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Sunday, February 26, 2012

It's Time to Partea

You may be debating if you should point out the typo on the title or if you should just let it be.
I know I write in Shakespeare's language, the same way Sofia Vergara speaks it (but then, unfortunately, that's where our similarities end).
I'm aware I need an editor to change, explain, correct and make this blog make sense. And some dear people have kindly offered to help, but then, after researching the ingredients, developing, testing and photographing the recipes, writing the posts, waiting for those charitable editing souls to finish, and finally making the corrections,I would probably be able to post once a year. And since I believe food is as infinite as mathematics, I just put my self-contiousness aside, and I shamlessly type, even if I write in English with a heavy Spanish accent.
I apologize for often turturing the Queen's language all the way into Spanglish, but I really try my best to be as respectful as I can.
Now, going back to my "partea," the title is not a mistake, but an effort to be creative (or funny, or loved, understood, accepted or noticed), as this week I'm blogging about tea.
A couple of years ago I was assigned to write a story about "cooking with tea" for Kiwi magazine (sorry, tried to find the link, but it's not available, so please take my word for it). It ended up being an incredible learning and inspiring experience for me, and I just kept writing.
I had long conversations with Chas Kroll, then the director of the American Tea Masters Association, and to tea expert Diana Rosen, co-author of many tea books, including Cooking with Tea.
I found the topic so fascinating that I kept bargening to get a higher word count in the piece, even without increasing my pay (did I mention I'm a brilliant business woman?). When published, the initial story was reduced to a third of what I had originally turned in.
Now that I'm my own editor-in-chief, and I (unfortunately) don't depend on ad space, I'm happy to revisit the topic and expand a bit more. Here it comes:

Second only to water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It’s believed that Camellia sinensis, the tea bush, originated in China 5000 years ago. From there, tea, the drink made by steeping the dried leaves of this particular bush in hot water (note that steeping leaves, roots, seeds, barks, etc other than C. sinensis doesn't result in TEA, but an herbal infussion or tisane), became a favorite throughout Asia, where it was highly praised for its restorative properties and considered a symbol of status. In the early 1600s it was introduced to Europe, where it gained many devotees, especially among Brits.

While here in the United States, Starbucks lattes and Coca colas are still more popular, the tea market has quadrupled in the last 15 years, as the information about its health benefits has spread.

This antioxidant-packed beverage helps improve mental performance, regulates cholesterol levels, increases
metabolism and even prevents dental caries, among many other fabulous tricks that are still being researched.


Depending on the processing of the leaves, there are four basic types of tea (in increasing order of oxidation level and caffeine content): white, green, oolong and black. Besides the type of processing, each one of these teas--just like wine grapes and honey--comes in many varietals; and the color, fragrance and taste of each batch is affected by the climate, soil, altitude and rain of the place they come from. So, depending on the processing and origin of each bush, different teas, have different flavors.

As Ms. Rosen explained me, white tea, from young leaves, is subtle with floral and citrus notes. Green tea can have a light, smoky flavor with grassy and ocean notes. Some Oolong teas have floral, fruity or spicy hints, while others have more roasted flavors. Black tea, the most consumed tea worldwide, is astringent, and its flavor varies dramatically among regions.

With all this alternatives, tea experts and aficionados recommend that you let your own palate be your guide. “Each tea is individual and should be tasted first to find its predominant characteristic (is it sharp, soft, citrus, earthy, or smoky?), and then it can be matched with a recipe,” explained Rosen. She recommended using intense teas when preparing intense-flavored dishes, and pairing delicate teas with delicate foods. “Sweet, grassy, green teas are wonderful in salads or egg dishes; black tea is great with meat or poultry, and it’s delicious in fruit
compotes, where it cuts the sweetness. Fruity teas are good for ice cream or egg sauces.”

As a suggestion, don't add a lot of tea when cooking, a little goes a long way and DON'T cook the tea for too long because it can turn bitter.

