Thursday, April 26, 2012

Flavor of the Month: Mexico

One of the world’s cuisines that is steeped with some of the oldest culinary traditions and diverse culture is that of Mexico.  Ancient inhabitants subsisted on a diet of maiz, or corn, and beans, enhanced with ingredients that were indigenous to the New World, such as chilies, tomatoes, squashes and even chocolate.  The diverse geography of Mexico that includes mountainous terrain as well as jungles and coastlines has resulted in a woven tapestry of vast culinary heritage.  With the arrival of the Spanish, provisions such as rice, citrus fruits, nuts and spices were introduced to the Mexican kitchen.  Today the festive hues and flavorful seasonings of Mexican fare are as warm as sunny Mexico itself.

Basic ingredients that are integral in Mexican cooking consist of avacados, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, beans, tortillas, and limes.  Today’s American supermarkets now offer additional authentic Mexican produce, such as jicama, tomatatillos and various chili peppers including jalapenos, chipotles and poblanos.  Seasonings consist of such spices as different chili powders, cumin, and cayenne pepper.

In the northern border of Mexico where cattle are predominant, a meal that consists of grilled beef, cheese, beans and flour tortillas is typical.  Along the coastal regions, diners take advantage of the abundance of fish and shellfish as part of their diet.  Many of the more elaborate Mexican dishes that we enjoy today, such as chicken mole poblano, originated in central Mexico around what is now Mexico City, where trade routes once introduced the New World inhabitants to Old World ingredients. 

Next week hails Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May.  This is a day of celebration throughout the United States and in some areas of Mexico, honoring the Mexican army’s victory in defeating the French occupation in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla.  Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with Mexican fare, mariachi bands and dancing.  Let me clarify the point: it’s a welcome excuse to party and to cook some delicious dishes!

Appetizers of Mexican cooking include tortilla chips served with spicy salsas and cooling guacamole for dipping.  Nachos and quesadillas are also great starters, all enjoyed further when accompanied by that prized tequila and lime cocktail known as the margarita.  First courses on a Mexican menu include black bean soup, tortilla soup, nopale cactus salad and ceviche, a salad in which raw shrimp “cooks” in a citrus-based dressing. Some entrees are delved into family style, such as fajitas, in which the deconstructed delicacy’s components of tortillas, grilled meats, peppers, onions, cheese and sour cream are presented at the table and each diner creates their own fajitas to their liking.  Many entrees center around the stuffed tortilla; examples of this include burritos, enchiladas, tacos and chimichangas.  One of my favorite Mexican dishes is one of Brian’s successes and it is one that I have requested repeatedly over the years, the chicken flautas.  Entrees made without tortillas range from steaks and pork chops with adobo sauce to shrimp with chipotle sauce and rice with seafood to chicken mole.  Many Mexican entrees are served with simple sides of rice and beans.  Flans, fried ice cream and desserts made with Mexican chocolate, which is laced with cinnamon and sometimes almond, all provide happy endings to the Mexican feast.

Here is a recipe I came up with last year for a flavorful entrée.  It is actually two recipes in one, as you will be required to make a guacamole for this dish.  The guacamole recipe may also be made independently to enjoy with tortilla chips for a simple dip.

Pork Tenderloin with Ancho Espresso Rub and Guacamole

pork tenderloin (3 pounds)
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Combine the chili powders, salt, espresso powder, garlic powder, oregano and cayenne in a small bowl.  Thoroughly rub the mixture on all sides of the tenderloin.  Place tenderloin in a roasting pan and cover with aluminum foil.  Place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes.  Remove foil and continue to roast for another 5-10 minutes.

While the tenderloin roasts, prepare the guacamole:
4 ripe avocados, peeled, pits removed
1 tomato, coarsely chopped
½ onion, coarsely chopped
2 can diced green chilies
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime juice

Cut two of the avocados into chunks and place into a food processor with the tomato, onion, chilies, salt and lime juice.  Process until well combined.  Transfer to a medium bowl.  Dice the remaining two avocados and then fold them into the processed mixture.

