Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hot town, salads in the city............

Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty, indeed. It's hot here. Summer is cranking up to full blast here in mid-June Phoenix, and everyone's feeling the effects. We're constantly fanning ourselves. My little dog spends most of his time limp on the floor like a steak frying on a grill--I know how he feels. You could, in fact, fry an egg on the sidewalk.......but I wouldn't want to eat it. In fact, there's an awful lot of cooking I don't want to do these days--whether it be on sidewalk or stovetop--but of course we still have to eat, and there's a limit to the number of garden-variety green salads I can eat over and over again. What is the solution? How do we go on without firing up the stove? Is this going to be a cooking blog without any cooking, or what??

My dear readers, let me show you the way.

Mediterranean-style stuffed tomatoes are the answer to everyone's green salad ennui (come to think of it, it solves a few problems with traditional 'tuna salad' as well, mainly that it's not oozing mayonnaise from every pore), as a light and delicious lunch packed with light protein and stunning flavor. Take several fat red tomatoes, carefully remove the stem end and core with a sharp knife and gently squeeze the tomato innards, seeds and all, into a bowl and set aside. This step is especially satisfying, I find. Squeezing things tends to have that effect.

Next, you spoon into the freshly excavated tomato cavities a sharp and well-balanced mixture of tuna, kalamata olives, fresh cilantro and minced red onion. Finally, you top it with a crunchy cap of buttery, toasted bread crumbs (okay, you will have to use your stovetop for sixty seconds to make these, but it's worth it) and drizzle over top a homemade tomato-olive oil vinaigrette. It's tasty, it's fast, it's healthy, and it's so much easier to look forward to than tucking into yet another bowl of green leaves!

Oh yes. My feelings on salad. Did I mention that I get what I like to think of as 'salad fatigue'? I can't help but think, during the salad days of summer, of Jeffrey Steingarten's hilarious 1997 essay 'Salad, the Silent Killer,' in which he debunks the myth of the 'healthy salad' by cataloguing all the various toxins, mutagens and carcinogens lying in wait in the depths of our bowls. In addition to which, he adds, these salad eaters with their 'heads bowed, snouts brought close to their plastic wood-grained bowls, crunching and shoveling simultaneously' are unfeelingly keeping him from his dessert (read the entire essay here). He was kidding. I think. It's hard to tell, it's Steingarten!

I eat big bowls of green leaves (sometimes the traditional lettuce but not often, if we're going to eat bowls of leaves around here we like to stick to things that I think of as having more nutrition, like spinach, cabbage or arugula) and various vegetables dressed in homemade vinaigrette pretty often. It's tasty. It's virtuous (well, except on those days when bacon or sauteed chicken livers manage to sneak themselves into the bowl). It's also extremely boring, and I get fatigued with my big bowls of salad faster than I ought to admit, but I'm admitting it now. But there is hope! There is a light at the end of the salad tunnel, my friends, and it is THIS SALAD:

.......which has two wonderful things going for it. First, that it is plainly not made of boring green leaves but of vividly orange scraps of carrot and other wonders peeking out from underneath, herbal flecks of green, salty white glints of feta cheese. Second, that it is a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen blog (originally posted here), and it's just nearly impossible to go wrong with a recipe from Deb's kitchen. That woman knows a gem when she sees it, and her 'Carrot Salad with Harissa, Feta and Mint' is a summertime gem indeed.

This salad is earthily sweet in the way that good raw carrots often are, balanced perfectly by the sharp tang of lemon juice and crumbled feta cheese. The mint, parsley and blend of spices in the dressing give this dish a fantastic North African flavor, and the swell of heat lurking in its depths (how spicy you make this is, of course, up to you) give it real authority, as well as helping you to cool down on a sweltering day. I never expected to have my mind blown by a carrot salad--a bowl of shredded carrots, come on!--but I bow before this recipe. My mind was blown. Salty, sweet, juicy, spicy, crunchy, earthy with spices.....and it was fantastically simple to make! Thirty minutes after having eaten it for the first time, still full from that first bowl, I was nonetheless craving it again.

Come to think of it, I'm craving it now.

I think it's time for lunch. No cooking required.

