Yearly Archives: 2010

Duck Hunt

Easter was a casual affair, with some simple but decadent food. A friend brought over a tin of duck confit (thank you very much!) which was promptly shredded and crisped and served alongside potatoes sautéed in a ladleful of duck fat, then topped it with runny-yolked fried eggs. It was salty, crisp, starchy happiness. The salad, the mesclun greens with grapefruit suprêmes, shaved endive, and paper-thin pear slices, lightened the meal a bit, but I still think all that richness gave me a touch of gout.

For dessert, I made waffles that were supposed to be crispy, but turned out to be tough. Insert blush of embarrassment: I hope my guest of honor didn’t crack any teeth! Some important rules to live by: don’t get a haircut prior to an important event, and don’t experiment with recipes when you’re entertaining. The pineapple compote-goat’s milk dulce de leche topping were fabulous though, so hopefully that makes up for the waffle failure. Similar to how some great shoes and glam accessories will spruce up your so-last-season frock…

Memory Lane

Someone asked me if I’d always “been into” food. I thought, “Not really…” and began reviewing my youthful ambitions: Ballerina. Disney Imagineer. Christian martyr.

Being a cook never crossed my mind. But then I went back and did some digging. If I had a bare wall and was allowed to decorate it only with the crispest snapshots of long-ago occurrences, food would be main point of focus. Some highlights in my food timeline:

Age 2: Buying powdered doughnuts at the drive-through convenience store in Miami.

Age 3: Sitting in the yard with my cousins, wearing a ratty t-shirt reserved for the stains from impossibly juicy mangos. Instead of mud pies, my grandmother and I made mud tamales.

Age 4: Tea time with my mother at 3:00pm, prompt: white toast with butter and guava jelly as the sun set in a blaze of orange. Tea time in Buenos Aires: white sliced bread, butter spread evenly to crust-less edges, cut into quarters.

Age 5: Realizing that not everyone had enough to eat. The supermarket in Granada was mostly dusty shelves. Encountering rice pilaf as an individual course in Mexico—and hating it.

Age 6: Experiencing fancy food: Guanábana bombe for a fancy dinner party, courtesy of my grandmother. Profiteroles bathed in warm chocolate sauce at a white tablecloth restaurant in Mexico City. Getting sick after eating marzipan grapes at a First Communion party. Discovering consommé.

Age 7: Eating birthday cake with Jell-o. Apparently a common occurrence at Mexican birthday parties. Feeling grown-up because I loved pistachio ice cream.

Age 8: Eating my first TV dinner—I just had to try that cherry cobbler.

Age 9: Reading the Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie series, mesmerized by the descriptions of food preparations. The Hobbit falls into this category as well.

Age 15: Reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s article about Roman pizza bianca, then devouring a 12-inch rectangle of said item at the forno in Campo dei Fiori. It was better than I’d dared to imagine.

Age 16: Discovering Roman peaches. I can still smell them.

Age 28: I don’t think I’d ever really enjoyed lobster until I had it cooked in briny ocean water in Cape Cod.

When I eat or cook it’s hard to stay in the present and not travel back in time. The smell, the taste, the touch—déjà vu and comfort.

Eye of the Storm

My favorite way to eat coffee cake: smear both sides of the slice with butter and whatever topping crumbs you can collect, then griddle over medium-low heat until golden.

My apartment is overrun with cooking equipment and groceries. They’ve busted out of the kitchen cabinets and counters and begun squatting on the floor, on my dining room table, on top of the bookshelves… Developing recipes from home means I have to purchase groceries several times a week, and in some instances, more than once a day due to last-minute changes, “Hmm. I suppose I could use spaghetti instead of rotini here.”

I’ve been cleaning up as I go—never, never, ever allow pots, pans, etc. pile up in your sink until you’re done because I can tell you, woodland creatures are very unreliable and won’t clean up after you like they do for Snow White—but my kitchen can’t contain the abundance of paraphernalia I need for my assignments.

The eye of the storm? My coffee table. If I need a moment away from The Pit of Despair I sit on the couch and bask in the order of that table. New magazines, books, flowers, and most importantly, cake. Cake sitting pretty under that glass dome is one of the few things that centers me and irons out the crease between my eyebrows…I should make cake more often. Don’t you just love cake?

Bowled Over

“Timid and shy and scared am I, of things beyond my ken,” sings Leisl in The Sound of Music.  I was painfully shy when I was little, and blushed every time I watched the rainy gazebo scene. I blushed even more furiously when I played Leisl to Ricky’s Rolf (Ricky had a crush on me and I despised him for it) at the end-of-the-year pageant in 1985. I was five years old.

Twenty-five years later, “timid” and “shy” are not words I would use to describe myself. I’d say Fräulein Maria lustily singing “I Have Confidence” provides a better illustration. Or maybe the scene where Captain Von Trapp finds Maria plunged into the deepest of curtseys in a ballroom of imagined guests.

Next weekend, my two-sizes-too-small kitchen will become a one-pupil-culinary school. I told my soon-to-be student to cook with confidence and above all, with an aim to pleasing herself. The Michelin inspector isn’t coming to dinner. Cook and eat what you like! And if things don’t turn out, so what? Clean up and give yourself a Do-Over (i.e. a reliable and satiating meal, like pizza with sausage and banana peppers).

