Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Summer Serenade with Gazpacho

It might forever remain a mystery whether it was the jamón iberico or the gazpacho that began my love affair with Spanish cuisine. Both cornerstones showcase the mastery of simple ingredients. Jamón iberico comes from curing meat over time until it reaches such a state that it melts in your mouth and sings right down to your soul. Gazpacho is a cold, refreshing summer blend of ripe garden vegetables that reminds you why we miss this heat so much in the cooler months. Right now the most accessible of the two is gazpacho, which I have somewhat mastered in my own kitchen, collecting the perfect ingredients and simply blending and chilling before serving.

To me, Spanish food is the most minimalist of the great food cultures of the world, and yet the dishes explode into great allegories of flavor and passion--indicative of the people it came from. One of the best gazpachos I have had in my life was during a school festival, poured out of a tupperware pitcher into a caña glass taken from the bar across the street. I was literally taken by the hand by a coworker who insisted that I try the best gazpacho in Huelva. I obliged and agreed with her appraisal of this gorgeous coral blend of fresh, ripe tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, fine olive oil, and other ingredients specific to the chef.

In my experience, it is truly whether you love what you are cooking or not that makes it taste good. If you spend time smelling and squeezing and checking the color of your produce before purchase, then it will probably yield a finer product because you know your ingredients are going to sing. Using fine olive oil that speaks to a spectrum of flavors that really speak to you is another necessity. The regional nuances of Spanish olive oil do truly affect the taste of a gazpacho from Badajoz to Sevilla to Barcelona to Madrid to Huelva and etcetera. There are oils that are sweeter, some with a pinch in the back of your throat, some with a heavy spice, some with a floral base, and all of them to me are very beautiful. The best I've had are made with Arbequina olives, the tiny green buttery olives
that make a great snack as well as an olive oil that never disappoints.

I went to a Fería de Aceite de Oliva in Huelva, just happened upon it one day, and that is where I was able to sample the wealth of oils from all over Andalucía (the greatest producer of olive oil), and it made me truly appreciate olive oil on its own. As a result, I detest flavored oils with a passion--why infuse olive oil with garlic or rosemary and ruin an entire bottle of beautiful golden mirth? Please pair those flavors with great frequency, but do not cause a bottle of great olive oil to go rancid with some "added flavors"

En fin, gazpacho has taught me to respect the ingredients at their best, unadulterated by herbs and spices, and only enhanced by a touch of salt and maybe a crack of black pepper. Of course I would learn this from dear Spain, the land where the only condiment on the table is a large terrine of regional olive oil to douse whatever you ordered in upon arrival. I did add some olive oil croutons and toasted sunflower seeds on my most recent batch of gazpacho and it was glorious--I still think the Spanish would approve, seeing as that they also have a loving relationship with pipas (sunflower seeds)...and I continue to enjoy that large pitcher of gazpacho in my refrigerator, soaking up the flavors of summer and reminding me what sun tastes like.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

It's all about the bread

Bread is a basic staple that doesn't need to be reinvented. There are so many varieties that it can make anyone happy, except for those poor souls who are trying to keep it out of their diets...I feel sorry for you all.

One of my most vibrant gastronomic memories has to do with a warm loaf of bread coming out of a family oven in the French Basque Country. During that trip, I was so enamored by all of the haute cuisine gracing my plate, that I was actually told that I said in my sleep one night, "Oh my god, that was so delicious!" I wouldn't doubt that for a minute.

On this trip, my lovely roommate from Austria invited me into her family's home to celebrate the New Year. Of course we took a little day trip to Perpignan to have champagne on the beach at midnight, while throwing an around the world party with sample dishes from whatever country you dressed up as (I brought a Quiche Lorraine, dressed as a French woman...I know, how ironic). Then the rest of the trip was spent frolicking around the Basque Country, which is akin to the Shire for all you LotR fans, and much French-style celebrating was had.

It was one of those magnificent trips where you genuinely feel right at home, even though you don't speak the language, have a very limited knowledge of their traditions, and are worried which cheek you should kiss first--at some point you're just going to have to accept the fact that you will kiss someone's sister on the lips, as the pattern changes per village it seems. The family was warm and welcoming, they complimented my preposterous attempt at French, and they kept the fresh bread and cheese plate coming without fail. Oh yes, and they served tea afterwards in beautiful bowls that warmed both of your hands while you enjoyed the infusion--thank you.

Aside from the homemade fois gras from my roommate's grandmother, the perfectly cooked duck confit, the terrine of celery root and carrot, the fresh salads, and the little sips of wine, there was the bread. Let there be bread, I say, as it shines its warm glowing happiness all over the place. Sliced beautifully, offered liberally, and thrown on the tablecloth next to the plate for easy access. This bread came in a new form everyday because it was baked fresh everyday. Perhaps it was my lack of French, or perhaps it was that I felt like I was in a dream until we landed back in snowy Austria (another great story), but I neglected to get the recipe...ANY recipe before I left. Silly me.

However, three years later I am still dreaming of that trip. I finally got around to asking for the recipe, so I could try to recreate that magical moment on this side of the Atlantic. And my friend's mom kindly obliged! The result was a deeply flavored double-rise bread with a crispy, but not hard crust, and a beautifully spongy inside, perfect for sopping up sauces, absorbing olive oil, or melting sweet butter into its pockets.

It's reassuring to know that I can carry my friends around in my memories, and that they are always going to be there for a good catch up and some recipe swapping. A warm slice of this bread really does taste like that time of travel and adventure. What a powerful product made from four simple ingredients and some heat.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fresh spring start...

A chef in her whites and checks, and another in his stripes and whites having a well-deserved brewski at Garage Bar during Yappy Hour. We brought little Puff, my sister's mini Australian Shepard, with us to delight in the sunshine we were sorely missing. Seeing all the little pups making friends with each other, everyone stretching out under the rays, and good food popping up on those fuzzy recycled turf topiaries, was a landscape to marvel. I am definitely one for eating al fresco, and it seems that that's the trend of our fair city as well.