A new flavor experience opens up by not only sipping, but also cooking with tea, especially when using greeen tea. Some types of green tea, especially the premium kinds (such as Japanese ichibancha, gyokuro and sencha) have a very high umami content. Thus, green tea can be the secret way of infussing a dish with "deliciousness". 


Some ways of incorporating tea into cooking are:

- Flavoring oils or butter (infuse warm oil or butter for a few minutes, then remove tea bags,
cool oils and refrigerate butter). Flavored oils can be served in salad dressings or drizzled over soups. Infused butter is a hit on pancakes and as an ingredient in pastries.


-Substituting brewed tea for water when cooking rice or pasta.

-Infusing stocks for soups or sauces.

-Sprinkling on fish, poultry or beef before cooking

PARSNIP OVEN-ROASTED "FRIES" WITH GREEN TEA AND APPLE CIDER GLAZE

For this recipe, I was inspired by a similar one published in this month's issue of Bon Appetit magazine. I saw the photo and ran out to but parsnips. I love these pale-carrot-looking roots. They have such a delicate, sweet and floral taste that I thought would go great with mild green tea and some apple cider left over in my fridge. The thyme imparts a very pleasant woodsy flavor.
I hope you like this dish as well!
INGREDIENTS

  • Vegan
  • Free of: gluten, wheat, soy, nuts, dairy and eggs
  • Super ingredients: antioxidant and fiber rich parsnips, green tea and thyme

1 cup (8 oz) apple cider
2 bags green tea (or 4g. loose green tea, separated), separated
About 10 sprigs fresh thyme
11/2 lbs (about 5 medium) parsnips
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

METHOD
Preheat oven to 450 F.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium high heat, cook apple cider, 4 thyme sprigs and one bag of green tea (or 2g. in a tea filter), until the liquid reduces to a 1/4 cup. It will have to simmer for about 30 minutes. Do not boil. 


Remove tea bag after 10 minutes and discard.
While cider reduces, peel parsnips and cut them into approx. 3-inch long and 1/2-inch wide sticks.
Spread parsnip sticks into one layer on the baking sheet and add oil, salt and pepper and mix, until all the sticks are evenly oiled and seasoned. Top with the remaining thyme sprigs.

Sprinkle sticks with some of the contents of the tea bag (about 1/2 teaspoon), so they are all lightly sprinkled. Reserve the remaining tea for another use.
Bake parsnip for 10 minutes, turn and bake for another 6 to 8 minutes, until they brown.

By this time, apple cider should have reduced enough. 

Remove thyme sprigs and pour glaze over parsnips immediately after they come out of the oven, so glaze caramelizes with the heat of the baking sheet.

Serve immediately.

