Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tacos de Lengua (Beef Tongue Tacos)

I'm already pretty sure some of you are cringing in horror after reading "THE T-WORD" in the subject of this post. Beef tongue conjures up revulsion in many people, usually those who have never even sampled this amazing cut of beef (so definitely don't knock it 'till you try it). Beef tongue, being a frequently used muscle, needs to be cooked slowly, much like the tougher cuts used for pot roasts. Much like with pot roast, the slow braising/simmering of the meat transforms a tough cut into a tender, incredibly flavorful meal. 

Beef tongues are extremely affordable, and easily found at most ethnic market, especially Hispanic & Asian markets. Also known as lengua in Mexican cuisine, slowly cooked and seasoned with peppers, onions and tomatoes, the tongue has an extremely assertive BEEF taste; not at all like offal as some would expect. 

Served atop warm, homemade tortillas, and topped with roasted salsa verde, fresh cilantro, queso fresco and a squeeze of lime, there is no better taco to fully encompass the traditional flavors of Mexico. Enjoying one of these, and fully grasping the amount of work involved, will REALLY make you appreciate the measly price of $1.75 charged by local taquerias here in Birmingham

Friday, February 25, 2011

Black Bean & Oatmeal Burgers with Cilantro-Lime Mayo (Vegetarian/Vegan)

Though I'm not a vegetarian, I do enjoy a lot of meatless dishes, including vegetarian "burgers". I do NOT like the frozen, pre-packaged ones available at the store, though. Considering how easy and quickly homemade meatless burgers can be made, I can't imagine paying so much for what is STILL a processed food (seriously, look at the ingredients for Boca & MorningStar). I love black bean burgers since they still have such a meaty flavor, but without any meat at all! 

This recipe is not only delicious, healthy (low GI!!) and filling, but very budget friendly. If you have a food processor, you can have the burgers and the mayo on the table in minutes. The burgers are vegan, but the mayo is not; you could easily use vegenaise or hummus instead. 

I like to serve these on wheat sandwich thins, topped with avocado, sprouts, or a simple slice of tomato. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tuna Croquettes with Yogurt-Dill Sauce

Some people just don't like their meals in "patty" form. Personally, I love all types of patties, from Japanese korokke (croquettes) and salmon patties to crab cakes, bean burgers, etc. These tuna croquettes are super quick, easy and cheap; they're a great meal to make out of simple pantry essentials. 

Personally, I love canned tuna; a lot of people turn their nose up at tuna, but tuna is high in protein, vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids. The price is extremely affordable considering how nutritious it is, and this recipe provides another option besides the tired tuna salad or tuna melt. Once cooked, these croquettes don't have the tinny, fishy taste that canned tuna often has; you won't even be able to tell that it's canned!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cajun Boiled Peanuts

Boiled (sometimes pronounced "berled") peanuts are a classic snack here in the South; once the weather starts to warm up, roadside shacks start popping up everywhere, ready to ladle out steaming styrofoam cups of "goober peas" to anyone with a few bucks in cash and an appetite. Typically, you'll find 2 different types of boiled peanuts here; regular boiled peanuts, with their salty bite, and Cajun boiled peanuts, with a peppery kick. Even gas stations here will have 1 or 2 large slow cookers running all day, full of boiled peanuts (of dubious quality) simmering in brine. You can even buy canned boiled peanuts, but the best ones always will be the ones prepared fresh. 

So what ARE boiled peanuts? Simply put, boiled peanuts are raw (or "green") peanuts, cooked for hours in a strong brine solution, until the shells have softened and the hard nut inside has absorbed all of the brine's flavor. These peanuts actually have 4x the antioxidants of raw or roasted peanuts, since the boiling process draws the antioxidants into the nut from the shells. 

Boiled peanuts are a beloved Southern cooking tradition ranking up there with a good fish fry or a pork barbecue. Even though I live in and grew up in the state where peanut enthusiast and Tuskegee scientist George Washington Carver made his mark, I never liked boiled peanuts. I found them too salty, and thought they smelled like farts; I would groan and grumble whenever an ex of mine would buy a can of them at the gas station and proceed to eat them in my car. However, I decided to try them again, and this time tried Cajun boiled peanuts...and fell in love. The saltiness of the brine, the spiciness of the peppers and boil, all mixed with the earthiness of the peanuts, and I was hooked. Even today, I cannot resist the lure of the occasionally offered Cajun boiled peanuts at my favorite local Cajun restaurant, Crazy Cajun's. 

The key to good boiled peanuts, is, of course, the peanuts. Ideally, you need to use raw, "green" peanuts - these are freshly picked peanuts that have not been dried. Dried peanuts *can* be used to make boiled peanuts, but the quality will not be top-notch. If using dried peanuts, soak them for at least 8 hours beforehand in cold water. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bumblebee Soup (Bacon, Black Bean & Corn Soup)

Here in Birmingham, we have a great little Cuban sandwich shop known as "Kool Korner". Kool Korner spent 20+ years as an icon of Cuban food in Atlanta, before owner Ildefonso Ramirez relocated here. Though he is in his mid 80's, Ildefonso still likes to personally serve his customers. 

