Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cooking-up Childhood Memories

My sister-in-law has been working on an oral history of my mother so that my niece (her daughter) would have a chance to know her grandmother long after she's gone.  It's an ambitious and challenging project that I admire her for undertaking.  She allowed me to read the narrative she had painstakingly collected,  and as I read about my mother's early life in Cuba, the memories of my own childhood and the food of my childhood flooded my thoughts.  My mother never thought she was a good cook, but her ability to effortlessly create delicious dinners from simple, humble ingredients always seemed like magic and was one of the reasons I fell in love with cooking.

One on the dishes I always associate with my childhood is Picadillo (pronounced peek-ah-dee-yoo).  This simple Cuban specialty is basically a beef hash with wonderful contrasting tastes of salty pimento filled olives and sweet raisins.  The whole stew has a deep, savory backbone of  flavor from the sherry, tomato and Worcestershire sauce that are simmered into it.  Picadillo was something my Dad made exceeding well.  He would grind his own fresh beef chuck, combine it with the other ingredients and slowly cook it all, allowing the flavors to develop and deepen.  I can still recall the swirling scents of simmering beef, onion and garlic, steaming  rice and frying sweet plantains being nearly overwhelming .  Even now those heavenly aromas can take me back to being 6 years old.
Cuban Picadillo
I got so hungry reminiscing as I read my mother's biography that I decided I should whip up a batch of this Cuban perfection for my Academy Awards dinner.  I knew I had made the right choice for a rainy Sunday dinner as the perfume of the cooking food filled the whole house with Caribbean warmth.

I didn't grind my own beef chuck but used a 85% lean to 15% fat packaged chuck.  Going too lean on the meat makes for a less flavorful Picadillo.  15-20% fat is the right balance of fat to lean.
Ingredients for Picadillo
The sofrito is the base of this dish as it is for so many Cuban specialties.  I dice 1 medium sized onion, 1 medium sized pepper and mince 4 or 5 cloves of garlic and saute that in  about 1/4 of a cup of olive oil. Once that vegetables are tender I add 1 lb of ground beef and brown it over medium heat.  I stir and break up the lunps of beef periodically.  Once it's browned I drain off a fair amount of the liquid but not all of it and save the liquid in case I need to add a little in later.
Ground beef added to the sofrito

Browned beef awaiting other ingredients
I return the drained beef to the stove and add 1/4 cup dry Sherry, 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, 1/2 cup crushed tomato and 1 Tablespoon ground Cumin.  I also season it with 1 teaspoon or so of Kosher salt and pepper. 
Beef mixture with tomato, sherry, Worcestershire, Tabasco and Cumin added 

Let this simmer some more.
I simmer this until a fair amount the liquid is absorbed stirring occasionally.  Then I add 1/3 cup sliced green Spanish olives, 1/4 raisins (I used currants this time because I didn't have raisins on hand) and 2 Tablespoons of capers and let this all simmer 10-15 more minutes.  If it gets too dry you can add a little of the reserved liquid.  I adjust the seasonings and drizzle a little more olive oil in.
Picadillo is a fun contrast of flavors: Salty olives ad capers, sweet raisins, along with rich savory notes thanks to the Sherry, Worcestershire and tomato

Simmer the Picadillo until most of the liquid is absorbed
Along with steamed Calrose rice,  I serve the Picadillo with fried ripe plantains
Ripe plantains.  The blacker and softer they get the sweeter they are

Sliced and fried in canola oil until golden brown. Make sure the oil isn't too hot

This is Cuban comfort food at it best.  I serve it with a refreshing salad of cabbage, cilantro, red onion, avocado and tomato with some thinly slice Jalapenos all dressed up with olive oil and lemon.  The Jalapeno isn't very Cuban but I love that it adds a little sass to the savory and sweet flavors of the  Picadillo, rice and plantains.

Homey Cuban Picadillo with rice, fried plantain.

 I had little Picadillo leftover and like any stew it was better the next day.  I served it this time as as appetizer and decided to play a little with the plating.
Fancied plating of Picadillo with Red cabbage salad.  

Childhood food memories are the best because they are so often tied to a happy, far away time.   But these seemingly past moments can easily be brought to the present if you take a moment and cook it up.

This weekend dig down into your adolescent memories and make that chicken pot pie that mom used to make with the perfect flakey crust or the pierogis browned in lots of butter  that Grandma always had on Sundays.  Have fun reliving every scent and flavor and let me know what you make.  Happy cooking!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cooking from the Heart

Valentine's Day is tomorrow and I'm sure most of you are going out to a lovely dinner in a fancy restaurant. But if you decide to forgo the madness of the day and stay home for a quiet, romantic dinner instead, consider making something that you love.  This is not a time to worry about calories or sugar and fat content, it's a time to make something you love to eat and love to make.  After all, isn't Valentine's Day all about love?

