Friday, August 31, 2007

Training Meals, part 4: Salmon and Stuffed Zucchini

A short time ago, when we were out of charcoal, there were only two options for me when I stopped at the store: Kingsford Matchlight and Kingsford Charwood. The Matchlight was not a consideration for me. Supposedly, it's very easy to light this charcoal, but it's coated with lighter fluid, so your food may end up tasting like gas. Besides, we have a chimney, which solves problems with lighting your charcoal.

I bought the Charwood. According to Kinsford, it is "natural lump hardwood charcoal." It also mentions that Charwood burns hotter than regular charcoal, which really just means you get to eat faster. Okay, it also means you have to be careful if you need to cook slower, like having a hot side and a cool side (which my husband performed brilliantly on Sunday with pork loin chops). Anyhow, we love it. I especially like it for the effect it has on salmon.

I purchased some fresh Alaska sockeye salmon and, after the charcoal was ready, it took about 10 minutes for a large piece (about 2 lbs). A smaller piece or larger fire would result in a shorter cooking time, but this was just fine. I'd salted it and Mark threw some fresh thyme on top, then he grilled it skin side down with the lid on. The result was a very smoky salmon with a nice hardwood flavor to it. And the cold leftovers I had for lunch today were still full of that smoky taste. I highly recommend it.

As for the zucchini, well, that's another story. That comes from a suggestion Rick Bayless makes in his cookbook Mexican Kitchen. (My copy of that book is very well-used, by the way, to the point that the seam is completely falling apart. I wish it was available in spiral-bound!) I've kind of changed the sauce around (though the original is also very good), but the zucchini recipe is similar to what he has written. If you have the book, you'll see the original idea is listed after his Essential Simmered Tomato-Habanero Sauce. This is one of my favorite side dishes, and it's delicious and hearty enough to have by itself for a lunch. The corn is sweet and tender, the cheese is creamy, the zucchini tastes so fresh, and the tomatoes brighten up the whole dish. It's such a great combination. You'll probably have more sauce than you need for the zucchini, but it's great on rice, too. Here, then, is the recipe:

Stuffed Zucchini

2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 lbs. fresh, local tomatoes
1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
2-5 serrano chiles (depending on taste), sliced in half lengthwise
Kosher salt

3 medium-sized zucchini
2/3 of an 8-oz. block of cream cheese (or thereabouts),
3 ears corn
1/2 slice bread, blended into crumbs

For the sauce, heat a medium saucepan over medium high heat and cook the onion in the olive oil until tender, 5-10 minutes. Roughly chop the fresh tomatoes and add them to the onions. Cover and cook for one or two minutes, then smash them up with a potato masher. Add the tomato sauce and chiles (2 will be a pretty mild sauce), then simmer on medium-low, partially covered, for about 30 minutes. Taste for salt.

Preheat the oven to 400°. Cut the corn off the ears and combine with the cream cheese. Microwave on high for 1 minute, until well-combined, then add the bread crumbs and taste for salt. Slice the zucchini lengthwise and scrape out the centers to create a boat-like structure. Lay them in a baking dish and sprinkle with salt, then fill with cream cheese mixture. Bake for about half an hour, until the zucchini is fork tender.

Serve with a generous amount of the tomato sauce.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Vegetable Garden

This may not be the most exciting post for all of you, but it is one of my favorite topics. I love my garden. It is right outside my back door, very convenient to my kitchen, with all the herbs growing just off the patio (so I can access them on cold, rainy, or snowy days).

Every growing thing in my garden is potential for something splendid and delicious. I love watching it all grow, picking each tomato as it ripens, canning the excess for the winter. Here's how it's doing today:

This is my rosemary. I'm hoping it will grow large enough to withstand the cold this winter. My first winter here in Boise my rosemary survived, but my second it didn't.

If you've ever been to any remote parts of the West, you may have noticed that sage grows very well here. I certainly have more than I need, but at least my chicken never feels lonely.

My favorite of all herbs: thyme!! The perfect herb for any savory dish, and I have plenty of it! It's so good with meats, tomatoes, cheese, vegetables.

Leeks have been my poorly-maintained experiment this year. They're so inexpensive to buy as starters, and so expensive to buy as produce, so they were worth it. I should have thinned them out about 3 months ago, though, so we'll see what happens when they're ready in another month or two. One of my friends always plants leeks because she loves to put them in her stuffing at Thanksgiving.