Spring has sprung, and so has my appetite, so I'm back with a new approach to the Louisville Lady Gourmet. This is still a continuation of my love affair of food, but instead of making you all endure my already minimalist approach to recipe writing, I'm just going to document my experiences with food, the way it was or I think it should be made, and then we're going to see if it flies.

There is something special about people's relationship to food. It is the primary activity we all share, aside from birth and death. Everyone likes their food to taste good, to come from the earth instead of a tin, and to provide nourishment enough to make it to the next meal. Beyond all of that, we find ourselves seeking out meal companions to share these moments with, when we can all sit down for a little break and enjoy the same activity no matter who we are.

We are lucky enough to have a great neighbor across the hall, who is willing to try out my food experiments, and offer an equal (and often greater) exchange of goods. So, one day I had some okra in the fridge, as I do now in fact, and I decided to whip up some fresh okra and corn fritters with a little red onion and garlic. I think fried okra is my favorite food, but these fritters hit the spot and stayed true to the delicious Southern tradition. I guess as long as corn meal and okra are paired, you can't go wrong. Not long thereafter, I shot a call across the hall to see if there were appetites to be assuaged, and what do you know? There were! So we trucked on over with our plate of fritters and soon we were eating them and drinking cold beers, with some pork cutlets and garlic rice thrown on the fire for our second course.

Homemade gnocchi
Post-thanksgiving turkey croquetas
Pooling food resources is a practice that I got into when I was living in Austria and I had 6 roommates and 10 other neighbors who loved to throw together food from all of our cultural backgrounds to feed everyone. We delighted in crêpes, bacalhau, tortillas, profiteroles, turkey dinners, croquetas, cornbread, Korean pancakes and glass noodles, muffins baked with fresh fruit, hot cereal with cinnamon and cardamom apples, gazpacho like you wouldn't believe, and so much love and big appetites around the table that we couldn't get enough. I remember those moments whenever good food passes my plate, which is to say quite often. We all ate--normally 2-3 times a day for us lucky ones--but coming together made something quite different...making cooking and eating, for me, completely irresistible.

This continued on my journeys in Spain, arguably the place where my most intense and rewarding adventures in food were. I have a dear friend, whom I am sure I've mentioned before, who also liked the idea of sharing food resources. I have a penchant for cooking whatever I have left in the pantry at the end of the week, and making a few courses of interesting combinations with nothing left to waste. She has the gift of blissful conversation, engaging rhetoric, and great friendship. This served us well on adventures with frushi (strawberries from Huelva rolled in sushi rice), grilled romaine hearts with dressing, beans and rice, fish, salads, omelets, basically anything that could be created from our laughable leftovers.

Jamón Ibérico
Finally, on the adventures with my now fiancé, we went back and forth along the entire country of Spain and well into Portugal, eating gigantic meals with loving family and friends, seeking out hidden paellas in beach villages outside of Barcelona, traveling to Bar Tomas (not actually the real name, but that was the owner's name) for the best patatas bravas in the world, moaning over tapas as big as our head in Granada, finding secret outdoor grills on Portugal's southern coast that offer no menu and will feed you until you burst with food that just jumped out of the sea, and making our own creations from the exaggeration of fresh markets that generously open their arms to fill my empty bags. I always found myself eating and cooking with people I loved, stranger or friend.

These experiences have made me into the person I am. I make food everyday that transports me back to these moments in time. I guess this slice of the virtual world is used to immortalize those moments and to remind me that they never really go away.

Today, with the language classes I teach, I am bringing my students into the kitchen and inviting the real world application of preparing food and kitchen conversation into foreign language acquisition. I've had some great response to it, both from my students' satisfaction and their progress. I don't know why I didn't act on it sooner. Most recently, I gave a Spanish class in which we prepared chiles en nogada, a traditional Mexican dish. A few weeks before that I prepared cactus, which is a staple to many people, but rarely eaten here. And of course I had to go back to my roots by whipping up some sopa de garbanzos, patatas bravas, and ensalada con queso cabrales.
Chiles en nogada with Mexican rice
Perhaps that is enough for today. Hopefully this has inspired you, dear readers, to go out and seek your own great food journey, alongside hungry friends, neighbors, or family. It has brought and continues to bring me infinite happiness. I'll continue rambling later...I have lots more to come!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Snack Attack: Homemade Parmesan Crisps

Okay, so I know that Louisville is psyched to have a Trader Joe's now, and I am too, but there are snacks that are completely doable at home. I had a nibble of the parmesan crisps the other day and thought to myself, this is definitely cheaper to do at home than $6 a pack. Seriously, it was a handful of toasts with some parmesan sprinkled on it....it wasn't delicacy that would necessitate such a sacrifice to the wallet. So, here is my version. It is easy, cheaper, delicious, and awesome when you get it crunchy out of the oven!

Homemade Parmesan Crisps
Sliced baguette (preferably day-old...which you can also get on sale)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese 
Olive oil (optional)

The very basic idea is to spread a cheese/butter mixture on your chosen bread slices and dry them out in the oven. I can't explain it any easier than that.

I heated my oven to 300º and arranged the bread slices on a cookie sheet. I melted the butter and brushed it on the bread slices. Alternatively, you can make a melted butter and olive oil mixture and brush that on. Just know that it will have a different (probably even more awesome) taste due to the olive oil. Finally, liberally sprinkle on the parmesan cheese and press down lightly so that it adheres to the butter-brushed bread.

I let it hang out in the oven for about 30-40 minutes. It will smell incredible, so prepare yourself for some serious salivation before these crispies come out of the oven. They should not be browning, but still the same color of the cheese as you put it in. If they do start to brown, lower the temperature of your oven and continue to bake until they are crisp.

Cool them on a wire rack to ensure maximum crispiness. 

Enjoy in one sitting...because they won't last any longer.

Buon appetito!!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Continuing a Zen Kitchen Study: Tamagoyaki

This is the third installment of this particular trilogy focused on Japanese cuisine. This will most definitely become part of a continuous series, as we move on through experimenting with new techniques.

