About Me

I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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Ropa Vieja: Slow Cooking with Cuba in Mind

I fell in love with ropa vieja, a staple of Cuban cuisine, years after I took a trip to Havana. After tasting the slow-braised chicken and peppers served with sweet fried plantain back in the States, I could see how the flavors could originate in a place as culturally vibrant as Cuba.

To my surprise, during my trip, I found simpler, less remarkable fare. The tastiest thing I ate the week I traveled there as a journalist, more than 15 years ago, was served the morning after I arrived by Mercedes, a woman with shoulder length silver hair who ran a ‘casa particular’ or special house for tourists. She served a plate of spicy scrambled eggs, perfectly moist and gooey, on fine China from the Batista era. She poured orange juice from a vintage whiskey bottle and brought me a teacup filled with strong black coffee. I sat in her dim living room with heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun from overheating the home, and ate on a vinyl, spill-proof tablecloth.

I lingered over those eggs, and the heat of the pepper mingling with the sweet orange juice on my tongue before heading out for the day, knowing that the city sites may dazzle me more than my next plate of food. I wondered if the lack of culinary highlights had to do with the economic embargo, strangling its resources, or if maybe low wages held back a burgeoning cadre of chefs. Or perhaps, on my Lonely Planet budget, I just missed the good stuff.

Ropa vieja is a dish that matches the pace of the island: slow, like the sultry walks of young couples along the Malecon, Havana's sea wall, as the sun sinks into the Gulf. Preparing it, even with my speedy pressure cooker, takes several hours. It requires cooking the meat (beef or chicken), and then braising it into ropa vieja (“old clothes") in tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices for another hour. The pressure cooker method has the dual purpose of cooking an entire chicken with fall-off-the-bone meat in about 25 minutes while also producing homemade chicken stock, which enhances the ropa vieja flavor. The result is everything I imagined Cuban food would be during my trip, if only I had found the right place.

Ropa Vieja

Chicken and stock

1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a large pressure cooker. Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high. Let the pressure release naturally for 5 minutes and then release the rest. Remove the chicken (reserving the stock at the bottom of the pot), let cool, and then remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.

Ropa vieja

Meat from one pressure-cooked chicken, pulled from the bones and shredded (see above)
1-1/2 cups reserved stock from the pressure-cooked chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 Cubanelle peppers, thinly sliced
3 Anaheim peppers, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons oregano
3 tablespoons paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tsp honey
1-1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1-1/2 cups chopped Pomi (or canned) tomatoes in their juices
Stock from pressure cooker pan (about 1 – 1-1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cup whole green olives (preferably Sicilian Castelvetrano green olives)
2 tablespoons capers
1 (or more) ripe plantain or slightly green banana, split lengthwise and fried in butter until golden brown (a cast iron pan works great for this)

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until hot. Add the onions and peppers and saute until soft. Add the onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, paprika, ground cloves, and bay leaves, and stir and let simmer for two minutes. Add the chicken and tomatoes and salt and pepper. Simmer on the stove top for 40 minutes. Add the green olives, capers, sherry vinegar, and honey, and simmer for another five minutes. Serve with the fried plantains. 


Oven-baked apple cinnamon pancake with lemon zest: starting the weekend right

While Paul slumbers into mid-morning on the weekends, I'm up, sipping a strong cup of darkly roasted coffee, enjoying the breeze from an open window, and planning my day. On weekday mornings, I’m happy to pair that cup of joe with Greek yogurt and a muffin. But on these more relaxed mornings, when it's just me and the red-headed woodpecker out the window alert and awake, I want to start my day with something special and delicious.

In the past, I would have dived into the nearest sticky bun or syrupy waffle. Nowadays, I shy away from the blood sugar crashes and the lethargy that follows those sugar-laden goodies. No thank you, Cinnabon! I need energy to do my four loads of laundry, shop for the day, make lunches for the week at the office, and squeeze in 30 minutes on the stair climber machine.

