Polenta with Mizuna and Sapore de Piave

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I've been on a polenta kick lately. Obsession really. I'm obsessed with getting polenta the right color, the right consistency, the right taste and texture. And once I mastered that (yes, I'm a Polenta Master now) I began experimenting with different flavors and ingredients. And thus this amazing polenta dish was born.

I used mizuna (which now you know all about) for this and loved the way it wilted in the polenta. The texture became like cooked spinach -- smooth in texture but still a bite to it -- and the color turned a beautiful dark green that stood against the golden polenta just wonderfully. The flavor was slightly bitter -- nothing terribly aggressive as say a kale or mustard green -- but definately more bitter than sweet spinach and milder than peppery arugula. If you don't have mizuna, you can certainly substitute any one of the aformentioned greens as well.

In terms of cheese, I used my latest obession in the hard cheese department: Sapore del Piave. Made in Veneto, Italy (for those of you who watch Real Housewives, that would be where Romana also has her pinos grigio grown, not that she can properly pronounce it...thanks Countess! What would we do without your amateur sophistication and even worse pronounciation of the fucking region than Ramona's? But I digress...) ...and looks like parmesan cheese but has a decidedly sweeter note. A cow's milk cheese, it's still nutty in flavor like parmesan, and has a very, very similar texture, but does have a slightly sweeter note than parmesan and definately moreso than romano. (How do we pronounce that one properly countess? "RO-man-o?" No, didn't think so. Sorry...back to the blog)...

I specifically chose to pair up the mildly bitter mizuna with the slightly sweeter sapore so the end result is a balanced flavor. You can certainly use parmesan or romano for this as well, but if you do I'd strongly suggest then going the spinach or arugala route for the green, definately sapore or parmesan if you do kale or mustard greens.

This dish is best served piping hot and serves 4.

Polenta with Mizuna and Sapore de Piave
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup half n half
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup medium-fine ground polenta
1 cup mizuna (raw)
1/4 cup freshly grated sapore de piave cheese

Place the broth and half n half, and salt in a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and add the polenta all at once and immediately start whisking. Cook polenta on low heat, whisking constantly, for 20-30 minutes. You want the polenta to be creamy and cooked through and not gritty. If after 20 minutes the polenta still tastes gritty, add 1/2 cup more broth and cook until creamy.

Once desired texture is achieved, add the mizuna all at once and switch to a wooden spoon, and mix in. The mizuna will wilt in the polenta within 2 minutes. Add the cheese and mix in to combine. Serve piping hot.

Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Mizuna -- The OTHER Arugula

Friday, May 27, 2011

At first glance you may think this is a bowl of arugula. Au contraire, mon frere. It is is not! It is mizuna, a similar leafy green that actually departs in flavor from arugula like soy beans would to peas. You may have encountered mizuna without even knowing it. The leaves are the leafy part of the turnip plant, and the seeds of the plant are converted into canola oil.

Mizuna is a very popular and common ingredients in Japanese cuisine, although its origins is probably Chinese. They can be served raw (as you would arugula) or better yet, quickly cooked. The tender, beautifully fringed leaves have a subtle piquant flavor to them, considerably toned down from the peppery arugula, so if you dislike arugula for its aggressive taste, then mizuna might be your green of choice. When cooked the deep nutty and slightly bitter flavor gets drawn out, making it a popular dish served with noodles and seafood in Asian cuisine.

In terms of foods, it's a popular ingredients for stir-fries and soups, and again soba-type noodle dishes. It wilts almost instantly, so no need to coax out the desired texture when working with this green. You can also serve it raw with minimal seasonings like olive oil, salt and pepper or perhaps a little sesame oil and soy sauce, or include it raw among other tender greens. It presents beautifully in its raw form, the delicate fanned out fringes along the sides but also turns a gorgeous deep green color when cooked.

Although it's prevalent in Asia, it may be harder to find in American markets. Your best bet is touring your local farmers markets, which is where I found mine this past weekend. Or, try your hand at growing some! The seeds grow incredibly fast and mizuna (along with arugula for that matter) grows well in containers.

Here's a quick recipe using mizuna, bok choy, and tofu from my current issue of Bon Appetit Magazine. If you don't do the tofu, you can certainly substitute with some shrimp or just leave it as is with the mizuna and bok choy. Enjoy!

Stir-Fried Mizuna with Bok Choy and Tofu
3 1/2 tablespoonssoy sauce, divided
4 teaspoonsAsian sesame oil, divided
3 1/2teaspoonsunseasoned rice vinegar, divided
1 14- to 16-ounce container extra-firm tofu, drained
2 tablespoonspeanut oil
4 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoonfinely chopped peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 baby bok choy, leaves separated
12 cuploosely packed mizuna (about 8 ounces)


Whisk 2 Tbsp of soy sauce, 2 tsp of sesame oil, and 1/2 tsp of vinegar in a bowl. Stack 2 paper towels on work surface. Cut tofu crosswise into 3/4 inch thick slices; cut each slice crosswise in half. Arrange tofu on paper towels and let stand 10 minutes. Pat top of tofu dry.
Heat peanut oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tofu and cook, without moving, until golden brown on bottom, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer tofu to paper towel to drain, then place tofu on sheet of foil and brush both sides with soy sauce mixture.