Enjoy!
Makes about 4 servings

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Blame it on Umami

There's a food trend that's been bothering me for quite a while, and I just reached my limit last week when I visited the adorable little Upper West Side store Spices and Tease .
I was performing my kid-on-a-candy-shop act looking and smelling all the lovely displayed spice and tea blends. I was memorizing combinations and trying to make mental notes (which is hard these days of brain decrepitude), until I saw the "onion and bacon salt."
"Enough! I cannot take it any longer." I thought. Why are they adding bacon to everything? It used to be that if you kept kosher, with the exception of gelatin and possible bug infestation, desserts, teas and spices were kind of on the safe side. That is, until an inconsiderate person decided to add bacon to chocolate, cupcakes, ice cream, milkshakes, and successfully fed them to his/her friends or customers and invaded that sacred world.
Apparently the gross sounding combinations taste really good, because the fad keeps expanding.
The crunchiness, fat and salt in the cured pig meat might add something special to the sweetness of its new companions, but I would blame the success of the pairing to UMAMI.
Umami--for all of us who still think that the basic tastes are only sweet, sour, salty and bitter--is the officially recognized fifth basic taste experience that our taste buds' cell receptors can perceive.
Although the first four known tastes are pretty easy to identify, umami, which comes from the Japanese words for "delicious essence" is harder to describe. It's a savory, full-flavor taste that is not sweet, sour, salty nor bitter, but yet complements all of them. It's what makes stocks and broths delicious and satisfying. As explained in the Umami Information Center website, "umami is a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate (primarily in meats) and guanylate (more abundant in vegetables), which occur naturally in many foods... As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don't recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious."
By cooking, aging, drying, curing, ripening and fermenting the foods naturally containing glutamate, the umami taste concentrates even more. That's why red wine, bonito flakes, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, beef stock, aged cheeses and of course, bacon can turn dishes into deliciousness. 
The word glutamate might seem familiar, as in mono sodium glutamate, yes: MSG. The feared food additive famous for flavoring Chinese take-out and many of other foods that had an immediate, fast and inexpensive umami effect. Although the amino acid is indeed the same, MSG is a synthetic form of the substance naturally present in many real and natural foods, and in this case, glutamate has not been linked to allergies nor headaches like the artificial flavoring has been.
Umami might be the answer to our love for pizza, French fries, ketchup (you thought it was all due to the high fructose corn syruped tomatoes???), sushi, your mother's chicken soup and deli pastrami, as among the foods containing the highest concentrations of umami are:
Seaweed, fish (like tuna, anchovies, mackerel, cod and sardines), shellfish, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, Parmesan cheese (and other aged cheeses), green tea, soy sauce, and the following vegetables: tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, soy beans, Japanese mushrooms, truffles, potatoes and carrots. 
And now we know the secret of deliciousness...Some tomato sauce here, bone marrow there, shaved truffles, a splash of soy sauce, a sprinkling of Parmesan, or a couple of hidden anchovies might make a dish go from OK to amazing. 
The irony of it all is that once I dug in deeper (I went all the way to googling Spice and Tease), I found out that their onion bacon salt is made with: Sel de GuĂ©rande ( Organic Sea Salt ), Dried Onions and Imitation Bacon Bits ( Soy Flour ). So maybe after all, and thanks to umami and food engineering (which is kind of scary), the dessert and spice worlds might not yet be completely invaded with real bacon. I just hope that we use umami to make our diets more natural, not more fake.

SHIITAKE MUSHROOM PARCELS

This dish can be served as an appetizer or on top of salad greens, cooked rice, quinoa, buckwheat or pasta-- I used umami-rich shiitake mushrooms and white miso, a mild, fermented soy bean paste to bring in the deliciousness punch. It will not disappoint!
  • Vegetarian (uses yogurt), free of: nuts and eggs (miso might contain gluten)
  • Super ingredients: shiitake mushrooms (which support immune system and protect against heart disease and are rich in phytonutrients, vitamins B2, 3, 5 and 6, minerals and fiber), organic miso (high in protein, vitamin B12 zinc, copper and manganese and a huge amount of phytochemicals produced during the fermentation process. Which also, makes miso a great probiotic), thyme and chives (great source of antioxidants and some trace minerals) and Greek yogurt (rich in probiotics, calcium and protein)
INGREDIENTS

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, scrubbed with a kitchen towel, stem removed and caps sliced
2 tablespoons organic (non-GMO) white miso paste, separated
4 cloves of garlic, minced
8 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 sprigs fresh thyme
Fresh ground pepper, to taste1
1 (6-oz) plain Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
8 fresh chives, coarsely chopped

METHOD
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cut 4 parchment paper rectangles (about 16-in x 14-in) and set aside.
Place sliced shiitakes in a large bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk in  1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of miso, all the minced garlic and the oil and add to the shiitakes, gently, but making sure they are covered evenly.Your hands might be the best tool here!
Add thyme sprigs and divide the mixture into the center of each of the four parchment pieces. Sprinkle mushroom mixture with pepper to taste.

Gather all the edges and corners of the parchment in the center, and tie them (tightly) with kitchen twine.
Place the four parcels in a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes.


While mushrooms are in the oven, mix the yogurt with the remaining 2 teaspoons miso.


