Last weekend I found myself alone in the house for like a day, something that never happens. I immediately turned the television to HGTV so I could watch hours upon hours of House Hunters episodes. Then I made myself a big batch of quinoa! My husband does not consider quinoa a meal or a favorite, but it was just me and HGTV and this dish. Total bliss.
I love Spanish flavors, it reminds me of being in Spain and driving around the countryside. If you’ve ever driven through the heart of Spain then you know it is filled with olive trees. They have something like 700 million olive trees planted there, the scenery is an endless blur of them.
The olive influence is apparent in Spanish cuisine with all the olive oil produced there. But saffron and figs also make a big appearance in many Spanish dishes. I have had some of the best and some of the strangest food in my travels through Spain, but the big, bold flavors have always stuck with me.
The olives give this dish a savory and salty taste, but the saffron is apparent in every bite. One would think the figs would play a larger role in sweetness, but they are just a nice background flavor. I would serve this with fish or grilled chicken for a light summer meal.
The other day I received a flyer advertising a romantic Caribbean get-away. It showed a scantily clad, deliriously happy couple lounging on the beach, cocktails in hand. I ripped it in half and tossed in the recycle bin. When you're married to someone whose Twitter handle is @Dermdoc, lying on the beach isn't in your future. Consider this: Last summer when our local Target ran out of sunscreen, they called us.
So the only thing worth going to the Caribbean for would be the food. Caribbean food is a fusion of many cuisines including African, Ameri-Indian, French, and Spanish making, making it deliciously unique. Given its temperate climate, the Caribbean produces an astounding array of exotic fruits such as passionfruit, guava, cherimoyas, and coconuts which feature prominently in both sweet and savory dishes. And their beloved jerk seasoned meats and fresh fish, are often accompanied by two of my favorite foods: plantains and black beans.
Caribbean black beans and rice. If you've never had it, I'm sorry; you've been missing out. I had my first taste about 12 years ago in an eclectic Caribbean restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. I was smitten and still am.
Greek cuisine features many great snacks and nibbles from olives to pastries and dips. An easy dip to make is skordalia. Recipes vary regionally, but generally feature garlic, extra virgin olive oil and potatoes though sometimes egg yolks, almonds or bread as well. The problem for me is raw garlic which gets more and more potent over time. The solution? Roast garlic.
Roast garlic is sweet and soft and most important, mellow. It won't overpower most dishes like this skordalia inspired dip made with potatoes, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and roast garlic, instead of raw. Not only is this dip good for Passover, it's vegetarian (vegan if you use vegan mayo) and gluten free! That is if you use a gluten free mayonnaise, which adds additional creaminess to the dip.
On a trip to Northern Spain in the spring, I discovered pintxos.
In Spanish bars, the appetizers served with beverages are tapas (about which everyone knows), pintxos and bocadilas. There's an easy way to distinguish one from the other. No bread on the plate, it's tapas. One slice of grilled bread, pintxos. Two pieces of bread (or a roll), bocadillas.
Bar food can be as simple as a bowl of beer nuts, but in Spain having a bite to eat in a bar means something very different.
On the trip, we ate elaborately designed pintxos with shrimps riding bareback on saddles of caramelized onions and smoked salmon that topped freshly grilled slices of sourdough bread.
Others featured anchovies with hardboiled eggs, whole roasted piquillo (small red peppers) stuffed with tuna fish, prosciutto wrapped around wild arugula leaves, delicately thin omelets rolled around finely chopped seasoned tomatoes and flat strips of roasted red bell peppers topped with slabs of brie and an anchovy fillet.
The invention and flavors of pintxos are unlimited. Think of wonderfully supportive flavors and textures to place on top the solid foundation of a thin slice of grilled bread and you have a beautiful and tasty appetizer to go with an ice cold beer, glass of crisp white wine or a refreshing summer cocktail like fresh fruit Sangria.
My improvisational style of cooking involves templates. Especially when it comes to cold noodles. I hate thinking of them as “salads” since that implies a “dressing” that is at the forefront. Instead, they’re bowls of cool freshness, or fresh coolness. When it’s hot I want a flavor bomb, some spice and not a lot of fat. That fat part? Speaking not from a diet perspective but from a mouth feel. Hot weather eating cries out for something clean, with a defined flavor profile. Not sludgy. So I tend to look toward Asia for flavor influence.
These spontaneous noodles come together with whatever I happen to have on hand. This time I used rice noodles which are perfect for hot weather since you don’t really need to boil them. I bring water to the boil, add the noodles and turn off the heat. The rice noodles soften in a matter of minutes. Drain them and squeeze out more of the water and you’re ready to toss them with the Nuoc Cham. I like tossing the noodles in the sauce then putting them in the refrigerator to cool and soak while I prepare the rest of the ingredients. You can also prep the veggies and let them marinate in the sauce while you cook the noodles.
