Sunday, September 26, 2010

Empanadas: a pocket full of Cuban flavor

I’ve been lucky enough to make it through round one of the Project Food Blog competition. Needless to say, I’m pumped! This week we’ve been asked to embrace another culture and take on the challenge of recreating a classic ethnic dish. I’m a half Italian (hooray for Lasagna) and half Hungarian (bring on the sour cream) girl, so Cuban food isn’t exactly something I have any life long experience with.

My husband is half Cuban. On Christmas Eve instead of celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes that every Italian kid was part of, his family makes pernil (slow roast pork) black beans and rice and platanos maduros (fried sweet bananas). I was a total skeptic, bratty even. How’s it going to feel like Christmas Eve without everything I’m used to?

After the first bite, I immediately dropped my reservations. There’s something about a hearty bowl of black beans and rice that can make an outsider instantly feel like family. Cuban food is just plain comforting. You can feel the love in it. I thought this contest would be a cool opportunity to take a stab at recreating some of the flavors from my husband’s childhood. Operation “learn to be a respectable honorary Cuban” is on!

It was pretty tricky to find a classic Cuban meal that fits into the Diet It Up philosophy. Fried bananas and white rice are not exactly staples in my diet. I remember hearing about Grandma’s Ropa Vieja. Ropa Vieja is a tomato based Cuban beef stew and it literally means, “old clothes.” Who came up with a silly name like that? So, I did a little research. Since the stew is made of shredded beef and thin slices of peppers and onions, the resulting dish looks like a mess of shredded old rags. Ah ha! Very clever!

“Authentic” is a tricky word to master in ethnic cooking. Food is inherently regional. In the US, some people put mustard on their hamburger. But here in NY, if you send a burger out of the kitchen with mustard, we’re sending it right back. Some variations on Ropa Vieja use flank steak. Grandma used chuck roast so, I’m going with chuck.

The roast is browned and then slowly braised in a Dutch oven. If you want to hop on the American crock-pot bandwagon, you can certainly make the roast in the crock-pot. I normally shy away from fatty cuts like chuck, but you need the moisture. It helps the meat to shred nicely. I don’t trim any of the fat before cooking. I let the meat cool in the braising liquid and skim off any grease that collects on top. I also remove any remaining fatty bits from the meat while shredding.

The stew is finished with a rich, tomato based sauce laced with sautéed green peppers and onions. A true Cuban would serve a scoop of stew with yellow rice. I would of course go with brown rice. But no matter what your rice preference, Ropa Vieja is an amazingly flavorful Cuban dinner. The slow-cooked element really secures that classic Cuban feel.

But isn’t this supposed to be a recipe for empanadas, you ask? I took the leftover stew and transformed it into ROPA VIEJA EMPANADAS. Who’s the clever one now?! If you aren’t familiar with them, empanadas are stuffed, crescent-shaped pastries. Cuban empanadas are typically filled with meat and then deep-fried. They can be eaten for lunch or as a mid-day snack.

I took a short cut from the American supermarket and bought the dough pre-made. Goya makes “discos” in the frozen food aisle that work just as well as making dough from scratch. But if you have a favorite pastry dough recipe, by all means, put it to good use here. Once the dough is filled with stew, I crimp the pockets closed to form the classic crescent shape. I’m breaking from tradition slightly to bake instead of fry. Sorry Grandma, it had to be done.

After just a few minutes in the oven, the pastry dough puffs up and turns a beautiful golden brown. Even without frying, the dough is still flaky and the stew stays nice and juicy on the inside. For a health conscious eater, empanadas are pre-portioned. I’ll eat one for lunch and won’t be tempted to go back and scoop a second portion. This really is the perfect Cuban meal to-go. We gobbled them up in a few minutes flat.

I may not be a little Cuban grandma, but I know I did my husband’s family proud with this meal. It was authentic and delicious. I might have even earned the highly regarded “honorary Cuban” status after all!

* Voting opens on Monday, September 27th on FoodBuzz. Remember to vote for your favorite healthy home cook, me!

Empanada on Foodista

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thanks to all!

Thanks to all my FABULOUS supporters who voted for my blog to advance in the FoodBuzz contest. I've been chosen to move on to the next round! Stay tuned for the contest's next post.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Let the apple season begin!

Fall is almost here and along with the temperature drop comes some of my favorite fall-themed activities; football Sundays, pumpkin carving (check out my awesome creation from last year) and apple picking.

