Monday, December 15, 2014

Pollo al caldero dinner

I commute by bike during the warm months, and I drive during the cold ones. That’s the way I’ve done it for several years now. Not to sound too catastrophic nor pessimistic, but I know that if a cyclist will have an accident with either snow or black ice, it will be me. I know it. But somehow, I’ve been feeling guilty every time I see someone commuting by bike. I’m not sure what’s underneath that guilt, but it’s stupid and I need to stop it. I mean, what’s next feeling guilty over wearing boots and not sandals?

Thankfully, I know myself well enough to know that (sometimes) the best antidote for this kind of behavior is to try to displace my worries with the thoughts of happy memories. And since my happy thoughts seem to always be connected to food in one way or another, I slowly shifted towards the memories of my aunt’s pollo al caldero. Pollo al caldero is basically a whole chicken cooked in a caldero or Dutch oven, on the stove. It’s cooked with green cubanelle peppers, and it features the delicate and nutty taste of achiote (annatto), which also gives the chicken a beautiful color. This is probably one of the first dishes I learned to make. I loved it so much, that I developed a technique for making it in my dorm’s microwave. Let’s just say that if there is one thing I have in abundance, it’s determination.

This week I made a dinner inspired by pollo al caldero. I started by extracting the oils and colors from the achiote seeds in the Dutch oven. Instead of removing the seeds after the first couple of minutes, I kept them there to develop a smokier, deeper flavor. I sautéed onions, cubanelle and jalapeño peppers, garlic, and tomato paste in that oil. Then I added a seasoned whole chicken, breast side down, and covered the Dutch oven. It went to the oven to roast at 325F. After a half hour, I turned the chicken breast side up, and returned it to the over (covered) for an additional 20 minutes. Finally, I removed the lid and roasted uncovered an additional 15 minutes. 

There are significant differences between the pollo al caldero and what I did. The pollo al caldero does not have the stew base I made. It has the chicken, seasoned with ground achiote, and the cubanelle peppers. That’s it. And it does not go in the oven; it gets cooked on the stove. But I wanted something different. I wanted to use the juices of the chicken, and my stewing components to make a broth I could eat independently from the chicken as a “soup”. That soup is what actually carried all the pollo al caldero flavors. It was so damn good!

The chicken had the classic taste of a rotisserie chicken, with an added benefit: juiciness. This may well be one of the juiciest chicken you may ever have. That breast was to die for. Yumm. I tossed whole wheat noodles in the chicken broth and had them as a side. Oh my, were they delicious!

On the road shortcut:
1 small chicken (3-4 lb)
1 ½ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon basil
½ teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons corn oil
1 teaspoon achiote (annatto) seeds
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
1 cubanelle pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon tomato paste

Whole wheat noodles

Preheat the oven to 325F.
Season the chicken with salt, pepper, oregano, basil and cumin. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven, heat the corn oil over medium heat. Add the achiote seeds. The color will be extracted within 1-2 minutes. (At this point, you can either remove the seeds with a slotted spoon, or keep them to add a deeper, smoky flavor.) Add the onions, cubanelle and jalapeño peppers, and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook for an additional minute (stirring).

Add the chicken, breast side down. Cover the Dutch oven, and transfer it to the oven. Cook for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, and carefully turn the chicken breast side down. Cover, and return to the oven for an additional 20 minutes. Remove the lid and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the Dutch oven, and let it rest for 15-20 minutes before carving.

Boil the noodles according to the manufactures instructions. Use the juices from the chicken to coat the noodles.

Serve the chicken broth on its own with the onions and peppers, but leave the achiote seeds behind.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thanksgiving recap

In case you've missed it, I will state it once again: I LOVE THANKSGIVING. It's my favorite holiday. In fact, depending on the day (the mood, the stars) I might even say that Thanksgiving is THE ONLY holiday I really like. So when we found ourselves somewhat overworked this year, we knew we had to downsize our Thanksgiving celebrations, but we knew we would still enjoy the holiday nonetheless. After all, I believe Thanksgiving is about the love you put into a meal you will be sharing with your loved ones. And that's exactly what we did. Let me show you a selection of  some of the stuff we had last Thursday.

The apps. We received our friends and family about an hour away from feasting so we kept the appetizers simple. We basically had goat and cheddar cheeses, served with quince and sweet potato pastes/jam. You might not see them on the pic but we also had whole wheat crackers and a trail mix. Also, we had a delicious cheese and paprika dip courtesy of Mama Pia, who was was kind enough to send us some goodies, even though she wasn't feeling well enough to make it to the dinner.


The salad. Well, I didn't have anything against having a more traditional salad for our Thanksgiving dinner, (you know, besides those greens not being seasonal) but I decided to go for something else instead. I made this apple and orange salad with walnuts in a maple vinaigrette. It was really good.

The rice. Although the thought of rice during a Thanksgiving dinner may sound to many like a continuation on the theme (of me getting away from a traditional menu), that is not the case. In fact, my first 20 Thanksgivings were equally centered around arroz con gandules, a staple dish of any Puerto Rican dinner that claims to be special. Since I must (sadly) admit that my rice skills are spotty, I called in a professional; my friend Alice makes the best arroz con gandules this side of the Atlantic, and she was responsible for this beauty.The gandules have a nutty taste that plays so well with the saltiness of the bacon/ham, the capers and the olives. And it goes perfectly with turkey.

The stuffing. Well, there is no way I am letting anything stuff my Thanksgiving turkey. There's no way in hell. But I do love stuffing/dressing, and my BF makes the best I've ever had. He was feeling adventurous and wanted to try a different recipe this year, so he made this one. It features rye bread (his favorite, my acquired taste) and celery.  I really, really loved it.