Tamagoyaki is a wonderfully simple dish. My history with it started with a shared dinner in a third floor university dorm kitchen. A friend from Korea and a friend from Japan wanted to share a meal with us and prepare some traditional dishes for us to try. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited about soaking up all of that food information. This may have been the first instance in which I was paying attention and questioning cooking methods in order to replicate them in my own kitchen later on. Hm, funny how that came about. Our meal began with tamagoyaki.

If you are not familiar with tamagoyaki, it is basically an egg omelet rolled up on itself and sliced in to pieces, not unlike a sushi roll. Tamago, meaning egg in Japanese, is often seen on Japanese restaurant menus here in the States, and it comes cut into a rectangle and served nigiri-style atop some sushi rice and banded with a strip of nori seaweed (beware of pre-made packaged tamago...please, if you can't fry an egg, you really shouldn't be running a restaurant). The intriguing part for me was that tamagoyaki is sweet egg dish, and I had only ever had eggs in a savory fashion...usually doused in hot sauce or seasoned with chili powder, curry, salt and pepper. The sweet egg is a happy side to any meal, traditional Japanese or not. I found it especially calming when we were introduced to some spicy kimchi later on in our meal.

The only trick is in the technique, which I will detail below, but it will beg a little patience, especially if you aren't into multitasking inside a hot frying pan.

4-6 Eggs
1 T or so of Sugar
Dash of Soy sauce
Cooking oil
Sesame seeds or seaweed for garnish (optional)

Tamagoyaki begins with fresh, bright eggs whisked to oblivion. You want to achieve fluffiness in between each layer. Whisk in your sugar and soy sauce and you're ready for the hard part.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat and drizzle with cooking oil. This can be canola oil with a dash of sesame oil for some flavor, or whatever you think tastes good. When the oil is shimmering, ladle in your first layer of egg. You want to make sure that it covers the bottom of the pan. When that starts to cook just enough that you can move it, you want to start rolling it up on itself--so take one side and roll it as you would a burrito. When you get to the other side, let the roll sit there and ladle in another layer of egg, making sure that it covers the bottom of the pan again--so do a little swish action if need be. When that layer starts to set, take your already existing roll and roll up the new egg layer in the opposite direction. You continue building these layers, rolling it back and forth until all of your egg is used up and you have a nice round roll of sweet egg!

Note rolling technique: Tamagoyaki
Take that egg roll out of the pan and slice it into pieces. It should be bite-sized, and the size of a sushi roll.

It's quick, easy, and a delicious and balanced accompaniment to any meal!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Roasted Chickpeas with Swiss Chard

I’ve recently noticed nice displays of bulk supply goods at our local supermarkets. This is particularly helpful for when I prepare my granolas because I want to try different combinations all of the time.
However, they also have bulk quantities of quinoa, couscous, nuts, dried fruits, brown rice, rolled oats… just a lot of wonderful things that you should have big bags of in your pantry. My recent investment was in garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas.
Garbanzos are probably known to most of you as the main ingredient to hummus, the Mediterranean dip comprised of Tahini (almond paste), garbanzos and olive oil. I personally love hummus, but I wanted to explore some more options with these glorious little beans. In Spain, we would slow cook them in a soup all day with onions, bell peppers, pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), and usually broth from whatever stock you had laying around the house. Still, I was looking for more inspiration…
I found my answer at the Douglass Loop Farmers Market, where I am often inspired on Saturday mornings to cover new culinary terrain. I bought the most gorgeous bushel of leafy green Swiss chard, and my mind was blown! Coincidentally enough, Epicurious had just the recipe for me, combining the Swiss chard with roasted garbanzos–a totally new way to approach garbanzo beans. The result was an unprecedented silkiness, achieved by the gentle roast of the garbanzos in golden olive oil and aromatics. I never thought that I would taste garbanzos like this. Then pairing them with Swiss chard, which was stewed on the stove with garlic and aromatics, and you have a delightful surprise awaiting. This bowl of joy was enough to satiate my appetite as a main course, and the leftovers just got better every day. I think this would be a wonderful filling for pita or as part of a salad, or served next to braised cabbage and a carrot slaw, like I did.
Roasted Garbanzos with Swiss Chard

3 C Garbanzo beans, rehydrated
1 Head of garlic, smashed and peeled
3 Bay leaves
2 Shallots, peeled and separated
Olive oil
1 Bunch Swiss chard
1/2 Head of garlic
2 Shallots, chopped
White wine
Chili powder

To start, you need to handle the garbanzo situation. I recommend starting with dried garbanzos because they yield a better taste and texture (you can use canned garbanzos too). Just think of garbanzos as any other dried beans. They require a good healthy soaking overnight, or the quick soak method, which involves boiling and changing water, but the overnight soak, all of the way up to 24 hours, is your best bet. Rinse and drain.
The easiest way to peel garlic is to smash it with the side of your knife and remove the skin. Crushed garlic can then be minced or sliced or whatever, but for this recipe you can just throw in the entire smashed cloves and be fine. Combine the garbanzos, garlic, shallots, and enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a 9”x13” glass casserole dish. Make sure it is a flavorful olive oil. Toss all of the ingredients together, cover the dish with foil, and throw it in a preheated 350º oven. You can tell it is finished when the garlic has roasted itself to softness. I stirred it a couple of times just to make sure everything was evenly roasting–my oven has a few hot spots.

While the beans are roasting in the oven, you can prepare your Swiss chard. Heat some olive oil over medium heat in a large pot and add the garlic, shallots, and bay leaf. Cook until fragrant and just on the verge of translucence. At this point, I decided it would be a good idea to deglaze the pan and basically steam the chard with white wine…this was an incredible idea! So, before adding the wine I took as much Swiss chard as I could fit (it is too much to add the entire bunch at once, so you have to wait until it shrinks down a bit), and tossed it around in the pot until the leaves were decently coated. Then I added the wine and put a lid on it for about a minute. The chard shrunk as expected, and I was able to add the remainder and continue cooking until everything was soft and tender. I chopped up the stem and all, because it is edible and delicious, you just have to cook them until they are easy to chew–by the time that was accomplished, everything was ready!

