Friday, October 1, 2010

Handmade Rustic Wheat Bread

During a recent family get together an accomplished baker in the family offered a  bread baking class. Here is a simple picture of the delicious fruits of their labor. Suffice it to say we had every intention of capturing photos showing slices of bread slathered in butter. The only problem was that we could never manage a shot of the tasty morsels as they were buttered and consumed faster than we could pull out the camera.

Imagine if you will a crunchy crust, sweet creamery butter and a soft, yet hearty interior texture - a piece of bread no mortal can resist!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Piquillo Peppers with Chorizo and Goat Cheese

There was a very tasty photo on the Food Porn Daily site of Chorizo, Chevre and Herb Stuffed Piquillo Peppers. The picture is below and the link to their website with an even larger close up can be found at:

Being a fan of all three main ingredients we decided to make our own version of these. They were delicious and will become a part of our appetizer collection. A few important notes to keep in mind if you make our recipe:
  • Piquillo peppers are small, sweet red peppers with an almost heart-like shape. They are typically roasted and sold in jars or flat tins and imported from Spain.
  • Until a few months ago piquillo peppers were somewhat hard to find on retail shelves. Our web source was: They are now available at Trader Joe's in jars. 
  • Do not confuse piquillo peppers with peppadew peppers which are sweet and tart - those are very different peppers! Peppadews can be a bit overpowering and I would not recommend their use in this recipe.
  • Make sure to use a dry-cured Spanish style chorizo. The fat in Mexican style chorizo is too liquid and the filling will ooze out in an unappetizing manner. Also the flavor of the pimentón (smoked paprika) used in Spanish dry-cured chorizo is important in this recipe.
  • Do not overmix the filling. Just crumble the goat cheese and lightly mix with the other ingredients. You do not want a paste where you lose all the character of the individual ingredients.
  • Use fresh thyme leaves if at all possible. It makes a great flavor pairing with goat cheese, olive oil and black pepper.
  • Do not use a spoon to fill the peppers - fingers are the best utensils to grab some of the filling and drop it into the peppers. A spoon just smears the filling, is hard to get off the spoon and makes more of a mess.
  • Fill the peppers only 3/4 to 7/8 of the way. The filling will spill out during heating if they are too full.
  • Let the peppers rest after heating. When too hot the flavors are muted. Serving at room temperature works well.
Piquillo Peppers with Chorizo and Goat Cheese

3 oz Spanish dry-cured chorizo
3 oz goat cheese
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper
8 roasted, jarred piquillo peppers

1. Cut 1/8" thick slices of chorizo into small dice. Add crumbled goat cheese, thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper and mix very lightly just to combine - do not make a paste!

2. Remove piquillos from liquid reserving liquid. Stuff peppers with approximately 1 tablespoon of chorizo mixture - do not fill each pepper completely.

3. Place stuffed peppers on foil lined sheet pan and pour pepper liquid over them. Refrigerate up to two hours if not ready to heat.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake peppers until heated through - 10 minutes if just stuffed or 15 minutes if they were refrigerated. Allow to cool at least 5 minutes or bring to room temperature before serving.

Servings: 4 as an appetizer
Yield: 8 peppers, 2 per serving
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Ready in: 25 minutes

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Taqueria La Vaquita - Durham, North Carolina

If you are searching for some tasty tacos when in Durham make your way over to Taqueria La Vaquita at 2700 Chapel Hill Rd. Don't worry about missing the place, once you are within a block you won't be able to miss the painted cow statue sporting a straw hat that is on the roof of the building. With only a few picnic benches for communal dining and no indoor seating, the large overhang offers some welcome shade from the sun.

Order at the left hand window and when it's ready they'll serve your order out of the right hand window - just like the old-style ice cream stands.

They offer a very broad menu including tacos, tortas, huaraches and burritos. All can be ordered a la carte or as a dinner with beans and rice. Having returned from Mexico and many delicious tacos only a week earlier, we were pleasantly surprised by the authenticity and delicious flavors found this far north of the Rio Grande.