Last weekend I was craving soy sauce and sticky rice, so I pulled this recipe together. I didn’t have a final product in mind, but this is what the craving turned into. Good things happen when you go with the flow.

MARINATED STEAK-&-VEGETABLE RICE BOWL
Serves 4 to 6
This would be really good with a fried egg on top. Sriracha can be found in the international or Asian foods aisle at most supermarkets—you’ll recognize it by its tomato-red color and rooster logo. Glutinous rice is short-grained and sticky, but if you can’t find it, use long-grain white rice, such as Carolina, or pick up a few containers at your neighborhood Chinese or Thai restaurant.

For the Rice
2 cups water
1½ cups glutinous or long-grain white rice
¼ teaspoon salt

For the Steak
1½ pounds flank steak
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, grated or minced
1 teaspoon Sriracha
4 teaspoons vegetable oil

For the Vegetables
1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into ¼-inch thick slices
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon light or dark brown sugar
4 cups shredded Napa or regular cabbage
2 medium carrots, grated
4 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise
1 cup cilantro leaves
8 ounces enoki mushrooms (optional)
½ cup dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped or crushed

For the Spicy Mayo
½ cup mayonnaise
2 to 3 teaspoons Sriracha
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon light or dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon fish sauce (optional)

– Bring water to boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the rice and salt and boil until most of the liquid has evaporated and you can see small bubbles bursting on the surface of the rice. Immediately reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Fluff the rice with chopsticks or fork and serve.

– Cut the flank steak lengthwise into 3 long strips. Cut each strip in half crosswise to make 2- to 2.5-inch long steaks. Whisk the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and Sriracha together in a medium bowl.  Add the steaks, making sure they’re evenly submerged in the marinade. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes to 1 hour.

– Heat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil begins to smoke. Add half of the steaks and cook until deep brown on both sides; 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer steaks to a plate and cover with foil. Repeat with the remaining 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and steaks.

– Whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and sugar in a small bowl. Add the cucumber slices and toss to coat.

– Whisk together the mayonnaise, Sriracha, soy sauce, lime juice, sesame oil, sugar, and fish sauce in a small bowl.

To assemble:  Place about ½ cup rice in a deep bowls or soup bowls. Slice the beef and divide evenly among plates. Arrange cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, scallions, cilantro, and mushrooms (if using) around rice and beef. Sprinkle with peanuts and serve with spicy mayo.

Taste of Home

Sometimes all you need is a home cooked meal, one that reminds you of mom making supper when you came home at the end of the school day. Nothing special or out of the ordinary, just something that says, “I’m home and the day is done.”  A Latin American friend and I were talking about how the fanciest meal at a restaurant couldn’t compare with a plate of simple food—and for us that meant anything that could be served with a heaping pile of rice and beans.

Carne chorizada is one of those unpretentious recipes that makes it into the dinner rotation at least twice a month at my house. It never gets boring, despite its brief and humble list of ingredients.

CARNE CHORIZADA
Serves 4 to 6
This recipe can also be made with meatloaf mix or a combination of ground beef and ground pork. If you can’t find fresh baby corn, substitute with 1½ frozen corn kernels. Achiote paste is a common ingredient in Nicaraguan dishes and can be found in Latin American supermarkets or the international aisle of the supermarket. It’s primarily a colorant, so if you can’t find it, don’t worry and proceed with the recipe.

2 pounds 85% lean ground beef
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon vegetable or corn oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 small red potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼” dice (about 1½ cups)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¼” dice (about 1 cup)
8 ears baby corn, cut into crosswise into ¼” rounds
1 tablespoon achiote paste (optional)
3 tablespoons cider vinegar

– Using your hands, combine the beef with 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard in a large bowl.

– Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until it’s softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the achiote paste (if using) and cook, stirring with a wooden cooking spoon, until the onions are evenly coated, about 1 minute.

– Increase heat to medium-high; add the beef, and cook, continuously stirring and breaking up any lumps, until the beef is no longer pink and most of the released juices have been absorbed. Stir in the vinegar, potatoes, carrots, and baby corn. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.  Remove skillet from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with white rice, black or red kidney beans, corn tortillas, and/or fried plantains.

Where the Heart Is

Though the Aeropuerto Internacional Augusto César Sandino has boasted jet bridges for several years now, I still expect to descend directly from the airplane onto the tarmac. In the 80s, excited family and friends would crowd together mosh pit-style on a terrace that overlooked the landing strip, everyone calling out and waving signs like crazed fans awaiting a celebrity’s arrival on the red carpet. But they were just waiting for their exiled own, coming home for the holidays.

My trips to Nicaragua are bittersweet, especially during Christmas. My passport still marks me a citizen, and I do call it “home” whenever I refer to it, but Nicaragua hasn’t really been home for a very long time. I’ve moved on, but that first sighting of dusty olive green land from the scratched acrylic windows makes my heart cramp. Memories of trips when my family lived in the U.S. and Mexico during the 80s jumble with those from college breaks and the more recent perfunctory visits. The childhood jaunts were all fun and adventure; I was mesmerized by ox-pulled carts on the main roads and street vendors pouring sodas into plastic bags—mini-udders that dispensed Coca-Cola. But even in the haze of little-kid wonderment, I knew everything was broken, and it made me deeply sad. It’s sadder today. But, there are uniquely beautiful and wow-worthy people and scenes to be found, and I appreciate them all the more.