Transfer the tenderloin to a serving platter.  Slice the meat crosswise into half-inch slices, taking care not to cut all the way down to the platter.  Pull the slices apart to fan them out slightly.  Spoon the guacamole over the tenderloin.  Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.  Serves 4.

* Alternately, the pork can be grilled on the barbecue instead of roasted in the oven.

There are several quick and easy options for side dishes to round out this meal.  For a starchy accompaniment, warm some drained and rinsed canned black beans and stir in some cumin, olive oil and chopped scallions.  Alternately, if you opt to cook the pork outdoors, add some corn on the cob to the grill and season the corn with a mixture of butter, finely grated lime zest, salt and chipotle chili powder.  A nice colorful vegetable accompaniment would be a stir fry of as many different colored bell peppers as you can find, along with red onions, seasoned simply with a little chili powder.  Another sautéed combination that I like to make with Mexican food is that of yellow bell peppers and zucchini, also seasoned with chili powder.  Whatever sides you choose, embrace the excuse of Cinco de Mayo to raise your margarita glass in a toast to savor and celebrate the wonderful flavors that Mexico has brought us. Ole!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Springtime Pasta

In a recent post about baked pasta I beckoned readers to indulge in a final satisfying dinner of hot and bubbling lasagna before the last chills of the season abate.  Now as the days grow warmer and we peel off the heavy blankets one by one, so too do the pasta entrees we so love.  That heavy blanket of red gravy is relied on much less frequently in lieu of lighter pestos and thinner cream sauces.  By summer, pasta will take on the form of main dish salads seasoned with dressings.

Why do many of us love pasta entrees so much?  Perhaps it is the versatility of ingredients that may be incorporated and swapped out with the change of seasons.  There are numerous different sauces that may be tossed into an endless choice of ingredient combinations.  Even the shape of the pasta used presents an array of variation.  Farfalle, or bow tie, pasta is a popular spring favorite; penne is a widely preferred choice all year around.  Shells, orchiette, cavatappi and cavatelli are other favored short pastas.  There are just as many long types of pasta in addition to spaghetti, including fettuccine, linguine, angel hair, fusilli and tagliatelle.  Sauces range from traditional Genovese pesto to pestos made with varying herb and nut combinations, plus vinaigrettes, creamy white wine sauces and cheesy dressings.  For a lighter tomato sauce with a little seasoned crunchiness, combine cherry tomatoes with garlic croutons and a little olive oil in a food processor. For added crunch factor, you can add some nuts. 

Pasta dishes have taken on the role of a palette to feature ingredients from every ethnicity around the globe.  Spaghetti combines with shrimp, cucumber, carrot and a vinaigrette of sesame oil, rice vinegar and chili-garlic sauce for an Asian summer salad.  Combine wagon wheel pasta with pinto beans, cubes of jicama, avocado, tomato and cheddar jack cheese; toss with green chilies and a creamy salsa dressing and you have a hearty southwestern vegetarian meal.

For spring, I enjoy showcasing brilliantly hued vegetables with the neutral shaded pastas.  The verdure of asparagus or peas combined with crimson grape tomatoes brings the dish to life.  Spring ham, succulent shrimp and the pretty pinks of bacon, pancetta or smoked salmon are my preferred meat options, although I will often opt for cheeses instead of meat or fish to toss in the pasta.   The versatility of pasta dishes allows you to come home, peruse your refrigerator and pluck out whatever odds and ends you find that are waiting to be utilized. One of my favorites is fettuccine alfredo with mushrooms, peas and ham.  The additional ingredients are vast, from typical springtime asparagus and ham to roasted shallots and Gorgonzola to shrimp with broccoli and grape tomatoes.  Leave no stone unturned, any combination can work with the right sauce.  Sometimes a sauce is not even necessary, simply toss your chosen combination with olive oil, add a generous amount of grated pecorino Romano cheese and you are good to go. I must take this moment to praise my husband’s wonderful creation that I was presented with last night: he combined sliced Kielbasa, shell pasta, broccoli, red onion and melted Muenster cheese.  The salty smokiness of the sausage married well with the sweetness of the red onion and the other ingredients, well done, Brian!   Now I’ll share one of my spring pasta entrees, all you need with this is a salad, a crusty loaf of fresh Italian bread and a nice wine.

