Monday, August 31, 2009

I'm dreaming of a Miami Christmas...

The weather today makes me nostalgic for Christmas in Miami. I know that might sound crazy, but if you have ever experienced a Cuban Nochebuena, you know what I mean. On a perfect December 24 in the 3-0-5, you will wake up to a day like today, sunny, warm, zero-humidity, and the lightest breeze ruffling the palm trees. The smell of hundreds of charcoal fires being lighted in backyards around the neighborhood starts the anticipation for the juicy lechon (roast pork) to come when the sun sets.

Kids start their sugar rush early with candy canes for breakfast. Visitors start coming by with last minute gifts and cookie trays loaded with goodies. If the lechon is at your house, the anxiety begins will it be ready? Did you add enough salt? Maybe you should have pealed a few more bulbs of garlic? If the lechon-making is at someone else's house, its time to visit, maybe take the roasters some cafe cubano or pastelitos? You sit down and play a round of dominos with Abuelo and sneak a peak at the pig under the banana leaves to see how it is coming.

Before long, you shower, head to church, try to concentrate on what the priest is saying instead of your empty stomach, and FINALLY make it to the Noche Buena celebration. Gifts, family, and food in short sleeves and sandals!

I know its only August but on a balmy day like to day, I can't help dreaming...

It's just your friendly neighborhood pear tree...

This is a picture of a pear tree in my neighborhood. It lives in front of an apartment building not too far from mine and it is covered in fruit. I don't know why, but I find fruit trees fascinating. I've also heard that they offer the best bang for your buck as far as backyard gardening is concerned.

I grew up around mango trees and avocado trees and I love those too, but there is something about seeing a fruit you only know from the grocery store shelves out in the wild, even if that wilderness is just suburbia.

For an extreme take on neighborhood and city dining, check out this website on foraging (i.e. finding your food in an urban jungle). People actually do this!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pasta Eater: Allegory of Taste

Vince and I spotted this Luca Giordano painting at the Princeton University Art Museum. We just loved it! This brawny Italian has just finished toiling in the fields and has come home to a heaping plate of spaghetti lightly dressed in olive oil. No need for a fork, he dives right in and enjoys each slurp of homemade goodness.
oil on canvas c. 1660
photograph by Bruce M. White

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Julie and Julia

This weekend I had the chance to see Julie and Julia in the theater with a great group of girls, who coincidentally also blog about food.

We had a lovely time and completed our experience with a French dinner at Bastille in Alexandria. Yummy!

I came away from the movie with a few pearls of wisdom and here they are:

1. In life, its so important to have a mate (if you have one) that shares your values, nourishes your dreams, and will stand by you in your darkest hours. Stanley Tucci and Merryl Streep do a great job of portraying Paul and Julia Child's loving, passionate,and supportive relationship.

2. Sometimes not getting something you desire can open up opportunities you never imagined, but that ultimately make you the person you were meant to be. Throughout the movie, you realize how badly Julia wanted to have a child. It obviously pained her not to hold her own baby, but she rarely let herself wallow in dreams of what could have been. If Julia had been able to have a child, she might never have been able to give birth to Mastering the Art of French Cooking and that would have been a great loss to us all.

3. Live life to the fullest. This sounds cliche, and it is, but so often we need to be reminded that the petty details and annoyances in life are small compared to the beauty and fullness it has to offer. Not all of us can have the privilege of living in Paris, but we can find joy in our everyday situation and make things a bit more delicious for those who live with us.

Julie and Julia, a lovely story about a girl who sets out to conquer a cookbook and learns how to live life as well. This story is excellent for anyone who has ever found themselves at a crossroads in life, uncertain what to do next and worried about making a leap into what seems irrational or absurd. If you haven't seen it yet, I highly reccomend it. Take some tissues and go out to dinner after!

P.S. DC restuarant week starts today! Happy Eating!

