Monday, August 30, 2010


I was recently tempted to try something I hadn't cooked in a long while: a meat-filled pastry. I remember making a Scandinavian Meat Turnover in my 12-week cooking class which was really tasty, but this time I was inspired to try something from a book I recently found called "Wrap and Roll", all about filled things. I found a recipe for Empanadas. Of course, no post would be complete without a little history.

An empanada, according to Wikipedia, is a stuffed bread or pastry which seems to have originated in Spain. The name comes from the verb empanar, meaning to wrap in bread. Empanadas can contain a variety of fillings such as meat, vegetables, cheese, or even fruit. They are enormously popular in Latin American countries (thanks to Spanish explorers), but they also appear in the Philippines and Indonesia. They can be prepared large and circular, or small and semi-circular. Most of the time you see empanadas served "tapas" style as in the photo.

Most cultures have some sort of traditional "hot pocket" or meat pie. Cornish pasties, Italian calzones, or turnovers are all variations on the theme. In Spain, the empanada was developed so that it could be taken into the fields for when workers took a lunch break, they had a hearty meal in a self-contained package. One traditional recipe I found uses ground beef, raisins and olives as the base for the filling, which sounded odd to me. I've also read that meat or fish combined with tomato, garlic and onion is traditional, but there are as many variations of fillings as there are countries that serve a version of this. There are even sweet ones filled with guava and cream cheese, apple, or pumpkin. (Mmmmm, fall is coming up......pumpkin sounds mighty good).

Filling, nicely multi-colored
My Empanada was to be ground turkey, carmelized onions, sauteed red peppers, minced jalapeno, green chilis and a few other things. I took a basic recipe and added in what I had on hand and thought would work. Recipe follows:


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 1/4 sticks cold butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 extra large eggs
1/4 cup milk

In a large bowl, combine, flour, salt and baking powder. Using a pastry cutter or 2 knives, cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, beat 1 egg and the milk together. Add the egg to the flour mixture and stir gently until it holds, forming a smooth, soft dough. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, gently pressing into a disk. Refrigerate for an hour or 2.

It is important to make sure the dough is well chilled and not to overwork it. If your kitchen is too hot, it will not work well. The dough will become gooey. If that happens, place it back in the fridge for a little while until it firms up again.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 small onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
1/3 cup minced red bell pepper
1/2 - 1 jalapeno pepper, minced (depending on your tolerance)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb. ground beef/turkey/soy crumbles* (your choice)
3 Tbsp. dry white wine or dry sherry
1 Tbsp. minced fresh oregano
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 can Ortega green chiles

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until slightly browned. Add the peppers, saute another 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, saute 1 minute. Add the meat and cook, stirring, until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes (if you're using the soy crumbles, I don't believe you'll get any  browning). Drain off any excess fat. Add the wine and the remaining ingredients and cook another 10 minutes on low for the flavors to meld. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

With your filling ready, preheat the oven to 375 F. and remove dough from fridge. On a lightly floured board, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Using a 4-inch biscuit cutter, or the top of a glass, cut the dough into rounds.

Place 1 Tbsp. filling on half of each round. Moisten the edges with water. Fold the pastry over the filling, forming a half-moon and press the edges together. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Place the filled pastries on a baking sheet. Lightly beat the remaining egg and brush the top of each pastry. Bake 16-18 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.  Makes about 30 small empanadas.

MY NOTE: The filling made enough for several meals.The first night, I made small empanadas but struggled with a hot kitchen and the dough getting too elastic and this all taking too long. The second night, I made 1 big one because I didn't have the patience to make a bunch of individual sized ones again. I much prefered making one big one - so much less work! But not as cute.

Vegetarian fillings could consist of any combination of the following: corn, roasted peppers, beans, cheese, or simply any sauteed vegetable ensemble. Get creative. Just remember your filling must be dry! Absolutely no liquid exuding from it at all or else you will have soggy pastry.