Not only is Kool Korner known for their sandwiches, but they also carry tamales and an amazing Cuban black bean soup. I never miss the chance to order a bowl of the soup (or a pastelito de guayaba), but about a year ago, I found a recipe for a "Bumblebee Soup" that very closely resembles my beloved Kool Korner soup. The name comes from the black & yellow of the black beans and corn. Simply flavored with a few spices and bacon, this soup is easy, cheap and delicious.  

I don't mess around with thin, watery soups. 

Though a true Cuban black bean soup doesn't usually contain any corn, Bumblebee Soup does. This recipe cooks quickly yet tastes as if it has been slow cooking all day; it's also a great recipe for cleaning out pantry staples - I can usually make this soup without having to make a trip to the grocery store! 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kitchen Basics - Ghee (Clarified Butter)

Ghee is a form of clarified butter used in numerous cuisines around the world, most notably in Indian cuisine (it is held as sacred in Hindu culture). Ghee is made simply by slowly simmering unsalted butter until all of the moisture has boiled off & evaporated, leaving the milk solids at the bottom of the pan and the clarified butter above it. 

Ghee does not need to be refrigerated and has a high smoke point (about 450 degrees Fahrenheit), making it a great fat for frying. Though preparing ghee is time-consuming, requiring you to keep a vigil eye on your pan, it's easy, effortless and worth the time (making ghee will take about 30-45 minutes). 

One pound of butter will yield about 1 1/2 cups of ghee (I like to store mine in a clean pint mason jar)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bacon Ranch Pasta Salad

Remember "Suddenly Salad"? I lived off of the "Bacon Ranch" flavor back while I was in college. I actually bought a box of it sometime last year since I was having an odd nostalgic craving for it. 


The "bacon" tasted NOTHING like real bacon. The "ranch" had a weird chemical aftertaste. There were nowhere near enough "vegetables" (the sad little freeze-dried kind) in it, and, to make matters worse, it wasn't all that affordable either.

So...I decided to come up with my own recipe. Not only do I have more control and knowledge of exactly WHAT goes into my food, but it simply tastes better too. This recipe is simple and really only a guideline. Feel free to change up the type of pasta used, or substitute different vegetables. Make it your own...I did.

Horenso no Ohitashi (Japanese Spinach Salad) - (Vegetarian)

Typically served as an appetizer dish in Japan, horenso no ohitashi (ほうれん草のお浸し) is simply a salad in which spinach is blanched and served with a dashi and soy sauce broth and topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). You can also use sesame seeds as a garnish in place of the katsuobushi if desired. 

I personally love to make this recipe as a quick healthy snack or side dish, especially when I have bags of baby spinach that need to be used up. Best of all, it takes only about 5 minutes to prepare! The key to this recipe is using fresh spinach, not frozen. 

(Japanese) Kitchen Basics - Dashi

Dashi is THE fundamental stock used in Japanese cooking, serving as the base for miso soup as well as numerous nimono (simmered) dishes. A simple stock made from kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), dashi preparation is quick and easy, unlike the slow-simmered stocks of Western cooking. Almost every Asian market carries a dried soup base commonly known as "dashinomoto", which work well, but tend to be high in sodium or MSG. I will use the powdered soup base in a pinch, but, to me, dashi is so easy to make that I would rather just make a fresh batch whenever I prepare Japanese food. 

Obviously, to make dashi, you will need kombu and katsuobushi, which should be readily available at any Asian market and even at Whole Foods. Since the ingredients are dried, they will have a long shelf life. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

EASY Baked Macaroni & Cheese (Vegetarian)

I'll be honest - I've never been a huge fan of the "blue box" packaged macaroni & cheese with the powdered cheese. In fact, I really don't recall eating macaroni & cheese much as a child! As I got older, I began to appreciate macaroni & cheese as a side dish, but only baked; something about the creamy, cheesy insides, topped with a browned cheese crust appealed to me. 

This recipe is actually a bit healthier (No bechamel! No breadcrumbs!) than most baked macaroni & cheese recipes; you can use light/low-fat ingredients without losing any of the rich flavor (I promise! I've done this recipe with both full-fat AND low-fat ingredients; however, I can't vouch for NON-fat ingredients). Even better, this recipe is incredibly cheap, easy and quick to prepare. 

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

I tend to be really particular about desserts; I don't really like overly sweet or rich desserts, especially after a large meal. To me, a super-sugary dessert ruins a good meal, and usually leaves me feeling uncomfortably full. I actually prefer a sweet bread such as date nut or banana nut to a heavy chocolate cake (I still will never decline a piece of GOOD cheesecake, though!). Carrot cake has always been at the top of my list when it comes to cake flavors and can be enjoyed at any time of the year. 

This carrot cake recipe comes from Ina Garten, and includes only a few small changes. I used canned crushed pineapple instead of fresh, and, because I have a ton of local pecans, I substituted them for the walnuts. This cake is moist, full of flavor, and not overly sweet; most of the sweetness comes from the airy, whipped cream cheese frosting on top. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Back from Cleveland!

My apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days - I've been in Ohio! I went to visit one of my best friends, and she took me on a great tour of the local eats of the Akron/Cleveland area. 

I was first greeted with an amazing carrot cake from Bittersweets in Stow, OH. And yes, that is indeed Paula Deen, drawn on chocolate and with molded chocolate butter sticks. 

Pictures do NOT do this cake any justice. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork with Alabama White BBQ Sauce

Pulled pork is a mainstay of Southern cuisine; Alabama is home to many famous BBQ restaurants, all known for their pulled pork, ribs, chicken, smoked turkey and much, much more. Alabama is also known for its white BBQ sauce, a runny, tangy blend of vinegar, mayonnaise and cracked black pepper. Personally, when it comes to actual BBQ sauce, I prefer a North Carolina-style sauce, thin and sour, over a thick, sweet, tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce. However, I firmly believe that, when good pork is seasoned and cooked correctly, it's blasphemous to mask the flavor of the meat by dousing it in a strong sauce. 

The pork shoulder roast, also known as a Boston Butt, is the preferred cut of pork for pulled pork. Here in the South, pork shoulders are often smoked and sold for fundraising by local churches, charities and other fundraising organizations. 

Rather than slaving away for hours over a hot smoker, I prefer to cook my pulled pork in a slow cooker. Though I lose the crusty bark and smoke ring that a smoker full of wood chips provides, the low & slow cooking process still yields tender, moist, flavorful meat. I simply season with pork shoulder with a spice rub before bed, toss it in the slow cooker with a braising liquid in the morning, and, by that evening, the house will be filled with the irresistible scent of pulled pork, ready to be simply shredded and placed atop a soft bun and enjoyed with a few pickle slices and sauce if needed. 

Japanese Potato Salad (Vegetarian)

Most people don't think of Japan when they think of potato salad, especially here in the South. However, potato salad is a popular, though non-traditional summertime dish in Japan. This version is mild and creamy, without the acidic tang that American or German potato salads have. The key ingredient is the mayonnaise. I've served this potato salad to several "born & bred" Southerners, all of whom were skeptical at first. The response has always been overwhelmingly positive. 

Kewpie mayonnaise is THE mayonnaise brand in Japan. Made from only egg yolks as opposed to the entire egg, the secret to its incredible flavor is the vinegar. Using only egg yolks is also what gives Kewpie its color; it has a much more yellow hue than most mayonnaises. Kewpie uses a rice vinegar, which gives the mayonnaise a unique taste. Mayonnaise is an extremely popular condiment in Japan, showing up on top of pizzas, hot dogs and okonomiyaki. Even here in America, it's the basis of most sushi restaurants' "secret" Volcano or Dynamite sauces (just a mixture of Kewpie mayonnaise, Sriracha and occasionally Thai sweet chili sauce). I particularly enjoy Kewpie mayonnaise on fries, specifically Chick-Fil-A's waffle fries (note: Chick-Fil-A has VERY good mayonnaise as well).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Three Ways to Cook Bacon & Rendering Bacon Fat

Bacon fat is simply the drippings rendered from cured bacon after frying. In the South, bacon fat (also called bacon grease or bacon drippings) is used to flavor many dishes, from cornbread to gravy and various beans & greens dishes. I LOVE using bacon fat to cook pan-fried potatoes as well as over-easy eggs. The fat is full of the flavor of the bacon, and adds an extra dimension of taste to the meal. Is bacon good for me? No, but it's an essential part of this Southerner's food pyramid. 

"Did you go to Upstairs Hollywood Medical College too?"

Using bacon fat predates the "bacon mania" of the past decade. Way before Bacon SaltBaconnaise, and things like bacon bras, bacon mints and bacon tuxedos, home cooks all over the US knew to keep their rendered bacon fat for later use (many likely remembering the WWII rationing of fat). Chances are, you remember a re-purposed can (usually a coffee can) that sat atop your grandmother's stove; hamburger and other greases were discarded, but bacon fat was held as liquid gold. This practice of saving fat most likely lost favor beginning in the 1980s, when the anti-fat health crazes began, and more people shifted to using olive oil. Luckily, the practice of saving bacon fat and using it in various recipes is definitely making a comeback

I always save my bacon fat; whenever a meal I prepare calls for bacon, I go ahead and cook my entire package of bacon. Leftover bacon keeps well in the refrigerator or fridge and can be used later on sandwiches or crumbled on salads (including pasta or potato salads). Though some sites suggest storing the fat in the refrigerator, I have always left mine out at room temperature and have never had it go rancid. 

This COULD all fit on one sandwich....

There are 3 ways to cook bacon; on the stovetop, in the oven, and in the microwave. I prefer to cook my bacon on the stovetop, primarily because I save the rendered fat. Oven-baking the bacon results in incredibly flavorful bacon, but dealing with a cumbersome baking sheet full of lava-hot fat isn't my favorite way to preface a trip to the burn ward. I am NOT a fan of cooking bacon in the microwave, and it's strictly due to the texture that the microwave cooking gives the bacon. However, I'll explain each method...