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Majestic

This is a picture of Vince's lunch at the Majestic in Alexandria. Fresh green beans with bacon as a side dish and Chicken liver mousse with crostini and poached figs. Everything was really tasty, but the figs stood out among the rest. The were juicy and sweet with a thin, crispy layer of caramelized sugar across the top.
I ordered a B.L.T with arugula instead of lettuce. What a great (and recreate-able) idea!
P.S. Loved the retro feel of the dining room.

Bitter melon squash

The bitter melon squash: a knobby cucumber-like vegetable whose slightly bitter taste is valued as a palate cleanser in some Indian and South Asian cuisine. Who would have thought it would turn up at the Shoppers (supermarket) in Arlington.

I picked it up on a whim and at the urging of a more culinarily adventurous friend than I on a recent shopping trip. Unfortunately, this post is prompted by the fact that I found it decomposing in the back of my fridge yesterday. It kind of reminds me of a sea cucumber or a spine-less cactus. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pizza Party!

Vince and I both have pizza-making pops. We both remember our dads making dough, kneading away at a mass of flour, water, and yeast that would somehow come together in a smooth shiny ball and grow in a warm dark corner of the garage. Pizza days are special at my house, especially because it meant that dad had the day off from work and would be home early for dinner. It also meant that we would be able to sneak little bits of cheese slathered in papi's homemade sauce just before the pies headed to the oven.

When we were little, I remember that we used the big squares of Polly-O mozzarella, cutting it into uneven slices and eating almost half before it made it to the pie. As we got older and our tastebuds grew wiser, dad would experiment with toppings goat cheese, spinach, more grown-up tastes.

Inspired by a Gourmet recipe for pizza dough and a temporary bought of insomnia, I decided to make pizza dough a few weeks ago. (Dad usually makes a Cuban empanada dough recipe.) I let it rise overnight in the fridge (which is actually a good way to go with bread dough, less boozy smell from over-rising and "chewier, more airy crumbs", according to Cooks Illustrated #100).

We topped it with papi's sauce (garlic, olive oil, oregano, and salt run through the food processor, add that to the crust then pour on tomato sauce straight from the can and swirl around with your fingers, or a spoon if you must. Proportions, you ask? Papi doesn't use measuring spoons! He just knows.), pepperoni, italian sausage and onions on one and (our favorite) anchovies and garlic on the other, seriously flavorful! Pair this with a good salad and you are set for dinner. We were also able to cut up the leftovers into bite size pieces for an appetizer the next day.

Pizza Dough Recipe (Gourmet Magazine, July 2009, p.86)

2 (1/4 oz.) packages of active dry yeast

4 1/2 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided plus additional for dusting

2 cups of warm water (105-115 degrees) divided

2 tsp salt

Wisk together yeast, 2 tbsp flour, and 1/2 cup warm water in a measuring cup and let stand until mixture develops a creamy foam, about 10 minutes. (If this mixture doesn't foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)

Stir together salt and 3 cups flour in a large bowl. Add yeast mixture and remaining 1 1/2 cups warm water and stir until smooth, then stir in 1 cup more flour. If dough sticks to your fingers, stir in just enough flour (3/4 cup), a little at a time, to make dough just come away from side of bowl. (This dough may be wetter than other pizza doughs you have made.)

Knead doung on a lightly floured surface with floured hands, lightly reflouring work surface and your hands when the dough becomes too sticky, until dough is smooth, soft, and elastic, about 10 minutes.

Divide dough in half and form into two balls, then generously dust balls all over with flour and put each in a medium bowl. Cover bowls with plastic wrap and let dough rise in a draft free place at warm room temperature until doubled, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

Cook's Note: Dough can rise slowly in the refrigerator for 1 day. Bring to room temperature before using.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yummy Ceviche

Just about a year ago, Vince and I had the best ceviche ever at the Finisterra Hotel in Costa Rica. Sweet and savory with just the right amount of acidity and a ton of flavor, we haven't had ceviche this good again any where else.