For months, I experimented in creating an oven-baked apple pancake that reduced the sugar and the carb load while still satisfying my craving for something sweet. I'm enamored with the result. Consider it a cross between a Dutch baby and German apple pancake with a fraction of the sugar and flour. Baked in a cast iron pan, this airy pancake for two tastes delicious and preserves my energy to tackle the day. And it's so easy to make, I'm usually pulling it out of the oven, perfectly golden brown and ready to serve, before Paul wakes up.

Oven-baked Apple Cinnamon Pancake with Lemon Zest

This is gluten free in part because I love Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour (gluten issue aside). Feel free to use all purpose flour in place of gluten-free oat flour if you prefer. Both versions are great!

2 tsp lemon zest
2 eggs
3 TB milk
1 TB Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour*
1 TB sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp cinnamon
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2 TB butter**
Powdered sugar to sprinkle on top (optional - I usually go without to reduce the sugar but the presentation is lovely)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a well-seasoned and oiled cast iron pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the apples and stir, evenly distributing the apple slices on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the apples and let the apples simmer on low for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a KitchenAid with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs on high for three minutes until frothy and thick. While beater is running, add the sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla extract. Keep the beater running and add the flour and then add the milk.

Pour the batter evenly over the apple mixture until the apples are covered and the batter is poured out. Place the cast iron pan in the oven and bake for 12 minutes or until slightly golden. Remove from the oven and let sit for 3 - 5 minutes. With a small spatula or butter knife, gently lift the pancake edge all the way around the pan. The pancake should easily lift from the pan. If it sticks, it may not invert properly. Using oven-proof gloves, place a plate on top of the cast iron pan. Grab the pan's long handle and side handle, pinching the plate corners to the top of the pan. Quickly invert the plate-pan duo so the plate is on the bottom (I usually give one, quick, vigorous shake during the inversion so the cake separates quickly from the pan). The cake should fall out evenly onto the plate. (If it sticks, it may mean your pan was too dry. If using a dry cast iron pan, spray it first with cooking oil spray, then continue with melting the butter.)

*I tested other gluten-free flours and they did not work with this recipe, sticking to the pan and breaking apart while flipping out onto a plate. Substitute other gluten-free flours at your own risk!

**If you like the health benefits of coconut oil like I do, use half coconut oil, half butter. Do not use 100 percent coconut oil. This causes the batter to stick to the pan and prevents the pancake from flipping out onto a plate.


Massaman chicken curry: epiphany of tannins and spice

As a red wine lover also addicted to Thai food, I’m often bummed that I can’t pair lemongrass, kaffir lime, and tamarind flavors with the earthy tannins of red wine.

When I recently spotted a Cook’s Illustrated magazine recipe for massaman curry, chocked full of mild, new world chilis, I wondered if this Thai dish could serve as an exception. I made the recipe twice. It was delicious (and paired well with red wine) but it tasted more North African than Thai as testers omitted the hard-to-find Thai ingredients of tamarind paste and lemongrass to make the recipe more accessible.

My curiosity about the traditional Thai dish, and its potential to pair with red wine, grew. A jar of WorldFoods massaman curry sauce, shipped from Amazon, offered up classically Thai flavors but was sickly sweet (sugar was the third ingredient) and thick as Thanksgiving gravy. I put a spoonful in my mouth and winced. The kitchen sink disposal ate the rest.

I combed through dozens of recipes to find out more about massaman curry. Dubbed the king of curries, it distinguishes itself with Islamic and Malay origins and offers a mellow heat with complex layers of toasted mild peppers, shallot, and garlic.

Massaman curry's smoky new world chili flavor strays significantly from spicy red, green, and panang curries while still grounding itself in the bright, classically Thai counterpoints of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind.

Once I incorporated those slightly sour, piquant ingredients back into the dish, massaman’s savory notes sang with Thai flavors. I paired it with a glass of zinfandel, and devoured it with my legs folded up on my futon, plate between my knees, relishing the flavors of Thailand. Even better: the zinfandel actually enhanced this complex curry, extending the couch time, and the bottle of wine further.