Wipe out any peanut oil from skillet. Add 2 teaspoons sesame oil and place skillet over medium heat. Add green onions, ginger, and garlic. Stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add remaining 11/2 tablespoons soy sauce and 3 teaspoons vinegar, then bok choy. Toss until bok choy wilts, 1 to 2 minutes. Add mizuna in 2 batches, tossing to wilt before adding more, 1 to 2 minutes per batch.

Season greens with salt and pepper. Add tofu to skillet. Toss gently to blend. Transfer to platter.

Spring Spinach: Spinach Stuffed Shells with Truffled Bechamel

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I've literally got fresh spinach up the ass lately from my farm delivery. And salads are getting BORING. I decided to make some stuffed shells using the sweet, tender spinach. To balance it out, I love the nutty tang of Parmesan cheese and the unexpected punch from Beecher's Flagship cheese. Ricotta gives the shells a smooth texture and a touch of added sweetness. To top, I made a simple bechamel sauce but you can use your favorite marinara if you like just as easily.

This is a great spring dish that you can make eons in advance. It can serve as a side dish or main meal. Enjoy!

Spinach Stuffed Shells with Truffled Bechamel
for the shells:
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, very finely chopped (about 1/3-1/2 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups baby spinach, washed and spun dry
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup shredded Beecher's Flagship cheese (or other white sharp cheddar)
1 Tbsp basil, finely chopped
1 egg lightly beaten
1/2 lb pasta shells cooked just under al dente*

for the sauce:
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
splash of heavy cream (about 2 Tbsp)
1.5 cups whole milk or half n half
1 tsp kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp truffle oil

First make the stuffing for the shells. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the onions. Season with a pinch of salt and some pepper and cook on medium heat until softened and translucent in color, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and spinach and cook until spinach is wilted. You may have to add the spinach in batches so it all can fit.

Transfer the spinach mixture to a mixing bowl and let stand to cool a few minutes. To the spinach mixture, add the ricotta, parmesan, and Beecher's cheeses, and basil and mix. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Then, after tasting, add the egg and mix to incorporate.

Take each shell and hold it in your hand, carefully keeping it open but being gentle as to not rip the delicate pasta. Spoon in a heaping teaspoon's worth of the filling into the middle of the shell, and then gently squeeze the shell together to keep it's form. Repeat with reamining shells and filling. 

Place the stuffed shells in a sprayed baking dish and now make the sauce.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Once butter is completely melted, add the flour all at once and immediately begin whisking the mixture. This is called making a roux. Cook the roux for 3 minutes -- this is to cook the raw flour taste out -- and then add the cream all at once. You'll notice the roux will clump up when the cream is introduced -- this is normal, don't panic -- just whisk the clumps out until it becomes nice and smooth. Slowly add the milk, whisking as you go. Again you'll notice clumping and then the roux smoothing out. Once all the milk has been incorporated, add the parmesan cheese and take the sauce off the heat. Whisk in the cheese until it's melted and well incorporated into the sauce. Taste it and adjust with salt and pepper to taste, then add the truffle oil.

Spoon out the sauce on top of the shells, not completely covering them but giving a generous dollop of sauce on top of each shell and around the sides of each shell. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until top begins to get golden brown. Serve.

Make Ahead Tip:
You can prepare the entire dish short of baking it in advance. You can even freeze the unbaked shells and then pop them straight from the freezer into a 350 degree oven. Just add more cooking time (about 40 minutes total) if using frozen stuffed shells. 

Date Night: Grilled Shrimp with White Bean Salad, Rosemary, and Mint Oil

Monday, May 23, 2011

This one's all Batali, all the time...

Staring at about a pound of shrimp I had in the freezer, I rummaged through my cookbooks. Everything was fried or scampi, or in other words, been there done that. Finally I get to Batali's Molto Mario that gives some more powerful recipes for shrimp, incluind Fra Diavalo (Devil Priest Shrimp -- aka very spicy, very yummy shrimp) and this one I'm sharing here. I had a can of white beans in the pantry, some fresh tender greens in the fridge that needed to be used up, so this recipe was it!

LOVE this recipe.

Shrimp can get a little predictable and boring, but not is the case with this recipe. The shrimp were simply seasoned with salt and pepper and then grilled. That's it, nothing terribly difficult, no oil and thermometers. I was looking for something quicker and low maintanence and this delivered. To accompany said shrimp, a delightful salad of rosemary-flavored white beans, red onion, and tender greens kissed with lemon zest and good olive oil. Sea salt and pepper brought the salad home. And to finish it all off? A delightful mint oil that was both pretty and flavorful, appropriate without overstepping on the shrimp and delicate salald.

I'll say it again...

