Monday, December 14, 2009

The Best Guacamole

Everyone has a “best” recipe of some sort in their repertoire. My mother has a famous cheesy potato dish. My friend Adam makes a kick-ass quiche. I, on the other hand, don’t have one best anything yet, but one that I intend to make and be loved very much by others, is guacamole.

Via my friend Kris, owner of a successful cooking school, restaurant and culinary tourism business in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (www.mexicocooks.com), where I lived and assisted for six weeks, I have learned the BEST way to make guacamole. The secret isn’t so much in the ingredients, although that is obviously a key part, it’s in the process. Because I am so enamored with this secret, I will not keep it one. Read on dear reader, read on.

Until I came to Mexico, I had seen molcahetes before (pronounced mool-ka-he-tay) but had never known their name. Molcahetes are a mortar and pestle combo (pictured at left; thanks Wikipedia!) made of volcanic rock. The rough surface is perfect for grinding ingredients, and great for making a paste, one of the first steps and secrets to making a great guacamole. Plus, it’s a great presentation piece — you can serve the guacamole right in this dish.

The recipe is below, but here’s the scoop on the mystery process. To begin, make a paste in the molcajete of three very key flavor ingredients: finely chopped white onion, seeded and minced serano chile, and salt. In paste form, the flavor of these three ingredients permeates the entire dip. Never again will you get a big bite of raw onion or hot pepper when you heave a scoop up on your tortilla chip. Instead, the flavors become silky and smooth and work their way throughout the other ingredients.

After that, it’s business as usual. Add in your avocados, tomatoes, cilantro and lime juice and gently mix with a spoon or fork. Aside from the avocados, it’s best not to smash these ingredients as a little chunkiness adds great texture.

If you don’t have an extra molcajete lying around, you could probably get a similar effect from a basic mortar and pestle or food processor. I guarantee it’ll be worth the effort — just try it. I know I look forward to many happy meals of the best guacamole I’ve ever had.

Kris’s Guacamole
1/2 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon of salt or to taste
3 ripe avocados
2 tablespoons cilantro
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped

1. Combine the first three ingredients together in a molcajete and mash into smooth paste (use a mortar and pestle or food processor if a molcajete isn’t available).

2. Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Scoop the flesh out and add to the onion-chile-salt paste. Mash with a fork until somewhat smooth.

3. Stir in cilantro, lime juice and tomatoes. Serve with chips or vegetables.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Few of my Favorite Things

But first, you know that song about favorite things? Here’s a verse to jog your memory:

Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with string
These are a few of my favorite things

If I had written this song (originally from The Sound of Music, as the reader may know), instead of whiskers and mittens, I would have artfully crafted verses using a few of my favorite…flavors. Namely, red onions, cilantro, corn, tomatoes, salt and lime. For me, there is truly nothing better, especially when you combine all those flavors together. You just can’t beat their bright freshness.

With that, you can imagine my utter joy when I discovered the perfect little street snack in Cuenca, Ecuador: Choch. Imagine a small plastic bag filled with different types of cooked corn and beans in tomato broth with red onions, cilantro and salty fried plantain chips on top with a squeeze of fresh lime juice to finish it off. Delicious! All for about 25 cents. I couldn’t get enough of it.

For me, when life’s proverbial dog bites or bee stings, as the song goes, I will simply seek out a snack of my favorite flavors, and then I won’t feel so bad.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Frutas Colombianas

I am convinced that the fruit in Colombia is some of the most exciting in the world. Exciting for its taste and flavor, as well as for the vast variety available. On any given day, street vendors selling smoothies and fruit salads will have 10 to 12 options available. Think guava, pineapple, star fruit, orange, banana, papaya, strawberry, watermelon, cantaloupe and mango. Beyond that there’s zapote, which has the consistency and flavor of a sweet potato, guanabana, which is a sweet/sour fruit with edible seeds, maracuya with its complex flavors, which tastes to me like a spicy fruit tart, and several others. When selecting the fruits for a smoothie, there are literally a bajillion options to choose from. Beyond your fruit choice (it is perfectly acceptable and encouraged to choose several fruits to make your own glorious combination), you also must choose milk or water base, sugar or no sugar added. It’s wonderful! And the whole affair costs about $1.