Shells with Chicken, Bacon and Peas

8 ounces medium shell pasta
1 pound thick-cut bacon
3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese

Cut the bacon crosswise into 1-inch pieces and set aside.  Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, fry the bacon until only the edges are beginning to crisp.  Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside.  Add the chicken to the skillet and cook until no longer pink when a piece is cut.  Add the garlic and sauté for another 3 minutes.  Drain the cooked pasta and add to the skillet, along with the cooked bacon, the olive oil, peas and cheese.  Toss to combine thoroughly.  Turn out into a pasta serving bowl.  Serves four.

A final word about pasta: a healthful diet includes carbs.  A pasta dish can be a well-balanced meal when it includes vegetables and a protein source.  When the shape of pasta you desire is available in whole grain, opt for this variation for pasta that is packed with health benefits.  To counter the naysayer who loves to whine ‘Oh, but whole grain pasta tastes funny,’ let’s get one fact straight for those who have been dissuaded from sampling it: pasta, whether made from processed flour or whole wheat flour, has very little taste on its own.  Pasta absorbs and takes on the flavors of the other ingredients that are mixed with it.  Use high quality olive oil and only the freshest ingredients throughout, and your pasta dish will not taste “funny”.   Old World Italians did not have access to processed and so-called enriched flour, and there was nothing funny about their pasta – they took their pasta very seriously, hence the starring role it plays in our entrees today.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Chives

Every kitchen gardener knows when spring has arrived, signaled by spring green shoots gloriously erupting through the soil and evolving into one of the most coveted herbs of garnishment: the chive. 

Chives are one of the hardiest herbs and the easiest to grow.  They require no maintenance, are the first to make their appearance in the spring, endure all the way through the festive cooking projects of Thanksgiving dinner, and they faithfully return year after year. 

Used primarily for its long slender leaves, chives are actually the smallest member of the family that spans onions, leeks, garlic and shallots.  The leaves of this herb are hollow and usually snipped to desired lengths with kitchen scissors.  In late spring, lavender-hued blooms erupt from among the chive’s leaves.  These flowers are edible and add a pretty pastel touch to spring salads.

Chives add mild flavor and flecks of bright green color to corn bread, mashed potatoes, rice pilafs, omelets, dips, salad dressings, and cheddar biscuits.  Their brilliant emerald hue encourages generous sprinkling for a decorative finishing touch to fish, potatoes, soups and bisques.

Chives are best when harvested from your own garden immediately before use.  During the colder winter months, fresh chives can be purchased from the supermarket.  Seek only those with bright green leaves, devoid of any brown or yellow, and be sure that they are not wilted.  Do not waste your money on dried chives from the spice section of the supermarket, they offer no flavor advantage whatsoever.

Chives are one of the key herbs used to make the fines herbes combination often used in French cuisine, along with tarragon, chervil and parsley.

If you have been revisited by chives in your garden every year, but have snubbed the rather ubiquitous green blades in lieu of stronger ingredients such as minced garlic or chopped rosemary, reacquaint some of your favorite dishes with the addition of this underappreciated herb.  Next time you prepare scrambled eggs, toss some into the pan.  The next soup you present at the table, whether a warming bowl of cream of mushroom or a chilled summer vichyssoise, finish the presentation with a final sprinkle of chives over each serving.  Preparing some appetizers of smoked salmon with cream cheese and horseradish over toasts?  Add some flecks of spring over them before serving.  Take any classic favorite recipe and incorporate some chives into the ingredients to create a new incarnation that welcomes spring.  This is exactly what I have done in this recipe for gourgere, a French gruyere-infused choux pastry that is piped into a ring and then baked until golden and puffy.  Personally, I think this cheesy delight makes the most perfect lunch when accompanied by a salad and a glass of wine.