LOVE this recipe.

Grilled Shrimp with White Bean Salad, Rosemary, and Mint Oil
1.5 cups cooked white beans (or canned; if canned then rinse and drain them from the can)
1/2 medium red onion, sliced paper thin
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh marjoram
1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup packed fresh mint leaves
12 super collossal shrimp
2 cups arugala, washed and spun dry

Preheat the grill or broiler.

In a medium bowl, stir together the beans, onion, marjoram, rosemary, 2 tablespoons of the oil, lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the mint leaves to the boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain and transfer immediately to an ice bath. Drain the leaves of the water and transfer to a food processor or blender. Add the remaining olive oil and process until smooth.

Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Brush with some oil and grill or broil until tunder and cooked through.

Mix the arugala with the beans and onion mixture.

To plate, arrange a heap of the bean salad on the plate, then lean a few shrimp against the side of the salad "lounge chair style." Drizzle with the mint oil and serve.

My Notes:
I used large Gulf Shrimp for this recipe because that's what I had. Mario actually has you using shrimp with the heads and tails still on, so go for that if you wanted added flavor and a formidable presentation.

I also used just a blend of mixed greens because that's what I had on hand. The idea is to go with tender leafy greens for this, so aruguala, spinach, baby leafy grees is fine; leave heartier romaine, raddichio, and iceberg for another time.

Week Night Yum Yum: Peach Salad with Red Onion, Basil and Mint

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I love playing around wtih different kinds of salad. Yes green leafy greans are fabulous and I'm a huge fan, but I'm just as much a fan of fruit-based savory salads as well. With spring in full swing now and with summer just around the corner, we have access to amazing perfectly ripe fruits. And there's so much more to them than just eating them raw or throwing them in a cobbler or pie!

At the farmers market yesterday I picked up some amazing white peaches. I much prefer them over the yellow peaches because they are a lot sweeter and prettier I think. I added some red onion, delicate onion flavor and sweet in its own right, fresh basil, and mint to the simple salad and tossed it with some good olive oil, a little lemon juice, salt and pepper. It was a simple but beautiful salad where all the flavors stood together, not outshown by their compatriots.

This is great on its own with some fresh crusty bread, or perhaps some crostini with sharp goat cheese. Sliced prosciutto would be wonderful as well for a salty bite.

Peach Salad with Red Onion, Basil, and Mint
4 white peaches, sliced
1/2 small red onion, very thinly sliced
2 Tbsp fresh basil
2 Tbsp fresh mint
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1/2 lemon
a little good quality olive oil

Combone all ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add enouh oil to just moisten the salad and bring all the ingredients together, but not completely saturate it. Toss and serve.

"Ramps! Ramps! Ramps! Ramps!"

...I echoed throughout the farmers market yesterday afternoon. I could hardly contain my delight and unabashed excitement. Ramps are in season! Ramps are in season!!!

Chances are you won't find these suckers in your backyard or even the market, so if you have a farmers market around you may want to start visiting that about now. Ramps are a wild leek, similar in appearance to a scallion but tasting more like garlic. They have a wonderful punch of strong onion-garlic flavor but are small and skinny, so they work really, really well within dishes. The entire ramp is edible, from the white root to the extremely tender green leaves. You can grill them, roast them, fry them, or leave them raw but that's probably only if you like to eat garlic raw.

Ramps are natives of North American. Most popular in the Appalachians in the south all the way up to Quebec in Canada, they are a wildly loved seasonal treat. Ramp season is extremely short -- only about 4 weeks -- adding to their mystique and specialness. They are an early-mid spring treat, so now's the time. If you see some at the markets be sure to grab some.

Some ideas for you when working with ramps:

Quick grill is great -- a little olive oil, salt and pepper and very quick char on the grill. Be wary however that these guys are a lot skinnier and more delicate than their leek and scallion cousins, so you may want to use an indoor grill or vegetable tray on your charcoal grill.

Pan-Roasting is my favorite. If you do a quick saute of butter and olive oil with other spring vegetables like English peas, baby carrots, and mushrooms you can add these guys in as well. They will cook in just 3 minutes.

Raw -- slice them up as you would a scallion to flavor salads or dressings.

Being of the onion-garlic family, they go with anything. Last night for dinner I picked up some gorgeous Copper River Salmon (my favorite) from Pike Market down in Seattle and some ramps. I pan-seared the salmon with simple salt and pepper and then added the ramps in the same pan last 3 minutes of cooking.

It was amazing. The sweet salmon against the more pungent ramps, the crust on the salmon and the tender wilted ramps made for a perfect simple meal.

Now go get some ramps!

Fava Beans Roman Style

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Despite the unfortunate association with a cannibalist, fava beans are actually quite delicious. They're large, meaty beans with a wonderfully bright color and flavor. They have great texture so they can stand up to most anything. The farm sent me some gorgeous fava beans so I decided to make my favorite fava bean recipe: Fava Beans Roman Style. Onions and garlic are sauteed until softened and sweet then tossed with the cooked fava beans and seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and fresh basil. To add creamy contrast to the beans is semi-hard goat cheese. You can substitute something like havarti or even smoked mozzarella if you can't find a semi-hard goat cheese with wonderful results. Serve the dish at room temperature with some fresh crusty bread. Enjoy!

