Thursday, April 28, 2011

This is What Easter is For

This year for Easter, I got a chocolate egg as big as my head.

Not even kidding. I guess my parents heard the little voice inside me thinking "man, I wish I were still eight and could legitimately get a huge, chocolate-filled chocolate egg for Easter". Honestly, I would have been happy with a small inch-long egg.

So imagine my joy when I realized I had a chocolate egg all to myself, that I could fit my skull in if I felt like it. (In that case, though, I wouldn't be able to enjoy the chocolates so it would be a little counter-productive.) Lo and behold, the egg was filled with chocolate--all kinds of it. Chocolate covered hazelnuts, chocolate fish, praliné chocolate...everything, I tell you.

Here's where it gets interesting. After opening the egg, I had one, maybe two chocolates. I closed the egg back up, wrapping it in its pretty purple ribbon (did I ever mention purple is my favorite color? A sign, I tell you). I even placed it delicately back into its box, where the egg is held beautifully upright. That was after dinner, around ten.

The next day, I had my timing all set out. I would have one or two chocolates after each meal and that would be that. I was planning on having my head-sized egg last quite a while. I then came up with an idea.

I was going to stick to my promise that I would only have chocolate after a meal. Oh but wait. Technically, having a small chocolate is a meal in itself. So that means...I should have another chocolate after that last one. And another. And another, just for the fun of it! How clever and conniving of me. I felt like I should do a happy dance in the living room to celebrate how crafty I've become in the chocolate-eating department. This is better than the day I realized I could make blush by mixing water and red food coloring!

And that, my friends, is the story of how the Easter bunny / my mouth stole my Easter chocolate.

I hope you had as much fun as I did!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Asparagus, Goat Cheese & Date Salad

It's asparagus season!

Have you read that sentence about a thousand times since the beginning of March? Yeah, me too. But hey, it is asparagus season.

I don't know about you, but I can't really resist a bunch of asparagus when I see it at the store. Next to it are the broccoli, the mushrooms...I've been hanging out with those guys since winter. It's time to find someone new. 

Asparagus is long and lanky, kind of like that nice guy in high school who always seemed kind of awkward. It can be green, white or purple, but it pretty much always stands out. "Hey," it seems to tell us, "don't you just want to bite my head off?" In a good way, obviously. I don't hold a grudge against asparagus.

I love eating asparagus blanched, on its own, or simply roasted. Sometimes, though, you feel like taking things one step further and making a meal out of asparagus, try to let it become friends with some other food items. Like goat cheese, for example, for the tang. Add a chopped Medjool date in there, a few cherry tomatoes, and you've got yourself a springtime party.

Cadbury Mini Eggs just might be in attendance for dessert, so get your daily vegetables in while you can...and make that lonely lanky asparagus happy!

Asparagus, Goat Cheese & Date Salad
serves two

one bunch asparagus
10 cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
4 TB soft fresh goat cheese
4 TB rice vinegar
1 TB olive oil
1 TS honey
salt and pepper to taste

Blanch asparagus until just tender. Remove from water, shock in cold water, and cut each stalk in half. Place in a serving bowl. Add cherry tomatoes and dates.

In a small bowl, mix rice vinegar, olive oil, goat cheese, honey, and salt & pepper. Drizzle over salad and serve.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moist Vanilla Cake and Chocolate Icing

Vanilla cake.

Chocolate icing.

How was your day going before you read those four words? And how about now?

The evocative power of words isn't a secret to anyone. You say sun, I think "hanging out at a café terrasse". You say work, I think "not hanging out at a terrasse". (Sun always wins, somehow.)

When I hear the words vanilla cake and chocolate icing together, in the space of a few seconds, I think of a fork. Of a mouth. Of my mouth.

Oh, and I also think of pink balloons, confetti, and trampolines. How about you?

Vanilla cake is like finding out you won something in a random drawing. It's sheer happiness, and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. A lot of desserts actually make me feel like that, but vanilla cake is like adding a comforter and a soft pillow to all the greatness. Even better

The chocolate icing on top brings this moist vanilla cake up a notch, into the realm of "I could actually eat this forever and ever." Who cares about a stomach ache? Psh. I can deal with it for the sake of wrapping myself in bliss and an imaginary comforter.

