Monday, February 17, 2014

A Little Fusion Once Again Inspired By My Trip

Some folks (normal people) have their food cravings according to the weather.  When the temperature drops, many of my blogging buddies talk of how fall and winter turn their minds to thoughts of soups and stews.  On the other hand, summer makes them crave foods that are fresh and light.  Anyone who reads TERP regularly knows that I am not like that at all.  I crave the most inappropriate foods at the wrong times of year.  I make ice cream in January and fried chicken in July.  My appetite just wants what it wants no matter what the calendar or the weather tell me.

This winter seems to have set me straight though. I am suffering as much as anyone else on the east coast with the never-ending frigid temperatures and near-constant snow.   A few weeks ago I began having an intense craving for pot roast.  I couldn't get images of slow-cooked beef in a savory sauce out of my head. When the craving first hit, I told myself I would put it on next week's menu.  Then I realized "next week" week would be the week I was in Costa Rica and I would be likely be eating those light, fresh, summer foods normal people crave in hot weather.  The pot roast idea had to be shelved.

I returned from Costa Rica only to find that the fierce winter was still raging on.  My cravings for pot roast still hadn't abated.  What also hadn't abated was my desire to keep eating the fresh and spicy flavors of Latin America.  I decided to combine the two into one recipe.  I made a dish that bridged the best of the two extremes.

My pot roast was cooked with tomatoes, hot peppers, and some intense spices.  I finished it with cilantro and lime juice.  I served it with my version of a Costa Rican gallo pinto on the side.  I call the dish Mexican because I don't know what else to call it.  I apologize to Mexicans.

I am not heartless.  I threw a couple bone-in chicken breasts into the pot as well so Sir Pickypants could partake of dinner that night.

I really don't need to share a full recipe for the gallo pinto.  I cooked an onion and some garlic, added cilantro, lime juice, and a can of black beans.  I mixed that up with cooked rice.  Very easy.

This would also be good shredded up and made into tacos.  Buy some tortillas and enjoy.

Mexican Style Pot Roast

  • 1 4-5 pound beef chuck roast
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • Salt and pepper for sprinkling plus additional to taste at the end
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 jalapeƱo or other hot green peppers, cored, seeded, and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp ancho chili powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
  • Juice of one lime
  • 1 handful chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat olive oil in a large pot.  Rub the meat well with salt and pepper.  Place into the hot oil and brown it well all over.  Remove from the pot.

Add the onions and cook until they begin to soften.  Add the hot peppers.  Add the chili powder, cumin, oregano, and paprika and stir to coat well.  The mixture should be very fragrant.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two.  Stir in the tomatoes and make sure all flavors are integrated.  Add more salt to taste.  

Return the meat to the pot.  Cover the pot and place in the oven for about three hours, or until the meat is very tender.  

Remove the meat from the pot and let sit for a few minutes.  Stir the lime juice and cilantro into the sauce.  Slice the meat and serve with lots of sauce.  (Alternately shred the meat and serve rolled up in corn tortillas and your favorite taco toppings.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Easy Weeknight Soup

I have to transition away from vacation-style food eventually (although I do have another inspired recipe up my sleeve for later this week).  I'm still trying to lighten things up a bit since some of that weight I lost last year is creeping back on and I need to back off the heavy meals and the sweet snacks.  With winter being so brutal this year, what could be more satisfying than a bowl of soup?

For this soup I headed out of the western hemisphere and went back to my Italian roots.  I was inspired to make this after I had a bunch of leftover basil in my fridge that I wanted to use up before it went bad.  I thought about how nice a bowl of tomato-basil soup would be - something inspired by an Italian grandmother's signature pasta dish.  I know tomato soup isn't the most original dish in the world and I almost decided it wasn't TERP-worthy, but in the end decided it was too tasty not to share.

In order to beef up the vegetable content (now that's a weird pun) I added some fresh spinach leaves.  Then I had even more inspiration.  I needed some protein, right?  How about some turkey sausage?  Then top the whole thing with a bit of fresh mozzarella for creaminess.

Red, white, and green.  It's the Italian flag!