Beyond the variety available, what boggles my mind is the freshness of the fruits. Each morning (or at least most mornings), through a very basic and rudimentary supply chain, fresh fruits are delivered to each vendor. Now, here’s my question: In a country of rural hard-to-get-to areas without much of a highway system, where refrigeration is expensive and uncommon, and where most things happen slowly without a schedule, how does fresh fruit make its way to rustic roadside vendors the country over? Part of the answer is that most all of the fruit is very fresh, and raised locally. What a region grows, it sells. But this isn’t always true. Some fruits, I learned, grow better in cooler, drier climates away from the coast, and some are best in hot, wet jungles, right on the water. And somehow the vendors I visited always had a little of each. The other part of the answer is creative modes of transportation. I witnessed this firsthand on a regional bus between towns in Northern Colombia. There (and many places), instead of designated stops, buses pick up passengers wherever they are flagged down. In this case, a man with two enormous mesh bags of bananas still clustered together on the stalk flagged the bus down and got on (I had the privilege to sit on one of the bags, which were left in the aisles since all seats were taken, as I gave up my seat to an elderly passenger and the trip was long). At the banana man’s stop, he hoisted his bags down and loaded them onto the roof of a waiting cab, who promptly took off toward town, presumably to make a delivery. Interesting stuff, I thought, and, for better or worse, SO DIFFERENT than what we’d see in the U.S.

One could say the fruits of Colombia are as colorful as its people. Everywhere we went, people were glad to see us and welcomed a couple of goofy American backpackers (I was traveling with my boyfriend) to their country. While I’m sure they were most happy because we were there to spend our dollars, I believe they were also genuinely amicable people happy to strike up a conversation. Case in point: One morning we spent some time with one of the lady fruit vendors and talked about our familiarity with some of her fruits. She told us the names of all the fruits in Spanish, and let us sample whatever we’d like. We named off some of the fruits that we knew grew in the states (oranges, pineapples, bananas, watermelon), then we got into a discussion about some of the more exotic fruits (maracuya, guanabana, zapote) that we knew were probably available in the U.S. though not necessarily grown there. My mind immediately wandered to Whole Foods and other fancy grocery stores, thinking I could find most anything I wanted among the heaps of gleaming fresh produce at the ready most any time of year. And that thought hit me like a giant mesh bag of bananas: What a difference! Could this kind, smiling Colombian woman even for one second imagine what I was imagining? It made me acutely aware of the economic and developmental differences between our two countries, and I was glad for it. While we may be able to get most anything in the major cities of our vast country, at that moment, all I needed and wanted was to enjoy a smoothie of super fresh fruits on the side of the road in Colombia.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Potato Chip Phenomenon

When traveling, visiting a foreign supermarket is a great way to find out how a nation eats. From the produce section to the meat department, there´s always something interesting to see.

Checking out the convenience food aisle and more specifically the various chip flavors available is something I always try to do. The varieties available typically shed a little light on the most popular flavor profiles of a place. On a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, I noticed pollo (chicken) flavored chips (pictured), which was a new one for me. Considering the ubiquity of chicken on restaurant menus and in markets, this isn´t surprising. The chips were salty, with a faint chicken brothy taste much like ¨Chicken in a Biskit¨ crackers we have in the states. Besides chicken, the other most popular flavor is lime, which I prefer. Colombians love their limes and most meals are served with a quarter or half lime to squeeze over the food. The acid adds a brightness to everything from soup to plantains to rice.

This potato chip phenomenon holds true in other countries as well. In Greece, oregano flavored chips are most popular. Oregano is common in all sorts of dishes in Greece. In fact, its scent even permeates the open air as the herb grows wild there. And in Spain, ham flavored chips reign supreme, revealing Spaniards wild love affair with the pig.

In my experience, there typically aren´t a zillion chip options to choose from in other countries. There are a few favorite flavors, and a plain option, but that´s about it.