On a trip to the southern tip of Baja California, I heard about Tequila Restaurant in San Jose del Cabo, twenty minutes east of its better known cousin, Cabo San Lucas. Enrique Silva, co-owner and chef, introduced me to one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, Camarones al Tequila.
He serves the shrimp with sides of black beans and fried plantains, which were great, but a bit impractical for my kitchen so I’ve adapted the recipe.
For a side, I think rice, pasta, or steamed spinach works just as well. The tequila-garlic sauce gives plenty of flavor. Add a green salad and you have the perfect, easy-to-prepare meal.
The tequila should be white and inexpensive. Save the good stuff for your guests.
Generally, on Cinco de Mayo, we go out to one of two of our favorite Mexican restaurants. I grew up going to Casa Vega. It truly is, in my opinion, the best, authentic restaurant in Los Angeles. The enchilada sauce is perfection, the crispy tacos with shredded beef cannot be beat, and the margaritas kick your butt. More importantly, it holds a whole lot of nostalgia for me. Another favorite is Lucy’s Cafe El Adobe. There is really nothing better than their bar-b-q beef tacos!
This year we are eating home. I have planned a festive meal to share with my family and I am making some of our favorites. Along with our favorites, I wanted to make something new. What I really wanted to make was chile rellenos. I don’t even order chili rellenos in a restaurant, but I had an anchoring to make these.
I looked through my Diana Kennedy Cookbook, a book I have had for over 30 years. I have made several of her recipes, but she did not really have a chile relleno recipe. Sooooo, I turned to the trusty Internet. I searched Saveur, Food & Wine, Cooking Light, and Epicurious. Epicurious was the winner. I found this recipe for a tart and I immediately knew that I wanted to make this dish.
This recipe as a weapon of mass deliciousness. It’s easy to make and serve for a house full of your friends and family.
I have always thought of flautas as a specialty dish, one I would only order at a Mexican restaurant. Somewhere along the line I convinced myself flautas were complicated and I didn’t want to deal with the deep-frying. It’s not that I’m opposed to deep frying, but I knew it would be difficult and time-consuming to fry dozens of flautas for a large gathering.
However, I recently changed my mind and started working on perfecting baked flautas at home. I wanted the meat seasoned properly with traditional Mexican flavors. But most importantly, the flour tortilla had to have the perfect crunch. Anything less wouldn’t be right. I was looking for a flaky texture, similar to the deep-fried flauta.
This week we will be celebrating both Cinco de Mayo and Teacher Appreciation Week. Needless to say, I am going to be spending lots of time in the kitchen. Baking for the teacher’s give me lots of joy. Last year, for the teachers, I made Cake in a Jar and in prior year I have made dozens of cookies and pounds of candy. This year I am using seasonal fruits to inspire my gift giving.
But, before I get to my baking adventures for the teachers, I am planning my Cinco de Mayo menu. Along with my traditional guacamole, shredded beef tacos with pickled onions, red rice, and mojitos(more on these recipes later), I made a Chili Rellano Tart and this Dulce de Leche Cake. One very small bite of this cake and I couldn’t believe how wonderful it tasted. If there was a show for “The Best Thing I Ever Baked”, this would be the winner.
It is so moist and so light. It is a very basic white cake (with booze), but what makes it so rich and delicious is, while warm, a mixture of heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk is poured directly over the cake (my thighs are growing as I write this). Then it sits in the pan, soaking up all this goodness, while the cake cools. As it was cooling, I made some homemade dulce de leche. Right before serving, I sliced the cake and drizzled the caramel over the top. This is not something one could keep in the house, it is simply a special occasion kind of treat!
Sometimes it's all about conveinance and this meal definitely was. The best part, it was full of flavor but ready in minutes. The cheesy, salsa-flavored grits are the base for this simplistic vegetable saute.
By utilizing frozen veggies from the refrigerator and a couple of canned goods from the pantry, this meal was on the table in no time. It's also vegetarian, a good break from all the red meat we seem to eat around here.
In my house, "grits" has always been called "polenta" and there is nothing like real, stone-ground grits (polenta), but in a pinch, instant worked great. There is lots of flavor here, it's really a nice meal. Quick grits can be found near the oatmeal and other hot cereals or near cornmeal in the baking aisle...look for it.
Now, would my kids eat this? No. Too many foods touching each other but for me....the perfect lunch or dinner.