Friday, April 23, 2010

Mexican Hot Chocolate and Churros

I think fried foods get a bad rap. As someone with a nutrition degree, you’d probably expect me to say that you should avoid them like the plague, but that’s just not the case. Their notoriety isn’t completely unwarranted (read fast food French fries, processed donuts and greasy corn dogs), but I will say that when done properly, frying can actually be a delicious, healthy addition to your cooking repertoire. 
There. I said it.

The best example of this was back in graduate school when I assisted in a tempura cooking demonstration. We had discs of lotus root, onion and sweet potato plus large, butterflied shrimp. After battering and frying up a few batches, we carefully poured the cooled oil back into its original bottle. People were clearly amazed to see that we ended up with virtually the same amount of oil as when we started.  If care is taken to fry properly, the results will be light and delicate.

Here are the main rules of thumb: 

1. Use an appropriate oil. This means choosing one that can handle high heat: peanut, safflower, canola and grape seed varieties are all good options. Never deep fry with olive oil.

2. Fry at the right temperature. If the temperature is too low, you’ll end up with soggy, greasy food. If it’s too hot, it won’t be cooked properly in the middle.

3. Use fresh oil only. After being heated to deep frying temperatures, oil shouldn’t necessarily be reused. Continual reheating breaks down the oil structure, rendering it unhealthy for consumption.

That said (thank you for tolerating a soap box moment), I needed a Mexican-inspired dessert to follow those Carne Asada Tacos. Since they were quite light, I thought that an indulgent last course would pair well. And a little fried goodness never hurt anyone.

A traditional Mexican chocolate beverage is made with (surprise, surprise) Mexican chocolate, which is dark chocolate mixed with sugar and sometimes cinnamon and nuts. It is a very grainy product and is often sold in discs.

The process is quite simple. Grate a disc of chocolate and heat it with water or milk and any desired spices. For my special concoction, I used a real vanilla bean, cayenne pepper and cinnamon sticks. You’d be hard pressed to find a better dipping medium for churros than this.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

I was very surprised to find that our local Safeway carried Nestle Abuelita Mexican chocolate in the ethnic section. If you have unsweetened Mexican chocolate, simply add 2-4 tablespoons of sugar to the milk mixture below. If you can’t find Mexican chocolate, a dark chocolate will do.

Serves 4

1 disc (3 ounces) sweetened Mexican chocolate
3 cups whole milk 

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean

To Garnish:
Almond Whipped Cream (recipe follows)
4 cinnamon sticks

Using a box grater, grate the 3 oz. disc of Mexican chocolate. In a medium saucepan, add grated chocolate, milk, cinnamon, cayenne and salt. Using a sharp knife, split vanilla bean down the middle. With the back of the knife, scrape seeds out of both halves and add them, along with the pod, to the saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the chocolate is melted and the milk is very hot. Fish out the vanilla pods and divide hot chocolate into 4 mugs. Top with Almond Whipped Cream, a dusting of cinnamon and a cinnamon stick.

Almond Whipped Cream

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, well chilled
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 

1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Pour the chilled cream into a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, whip the cream on high speed (start on low to prevent splattering) until it begins to thicken. Sprinkle in the sugar and almond extract. Continue whipping on high speed until soft peaks form.

Mexican Churros

Unfortunately, these are not something that can be made ahead of time - they taste best immediately after frying. But you can prepare the batter a day in advance - just keep it wrapped in the fridge until you're ready to fry. 

1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
3 eggs
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil, such as peanut or safflower oil

Place the water, butter, salt and 1 tablespoon of the sugar into a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Add the flour all at once cook, stirring vigorously, until the mixture forms a doughy ball and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
Using an electric mixer, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Mix the cinnamon and remaining sugar together and place in a pie plate or other flat dish. Set aside.  

Pour 2 inches of oil into a wok, deep fryer or large pot and heat to 375˚F. 