When the beans are finished, remove them from the roasting pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to the Swiss chard mixture. You should have extra oil left in the roasting pan. Take the shallots and garlic along with it, but remove the bay leaves (from the Swiss chard as well). Reheat in the pot with the Swiss chard and add a few spoons of oil from the roasting pan if needed. Finally, season with salt and chili powder (or black pepper) and you are set to sail!
Bon Appétit!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Continuing a Zen Kitchen Study: Panko

This is a continuation of the trilogy that started with my new favorite snack, Onigiri. You can find that post linked here. Today we are going to talk about Panko, it's many components and applications, and my recipe for panko-crusted chicken.

I have a great love for both tempura and panko in their approaches to frying. There is something about lightly battered and flash fried goodies that makes my heart flutter. However, the miracle of panko not only lends itself to frying but also to baking, which is a recipe that I feature here today. If you want to read more about the approach to tempura frying, it is much more involved than panko, I also whipped up a batch of tempura okra that turned out to be legendary.

I believe that most people have tried panko fried shrimp, which is a wonderful dish completed by ponzu sauce, or whatever light Japanese-inspired sauce you can whip up. Honestly, it doesn't even make it to a sauce when I encounter a plate of panko shrimp, it just pops directly into my mouth. In my experience panko lends itself best to vegetables, fish, and lean meat, and I only say this because I can't imagine trying to panko encrust beef or pork...it just doesn't feel right, but perhaps there is a tradition somewhere that features such a protein selection. In my book, fish, chicken, and vegetables provide fine vessels for panko, allowing it to cook quickly, remain light, and deliver a satisfying crunch.

If you do want to fry using panko, let me recommend some techniques I've picked up from various places. First soak the chicken in milk for at least 30 minutes, then roll it in corn starch and tap off the excess, then dip it in an egg wash and press it into your panko crumbs. Fry as normal. This ritual is changed slightly while baking because that crunchy crust is not entirely necessary or achievable as with frying...but make no mistake, it is no less satisfying! The overhaul of dairy products not only provides adherence for the breading, but it also adds incredible richness.

Crunchiness is one of the aspects of mouthfeel that I desire almost to the point of addiction. If I am snacking on something, I typically want a crunchy snack. Perhaps it is my subconscious feeling like it's getting something done, or maybe my jaw enjoys the fact that there is percussion accompanying all its hard work. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way---otherwise, if it weren't for the inspirational crunch, how could anyone put up with the god-awfulness that is the "Cheeto"?

Let's return to something that will make your meals a little better, inspired by the beautiful breading that has become associated with Japanese fried goods, and now can grace your baked mains.

Note: I chose to crumble up some seaweed (sold now in packets as "Sea veggies", which I find amusing, as if the term "seaweed" was somehow not as marketable anymore....please) and mix it in with the panko crumbs. You could easily do this with roasted nori or sesame seeds, to add a little color and flavor. I found it delightful and it cooked up really well next to the panko, not changing the integrity of the breading.

Panko Chicken
Organic chicken breast, sliced thin
Sesame oil
Panko crumbs
Seaweed, crumbled to the size of the panko (optional)
Sesame seeds (optional)

Clean and trim your chicken breast of fat and slice it into even pieces. Cutting them smaller and even will ensure that they all cook at the same rate, and that they cook faster.

Heat your oven to 350º

Crack a few eggs into a medium bowl and beat them with a couple splashes of sesame oil. Put the chicken breast in this egg wash and let them sit in there while you are preparing your breading. If you want to do this ahead of time, the chicken could sit in the egg wash in the fridge, covered. However, it is always better to cook your food while at room temperature--you can be more accurate with timing and the food isn't forced to change its temperature at an unnatural speed. Trust me, adding fire is quick enough for room temperature food, then try to imagine it with something that has been frozen or refrigerated. I store my eggs on the counter at room temperature anyway, so I don't have a fear or letting chicken sit in eggs..but some of you might have, so just take note of the room temperature thing for when you prepare your food.

The breading should be spread out on a large plate that will allow you ample room for rolling around your chicken pieces. You can choose at this point to go straight panko, or add your seaweed and/or sesame seeds. I promise that the addition of these last two optional ingredients will only add to the flavor and crunch, as they do not suck up additional moisture and they do not burn in the baking process. Press the eggy chicken pieces into the breading, making sure that all surfaces are covered

Arrange the breaded chicken on a baking sheet....parchment paper might be a good idea, but it doesn't take much to get it off after cooking. I used a pair of tongs. I'd say bake it for 15-20 minutes. Check around 15. They should come out slightly golden. I served it with straight soy sauce, which in retrospect is a little heavy for my taste, so I'd go with ponzu sauce if any. I enjoyed the addition of seaweed to the breading, so that was enough for me!

I hope you try this little gem out, and try your hand at fish or vegetables. Play around, I'd like to see what else is happening outside my kitchen!


Monday, February 4, 2013

The Mayan Café: My Louisville Love

There are a few places with which I have a relationship that I can name with certainty. By that I mean that I feel like I have a connection with their mission, true and vivid memories of my visits in the past, and a real desire to come back again and see what's new, like we are old friends. I am happy to say that this is a phenomenon that happens with some frequency in my hometown, Louisville, but none so much as with The Mayan Café.

The name itself conjures some sort of mysticism, at least from my personal associations with the Mayan people and their history. The restaurant has a feeling of home, although its roots are from a place most Louisvillians have never visited. It is a concept fully realized because of the heart and passion of its creators.

The Mayan Café is sustainable, conscious of the bounty of our local resources, and infinitely aware of their ability to impact our local community, from farm to table and beyond. What can be better than a socially-conscious, environmentally-friendly, and consistently inspiring place to nourish your soul? Nothing really, at least from this Louisville Lady Gourmet's point of view.

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but I'm a big fan.

There is a fire that drives the rhythm of The Mayan Café, the flavors, the presentation, the technique. No, I'm not talking about the stereotypical spice that we North Americans attribute to our neighbors down South (yes, it's hot down there guys, but seriously...). It is raw and original beauty, or better yet, it's got soul.

This family affair nestled on East Market (before it became trendy) is honestly what I would consider the cornerstone of that neighborhood, and even further, the flagship of really fantastic and honest food in our fair city. I get excited just thinking about an occasion I can celebrate at Mayan-- let's be serious, the visit itself is a celebration.

