October 24, 2010

Cocina Criolla... in every Cuban household

Since I was little, I remember reading through Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol. This cookbook can be found in the houses of most of my family members. It is a Cuban classic. A friend from work has been asking me for a Cuban black bean recipe for months, and I've been slacking and not making him a copy. Last week, I finally took out the book and starting flipping through the recipes. I have not made any recipes from this book in years.

Last year, I read Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. I loved the idea of cooking your way through a book (although I think the way she went about it was pretty crazy). Also, in this case, the book is part of my culture and written in Spanish, which forces me to use my first language. So, I decided that I want to cook my way through Cocina Criolla. I am not cooking in the order of the book. I am also not giving myself a deadline, but I want to try to make at least one recipe each week.

Yesterday, I started with a bang. I made four recipes in one day. The recipes I chose were Frijoles Negros (Black Beans), Bistec Empanizado (Breaded Steak), Flan de Leche, and Carne Fria (literally translated "Cold Meat"). The black beans and breaded steak came out great (other than a slight excess of vinegar in the beans).Carne fria is something I grew up eating when we went to the beach. It is kind of like a cold meatloaf. This also turned out relatively well, but I like my grandmother's recipe better.

I've never made flan before, and I hate curdled flan, so I was really worried about overcooking it. The problem is that the recipe calls for a pressure cooker, and I don't have one. I decided to use the same recipe, but cook it in the oven in a water bath. About halfway through what I thought was the cooking time, I checked the flan, but it was already done. Unfortunately, that means I ended up with curdled flan (see picture below). The base was great, and I will definitely make it again, but I will take it out much sooner!

Not a bad first round, overall. I'm ready for round 2.

Oh, and Lonnie... you'll get your recipe on Monday.

August 12, 2010

Mac & Cheese Bake Off

A few weeks ago, some friends and I were out to dinner, having a few drinks, and the subject of mac and cheese came up. We all love food, and the fact that we spend dinner time talking about other food is totally normal. This time, though, talking wasn't enough. Someone decided that we should have a cook off to decide who makes the best. So, a couple of days later, the date and locations were set. I stole the rules from the invitation... see below.

"The rules:
- must be prepared in a 9" x 9" tin foil pan so that everyone's dish appears the same to the judges.
- must contain pasta, cheese sauce (can more than one type of cheese), spice(s) and no more than two complimentary ingredients.  For example, an acceptable entry could be elbow macaroni, basil cheese sauce, vienna sausage and SPAM.  (the dish should be similar to a side item not a meal).
- your dish will be baked at our house so that all entries will be served hot at the same time. "

I've never really made mac and cheese before. I mean, I've made similar things, and I know how to make a bechamel sauce, but never an actual macaroni and cheese dish. I figured I would try, so I bought about 8 kinds of cheese and went home to invent something. The night before the bake-off, I made a couple of test batches.

Test Mac & Cheese

I used two different pastas, two different cheese sauces, and learned some new things. I also remembered how much sauce the pasta soaks up. In the end, I took what I learned, but made something completely different. See below.

Ready to Bake


So, off I went to my friend's house with my mac and cheese in tow. There were three other entries. All very different! We ate (too much), we judged, and apparently, I won. I owe it all to the test batch learnings. Here are the entries (you can see we don't follow rules very well):

I think we should have these cook-off "competitions" more often. What should we make for our next cook-off?

I played with this recipe a few times, so it is probably not exact. When you taste the cheese sauce, before mixing with the pasta, it should be a bit sharper than you'd like. The flavors mellow out in the oven. Here is my (approximate) recipe for Sage & Garlic Five Cheese Macaroni and Cheese:

This makes enough for a 9X9 baking dish.

1 lb. (16 oz.) Gemelli pasta (you can use whatever you like, but this is what I used)
2 1/4 tbsp unsalted butter
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp flour
3 cups 1% milk
3/4 cup heavy cream

All cheese measurements are by weight!
6 oz. shredded Asiago cheese, plus more for top
1 1/2 oz. cream cheese
3.5 oz. Delice de Bourgogne (soft, buttery cheese with a rind - only use the soft part, no rind)
1.35 oz. Gorgonzola Dolce (again, it's what I used, but use whatever blue cheese you like)
3 oz. Havarti cheese

3 tbsp chopped fresh sage
Kosher salt
Fresh cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium-low/medium heat. Add minced garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Add flour to make a roux. Stir until flour and butter mixture are combined and flour has cooked a bit, but do not let this mixture brown. Add milk and heavy cream in a steady stream while whisking to prevent lumps. Cook sauce for 3-4 minutes until it begins to thicken, then add cheeses. Stir until all cheese is melted into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat. Stir in sage.

While sauce is cooking, boil pasta in salted water for about two minutes less than directions on package. Remember, you will be baking this in the oven, so the pasta will continue to cook.

Once pasta and sauce are done, drain pasta and pour into sauce mixture. Stir to combine. Pour pasta into baking dish and top with additional shredded cheese or breadcrumb topping (if you must). Bake at 400 for 30-35 minutes or until top is golden brown. You can also bake for 20 minutes and broil for 3-4 minutes to get the top brown, if you are using a broiler-safe baking dish.