Massaman Chicken Curry with Bulgur

Most massaman chicken curry recipes add potatoes and suggest serving the dish with rice, which I avoid for reasons you can read about here. I prefer a less starchy meal so I omit the potatoes and serve it over bulgur instead, which holds up nicely to the curry flavors. Also, I strain out the fibrous (and often bitter or sour) bits of pepper skin, ginger, and lemongrass through a fine mesh strainer to produce a silky, more refined curry sauce.

Massaman Chicken Curry
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 dried birds eye Thai chiles
6 dried guajillo chiles
5 large shallots, skin on, split in half
1 head garlic, cloves separated, skins on
1 six-inch piece of lemon grass, diced
1/2 cup peeled and diced ginger
1-1/2 tsp five spice powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp pepper
1 TB tamarind concentrate
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1-1/2 TB lime juice
3 TB coconut oil
1 TB fish sauce
2 TB water
2 cups unsalted chicken stock (if using salted, reduce added salt at the end for seasoning)
1 can low-fat coconut milk (full fat coconut milk works well too but produces an oily sauce)
2 tablespoons  brown sugar
1 tsp of salt (or to taste)

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill quick cooking bulgur (follow package instructions)

1 TB cornstarch
4 TB water

¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup peanuts, chopped
2 TB sesame seeds, toasted 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a cookie sheet lined with foil, toast the whole guajillo peppers for five minutes. Cool, stem, and seed the peppers. Tear them into pieces and add them to a food processor with the bird's eye chilis. Blend the chilis into a fine powder. 

Meanwhile, on the same foil-lined cookie sheet, broil the shallots and garlic cloves for about 8 minutes until blistering. Remove the pan from the oven and let the shallots and garlic cool. Once cool enough to handle, peel them and add them to the food processor along with the lemongrass, ginger, five spice powder, cumin, black pepper, tamarind concentrate, kaffir lime leaves (or lime juice), two tablespoons of the coconut oil, fish sauce, and water. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.

In a medium-sized sauce pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil and add the curry paste. Let the paste sizzle in the oil while stirring for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock and continue stirring. The texture should be like a thick soup. If too thick, add more chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and then turn off the heat. Using a fine mesh strainer and a separate bowl, strain the liquid through the mesh strainer and into the bowl, pressing the solids into the strainer to squeeze out all the liquid. It can take up to 10 minutes to whisk the solids into the strainer to produce the liquid. You should end up with about a half cup of solids, which you should discard.

Return the strained liquid to the pan and add the coconut milk, chicken, sugar, and salt. Simmer on low until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, combine cornstarch and water into a paste and stir into the sauce. Cook bulgur as instructed on the package. Serve the chicken curry over the bulgur and garnish with cilantro, peanuts, and sesame seeds.


gluten-free raspberry oat muffins: health aside, welcome to a better muffin

This morning, I bit into this warm, raspberry oat muffin slathered with butter, and tasted a nutty sweetness with tart berries. I didn't once think about the fact that it was also gluten free. That’s how eating gluten free should be in my mind. No gummy textures or odd flavors that remind you that you're eating healthy. Just good, old-fashioned deliciousness.

As more research points to gluten's inflammatory effects even on those not afflicted with celiac disease, cutting back on bready treats when possible seems like a good idea. But gluten-free baking is tricky. The lighter weight and varying texture of gluten-free flours often render muffins flat or chewy, leaving a lackluster final product.

I've experimented for months on creating a gluten-free muffin I would crave as much as my recent favorite blueberry amaranth-wheat muffin. In some batches, I used equivalent measurements to wheat muffins and got only enough batter to fill 10 muffin cups. In other batches, I used the wrong mix of flours, and the muffins crumbled apart when eating them.