Ah, the reason I garden. I love garden-fresh tomatoes. No other tomato compares to the ones that ripen completely in your garden, and then are consumed that day. Makes you just want a cheese and tomato sandwich, doesn't it? Well, except that orange tomato needs another day or two. So much potential. By the way, I have about 8 tomato plants in my small garden this year. My favorite tomato as far as flavor goes is definitely the brandywine, though I've had some other organic tomatoes that are excellent. Most of our tomatoes go into homemade canned salsa, which usually lasts until the next tomatoes are ready for canning. Of course, we make fresh salsa, too, while the summer lasts.

Don't you love these beauties? My grape tomatoes have a mind of their own, though. I didn't plant any grape tomato starters this year, and I have 3 full-size plants growing back there. Sometimes they take over the garden, but I didn't mind this year, as I planted significantly fewer items, knowing I have a new baby to care for and a house on the market.

So, not pictured are the chives, dill, basil, French green beans, and the huge tomatillo plant that managed to grow on its own, even though I last planted tomatillos two years ago. Crazy. Still, gotta love that green salsa!

We're making a fantastic dinner tonight, by the way, and I can't wait to tell you all about it tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Raspberry Crème Brûlée

I really like crème brûlée. If you've ever had it at a good restaurant, you know why. It's creamy, slightly sweet, silky smooth, creamy, crunchy on top, rich, and creamy. It's a very simple dessert as far as ingredients go, and I've noticed that occasionally someone tries to dress it up by selling "raspberry crème brûlée", or blackberry, or something else that is not just cream. I actually quite like berries, too, and often serve them on top of my crème brûlée, but I've always wondered how they'd taste inside. Rather, I've always wondered if it's worth it. The dessert is so perfect as it is, would the berries make it even better, or would they dilute the quality that makes it so divine?

Thus far, I've never ordered a raspberry (or other flavor)
crème brûlée. Too chicken I'd be disappointed. But I thought it was high time I get a real answer, at least as far as my taste goes. So after we picked all those beautiful berries for jam, I took a few of the leftovers and quickly went to work.

rème brûlée isn't difficult to make, as long as you can tell when it's done, and I've been doing it for years. The first time I had it, actually, was at a restaurant called The Grand Old Ranch House in Moab, Utah on my honeymoon. I later called and the chef gave me the recipe, and I'm so glad I had the guts to do that, since the restaurant no longer exists.

Anyhow, like I said, it's not difficult to make, and it only requires a few ingredients: cream, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla. I prefer to use vanilla beans, but I don't always have them around, so this time I used vanilla extract (homemade, but I'll get into that another day). Sometimes I've used heavy cream, but this time I used whipping cream (slightly less heavy), and had much better results. The taste was still very rich, but it didn't leave that coating on your mouth the way extra-fatty foods can. I like the heavier flavor of heavy cream, so my suggestion would be to go for half of each in the recipe (1 c. heavy cream, 1 c. whipping cream). As for the eggs, I get them from a friend who raises her own chickens, so they're very fresh, vegetarian-fed, and free range. That's the best way to get eggs, if you have the option. Otherwise look for vegetarian-fed, free range eggs in the grocery store. There's a difference in flavor, and flavor is very important in a dish with so few ingredients.

For the raspberries, I simply dropped five fresh raspberries in each ramekin before filling it with the custard. The rest of the recipe is as follows:

Crème Brûlée

2 c. cream
4 egg yolks
2 1/2 T sugar + 2 T more for tops
1/2 t. vanilla extract, or seeds from half a vanilla bean

Preheat the oven to 350
°. If your water bath will be in a stoneware pan, preheat that in the oven as well. Heat about 8 cups of water for the water bath and set aside.

Whisk together the cream, egg yolks, 2 1/2 T. sugar, and vanilla. Place four 4-oz. ramekins in your water bath dish, then fill them to the top with the custard. Gently pour the hot water into the water bath dish.

Bake until the centers are just barely set, like gelatin. If you use a preheated stoneware dish and hot water, this will probably take about 25 minutes. If you're using any regular 9" x 13" pan for the water bath, it may take 40-50 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool, then chill in the refrigerator until cold.

Sprinkle 1/2 T. sugar on each of the baked custards. Using a torch, burn the sugar until slightly brown, then chill 15 minutes, or up to a day, before serving. If you don't have a torch, you can do this under a very hot broiler, placing the custards close to the heating element and burning the sugar as quickly as possible. Be careful not to get them too hot, or you will end up overcooking the custard, destroying the smooth texture.

