January 28, 2010

Mexico in January

I had the steaks, I had the tortillas.

When I told my husband what we were having for dinner he looked at me quizzically and said, "is there cheese involved?" Ahhh, sometimes men are so damn easy to please - a little meat, a little cheese that's all it takes. So yes, there is cheese, but the star of the show is the Tomatillo Salsa Fresca. If you've never worked with or even bought a tomatillo please run out to remedy that! They are wonderful little treasures and taste like a lemony tomato. Choose one much in the same way you would a tomato. You want a ripe yet firm tomatillo, too soft and they're mealy in texture, too firm and their citrusy flavor borders on bitter.

I served this with beans and rice, but really, they're quite filling all on their own. This will serve two to three people nicely.

Soft Steak Tacos with Tomatillo Salsa Fresca

For Salsa:
4 large tomatillos, diced (if you can't find them, 4 small to medium tomatoes would work as well)
2 small firm yet ripe avocados, diced
1/2 medium white onion, diced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tbs hot sauce (I really love Crystal brand hot sauce from Louisiana)
1 tbs white vinegar
1 large lime, juiced
1 tbs kosher salt (if using normal table salt, then 1 tsp)

-Combine everything in a bowl - NOT METAL! The metal will oxidize the avocados and make everything sort of gray. This is one of those things that is fully customizable. Want it spicier, add more hot sauce. If you like more cilantro or more lime, have at it.
-Set aside

For Tacos:
8 thin sandwich steaks, sliced
2 packages of Sazon (a hispanic seasoning that you can find at the grocery store)
1 tbs of oil for cooking (more if you need it)
6-8 flour tortillas
Queso blanco (a crumbly white Mexican cheese, any brand will do)

-Cook tortillas directly on the oven burner, flipping it with tongs when one side has browned. If you have an electric stove stop, you can heat them in an oven or toaster oven. Set aside
-Heat oil in pan
-Sprinkle the steak with the sazon seasoning and mix together well
-Sear quickly in batches

Put all the parts on the table and let people build their own taco. Meat, salsa and cheese... it really doesn't get much tastier than that!

January 26, 2010

Cooking with Jesus

I go into a different state when I cook. The rhythm of the chopping knife, the feel of a wooden spoon stirring, the sound of sauces bubbling away… for a moment I’m in that place Whirling Dervishes must visit as they spin – a place that’s complete and whole, focused and at ease.

On one of my first dates with my husband, I made a grilled cheese sandwich – it turned out to be the most important grilled cheese sandwich of my life. The very act of cooking for a man I was dating was nothing new for me, but it was for him. No woman had ever cooked just for him before. That simple grilled cheese sandwich meant more than cheese and bread to him. Although I’m sure he couldn’t pinpoint it at the time, my cooking for him and continuing to do so, feels like the manifestation of my love.

He would love me without the food, I know that, but it’s the cooking that has made us a family. It’s the cooking that has grounded and given us a sense of home in our Brooklyn rental apartment. Either one of us could get a job in Topeka, Kansas tomorrow. We would pack up our stuff and drop it off under our new roof unsure of what was to come. I know that foreign roof simply wouldn’t be home until I made us dinner.

Spirituality is what comes to us when we least expect it, just like love. I know how to find my bliss. I know that if the world is pounding on my head, if everything is upside down and I feel like screaming, there is fire and a big pot on the stove to silence the noise. There is some indefinable need that draws me to the kitchen - it’s a calling, it’s that insistent burning bush.

We live in a world of great beauty - it’s easy to forget that sometimes. It’s harder yet to remember that while we can’t control the world around us, we can control the world inside us. I wouldn’t know what to say to Jesus if I bumped into him, but I would invite him over to dinner in a heartbeat.

You can meditate and pray, you can cry and light candles, but I'll be turning on my stove and taking out my chopping board. My inner God, Shiva, Buddha, Shekinah, and Mother Earth shimmer like water hitting hot oil in a pan and my prayers are always answered.


January 21, 2010

How the Mighty are Falling...

Oh Tony! WHY?

The Hubs and I were watching the latest No Reservations last night in which Tony travels to Istanbul (thank you, DVR). Things were going well, very well. We were hungry and ready to book our flights when GASP! Out of nowhere we were confronted with an awful, terrible, realization... Anthony Bourdain has sold out?

I know he has done some credit card commercials in the past which I was willing to overlook, because in this day and age, you can't look the corporate sponsor gift horse in the mouth. That being said, when Tony said he'd "pay for dinner" and whipped out the Chase Sapphire Card; and when the camera paused on the card, freezing-framing it perfectly, both my and the Duke's jaws dropped in abject horror! NOOOOOOO! The last bastion of snarky, anti-establishment, bad boy foodies has just succumbed to the Rachel Ray effect.