Gluten-based muffins with baking powder bubble up in the baking process to produce tall, runway model muffins. Gluten-free flours, unable to capture and retain those bubbles in the same way, fail to produce a muffin worthy of a standing ovation on visual merits alone. However, with the right combo of gluten-free flours, it's possible to achieve a delicious muffin with agreeable lift and texture that won’t leave you longing. 

The trick for me was relying on a base of gluten-free oat flour, which lends a sturdy structure and earthy texture to muffins (like a bowl of oatmeal!). It also pairs nicely with my two favorites, coconut and almond flour. The cinnamon, ginger, and clove combo spices up each bite. Coconut palm sugar, which I use instead of white sugar, lends a nutty flavor and lowers the muffin's glycemic load. This is not a muffin to tolerate because it's healthy. This is a muffin I want to nibble every day with a shot of strong espresso.

Gluten-free Raspberry Oat Muffins

1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill almond flour
1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill coconut flour*
1-1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oat flour
3 eggs
8 ounces raspberries
1 cup milk
3/4 cup coconut palm sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup walnuts (optional)
4 tsp baking powder
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp vanilla
1 pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a KitchenAid or stand mixer with a paddle attachment, whisk the eggs until blended evenly. Add the coconut palm sugar and the coconut oil and whisk again until blended. Add the milk and vanilla and blend until smooth. In a separate bowl, mix together the coconut, almond, and oat flours. Add the baking powder, spices, and salt to the bowl and mix well.

With the KitchenAid on low speed, gradually mix in the flour with the wet ingredients until fully blended. Remove the paddle attachment and stir in the raspberries by hand until evenly mixed.

Spray a non-stick 12-cup muffin pan with canola oil spray. Fill each cup almost to the top, ensuring an even number of raspberries in each cup. Bake for 26 minutes or until just starting to brown on top.

*Variation: For a softer muffin, substitute 1/2 of the coconut flour (1/4 cup) with amaranth flour.


indian-spiced pulled pork sandwiches with tamarind “bbq” sauce

This sweet, tangy sandwich stuffed with shredded pork has me reaching with sticky fingers for extra napkins. But each bite, dripping with zingy tamarind sauce, is worth the mess.

I first spotted an Indian-spiced pulled pork recipe in Suvir Saran’s charming and eminently cookable Masala Farm. Saran’s recipe intrigues with its exotic spices but offers no sauce. A pulled pork sandwich with no sauce is like a wedding with no bride. It’s the point of the occasion.

Indoor cooks face the challenge of getting the pork shoulder tender enough, and creating a sauce with just the right tangy flavor. Saran’s concept inspired me to delve into Indian flavors and create this recipe, which employs a pressure cooker to ensure fall-apart tender pork, and then smothers the shredded pork with classic Indian sour-sweet tamarind chutney.

Anyone who’s ordered samosas at an Indian restaurant will recognize the sauce. Tamarind chutney has been called the “ketchup” or “BBQ” sauce of the East. Made from the tamarind tree's sour, pod-like fruit (prominent in Asian, African, and Latin American cuisines and featured in Worcestershire sauce), the silky, sweet sauce pairs beautifully with slow-cooked pork.

Recipes for tamarind chutney vary widely in their ratio of sugar to water. Some are sickly sweet, asking for as much as two and a half cups of sugar to two cups of water. Mine dials it down to a happy medium of a half cup of sugar, blending date sugar with brown sugar to emphasize the earthy tang while offering just enough sweet to balance the fatty pork. 

Served with serrano lime slaw, this dish was so addictive and delicious that when Paul finished his last bite, he turned to me and patted my arm. “Thanks for the slider, honey. Can I have another?”