So, do you want to know what's better? The original, by far. I enjoyed the flavor of the raspberries, but they kept getting in the way of all the good bites of
crème brûlée. I'll serve them on top next time.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Carrot Cake

I've never been in for those "secret family recipe" deals. I mean, if you have a secret family recipe, and you all die, or at least all the good cooks in the family die unexpectedly, it's gone forever. Is that really what you want? Besides, I don't have time to cook or bake for the entire world, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try something good.

If I was feeling stingy, this is one of those recipes I would hide. Well, at least, I would hide the part about the cream cheese frosting. But I'm not that mean. If you're smart enough to love cream cheese frosting, then you deserve this. I won't hold back. But let's start with the cake first.

When I first married my husband, his favorite cake was carrot. It may be chocolate now, I'm not sure, but that's for another day. So I started experimenting, and I quickly discovered that all carrot cakes are made with oil. Gross. Have you ever tasted oil? Not the kind for your car, of course, just the canola or corn kind you'd use in baking a cake? Did you like it? Me neither. Now, have you tasted butter? I thought so. So I decided (rather quickly) to substitute butter. The resulting cake, of course, would be quite different. Instead of a tender, fluffier cake, you get a dense, moist cake with a bit of caramely taste on the crusty edge. Pair that with a mellow cream cheese frosting and you're just about in heaven. Eat too much of it, clog all of your arteries, and you really will be in heaven. That's why it's important to share.

For this cake, you're going to need two 9" x 3" pans. I suppose you could use three 9" x 2" pans; that should work, as well, but since I haven't done it, you'll have to watch it closely to know when it's done. Of course, I prefer my pans with removable bottoms, but do as you like. Also, these cakes have a strong tendency to fall if not completely baked through. This means the center of the cake has to be strong enough to bounce back when touched before removing it from the oven. If you want to do a half batch, you'll need two 6" x 3" pans.

The other tidbit I learned (from my husband, who learned it from participating in cub scout cake decorating contests in his youth) is that it's easier to frost a cake if it's frozen. In fact, it is much, much easier, and since I like eating this cake chilled, it works out quite well. The frosting is soft when prepared but firms up as you frost it because of the cooling temperature. Frost the cake frozen, then serve it about an hour later. It should be just right.

When you grate your carrots, grate them on the finest grater side of a box grater or, if you have it handy, the smallest grater on your food processor. (By the way, it's amazing how fast you can grate carrots with a food processor - it probably took one minute to do enough for one and a half batches.)

The toasted pecans are optional, in case you're allergic to pecans, but otherwise add them. They make the cake!

Carrot Cake

1 lb. unsalted butter, room temperature
3 c. sugar
5 eggs
1 t. vanilla
4 c. all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
2 t. baking soda
1 T. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
3 cups finely grated carrots
1 cup toasted pecan halves

First prepare your pans. Spray them with Pam (I'd just say "non-stick" spray, but let's face it: Pam is definitely superior), then line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 325°.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in the eggs thoroughly, one at a time, and add the vanilla.

Separately, combine the dry ingredients. Whisk them together to sift the flour, mix the ingredients, and lighten them. On low speed, mix the flour into the butter mixture little by little, until fully incorporated, but do not overmix.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the carrots and pecans. Divide between the two prepared pans. In case you think something is wrong, I should warn you that this is a very thick cake batter recipe. You haven't left out any ingredients, nor have I.

Bake for approximately 64 minutes. This is exactly how long mine took, but your oven might be ever so slightly different. The center of the cake should spring back when lightly touched. Note: do not open the oven door several times during baking, as this cake is sensitive and will punish you for your impatience.

Remove the cake to a cooling rack. After 10 or 15 minutes, remove it from the cake pans. Let it cool nearly to room temperature, then return it to the pans and place in the freezer. Freeze until very cold, then frost with cream cheese frosting (see below). Serve.

Cream Cheese Frosting

3 8-oz. packages Philadelphia cream cheese (or local creamery brand, if it's very good), room temperature
18 T. unsalted butter, room temperature (that's 2 sticks plus 2 T.)
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar (not powdered!)
1 T. vanilla

Place all ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium until coming together, then on high for one minute.

Makes a generous amount for a 2-layer cake, but will probably be just right for a 3-layer.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Raspberry Jam

If you haven't made your own jam, you're missing out on a nicely rewarding experience in the kitchen. Jam is simple and fast to make, and, since you choose your own fruit, you can be sure to get the best flavor, too.

Every year we make raspberry jam. In our house, no other jam is better for a pb&j than raspberry jam, although rhubarb comes close. It's pretty simple, except that we make it complicated by making seedless raspberry jam. Who likes having raspberry seeds stuck in their teeth anyway, especially when you're supposed to be enjoying your sandwich?