The Empanada is something most of us probably don't make very often. If you have the patience to make the little ones, your kids will probably love them because they're cute. They would make great take-alongs for a picnic, or as appetizers for a cocktail party, or as an afternoon snack.  Our leftovers will be the husband's breakfast tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bean Cakes

You might be thinking, "What?" I thought so, too, as I read it in a vegetarian cookbook I recently picked up at the library. By the way, I highly recommend this book: "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian - Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food" by Mark Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times where he writes a column called "The Minimalist". The book is enormous - almost 1,000 pages long with over 2,000 recipes and variations. I do think the book is worth a look.

So, in my quest to eat less meat and more beans, I was looking for Bittman's take on beans to see if he had any interesting ideas for how to prep them other than in my usual way: soups and salads. Beans are incredibly healthy: they are low in fat, high in fiber and when combined with rice provide a complete protein. So as I'm paging through his book I came across a recipe for "Bean Griddlecakes" and made them the other night. They were really good. Here's the basic recipe:

Bean Griddlecakes

2 cups cooked or canned beans (any type, but see my notes below), drained until as dry as possible
1/4 - 1/2 cup half and half or milk, plus more if needed (recipe called for 1 cup but I thought that too much)
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbsp. melted butter or oil of your choice, plus more for cooking the cakes
3/4 - 1 cup flour (recipe called for 1 cup but I used less because I had less liquid)
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mash the beans with a fork or potato masher. Add the half and half or milk, egg, and the butter or oil. Stir together until completely combined. Add the flour and salt and pepper. Stir with fork to fold in and add more half and half if necessary to reach the consistency of thick pancake batter. Heat a skillet (preferably non-stick) and add oil. When hot, spoon batter in to form 3-4" pancakes. Cook about 4 minutes per side. Keep cooked cakes in a warm oven while you cook the remaining batches.

Here's what I added, otherwise I foresaw these to be incredibly boring: I used pinto beans so I decided to go with Mexican flavors. To the batter I added 1 Tbsp. each chopped oregano and cilantro, 2 cloves minced garlic, and 1 finely chopped green onion. After the cakes were cooked on 1 side I sprinkled on some grated cheddar cheese and allowed it to melt while side 2 was cooking. I could also have added minced jalapeno, hot red pepper flakes or cayenne to the batter, or served them with salsa or pico de gallo, sour cream, or crumbled queso fresco if I'd had any of those things. I can also see these cakes being done "Italian style" using white cannellini beans, and for herbs: parsley and thyme, maybe rosemary, olive oil and topped with tomato sauce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Alternately I could have made them Moroccan style with chickpeas (garbanzos) and served them with grilled eggplant and harissa (a spicy red bell pepper type of chili sauce). Using Edamame and served with teriyaki sauce, they could have been done with an Asian slant.

The point is that the lowly bean can be transformed into something more interesting than what I've usually done with them by making them into griddlecakes. I'm delighted to have discovered a new way to use them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Summer Garden Update

Here it is - almost the end of summer. Hard to believe because we haven't had the usual heat we normally do (90 or above). It's been a beautiful 75-80 all this time while the rest of the country is baking in its own juices, so to speak.

And what has my little veggie garden been up to, you ask? Well, despite the glorious weather, a lack of time on our part has caused the garden to be somewhat neglected. Though the cherry tomato plants have been producing their daily quotient of fruit for our salads, the squashes and cucumbers are growing sloooooooooooowly despite the fertilizing and consistent watering. Mmmmmmm......

But the good news is there have been a few new budding squashes to watch. They grow on an almost daily basis, which is a lot of fun. I look forward to making a lot of stuff when these babies mature: stuffed zucchini, tomato and zucchini compote, zucchini muffins, and zucchini relish.

Look at the pretty yellow flowers the cucumber plants put forth! I never knew that they did that. Creamy cool cucumber and yogurt salad awaits them!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Summer is the time for salsa. Really, anytime is the right time for chips and salsa, but if you're growing tomatoes, you need something else to do with them right about now, and salsa is a great, lowfat choice. Add some guacamole (and perhaps a Margarita) to that and you're ready for the party to start.