1/3 cup butter
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup flour
3 eggs
1/3 cup chives, snipped crosswise to half-inch lengths
1 ½ cups shredded Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large sauce pan, heat the butter and the milk over medium heat until the butter is melted.  Add all of the flour (throw it all in at once) into the pot.  Constantly stir the mixture over medium heat until it all clumps together into a ball that does not stick on the sides of the pot.  Note: this process is making a choux.  Remove the pot from the heat and cool slightly, about 10 minutes.  Still keeping the pot off of the heat, add the eggs, one at a time, stirring vigorously to incorporate each egg before adding the next one.  Once all of the eggs have been well mixed in, stir in ¾ cup of the cheese and the chives until they have been mixed through.  Spoon the mixture onto a nonstick baking sheet, arranging it to form a ring.  Sprinkle the remaining cheese around the top of the gourgere, then place into the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until billowy and browned.  Just as with a soufflé, the gourgere will deflate once removed from the oven.  Cut into wedges, like a pie, and serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baked Pasta

Although spring’s arrival has treated us to some gorgeous sun-splashed days, there are still remnants of winter’s final raw and damp days making the occasional appearance.  These final gasps of chilliness call for serving up one of the most beloved comfort foods of all time: the baked pasta entrée.  There is no question that upon extraction from the oven, a pan of bubbling, golden brown pasta brings instant smiles to those gathering at the dinner table.  These are satisfying, feel-good dishes, usually a meal within one pan needing little more than a salad to accompany. 

By far one of the two most popular such entrees is the lasagna.  Lasagna noodles are wide, long sheets with ruffled edges.  They are typically boiled and then layered in a deep pan with other layers of cheeses and a sauce.  Traditionally, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses are used; however with today’s culinary creativity, other examples of cheese have been thrown into the lineup.  The sauce can be a tomato-based meat or vegetable sauce or a creamy white béchamel sauce.  Once the layering is complete and the prepared dish has been topped with a final layer of mozzarella cheese, it is then placed into the oven until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese blanket is molten and golden.  Brian made a fabulous shellfish lasagna, which made a stellar appearance on at least one Christmas Eve table.  I once made a recipe that I had found in a cooking magazine which called for walnut-herb pesto sauce as well as a béchamel, no tomato whatsoever.  It seems that no matter what the filling, the gooey melted cheese and the layers of goodness give any lasagna a comforting and satiating element.

The other highly acclaimed baked pasta dish is macaroni and cheese.  From the early childhood years, we all grew up craving the contents of that ubiquitous blue box that resulted in a plate of elbow pasta coated in a day-glow orange sauce of questionable ingredients.  That variation never even made it even to the oven, the instructions called for boiling the elbows, draining, stirring in the ‘sauce’ and then serving.  Once you experience homemade macaroni and cheese, you will take my advice quite readily and leave the boxed stuff at the store.  It is known that the best way to heighten a child’s interest in the kitchen is to involve him or her in the selection and process of preparing a dish.  This is absolutely true, particularly if the introductory lesson centers on every child’s favorite.  Next time your child begs for a macaroni and cheese dinner, your response should be ‘Okay, let’s make it together!’  First he or she has already chosen the dish to be served for dinner.  Next, take your child to the store to purchase the ingredients.  No, not the blue box!  The REAL ingredients.  Buy the pasta, a block of mild cheddar, the milk, the flour and the butter.  That’s really all that belongs in the most basic macaroni and cheese.  At home your child can watch and assist with age-appropriate tasks to transform these simple ingredients into that magical, highly coveted entrée.

