Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mangu` and Me

I love mangu!

“What is mangu`?” you ask.

First and foremost, it’s a Dominican dish, usually served at breakfast, of boiled and mashed green plantains.  They don’t taste like you would expect plantains to taste.  Although they are a breakfast food, I consider them the Dominican answer to mashed potatoes.  They are creamier though and less starchy.  They are also usually served with sautéed onions on top. 

Mangu` is also a Dominican takeout restaurant around the block from my office where I sometimes like to go for lunch.  They serve mangu` at both breakfast and lunch as well as many other tasty delights like pork stew, meatballs, and oxtails. The menu changes a bit each day, although every day you can get chicken stew and mangu`. I am an addict.  

I can remember on my first visit.  I ordered pork stew and they asked me what type of rice I wanted.  I saw the green mush in the case and asked what it was.  The woman behind the counter said, "Mashed green plantains."  When I looked skeptical, she said, "It's good."  I decided to try it.  At first I thought it was sort of bland, but then I found I couldn't stop eating it. 

Eating there so often can really drain my wallet (this is midtown Manhattan after all) so it’s time to start thinking about making some of this stuff at home.  I do have to consider my husband’s preferences of course, so it makes sense to try to replicate chicken stew and mangu` rather than make pork stew or oxtails.  In a way it’s the perfect dish for this time of year.  It’s officially fall, so stewed dishes are stereotypical of the season.  On the other hand, as the days turn cold and dark, it’s fitting to eat foods that whisk your palate (although sadly not your body) to a warm, sunny, Caribbean island.

While trying to come up with the perfect recipe for Pollo Guisado, I realized that there is no single authentic recipe.  Looking through recipes online I have learned that every cook, and every cook’s mother, makes it his or her own way.  While many of the components are the same, everyone does it a little differently.  In general, the dish contains onions, tomato, citrus juice, adobo seasoning, and a little sugar in the pot to help the chicken brown.  That’s where my starting point was.  I didn’t have any adobo, but I did use the main components: garlic powder, salt, and turmeric.  Many recipes contain olives, but I substituted pimentos since I don’t like olives.  I used the parts of the chicken my husband and I like best rather than using all the parts of a whole chicken.  

I made a little variation on the mangu` too, adding a bit of coconut oil instead of using just butter.  I gave them the traditional red onion and vinegar topping.

(Check out the beans.  They came from a friend's garden.  I forgot what they are called, but they are purple when raw.  They have great flavor.  It's not like me to like a bean so much, but these were awesome.)

I was happy with how much my husband liked it, but it wasn't nearly as good as what I get at Mangu` Dominican Kitchen. The flavor, the richness, just wasn't there. I'll chalk it up to not being as practiced at making it.  I certainly welcome anyone who wants to try this to tweak the recipe and see how they might improve on it.  I'm thinking I should play a little merengue music while I cook and that might help.

Dominican Style Chicken Stew (Pollo Guisado)

  • 1 chicken cut up (or a mixture of your favorite chicken parts - I used thighs and breasts)
  • Juice of one lime
  • 4 Tbl olive oil, divided
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp salt (plus more to taste)
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric
  • 1 Tbl sugar
  • 3 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 diced green pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbl tomato paste
  • 1 small jar pimentos, diced
Mix together lime juice, 2 Tbl olive oil, garlic, and onion.  Toss chicken in the mixture and allow to marinate at least 30 minutes, or up to several hours.

Combine 2 tsp salt, garlic powder and turmeric. Remove chicken from marinade and rub with the mixture.  Heat 2 Tbl olive oil in a large pan. Sprinkle sugar over the bottom of the pan.  Brown chicken well on both sides.  Remove from heat.

Add onions, chopped tomatoes, and pepper to the pan.  Cook until soft into a soffrito.  Add chicken back to the pan along with the water, tomato paste, and pimentos.  Simmer an additional 30-40 minutes.

Remove chicken from pan.  Boil the liquid for a couple of minutes to reduce.  Serve chicken with sauce over rice or with mashed plantains.

