen shortcut as much as the next guy, but I'm not willing to sacrifice quality and taste just to save a few minutes.

Many time-saving recipe helpers are packaged chemical blends that disguise as food. As the age-old phrase goes, "You are what you eat," and who wants to fill their body with chemicals and preservatives?

I have mostly steered clear of packets and such, until yesterday. As I was navigating through my under-renovation grocery store, a new-looking convenience product caught my eye on the top shelf of the ethnic food aisle.

I instantly recognized the logo -- Frontera -- a mega-famous authentic Mexican restaurant in Chicago. I happen to be a huge fan of the chef, Rick Bayless, and own his entire collection of cookbooks (two of which are signed). I have followed him across North America and am, quite frankly, possibly obsessed.

I'm convinced that this is not an unhealthy obsession. I majored in Latin American history and Spanish, and these books are an exciting extension of my study. My husband (brilliant guy!) gave me my very first Rick Bayless book for Mother's Day when our kids were tiny. I was instantly hooked. This is real Mexican food. The warmth and freshness of the flavors are unparalleled.

Sometimes, though, these recipes can be complex and can consume hours to prepare. There are certainly occasions that warrant this, and I am unashamed to admit that I have happily toiled for hours (days?) to assemble an elaborate Mexican fiesta. My kitchen ceiling is stained from a bubbling pot of mole. I'm OK with this.

But let's just say this scene is not to your particular liking. You may nod in agreement that the sunny flavors of Mexico are among the world's best. However, if there was a simpler way to enjoy these festive dishes, maybe that would be a better option.

It is there. On the top shelf of the ethnic food aisle lies the answer to this conundrum: Frontera Classic Fajita Skillet Sauce. Without hesitation, I tossed it into my cart, then thought to check the ingredients. Good stuff. I'll give it a try.

Back at home, I decided to stray from the instructions on the pouch. This is going in the Crock-Pot. I sliced an onion and cubed a pound of pork loin. Added some dried black beans, the magical seasoning pouch and a can of unsalted diced tomatoes. After tipping in enough water to ensure the beans cooked through, I set the pot on high and walked away. It was noon.

This concoction cooked itself as I went about my day. At 6 p.m. I checked it -- the beans were tender, the pork was falling apart and the sauce was totally delicious. Easy. No stains on the ceiling. Rave reviews from the family, and I think you'll agree.

Mexican Pork Stew

A few fresh ingredients mingle with a magical sauce to make a memorable stew -- perfect on a chilly night, or make a double batch for the sports crowd. Makes 6 servings.

1 medium onion, sliced

1 pound pork loin, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup dried black beans, rinsed

1 pouch Frontera Classic Fajita Skillet Sauce (see note)

2 1/2 cups water

14 1/2-ounce can unsalted diced tomatoes

COMBINE all ingredients in a Crock-Pot.

COOK on high for 6 hours, or low for 8 to 10 hours.

SERVE with rice, if desired.

Note: If you are unable to find this product, you can order online from www.fronterafiesta.com.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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