On the right side of the plate is an Al Pastor taco. It was almost as tasty as those in Mexico with chile rubbed meat, onions and chopped cilantro but was missing the requisite piece of sweet pineapple typically served with Al Pastor in Mexico. On the left side a carnitas taco held soft and moist shredded pork with just lightly crisped ends. At the top of the plate a taco with stewed nopales and chicharon (fried pork rind) left us wondering why they had left out the flavor - perhaps it is too subtle a flavor for gringos to appreciate.

Grilled steak tacos had a good beefy flavor with tender pieces of meat. The red sauce was quite hot with a good balanced flavor. A green sauce was flavorful yet much milder and nicely accented the flavor of the tacos.

A freshly made guacamole had a light whipped texture and bright green color - a refreshing change from the typically heavy and dull versions offered at many locations.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Romantic Meal with a Sunset Backdrop

There are many places to eat in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Mexico in the Pacific state of Guerrero. However if you are looking for a romantic dinner, a setting sun backdrop, excellent service and a menu that could place you in almost any major city in the world, then you might want to head to Villa de la Selva.

Up the hill from the Las Brisas resort on the Ixtapa side of the area, Villa de la Selva has a three tiered dining area on a hillside overlooking the crashing waves. Views of the beach at Las Brisas, most of the Playa El Palmar beach and the point by the Ixtapa Marina frame your views on the right side as you look towards the water. Piped in music seems to come from the trees and if you arrive early you can take a well-maintained foot path to the rocky shore to see the waves up close.

The first dinner reservation is at 7 pm and from late spring through fall it can still be downright hot at that hour - so come at 7:15 pm or 7:30 pm if you prefer a little less sun after an entire day at the beach.

Unfortunately the wine list although extensive is outrageously priced. Forget paying 3 times retail for a bottle of wine - these are all 4 to 5 times or higher - hard to swallow no matter how much cash is burning a hole in your pocket. Stick with the mixed drinks - priced at about 110 Mex. pesos apiece they are a much better bargain and many are made with Havana Club rum from Cuba - currently unavailable in the US.

The starters or appetizers are your best bet. They have an extensive list of offerings that all sounded delicious. We highly recommend making a meal of two appetizers per person and sharing a dessert. The warm rosemary accented dinner rolls with butter were a nice change from totopes (tortilla chips) served elsewhere.

Caesar salads are prepared table-side in the classic fine dining tradition. It was tasty but for our liking it lacked garlic and was an oilier and less creamy version than those to which we are accustomed.

A duet of tostadas with seafood was very light and yet quite flavorful. Two perfectly crisp corn tortilla bases came in two treatments - one with soy, sesame and wasabi accented tuna, the other with a shrimp and avocado medley with flavored  red onion, bits of tomato, cilantro and a subtle chipotle aioli.

The main dishes we ordered were less successful and left us wishing we had ordered differently. The fish trio was very fresh but nothing special. It featured salmon with a green pepper and nut sauce, dorado with a red pepper chipotle sauce and tuna with a soy-ginger sauce. It came with crispy fried spinach leaves and corn (elote) dotted mashed potatoes - but the potatoes were heavy and dragged down the dish. Even though we had specifically requested the tuna be cooked very rare it was cooked to medium and became slightly dry.

The Villa de la Selva fish was a large piece of grilled dorado topped with shrimp and béarnaise sauce served on rice. The shrimp had a strong iodine flavor that overpowered, the béarnaise was slightly broken and the dorado was lost in the mix. Not bad but again nothing memorable.

Although we were split on how we felt about the food itself we agreed that the atmosphere and setting was spectacular. If we were to return we certainly would take a different approach to our menu choices.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Authentic Mexican Without Rick Bayless

We recently had the opportunity to spend some time on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. The medium sized twin-town of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is an idyllic place to hang out for a while and enjoy the sun and surf. However one gets hungry and thirsty playing in the waves and reading books.

Eschewing the new Subway in the neighboring hotel and the long-standing Domino's Pizza across the street, we asked Jose, one of the security guards where we were staying where we could get some good tacos in the area without going into the main town of Zihua. He was about to end his shift so we took the micro-bus with him to his hometown of San Jose Ixtapa (a.k.a. Barrio Viejo) a few kilometers inland from the beach.