Spoon the churro batter into a pastry bag fitted with a large star-shaped tip, typically 1/2-inch in size. When the oil reaches the proper temperature, pipe out 3- to 4-inch lengths of batter into the hot oil (I used kitchen scissors to cut off each log). Leave plenty of room between churros so that they can cook evenly (I piped out 5 or 6 at a time). Fry until they are golden brown on all sides, about 3 or 4 minutes total. 

Using a slotted spoon, remove churros from oil and place on paper towels to drain briefly. Roll the hot churros in the cinnamon sugar mixture and serve immediately while they are nice and hot!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Carne Asada Tacos with Avocado Cream

Back in February I made some very simple and tasty fish tacos. They went over so well that I thought they’d be a fun idea for a casual dinner party, sort of a do-it-yourself affair: a pan of spice-rubbed cod in the center of the table surrounded by stacks of warm corn tortillas and bowls of toppings. So when Erik and Emily came over for dinner on Saturday, I decided to kick it up a notch and add carne asada to the menu. 
That ended up being a very good idea.

Carne asada, a dish with roots in Northern Mexico, literally means “roasted meat.” A thin cut of beef, usually flank or skirt steak, is either seasoned with salt and pepper or marinated, and then grilled over hot coals. I took the marination route and used a concoction of citrus juices, garlic, jalapeños, cilantro, vinegar and olive oil. After a few hours in the fridge, that steak was ready to be grilled, sliced and piled into tortillas. Pretty darn simple. 

As for toppings, they included the usual suspects: cabbage slaw, Cotija cheese, Pico de Gallo and radishes. But instead of a standard guacamole, I opted for a creamy avocado sauce, which, if the empty bowl served as any indication, went over swimmingly.

Carne Asada
While Carne Asada is usually grilled, broiling or pan searing (like I did here) works just as well.

For the marinade:
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeño, minced
1 large handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
A few turns of freshly ground black pepper
2 juicy limes, juiced
Scant 1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil

2 pounds flank or skirt steak
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon high heat oil, such as safflower, peanut or grapeseed

8 small corn tortillas
1 batch of Avocado Cream (recipe follows)
Cotija cheese
Pico de gallo
Radish slices
Cabbage and carrot slaw
Cilantro sprigs 

Using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor, pound/pulse the garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, salt and pepper until it forms a paste. Add the lime juice, orange juice, vinegar and oil; mix well. Place the flank steak in a large Ziplock bag. Pour the marinade over the meat, seal the bag and refrigerator for at least 1 hour but no more than 8 hours (or the meat will get mushy from too much protein breakdown). 

Heat a large skillet (cast iron works great) over medium-high to high heat. Remove the steak from the marinade, pat dry with paper towels and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Add oil to the hot pan and swirl to coat. Add steak and cook for 7 to 10 minutes per side, turning once, until medium rare. Remove to a cutting board, tent loosely with foil, and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes. Thinly slice the steak on a diagonal across the grain.
*Alternatively, heat an outdoor grill or a ridged grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush the grates with a little oil to prevent sticking and carry on with the above instructions.

Heat tortillas either in the microwave (2 at a time for 20 seconds on high heat), in a hot, dry skillet until warm and pliable, or wrap the entire stack in aluminum foil and heat in a 350°F oven (which I did since I was also baking the fish).
Assemble tacos by placing a few slices of beef down the center of a warm tortilla. Top with avocado cream, Cotija cheese, cabbage, Pico de Gallo, radish slices and cilantro sprigs.

Avocado Cream:
2 avocados
1/2 - 1 cup milk
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt to taste

Peel, seed and dice the avocados; place into a blender. Add milk, starting with 1/2 cup, garlic powder and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth, adding more milk to reach the desired consistency. Adjust salt to taste.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Coconut Cream Pie

photo by Talley
I almost closed the book on our Easter dinner without mentioning the elected dessert: coconut cream pie. Using the same vein of thinking as the main course, I wanted traditional elements present without having to buy a lamb-shaped cake pan. Plus, quite honestly, I barely need an excuse to make custard.