Mediterranean Stuffed Tomatoes

(serves 2 comfortably for lunch)

4 ripe, round tomatoes
2 cans water-packed tuna (this actually made slightly more tuna salad than we could stuff into 4 tomatoes, but your mileage may vary. We were happy enough to scrape up and eat the leftovers straight from the bowl)
2 tablespoons sliced kalamata (or other variety) olives
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons minced red onion

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
splash of balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

2 tablespoons bread crumbs
1 tablespoon butter (or olive oil, or a mixture of both, whatever suits you)

Carefully remove the stem end and core from each tomato with a sharp knife, leaving the bottom intact so that the tomato form a 'bowl' shape. Gently squeeze the seeds and water from each tomato into a mixing bowl, set aside. In another bowl, combine tuna, olives, cilantro and onion. Spoon this mixture into the 4 hollow tomatoes.

In a food processor or blender, blend the 'tomato innards' with olive oil, garlic, and a small amount of balsamic vinegar, salt & pepper to taste, until well pureed.

Finally, in a small skillet, heat butter or olive oil over medium high heat. Add bread crumbs, stir to coat thoroughly. Cook briefly until bread crumbs are toasted to a light nut brown color, then remove from heat immediately. This takes very little time (maybe a minute or two, maybe less, depending on the kind of bread), so keep a close eye on it.

Drizzle stuffed tomatoes with the vinaigrette, then top each with a sprinkling of butter bread crumbs. Enjoy!

P.S. - If these recipes don't help to cool you off, you can always try what my little dog does when the heat is just too much! Stay cool out there, readers.......... :)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dumplingboy: The Mighty Gyoza!

I love dumplings of all kinds. I mean, I really, really love dumplings. I'm not sure I can adequately explain to you using just words how very much I love dumplings.

Maybe Dumplingboy can explain it for me.

...........I made him. And even though he's made of flannel and stuffed not with juicy pork, tender scallions and Napa cabbage but fluffy polyester stuffing, I'm having a hard time not taking a bite out of him just the same! I love you, Dumplingboy.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pambiche-style Cuban pork tenderloin with black beans, fried plantains......and FLAN! Did I mention flan??

Once upon a time, back in ol' 2007, the husband and I journeyed to Portland, Oregon and fell in love. Not with each other, that is, we were already madly in love with each other......with the place and its people, its weather, its public transportation system, and its many, many wonderful restaurants. We had only to ask a stranger walking down the street or riding the bus next to us what was their favorite restaurant/artisanal bakery/microbrew pub and not only would we receive an immediate answer, but a handful of runners-up in case the one they had suggested was closed, too far a walk, or simply not our cup of tea (or house-roasted fair trade coffee). These people are opinionated and take their eating and drinking seriously. In the case of the man who first directed us to Pambiche, he didn't merely give us the address of the restaurant, he walked us from the streetcar we had all been riding together to the stop where we'd meet the bus we needed to take, gave us detailed directions as to where to transfer and where to get off, suggested what to try on the menu, and sent us on our merry way--with coupons!

He didn't work there. I think.

Cuban-style Pambiche (it's located at 28th & Glisan, Portland people) won us over immediately with its gloriously vibrant paint job, inside and out, its lively music & atmosphere, and......oh yeah, the food, have I mentioned the food? Amazing. See?? I had a plate of marinated roast pork with black beans and fried yucca slices that I still dream about to this very day.

In honor of our very first Pambiche dinner (which has since been repeated a few times, although sadly not as often as we'd like, since we live in Phoenix), Mike and I recently re-created a Cuban style feast at home. We marinated a pork tenderloin for hours in a bath of lime juice, olive oil, cumin and garlic, then sauteed it lightly and served it with fresh cilantro. There was a sofrito-based side of spicy black beans. And there were.......(happy sigh).....fried plantains.

Fried plantains with Mike's special 'pink sauce.'

Black beans stewed with sauteed onion, garlic and sweet bell peppers from my garden, seasoned with cumin, chili powder, and a splash of lime juice.

The best way to make fried plantains that we've found is Alton Brown's way (isn't that usually the way it goes? Recipe follows at the end of this entry). Alton prefers that you use green plantains, the ones that resemble a very unripe banana. They're quite a bit firmer than the ripe version, which makes absolute sense when you get to the step where he has you soak them in garlic-enhanced salt water, albeit briefly. Trust me, soft, ripe plantains cannot abide this particular step (ask me how I know, go on, ask me how I know!) and will crumble on you, so stick with the green ones. Once they're cooked they are tender, garlic scented perfection, golden and crispy on the outside but soft and yielding to the teeth on the inside.