Certainly you could choose from any number of salsas at the supermarket and some are fairly good, but nothing rivals making your own with fresh ingredients. Tonight I did just that. My husband couldn't stop talking about it. It really was the best-tasting salsa I've had in a long time.

Classic Fresh Tomato Salsa

4 large plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and ribs removed, minced
2 green onions,  including green tops, cut into thin slices
3/4 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. kosher salt

In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes through garlic. Chop it all rather fine unless you like it really chunky. In another bowl or measuring cup, stir together the remaining ingredients until the sugar and salt dissolve, then pour over the tomato mixture. Stir gently to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl, cover and allow flavors to intermingle for about an hour. Serve at room temperature with your favorite tortilla chips.

Recipe courtesy of Delicious Dips.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Flavor Profile: Dry Rubs & Spice Blends

As next in the series, dry rubs and spice blends are my focus. Though they seem to be simply a mixture of herbs and spices, truly great combinations are a complex intermingling of flavors that add a depth to food greater than any one spice can accomplish. They can be purchased at the market pre-blended, or you can experiment and create your own from individual spices and herbs you already have at home. Dry rubs are ideally suited to grilling and are excellent on either meat, poultry, or vegetables.

Store-bought rubs are certainly easier, but according to the great chefs out there, it's far better to do this: buy the individual spices whole, toast them, grind them and then blend them yourself. I've only done this once or twice myself, and I want to do it more. These DIY creations are a far cry from the blends that have been sitting on the supermarket shelf for who knows how long, because they are fresh and bursting with flavor. It's like grinding the coffee beans right before you brew a pot instead of using pre-ground beans. There is a big difference in flavor. Great blends bring out the best in the foods they are applied to, but do not overpower them and they usually consist of flavors that are harmonious with one another.

My two favorites are a dry rub I use exclusively on grilled salmon, and the spice blend curry powder. The dry rub contains Kosher salt, Paprika, Crushed Red Pepper, Chili Pepper, Oregano, Basil & Coriander.

Another great rub for salmon, as well as meats, is this one, which has some smoky, peppery overtones: Cumin, Oregano, Chili Pepper, White Pepper, Sea Salt & Dehydrated Garlic (powder).

To use dry rubs, I first wash and pat dry the meat (or whatever I'm covering with the rub). Then I apply a light coat of olive oil onto both sides with a basting brush. Then I rub the spices on. Just like with a marinade, I allow the spices to sit on the food for at least 30 minutes, if not longer, before it goes on the grill. Though they won't penetrate very far, it does allow for the flavors to develop a bit. I'm going to get creative doing this. When I look at the ingredients in a spice blend or dry rub at the market I am always thinking, "I have these spices at home, I could make this myself". What I usually do is buy the store-bought blend, try it, and if I like it, try to replicate it.

For the spice blend I wanted to feature, Curry is my fave. I currently have 2 sorts in my spice cabinet and they definitely vary in taste (curries are not all created equal). One of them I bought at my local Indian store and contains Coriander, Turmeric, Chilli, Fenugreek, Mustard and "other spices". The Madras Curry Powder is the other one and it's really excellent. It contains (check out this list!) Coriander Seeds, Turmeric, Chillies, Salt, Cumin Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Black Pepper, Garlic, Ginger, Fenugreek, Cinnamon, Cloves, Anise and Mustard! I highly recommend this one. I bought mine at Cost Plus World Market but I think it's at most supermarkets. Clearly, recipes differ and I like to try new ones every now and again to see if I like the way they blended their spices but I usually fall back on the Madras brand.

Curry is great on so many things. I already provided a recipe (Curried Tofu Dip) in a previous post. It's excellent as a snack with either bagel chips, or veggies like celery and carrots. Curry is usually blended into sauces for chicken, meat and veggies. It can also be mixed with mayo and white wine and made into a lovely curried chicken salad, with diced celery, raisins, cashews and mango chutney. Delish!