It was so good that we special ordered it to go on the last day that we were in Playa Hermosa.

...I wish we were there now!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Charleston, S.C part I

Vince and I just got home from a great weekend trip to Charleston, S.C. Even though it's only been a few hours since we left, I'm already thinking about our next trip back! We ate soooooo well in Charleston. Really, really good food. Stay tuned for pics and recs to come.

Thanks A, B, and J for a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Paladar CM: Camarones Enchilados

Whenever we had company growing up, I always remember having my mom's signature dish: Camarones enchilados. This was the Cuban equivalent of Boeuf Bourguignon (Julie and Julia lovers, you know what I'm talking about!). Always a crowd pleaser, always delicious, my mom knew she would get good reviews with this savory shrimp creole and the complementary plates of sweet plantains, a crisp green salad and plenty of mariquitas (fried green plantain chips).

On camarones enchilado days, I remember a frenzy of shrimp peels flying, parsley and pimentos being whirled together in the blender, the bustle of last minute cleaning, dusting, jamming stuff in closets (at least in the room I shared with my sister) and, best of all, sneaking bites of shrimp from the slow simmering pot on the stove.

Last week we had a lot to celebrate, friends coming home from across the pond, summer in its full glory and a clean apartment! It was camarones enchilado time. Believe it or not this slow simmered recipe and thick sauce come together in a little over an hour and a half. Serve with long grain white rice, maduros (sweet plantains), mariquitas (fried green plantains), and a fresh green salad and you are good to go.
Here is the recipe translated from my bootleg copy of Nitza Villapol's classic Cocina Criolla*
2 lbs of shrimp (peeled and deveined, I also take off the tail. It gets in the way of the eating.)
1/2 cup oil
1 onion
3 garlic cloves (these are called teeth, dientes in Spanish)
1 large green pepper
1/2 cup parsley (one little bunch (this is a direct translation, honest))
1 can of tomato sauce (I assume this to be 8 oz.)
1 can of pimentos (not spicy and not fire roasted)
1/2 cup of tomato ketchup (this is the secret to this dish, trust me!)
1/2 cup dry white cooking wine
1 teaspoon of vinager
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of ground pepper
1 teaspoon of worcester sauce (the cookbook calls this English sauce)
1 teaspoon of hot sauce
Equipment: 1 large stockpot, food processor.
Peel and devein the shrimp, remove tails if desired. Fry them in hot oil; when they are pink add the minced onion, garlic and chopped green pepper (I reccomend the food processor for this) and let it all simmer for a little while together. Add the well chopped parsley, the chopped pimentos with the water that is in the can (again I recommend the food processor), the tomato sauce, the ketchup, bay leaf, cooking wine, salt, pepper, worcester sauce, and the hot sauce. Let this simmer over a low flame for 25 to 30 minutes. Gives 6 portions.

I almost always double the recipe from the get-go, but then again, my mom usually fed a small army at every meal so it may just be force of habit. It really is a crowd-pleaser and you can count on at least a few people, if not all your guests, having seconds.

Clean shrimp

Sofrito (onions, peppers, garlic)

Pimentos and parsley

The rest of the ingredients (bay leaf not pictured)

*I say bootleg because I'm pretty sure that the copy I have is a direct rip on hers, minus the name of the author. After being the Cuban Julia Child for years, she pledged allegiance to the revolution, thereby meriting erasure from her own book. Ah, the tangled web of Cuban exile politics! But don't quote me on this as it's just a theory. If anyone has more info, please let me know.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Stuffed Zucchini

This week we made a lovely stuffed zucchini from one of the giants in the last post. Vince made an awesome Italian sausage and cremini mushroom filling that could not have been better.

Here is a before picture:

And an after! All the juices from the filling ran down and into the zucchini giving it a really sweet and mellow taste that perfectly balanced the the savoriness of the sausage and mushrooms. He pretty much eye-balled the whole recipe, but if we can remember how we made it I'll be sure to give you the recipe!