When I tell people that I like to cook, eat out in Louisville, and write about it, they usually ask me what my favorite restaurant is. This is always a difficult question because I don't have favorites of anything. However, I consistently answer that The Mayan Café is the restaurant that has delivered the most shockingly good food I have had in this city on every single occasion I have visited. That is a testament to the restaurant's commitment to great food, ambiance, service, and community presence.

I must admit, I have a really great capacity for remembering meals that I have eaten. I can relive the flavors and textures, and even the feelings that those meals inspired. Every time I go back to the Mayan Café, a flood of wonderful memories overwhelm me, the flavors, the friends I shared my meals with. That is what makes good food...when it transcends a metamorphosis of ingredients, and becomes something to remember.

Now let's get to the actual food of my last visit.

Funny thing, during all of the silliness of the Mayan apocalypse, I did find myself at the Mayan Café...you know, just in case. That is where I wanted to eat my last meal...does that tell you anything? Their menu was spot on. I felt comfort and fulfillment, probably the two most sought after feelings of one facing their possible last day on Earth. Luckily enough, that wasn't the case and I'll be able to continue my visits.

On this particular day we were having a dinner out before our Christmas break from our flamenco company, so our friends joined us making a party of five. To me, that meant I got to try five different menu selections, and to be honest that is ideal for me because I genuinely want to eat everything on the menu anyway! Here were our choices:

Lobster ceviche
Chicken tamale
Vegetarian burrito
Cochinita Pibil
Beef Tenderloin
Seafood bisque and salad with pomegranite, pepitas, pears, and winter greens
Chocolate bread pudding with lavender chocolate sauce.

The Lobster ceviche and chicken tamale were the choices of the Handsome Spaniard, who was visiting for Christmas...oh what a happy time! His choices were equally joyful. The lobster ceviche was gorgeous with a perfect mouthfeel. I'd never tried lobster ceviche, but have had tuna and whitefish ceviches that were beautiful, I just didn't know what it would do to the flesh of the lobster, which differs from regular fish. I can only tell you that it is an experience you should have before your life ends...and the heat of the habañero with the freshness of avocado and cilantro...oh, yes!
The chicken tamale was everything a tamale should be, with a comforting and velvety smooth masa sweetly embracing the spiced shredded chicken inside. Never a disappointment.

The Vegetarian Burrito is a favorite on our visits to Mayan. It is always fantastic, friendly to the wallet, and chock full of good nutrients and even better flavor. The sauce that is served with it is to die for...any of Chef Ucán's sauces would definitely need to be involved in my last meal on earth, and that's not an exception. The fried egg on top is truly what crowns this masterpiece of a burrito, and the slightest prod with your knife will send a cascade of golden yolkey goodness to round out the flavors and blow your mind.

The Cochinita Pibil was my choice for the night, and it helped me inch closer to nirvana. I swear, everything that their talented chefs touch turns to gold (or Mayan gold, because that cacao bean really makes some magic in their kitchen). In my experiences across all of their dishes, I have never been disappointed by the variety of ingredients and their balanced representation. I feel like I can actually taste all of the vegetables, meats, spices, starches, and sauces that make up a mere forkful of food at this restaurant, without a certain flavor sacrificing itself to another. That is something special my friends, something very special indeed.

The Beef Tenderloin, which featured the legendary Tok-Sel Lima Beans that are also on my last meal list, was just heavenly. Whenever you can take a piece of beef and cook it until it still holds its shape, but somehow changes states of matter from solid to melted tenderness in your mouth, you've also created culinary bliss. That was this beef tenderloin; so tender that a single bite was enough for me to swear up and down about the merits of the dish as a whole. My friend across the table had good taste that night in more ways than one.

The Seafood Bisque and Salad with Pomegranate, Pepitas, Pears, and Winter Greens was a lighter, yet no less fulfilling choice by another friend with fine taste. The bisque was rich and satisfying with the depth of flavor that can only really come from seafood-- as well as great color and consistency. It smelled and tasted like my best days on the Mediterranean, but with a distinctly Yucatán flavor. The accompanying salad was full, exciting, and left nothing to be desired except for another plate full. I loved the playful flavors of the pumpkin seeds (pepitas) next to the pears and pomegranate, especially the juxtaposition of the pepitas' rich nuttiness and crunch with the always delightful pops of pomegranate. It was a beautiful fresh winter salad, which is something we often take for granted.

Finally, and yes I'm almost finished, we arrive at the grand finale: dessert. This is always exciting for me because my choices have the opportunity to stretch their legs a bit. The dessert menu changes frequently, as does their full menu, but the desserts always remain a mystery until that evening...so I get a little more excited. Honestly, any time you give me choices of chocolate, more chocolate, something with bourbon, something with chocolate and lavender, and cream sauce, I'm going to be the happiest little Lady Gourmet there ever was. I know there are more choices outside of chocolate, but that's all I choose to listen to, and this particular evening we went for the chocolate bread pudding with chocolate lavender sauce, kissed with pomegranate seeds. That chocolate-lavender combination makes my soul sing. Do I need to say anything more?

As a closing: I have met Chef Bruce Ucán once in person, and I nearly genuflected. As a lover of creating and consuming great food, I admire him, his fellow chefs, the front of the house, management, and all of those who make that restaurant truly Louisville. I am happy to have a restaurant that I will always look forward to indulging my best self in.

Cheers to The Mayan Café, and here's to hoping that future generations of Louisville culinary masterpieces follow in stride.

...I would love to peek my head into that kitchen one day and learn what makes those guys tick. This year's goal is to try to pick the minds of the great cooks of our fair city, so let's see what happens!

¡Salud y Qué aproveches! 

The Mayan Café
813 East Market Street
Louisville, KY 40206
You should probably go make your reservation now...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Continuing Zen-kitchen Study: Onigiri

One of my objectives this year is to delve deeper into the art of Japanese cuisine. I know that such an objective will not be fully realized until I physically travel to Japan and poke my nose around their kitchens, but that is a dream to be accomplished in the future. I'm going to take advantage of my access to Japanese tradition (through reading, relationships with friends and teachers, etc) to propel me through, and try to do some justice in my own kitchen.