Curry makes the house smell warm and comforting. When an Indian woman in my neighborhood cooks, I can smell the curry as I walk near her house. It's such a delicious odor as it wafts its way through our streets. Watch for a post from me soon where I share some of my favorite Indian and curry recipes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flavor Profile: Spices

Spices are next in the series of Flavor Profiles. A broad term, I know, as it covers a vast array of them, and that being the case I can only focus on a few. Since I am a huge fan of Indian cuisine, it is no surprise then that some of my favorite spices are cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and turmeric. (I left out the obvious curry powder because that is really a spice blend and I will be covering dry rubs and spice blends in my next Flavor Profile.)

Like most spices, cinnamon has been known since antiquity. The Old Testamant makes mention of the spice many times. It was so highly priced among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift for monarchs. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC. Arab traders brought the spice via overland trade routes to Egypt, where Venetian traders held a monopoly on it until the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British got in on it. For a long while, the origins of this spice were a mystery fierecely guarded by the spice merchants so as to protect their monopoly. Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree. The branches are scraped of the outer bark then beaten with a hammer to loosen the inner bark. The inner bark is then laid out in sheets and cut into strips. These strips curl into rolls (or "quills") upon drying. Cinnamon is used in Mexico for the preparation of chocolate. Though used mostly in sweets it is also found in savory dishes with chicken and lamb, particularly in the Middle East.  Persian cuisine uses cinnamon quite frequently in thick soups. In some curry mixes, it is also added. Cinnamon has been reported to be a cure for colds, aid as a blood sugar regulator for those with diabetes or other blood sugar disorders, it is an antioxidant, and an insect repellant.

Ginger is native to southern Asia and has long been a staple to Asian cuisines as well as to Caribbean Islands. It was popular during the Roman Age, but upon its collapse it all but disappeared. It was Marco Polo's trip to the Far East that brough ginger back to Europe and it was Queen Elizabeth I of England who is credited with the invention of the gingerbread man. Ginger is a tuber and its flavor also works well with either sweet or savory dishes, though most of us know it for its lively addition to savory dishes. It grows in tropical areas of the world and is therefore prevalent in the cuisines of those areas. It is well known that ginger tea can aid indigestion and treat nausea. Ginger can also be pickled, made into candy form, or used dried in teas and powdered form.

Cumin was originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region, where the Greeks kept cumin at the dining table much like we do with pepper today. This practice continues in Morocco. During the Middle Ages, cumin fell out of favor in Europe except in Spain and Malta but was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists. Superstition during the Middle Ages cited that cumin kept chickens and lovers from wandering and in Germany it was carried by both bride and groom at the wedding. In Europe cumin's cousin caraway was more commonly used and is found in everything from sauces to bread. You can find cumin in Indian, Pakistani, No. African, Midle Eastern, Sri Lankan, Cuban and northern Mexican cuisines. Cumin has a distinctive flavor and strong warm aroma which helps add an earthy and warming feeling to cooking, making it a staple in certain stews and soups, as well as curries and chili.

Turmeric is a relative to ginger and is also native to tropical regions of the world, particularly South Asia. The rhizomes of the plant are boiled for several hours and then dried in hot ovens, after which they are ground into a deep orange-yellow powder commonly used as a spice in curries, to dye fabrics and to impart color to mustard condiments. It has a distinctive earthy, slightly bitter, hot peppery flavor and mustardy smell. In medieval Europe is became known as Indian Saffron as it was used an an alternative to the more expensive saffron. Turmeric is a key ingredient for many Persian, Indian, Thai and Malay dishes. It is also used to give a yellow color to prepared mustards, canned chicken broth and other foods. It is sometimes added to rice for color. Turmeric also has many medicinal properties and is used for cuts, burns and bruises. It is antibacterial, and aids stomach problems. It is also currently being investigated for possible benefits for Alzheimer's disease, cancer, arthritis and other disorders.

Some of these spices you may already be using in your cooking. I did not use ginger, cumin or turmeric much in my early cooking years, simply because they were sort of foreign to me, and I didn't really understand how to use them. Part of the fun of cooking is experimenting. I like to buy something I've never used before and see where it takes me. The only trouble is that spices shouldn't be held onto for too long. A year seems to be the recommended length of time to keep them. Any longer than that and they really start to lose their punch and should be replaced. Here are some tips to remember about spices:

• Ground spices release their flavor more quickly than whole spices. Ground spices such as ground thyme or ground cumin can be used in recipes with short cooking times or can be added near the end of cooking for longer cooking recipes.