The day my husband and I decided to hit the orchard was 80-degree weather, but it was a fall activity nonetheless! I was so overzealous about picking apples from the tree that I bagged a whopping 18 1/2 pounds of them. That’s a lot of pie!

I did make one apple pie. The recipe called for 5 apples…only 30 to go. Yeesh.

I found this recipe for APPLE WALNUT MUFFINS in my old South Beach Diet cookbook and modified it slightly. I will warn you, these are dense muffins. I can eat one for breakfast and be perfectly full for a few hours. Don’t expect a Dunkin Donuts-style muffin with those crunchy sugar crystals on top. You’re gonna want to pop these guys in the toaster and top them with a little light butter.

I did learn something when making these. The recipe calls for ¾ cup of buttermilk. I hate buying buttermilk from the supermarket. I always use a few splashes in a recipe and end up dumping the rest after it sits forgotten in the back of my fridge for a few weeks. Did you know that you can make buttermilk at home from skim milk and some vinegar? Who knew? God bless Google.

With that said, I like a hearty muffin. The chunks of apple running through give them just enough moisture and sweetness. They go great with a cup of coffee. I actually had one before my workout on Saturday morning and thought it was the perfect little carb boost to get through an exercise class. Without any white flour, white sugar or excessive amounts of oil you won’t feel guilty taking a break from egg beaters and eating something that feels a little more indulgent.

So, embrace the season. Find an apple orchard. Pick to your hearts content. Come home and whip up some breakfast for the next morning.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Muffin on Foodista

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vote For Me (because I like winning things)!

Just a reminder to click over to FoodBuzz and vote for yours truly to be the Next Food Blog Star. VOTE NOW!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Story of Me, Featuring Tomato Soup!

I’ve been hosting this blog for almost a year now and I don’t think I’ve ever really shared why I started it in the first place. I came across the Project Food Blog competition hosted by Foodbuzz and thought I would enter. What the heck. If anything, it gives me a chance to share the story about who I am and why I’m so passionate about healthy cooking.

First of all, this isn’t a sob story. I’m not going to sit here and write about how I used to be a chubby, picked-on ugly ducking who transformed into a swan. Truth be told, I wasn’t picked on. I always had plenty of friends and family who didn’t really care if I was a little fluffier than your average kid. They wanted to be around me anyway. But the chubby part, that happens to be true. You’ll never catch me using the “F” word. As “fat” as I might feel on my worst day, I don’t support using adjectives that are designed to make the recipient feel bad about themselves, even If that recipient is yours truly. That’s not how I roll.

I don’t think my extra bit of “meat” really started bothering me until high school. Even then, it didn’t stop me from much. I had an adoring boyfriend (who I later married) and I excelled in school. But, I did start to feel the pressure of looking like your typical Barbie Doll high school kid and gradually became more and more unhappy and withdrawn. A vicious cycle of bruised self esteem and indulgent overeating had begun. *See extreme grumpy face below.

It wasn’t until college that I decided to change my life; new school, fresh start. I signed up for Weight Watchers with Mom as my sidekick and we were down right religious about following the program. We must have driven the rest of the family bonkers with our compulsive food measuring and journal writing. It took an entire year, but I managed to lose almost 75 pounds; all on my own with sheer willpower to thank. I could finally go shopping with my friends at the mall. I could finally fit in regular clothes. I cut my hair and changed my attitude. I walked a little taller and smiled a little brighter. People definitely took notice. *Please note a much happier face follows.
I attribute my entire personality to who I became that year. I was finally uninhibited by self hate and could be who I wanted to be. I will argue with ANYONE who thinks that people can’t change. Every day is a new opportunity to reinvent yourself. I’ve managed to keep the weight off for almost ten years, but not without a struggle. I recently found out that I suffer from a blood sugar condition that requires taking medication twice a day. It felt like another huge life setback.

So, I’ve abandoned the confines of a “diet” and adapted my entire lifestyle. I love food! I’m not about to eat those wretched frozen diet meals or munch on carrot sticks 24/7! That’s just not living! Above all, I love to cook. I found myself saying “I can diet this up!” ALL the time. That’s where the Diet It Up concept began. By subbing out a few ingredients or changing a cooking method you can really slim down a meal. “Dieters” can still cook and eat delicious food. It may sound simple, but it works.