Fava Beans Roman Style
2 lbs fava beans, cooked*
1 small white onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
juice of half a lemon
1/4 cup cubed semi-hard goat cheese (or havarti or smoked mozzarella)

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the onions. Season with a small pinch of salt and pepper and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the beans and mix in to combine. Add the basil, lemon juice, cheese, and season with more salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine (add more olive oil if desired as well) and serve.

*To cook the fava beans, peel back the pods and remove the beans. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the beans, cooking until they turn bright green and float to the top of the water. Remove promptly and transfer into an ice bath (a bowl of cold water with ice cubes in it) to stop the beans from continuing to cook. Once the beans are cool enough to handle (about 5 minutes), gently peel back the outer layer of the beans. It's not necessary to and this outer coating is totally edible, but it's tough and most people don't prefer it. You'll expose the bright green, tender bean gem hidden inside. Now they are cooked and ready to be eaten as is or used in a dish.

Braised Short Ribs

Monday, May 16, 2011

It seems like every season on Top Chef someone makes this and it wins, so I thought it was high time to try it myself. No sooner did I make up my mind on it my local farm started offering short ribs! This was clearly meant to be!

Short ribs are the rib cut of the cow or pork (with pork it's commonly called spare ribs rather than short ribs). With the beef, there is considerable more meat making it a popular choice cut. They can be served English cut, American flank cut style (preferred by Tom Colicchio), or cross cut like Koreans. In fact, if you're had Korean Ribs aka galbi then you're well acquainted with short ribs already. The meat can be rather tough, so depending on how they're cut, short ribs can be quickly grilled as with the thinner Korean ribs style or braised for a few hours as with the English and American cuts. If braising, traditional braising liquid of root vegetables, broth, and wine are commonly used but you can certainly do beer or just a rich beef broth.

My recipe below is largely based on the traditional braising technique involving onions, carrots, and celery. I then add red wine and beef broth for richness and flavor, and keep the aromatics quite simple with only fresh thyme and bay leaf. Then I took a cue from Mr. Tom C. and strained the braising liquid, poured it over the meat, and then broiled it for 10 minutes. The result was incredible -- the meat caramelized and got nice and crusty on the edges which was just so delicious and amazing. You can make this entire dish the day before, then simply broil the meat and sauce before you're ready to serve.

Traditional accompaniments range from mashed potatoes to risotto to plain white rice. Enjoy!

Braised Short Ribs
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 lbs English cut short ribs with bones
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 celery ribs, sliced
3 garlic cloves, thickly sliced
1 cup dry red wine
3 cups beef broth
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven. Season the ribs with salt and pepper on all sides. Add them to the pot and sear them on all sides until a nice brown crust forms. Remove and set the ribs aside (they will go back in later). Pour out excess oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon worth of oil/fat. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and season with some salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat until vegetables are quite softened, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme and bay leaf and garlic, and saute until garlic and herbs are fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and broth and stir to combine. Place he ribs and any juices that accumulate during resting back into the pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover tightly with lid and turn off heat. Transfer the pot to the oven and cook for about 2.5 hours, or until meat is extremely tender. Turn the meat over a couple of times during cooking. At 2.5 hour mark, remove the lid and continue cooking in the oven uncovered for 45 minutes so the sauce can reduce.

Remove from oven and take out the short ribs. Take the meat off the bone and place it into a shallow oven-proof dish (a lasagna dish work perfectly). Spoon out the vegetables and discard. Strain the sauce into a measuring cup. You want to remove the vegetable pieces and herbs to get a nice thin sauce. Skim off as much fat as you can from the strained sauce, then pour it all over the meat.

Set broiler to high. Place the meat in the broiler and cook about 10 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking. Take out and serve the meat on top of mashed potatoes or rice with some of the sauce spooned over.

Maple Cherry Currant Granola

I'm beyond sick of paying ridiculous amounts of money for granola. My last straw came last week when I ordered granola that cost me $8 and gave me just 2 cups. Repeat: $8 for 2 cups of granola. This, in one word, is bullshit. "Never again!" I said to myself as I begrudgedly gobbled up the delicious granola. I've made this before -- "oh big deal, they added fucking flax seed....woa...." and decided I will make my own effing granola from now on. You already have my friend Chandra's excellent recipe that I love. Now you have another, using maple syrup in place of honey. The basic gist is the same, and this is an example of how you can keep swapping out ingredients but using the same technique. Use whatever nuts and dried fruits you have on hand; this by no means is a math problem.

P.S. You'll notice no picture for this posting because certain Escobars ate the whole thing before I could take any. Yes, three certain Escobars, even two little adorable Escobars who often preferred this granola for Second Breakfast over their Kix and Cheerios!