Jose's sister Juana and her husband own a little taqueria there named after the town. Located at the Y intersection of Avenida Los Tulipanes and Calle Principal, this tiny place with seating for just over 20 is a locals joint open from 6 pm to 2 am to help feed the workers returning home from the resort area. This is locals food - fresh, inexpensive and authentic - and Rick Bayless was nowhere in site although one could imagine him at just such a place.

Fresh bowls of salsa and a radish, tomato and onion salad were laid out before us - one salsa was fiery hot and smoky with little bits of charred peppers, the other a cilantro and onion, milder green sauce was perfectly balanced in its flavors.
Never before liking radishes we were stunned by the delicious contrast of flavors and textures between the firm radishes, zesty onions and sweet tomatoes. Only after developing a bead of sweat across the brow did we learn that Habanero peppers were used in the dish giving it a complex flavor while also being blazingly spicy. The cheese topped green chili chicken enchiladas were the best we've ever tasted - with a smooth and complex flavored chili sauce that was clearly homemade. 

A pork huarache (shown at right) included pork seasoned al-pastor, sauteed peppers and onions and some smooth green chili sauce. Creamy shredded cheese added the crowning note. This was a huarache that required a knife and fork - forget about eating a dry hand held version ever again - we are tainted now and no huarache will ever meet up to this one. If you ever head to Ixtapa you need to find this little gem of a taqueria.

Check out some shots of pork tacos, their hand-written menu board, Juana hand forming huarache and sope bases and her husband cooking on their flat top grill.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Francesca's on Chestnut

On Friday night we had a terrific meal at the new Francesca's on Chestnut. We were fortunate enough to be served a few new items not typically on the menu. One was a large raviolo with fresh spinach and ricotta filling that contained a soft egg yolk. The raviolo was then bathed in a perfectly browned buerre noisette and dusted with parmigiano reggiano. It was almost exactly like the one we had eaten at La Cantinetta in Barolo, Italy last year (picture above), which you can read about in the post Best Meal in Barolo.

Another off-menu treat we were served was a large wedge of a bosc or red pear that had a dollop of mascarpone cheese filling the core which was then wrapped in prosciutto. It was a much better combination than the ubiquitous (and not so well balanced) cantaloupe with prosciutto everyone else serves.

A green olive topped wrapped in ground meats (pork and beef?) which was then lightly breaded and fried was quite tasty. It was a salty nibble quite appropriate for an appetizer when paired with a light sparkling wine. A salad of baby frisee with shaved fennel (finoccio) and candied walnuts rounded out the starters.

The rest of the meal consisted of familiar and delicious Francesca's fare - pork with the creamiest polenta you'll ever find, gemelli with pesto, potatoes and green beans, sauteed tilapia and so on....

It's a great addition to the Francesca's family and priced very reasonably for a near Mag Mile location.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cheesy Chicken and Plantain Casserole

Found an interesting recipe the other day for a Cheesy Chicken and Plantain Casserole on Saveur's e-mail newsletter. Being tired of eating ripe plantains the same old way (sliced and sauteed) this new recipe seemed like a nice change of pace.

However reading through the recipe it seemed that making a sofrito (the sauteed seasoning mix of onions, peppers, garlic, olive oil, tomato and spices) from scratch was a lot of work when one was in a hurry and already using a store bought rotisserie chicken. So we tried the recipe using prepared sofrito from and it worked like a charm.

Here's our adaptation of the recipe and a picture from the original blogger's posting on Bitchin'Camero.

Cheesy Chicken & Plantain Casserole

3 ripe plantains (half yellow, half black skin when ripe) or 3 boxes of frozen Goya Ripe Plantains (11 oz each)
1 rotisserie chicken, meat shredded into large bite size pieces
24 oz jar Old Havana Sofrito
1/2 cup chicken stock (or water)
16 oz. shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 425°F. Peel and chop the plantains into ½ inch pieces and place them on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, or until they are cooked through and beginning to brown. Remove from oven, and reduce the oven temperature to 375°F.

While the plantains are baking, combine shredded chicken with the Old Havana Sofrito and ½ cup water in a non-stick skillet. Bring to a simmer. Sauté for about 5 minutes to heat through thoroughly, then remove from heat.