Let me know if you need help eating cake one of these days.

Moist Vanilla Cake
adapted from Martha Stewart by way of Eleni
serves 6 as a small cake

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. + 2 TB all-purpose flour
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 TS vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 TS baking powder
pinch salt
1/4 c. milk

Preheat oven to 325°F / 160°C.

Grease and flour a 4-inch cake pan or a pan of corresponding size.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla extract and beat until incorporated.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture, alternating with milk. 

Pour into pan and bake until top is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan.

Chocolate Icing
courtesy of Eleni

3/4 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
1/2 TS vanilla
2 1/2 TB semisweet chocolate chips, melted

Beat butter, vanilla, and chocolate together.

Add sugar until you achieve desired consistency. Spread on cake or eat with a spoon!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Getting Our Hands Dirty in Mexico

Third and last act of our family trip to Mexico.

After all the food we glimpsed at, lingered over, and ate, something was missing. We had to get into the kitchen and start cooking up some real Mexican food. 

Luckily, Maman had that all planned out for us and we embarked on a three hour-long journey through traditional Pueblan cuisine at the Meson Sacristia in the historic district with Chef Alonso Hernandez.

The agenda was tempting in itself. Imagine being given keys to the base of most Mexican cooking, and then seeing an example of what you could do with it. And, imagine being able to eat all of it with fresh hibiscus water as a refreshment. It's not heaven, my friends. It's Mexico.

The festivities started out with the traditional red and green sauces, a huge building block of Mexican food. With the help of a comal, a simple metal plate placed on a flame to cook ingredients, we turned tomatoes, tomatillos and chiles into two delicious sauces (with the help of a few other ingredients). Roasting on a comal gives everything a nice burn, helping the flavors develop and bloom in the blender.

The sauces were only a start. After setting them aside, we learned how the red sauce serves as a base for Mole Poblano. Puebla is the hometown of mole, the traditional Mexican sauce made with chiles and chocolate. Some of you may raise an eyebrow: chocolate in a sauce? A sauce that you can have with meat? "Don't knock it till you try it", as they say. Mole is worth le detour.

Mole takes a little while to make, and may be difficult because you need three different types of chiles: mulato, ancho, and pasilla. Once you've got them, though, you fry them up and let all the flavors explose--you're on your way to making a delicious mole, and that's no small feat.

During the class, my sister, maman and I had our eyes on the large bowls of salsa verde and salsa roja. We could imagine dipping huge tortilla chips and scooping up cup-fuls of the sauce...and why not eat it with a spoon?

We didn't get around to that, though, and made chalupas instead. Pan-fried corn tortillas get smothered in sauce, meat, and chopped white onion: a pretty nice alternative to the chips and salsa situation. 

If you're ever in Puebla, definitely consider taking this class if you can. Alonso Hernandez is eager to show his love for Mexican ingredients and Mexican cuisine, and we had a lot of fun trying out various recipes and cooking techniques. Not to mention that we left with a belly full of delicious food, and that's unbeatable. I wasn't even craving horchata afterward. And that's saying a lot.

Salsa Verde
makes one medium bowl

6 tomatillos
1/2 onion, cut into large slices
10 serrano chiles
1 clove garlic
1 bunch cilantro
1 cup water
salt to taste

Roast every ingredient except cilantro on a comal until tomatillos and onions start to blacken. 
Put all ingredients together in a blender, process until smooth, and add salt to taste. 

Salsa Roja
makes one medium bowl

6 red tomatoes
1/2 onion
4 dried chipotles
1 clove garlic
1 cup water
salt to taste

Roast all ingredients on a comal until they start to blacken. Process with water in a blender until smooth. Add salt to taste.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Am I From Lilliput?, or: Oversized in Mexico

I'm no dwarf. In fact, I'm around 5'8, if you're wondering.

When I eat a sandwich, it usually fits into my mouth. And when I have a drink, I can usually hold it in one hand. Usually. I was quite convinced of it, until our trip to Puebla.

