Vegetarian Picadillo

Picadillo is Cuban comfort food at its best.  This Latin American version of ground beef hash is not too unhealthy, but it can easily be made more healthy, and even vegetarian, with some adjustments.  Inspired by my trip to Spiral Diner, even though it wasn’t the best experience, I decided to try a vegetarian version of the recipe.

Picadillo was one of the first Cuban dishes I learned to make because it is a one-pan recipe that is difficult to mess up and easy to customize.  Traditionally, picadillo is made with ground beef, green pepper, tomato, onion, garlic, potatoes, olives, raisins, and various seasonings. (There’s lots of variations, including this one, so this isn’t a strict recipe.) If you’re still feeling carnivorous, an easy way to make it healthier is to substitute ground beef for extra lean ground turkey.  With Spiral Diner in mind, I decided to give the recipe a vegetarian twist by substituting the ground beef with Morning Star Grillers Recipe Crumbles.  I also substituted regular potato for sweet potato for some of extra fiber and vitamin A.

This Vegetarian Picadillo was just as good as the turkey version I usually make.  I couldn’t really tell that I was not actually eating meat.  I also enjoyed the extra sweetness the sweet potatoes offered and its bright contrast to the subtle kick of cayenne.  There are also a couple advantages of vegetarian picadillo:  1) the veggie crumbles are cheaper than ground turkey and 2) since the crumbles are precooked, the recipe takes less time to make.
I ate my vegetarian picadillo with a side of brown rice and sliced avocado sprinkled with a little salt.  Usually I’d have picadillo with tostones (fried green plantains), but I wanted to keep the meal healthy.  My next experiment will have to be healthy tostones.
1 bag of Morning Star Grillers Recipe Crumbles (or extra lean ground turkey for non-vegetarians)
1 chopped green pepper
1 can of chopped tomatoes
1 chopped cooked sweet potato (To save time, find cubed sweet potato in the freezer section)
1 chopped medium onion
3 tbls minced garlic
1/2 cup pimento-stuffed green olives (sliced or whole)
1/4 cup raisins (I like to add a little more)
olive oil for sautéing
salt & pepper to taste
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper (or to taste, I like it with a kick)
1.  Heat up olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Add onions, pepper, and garlic and saute until soft.
2.  Add the can of chopped tomatoes and veggie crumbles and saute until cooked through (or add ground turkey and saute until browned and cooked through.)
3.  Add the seasonings, sweet potato, olives, and raisins and cook for another 5 minutes.
4.  Carefully taste and adjust seasonings.
5.  Serve with brown rice and enjoy!

Happy Holidays

“Ms. B, I think you’re as excited as we are about Christmas break…”
As one of my students very astutely observed, teachers are just as excited, if not more excited, about breaks.  The three weeks between Thanksgiving break and Christmas break is an agonizing time, but I got through it and now I am eating bon bons in my new pajamas.
One of the obvious reasons I love the holidays is the copious amounts of delicious food.  The leftovers tend to linger around the fridge for a week, but I decided to save the leftover yuca to make some frituras de yuca, or yuca fritters.
Yuca is a root with a similar taste and texture to potato.  A traditional way to cook it is boiling it and making a mojo sauce (garlic, onion, and other seasoning) to go over it.  I used the leftover yuca from Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) Dinner to make fritters.
I didn’t need to use much seasoning since the yuca already had the mojo.  First I reheated it in the microwave to make it easier to smash.  After smashing it I added some chopped leftover Christmas ham, sea salt, black pepper, paprika, dried parsely, 1/4 tsp baking powder, and 2 beaten eggs.  I mixed and mashed it all together while I had about an inch of vegetable oil heating up in a deep saucepan for frying.
Once it was well mixed and the oil was hot, I shaped the batter into small little patties and fried them in the oil until they were golden on both sides.  I took them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and placed them on a plate lined with paper towels.  Finally, I sprinkled them with a little sea salt.  I really wish I would have had some lime juice to sprinkle on top but we didn’t have limes.
The result was a fluffy, crispy fritter.  I served them to my family and they really enjoyed them.  I had felt like making something because I had been leafing through my Christmas present How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman and felt inspired to cook.  I didn’t do much cooking for the Christmas dinner but I did make my flan.  I hadn’t made it in a couple years so I was a little worried but it turned out just fine. : )