And the best part is, you can use the leftover bits of pork and black beans to make Cuban tacos the next day! Win!

If you're somehow still hungry after dinner (and I promise I won't tell on you if you are), you can cap things off perfectly with a beautiful little flan, just like we did on our first night at Pambiche. They're made in tiny individual ramekins, so you won't feel like you're devouring a huge dessert portion all by yourself (unless, that is, you eat your partner's as well!). And there's fruit and greenery, see, pineapple, mint? If there's fruit it must be healthy! Cheers.

Flan with Caramelized Pineapple

1 1/3 cup sugar (divided into two 2/3 cup portions)
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 large eggs

1 cup fresh pineapple, sliced into small chunks
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
pinch of salt

fresh mint for garnish

Place 2/3 cup of sugar in a small saucepan and add just enough water to dissolve it, about 1 tablespoon. Heat on medium heat, swirling the syrup in the pan occasionally, but never stirring it. The syrup will boil for a while until it starts to turn brown. The trick to making caramel is to watch it carefully and to remove it from the heat while it's still a shade lighter than you'd like it to be (caramel keeps cooking in a hot pan, even as you're pouring it into the ramekins it's still can also burn in seconds, go on, ask me how I know this!). Once it has turned a very light nut brown, remove it from the heat and immediately pour the caramel into the bottoms of 6 ramekins. Set aside.

In another saucepan, heat the milk with the other 2/3 cup sugar until it reaches a boil. Stir in vanilla. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs for about a minute. Whisk in the hot milk, in very small amounts at first to avoid scrambling the eggs (this process is called tempering). Pour the milk mixture into the ramekins on top of the caramel. Place all 6 ramekins in a large oven proof dish. Fill the dish with water to about 2/3 the height of the ramekins.

Carefully place in 300° F oven. Bake for 40 minutes to an hour (bake until custard has set, test with your finger or by gently inserting a knife); make sure the water surrounding the ramekins does not boil during baking. Allow the custard to cool completely, then refrigerate.

To make the caramelized pineapple (you can do this while the flan is cooling), heat butter in a pan over medium high heat. Add pineapple, allow the pieces of fruit to cook until they are just beginning to brown on either side, stirring occasionally. Add brown sugar and pinch of salt (taste for correct amount) and stir for 30 seconds more, then remove from heat and let cool slightly.

To serve, run a knife just along the inside of each ramekin, then turn flan over onto a dessert plate. Surround with caramelized pineapple bits, garnish with fresh mint (this last step is, of course, completely optional. I happen to have an enormous, bushy mint plant that is slowly taking over the backyard--we call it MINTASAURUS--and so we use mint whenever the opportunity presents itself! Plus it makes it look all the more festively Cuban). Enjoy!

Fried Plantains, Alton Brown-style (original recipe from 'Good Eats' shown here)


2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
1 1/2 cups vegetable or canola oil
2 green plantains


Combine water, garlic and salt in medium size glass bowl and set aside.

In a large (12-inch) saute pan, heat oil to 325 degrees F. Peel plantains and slice crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Carefully add plantains to oil and fry until golden yellow in color, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes per side (the oil should come halfway up the side of the plantain). With a spatula or slotted spoon, remove the plantains from the pan and place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, standing them on their ends. With the back of the spatula, press each piece of plantain down to half its original size. Then place the plantains in the water and let soak for 1 minute. Remove and pat dry with a tea towel to remove excess water.

Bring oil back up to 325 degrees F and return plantains to pan and cook until golden brown, approximately 2 to 4 minutes per side. Remove to a dish lined with paper towels, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Serve immediately, with pink sauce*.

(*Pink sauce is a creation of my husband's, some version of which I believe he may have originally gotten from Jacques Pepin. It's an easily made condiment and it tastes good on everything--french fries, avocado slices, sandwiches, fried plantains, everything! Take equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup and mix thoroughly with liberal amounts of hot sauce, to taste. The preferred hot sauce around the Orange & Salt kitchen is Arizona Gunslinger, but we understand if you don't, you know, live in Arizona and can't get your hands on some. Chipotle-style Tabasco is also wonderful.)