This is our third year picking our own raspberries. I should have brought the camera, since it's pretty funny seeing a 3-year-old wanting to fill his bucket but never getting more than a few in there before eating them up. Have you read Blueberries for Sal? It reminds me a lot of that book. My daughter is 8 and was significantly more helpful, but that still left me with a lot of raspberry picking. It's worth it to me, though, because while I love raspberries and raspberry jam, I have noticed that they mold very quickly, even refrigerated. If you pick some up at the grocery store or the farmer's market, be sure to look inside several berries before choosing a container. They often have small mold spores in them and this seriously affects the flavor. And also my desire to eat them.

So we picked a bit over a gallon of raspberries. Aren't they beautiful?

And then we got to work. If you want to make seedless raspberry jam, you have a lot of seeds to remove. First, you need to mash the berries (my son and I did this in about 2-cup increments), and then you need to push them through the sieve.
Normally, making any kind of jam may take about half an hour tops, but this part is time consuming. It probably takes about an hour and a half, but I may be overestimating. Just make sure you have some time carved out in your day.

From this point on, it's pretty straightforward: just follow the directions on the package. I used Sure-Jell pectin, which called for 5 cups of mashed fruit and 7 cups of sugar. That may seem like a lot if you've never made jam before, but it's not unusual. I used to use "Lower-Sugar" pectin, but it's hard to find these days.

So, wash your jars and lids and caps, then keep them sitting in hot water while you follow
the instructions to boil the jam with the sugar and pectin. Pour the jam into the jars, placing the lids on, screwing the caps on, and turning the jar over after each one is filled. The jar should seal after a while. I usually just leave it there until it's cool enough to handle and turn them over to check. If you push in on the lid in the middle and it pops out at you, it's not sealed. You have to be sure to fill them and turn them over while the jam is very hot or they won't seal, in which case you can either store it in your refrigerator or process them in a water bath according to the directions.

I think you know the rest. Fix a piece of toast, butter it, add jam. Grab a slice of bread, add peanut butter, then jam. Buy a croissant, slice it open, add jam. You get the idea.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Peach Pie

Peach pie is one of those lovely little treats that remind me why I love food. Not that I needed reminding. When the crust is flaky and delicate, the peaches are sweet and fresh, and the ice cream is vanilla and nearby, everything seems to come together to create the perfect blend of flavors in your mouth. Maybe I like it so much because I can remember eating my mom's peach pies so many times the first 18 years of my life, or maybe my mom made it so much because she knew it was a good thing, too.

Good pie starts with a good crust, which may seem difficult to come by, but is not that difficult to accomplish. I could probably write for three days on all my experiments with pie crust and not cover half of the information out there, but I'll save you the trouble and just include the good stuff. Crust is important. If you aren't going to make a good crust, then don't waste your time - make a cobbler. Cobbler topping recipes are even easier than pie crust recipes, and clearly your goal is to get to the filling anyhow. Still, you should reconsider.

I like an all-butter crust. The flavor is unbeatable, and if you can get it really flaky, it is one of the finest pastries around. Some people prefer to use part vegetable shortening with their butter crust to make rolling it out easier, but when this recipe is done right, the all-butter crust rolls out quickly and smoothly. I've tried using a pastry cutter, forks, fingers, and a food processor, but my favorite method (by far) is from Sherry Yard in The Secrets of Baking, which is where this crust recipe originates. (I highly recommend the entire book, though!) Please, do not use salted butter in this recipe. It will not produce the same quality in flavor.

By the way, if you need to purchase a stand mixer for this recipe, I recommend KitchenAid, and you should get it here.

Pie Dough
adapted from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 T. sugar
1 t. salt (table, or finely ground Kosher)
1/2 c. ice water
1/2 t. white wine vinegar

Cut the butter into 1" pieces and place in the freezer for 15 minutes (no more).

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the flour and sugar. This lightens the flour to make the dough more tender. Add the butter and salt. Mix on low speed for at least 30 seconds and no more than 2 minutes, until most of the butter is about the size of walnut halves. Stop the machine and pinch all the large pieces of butter flat. Be careful not to just mash the pieces; the goal is to create flat, flaky layers in your dough.