I can't imagine he was all that thrilled with the moment either, but that's neither here nor there since the painful, cringe-worthy shot made its way on screen. I won't stop watching because lets be honest, he's still awesome - but man-oh-man he ain't gonna make it easy for me. Now every time I watch, I'll be waiting for the offensive Chase Sapphire moment. It's kind of like waiting for Jack Nicholson to burst through the door in The Shining and yell "heeeere's Johnny!" Oh, you know it's coming... you just can't remember exactly when because it's been a while since you last watched it.

I was pondering all that this morning and a wonderful comedy moment came to mind. There was a brilliant bit that Dennis Leary did years ago (1997 to be exact) about coffee flavored coffee. Since I couldn't find a still of the offending No Reservations moment, I've posted this instead. I hope you enjoy the simple truth and perfect snark of the bit, because my friends, snark's days are apparently numbered.

PS the clip isn't censored, there is explicit language and behavior.

January 19, 2010

Pondering Foam or: Get That Scum Off My Steak!

I find myself of two minds when it comes to foams, essence, and Molecular Gastronomy in general. On the one hand, isn’t it just a natural evolution of culinary exploration? On the other, why do I need flash frozen celery root puree on my plate?

More and more there seems to be two teams when it comes to modern cooking. The first is the back to the farm route. Let’s re-discover the local veggies together. Let’s lovingly feed and take care of dear old Betsy before we slaughter her humanely and grill her up on Sunday. I love that restaurants now have their own gardens that they pick from and that attention is finally being paid to the local fish monger and cheese maker. Let’s not mess with nature more than necessary and please let me simply roast that chicken and present it with grilled heirloom tomatoes on the side. Yes, say’s I - I’d enjoy that greatly!

The second camp is also equally thrilled to have Farmer Joe supply them with the most superb fresh and seasonal goodies. Camp two, however, would sooner make that farm fresh spring chicken taste like salmon than let it be. Gasp at the simplicity! Roasted? What, that’s it? No mango essence or shitake gelatin? For my money, if I wanted chicken that tasted like salmon I’d have salmon thank you very much! To many though, the novelty of it all is too appealing.

Am I being fair though? Is it more than novelty? To me the foams wreak of self indulgence… the bad kind. Nothing screams more of ‘ooo Mommy, look what I can do!’ than sweet potato foam on your perfectly lovely untainted Leek Soup. But then again, I could say that about many things – the I-Phone for example. Let’s be truly honest with ourselves. Do we actually need a phone that can calculate how much the tip for your grilled cheese and ginger ale would be in Dubai? No, no of course you don’t. That didn’t stop you from finding out though, did it? (I’ll give you a minute to open your tip calculator…)

Why is it that I so readily accepted upgrading everything to Blu-Ray, but the words ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ make me wince? I think answer is pretty simple. A movie actually does look better in 1080-I, the experience is absolutely enhanced. However, since when has an oyster been improved by being suspended in a passion fruit jelly that has been infused with lavender as Heston Blumenthal, Michelin rated chef of ‘The Fat Duck’ in England has done? I can’t say very much, but then again, having never indulged in such foppery, I can’t rightfully comment on the matter.

I will say this: I think the Molecular Gastronomist is a brave and creative soul. In terms of thinking outside the box, they all get a well deserved A+. They also may very well be the future of the culinary world, some would argue they already are. All that being said - when the foam deflates, the flash frozen celery root purée melted, and mango essence turns bitter, wouldn’t you rather have a chicken that taste like… a chicken?

January 11, 2010

Martha's Split pea Soup

I am a Martha-lover. I always have been. Say what you want about the woman, she's meticulous and I've never met a Martha recipe that didn't work. To that point, this is a perfect Split Pea Soup. I don't fuss with it at all or change anything (although she makes crotons with it and I don't. If you go to her site and look at the recipe, you can just ignore that part if you like). Anytime I make a ham, I make it knowing there will be days of divine soup to come. By the way when I make ham, all I do is buy a pre-cooked spiral cut. I stick cloves through it and drizzle a combination of dark brown sugar with just enough Dr. Pepper or other soda to make a thick glaze, then pour it over. Bake it at 375 for about 30 minutes for something really irresistible. Once you're done picking at the ham, try out this recipe, you won't be disappointed.