As most of you probably do, we stop in markets whenever we're looking for authentic, fresh local food. Well, we got a lot of it in one sitting. When I say a lot, I do mean very, very much. We stopped in at Las Poblanitas in the Mercado El Carmen for some lunch, eager at the prospect of tasting the traditional cemitas, the Mexican version of a sandwich. Cemitas can have any sort of filling: the ones on offer here were pork, ham, avocado, chiles, and cheese.

We opted for the vegetarian option, but definitely not vegan. Read: cheese, a lot of it. 

See that? That's our cemita. I had trouble actually biting into it, and had to set aside some of that stringy cheese. It was good, though, and I was hungry, so it was actually quite simple to ignore comments like "This cheese looks like dog hair". It's difficult to make me put food down with words. 

What would be better to wash down a cemita than horchata? Rhyming aside, I could drink horchata all day long. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Mexican horchata is usually made with rice water, sugar and cinnamon. It's sweet, refreshing, and has a double action as drink-cum-dessert. We ordered horchata, one each for my sister and I, and ended up with liter-sized cups. I guess they anticipated that a big sandwich needs a big drink, but I definitely felt like I had entered a world where everything is larger than life.

(That didn't stop me from drinking the whole thing.)

Before you start believing all food in Mexico is as large as a table, let me reassure you. Markets are also a place where you can have light (sort of), simple meals. In Taxco, a small historic town surrounded my silver mines, the market was a wonderful place to try different versions of pozole.

Made with hominy, pozole--verde or rojo, made with tomatillos or red tomatoes--is a hearty dish, filled with flavor. Spicy, fresh with avocado, and texturally interesting thanks to the hominy and fried tortilla, it was a wonderful example of Mexican cuisine that can be made at home.

Pair it with fresh mango-carrot juice, and you've got yourself a perfect lunch under the sun. Why, oh why, isn't Mexico next to France?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tengo Hambre: Getting My Sweet Tooth On

In early March, I kept having the same dream.

I was in a salsa-filled pool, resting on top of a giant piece of corn tortilla, sipping my weight in horchata. You guessed it: I was ready to head to Mexico.

The trip came as quite a surprise, and was planned something like this. Me: "I have a job! I'm taking a pre-job vacation!" My parents: "Come to Mexico with us!" My sister: "I'm coming along!" There it was: a family vacation. For a week, we traveled through Puebla, Taxco, with a last stop in Mexico City.

It won't be difficult for you to guess what we did: we ate. Quite a bit. And we cooked!

Take two sisters who like any dessert made with anything resembling sweetened condensed milk, add a street in Puebla that actually specializes in sweets (6 Oriente at 5 de Mayo), and you've already got a good start. 

The sweets of Puebla are quite diverse, however. There seem to be two main specialties: the torta Santa Clara, a sablé-type cookie with a sweet glaze, and camotes or sweet potato candy. Consider them as a base to your Pueblan sweets pyramid; a myriad of little treats then stack up to create colorful shop windows. Looking for a custard-type bar? Rich and comforting, don't miss them and head to La Central. 

Coconut and sweetened condensed milk also appear throughout shops, making a great snack if you've still got space for one (does anybody ever not? Or am I alone in thinking a meal is never actually over until you've had a couple snacks afterward?). Sinking your teeth into the smooth ball of sweetness and feeling the crunchy texture of the coconut is reason enough to head back over there and get a second one.

In our first hotel, breakfast came to an end with a small snack--now, you see, that was my kind of hotel.

Is this a joke? They brought us rocks? I know I'm said to eat many things, but as of yet I haven't felt the need to eat rocks. Maybe one day, but not now. Oh, ha ha ha! Clearly these weren't rocks. They're chocolate: chocopiedras (chocorocks, if you will). Have one and it's like you've bitten into a Cadbury Mini Egg (I have a running addiction to them, so I like to mention them absolutely all the time). They're irresistible, you can't stop at one. The chocolate is sweet with a sort of harldy-perceptible gritty quality to it. And somehow, there's something really fun in eating rocks. I'm twenty-four and not twelve, in case you were wondering.

I've been known to smuggle things in my pockets--like onion peels, but I was only ten so we can pretend like it never happened--but unfortunately none of these sweets actually made it to my pocket, and went directly into my mouth. Fortunately for my taste buds, then. 

And lest you think I had no stomach space left for anything but candy, think again. Or just come back in a couple of days.