Maple Cherry Currant Granola
4 cups rolled oats
1.5 cups slivered almonds
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 Tbsp brown sugar
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla powder OR 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 cup dried cherries

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the oats, almonds, and coconut in a large mixing bowl. Add the oil, maple syrup, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and vanilla and toss to combine making sure everything is coated with the oil and syrup. Layer out on a very large baking sheet or two smaller ones and bake for 10-20 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer the granola to another large mixing bowl and immediately add the zest while the granola is still hot. Add the currants and cherries and mix to combine. Let stand to cool then place in air-tight containers for up to 1 month.

Week Night Yum Yum: Chipotle Chicken Tacos with Pickled Onions

Friday, May 6, 2011

A super easy meal that whips up in minutes is tacos. Yes, tacos. I did this recipe using chicken breast I marinated in a chipotle marinade (recipe here), and topped it with some grated cheese, refried beans (recipe here), salsa fresca (recipe here), fresh cilantro, avocado, and my new favorite condiment: pickled onions. Add some fresh corn tortillas and it's hard to resist this beautiful and very tasty taco. In my opinion, this is what tacos are all about. They're fresh, light, easy to eat and packed with flavor. Honestly, I don't think tacos should have sour cream at all, anything saucy, or anything that sits so heavy that the taco breaks when you pick it up. On the contrast, they should be light, filled with chopped seasoned grilled meat or fish (or veggies), and topped with only fresh and colorful ingredients. For example, I will rarely add guacamole to my tacos, but I will do fresh chopped avocado with a squeeze of lime juice. Cilantro is a must always, I prefer cotija cheese if I can do it, and only the freshest pico de gallo salsa at the very most. Done.

Here's a recipe using easily grilled chipotle-marinated chicken. You can marinate the chicken the night before and grill it for dinner the next day.

Chipotle Chicken Tacos with Pickled Onions
2 large chicken breasts marinated in chipotle marinated
refried beans (you can use black beans if you have it)
your choice shredded cheese: recommend Cotija, sharp cheddar, or montery jack
salsa fresca/pico de gallo
fresh cilantro
1 avocado cut into small chunks
2 limes, cut into wedges
corn tortillas
pickled onions (recipe follows)

Preheat your grill to medium-high and grill your chicken until it is done, all the way through. Cooking time will depend on size of your breasts, but should take you around 10 minutes give or take grilling on both sides. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes before cutting so juices can redistribute. Once rested, cut the chicken against the grain into 1/2" thick slices, then again to form bite-sized cubes. Set aside.

Wrap desired amount of corn tortillas in a kitchen towel and microwave for 1 minute to warm through.

To assemble, take one corn tortilla and spread out about a tablespoon of the beans (or to taste). Top with some chicken, then cheese, then salsa fresca, cilantro, avocado, and pickled onions on top. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Serve.

These are so special. Red onion gives a gorgeous magenta color so really try to use them instead of white onion. The vinegar, salt, and sugar help balance out the flavors, while taking out the initial punch of a raw onion. These taste great and present just beautifully, instantly making any taco or Mexican dish just beautiful.

Pickled Onions
1 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar (can sub with apple cider vinegar)
2 tsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and let marinate for at least 1 hour, preferably 4. Serve cold or at room temperature. Can stand in fridge covered for up to 1 week.

Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Chipotles and Adobo

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I've been wanting to write this post for a while.

If you love Mexican, Latin, South American, and American Southwestern/Tex Mex foods, you need to know about chipotles. They are basically smoked jalapenos, often canned in an adobo sauce, that can range from just slightly spicy to extremely spicy (depending on the pepper at time of harvest). They are most often used pureed in marinades, or for vinaigrettes especially when paried with citrus fruits, and even used to flavor desserts and cocktails. The chipotle is prized for its beautiful deep brick-red color and intense but not overpowering smoky flavor and smell. They look more formidable than they really are to work with, so I'm here to get you comfortable with them so you won't be intimidated to work with them in your kitchen.

Notice the deep rich color of the adobo sauce, and the dried nature texture of the pepper.
The jalapeno peppers used to make chipotles are very specific. They are the very last peppers of the season, left on the bush to achieve its reddest color. They will naturally begin to dry on the plant in the hot sun as they lose their moisture inside, and it is when they achieve this slightly shriveled appearance that the jalapenos are then picked. They are transfered to huge smoking houses where they are slow-smoked by wood chips for a few days. This process both draws out any remaining mositure in the peppers while infusing it with the flavors and aroma of the wood chips being smoked. The result is heavy and a huge secret weapon in your kitchen.

These smoked jalapenos are now called chipotles. You can buy the chipoltes in their dried form, much as you would dried fruit and then use them to flavor soups or dishes. Or, they are taken and often combined with adobo.