Mangu` (Mashed green plantains)

  • 4 green plantains, peeled and cut into chunks
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 Tbl butter or 1 Tbl butter, 1 Tbl coconut oil
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 2 Tbl cider vinegar
Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Add plantain chunks to the water and boil for about 30 minutes, or until fork tender.

Remove from the water and mash them (I use a potato masher).  You can soften the mixture with small amounts of the cooking liquid.  Mash until you have a smooth and creamy consistency.

Add butter/coconut oil and salt to taste.

Heat olive oil over low heat in a pan.  Gently cook onions until soft and transparent.  Add the vinegar (and add salt to taste if you like) and cook until evaporated.

Serve mangu` topped with onions. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An Open Letter to Seasonal Pumpkin Flavored Treats

Hello all of my TERP Muffins!  Yes, I know the blog is slow.  I am still going to trot out the same excuses.  My new job has definitely changed my routine and life a bit.  Even though I don’t work longer hours, I don’t have the same lifestyle working in the big city that I had working in the suburbs.  I used to spend my lunch hour shopping at one of the multiple grocery stores down the street from the office.  I just would load up my car, stash the perishables in the office fridge, then drive everything home and be ready to cook as soon as I came through the door.  

I can’t even tell you where the nearest grocery store to my office is.  Shopping on my lunch hour is a thing of the past.  Occasionally I’ll pick up some stuff for meals at Grand Central Market before I head on the train home, but that’s a very pricey expedition.  Now I have to wait until I come home to shop.  I have to take the train home then hop in my car to the grocery store and lose an hour of cooking time to the time needed shopping.  If I’m lucky I can get to the grocery store or the farmer’s market on weekends, but since I spend my weekend with my horses who live 70 miles away, I’m not always lucky.  

My creativity hasn’t been bubbling to the surface much either.  I really haven’t come up with a new recipe.  My brain is too full lately.  I do have something in the works for the coming weeks though, so if you’re willing to check in here now and then, I will have a few brand new recipes.  Everything is still in development though and will be rolled out for a special occasion.

Another aspect of my job is how internet access is limited in ways it wasn’t at my old job.  Sites are often blocked.  I can read food blogs, but when I try to comment, the internal systems autofills my contact info with company data.  That always feels a bit Big-Brother-ish to me, so I only comment when I’m home.  Of course I don’t have as much time at home as I used to because I am spending so many of my home hours shopping and cooking.  Please know I’m still following my favorite blogs.  You are my inspiration and my connection to my cooking hobby.  

Ironic that when I finally buy a new camera, one that I like to think will help me takes better food shots, I find myself blogging less.  

So back to the topic of blocked websites: I do have downtime at work.  It’s not crazy-busy.   Downtime can be hard to deal with because sites are blocked. Forget about Facebook or personal email accounts(although they can’t stop the entire population of the office from regular check-ins from their phones).  Humor sites are mostly blocked too.  I can’t read The Onion anymore for example.  The one humor site I can still read is McSweeneys. I have become a regular devotee of McSweeney’s lately.

McSweeney’s has a regular column of Open Letters To People Or Entities That Are Unlikely To Respond.  Some of them are quite amusing.  Sometimes you can find yourself agreeing vigorously with a writer’s beef against some minor injustice and other times it opens your mind up to annoyances you never would have considered.  

Recently I looked at An Open Letter Pumpkin Flavored Seasonal Treats.  I was really looking forward to reading it.  I thought perhaps the author shared my distaste for the onslaught of pumpkin-flavored everything that runs from September to November.  To my horror, the author was not on my side.  She was actually upset with the pumpkin-flavored smorgasbord for only lasting through the fall months and not returning again for a year.  In other words, this deranged writer wanted more pumpkin desserts.  This was unacceptable.  Someone needs to set those nasty gourds straight.  I realized I was just the woman to do it.
So, with no further ado, I present…

An Open Letter to Pumpkin Flavored Seasonal Treats (My Version)

Dear Seasonal Pumpkin Desserts,

I’m all for local and seasonal eating.  I’m as politically correct as the next tree-hugging, liberal cook.  I understand that squash is in abundance in the coming months.  I’m all for judicious use of gourds, even though I can’t stand the taste and texture of most of them (zucchini and yellow squash aren’t bad if prepared correctly and spaghetti squash is kind of tolerable drowned in marinara and mozzarella).  I just want to know if it’s possible for you to back off just a bit.  Do pumpkin desserts have to dominate the months of September, October, and November?  