Combine the ice water and vinegar, then add the liquid all at once to the flour mixture. Blend for no more than 15 seconds, until much of it is just coming together.
Spread out two sheets of plastic wrap. Bring the dough together just a bit with your hands, just enough so that it's not all crumbs, but do not work it much at this point, as working the dough while it's slightly warm from this process will damage the layers of flakiness and cause the dough to be tough. Divide the dough a little unevenly into two lumps and wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. If you refrigerate it an hour or more, let it set at room temperature for a few minutes before rolling out. Also, before you remove it from the plastic, make sure each lump of dough is shaped into a nice round, semi-flat disc. This will help you in the rolling-out process.

Peach Pie

For the filling, you'll want between 4 and 8 cups of peeled, sliced peaches, depending on how big your pie pan is. If it's a 9" deep dish pan, as most of mine are, use about 8 cups of peaches. For a small pie pan, especially a shallow one, you may need as little as 4 cups. Unlike apple pies, you can't just mound up the fruit before baking, as it will run over. And also unlike apple pies, peach pies are better without additional flavorings, as long as you have good, ripe fruit. Save the cinnamon for your apple pies, and leave the almond extract out (unless you're my mom, in which case you have the good sense to do whatever you want). For each cup of sliced peaches, add 1/4 c. of sugar and 1 1/2 T. of flour or 1 1/4 T. cornstarch (I prefer cornstarch by far with peach pie, as it requires a generous amount of thickening agent). This should make the pie sweet enough and thick enough not to run all over the place, even if slightly warm.
Now that your filling is ready, it's time to roll out the dough. First, preheat the oven to 425°. I highly recommend using a French rolling pin, as it's more easily controlled and lightweight enough to avoid mashing the dough, which is not what you want. Lightly flour a work surface, then dust both sides of your disc with flour. Begin rolling out your dough, taking turns which direction your are rolling. You should go in all directions, and you should dust the top of your dough with flour and turn it over once or twice during this process, so that it doesn't stick to the work surface or get unwanted clumps of flour in spots underneath. Feel free to use lots of flour while rolling out your dough; just be sure it's evenly used across the circle. Your bottom dough should be plenty large; the recipe should provide you with enough dough to ensure you can roll it slightly beyond what you need, so you can estimate the amount you need for the bottom, sides, and crimping the edges.
Gently place this dough in the bottom of the pie pan, then roll out the top so that it extends about an inch and a half beyond the edge of the pie pan. Use a paring knife and cut the edges of the crust all the way around just an inch or so beyond the pan, leaving a little more in especially thin sections (if you have any of those). Press the edges together, then turn the crust underneath and crimp using your thumbs and forefingers. Cut slits into the top to let the steam to escape.
Place the extra pieces of rolled dough that you cut off the edges in a small pan (I used nonstick), and dust with cinnamon and sugar. Bake alongside the pie for the first 10 minutes, or thereabouts, and remove from the oven to eat while you wait for the pie to bake.

Place the prepared pie in the oven and bake at 425° for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350° and bake for an additional 25-45 minutes, until the filling is bubbling near the center, as can be seen through the slits. If the crust is browning too much, cover with aluminum foil to slow it down (I do this when I turn the oven temperature down), but remove the foil during the last 5 minutes or so to make sure the crust is crisp and not steamed.

If everything went well (and I'm sure it did!), you should have a very flaky crust and one fantastic pie. Let it cool on a cooling rack nearly to room temperature, then serve with vanilla ice cream.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Training Meals, part 3: Chicken Tacos

This one is so easy, and so good. It's not your mom's chicken tacos, either, unless your mom is from Mexico. Not only do these taste so fresh and light, they're filling (if you eat 2 or 3, maybe 4 if you have a larger appetite but not on a training diet!) and very nutritious. You've got lean proteins from the chicken, vitamins from the avocados and fresh salsa, healthy fats in the avocados, and fiber in the corn tortillas. It's one of our favorite meals at home, though I do admit my kids like grated cheese in place of the salsa. Not to mention, it takes about 5 minutes to get dinner ready.

First, you buy a rotisserie chicken. Yes, I said "buy a rotisserie chicken." In the old days, I would have roasted one myself, and you're certainly welcome to do that, but life is a bit busy right now and Costco has great rotisserie chickens.

Next, make some salsa. This is easy, too, especially if you skip this step and buy freshly-made salsa. If you don't, I would combine 3-4 seeded, chopped large tomatoes (preferably local, they'll taste better), 1 medium onion, about 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 1-2 chopped serranos, the juice of a lime, and salt to taste.

Now, select a ripe avocado. It should still feel fairly firm to the gentle grip, giving in only slightly. Slice the avocado.

Warm some corn tortillas in the microwave by wrapping them in a clean kitchen towel and heating them for about one minute.

Slice a lime in half.