Adobo is a very concentrated wet spice blend used in Latin cuisines. It is most often a combination of paprika which is what gives adobo its distinct deep dark red color, oregano, salt, pepper, and vinegar. Variations include the addition of spices such as cumin or acid (sometimes lime juice is substituted for the vinegar) depending on the region and resulting cuisine. Adobo originally came about as a means to preserve meat. Paprika, made from peppers, has a natural antibacterial property that helps preserve meats actually quite well. So when cattle were slaughtered, the extra meat was preserved for months in huge vats of these adobo sauce. Adobo in fact was used as a means of preservation for various proteins including cattle, fowl, fish, and even vegetables.

As time progressed and refrigeration came about, adobo then morphed into more of a flavoring cooking technique rather than one of preserving foods. The addition of chipotles only added to the color and flavor, and the result was a marriage made in heaven. Chipotles in Adobo was thus born, and is now a main ingredient for marinades for flank steak and chicken in a lot of South American dishes. The addition of cut onions, garlic, fresh cilantro, lime, and malbec wine round out the flavors of the marinade.

Similarly, the adobo sauce part of the chipolte can be used to infuse flavor and smell in vinaigrettes. It pairs just beautifully with oranges in particular, so if you're serving a citrus salad or tuna tartare the addition of chipoltes in adobo would work very nicely. The smoky flavor and color also acts in the same fashion cinnamon does, making it an interesting ingredient for chocolate-based desserts like cookies, flan, and even cheesecakes. You can even use chipotle peppers or the adobo sauce to flavor cocktails. A Southwestern take on the Bloody Mary would be lovely with the inclusion of a little chipotles in adobo with the V8.

In terms of working with the peppers and adobo, the biggest concern is the color and staining. I never work with chipotles or adobo on a wooden cutting board; it will stain. I like using plastic cutting boards when working with something like this. The food processor or blender will be your best friend for chipotles, especially if you're using them in the capacity of marinades or vinaigrettes. The peppers themselves chop extremely easily, so it's easy to make a quick paste right on your cutting board. Classic pairings for marinades with the chipotle include onions, garlic, cumin, oregano, citrus juices, red wine, cilantro, mint, and meats or fish. Again, the heat of your chipotle will depend on the peppers themselves at time of harvest, so not all cans are made alike. Make sure you taste your peppers before using them to adjust with seasonings accordingly; you may have to chop up a raw fresh jalapeno to make up for the heat.

Here's a very basic marinade using chipotles in adobo to use for your next grilled dinner. Enjoy!

Chipotle Marinade for Chicken or Shrhimp:
4 chipotles in adobo pluse some of the adobo sauce
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup olive oil
cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

Combine the chipotles in adobo, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and orange juice in a food processor and pusle to chop up the peppers and garlic. With the processor on, gently stream in the oil until a nice puree forms. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper to taste, and cayenne pepper if needed to taste. Pour marinade over chicken or shrimp and let marinade for 1 hour, preferably up to 4. Grill as desired and discard any leftover marinade.

*This marinade is good for 1 lb of large shrimp or about 2-3 large chicken breasts.

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Celebrate with Dessert Empanadas

In preparation for this year's Cinco de Mayo celebration, I looked to Mr. Mexico himself, Rick Bayless for some inspiration. I was kinda shocked to see he had 3 empanada recipes, but they were all dessert. Huh? I'm used to the savory ones, as I'm sure you are. And although Rick takes us through very authentic Mexican foods in his book Fiesta At Rick's, he also updates some classics and brings in the Rick Bayless Flare. As such, with his dessert empanadas.

I did a couple from his book as well as a few versions of my own. The point of this blog is to give you the dessert empanada dough recipe (at the end) and give you ideas on how you can fill yours. This is an incredibly quick dessert that is extremely versatile, and you can adapt for any dinner or party you have. If you're not up to making your dough or need to make these super fast, use store-bought pastry dough. Again, these can also be made in advance and frozen, then baked or fried before guests arrive. LOVE that!

The first kind of empanada I made were with just jam. Living here in the Pacific Northwest, I have access to some seriously incredible berries and variations, including my two new favorites the huckleberry and tayberry. This is tayberry preserve made locally (as in up the street from my house) so it's fresh and organic and tastes just incredible. You can use any jam or preserve you like. Simply layer in about a teaspoon's worth in the middle of your empanada.

Tayberry Empanadas

A slight variation is to use a combination of jam and fresh fruit. Here I used the same tayberry jam and thinly sliced locally grown apples. I loved this combination the best personally, because the jams gave perfect gooey consistency while the apple gave a nice texture to bite into. Use any jam-fruit combination you like!

Tayberry and Apple Empanadas

Speaking of apples, I made Rick's filling for carameled apples. Simply slice up some apples very thinly, then heat a little butter in a saute pan, add the apples, equal parts white granulated sugar and brown sugar, and some ground cinnamon. I also added nutmeg and a small pinch of salt to mine.

Spiced Caramelized Apple Empanadas

He also mentioned using nutella for one of his fillings. You never have to ask me twice to use nutella. Here I did simply nutella with ground Mexican cinnamon.