The turkey. OMIGOD. I love turkey. I love turkey so much that during my college years about half of my meals were turkey based. I made this turkey the Puerto Rican way, as a pavochón - a turkey (pavo) that tastes like pork (lechón). In a nutshell, the turkey sits in a garlic-heavy marinade for at least one day, and then it's roasted to perfection. Besides eating it, my favorite part of making this turkey is to actually smell it as it roasts. This picture was taken halfway through the roasting process.  After that, I was devoted to my guests and to what I call the Thanksgiving spirit.

The dinner. In addition to the stuffing, our dinner featured two other dishes made by my BF. Almost at the last minute I asked him to make scalloped turnips and parsnips. At that point he probably realized I wasn't kidding when I said I didn't want a single potato served for Thanksgiving. I'm glad he was in charge of this winter roots, because they turned out so good! The creaminess was amazing. He also made a wonderful cranberry sauce, the second one he made within a few days. They were somewhat different, but both of them were super tasty!

The desserts. I feel like most of us are lucky if we actually end up eating a good dessert during Thanksgiving. Well, we were really lucky to get to eat two wonderful desserts. First, we had what is probably the best sweet potato pie I've ever had. And I've had plenty of pies. This one was made by our friend Krista. I was greedy so I kept the very last piece of the pie and while storing it to eat it the next day (when I took this picture) I may or may not have ruined the beautifully browned pics of cream/meringue topping the pie. I didn't mind it; the pie was still so good! I especially loved how well the Graham crust contrasted with the flavors she developed in the filling. Yumm.

Also, we had a luscious flan, courtesy of Mama Pia. Not only it was good, but it was so beautifully decorated that I even felt guilty slicing it. But I did. And I ate it like there was no tomorrow! This flan reminded me to be thankful. Thankful to be able to enjoy all of this wonderful food with friends and family.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Corn Pudding

Years ago, as we browsed and browsed over the many, many recipes of the now defunct Gourmet Magazine, we came across this interesting editorial on a Pennsylvania Dutch Thanksgiving menu. Following the traditional Gourmet style, a very complete menu was laid out, with the time frames needed to accomplish all the prepping and all the cooking needed to pull this dinner off. We were having a party the weekend before Thanksgiving, so we decided to make everything on the menu minus the turkey.

Everything turned out perfectly, but I had a clear: a corn pudding made from toasted dry corn. This wonderful Native American way of preserving corn was adopted by some of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and when used for this pudding it deepens its flavor and gives it a great texture. Basically you have a milk/buttermilk custard on top, and then the corn sits at the bottom forming somewhat of a crunchy layer. Yumm. The only “problem” with the pudding was that the toasted corn is not wildly available in stores so we had to mail order it. And back then, we had no option but to buy a 12 pack even though we only needed 3 packages (to feed 24 people), but it turned out OK because we ended up making the pudding several times, and since then, a supermarket started carrying the toasted corn making it much more accessible.

So this weekend we decided to make the toasted corn pudding again for the BFs birthday party, a somewhat last minute decision. Against my better judgment, I went out to the supermarket to buy the toasted corn and some booze a mere 6 hours before the party. What should have been a 30 minute trip, turned into a 3 hour experience; it was chaotic out there. People were confused and behaved erratically both at the store and on the roads. It was hard, but I managed to keep my cool, even after spending almost an hour unsuccessfully trying to find the damn corn in the super market, and having to go to two additional stores to find the wine I was looking for. Augh. And since I wasted 3 hours on my corn and booze journey, we didn’t even have time to make a different corn pudding anymore. After all that drama, we ended up corn-pudding-less. 

The rest of our menu turned out well, so I was happy. Still, I wanted my corn pudding. So two days after the party I made my own health-conscious corn pudding using the ingredients I already had. My goal this time was to cut some of the richness (read calories and fat) while keeping the pudding creamy. I used really tasty (and nutritious) frozen corn, and incorporated Greek yogurt into the batter to increase the protein content, and to balance the flavor. Oh, and since I’d been cleaning for days now, I wanted to keep the mess to a minimum. I mixed all the ingredients in a single bowl, and then transferred the mix into a buttered baking dish.

I baked my pudding for slightly over an hour, and let it cool for a few minutes. OMG, it was delicious. It was still creamy and it had a really nice texture from the corn. For the party, we roasted pork tenderloins stuffed with whole garlic cloves that turned out delicious, and had a wonderful aroma. We had so much of it, that we still had some leftovers, so I reheated it at low power (to prevent drying it) and served it with cranberry sauce (also from the party) next to my corn pudding. Again, OMG! They went so well together. And it turned out to be such a healthy meal as well. The pork tenderloin is high in protein, low on fat/calories, and my corn pudding was just 236 calories! I guess I was destined to have to make my own corn pudding recipe. I can make it anytime, with everyday ingredients and it will be good for me too!


On the road shortcut

Nutritional info per serving (makes 8)
236 calories, 21 g carbs, 13 g fat, 10 g protein

1 package of frozen corn (16 ounces – 2 cups)
1 cup milk
½ cup sour cream
½ cup nonfat Greek Yogurt
4 eggs, lightly beaten
½ stick butter (melted, cool), plus more to butter the dish
2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoon flour
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a shallow baking dish. 

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Transfer the mix into a buttered baking dish, and bake for 1hr and 15 minutes (or until it settles). Let it cool at least 10 minutes before serving.