Just as lasagna has evolved, so too has macaroni and cheese.  For more mature palates that appreciate stronger flavors, there is macaroni and cheese with truffles, bathed in a sauce of Comte and sharp cheddar cheeses.  Lobster macaroni and cheese is another favorite.  I once made a macaroni and cheese containing three kinds of cheese – Roquefort, Comte and sharp Cheddar – topped with an herbed breadcrumb mixture.  The same cooking magazine that introduced me to the pesto-bechamel lasagna opened another can of worms, or chicken: a recipe for Buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese, which contains chunks of boneless fried chicken, a sauce of cheddar, provolone and blue cheese, chopped scallions and plenty of hot sauce.  Brian loves this and requests it periodically; I’m sure I don’t make it quite as often as he would like.

Regardless of what ingredients you incorporate into a macaroni and cheese recipe, the concept is simple: boil macaroni (or any small short pasta, such as small shells or even penne), make the sauce, drain the pasta, combine the two components plus anything else you might like to add, such as cooked lobster or truffles, turn out into a baking dish, sprinkle with a topping if desired, such as breadcrumbs, and bake in the oven until the cheese sauce is bubbly and the top is golden brown.

The same guidelines apply to any baked pasta entrée.  The ingredients are each cooked, then combined, and then baked.  Even something as simple as baked ziti works the same way.  I recently made baked ziti into which I stirred tomato sauce, crumbled cooked Italian sausage and green peppers.  The top was smothered in mozzarella.  Another baked favorite of mine is stuffed shells.  Large pasta shells are cooked and then filled; then sauce is poured over them, a final sprinkle of cheese and then a date with the oven.  Traditionally these are filled with a ricotta cheese mixture.  I have taken that ricotta stuffing a step further by adding either cooked spinach or cooked small shrimp and bay scallops.

While there is still a chance of encountering a day of rainy, chilly April showers – and those of us who live in the northeast have certainly experienced the Easter snowstorm or two – take the opportunity to welcome the family to dinner with the enticing and heartwarming entrée of lasagna.  I’ll even share my latest version with you.  This dish is ideal for couples or small families of three; it is baked in a basic loaf pan.  If you have a larger family, simply double the recipe and make two loaf pans.

Lasagna with Sausage, Mushrooms and Smoked Mozzarella (serves 2-3)

½ bulk Italian sausage (sweet or hot, the choice is yours, I like to use a            combination of the two)
2 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, diced
½ cup chopped onion
3 coves garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped green pepper
4 ounces cremini (baby bella) mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
4 cups tomato sauce (see the previous blog post for recipe)
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 egg, beaten
½ package lasagna noodles
8 ounces smoked mozzarella, shredded
8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Boil the lasagna noodles in a large pot of salted water until al dente.  Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add the sausage, pancetta, onion and green pepper.  Cook and stir for about five minutes.  Add the mushrooms and continue to cook and stir until they are softened.  Add the garlic and sauté for another five minutes.  Add the tomato sauce, stir to combine, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat.  Drain the lasagna noodles and run them under cold water for a minute.  Leave the noodles to drain.  In a bowl, combine the ricotta, egg and parsley; mix well.  In another bowl, combine the smoked mozzarella and the fontina, mix well.

Spread a ladle full of the meat mixture onto the bottom of a loaf pan.  Cover the bottom with a single layer of 2-3 of the lasagna noodles.  Spread one half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles.  Spread one half of the remaining meat mixture over the ricotta layer.  Sprinkle one half of the shredded cheese combination over the meat sauce layer.  Repeat the layering process in the same order, starting with 2-3 lasagna noodles, followed by the remaining ricotta mixture, followed by the remaining meat sauce and finally ending with the remaining shredded cheese mixture on top.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese has begun to brown and the sauce is bubbly.  Remove from oven and allow to rest for ten minutes before cutting and serving.