I had wanted to make this with fresh sausage.  My intent was to remove it from the casing and cook it with the onions.  Sadly, I was doing my shopping on my lunch hour.  Unless you're spending big bucks at places like Whole Foods or Zabar's, you will not find the kind of variety of foods in your typical small NYC market that you will find in the suburbs.  I had to use pre-cooked sausage and just sliced it in at the end.

Italian Flag Soup

  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 good handful fresh basil leaves
  • 10 oz baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 links pre-cooked Italian turkey sausage, sliced
  • Fresh mozzarella for garnish (optional)
Heat olive oil in a large pot.  Add onions and cook until very soft.  Add garlic and cook until fragrant.

Add the tomatoes, wine, and basil and cook another 30 minutes, allowing flavors to blend.

Using a stick blender (or in batches in a regular blender, carefully puree the soup.  Stir in spinach, and sausage.  Add salt to taste.

Serve topped with a slice of fresh mozzarella.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Vacation Inspiration

How could I write a post about how good the food was in Costa Rica and not want to imitate it?  Certainly the flavors of Latin America still resonate with me long after I have traded the tropical rainforest for the bitter New York winter.

While everything I ate at Rancho Pacifico was delicious and inspiring, my mind keeps traveling back to that Corcovado picnic and the arroz con pollo on the buffet.  I can still taste how delicious it was, and how the beautiful setting made it even more delicious.  I never got a recipe, but I do remember many of the ingredients.  There were carrots and peppers and corn and black beans.  I tasted cilantro and garlic and onion.  There were peas, but the pea flavor wasn't strong and didn't contaminate the rest of the dish.  It was sweet.  I don't know what made it sweet, but it was.  Would the recipe be impossible to replicate?  I decided I had to find out.

I spent some time looking up recipes for Costa Rican arroz con pollo.  There are more variations than I could have imagined.  I learned that while carrots are typical in Costa Rican arroz con pollo dishes, they are unique to Costa Rica and variations from other countries rarely contain carrots, if ever. Seasonings and ingredients varied from recipe to recipe and I couldn't find one that was wholly similar to the one I had.  

I regret that I did not buy a bottle of Lizano sauce while I was there.  It is a standard Costa Rican condiment - the ketchup of Costa Rica - made from spices and vegetables.  I don't know if it was present in the dish I ate that day (it's considered a condiment, so it would be more likely to be used on the dish after it was finished), but I thought it might help my version taste more authentic.  Just like the recipes for arroz con pollo are not consistent with each other, recipes for homemade Lizano sauce are not consistent with each other.

I found most recipes called for annatto (achiote).  This is available stateside, but not in very many places.  I would have to improvise that as well.

I finally came up with substitutions.  I mixed molasses, tomato paste, vinegar, chili powder, and paprika for my Lizano.  I used packets of Goya Sazon, which contains annatto so I had that flavor as well.

I deviated even more by using brown rice.  I'm not on vacation anymore.  I need to be healthy.  If you want to make it using white rice, just use the typical cooking times for white rice (simmer 20 minutes and let sit for another 5 off the heat).

I started the recipe by poaching chicken thighs.  When they were done, I used the resulting stock to cook the rice.  I flavored it with the Sazon.  

I cooked my vegetables and beans separately, flavoring them with the tomato and molasses mixture.  I substituted green beans for the peas in my vegetables because why use peas if you don't have to?  When everything was cooked, I threw it all together with lots of cilantro and some lime juice.

Was it as good as what I had in Costa Rica?  Not by a long shot!  It was still pretty tasty though.

Arroz con Pollo de Cocinera Loca

  • 2 pounds chicken thighs
  • 2 cups long grain brown rice
  • 3 packets Sazon Goya
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 3 small yellow onions, finely diced (or one large one)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 carrots finely diced
  • 2 red bell peppers, diced
  • 1 15 oz can black beans rinsed and drained
  • 1 10 oz package frozen cut green beans
  • 1 10 oz package frozen corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp ancho chili powder
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 good handful chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of 1 lime
Place the chicken in a large pot with 4 cups of water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, skimming off the foam.  Cover the pot and remove from heat. Let sit one hour.  Remove chicken from pot and skim off any excess fat from the cooking liquid.  Add enough water to make 4 1/2 cups.  Mix in Sazon packets.  Bring to a boil and add rice.  Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook 45 minutes until rice is tender.  Remove from heat and let sit for five minutes or until all water is absorbed.