Note: this recipe would also be great with some crispy pancetta stirred in before baking.

August 4, 2010

Cravings... lead to learning?

A little over a year ago, I moved from South Florida to Seattle, WA. I have really liked living here, and the food is great, but there are just some things you can't get here. I lived in Florida for my entire life before last year, and I was never too far from whatever I wanted to eat (even if that meant driving for 3 hours). Now, it's a whole different story.

A couple of months after I moved here, I realized that I would have to learn to make some of the favorite things that I took for granted in South Florida. One of the first on my list was pastelitos. In South Florida, especially Miami, you can get pastelitos on almost every corner. They are Cuban pastries that can have a sweet or savory filling, and they are delicious! I got a craving for them a few months after moving here, did some research, and started making them. 

Pastelitos are pretty easy to make, once you get the hang of it. I had two difficulties: finding guava paste and working with puff pastry. The solution to problem #1 was to either spend $6 for a bar at a specialty store or bring back a whole bunch on my next trip to Florida. The solution to problem #2 was to play around until I figured it out... and to watch Alton Brown teach me the tricks on Good Eats. Puff the Magic Pastry was the title of Season 4, Episode 11, and we basically learn that the number one rule of puff pastry is "keep it cold". This requires a lot of movement back to the freezer/refrigerator and keeping the sheet pan in the refrigerator until ready to bake. It seems like a lot of work, but it's really worth it.

I made guava, guava and cream cheese, sweetened cream cheese, and ground beef (the traditional four). I also made the mistake of bringing them to work, so now I get weekly requests for pastelitos. I think my next craving-learning experience will be Cuban Bread... mmmmm.

I am having trouble with my computer, so I will post pictures and a recipe later.

July 7, 2010

Huh? Cheesy Fried Pickles?

Welcome to my latest attempt at a blog. I really want to start writing again (and continue to do so after the first three posts). If I'm really going to stay interested, it needs to be a topic I love. Well, I love food, and I never get tired of talking about it. So, this seemed like a no brainer. The hard part is thinking of a name for my new blog that is not predictable, boring, or forgettable, but not so out there that it is irrelevant. After several hours of thinking, I came up with Cheesy Fried Pickles. Of course, there is a story here.

Several months ago, I took a trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota (don't ask me why). During my first day on the trip, I met someone who exclaimed that I had to go to The Toasted Frog and try their cheesy fried pickles (actually called Fried Cheesy Pickles on their menu). I have been to Southern restaurants that serve deep fried pickles, but they've never been cheesy. Being the foodie that I am, I was intrigued. So, this (now) friend, took me to The Toasted Frog for dinner that night. There were five of us at dinner, and our hosts were so sure of this appetizer that we had to order two plates. After my first bite, I was in love. This is now one of my favorite beer snacks. They are crunchy, cheesy, salty, and delicious! I loved them so much, that I decided to make them at home for the Super Bowl. Many of my friends were skeptical at first, but now I have requests for cheesy fried pickles before every party. Seriously... you have to try them.

So, what's the point? The point is that you never know, so why not try it? I have a rule (thanks to my parents) that I try anything once every 5 or 10 years. Try anything, because if you haven't tried it, how do you know that you don't like it? Try it again after a few years, because your taste buds change. You could like something that you hated as a kid. Also, sometimes you will never like a certain food, but you may like it as part of a dish. For example, I hate cilantro. It ruins everything. Sadly, cilantro is a new fad, and it is in everything. I have recently discovered, though, that I like a few sprigs of cilantro in bánh mì (or Vietnamese-style sandwiches). Something about the pickled vegetables with mayo and some cilantro makes everything balance just right... who knew?

So, my blog will be about food I've discovered, cooked or just love. Every now and then, I may sneak something in that will scare a few people, but that's what makes it fun. Here's to more discoveries like cheesy fried pickles. I have included my recipe for these yummy snacks below, and if you're ever in Grand Forks, go to The Toasted Frog and try them for yourself!

Cheesy Fried Pickles (a la Toasted Frog)

egg roll wrappers
havarti cheese slices
dill pickle spears (I like Claussen)

peanut oil for frying

dipping sauce:
ranch dressing

Begin to heat oil to about 375 degrees, so it will be ready as you assemble your pickles. I have used a stainless steel sauce pan and a small deep fryer. Use your favorite frying method.

Lay out one egg roll wrapper. Put one slice of cheese in the middle of the wrapper. Put one pickle spear on the cheese slice, so that the ends of the pickle corner to corner in the wrapper. You will want to line it up closer to the end where you start wrapping, so you can get a good seal on the wrapper. Then roll up the little bundle just like an egg roll, tuck in the ends, and dip your finger in water to wet the edge and seal. You can make as many of these as you want. Lower them into the hot oil, and fry just until the outside is golden brown like an egg roll. This should not take more than 3 or 4 minutes.

While you're frying (and letting pickles cool), assemble your dipping sauce. It's only a combination of sriracha hot sauce and ranch dressing. I like it a little spicier than they serve it at the restaurant, but you can mix yours however you like.

Once the pickles have cooled enough, cut in half at a diagonal, and enjoy!

Here is a picture of the finished product... mmmmm.