This is an adaptation of my mom’s recipe: a classic blind-baked crust filled with an eggy, not-too-sweet coconut custard, topped with soft whipped cream and toasted coconut shavings. A happy ending indeed.  

Thanks for another fantastic photo, Talley!

Coconut Cream Pie
Most classic recipes call for sweetened, flaked coconut but I find it to be excessive. If you can’t find large shavings for the garnish, just toast some regular shredded coconut.

All Butter Crust:
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
2-4 tablespoons ice water

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In the work bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, salt and sugar to combine. Add the chilled butter and pulse until the mixture resembles small peas. Add ice water, beginning with 2 tablespoons, and pulse until mixture just comes together (pinch some dough to see if it holds – if not, add more water). Gather dough into a ball, press into a disc and wrap in plastic. Allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Place dough on a lightly floured work surface and, using a rolling pin, roll out into a 12-inch circle, about 1/8-inch thick. Be sure to check if the dough is sticking – you may have to periodically sprinkle a bit more flour underneath. Transfer rolled dough into a 9-inch pie plate. Carefully and gently press the pie dough to line the bottom and sides of the plate. Fold any overhanging pieces under itself (so that it's double-so-thick) to create a thicker edge. Trim any excess. Flute edges using your thumb and forefingers or crimp with the tines of a fork. Chill 15-20 minutes  before baking.

Line the inside of the chilled crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights, dried beans or rice. Transfer to the oven and bake 20 minutes or until edges are lightly golden. Remove the parchment paper and weights and return shell to the oven for another 10-15 minutes, or until bottom of crust is pale golden. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Coconut Custard Filling:
2/3 cup sugar 

1/4 cup cornstarch 
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

1/2 cup unsweetened, flaked coconut
Place sugar, cornstarch, salt, egg yolks and milk in a medium saucepan. Whisking constantly, cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Let boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and add butter, vanilla and coconut; mix well. Let cool slightly; pour into baked pie crust shell.

3/4 cup large coconut flakes
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. 

Spread coconut shavings into a single layer on a baking tray. Transfer to oven and toast until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Keep checking every few minutes since it goes fast! Set a side to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, add whipping cream, sugar and vanilla. Using a hand mixer, beat on high speed until very soft peaks form. Spread over the coconut custard, using swirling motions to create beautiful peaks. Garnish with toasted coconut shavings.

 photo by Talley

Friday, April 9, 2010


photo by Talley
Every April Tristan reminds me that Easter has always been his least favorite holiday, and through kids’ eyes, I can kind of see why: boring lamb dinner, mandatory dress clothes and no school holiday. I was determined to change at least two of those things.
Last Sunday was actually a big day for us. Not only were we hosting dinner, we were (finally!) planting our garden. First order of business was buying plant starts from the Sunseed Farm booth at the Ballard Farmers’ Market. They’re known to have an extraordinary variety of healthy, vigorous, organic starts – plus Beryl and Talley get all their stuff from them and have had wonderful luck

The plan was to convene in the late afternoon, get all of that beautiful kale, chard, kohlrabi, leeks, green onions, lettuce, strawberries and sorrel planted and then head inside for an Easter-like meal. I didn’t want to bore everyone (especially Tristan, god forbid) with the expected lamb roast but still wanted a lamb element present. So I decided to make something that has been on my to-do list for over 3 years: Aushak (Afghan leek ravioli with lamb ragout and yogurt sauce). 
My only experience with Aushak was years ago at Kabul, an Afghan restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. They served the delicate leek-filled dumplings in the traditional fashion with a coriander-spiced ground beef sauce but were more than accommodating to substitute it with their lamb ragout
upon request. In my opinion, this made a memorable dish unforgettable.
One word of caution: give yourself plenty of time to make Aushak. Even better, make them a day in advance. About an hour before everyone arrived, I found myself in a tizzy -- Noni bread still rising, sauce ingredients impatiently waiting to be chopped and dumplings yet to be made, which led to a serious moment of panic (thank you Tristan for pulling me back to earth) -- all of which could have been avoided with a bit more planning. It’s really quite fun, but not if it turns into a race against the clock.