To assemble, take a corn tortilla (or two, if you've got juicy salsa), and top with just a bit of chicken, a couple of slices of avocado, some fresh salsa, a squeeze of lime, and a sprinkle of salt. Don't try to overstuff your taco - you want to be able to fold it and eat it easily.

And there you have it. One of the best meals you can ever make, and it tastes just the same leftover. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Flan de Puerto Rico (A Day Late)

First, I apologize for posting this late, as it was intended to go up yesterday. I had some more work to do. Our friends from Monday made a terrific Flan de Vainilla, which was exquisite, but they also told us of Flan de Queso, which is Flan de Vainilla with cream cheese in it, so I had to make that first to test it out. I learned a few things.

Let's start with the basics. To make a flan, you first make a caramel, which you pour into the bottom of your flan mold. The caramel usually consists of sugar, just sugar, melted over low to medium-low heat until completely liquid and a deep amber color. This often creates a problem, as any sugar that doesn't get into the mixture may not dissolve but form a tight crystal. To avoid this, another method -
a much easier method - can be used. Add a bit of water to the sugar first, being sure that all of the sugar gets wet, and heat evenly. The other consideration when making a caramel is the saucepan. Only use a saucepan with a heavy bottom (the sides may be thick or thin), as a thin-bottomed pan will result in unequal heating and burnt caramel. And wasted time. But when you get the caramel right and pour it our, don't stress when you don't get it all out of the pan. Besides, caramel is fun to play with for the few minutes before it sets up, thus this picture:

Mexican flan is made with sugar, eggs, milk, and sometimes cream. Puerto Rican flan is made with eggs, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk. The Puerto Rican addition of sweetened condensed milk results in a very smooth texture with a rich but not heavy taste. It's quite nice. With both, of course, the most difficult part lies in baking it properly, not letting it overcook, to ensure the smooth texture. As with any custard, it won't look firm when you remove it from the oven unless you've ruined it. If you could come visit me in my kitchen, I'll show you what it should look like when you remove it. Okay, maybe that's not possible. Let me try to describe it: When you first put the flan in the oven and bumped it, it should have jiggled slightly in the dish the way a glass of milk would. Two-thirds of the way through, if you open the oven and bump the flan, you'll notice that the sides have set up a bit and jiggle more like jell-o than liquid. That's about what you want all the way through. Don't err on the side of more done, though. If it's accidentally a touch less done, the center will be a touch soft. If it's a bit overdone, the eggs will cause the texture to go to a bit of a curdle, and all the luxurious smoothness will be gone. Which would you rather end up with?

Here's where I embarrassingly admit my mistakes. The first flan I made had two problems: 1. I didn't use a water bath, and 2. My caramel didn't all dissolve. I'm telling you these things right up front because they were very important lessons. Being careless only results in wasted time, money, and (if you're like me and insist on trying it anyhow) calories. So while I baked the flan for about the right amount of time, it didn't bake evenly and bubbled on one side while still not done on the other. Also, the caramel was frustrating. Most of all, after it had cooled, it was curdled and not at all what I wanted.

So I was doubly careful when I baked it the next time. To the right is my setup. If you add baking stones to your oven (on a lower rack) and preheat the oven 1/2 an hour, the oven temperature will have fewer fluctuations, since the stones help keep it more constant. The water bath slows the cooking process, as water won't get about 212° (even lower here at higher elevation), and you don't get any hot spots as all the liquid in the water bath stays the same.

Now, about the Flan de Queso. It is amazing. It's kind of like taking flan and mixing it with cheesecake, only it's still very delicate and smooth the way flan is, but the flavor is something all new. Oh, it's so good. Nelson told us his father makes a Flan de Queso that is really tall, so I thought I would go for that in my testing. You don't have to use that option, however, as it would be just as good at normal height, and a bit easier to bake. But that's why it looks different.

One more thing: Mexican cinnamon. It's usually found in small packets in the Mexican foods section of the grocery store (if it's difficult to find, try a store with a larger Mexican foods section). Mexican cinnamon has a very different flavor to me than ye olde standard cinnamon from the spice aisle, but if you are unable to find it, regular cinnamon will also do nicely.

I can't think of any other warnings before I start in with the recipe, except this: invite friends over, or you may eat it all yourself. And good luck!