Once parcels are out of the oven, place in bowls or plates and let each person open their own by untying the twine. Serve with a dollop of yogurt-miso mix and top with chives.

Enjoy deliciousness (and not having to do dishes)!

Makes 4 parcels

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Indulgence

Do you know one of those people who describe everything as "amazing," "the best," "awesome," and don't get tired of giving praises and being overly effusive?
Well, my husband isn't one of those...
In the rare occasion in which he manifests lots of enthusiasm, something fabulously incredible and magnificent has happened.
Last night, during kickoff, we witnessed one of those special moments, and it didn't have to do at all with the Giants' victory. Our friend and fabulous cook J (or Y), had promised my husband he would invite him for a BBQ if the New York team made it to the Super Bowl. 
When my husband bit into the juicy, crusty and soft steak, he suffered a transformation: his face glowed and his smile found a new dimension, extending itself into bliss.   
He really enjoyed it! He didn't indulge. He freely, happily and plainly enjoyed his steak. Then he ignored Madonna, finished watching the game, worked a bit, and slept. Woke up the next morning and went on with his day. He didn't feel guilty, more masculine, rougher, or more powerful. He just had a great meal the previous night.
Which brings me to something I started noticing since I moved to the U.S more than a decade ago. I find it to happen especially, but not exclusively, within the female gender and I don't know if it's reflected in and/or produced by pop culture and media advertising: If you eat something delicious, you must somehow be sinning. You are eating it, but you must feel guilty, and at the same time, you should let the guilt go while you eat it. You can feel bad after consumption and go to the gym (or resort to alternative behaviors to un-eat and un-do the sinful did). But in the meanwhile, doing the bad is good, but very bad (Ehhh?).
Which makes everything VERY confusing.
I just googled "indulgence" looking for the definition of the word, and besides the Merriam-Webster entry that follows (and the Wiki one, of course!), a couple of bakery shops/products named "indulgence" showed up in the search. The dictionary indicated that indulgence is a: "remission of part or all of the temporal and especially purgatorial punishment that according to Roman Catholicism is due for sins whose eternal punishment has been remitted and whose guilt has been pardoned..."  
Thesaurus.com indicated that some other words for "indulgence" are: allowance, appeasement, babying, excess, extravagance, forbearance, fulfillment, gratifying, hedonism, immoderation, intemperance, intemperateness, leniency, pampering, permissiveness, petting, placating, pleasing, privilege, profligacy, profligateness, satiation, satisfaction, spoiling, toleration.

In my oppinion, the following image, taken from a wrapper of a Dove (TM) Promises (TM) chocolate candy summarizes the whole phenomenon:

Or just check this Betty Crocker's Warm Delights (TM) commercial:


My question is: why?????

Why do we have to give these associations to food? Yes, it's true that food has meaning: it reminds us of certain things or times, traditions, experiences, identity, people places or relations, but a simple and impersonal piece of mass produced, machine-wrapped chocolate, a microwaved cake or an ice cream scoop should be satisfying for a couple of minutes and then we should be able to move on, and not turn it into a theological and/or moral dilemma.

My friend Debra, author of the great blog Beyond Prenatals, wrote about this ad she saw near her home:

Photo by Debra Waldoks, MPH, RD, CLC http://www.beyondprenatals.com/
A pleasant moment should not become torture. Something enjoyable for the senses cannot define who we are, so let's not treat it as if it could. A food treat doesn't mean sin, independence, company, success, happiness, eroticism, punishment, emancipation, power or love. Nor is it the answer to get over a breakup. It's food. It might be delicious and able to placate a craving, but only a food craving, not an emotional one. 
I'll follow all this with a cookie recipe. If you celebrate February 14, make some cookies, chocolates or whatever you want instead of buying something prepackaged. There's definitely some meaning in making something special, unique and personal. And the process can be part of the whole opportunity to enjoy, not to indulge.
CORN COOKIES
My dear friend E, who just gave birth (welcome baby M!!!!), craved corn throughout her pregnancy, and more specifically, Christina Tosi's corn cookies from the acclaimed Momofuku Milk Bar. Once, the store was out of them and my friend craved them so badly that she baked them herself on her due date. Pregnant or not, she has an incredibly discerning palate, so I was intrigued about the cookies.
I haven't tried the original ones. However, the cookbook, Momofuku Milk Bar came out a couple of months ago, and includes the recipe. The author's baking style is completely different from mine, but there are some brilliant ideas in it that can be translated into the kind of things I like making, and I can't wait to keep playing around with them.
At the end, there's very little resemblance from chef Tosi's creation from what I ended up baking, as I cut-down, added, and substituted all over her recipe. As I said, I haven't tried the original version, which people love, but my cookies came out quite AWESOME (and my children agreed). They have a nice, interesting, familiar flavor and a delicious soft-in-the-middle-crunchy-on-the-edge texture.
INGREDIENTS
  • Vegan, free of: gluten, wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts and soy
  • Super ingredients: organic corn (not GMO): corn is a good source of fiber, vitamins B3 and B5 and manganese and is very rich in antioxidant phytonutrients.

 

45 g (3 tablespoons) virgin coconut oil (I like Spectrum brand)
45 g (3 tablespoons) expeller-pressed grape seed oil
65 g (4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon) organic sugar
1 teaspoon ground chia seeds
11/2 tablespoons water
65 g freeze dried organic corn (such as Just Tomatoes brand)
112 g (1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons) whole oat flour (gf if needed)
22 g (2 tablespoons) whole corn flour (NOT corn meal)
1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 tablespoons cold water

METHOD
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Combine the oils and the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix at medium-high speed for 3 minutes.

While the oils and sugar are beating, in a small bowl whisk the ground chia with the 11/2 tablespoons of water and add it to the oil mixture. Mix for 8 more minutes.

In the meanwhile, grind the freeze-dried corn in a coffee or spice grinder (you will have to do it in separate batches).




Reduce the mixer's speed to low and add in the corn powder, the oat and corn flours, the baking powder, baking soda and the salt.

Mix for 1 minute until all the ingredients are combined and mix resembles wet sand.

Remove bowl from the mixer.
Add the 2 tablespoons water and mix gently and briefly with a spatula until water is incorporated and comes together.

With a mini scoop, make balls of dough and place them on the prepared sheets leaving about 2 inches in between each ball.


Flatten the balls with your palms and bake for about 10 minutes, until edges brown a bit.

Cool for 2 minutes and enjoy!

Makes about 30 cookies.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Present/Past/Present

I just unpacked from my express trip to Mexico City. The kids and my husband stayed home while I visited my beloved incredible, admirable, super vital, yoga teaching and grumpy (no judgements, just descriptions) 85-year-old grandmother; who thankfully, doesn't operate electronics of any sort--so she won't know I posted her age--and attended my dear childhood friend's wedding.
Thanks to sweet and welcoming friends, my family survived quite well in Manhattan. Nothing to report, but a skirt less first grader that didn't really mind forgetting the essential part of her uniform at home. She was too excited about loosing her 7th tooth, and didn't blink at the wardrobe malfunction. It was all good...
My three days in Mexico were full: I felt sad, joyful, nostalgic, relieved, young, old, confused and moved, plus I slept like a baby. For 72 hours, I revisited my life before husband and kids. I saw most of my high school friends, that despite the years, are still like sisters and of course, I ate.
I had corn tortillas in 500 different presentations and with as many different fillings for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I just LOVE Mexican food. It's so delicious and flavorful. It's creative and resourceful. 
Thousands of incredible and unique dishes made out of chiles, corn and beans. Sometimes fried, others smoked, broiled, boiled, toasted, roasted, steamed, ground, dried, or even raw. Mexican cuisine tells the history of the country. It's seasoned with invasions, conquers, revolutions, cultural fusion, social structure, and lots of wit. It's addictive, and simple and complex at the same time. It's spicy!
This is why, for this week, I was inspired to feature a recipe made with jicama and hibiscus, two ingredients widely used in Mexico, and now commonly available in the U.S. (aka Fairway).