Meanwhile skin and bone the chicken thighs.  Set aside.

Heat oil in a large deep skillet.  Add onion and cook until soft over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook another minute.  Add the carrots and cook until they begin to soften.  Add the peppers and cook until they soften as well.  Finally add the corn, black beans, and string beans.  

Mix together the molasses, tomato paste, vinegar, chili powder, and paprika.  Add it to the vegetables in the pan and stir to coat.  Cook until it is all heated through.  Add salt to taste.

Add the vegetables, chicken, cilantro, and lime juice to the pot with the rice.  Mix until thoroughly combined.  Serve garnished with additional cilantro if desired.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dining in Paradise

I am the luckiest woman on the planet.  Yes I am.

You see last week, courtesy of Dad, I had the most outstanding vacation at the beautiful Rancho Pacifico in Costa Rica.  (If you would like to know the details, click here, or if you just want to see the photos, go here. ) This post is simply about the food - the fabulous, fresh, well-prepared food (and equally if not more fabulous cocktails).  The only vacation whose food rivals this one in freshness and love was our trip to Italy in 2011.

Rancho Pacifico is in Uvita, sitting atop a mountain looking down on Marino Ballena, or "Whale Coast" whose distinguishing feature is a reef and sandbar that resembles a whale's tail.  It is quite remote, and requires a long drive up a steep and winding dirt road to reach, so we ate almost all of our meals there.  That wasn't an issue since their chef, Alex, is brilliant.  Equally brilliant is their bartender, Vianney.  Watching Vianney at work was like watching a chef in the kitchen.  He gave the same loving attention to the details of the drinks as a fine chef gives to his food.  Cocktails were quite innovative.

When we arrived at Quepos airport it was Alex who picked us up.  The discussion in the car turned to drinks (I suppose after the harrowing flight in the tiny plane from San Jose to Quepos made everyone want to drink) and how badly we all needed one.  Alex asked us our favorite drinks.  The next thing I know he was calling the bar so our favorite drinks would be waiting when we arrived.  I drank the best margarita I have ever tasted that afternoon.

After everything we had read about the food at RP, I was very excited for our first meal.  We started out at the bar where I tried a delicious Pear Basil Swizzle.  They brought around some bar snacks of crostini and homemade hummus.

Each night at dinner they serve two appetizers where everyone eats the same thing and then a choice of two entrees.  Then we all have the same dessert.  For our first night they started with a seafood bisque, which I declined.  Then we had a green bean and tomato salad.  It was supposed to come with tuna chunks and olives, but I asked for those two ingredients to be left off.  No one gave me a hard time about it.  The salad was delicious.

For the main course there was a fish or beef tenderloin dish.  The meat was not American beef.  It was a bit chewier, but it was cooked the way I like it.  The potato dish on the side was interesting.  The potatoes were flavored with lime.  There was a tasty onion compote as well.

We had a lovely chocolate parfait with strawberries, chocolate mousse, and brownies to finish it off with.

Dinners during the week often went on a theme, but our second night was just a variety of different foods starting with these little pancakes topped with I believe was some kind of cheese mousse.

 I don't remember what the cocktail was.  It might have been a ginger martini.

The shrimp were set on fire table side.  I gave my portion to Kevin.

A salad and a gazphaco shooter.

Grilled chicken with rice.  Not quite arroz con pollo, but not a conventional chicken and rice dish either.  The accompanying salads and vegetables were all very creative and tasty.

 Dessert was grilled banana with a side of fig-infused whipped cream.

The next night we had a pan-Latin buffet (Costa Rican, Peruvian, and others) that consisted of differnt salads, ceviche, rice and beans and various fish and meat dishes.  We had patacones (fried plantain cakes) topped with seafood salad tableside before the buffet as well.  Dessert was grilled pineapple and fig ice cream. I am losing my memory of what all of these cocktails were.

Then came Thai night.  It was more Pan-Asian though.  We started the evening at the bar with a coconut martini (amazing) and some crostini with a vegetable spreads.

Dinner began with little sushi-like rolls and the chef's vegetable "shooters" (he did a lot of these gazpacho and gazpacho-like vegetable and fruit purees during the week).