Grease a deep baking dish, place ½ the plantains at the bottom in one layer. Place half the chicken and sofrito mixture on top of the plantains and spread out into an even layer. Add ½ the cheese in an even layer. Then repeat with the remaining plantains, chicken mixture and top off with the remaining cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes at 375°F. Cover dish with foil half way through to retain moisture. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 7 to10 minutes so that juices are rehydrated into chicken and plantains.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

To see the original post and recipe from which this was adapted go to Bitchin'Camero:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Making Fresh Mozzarella at Home

For those of you who love the creamy, delicate taste of silky, fresh mozzarella or the even more sublime burrata you can imagine why one would attempt to make either of these items at home, for everyone else this will seem like a foolish endeavor.

Given the difficulty of getting this right we're tempted to agree with the latter - however it appears that  raw materials that are not quite up to spec caused the greatest problems. The milk as one might expect is they key ingredient - it must be fresh, whole milk that has not been ultrapastuerized. A low heat pastuerization is best because the higher temperatures degrade the proteins in the milk which create the desired stringy, stretchy texture.

The first attempt used an organic milk from Whole Foods - surely that would be a better raw material right? Wrong - after getting it home we noticed the fine print that said it was ultrapasteurized. Of course we tried anyway and came up with some delicious, fresh cheese that had no elasticity whatsoever.

The actual hands on time is pretty short - maybe 20 minutes tops - the majority of the time you are waiting for the timer to go off before performing the next step. The utensils needed are few - a pot, a slotted spoon, some cheesecloth, a timer and accurate thermometer, the range and I also used a heating pad to maintain the delicate temperature required. All in all from start to finish you'll need a solid 6 hours to end up with a clean kitchen and a few balls of mozzarella. This is what our set up looked like.

After adding the rennet and letting it set it was time to cut the curds. After seeing this at cheese factories it was cool to do it at home. So far so good!

From there we stirred the curds to separate out the way every ten minutes.

After that they went into a cheesecloth sack to hang for three hours to remove more whey.

After that a dip in hot water to melt the curds and stretch them into balls.

If we hadn't overheated the milk at the first step we might have had better elasticity - but it did taste right! 

Monday, January 4, 2010

Urban Belly - Great Concept, Amazing Asian Flavors

On Saturday night six of us headed over to Urban Belly at 3053 N. California in Chicago. It was a cold, crisp night and we waited 10 short minutes in our car - we expected much longer since we had arrived well past 6 pm. We got lucky. By the time we were done the wait was a lot longer with folks filling up the vestibule and spilling out into the parking lot.

The concept is simple - get your seats at one of the four long, wooden communal tables. Choose your dishes, go up to the counter, place your order and pay. Sounds familiar - just like Panera? - but the food is worlds apart! Grab your number with its little stand and in a few minutes the food will come streaming out of the kitchen to fill your belly with delicious Korean fusion cuisine.

The noodle bowls and rice dishes are amazingly satisfying and perfectly seasoned - no need to use the little bottle of crushed hot pepper or soy type sauce that were on the table. The bowl with rice cake (flat noodle) "shavings" with mango and chicken was a textural feast with the chewy noodle pieces and a not too spicy yet flavorful broth. The hominy and pork belly bowl was delicious but so different from the norm that it made one seriously think about what they were eating - a rarity these days.

The Chinese eggplant with Thai basil - pictured above - a small salad served cold with a well balanced yet tart dressing is a must have as are the short ribs and rice - garlicky, tender short ribs atop long grain (jasmine?) rice with little flecks of cooked egg and scallions. A pork belly with pineapple rice bowl met with grunts of approval from the group.

The dumplings were inventive and tasty but not as satisfying as the rice or noodle bowls. Perhaps it was some of the sauces served with the dumplings that diminished their potential. A duck dumpling with pho spices was overpowererd by the strong taste of star anise and the tasty pork and cilantro filling in another was overwhelmed by the hoisin like sauce. The bacon and Asian squash dumplings were very tasty and light in comparison to the others we tasted.
Urban Belly is fun and it's food full of good flavors - if you like Asian cuisine and can handle meeting a few new faces at your table - you'll enjoy it.

(Important copyright note: all of the pictures included on this posting are from the Urban Belly website.)