Bellvale Creamery, which is in my opinion the best ice cream in the world, has a delectable ice cream flavor called Black Dirt Blast.  It is a dark chocolate ice cream, lightly tinged with coffee and filled with cake crunchies and toffee bits.  It ranks up there with me as one of the Top 10 All-Time Best Ice Cream flavors.  Last week, Bellvale Creamery announced on its Facebook page that the last tub of Black Dirt Blast has gone and rather than make more, they are trotting out the new tubs of pumpkin ice cream.   Yes, the best ice cream in the world is now being replaced by your vile squashiness.  To me this is a waste of cream and sugar.

I went to my local farmer’s market one morning and one of the vendors was selling some lovely muffins.  I noted that he was advertising gluten-free muffins. It would have been a nice thing to do for my husband to take a muffin back to him.  I asked the vendor what kind of gluten-free muffins he offered.  “Pumpkin,” he told me.  Did he have a banana-nut muffin that was gluten-free?  Did he have a chocolate chip muffin that was gluten free?  Did he have an apple spice muffin that was gluten free?  No!  All I could get from this man was pumpkin muffins. 
There is a bed and breakfast just down the road from the stable where my horses live.  Kevin and I stay there often because it’s convenient when we don’t want to repeatedly make the 70-mile drive on weekends.  Breakfast always includes some kind of muffin or sweet bread.  One of the most common weekends to stay there is during Kevin’s October birthday.  We went to breakfast one birthday weekend morning with great anticipation, seeing a slice of sweet bread on our plates.  Then we took a bite.  What did we realize we were eating?  Pumpkin bread!  So much for looking forward to breakfast!

Then there are the food blogs.  Oh pumpkin desserts, why must you dominate the food blogs?  I read so many food blogs for their delicious dessert porn.  I get half of my dessert recipes from food blogs these days.  In the fall months it seems you must be in the dessert blogs almost daily.  What hypnotic hold do you have over food bloggers?  How do you manage to seduce bloggers into making sure you appear constantly in so many blogs?  My own food blog defies you, pumpkin desserts.  Chocolate desserts will always dominate, and if I must give a nod to the season, it’s the tasty apples all the way. 

On the subject of defiance, pumpkin pie, you have no place at my Thanksgiving table.  For Thanksgiving every year I make a delicious chocolate cream pie made with three kinds of chocolate and topped with coffee whipped cream.  If there is a pumpkin pie at the table, it’s not because I put it there.  Let me tell you something else, pumpkin pie, if you do show up at the table, my chocolate pie is eaten much faster than you are with your lead-weight consistency and sickly sweetness.
What’s the deal with pumpkin coffee while we’re at it?  It’s weird how even die-hard coffee lovers, who hate having their precious bitter brew defiled by other flavors, can’t get enough of artificial squash flavor in their coffee.  I suppose it’s not really about the pumpkin, but about the associated flavors of pumpkin pie.  Pumpkin pie is a fall dessert and we associate the related spices with fall as well.  Pumpkin desserts, you have us all hoodwinked.  We could all save a little money by putting cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, and ground allspice in the coffee filter at home, add some hot milk, and have a pretty similar experience without the artificial flavors.

Is it really about you, pumpkin desserts, or is it about what you represent?  Pumpkin desserts seem to be just part of that experience people demand from those overhyped halcyon days of autumn.  Pumpkin desserts are as much a part of the season as leaf peeping, apple picking, and obsessively decorating for Halloween.  