Dulce de leche cortada

I’m a little stubborn in some ways.  If at first I don’t succeed, I’ll try and try again until it is physically and mentally impossible.  There are recipes I try over and over again because I just can’t get them right.   I’ve tried making dulce de leche cortada four times and each time, for unknown reasons, I failed.  Dulce de leche cortada is like regular dulce de leche caramel but its texture is chunky, kind of like cottage cheese.  It is a Cuban dish but other countries in the Caribbean eat it as well.  (Plus Venezuela, which is close enough.)  You “cut” the milk into curds by adding lemon juice or vinegar before caramelizing it.  I had half a liter of milk I needed to get rid of so I decided to give it another good ole try.

I used a recipe from Three Guys from Miami but I changed a couple things and I cut the portions down to roughly half a liter of milk, but I got lazy with the real math and I made it too sweet.  Other than that, it turned out right, finally.  At least I think so.  I may have caramelized it too much…I ate it after it cooled for about 20 minutes (do NOT by any means touch this when it’s hot) and it was soft and warm and easy to eat, but after refrigerating it, which is what most recipes called for, it became much more like caramel candy, which is not bad, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be this way.  When my great aunt Tia Edesa made it for our family reunion last summer, I could easily spoon it to my mouth, so I’m not sure I got it completely right.  She doesn’t use the eggs, she just uses milk, lemon or vinegar, and sugar.  Hers also had a much lighter color than mine and the pictures I found online, so she didn’t caramelize it as much.  Makes sense.

Nevertheless, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to getting it right.  Although this dessert is by no stretch of the imagination healthy, I did make it with local and/or organic ingredients.   It’s a long process, so I wouldn’t quite recommend it, but if you’re curious, go for it.  I think I would rather have regular dulce de leche.  (You can even make it from canned condensed milk.) You don’t really see this stuff very often; I had never heard of this or seen it in ANY cookbooks or anywhere until my mom and dad told me about it.  I’ll have to make it for them sometime to get their opinions on how I can make it right, if I’m missing the mark.  Knowing my stubbornness, I won’t rest until it’s right.  Which reminds me that I need to try making habichuelas con dulce again.

Here’s a series of pics showing the transformation:

After it's been simmering for a little while...
After I added the frothy eggs...getting really "curdley" now...
The liquid is evaporating and it's getting darker...should I perhaps have stopped here?
The finished dulce, garnished with a cinnamon stick


Lentil Soup and Tostones

Mother Nature is going to make me fat if she keeps this kind of weather up.  It’s a good thing I’ve been dragging myself to the gym on a semiregular basis.  Anyway, today I actually had a hard time figuring out what I wanted for dinner.   I was actually craving ramen, but then my roommates started talking about tapeworms so…yeah.  I figured I better start cooking something or I’d starve.  I ended up doing a spicy lentil, broccoli, and mushroom soup.  Unfortunately I had no stock so it could have been so much better but it was warm, spicy, good and filling so it did the trick.

I fried some tostones (again).  That’s pretty much no fail; and delicious.  All you need are green plantains, canola oil, and salt.  Warm up some oil in a frying pan medium-high heat (enough to reach halfway up the plantain slices).  Cut green plantains in about one inch thick slices.  (They have to be green.)  Put them in the oil to fry, flipping them over to get them golden on both sides.  Next you’ll want to take them out of the oil and find something to crush them down with.  There are special tools for this but I just used the bottom of a bowl.  Once you’ve squashed them, put them in the oil to fry again until nice and crispy.  Place on paper towels to absorb some of the oil and sprinkle with salt.  Dee-lish.