Indian-Spiced Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Tamarind "BBQ" Sauce

Pulled Pork
4 pounds pork shoulder 
Hamburger buns          

Braising liquid
1-1/2 cups pineapple juice (not from concentrate, with no sugar added, such as Lakewood)
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup diced canned tomatoes in their juices
1-1/2 TB Asian garlic chili sauce
2 TB soy sauce
1 TB apple cider vinegar

Dry rub
2 tsp garam masala
1 TB onion powder
2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
3 tsp brown sugar

The night before you want to serve, coat the pork with the dry rub and refrigerate overnight. The next day, when you're ready to cook, combine the braising liquid in a pressure cooker. Lower the pork into the pot (shaking off any excess rub), lock the lid, and bring up to high pressure. Once the pressure is reached, cook on "high" for 55 minutes. While cooking, make the tamarind sauce, below.

When the pork is finished, let the pressure release naturally for at least five minutes before releasing the rest of the pressure manually.

Shred the pork with two forks or your hands. Top each bun with pork and drizzle with tamarind sauce. Serve the serrano lime slaw on top or on the side.

Tamarind “BBQ” sauce

3 TB tamarind paste concentrate
1/2 tsp garam masala
1-1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 TB canola oil
1/4 cup date sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 cups water

Heat the oil in a sauce pan. Add the spices, stir to combine with the oil, and let simmer for two minutes. Add the tamarind, water, and sugar. Stir until sugar lumps disolve. Simmer on medium-low for 30 minutes until reduced by one-fourth. The sauce should be just thick enough to coat a spoon.


braised eggs with pancetta over parmesan polenta: in praise of normal 

When I saw Paul step out of his gate at the Baltimore airport, he raised his arms and started toward me in a joyful burst of leaping and skipping, arms out, fingers fluttering in the air as we drew closer to one another. I didn’t even see his face up close before his body, nearly twice my size, wrapped around mine. His trip was only a week, but I missed him more than I care to admit. Without him, I let dishes pile up in the sink. The kitchen trash nearly overflowed. I drove home at night once with no headlights. I forgot my wallet at the checkout line. I felt like I was living life with one hand tied behind my back.

As we waited for his bag at the carousel, I attached myself to him like I was one big button on his overcoat. He looked down at me, “What’s for dinner?” he said. “I cannot wait to eat your food.” That’s all he has to say, ever, and I’m his. But this time I didn’t know. I usually plan something extravagant for dinner when he returns from a business trip (steak au poivre! Moroccan lamb shanks!). But his flight landed early and I didn’t have time to shop.  

He heaved his giant suitcase off the carousel, and we rolled through Skywalk B to the parking garage, hopped in our new Nissan with perfect temperature levels  (I cannot tell you how happy this makes us), and drove straight into a traffic jam. While the engine hummed on I-95 behind a sea of taillights at a perfect 75 degrees, I detailed the plot points and twists of the last two movies I saw. Together with Paul, I felt balanced, and like daily rhythms and routines could begin again.

When we arrived home, I opened the fridge and spotted four brown eggs, pancetta, and a half full jar of tomato sauce. I knew then what I was going to make for dinner: Italian braised eggs in tomato sauce. Ending our mutual emotional and physical journeys with humble ingredients from the fridge seemed ‘back to normal’ and exactly right.

Braised Eggs with Pancetta over Parmesan Polenta

Serves 2

4 eggs
1 ounce pancetta (1 thin slice per person), diced
1-1/2 cup tomato sauce
4 garlic cloves, crushed with the back of knife
red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons olive oil

¾ cup polenta
2-1/4 cup water
2/3 cups grated parmesan
Salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan. Add the red pepper flakes, crushed garlic, and pancetta. Let simmer on medium-low heat for 3 – 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add a little water or chicken stock if the sauce dries out too much. Season the sauce with salt to taste.

Meanwhile make the polenta by bringing water to a boil, then adding the polenta and stirring until thickened about 5 minutes. Add the parmesan and season with salt. 

Crack the eggs into individual ramekins and gently slide into the red sauce. Cover the pan with a lid and let cook for about 7 minutes until the eggs yolks have just turned translucent white.

Spoon the polenta onto the plates and top with eggs and sauce.