Well, pumpkin desserts, I am on to you.  I am going to expose you for the fraud that you are.  I know your dirty little secret.  You are not even made with pumpkin most of the time.  I know there are a few daring bakers out there who will occasionally gut and roast a pumpkin for the satisfaction of doing it from scratch, but even the best bakers out there regularly use canned pumpkin.  Here is the ugly truth.  Canned pumpkin isn’t even pumpkin.  It’s a different kind of squash altogether.  While bakers across the country are feeling the need to celebrate the fruits of the season by pulling a can of pumpkin off the shelf and making their cakes and cookies and breads out of pumpkin, they’re not using pumpkin at all.  They’re using a can of squash that they can buy all year long.  Pumpkin desserts, you are a bit fat seasonal hoax!  

Why now that I think of it, you are fraudulent in other ways.  Fitness gurus love to talk about how healthful and nutritious you are.  People feel they can eat all the pumpkin desserts they want because pumpkin is good for you.  Sure you are made out of "pumpkin", but you are also filled with butter, white flour, and sugar and often topped with whipped cream (or worse, Cool Whip).  You aren't so good for us.  Maybe it's not the nutritious pumpkin people crave, but the sugar and butter and the fat involved, along with those seasonal spices.

So how about you take a step back and allow some other desserts to take up space on the bakery shelves?  How about you take a backseat to better pies?  How about you admit you're just made of squash?  I know you will never go away entirely, but you can at least make some room for other desserts and be humble enough to realize not everyone adores you.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Zucchini to the Rescue

So we keep trying to wean my husband off gluten, plus I'm trying to drop another 20 pounds.  That means cutting out a lot of foods that are made of gluten-y grains or foods that I just can't seem to stop myself from eating too much of.  One food that has been disappearing off the menu lately is pasta.  Sure I can cook up gluten-free pasta, but even rice pasta, which doesn't even taste as good as semolina pasta, is a trigger food for me.  If given half a chance I'd probably polish off a pound in a sitting as long as the sauce was good (yes, butter can be considered a sauce in this case).

That makes the cooking life difficult this time of the year.  Late summer in NY means tomatoes are at their best and are begging to be made into fresh marinara.  Then there is my personal bumper crop of basil.

I insist on planting a lot of this every summer, which often brings me to ask, "What do I do with all of this basil before the snow flies?"

The answer is clear.  "Make pesto."  We all know my love of pesto and how I feel it "tastes like summer".  But if pesto was the solution to what I would do with the basil, what was my solution to what I would do with the pesto?  Pasta was out of the question, so what else?

Then one day I stumbled across this Facebook link from Thyme for Cooking. Katie had skillfully shaved zucchini into ribbons, lightly sauteed them, and doused them in pesto.  This was not the first time I have seen zucchini sub in for pasta, but it was the first time it made the light bulb go off in my head.

I made a basic pesto with pine nuts, parmesan, basil, garlic and olive oil (I don't bother with proportions.  I just throw it all in the food processor and let the results surprise me).  Then I used a vegetable peeler to create thin ribbons, which I sauteed in a little olive oil.  I coated them with the pesto.  They were a perfect side dish for my Turkey Veggie Loaf.

 SPP and I liked them so much that I decided to make a "real" pasta dish out of zucchini noodles.  I ran about 4 large zucchini through the grater disc in my food processor, sauteed them lightly in olive oil, and served them with turkey meatballs and my fresh tomato sauce using farm market tomatoes.

Let me tell you something, the man I call Sir Pickypants had no complaints and was very pleased with this reduced-calorie alternative.  

I am now officially dying to try Katie's Zucchini Crust Pizza.  I would have to figure out a good alternative flour for the crust, but it will be a great way to use up some of the extra fresh sauce I have in the freezer now.

You may possibly notice that there is a bit of a change in the photography?  I finally bought a new camera!  I'm afraid I didn't take most of these pictures in good light, but I'm working on it.  I wish I ate early enough to photograph in natural light, but I'll be trotting out the light box more (I was lazy for these photos).  If you're interested in learning about my photographic odyssey, go here.