• Whole spices need a longer time to release their flavor. They work well in longer cooking recipes like soups and stews.

• To double a recipe, increase spices and herbs by one and one-half, TASTE and then add more if necessary. In most recipes one and one-half times the seasoning will be sufficient to provide desired flavor.

• Spices such as fennel seed, cumin seed, sesame seed and white peppercorns may be toasted to intensify their flavors. Simply add the spice to a dry, non-stick, heated skillet and heat until aromatic.

• Whole spices and seeds may be best ground using a small electric coffee grinder or spice mill. A pepper mill or mortar and pestle may also be used.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tools of the Trade - My Favorite Gadgets

Are you a "gadget" freak? If so, your kitchen is probably brimming with tools and appliances galore, right? If you actually do use them, mostly, then you'll agree that you probably couldn't do without them. All of them serve a distinct purpose. From bowls, spatulas and measuring spoons to whisks, thermometers and food processors, the proper tool can make the cooking process easier and more enjoyable. If you're a novice cook, you may not have much but you are intrigued by them and want to accumulate more. I'll periodically cover a "gadget" that I think is important to have in a well-stocked kitchen.

But let's work on the terminology before we begin, shall we? Why call them "gadgets"? To me, the term implies the thing is frivolous. We all know better. They are tools. As any professional can tell you, tools are needed to work, whether you are a mechanic or a doctor or a woodworker. The home cook is no different. That said, my first post will be about a frivolous thing I once bought and have hardly used. Ha!

The first Tool of the Trade that I wanted to write about is the Yogurt Strainer. See, I told you - not totally necessary like a bowl or a spoon, but if you like Greek yogurt (regular yogurt with a thicker consistency, almost like a fresh cheese) as much as I do, I've got news for you: you can make it yourself for less than that expensive Greek stuff.

My Yogurt Strainer was designed for that purpose only.  It looks like a coffee filter but it's taller. It works by draining the whey (liquid) from the milk curds. If you find yourself without this "tool", fret not; a large mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth will work just as well. In fact, on one website someone left a comment about making his own Greek yogurt and his grandfather, from the old country, swore by a clean white t-shirt as a filter! Just make sure your strainer is large enough to hold the amount of yogurt you want to use and ideally has a fine mesh screen. 

You might already have a colander but that's not what I'm talking about. For yogurt, that probably won't work well because the holes are too large (unless you use a fine gauged liner such as a T-shirt or cheesecloth).

Since this post is about the strainer, let me stress its importance in the kitchen, as it can be used in any number of ways. Use it to drain cooked foods, catch citrus seeds while squeezing the fruit and it's ideal when making stocks and sauces. You can filter out the vegetables and chunky bits that have given all they've got during the simmering process, leaving behind a flavorful broth or smooth sauce.

This morning I put a whole tub of yogurt into my strainer and I'm going to let it drain while I'm at work. Usually only 3-4 hours is required. If it's too thick I can always add a little bit of the drained whey back in to thin it out but I actually like it thick. We'll see what it looks like this afternoon. It's been so long sinch I've used this thing, I can't remember. It has Graham Kerr's name on it. For those of you old enough to remember who he was, he had a cooking show back in the late 60's called "The Galloping Gourmet" and I loved watching him because he was silly and didn't take himself, or cooking, too seriously. For those of you with cable, the new Cooking Channel is showing reruns. The little recipe book that came with it has all sorts of ideas for how to use the "cheese", particularly a few  "healthy cheesecake" recipes that I plan to finally try. For now, I'm content to eat my home-made strained yogurt "as is" with a little fruit on top. Why didn't I dig this out sooner?!

I hope this will be my only post of a kitchen gadget / tool that hardly ever gets used, as I plan to make much more Greek yogurt from now on!

For a description of "Greek" style yogurts around the globe, click here. For how to make strained or Greek yogurt, click here for step-by-step directions.

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