Pig Eyes and Fire Alarms

I’ve returned from my family reunion in North Carolina with great memories and a higher alcohol tolerance. I hadn’t seen most of my extended family for almost a decade, before I was even a teenager, so it was basically like meeting them all over again. Luckily, any bit of awkwardness disappeared very quickly, and it was like we had only seen each other yesterday. The “Reunion de Cabezones” was a big party. (“Cabezones” because the family is notoriously stubborn and hard-headed.)  In typical Cuban fashion, we ate a lot, drank a lot, and talked REALLY LOUD.  It was fun because us “kids” were now older.  We had animated discussions about everything under the sun, made fun of my Floridian cousin’s Southern accent, played beer pong, and initiated another cousin’s non-Cuban friend into the family with the consumption of…wait for it…a pig eye.

Before you gasp, there really is no such initiation.  It is indeed Cuban tradition to roast a pig for large gatherings and celebrations.  A whole pig, so yes, it still has legs, tail, ears, skin, and head.  When it was put on the table, most of us drooled over prospect of crunching into the delicious crispy skin (sorry vegetarians, but it’s soooo good), but some, like my cousin’s friend, were a little jarred by the appearance (it was her first pig roast.)  Another one of my cousins, an evil genius, declared that it was Cuban tradition to eat one of the eyes at your first pig roast.  The friend looked skeptical, but everybody nodded and agreed, “Oh yeah…we’ve all done it before…it’s tradition…”

My cousin got a plastic spoon and scooped out one of the eyes, which due to roasting was just a shriveled black chunk in the eye socket. (Afterwards, he told us that he was getting really grossed out while trying to get it out, but knew it’d be worth it.)  He handed it to her on the spoon, gave her a can of beer, and to our surprise she tossed it in her mouth and washed it down like an Advil.  We all burst out into a mixture of laughs and groans of disgust, and finally told her it was all a lie.  She was dumbstruck for a moment and color raced to her cheeks until she finally found the words to remonstrate our cruelty.  Luckily, she wasn’t terribly angr.  She was impressed and amazed that we all knew to go along with it.  Only the bonds of family could pull off such spontaneous trickery.  We dared another one of my cousins to eat the other eye and she did it, because she will basically do anything if you dare her to.  Her verdict?  It just tasted like really chewy, bouncy pork.

“So there’s the pig eye. What’s this about a fire alarm?” you might ask.

Well, the downside of the reunion was that my grandfather had to be rushed to the hospital the second day.  He had a really hard time breathing when he woke up; turns out he had a mild heart attack and his kidneys weren’t functioning properly.  (He’s doing better now.)  He still wanted us to go on with the reunion, but we visited him in the hospital periodically.  While my grandmother was visiting, she came across one of those clear glass doors that you have to open with a button on the wall–you know the kind because you use them even though you’re not handicapped (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!)  There was a man on the other side motioning to her to open the door, at least that’s what she thought.  She looked at a red lever on the wall and pulled it.  Then the fire alarm rang.

Yes, my grandmother pulled a fire alarm. In a hospital.

My mother saw her bouncing down the hallway with a cheeky little smile on her face, her hands folded neatly under chest, and instantly she knew that she had SOMETHING to do with it.  Somehow she didn’t get caught.  Mom said she saw the man behind the door explaining what happened to a group of security guards.  So, as you can imagine, my family told her not to touch ANYTHING else in the hospital.  A few moments later, she tried opening another door by pressing the rubber door stopper on the wall.  Ay.

It was definitely a reunion to remember, and I certainly hope I don’t go another ten years without seeing everyone again.

UPDATE:  My grandmother did indeed get caught.  When she went back to visit my grandfather, a police officer took her to a room and showed her that they had her on camera pulling the fire alarm.  (God, I would totally YouTube that shit if I could get a hold of it!)  He explained to her that she committed a serious crime.  She apologized in her broken English profusely, proclaiming repeatedly, “I no from here.”  Thankfully they let her off with a warning and made her promise that she’d never do it again.