Nutella and Cinnamon Empanadas

And here I did nutella with fleur de sel. This was my very close second favorite and The Hubster's first favorite. The slightly salty bites from the French salt was UH-MAYZING against the chocolately goondess from the nutella.

Nutella and Fleur de Sel Empanadas

Gotta be honest, the texture of the nutella sort of warps in the oven. It gets a little dry and crumbly, which isn't a bad thing. However, if you need your nutella to be creamy then I recommend mixing it with a litle drained ricotta cheese first.

You can use chococlate chips, peanut butter, marshmallows, any fruit jams or preserves or fresh fruit combinations you like. Be whimsical and fun and experiment with your ideas here. Just be sure to cut fruit small enough and choose fillings that can fit properly into your empanadas.

As for the dough, here's the dough I used from Rick's book. It uses a little sugar for some sweetness, and he likes using lard. Personally, I didn't love the dough; I still prefer the taste and texture of the butter better than lard for pastry doughs. Or at the very least, a combination of both. But do as you will.

Dessert Empanada Dough:
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp granulated sugar
1 cup well-chilled lard or shortening OR 1.5 sticks unsalted butter + 1/2 cup vegetable lard/shortening
about 2/3 cup ice water

Place the flour, salt, sugar, and lard/shortening/butter in the food processor. Pulse until the butter/lard/shortening is cut into the flour and resembles the size of peas. Slowly add the water with the processor on, and mix until a dough ball forms. Remove from the processor and form into a disk on a lightly floured surface. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, generously cover a working surface with more flour and your rolling pin. Cut the dough in half and roll out one piece to 1/4" thick. Cut out desired sized circles for empanadas. Repeat with other piece of dough. Fill empanadas and proceed to cooking.

NOTE: this particular dough recipe is not very maleable at all, so basically you have one shot to roll it out into one even layer; it won't collect back and be rolled again at all, so make sure ot pay attention and go slowly!

Cinco de Mayo Celebration: Homemade Refried Beans!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

No Mexican Fiesta can be complete without some refried beans! Well, we tend to do black beans in our house but occasionally we will do refried beans or "mud" as the kids call it. Yes, nothing sounds more appealing than "Would you like another scoop of mud with your taco?" They eat it. Whatever. It works.

[beans ready to soak overnight]

I'll be honest...as a busy mom I use the canned refried beans. I know, I know. And admittedly, I've been afraid to make them from scratch in part because of the whole soak the beans overnight thing, that just seemed too high maintenance for me. I get why, but it seemed stupid. So, this year I decided to finally conquer my fear and make homemade refried beans. It was actually pretty easy. Long, but easy...

I flavored my beans with some bacon that added a nice sweetness to the dish. And added the requesite onion and jalapeno and garlic to the initial saute. And a little bay leaf and cumin for flavor which is not that traditional, but it made it taste very good. The idea here is to let the beans themselves stand out. Pinto beans have a lovely underlying sweetness to them that's even slightly nutty. You want to enhance that natural flavor, not mask it with tons of seasonings. This recipe made a huge pot of "mud" that is perfect for side dishes, and leftovers for bean and cheese burritos. A classic sprinkling of grated cotija cheese on top and fresh squeeze of lime is great.

Homemade Refried Beans
2 lb pinto beans
4 strips thick-cut bacon
1 large spanish onion, finely minced
1 jalapeno finely minced (plus more to taste)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp ground cumin
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
8 cups cold water + more as needed
grated cotija cheese for garnish

Place the beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with cold water until you have 3 inches of water over the beans. Let stand 10 hours or overnight. Drain and set aside.

[use cold water to rinse off the beans]
Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Saute the onions, jalapeno, and garlic until softened, about 10 minutes.

Add the bay leaf, cumin, and season with salt and pepper, then add the drained beans. Add the 8 cups of water, stir to incorporate, and cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionaly. You'll need to add more water as the water cooks off, so when the beans start to look a little dry keep adding more water to help them cook.

About halfway through, add the bacon back in and continue to cook. You want to until the beans are extremely tender. Once beans are very tender, if you want more of a pureed texture then beat the beans with a large wooden spoon, stirring aggressively. For beans more intact, keep the stirring very minimal.

Adjust with salt and pepper to suit your taste, and serve hot with some of the shredded cheese on top.

Chicken Chorizo Empanadas

Empanadas are so great for so many reasons: they're flaky, they're hot, their filled with a wonderful variety of fillings, and best of all, can be made in advance! WAY in advance! This is one of those make them 2 weeks ahead of your party or celebration, freeze, then cook before party foods. Love those kind of foods.

Empanadas can be savory or sweet, flaky or doughy, meat-centered or vegetarian. They can literally be filled with whatever you like. That said, I personally have a couple of rules for my empanadas:

1) the dough must be flaky and this is achieved through using a combination of butter and lard;
2) the filling has to be spicy and extremely savory
3) they have to be baked, not fried (I know, I know) because overly greasy empanadas are gross.