I didn't want the rolls, so they made me this beautiful salad instead.

Then came yakitori skewers.

It ended with rice noodles mixed with eggplant and a pork chop on the side.  (The other option was the same noodles with fish on the side.)

We started the next night with a beautiful sunset and a drink called Noche De Cartagena made with Colombian aguardiente and grand mariner.  I can't quite identify the other drink.  This might have been mine and it might have been Kevin's.  

We had sushi rolls as bar snacks.  That's not my thing, but I ate a few after a cocktail or two was under my belt.

The theme for this night was Peruvian night.  We started with a cold soup made from a local peach-like fruit, although less sweet than a peach.  It was topped with mole.  I dug in before I remembered to take a photo.  Oops!

The next course was fluffy potato cakes with some kind of seafood filling.  I ate just the cakes in this stack.  Not bad.

I had a traditional Peruvian Lomo Soltado for my main course. Steak, potatoes, and peppers.  What's not to like? (Even though I'm not really a potato person.)

Dessert was a cheesecake flan - which is neither flan nor cheesecake, but still delicious.

The next night was my favorite dinner of all.  At the bar I was putting away a few different cocktails. Our favorite waiter, Mel, was behind the bar that night, and when I couldn't decide what else I wanted to drink after having an chocolate orange martini (made with real cocoa), he created a drink for me called Lady in Red, which we enjoyed with lots of fried plantains.

We had a mixed grill for our dinner.  The meats consisted of chorizo, chicken, and ribs.  We had a dizzying array of grilled vegetables to accompany them plus all kinds of salads including a "ceviche" made from plantains.  Our starters was some kind of vegetable cake with more shooters.

Dessert was this version of raspberry shortcakes.

Breakfast was included at RP.  This meal was every bit as good as dinner with all kinds of fresh and creative dishes and a gorgeous morning view.

I did not photograph every breakfast, but I did take photos of some of the highlights.  Every morning we had a different juice.  There was no conventional OJ here.  Instead we had fresh juices made from combinations of pineapple, mango, papaya, and melon (I would say most mornings the juices were a combination of at least two of those ingredients).

We always started with little pastries or muffins.  

I loved the morning wrap that had cheese, egg, peppers, and chorizo.

Another favorite was the typical Costa Rican breakfast with gallo pinto (black beans and rice), eggs in tortillas, plantains, and avocado.

Also the best huevos rancheros I ever ate.

What amazed me was the coffee.  I'm not a coffee lover.  I have never wanted to be dependent upon caffeine as far too many people are.  Besides, the taste never thrilled me.  I love it as a flavor in desserts, but the drink itself is often unpleasant for me (I make the analogy of drinking a bottle of vanilla or eating the contents of a vanilla bean contrasted with simply adding some vanilla to a cake or custard).  I decided to have some coffee the first day because I had a bit of a headache that morning and thought some coffee might help.  After that I was hooked.  I LOVE Costa Rican coffee.  It's incredibly smooth with no acidic bite or dirt flavors.  I drank it every morning - not from caffeine addiction, but for the taste.

The lunch menu was my least favorite meal of the day.  It never changed and didn't offer much for people who don't like fish.  Often certain items like hamburgers and grilled chicken sandwiches would be unavailable because they were out of buns (all breads at RP are homemade).  I did manage to have the grilled chicken once.  They served it as two mini sandwiches.  More often I had the RP wrap, which was grilled chicken with peppers and chipotle mayo.  There was one item on the menu consisting of mango, figs, and shrimp that sounded delicious - except for the shrimp.  I asked if I could have it with chicken.  They did it for me with no fuss whatsoever.

I think I may have drunk a mimosa with lunch one day.

The only non-RP lunch I had was when I spent a day at Corcovado National Park.  The guides made us a lovely picnic with lots of fresh fruit and veggies.  They also served the most delicious arroz con pollo for which I neither obtained a photo or a recipe!

I am looking up recipes for Costa Rican arroz con pollo recipes so I can make it and have it again soon.

We spent our last night in Costa Rica in San Jose and flew home from there.  For our last night we were sure to sample the finest in Costa Rican cuisine.

It was a beautiful trip with beautiful food and I suspect my blog is going to be influenced by it for a while.