Split Pea Soup
1 tbs olive oil
1 chopped medium yellow onion
4 carrots, thinly sliced
3 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 tbs dried thyme
Salt and ground pepper
14.5 ounces chicken broth (1 can)
1 bag (16 ounces) green split peas
Ham bone plus 2 cups of cubed ham
2 tbs fresh lemon juice (I like much more lemon than that. In fact I think it's the lemon that makes the soup so damn good)

-In a Dutch oven or 5-quart heavy pot with lid, heat oil.
-Add onion, celery, carrots, thyme; season with salt and pepper, cook until they begin to soften, about 8 minutes.
-Add broth, split peas, ham bone, and 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to med-low, and partially cover. Simmer until peas are soft about 30-45 minutes.
-Remove and discard ham bone. You can either blend half of the soup in a blender or food processor in batches, or use an immersion blender. Then return the blended soup to the pot.
-Add the cubed ham and simmer until heated through. Add lemon juice and adjust the salt and pepper to your liking. If it's too thick, thin it out with some more broth.

*I like to serve this with some light sour cream on the side. It's even better the next day of course, but it will have to be thinned out when you reheat it with some more water or broth.

January 8, 2010

The Perfect Sprout

So... are they brussels on their sprouts? Or sprouts on their brussels?

Brussel sprouts are one of those veggies, along with Lima Beans, that people either love or hate (personally, I love both). Roasting is my favorite way too cook them, indeed I think most vegetables are at their best when roasted. To that end, you could easily adapt this recipe to asparagus, string beans, cauliflower and numerous others.

Even my husband will eat a vegetable if it's roasted! Now that's a miracle... between you and I though, I'm warring him down - he looks forward to asparagus season now. 

Brussel Sprouts
2 lbs of brussel sprouts, cleaned of outer leaves and a shallow cross cut into their bases (this is to allow them  to cook. For such little things they're dense and unless being boiled, won't cook evenly without the cut. Also, slice any particularly large ones in half)
1 tbs of olive oil (it's just barely enough to cover the sprouts while they roast to aid the cooking process. If you find you need a tad more to cover the sprouts evenly, do so, but you don't want them anything close to dripping with oil)
2 tbs butter (as always you can use the "fake stuff" i.e. Smart Balance or the like, that's what I use)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup of chopped, toasted nuts (I used pecans because I had them, but feel free to use almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts... whatever you like)
Salt & Pepper

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees
-Place brussel sprouts on roasting pan and toss with oil, salt and pepper
-Bake for about 30 or so minutes, the sprouts should have some nice brown color and when pierced should be cooked through
-Put sprouts in serving bowl and toss with the butter while still warm so that it melts
-Add lemon juice and nuts
-Adjust seasoning. They might need more salt, they might need more lemon too

*You can serve this hot, cold, or room temp. They're great the next day too - if there are any left that is.

January 7, 2010

How NOT to fail at Pecan Pie

My dear sister-in-law has recently discovered that cooking, specifically baking, calms her nerves and puts everything in perspective. Personally, I couldn't agree more. There is something to be said for watching something slowly rise from nothing more than eggs, flour and sugar.

Although in college, she has a working kitchen in her suite and has begun exploring all things food. BRAVO! She told me recently about epically failing at making a Pecan Pie. She must have had an awful recipe because Pecan Pie is one of those things that everyone loves, and should be really easy to make. So this is for her.

Hands down, the best Pecan Recipe I've ever encountered is from the Silver Palate Cookbook. By the way, this should be a staple in everyone's library along with their second book, The Good Times Cookbook. A further nod to the wonderful Sheila Lukins, one of the authors of these great books, who unfortunately just recently passed away. I hope she's enjoying platters of delicious things wherever she may be.

Pecan Pie
Pie Crust (either homemade or bought. Pre-bake it in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes. You don't want it completely cooked, but because the pecan pie is dense, you want the bottom of the crust to get a head start in the baking process)
4 eggs
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 stick butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 bag raw whole pecans (6oz or between 1 1/2 to 2 cups)

-Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees
-Melt butter and set aside
-Whisk eggs very well
-Add sugar, corn syrup, salt, vanilla to eggs and mix well
-Slowly add butter to the filling while mixing
-Place pecans in the pie crust and add the filling (this is going to be easier if you add the filling while the pie is already in the oven, you avoid that messy walk to the oven while something liquidly is in your hands)
-Bake pie at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn the oven to 325 while pie is still in oven
-Bake pie for another 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, not liquidly

*A WARNING! Let it cool for at least 15-20 minutes. Pecan Pie can burn through lead when hot!