I have a strange approach to food traditions in that I turn my nose up at "fusion", but I try to make those experiments happen in my own kitchen with what I have available. I guess I prefer to make a culinary-type fusion based on the ingredients I have at hand instead of trying to pick a few different regions (ie: Mexican-Japanese) and combining their techniques to make something happen. To me, cooking has to inspire the cook from the ground up. Creating original dishes is simply being able to dive into your toolbox, built from experiences in every kitchen you can possibly access, and use any ingredient passed to you by season or budget to make something tasty. This is how it has worked for me at least...so perhaps I will not be able to tell you exactly how to make perfect Onigiri, but I will try my best to recreate my experiences and what I think tastes awesome.

This recipe is inspired by my experience learning how to make onigiri, sushi, and gyoza with my college Japanese teacher, as well as some technique tips from Just Hungry.

I think maybe we'll make this a trilogy...we all love trilogies, don't we? Let's start with Part I: the Onigiri!

(Japanese rice balls with seaweed)
Sushi rice
Rice vinegar
Sea salt

Seaweed (nori works, so do those "sea veggies" things they sell now)
Sesame seeds
Plastic wrap
A small bowl
1/3 C measuring cup

Onigiri has simple ingredients, the trick is in the technique. First you should prepare your sushi rice. You can make as much or as little as you want, but 2 cups of rice should make you 6 Onigiri the size of your palm. 

To set up your station you should have a little bowl of water, a salt shaker, a sheet of plastic wrap, and a dry bowl to help with shaping.

To prepare the rice, you really have to do it by taste...that is honestly how I was taught, so I'm going to describe the correct flavor to you, and leave you to your good judgement. In the rice bowl, you add in a good shake of rice vinegar, a dash of salt, and a couple Tablespoons of sugar to start. Adjust flavors to balance the rice vinegar, and to achieve the stickiness you need to hold form. You don't have to add sugar if you don't want, but that is what Onigiri tastes like to me (sushi rice), so I still add it.

To assemble, take 1/3 C of the rice mix and plop it into a small rice bowl (could also be known as a finger bowl) that is lined with plastic wrap that has been sprinkled with water and a dash of salt. This method will keep you from chapping your hands with hot rice and salt. Bring the ends of the plastic wrap together and start twisting until you have a little rice pouch at the bottom, keep twisting! This technique helps to compact the sticky rice without sticking to your hands. You can choose at this point to form them into triangles or into balls. Remove the plastic when you achieve the desired shape. I formed triangles this time and rolled a piece of seaweed to add flavor, aesthetic, and even a convenient holder against the stick factor. Alternatively, you can roll the onigiri in sesame seeds, or add fillings like beans or fish.

This is a fantastic snack to add to your lunch or something to have after work/school. I love just having them in the fridge or hanging out on the counter to pick up on the go. They remind me of the scene in Miyazaki's Spirited Away where Haku gives Chihiro an onigiri snack and she loves it so much she is brought to tears, crying out her sorrows (it was also enchanted, but that is a great way to curb someone's panic attack). It is definitely a good comfort food. I think I'm going to make some more now!

Enjoy! And stay tuned for part II, which will have my recipe for Panko Chicken ^.~

Monday, January 28, 2013

Chicken Stock for the Soul of your Kitchen...and Stomach!

So, the day after that magnificent chicken has been roasted and the carcass is waiting in the fridge, it is time to spend some time on your chicken stock. Really, the active time is about 5 minutes, and every once in a while you have to check on it to see if you need to skim any of the fat off the top. I feel like making stocks intimidates some people, but it is ridiculously easy and will increase your cooking abilities ten-fold. Imagine having homemade stocks waiting in your freezer with your own kitchen's flavors to awaken a soup, stew, or a new sauce you've been wanting to try out. It feels good and tastes better! Plus, without all of the preservatives and excess noise that mass-produced stocks coming from a can or carton give you, you really are getting a healthier product.

I should probably tell you what kind of stock I have made in order to give you a good starting point. Chicken stock should be very simple, the flavor deriving from the carcass of a roasted chicken, that already has spent it's life hanging out with herbs, spices, and other aromatics. The bones have so much hidden flavor that is absolutely necessary to extract. Additionally, using the entire bird will make you a more sustainable cook.

You will notice that the recipe has a very simple list of ingredients. This is because the stock is a base for an infinite variety of sauces, stews, braises, soups, risottos, rice dishes, and any myriad of applications. Because of it's versatility, the end product (the stock) needs to be rich, but without flavors that will take over everything else. Therefore, you will not see me throwing in handfulls of herbs and spices *gasp!* I know...

Some ideas for stock use:
  • Measure out amounts of chicken stock into containers that can be frozen. You can choose the measurements based on your favorite recipes, or recipes that you wish to make in the future. Anytime you need some stock, you'll have reinforcements awaiting your order in the freezer. 
  • You can also put stock into ice cube trays and pop one out whenever you need a bit of richness in a sauce. 
  • Also, if you want in on a secret, the carcass can be boiled a second time, to make what Ferran Adrià called the "second stock" and use that to make your next stock even richer. I feel like this tip would be especially useful for someone who finds themselves using stock quite often. Also, a good idea in preparation for the holiday season.
  • You can use this same recipe to make turkey stock after Thanksgiving! Mind-blowing, I know :)

Basic Chicken Stock
Inspired by The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià
Celery (could use celery seed)
Chicken Carcass

For the stock that I made, I used the carcass from the roasted chicken that I made the night before. I stored it covered in the fridge (along with some of the drippings). For the aromatics, you only need onion, celery, and carrot. I believe I threw in a few cloves of garlic because I just can't resist, and I used celery seed instead of celery, which is a great substitute if you absolutely don't have any celery in the house. 

A little ugly, but I couldn't resist.
It's so exciting to see what it turns into!
Chuck everything in a big pot, no need to chop anything! Then pour in 8 cups or so of water, enough to cover everything and bring to a boil. Skim the foam from the surface and simmer for 2 to 2-1/2 hours.