Was this a quick, easy meal? Definitely not. Was it worth the time and effort? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, before dinner was even finished, I received requests for a return appearance next Easter. 
In the end, Tristan didn’t get a day off from work, but he was able to come to the table in gardening jeans and said that this was possibly the best meal I ever made.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

photo by Talley
This dish is most often served with a ground beef sauce (simply substitute 2 pounds ground beef for the lamb) but I really like the the mingling flavors of lamb, mint, coriander and yogurt.
Lamb Ragout:

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced, fresh ginger
2 pounds ground lamb
2 tablespoons ground coriander
Freshly ground nutmeg, about 1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cups lamb or beef stock 

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened and just starting to color, about 8 minutes. Add the minced garlic and ginger; cook for 30 seconds more. Add the ground lamb and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is no longer pink. *At this point I carefully drained most of the fat from the pan.* Sprinkle in the coriander, nutmeg, salt and pepper; mix well. Add the tomato sauce and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 30-40 minutes. Sauce should be thick and flavorful – taste and adjust salt to taste.

3 large leeks, whites and light green parts only, washed well and sliced
1 bunch green onions (5-6 onions), sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped, fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 package wonton wrappers
1 egg, lightly beaten with a teaspoon of water

In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté leeks and green onions in oil until just softened (you don't want any color), about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, transfer to a bowl and add cilantro, salt and red pepper flakes. Toss well and set aside to cool. 

When you’re ready to assemble the dumplings, squeeze the excess liquid from the filling. Place a rounded teaspoon of filling in the center of each wonton wrapper, brush all edges lightly with egg mixture, then fold in half to form either a rectangle or triangle. Press edges firmly to seal, being sure to expel any air bubbles as you go. Place finished dumplings on a flour dusted baking sheet and repeat until all filling has been used.

Yogurt Sauce:
For a thicker sauce, feel free to either strain the yogurt through cheesecloth for an hour or two or simply use Greek yogurt. I like regular yogurt since it drizzles nicely.

2 cups natural, plain, whole milk yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons dried mint or 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Adjust seasonings to taste.

To assemble the dish:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add Aushak and simmer for 5-7 minutes (test one for doneness). Using a slotted spoon, transfer ravioli to plates. Top each serving with lamb ragout and a generous drizzle of yogurt sauce. Garnish with freshly chopped mint.

photo by Talley

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

The fact that so many bloggers have both cooked and written extensively about this recipe didn’t dissuade me one bit from doing the same. I’m just embarrassed that it took me so long. 

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter is what I’m talking about. For years it has caused quite a stir, which isn’t surprising considering its delectable flavor. But the real draw is its simplicity. It requires only three ingredients: a can of tomatoes, one onion and some butter. After 45 magical minutes of simmering, these basic pantry ingredients are transformed into something absurdly luscious. When I asked Tristan how he would describe it, he said it’s like that amazing sauce you can only get from a really good home-style Italian restaurant, the kind you can’t replicate at home. Well folks, now you can.

In my opinion, there are two rules to making this sauce: 1) use San Marzano plum tomatoes and 2) don’t, I repeat don’t, replace the butter with olive oil. Like a fabulous Tikka Masala, the butter is what makes it.

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
I’m a sauce person so in my opinion, this recipe only makes enough for 2 people to douse their pasta liberally. But if you prefer yours lightly coated, then by all means use this to serve 4. Keep in mind that you may not need to add any salt, depending on the tomatoes used. Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

1-28 ounce can whole peeled plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
5 tablespoons unsalted butter

Place the tomatoes, onion halves and butter into a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Lower the heat and cook for 45 minutes at a very gentle simmer, stirring occasionally and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. The sauce is done when droplets of fat float free from the tomato. Remove from heat, fish out the onion halves (save them for another use) and check for salt (you may find that it’s salty enough, depending on the brand of canned tomatoes). Serve warm over freshly cooked pasta.