I love to eat and cook lots of different things, but one of the things that I love most are sweets.  I especially love a good, moist cake.  But often times cakes can be somewhat labor intensive and your end result can still be dry and not very satisfying.

But not the case with this wonderful, flourless almond cake.  I have fallen in love with this cake because of the delightful flavors of almond and citrus and because it's a breeze to make. It is known as a Tarta de Santiago and hails from that region of Spain.  It's such a simple cake to make and a guaranteed crowd pleaser.  It can be served with fresh berries or simply by itself with a nice cup of tea.
Tarta de Santiago-- Flourless Almond Cake
This is a recipe I found on Epicurious when I needed a gluten-free cake for a client.  The recipe was very good although I did tweak some things.  Here are the few ingredients for this cake:
6 eggs separated
8 oz Almond Meal
1 1/4 cups Sugar (divided)
1/4 teaspoon Cream of Tartar
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 teaspoon Almond Extract
Zest & Juice of 1 Orange and 1 Lemon
Equal part of Sugar for the juice of the orange and lemon for a syrup
Ingredients needed for Flourless Almond Cake
I preheat the oven to 350 degrees and the gather all the ingredients.   I prepare my pan which is a 9 or 10 inch spring-form pan: I spray it, line it with a parchment round and then spray the parchment.
Sprayed pan and parchment round

Spray the parchment round.  This method of spraying then lining with parchment and then spraying again is also known as S/P/S
I first beat the egg whites with 1/4 cup of sugar, salt & Cream of Tartar.  I "rain" the sugar in slowly and then beat until I have peaks that stand and the whites look glossy.
Beat egg whites on high with sugar, salt and Cream of Tartar

Beat egg whites until peaks stand and it looks glossy
I transfer the egg whites to a bowl and in the same mixing bowl (no need to rinse) I beat the yolks with the remaining sugar, again raining it in slowly until it becomes thick and light.  I scrape the sides and bottom of bowl half way through beating.
"Raining" in sugar to egg yolks

Notice how pale yellow the egg yolk and sugar mixture have become

Then I add in the zests, the vanilla and almond extracts and beat well.  Then in goes the almond meal. I get my almond meal at Trader Joe's and it's not blanched which gives the final cake a nutty brown look as opposed to a lighter, more yellow appearance had I used blanched almond meal.  The flavor is the same but the Trader Joe's unblanched almond meal is significantly cheaper than blanched almond meal.  Once I add in the almond meal the mixture becomes really thick like cookie dough.
Almond meal added to beaten egg yolks and sugar

Notice how thick the mixture becomes once combined
Orange and lemon zest.  Beat this in along with the extracts.

I add the egg whites in 3 parts.  I add the first third with the mixer on low to lighten the mixture.  The next third further lightens the batter.  I fold in the  the final third by hand to make sure I get all the almond mixture that's on the bottom of the bowl.  As always when I work with egg whites, I try not to deflate them too much as they are the leavening for the cake.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes.
While the cake bakes I make the citrus syrup that I will later brush the cake with.  I juice the fruit and measure it.  I add the same amount of sugar, place it all in a pan and bring it to a boil and then set aside.
Juice the zested lemon and orange and then stain the juice

Measure juice and add equal amount of sugar

Place juice and sugar into saucepan

Bring juice and sugar to boil to dissolve sugar and remove from heat.
After 40 minutes I remove cake from oven even though the cake seems a little jiggly.  When I insert a toothpick it comes out clean.  Also it starts to pull away from the sides so I know it's done.

Cake just out of oven.  It will pull away from sides especially as it cools.

While the cake is still hot I carefully brush the top with he hot citrus syrup.  Brush on a fair amount but you will not use up all the syrup.  The cake will collapse a little as it cools.  

Brush cake carefully with hot citrus syrup.  This will add flavor and moistness to cake.  Brush on a fair amount even though you will not use it all up

Notice how much cake pulls away from edges.  Cool completely in pan

I cool it fully in the pan.  When I remove it I carefully peel off the parchment and place it on a serving plate.  Sometimes I leave the cake plain and serve berries on the side.  In this case I place blueberries on top of the cake and then carefully brushed the berries with the citrus syrup.  This cake is great served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Cake decorated with blueberries and then blazed with citrus syrup

Tarta de Santiago with Blueberries and Citrus Glaze
This Valentine's Day go ahead and make something you love and give it as a gift to someone you love (this person can be you by the way).  There is nothing better than a homemade gift from the heart.  Let me know if  you make truffles or heart shaped ravioli just remember to have a great time doing it.  Happy Cooking!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Keeping it Simple

Sometimes it's fun to pull out your French Laundry cookbook and tackle one of those complex Thomas Keller recipes that have more steps than the assembly instructions of an IKEA cabinet.  But those recipes take planning, lots of ingredients that you likely don't have on hand and an entire Saturday to execute.  While this is a great way to learn new techniques, it's hard to pull off on a Wednesday night after you've been working all day.