Strain everything through a fine mesh sieve and you have fresh stock! Store in the freezer up to six months in small containers. You only want to defrost what you are going to use that day, and in that case take it out the day before and store in the fridge so that it thaws correctly!

May you have many more delicious dishes coming from this important preparation task!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Not a baker you say? Try Irish Soda Bread!

I love homemade breads, but they can really be a pain.
A hard truth I’ve had to swallow is that high-quality bread is very expensive in the United States. Of course, when I’m met with a challenge like that, I jump straight to the recipe vault and try to create my own version.
I like to know where the ingredients of my food come from and how they are being prepared. Thus, I put myself through making things like hot sauce, jam, breads, crackers, etc. and find that they are much easier than I initially thought.
This particular bread also has some significance in Louisville, where the Irish are a part of our city’s history. The neighborhood Irish Hill was named for its original inhabitants of Irish (and German) Catholics who built up the working-class neighborhood as immigrants to Louisville in the late 1800s.
Today we see most of that Irish background in names and places, such as the Irish Rover on Frankfort Ave or what I like to call the Celtic Quarter on Bardstown Road where Molly’s, O’Sheas, and Flannagans entertain the Highlands on the weekends. Don’t get me started on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade … man, this city is awesome.
I digress … the homemade bread we are making today does have roots in that emerald island across the Atlantic, but it is also a very sensible bread to make at home. The ingredients are simple, easy to find, very affordable, and easily manipulated. The dough is soft and pleasant without requiring much kneading or beating or slapping or resting like most breads do.
This bread provides a dense loaf that saves well through the week. Plus, if you happen to find it a little stale, all you have to do is add some butter to a pan, warm it up and toast it in the pan with butter until revived. I don’t know if you’ve ever made bread at home, but if you spent 12 hours making 4 loaves and you found three of them stale the next day, you would probably be a little discouraged (I'm talking to you Homemade French Bread). Our dear soda bread nips that problem in the bud.
It makes a fantastic accompaniment to eggs, a good snack with apple butter, and of course the perfect companion for afternoon tea. So, get that dutch oven or iron skillet out and let’s get baking!
  • White Soda Bread
4 C All purpose flour
1 t Baking soda
1 t Salt
14 oz. Buttermilk

That is really all you need to make delicious bread.
If you don’t happen to have buttermilk and don’t feel like weathering the storm to get to your local supermarket, you can actually curdle your own milk with either lemon juice or vinegar. A tablespoon and a half in 14oz. of milk should make the milk curdle; you will see it separate and thicken after about 5 minutes. Stir it up and you’re ready to go.
Of course, actual buttermilk is the best … and because we have access to it, that’s what I recommend.
I cooked this in my iron skillet because it is non-stick and provides an even cooking surface for the bread. A greased and floured cake pan would work. Traditionally, it is cooked with a cover on (such as in a dutch oven), but I cooked mine without a cover and it turned out beautifully.
Preheat your oven to 425º
Sift all of the dry ingredients into a bowl and combine. Create a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the buttermilk. Mix to combine into a sticky dough and lightly knead with floured hands, adding a bit of flour to make the dough more manageable. Do not over-knead because you will lose the gasses necessary to make the bread rise.
Form the dough into a round flat shape and cut a cross into the top of the dough and put it in the oven. After 30-40 minutes you should have a golden loaf bursting forth from your happy iron skillet or baking vessel.
However, you can’t get too excited because the loaf needs to rest. Technically, you are supposed to wait until the loaf is completely cooled, but seriously, who can do that? I cool it on a wire rack until I can handle it without discomfort. If you cut it too soon, the inside won’t be so spongey when you steal yourself a slice. It’s okay though, even if you are impatient, slather some butter on that happy warm piece of heaven and you’ll be content, I promise.
Wrap it in a tea towel to keep it moist. I found that wrapping it in foil and a tea towel lengthens the life of the bread. Enjoy warm with a hot cup of tea or cocoa on these winter nights. It is great to have around the house for pop-in guests at this time of year. There’s nothing better than sitting down to share tea or coffee with fresh homemade bread.
I hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Nod to Health and Flavor: Curried Garbanzos and Parsnips with Kale Chips

Gasping for breath from drowning in the sea of cookie exchange leftovers, unyielding towers of homemade candy, and jars full of homemade miscellaneous, it is important to envision leafy greens, protein-packed legumes, and tasty fresh winter vegetables dancing in our heads. I don’t know about you, but after making giant batches of cookies and gift baskets full of holiday goodies, I was brought back very quickly to my need for actual food. We find ourselves deep into the first month of 2013 and I still find myself tripping over unnecessary excess from the end of last year... I digress in my frustration (and clandestine joy).

This bring us to my love affair with kale, especially in kale-chip form. I’m not talking about those $6.00 tiny plastic containers of 5-6 leaves of kale that were dry-baked and sprinkled with some unknown “flavor” substance. I’m talking about ripping up the leafy stalk myself, distributing it on a baking sheet, drizzling it with olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and tossing until all of the leaves get their fair share, then crisping it in the oven until it reaches its most wonderous form: that light, airy, completely gratifying crisp of a kale chip. It’s what I have deemed the whole-mouth crisp.

In my nerd-spells researching avant garde food and molecular gastronomy, specifically the works of Ferran Adrià, mouthfeel is of the utmost importance when you are aiming for real surprise and awe. Kale chips did that for me. They don’t shard or splinter off of the stalk, rather their leaves shatter as if they were lace into infinitely smaller crisps, crunching until the last particle has sung its song…and the flavor packs a wonderful punch along with all of the vitamins that the holiday diet of white sugar and cream were absorbing.
Take that Tostitos!

Paired with an impromptu curry comprised of parsnips, yellow peppers, garbanzos (cooked in bulk and reserved in the freezer for future use), onions and garlic, this meal was completed with the oh, so lovely kale chip. So fire up the stove, gather your winter veggies, and let’s get on with some merry-making for your health!
Curried Garbanzos and Parsnips with Kale Chips
Serves 4
 1 C Garbanzos (aka chickpeas), cooked
1 Parsnip, peeled and chopped. Remove any woody parts
1 Bell pepper, chopped
1 Onion, chopped
5 Cloves of garlic, sliced
Olive oil
Curry powder
Chili powder (Chimayo chili is my preferred)
Prep all of your vegetables and heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions first, this helps to distribute the flavor in the oil. Then you can add the bell peppers and parsnips and cook for a few minutes until they start to soften. Next add the garlic and sauté everything together until fragrant. Add your spices to the sauté and adjust for taste.