What chip flavor sums up our flavor profile in the U.S.? Barbecue? Sour Cream & Onion? Perhaps the availability of so many kinds of chip varieties reveals that we are a nation of too many choices and too much excess. Or maybe it shows that we are a melting pot of cultures and tastes, to which chip manufacturers cater to.

Who knows. For now, and for the rest of my trip around South America, I´m content to live the simple life, with just a few flavors to choose from when my junk food craving calls.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Red Carrots

At the farmer’s market the other day, I was amazed and awed by one vendor’s carrots. They were ruby red to deep purple with healthy knotty knobs exploding from the sides. I don’t think I’ve thought this about many root vegetables before, but these carrots were beautiful. I asked the vendor about them, and apparently a wet spring combined with a cool summer is the perfect weather combination for glorious root vegetables.

I bought the carrots pictured a few weeks later at another market. They weren’t quite as lovely as the first ones I saw but that ruby red color was captivating. In the picture, I took a vegetable peeler down one side of it to show the orange-y center. These guys just scream, “eat me, I’m healthy and flavorful!” According to the USDA, the reason some carrots are red is because they are rich in lycopene, the red pigment found most commonly in tomatoes. More traditional carrot specimens are laden with orange-tinted beta-carotene, hence their orange color.

Red carrots are all part of the magic of the farmer’s market. Surprises like this will keep me coming back for many moons to come.
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans

I have been wanting to write a post about Rancho Gordo beans for a long time. They’re a brand of heirloom beans I first heard about at a foodie convention (International Association of Culinary Professionals annual meeting) in New Orleans two years ago. Steve Sando, creator of Rancho Gordo, was speaking on the topic of heirloom beans and foods native to the Americas. With his passion for flavor, heritage, and protecting unique varieties of “glorious, old-fashioned heirloom beans,” as the Web site says , I was instantly intrigued. It wasn’t until the next year at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that I got the chance to buy some Rancho Gordo beans (they are based in Napa). I purchased “eye of the goat” beans, which were said to be good for beginners, and have an earthy, almost beefy taste.

Last weekend I got the chance to make these dried delicacies for myself. I had never worked with dried beans before so I was doubly excited. First, I soaked the beans in water for about six hours. Then, I drained them, placed them in a shallow pan, covered them with one inch of chicken broth, and turned the heat to a low simmer. I kept them mostly covered for the majority of cooking time so the liquid wouldn’t evaporate too quickly. Meanwhile, I sauteed a classic mirepoix(celery, carrots and onions) in olive oil, which I added to the beans during the last ten minutes of cooking along with a healthy dose of salt. The beans took around two hours to cook (I may not have soaked them long enough?). When I took them off the heat, there was a good amount of liquid left, which got mostly absorbed after they cooled. The next day, the remaining bit of liquid turned into a rich, dark brown sauce.

The beans were tasty! I enjoyed the process of soaking, cooking and sneaking samples to determine when they were done, and I definitely enjoyed eating them. However, at the end of the day, while they were a nice variety of beans with an interesting back story, they tasted like, well, beans. I’m sure a bean connoisseur would appreciate the subtleties in flavor compared to other beans, but unfortunately with my inexperienced bean palate, I wasn’t wowed, though I appreciated them for what they were.
However, I definitely enjoyed the simplicity of the cooking process, and the wholesome nutrition they provided. My bean exploration will continue, and I’m glad to say my first experience was with one of the best around.
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Peach Jam

I find it amusing how so many things in life function in cycles. Children turning into their parents, in their lifestyles, gestures, habits. The latest fashions of the day recycling themselves every few decades. It cracks me up to see beards, tapered leg jeans and neon back in style. As a child of the ’80s, I honestly thought these stylistic nuances — especially neon — were dead and never coming back, but amazingly, it’s happened.

And food and drink is no different. Take the cocktail. Vintage cocktails are all the rage these days! From Sazeracs to the Dark and Stormy — countless restaurateurs and mixologists are inviting these old-time libations back to their menus at breakneck speeds.