This past weekend I made a huge pot of TOMATO SOUP WITH ASIAGO CHEESE CROUTONS. The air was breezy and cool and I wanted a little comfort food to warm up to. Tomato soup is a classic. But old fashioned Campbell’s canned tomato contains high fructose corn syrup (my blood sugar enemy) along with a hefty serving of salt. By making the soup at home, you can swap out a bit of brown sugar for the corn syrup. I add just enough to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. You can also control how much salt to add.

I use canned tomatoes for this recipe. I finally broke down and bought the San Marzano crushed tomatoes from Whole Foods for almost $4 per can. I was skeptical, but they were well worth it. They actually tasted richer and more “tomato-y” than supermarket brands. By adding a handful of fresh basil and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper (I like it spicy), you gain back the freshness factor that may have been lost in the can. There’s no butter or cream in this recipe, just simmered down vegetables pureed to a silky smooth texture.

The most logical pairing for tomato soup is grilled cheese. Oozy, melted cheese nestled between two slices of white bread. I was certainly tempted. But, I opted for croutons instead. I baked-up some day-old whole wheat ciabatta and gave the croutons a light dusting of grated asiago cheese. The crunchiness of the croutons and subtle saltiness of the cheese was just what I was looking for without the overwhelming calorie investment.

I think I deserve a shot at this Project Food Blog Contest. To me, cooking is an art. It’s much easier for an artist to work with a full fat palette. It’s a cinch to create a delicious dish using the richest, most flavorful ingredients. Healthy cooking is like painting with only half the color wheel. It’s infinitely more challenging to take fewer, simpler ingredients and still make them shine. My food shines. I’m proud of my work. People enjoy what I create and I can only hope they like hearing what I have to say too. I want to inspire people to change how they feel about “diet food.” Cooking a great meal or two along the way is simply icing on the cake (or at least the cupcake).

* Check out FoodBuzz to vote for me (because I like winning things)! Voting starts Sept. 20th.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Flex Your Beer Mussels

My apologies for being off the blogging radar lately. It’s been one busy end of summer! A few weeks ago I went to the Craft Beer Festival on the East End of Long Island (which was a beautiful day chock full of delicious craft brews) and I was inspired to come up with a dish using one of the new beers I learned about. My bro would be quite proud of me considering he runs a fabulous beer and food blog. I actually snatched this idea from him. Very sneaky.

The beer I chose to feature in this dish is the Heavy Seas Loose Canon American Hop3 Ale. I usually shy away from hoppy IPA-style beers, but this one is extremely smooth. It doesn’t have that bitter bite at the end. Plus, the flavor is strong enough to punch up the taste of the dish even after the alcohol has cooked away. Since mussels are Belgium’s specialty, a Belgian beer would be the obvious choice. But hey, we’re American after all so why not let the U. S. of A. take a stab at this one.

I’m serving these BEER MUSSELS as a main dish with a crunchy whole wheat crostini on the side (for dunking in the broth). For the crostini, I lightly brushed slices of whole wheat ciabatta bread with olive oil, sprinkled with parm cheese and a little kosher salt and baked on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes at 375 degrees. Classic mussel pots are often served with frites and mayonnaise on the side. Instead, I’m beefing-up the seafood portion and leaving the fries and mayo out of it. You don’t need the extra fried and fat calories tagging along.

I learned another important tip while creating this dinner. I added a mixture of crème fraiche and dijon mustard to the steaming pot to give the broth a little more richness and body. My initial instinct was to sub light sour cream for the crème fraiche. News flash: you can’t boil sour cream. You can warm it, but once it boils it starts to separate. It won’t hurt you, but it doesn’t look pretty. Go for the crème fraiche. You can boil it right along with the mussels without fear of clumping.

I flavor the steaming liquid with fresh tarragon. Tarragon pairs really nicely with seafood and especially well with the hint of Dijon. The beer adds some depth to the broth. These flavors, along with the liquid that’s released from the mussels, are pretty bold. Certainly not your average wimpy steamed mussels. They have character. Beer character.

As a Diet It Up meal, I cut out all of the butter and replaced it with olive oil. Instead of sprinkling the whole pot of mussels with croutons, I opted for one or two slices of whole wheat crostini per person. The crème fraiche and beer are certainly splurge ingredients, but the portions are limited. The recipe makes so much broth that you aren’t eating nearly as much of these rich ingredients as you put in. To top it off, mussels are a fairly inexpensive foray into seafood. The whole 2.5 lb bag only ran me about 7 bucks.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Mussel on Foodista