Flan de Vainilla

1 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. water
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
5 eggs
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
1 t. Mexican cinnamon
1 T. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Place a pan large enough to hold your flan mold in the oven. Fill a large measuring cup (4-8 cups) with water and microwave it on high for 5 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Add the sugar and water to a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. With very clean hands, mix the two together to be sure that all the crystals of sugar have been moistened. Cover the saucepan with a lid, turn the heat to medium, and leave alone for 3 minutes. Then, take the lid off, turn the heat up to medium high, and watch (but resist the urge to stir) for 7-10 minutes, until the sugar is a deep amber. Pour into an 8" (or 9" if you only have that) round baking dish. If you want a tall flan, pour into a 6" x 3" baking pan (a cake pan will do).

In a blender, blend the sweetened condensed milk with the eggs for a few seconds, until an even consistency. Add the evaporated milk, vanilla, and cinnamon, and blend for a few more seconds, until evenly blended. Pour on top of the caramel.

Set the pan inside the preheated dish in the oven. Gently pour the hot water in the preheated dish to form a water bath, being careful not to splash, until the water is about halfway up the sides of the flan mold.

Bake 45 minutes to an hour for an 8" or 9", and perhaps a bit more for a 6" pan. The flan should still jiggle like loose gelatin if bumped when done, but not like water. Remove to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator. Turn out onto a plate before serving, setting the baking dish in hot water for about 5 minutes beforehand if necessary. Mmmmmm.

*For Flan de Queso: Blend 8 oz. room temperature cream cheese with the sweetened condensed milk until smooth before adding the eggs. Follow the rest of the recipe as written, noting that your pan should be deep enough to hold the extra 8 oz. of filling.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Puerto Rican Rice and Plantains

Last night we had an incredible dinner at the home of our friends the Negróns. Nelson is from Puerto Rico and his wife Kristine has lived there for several years as well. They served us roast pork, cabbage and tomato salad, fried plantains, and rice. Not just rice, but the best rice we've ever eaten. It was delicious, and I had to stop myself from eating it only when I became conscious of taking a third serving. Lucky for me, they sent us home with some leftovers.

While the entire meal was outstanding, my second favorite item was the fried plantains, which I've not eaten enough of in the past. They are so easy to make, and I'm not even going to give you directions, just pictures:

That's simple enough, right? They are so good. When we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I used to go to this place called Bev's Caribbean, and she would serve fried plantains and fried sweet potatoes with a delicious mango chutney. It was just heaven.

So, the rice is a little difficult to explain. I can't tell you what about it makes it so wonderful, but it's more addictive than the Colonel's chicken. It's definitely due in part to the salt pork, but the red beans just seem to belong to the dish as well. The addition of stuffed green olives may seem foreign to some, but they also just fit in. I think what it comes down to is that every part of this dish is in just enough proportion to blend with and not overpower the others. It is definitely worth the time. So, here is the recipe, as given to me.

Arroz Mamposteado

2 T. olive oil
1/4 c. green pepper, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 T. cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 c. salt pork, cubed
1/2 c. cooking ham, cubed
1 large onion, diced
1 c. cooked red beans
3 T. tomato sauce
3 bay leaves
1/4 c. green olives (stuffed)
*2 1/2 c. cooked white rice (medium grain), prepared with salt and a little oil in a medium saucepan and set aside

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the green pepper, garlic, cilantro, salt pork, ham, and onion. Sauté until the onions are clear.

Add the red beans, tomato sauce, bay leaves, and olives. Simmer about 2 minutes. Add mixture to the cooked rice. Mix well.

Let cook over medium-low for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Serve immediately.

And you'd better double the recipe.

*I prepare my medium grain rice with the following ratios: 1 3/4 c. rice to 2 1/4 c. water.

I forgot to mention they served flan for dessert. Puerto Rican flan is made a bit differently than most Mexican flan recipes, from what I've heard. It was smooth and creamy and just what flan should be. And I'll be posting about it tomorrow.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Training Meals, Part 2: Chicken and Nectarine Salad

One of my very favorite fruits is the nectarine. I may even like it better than the peach, which is saying a lot. But it's close. The thing about nectarines is that, to me, they are the perfect element in a fruit salad. No fruit salad can be bad if there are ripe, juicy, sweet nectarines in them.

Chicken salad also lends itself well to nectarines. I've played around with lots of chicken salad recipes, and I generally like them best if they contain a fruit and a nut (chopped apples or grapes with smoked almonds, for example).

I came across this recipe when my friend Elizabeth made it for a small cooking group we used to have. She'd taken it from Cooking Light, and I've altered it just a bit. It doesn't have any mayonnaise, so it's terrifically light, sweet, and healthy. Other than the sugar, it's probably a perfectly nutritious meal. It's also very light on calories, so I recommend serving it with some bread if you're going to be running or biking the next morning. White bread is delicious, a whole-wheat baguette would really round out the meal nicely.