Like so many things in life,  it's easy to over complicate even something as basic as a roasted chicken.    So this week I want to make this simple, satisfying  staple dish.  No need for brining, basting or browning on the stove top.   No special ingredients or techniques expect for trussing the bird, which is not too hard to do. Trussing allows the chicken to cook more evenly and stay moister.  But if you don't have cooking twine just tuck the wings and move on.
Simple Roasted Chicken
 If you have a little more time and ambition, consider making the Simplified Dirty Rice with Tarragon to serve with the chicken.  This is a nice way to use up the neck, gizzard and other stuff that comes with your chicken to  make a tasty, easy side dish.
Dirty Rice with Tarragon
This is a dish that you could prep in about 10-15 minutes and let the oven do the rest. Paired with a Green Salad, the Dirty Rice and a lovely glass of white or light red wine you have a simple and elegant dinner.

It's just going to be the bird, salt & pepper, butter & oil (I'll also show you about adding a little lemon zest and fresh thyme at the end)
All you need for a great roasted chicken
Rinse and dry with your chicken well using lots of paper towel.  I used a 5 1/2 pound chicken.  Obviously the bigger the bird the longer it will take to roast. 

I preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  

I season the cavity very well with a fair amount of salt and pepper then I stuff it with 1/4 cup (1/2 of a stick) of butter.  Now tuck the wings and truss the bird.  Don't worry if it's not perfect you just want to make the chicken as compact as possible.
Tie a long piece of kitchen twine around the tail and then cross over the legs

Bring the string around and pull until it's tight under breast.  Tie it off and cut of excess string
Now rub the chicken with oil and season very liberally with salt.   I "rain" the salt several inches above the chicken until their is a fair amount of salt on the skin.
Rub cooking oil over the chicken

"Rain" the salt on.  Season very liberally
I place the bird in a cast iron skillet  and then into the preheated oven.  Roast the chicken without opening the oven door.  Roast for about 20 minutes per pound.  I roasted this bird for  nearly 2 hours.  WARNING: There may be some popping and sputtering and it may get a bit smoky if your oven isn't super clean.  But don't worry you dinner is not burning.  Now for the rice.

I make the rice from the stuff in the chicken you have no idea what to do with and you usually end up throwing out.  Along with the neck, gizzard, heart and liver, I add onion, butter, garlic, bay leaves, long grain rice and tarragon and that's going to be my dirty rice.
Gizzard, Heart, Liver and Neck
I saute then innards all in a little oil until they're brown.  I remove the everything except the neck ( I leave that in the pan) and finely chop the gizzard, heart and liver.
Browned gizzard, heart and liver

Finely chopped innards
I add 1 diced onion to the pan with the neck and saute until tender then I add 1-2 T of butter let it melt and then I add garlic,  the chopped innards mixture, bay leaves and 1 cup of rice.   I saute that for 5 minutes more.
Add onion to the pan with the neck.
Minced garlic, butter, bay leaves and chopped innards meat mixture

Saute all for 5 minutes
Then I add 2 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt, stir it briefly and bring it back to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat and simmer until water evaporates.  Turn off heat and let sit covered for 10 minutes.  I remove the neck and bay leaves and add 2 T of fresh chopped tarragon and squeeze of lemon and pinch more salt and pepper.
Add water to sauteed rice mixture
Simple Dirty Rice with Tarragon
When the chicken is done I leave it in the pan and add 1 T of chopped, fresh thyme, zest of 1/2 a lemon and add it the collected butter and juices in the pan.  Now I baste if over the bird and let it sit for 15 minutes ( I got this trick from Thomas Keller).

Roasted chicken with final baste of buttery pan drippings with thyme and lemon zest.
I serve it up with with the Dirty Rice and a salad of lightly dressed greens with sliced red onion.  I also drizzle some of the buttery pan drippings all over the meat and that's my sauce.
Roasted chicken white meat

Roasted chicken leg and thigh.
And if you have leftovers you can always make a great chicken sandwich or salad.

So let's keep it simple this weekend and use up what we have on hand.  If you don't have tarragon and thyme but do have rosemary use that instead in the rice and chicken.  Maybe you just have dried herbs and that's great too.  Have fun and let me know what simple masterpieces you create.  

Happy (simple) Cooking!