Regionally they differ from Spain to South America, so this by no means is a 100% authentic recipe but I do think it hits the right notes. I use spicy chorizo for incredible flavor and color, cooked chicken breast I shredded, 1 chopped egg for authenticity and wonderful texture, and a sofrito base of Spanish onion, jalapeno, and garlic. A little cumin, bay leaf, smoked chile powder and salt and pepper simply season the filling to something wonderful.

Just as important as the filling is the dough. I've seen empanadas done with a basic pastry crust, including from "Mr. Mexican Cooking" himself, Rick Bayless. I respectively disagree. I personally love the taste and texture using a combination of all-purpose flour and masa harina, a corn-flour mixture used to make corn tortillas. The earthiness from the masa harina is incredible and gives the best flavor I think. I also use a combination of butter for flavor and vegetable lard for dough malleability that I think works perfectly.

Play around with your preferred fillings and use what you have on hand, but I think this is a pretty good "basic" version that hits the authentic notes. 

Chicken Chorizo Empanadas
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped very finely
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 chorizo sausages, meat removed from casings
1 cup cooked chicken breast*
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp smoked ancho chili powder
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 boiled egg, finely chopped
1/2 cup shredded Montery Jack and sharp cheddar cheese
1 egg lightly beaten with a splash of milk for egg wash

For the dough:
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup masa harina -- finely ground
1 stick cold butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (recommend: Crisco)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
6-8 Tbsp ice cold water

First prepare the dough. Place the flour, masa harina, butter, shortening, and salt in the food processor and pulse until the butter and shortening is cut into the flour, and is the size of peas. Slowly add the water with the processor on, until a dough ball forms. Take out, form into a disk on a floured surface, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.

While the dough chills, make the filling.

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the onion and jalapeno and cook until softened, 7 minutes. Add the garlic and chorizo and cook another 5 minutes. Add the spices and salt and pepper to your taste and mix to combine. Add the broth and cook on medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed and the filling is "plumped" up. Fold in the chicken, egg, and cheese and set aside to cool.

To make the empanadas, take out the chilled dough and cut it in half. Cover and refrigerate one half while you work with the other. Generously flour out a working surface and roll out the half of dough until 1/4" thick. Using a circular cutter (size depends on your preference -- you can make these as small or large as you like!), cut out perfect circles. Spoon out some of the filling into the center of each circle, then fold over the sides creating a half-moon shape. Gently press around the sides to seal, then use a fork to crimp the edges. This not only is decorative, but helps keep the filling inside the empanada. Repeat with remaining dough. Depending on the size of the cutter, you'll end up with between 20 and 30 empanadas.

Brush the top of each empanada with the egg wash.

 To cook, you can either fry or bake them. If frying, heat enough peanut oil in a large pot (or preheat your deep fryer) and fry in batches until golden brown. Serve hot.

If baking, preheat your oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay out desired amount of empanadas and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot.

You can freeze the empanadas as well and pop them frozen straight into a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Kitchen Basics: The Homemade Marinara Sauce

Monday, May 2, 2011

There are a few versions of "gravy" that I use in the kitchen, depending on what pasta I'm using and what proteins. But a sauce you all should know to make because it's incredibly easy and flavorful and can be used for everything is the basic marinara sauce. And with prices jumping up and basic good quality marinaras retailing at over $6 a bottle, best for you to know how to make your own damn sauce!

You don't need a lot of bells and whistles for a good marinara. You need quality premium ingredients like fresh basil, good fresh garlic, good olive oil, and most importantly of all most important things, you need to use either home-grown in season summer garden tomatoes OR San Marzano Tomatoes. Coming from San Marzano, Italy, these tomatoes are unparalleled and simply the best in the world. So much so that even in the dead of summer with tomatoes at their peak, even Italians in Italy will use canned San Marzanos. You can find them now readily available at your local supermarket usually in the canned tomato section, sometimes in the pasta sauce section.

The trick to a good marinara is love. I'm serious -- you need to go low and slow, and let the flavors develop. You want a rich, deep color flavor to match it, and this can only be achieved with effort and a watchful eye. You need a good pot, a sturdy wooden spoon (metal will react with the tomatoes too much I personally have found), and some love. That's it. Here's the recipe for my basic marinara...

Marinara Sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, peeled and very finely chopped
5-6 cloves garlic, chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp dried oregano
small pinch (1/4 tsp) dried thyme
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 (28 oz) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 cup good cold water
1/4 cup red wine (optional)
2 Tbsp fresh basil, torn

Heat the olive oil in a pot. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook on medium-low heat until softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the bay leaf, oregano, thyme, and sugar. Add the can of tomatoes and water, and mix to combine. Add the wine if using and the basil, and stir in. Crank heat up to high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes for flavors to develop. Taste and adjust with seasonings as needed and to taste.

My Notes:
If you want a thinner consistency, add more water; chunkier use less water. If you want a very thin consistency then puree with an immersion blender.

You can keep the sauce for up to a week. Reheat it in a pan and toss with your favorite pasta.