I’ve been noticing this cyclical phenomenon with canning. The very idea of canning is a romantic one — old-fashioned Ball brand jars stocking the shelves of grandmothers’ basements for generations, quaint little screw top lids, the magic of preserving farm-fresh flavors for the winter months. It all just seems very sweet. But in the reality of generations past, canning is no more a trendy project than grocery shopping today is a hobby. Canning was a way of life — a way to ensure vegetables and fruits for the winter months. And now it has somehow cycled around to become popular again after many years of silence. I’ve seen numerous foodie magazines featuring stories on the lost art of canning, newspaper food pages devoting entire center spreads to the process, and local cooking schools offering up half-day workshops on the topic. And I am drinking the Kool-Aid in big gulp cups.

So I recruited my mother, and we made jam. To determine what kind, we visited a local farm stand to see what looked good, and the peaches spoke to us. Intoxicated by the idea of making a big batch of jam to share with family and friends for months to come, we mistakenly bought a 30 pound basket of peaches, which was WAY too much considering our recipe called for three pounds per batch. We ended up freezing the leftover peaches in slices for pie-making down the line.

We used a recipe from a box of Sure-Jell Pectin (recipe available online here), and we made six or seven batches. In short, the process is as follows: cook peeled, diced peaches with one box of pectin until boiling, then add 5 cups of sugar until that’s boiling, and let it cook down for one minute (we added an additional 20 seconds in the later batches to help the mixture set better). By this time the mixtures is syrupy with small bits of peach chunks scattered throughout like little gems. Then, pour the mixture into sterilized jars (to sterilize, clean with hot soapy water then boil for 10 minutes). Finally, once the tops are tightly screwed on, boil each jar for another 1o minutes, then remove and cool. We used an old-fashioned wire rack of sorts, to aid in the removal of the cans from the boiling water. At this point the jars seal themselves (through suction, the hot mixture meets the cool air and condenses, causing the tops to “pop”). This is the most gratifying part! It’s like magic to listen to the jars seal one at a time, over the next five to 10 minutes.


It was remarkable how different each batch turned out. The first was foamy, and looked sudsy in the jar. To remedy this, the recipe suggested adding 1/2 teaspoon of margarine to the first step, and this did the trick in subsequent batches. The second didn’t set properly, and thus we added the additional 20 seconds to the second step to reduce the amount of liquid. The other batches turned out pretty well, though some of them were more syrupy than others.
All in all it was a grand experience! The simplicity of the process was really wonderful, and I will definitely do this many more times in my life with whatever I can find (blackberries, blueberries, maybe apple butter). I see why this time-honored tradition has experienced a resurgence. In these times of frugality, and do-it-yourself economical endeavors, capturing the fresh, simple, flavors of summer in a jar at very little cost is appealing. I think this is one trend that, at least for me, will stick around.

Not sure I feel the same way about the whole neon thing though.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hot Watermelon Salad

One of my absolute favorite things about cooking is introducing someone to something new. It’s especially gratifying if they’ve gotten it into their heads that not only would they not like this new item, they would hate it. And I don’t love changing people’s minds with just things I make –although that is nice — it can be anything from fruits, dishes at restaurants, condiments, drinks — whatever.

From my perspective, really, why would you form an opinion about how you think you’ll like something before you’ve tried it? With a whole world of flavors and foods out there to combine and try, how could one know their preferences on everything? Granted I am probably more adventurous than the average Jane, but I think something at least must be tried a few times before a real opinion can be formed.

Speaking of adventuresome, my manfriend and I tried roasted pig heart with cauliflower at City House in Nashville the other weekend. The texture was sort of that of a portobello mushroom and it was very full-flavored. More than anything, the roast flavor came through loud and clear. And while it was a pig heart, it didn’t taste much like pork, just a lean, tender muscle. I liked it.

Now just because I started this post off with notes on a pig heart, doesn’t mean this hot watermelon salad takes the same sort of adventurousness. It is actually quite an approachable recipe. Few ingredients, fresh fruit and herbs, and a sweet/savory/hot flavor profile that is just perfect for summertime.

I’d had versions of watermelon salad kind of like this before, but had never made one on my own. This recipe is adapted from one I found in Bon Appetit magazine last summer.