Chicken and Nectarine Salad

1 1/2 lbs. (about 3 large halves) chicken breasts, trimmed of fat
1 lemon
1 c. loosely-packed fresh mint leaves
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. white wine vinegar
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced (a generous cup)
1/3 c. chopped pecans, toasted
3 large nectarines, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups, at most, if you have a 3-year old helper)
1/4 c. finely minced red onion

To poach the chicken, fill a medium saucepan halfway with water. Add 1 t. salt and a few slices from the ends of the lemon. Place the chicken breasts in the water, being careful not to stack them. Turn the heat to medium and bring the water just to a simmer, just until you barely see bubbles rising to the surface. Turn the heat almost to low and keep at a low simmer for 8 minutes. Turn the heat off, remove the saucepan from the burner, and let the chicken rest for 20 minutes. Remove from the water to a plate and cool completely in the refrigerator. Cut up into chunks for the salad; you should have about 3 cups.

In a food processor, blend the mint leaves and sugar until the leaves are finely ground. Add in the vinegar, 1 T. lemon juice, 1/2 t. salt, and a few grinds of pepper, then process another few seconds.

In a bowl, combine the chicken, cucumber, pecans, onion, nectarines, and dressing. Taste for salt and add more if necessary. Chill and serve.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Chocolate Chip Pecan Oatmeal Cookies

It's your lucky day. I happen to have one of the best cookie recipes ever created, and I'm going to share it with you.

I'm also going to tell you why you should make them. The addition of oatmeal makes them a very chewy cookie, unlike many regular chocolate chip cookie recipes made with butter. They taste delicious right out of the oven (well, given 2 minutes to cool), as do most cookies, but they also taste delicious frozen for a month and thawed. And they have toasted pecans in them.

Did you know that toasted pecans makes nearly everything better? Carrot cake, cookies, pecan pie, green salad, chicken salad, cheese, fruit, nearly everything. Maybe not pizza, but I can't be sure, as I haven't tried it yet. I usually just toast the pecans for this recipe as I'm preheating the oven for about 10 minutes, then toss them in the freezer to cool before adding them to the dough.

One other note about storing these: where you store your cookies is terribly important. If you throw them in a zip-top plastic bag, they'll taste dry and plasticky. (My computer is telling me "plasticky" is not a word, but I don't believe it.) Those are two things you really want to avoid, as they will seriously diminish the pleasure of eating your cookies in the days ahead. Hard plastic leftover containers are really not much better, since they are not nearly airtight enough. You'll still end up with dry cookies. What works best is a glass container with a tight lid. My favorite one is from Pyrex, has many other useful purposes, and can be found here. However, I'm sure there are several options, as I also keep my flour and sugar and granola in glass containers with metal screw-on lids I bought at Target. Those should do. I can't speak for the ceramic cookie jars that are labeled "Cookie Jar" and found all over the place, since I haven't tried them, but I would avoid them unless they're airtight. If you don't have a great place to store them, they'll stay fresher by wrapping them and storing them in the freezer.

One very final note before handing over the recipe. If you want a variation, you can exchange 1 cup of the chocolate chips or all of the lovely toasted pecans for 1 cup of peanut butter chips. So, before I go off on something else, here is the recipe. Let me know what you think.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
courtesy Jen Gastelum

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. all-purpose or bread flour
2 c. oatmeal
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 c. chocolate chips (preferably Ghirardelli 60% cacao, or half milk/half dark, or chunks of dark and milk)
1 c. toasted, chopped pecans (or 1 c. peanut butter chips)

Preheat the oven to 350
°F. Set out a baking sheet topped with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

In a mixing bowl, mix butter and sugars with a wooden spoon until thoroughly blended. (Please believe me on this, and don't use an electric mixer, or your cookies will turn out flat!) Stir in the eggs and vanilla until completely incorporated.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, oatmeal, baking soda and salt. Stir into the butter blend until just moist. (OK, I admit it, I don't alway whisk them in a separate bowl, but I'll throw the baking soda and salt directly on top of the flour and whisk it together a bit before adding the oatmeal and stirring into the rest. It works.) Add the chocolate and pecans; stir gently.

Drop the cookie dough onto the prepared pan in 2-Tablespoon portions (I like using my 1-oz. scoop). Bake for 12-15 minutes, until just set and slightly golden. Remove from oven. Let rest 1 minutes on tray before removing to cool completely on a clean countertop. Delicious with milk.