The last ingredients are the garbanzos, and I just stirred them in, put a lid on the pan and reduced the heat to low so that the garbanzos would heat but not get mushy. If you need to add oil, don’t be afraid! The flavors will distribute themselves and this can wait on the stove until your kale chips are ready.

Kale chips are super easy. Just heat the oven to 375º and tear up some kale leaves, removing most of the tough stalk (reserve for vegetable stock later) and drizzle evenly with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Agitate the pan every 10 minutes or so until it reaches your desired crispness. I think mine usually takes 25 minutes for my ideal crisp.

Serve the curry topped with the kale chips and prepare yourself for a flavor explosion with a textural surprise. Your body will thank you!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dinner for Champions: Roasted Chicken, Roasted Potatoes and an Onion Magnolia

Dear food-loving friends,

I want to take this moment to thank dear Ferran Adrià for making the most inspiring cookbook I have ever owned. I am now the proud, very fortunate owner of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià. If you are not familiar with this title, you really should get acquainted. It is the collection of recipes that the staff at El Bulli shared before every shift at that amazing restaurant. The book really showcases the mantra that in order to make great food you must eat well too. El Bulli set the bar, so of course they were no exception.

My first endeavor into this book was to start creating stocks and sauces. The wonderful thing about the construction of this book is the attention to kitchen waste, and how it should be minimal. That is really one of my goals as a financially and environmentally conscious cook. I want to make good food and get the most out of the ingredients that I am fortunate enough to buy. Thus, I was able to roast a chicken, make a sauce from the drippings, and use the leftover "nasty bits" (great book by Anthony Bourdain as well), to make a delicious chicken stock. I was so excited I was beaming with joy.

If you are entertaining, a roasted chicken is quite possibly the simplest and most gratifying meal you could prepare. It is beautiful, it makes the house smell like you're a professional chef, the leftovers are great, and you can make chicken stock with it later! YES! I chose to pair it with roasted onion and potatoes, but it would be just as lovely with a salad or a risotto on the side.

In my humble opinion, this is the first meal that any cook worth their salt should know how to make.

Roasted Chicken
(adapted from The Family Meal)
Roasted Potatoes and an Onion Magnolia

1 Whole chicken
Olive oil
1 Lemon
2 Cloves garlic, crushed skin-on
2 Bay leaves
Black Pepper
Chili powder

4 Yukon gold potatoes, cubed
1 Large red onion
Olive oil
Chili powder
Black pepper

This chicken recipe yielded the most succulent and moist chicken of my entire life. The leftovers also saved well and retained their full flavor, making for awesome chicken sandwiches and salad.

Start by washing and drying the chicken inside and out, remove any feathers and cut off the parson's nose. Preheat the oven to 425º and take out a roasting pan.

Season the bird inside and out with salt (not too heavy, just seasoned) and rub with olive oil. This will help the skin crisp up and really let out its flavor. Then zest the entire lemon and rub the zest all over the outside of the chicken. Cut up the lemon and push it inside the cavity with the garlic. 

With a mortar and pestle or a spice mill blend up a combination of rosemary, thyme, and black pepper, and salt if you are using the mortar because it aids in pulverizing the spices. You can also add the bay leaf, as suggested by Adrià, but I just put the bay leaf in the cavity and the result was perfect to me. Take the spices and rub them all over the outside of the bird, bottom and top. 

Place the chicken in the roasting pan breast facing down and roast for 25 minutes. After that time, flip the chicken breast facing up and roast for the remaining 35 minutes. Remove the chicken and allow to rest. You can make a sauce out of the drippings with white wine and water, scraping up the cooked on bits and reducing them. Alternatively, you can baste the potatoes and onions in the pan drippings.
Roasted Potatoes and an Onion Magnolia

Roasted potatoes are a piece of cake, but this onion magnolia really stole the show. It's funny because it was inspired by my former employment at a certain steakhouse that serves a fried onion flower, which packs a whole 2,500 calories if you eat the whole thing by yourself (not including the sauce). It is a beautiful presentation and lovely to share, but my approach is not actually going to kill you in the long run... and I think it's even prettier ;)

Simply cube the potatoes in uniform pieces. You can choose to keep the skin on or off, especially if you choose to use red potatoes, which are perfectly acceptable for this dish. Season with salt, pepper, and chili powder and toss in olive oil until everything looks like it's got its fair share.

As for the onion, cut off the bottom just enough for it to stand but not separate its petals. Then cut off the top so you have a flat plane to slice into. Take your knife and score a cross-hatch patter until you are about 1/2"-1" from the bottom of the onion. When the onion bakes in the oven, it will soften and the scoring will allow the "petals" to bloom. The center of the red onion is pretty sturdy, so it stood up, allowing the outside petals to fall away, allowing it to look more like a magnolia than a chrysanthemum to me...hence the name :)

Brush the same olive oil and spice mixture on the onion as the potatoes and get some of the oil inside the onion if you can manage--it will redistribute in the oven. I arranged the potatoes around the onion in the center of a shallow casserole dish. I baked the potatoes and onion on a rack below the roasting chicken. First I put the chicken in, and then after that I prepared the potatoes and onion and put it in the oven until the chicken was completely done. Probably 45 minutes in all.

I took the chicken out to rest and the potatoes we allowed to cook for another 10 minutes to crisp up. At that point I took some of the drippings from the chicken and poured it over the potatoes and onion. What a good idea!

One of the most naturally beautiful things I have ever eaten.
We ate this family style, so we just got our forks in there and went to town. I served a sauce with the potatoes and onion. It was my basic aïoli sauce mixed with a dash of chili sauce, chili powder, salt and pepper

Bon appétit!

Up next? How to make chicken stock for the rest of winter! Also...following up on my New Year's goal of making more Japanese food :)