The recipe was a wild hit with my friends the evening I made it. And it was so easy! As I said above, I love love LOVE surprising someone with a new dish, but what’s even better, is when it is simple and straightforward to make, like this recipe was.

Hot Watermelon Salad
1/4 cup hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)*
1/4 cup grapeseed oil or olive oil
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 1/4 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons minced jalapeño chiles
2 cups 1/2-inch cubes seedless watermelon
chopped fresh mint

Whisk hot chili sauce, oil, vinegar, and honey in small bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper. Place chilesand watermelon in large bowl. Toss with dressing and let marinate 30 minutes to 1 hour. Make Ahead: You can prepare everything as directed without the watermelon in advance; the watermelon will get soupy if it sits too long.

* Available in the Asian foods section of many supermarkets and at Asian markets.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Smashed Salmon Salad

I attended college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a small town near the Indiana border. While I took away many fond memories from that time, one of the ones I relate most often is about a salad. Am I a sad food dork? Maybe. Was it a really great salad? Hell yes. So good in fact, I made a diversion on a recent road trip, just to have it again. Didn’t see much else on campus but had to have that salad.

The Smashed Salmon Salad at Kona Bistro is a really interesting combination of textures and flavors. The dish starts with a bed of spinach, layered with garlic mashed potatoes, a piece of grilled salmon, fresh roma tomato slices, and a dollop of homemade mango chutney. A piece of crusty bread gets served alongside. There is no dressing, but when you “smash” the layers together, each bite is flavorful with just the right amount of wet and dry ingredients, and contrasting textures. Delicious! I am not one to order the same thing twice at any restaurant but this is where I make an exception. Whenever I’ve gone back to Kona (a great restaurant all around, by the way), I just have to have it. Make sure to hit it up the next time you’re in Oxford…

This salad was notable to me for three reasons. 1) It has mango chutney. I had never even heard of mango chutney the first time I ordered this salad. It remains one of my favorite condiments to this day. Stonewall Kitchens makes a good bottled variety. One of these days I’ll call Kona and get the recipe for their chutney so I can make it myself. While we’re on the topic, I just had some really great chutneys at Veerasway in the West Loop of Chicago the other day. They’ve got this coconut one that was really addictive. 2) This salad was one of the first times a meal caused me to stop and think — I started noticing flavors, textures and became conscious of wanting to try new foods I’d never heard of before (the chutney). 3) The salad was only $6! Can you believe that? As a poor college student, this was absolutely the icing on the cake (or maybe the chutney on the salmon … sorry, couldn’t help it). Five years later it’s $10.75 … my how the times change.

I’ve since made this salad a couple of times. The ingredients are pretty straightforward, so it’s easy to try to replicate (although my attempts have never produced anything quite as good as the original). In addition to being tasty, it’s also really colorful and pretty. The above pic doesn’t really do it justice (I forgot to take the pic until I was halfway through it…) but you get the idea.

You should try it. You won’t be sorry you did. It’s easy enough to make for one during the week, or it’d be a really great dish to make for guests too. Super simple but impressive in its ingredients. Let me know how it turns out!
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Poached Eggs Make My Day

I made the best dish yesterday. And it was arguably one of the simplest there is, which I think, made it even better. It completely made my day. Isn’t it amazing how good food can do that?

After quickly sauteing some fresh asparagus (I know, I know — try as I may, I just can’t get past it this spring!) in olive oil for a few minutes in a hot skillet until crisp-tender, I finished it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper and topped it with a sweet little poached egg.

I love a good poached egg. They are so impressive yet so easy. Whether in eggs Benedict, over a simple salad, or even just over asparagus, as I did here, I will never get tired of them.

Part of the reason this dish was particularly satisfying to me was because I’d never successfully poached an egg before. I tried this time with newly found confidence from a Chow.com video. My fatal flaw before was trying to poach in boiling water, which destroys the egg and leaves you with something like a soggy scrambled egg floating in the water. Not good. Thanks for the help Chow! The videos on the site are short, to the point, and cover basic techniques quickly and clearly.

The only thing that would have made this dish better would be some crusty bread to sop up the extra egg with, and maybe some bacon. Next time…