Jicama is a popular snack in Mexico usually eaten raw, sprinkled with salt, chile (or chamoy) and a squeeze of lime juice. This tuber, which looks like a giant brownish radish, is mild, delicious, and a bit intimidating in its looks. However, its appearance can be misleading. Inside the rough peel, a white, crispy and slightly sweet surprise awaits. Jicama goes particularly well with salty and sour flavors, and lends an incredibly pleasant crunch to everything with no after bite. And that's not all. Jicama is a great source of antioxidant vitamin C and soluble fiber and contains lesser amounts of copper, magnesium, potassium iron and vitamin E.
Hibiscus, which, explained by Fany Gerson,"is the part that covers the blossoms of the sabdariffa plant before they open," are the main ingredient in agua de jamaica, a sweetened infusion of the magenta flower served chilled, as a popular and very refreshing drink. They are tart and fruity in flavor and are delicious served as dessert in compotes or frozen treats. As their gorgeous saturated color suggests, hibiscus are full of potent antioxidants. They are also a natural diuretic, are high in vitamin C, and it's been suggested that hibiscus tea helps regulate high blood pressure. Lately, I've been noticing its presence in media recipes and in more stores in the U.S., which is great news, as it's a great and healthy flavoring and coloring agent that goes well almost with everything. Sweet and savory. Recently, I even seasoned chicken breasts with the contents of an hibiscus tea pack right before grilling, and they were really tasty.

JICAMA SALAD WITH HIBISCUS-CITRUS DRESSING

The original recipe that inspired this one, was given to me by my friend Dalia, a great dietitian, and fellow ex-pat. When we each got married, we both moved to the U.S. and tried to cook nutritious, easy and tasty things. When the recipes we made were successful, we would share them with each other over the phone or via email. This one has been a 12-year-old keeper, that I just tweaked a bit.
If you don't have the same citrus fruits I give out in the recipe, feel free to substitute for more oranges, grapefruit, mandarins, lemons, limes, or whatever you want. Just make sure you combine sweet citrus with sour ones.
I used clementines because we buy them in boxes and we always have them around.
  • Vegan
  • Free of: gluten, wheat, eggs, soy, nuts, eggs and dairy
  • Super ingredients: jicama, hibiscus, fresh citrus, chia, chile (if used)
INGREDIENTS
3 navel oranges
7 clementines
4 Meyer lemons
2 bags of hibiscus tea * (or 1/4 cup whole, dried hibiscus, that should be strained after infusing)
1/2 cup celery leaves (or fresh cilantro and/or parsley), chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1 large (or 2 small) jicama, about 2 lbs.
1 tablespoon chia seed (obviously!!!!)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder, or to taste (optional)
Sea salt, to taste

*Found in health food stores, online or stores with good herbal tea assortment. TAZO's "Passion" tea can be used

METHOD
Place a strainer over a medium pot. Squeeze into it half of the citrus. And save the remaining citrus for later. Move strainer onto a medium serving bowl.


Warm up the citrus juice in the pot over low heat for about 5 minutes (no need to bring to a boil).

Once it's warm, place the tea bags in the juice and allow to infuse while you peel and cut the jicama. It will turn bight red. Remove tea bags before dressing the jicama.

Peel jicama with a serrated knife (preferably), first by making it flat in the base and then continue cutting off the peel around, until it's completely white.

Slice jicama into 1/2-inch wide slices and then cube the slices. Place jicama into serving bowl.



Squeeze the remaining citrus into the strainer placed on the bowl. Add hibiscus-infused juice, celery leaves, shallot and chia and mix well.

Season with salt and add chipotle powder, if using. Taste and adjust seasoning adding sour and/or sweet citrus and/or salt.



If possible, allow the flavors to develop refrigerating for at least 4 hours (and up to 2 days), or serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.


Enjoy. I'm salivating already!!!!!