Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Easy Sopes with Slow-Cooked Pinto Beans, Salsa & Avocado Crema (Gluten-Free, Non-Dairy and Vegan)

It was on a sun-drenched sidewalk in a neighborhood on the fringe of downtown Mexico City, lined with mom and pop stores selling everything from new tires to fresh tortillas and dotted with apartments that stood overhead billowing the day’s wash from open windows like colorful patriotic flags, that I tasted my first sopes.

I was twelve or thirteen and just on the cusp of exhibiting signs of teenage annoyance, feeling slightly put out by our annual, month-long, summer treks to Mexico City; trips that were always capped by a week’s loll on the beaches of Acapulco. Cue violin. As frustrating as I believe this pubescent mindset must have been to others, I acclimated quickly every time... and remember my aunt’s sopes contributed greatly to that end.

Her sopes were made on a large round comal, best described as a big drum-shaped grill cradled on a hefty stand, that was set right in the center of the walkway in front of the storefront she owned along with my uncle; a doll-size space that offered a limited selection of fresh produce, and oft-sought after grocery and household items, to the families that lived in the three-or four block mix of residential and commercial buildings that surrounded it. Though both my aunt and uncle owned the business, the family referred to it as Carmen’s tienda-sita, or Carmen’s little store. Given the popularity of my aunt’s sopes, it is no wonder why she got top billing.

Once a week my aunt would drag out her specially made grill and begin the pinching and patting out of literally hundreds of sopes, with lines of neighbors coming from near and far to partake. Within minutes the air would take on a festive quality, with accolades of que sabrosa being chimed all the way down the block, and my aunt happily tending to her handcrafted array of simple little rounds of masa harina, crisped to perfection, with perfectly pinched sides to hold in the simple fillings that topped them. Always at hand was a pot of freshly cooked pinto and/or black beans, succulent bits of cooked chicken, crisp shredded lettuce, a homemade salsa or two, queso fresco, and/or a smooth crema. Nothing fancy in presentation, location, or flair. It was a far cry, to say the least, from the Southern California suburbia I was used to... and I loved it. Looking back, I suppose I loved the simple, genuine, gracious ease my aunt had with people as much as I loved her sopes. Perhaps that is why they were so good, each seasoned with her delightful touch.

While there are probably more than just a few schools of thought when it comes to making sopes, I updated what I could recall of my aunt’s delicious offerings. These are gluten free, non-dairy and vegan... with pinto beans, a quick-and-easy salsa, an avocado non-dairy crema, and fresh shredded romaine topping little masa harina saucers (made with Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Masa Harina). Though you can certainly use canned beans, these are made with the real deal (using an easy day-of “soak and cook” method). And, instead of a deep fry, these masa rounds get a quick, light grill in just a hint of coconut oil... then a pinch to form rimmed edges... then a very quick fry in a few tablespoons of additional coconut oil. Though I don’t have a traditional comal, a flat grill or large skillet set over high heat does the trick. A good golden grilling on one side, then flip your disk of masa harina and lightly grill up the other side. Then remove it from the heat and pinch the edges of each “sope,” with the more grilled side up to form a slightly raised rim (careful as they are still warm... it’s as much pushing in and pinching up as much as anything… think Playdoh… using all your fingers, thumbs on the outside pushing in and fingers on the inside of the masa round pulling up and out). Then when ready for the second round of cooking,  heat your coconut oil and quick fry each to finish them off, transferring to a paper towel to pull any excess oil out..

Some simple fixings... and they are ready to plate... table-side (or on a sun-drenched walkway) where your only care is wondering when the next batch will arrive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sweet Tamari-Sesame Ginger Glazed Wild Salmon & Asian Citrus Slaw

While little more than a good sprinkle of salt and pepper is required to season up a fillet of fish, regardless of what fair-finned friend you happen to be working with, there’s something magical about the little sweet tamari-sesame ginger glaze on this salmon and its pairing with a fresh, crunchy, colorful slaw evoking similar elements of Asian flavor that makes you want to reach beyond a simple sprinkle for a bit more of an adventurous plating.

Together with a great chop of purple and green cabbage dotted with diced jalapeño, cilantro, supremed bits of fresh grapefruit, shredded carrot, baby bok choy and slices of avocado, this plating delivers such a pleasing umami flavor that it belies just how easy and quick it is to pull together. The finesse, like most any method in cooking fish, comes in getting the degree of “doneness” right... keeping attuned to what your gilled fellow is telling you so as not to go overboard.

And, of course, like most anything consumed... the fresher the better. Living in the Pacific Northwest pretty much guarantees us the availability of beautiful fresh fish, especially salmon. This particular fillet is but one portion of a spectacular salmon that we caught off the coast of Astoria, Oregon... our first fishing expedition on the bounding main. With no real idea of what to expect... and no real attention paid to preparing for the excursion... we came dressed for fair weather, assuming we’d find a tranquil spot on the river and hunker down in the mid-day sun, enjoying nibbles and a refreshing beverage while awaiting a good bite or two. Instead we borrowed layers of clothing and set off bundled against the fog and cold of an early morning hour, motoring well past the Columbia Bar into the Pacific Ocean. After having to release a good bit of catches and cutting our day a bit shorter than expected due to a few ashen faces and stomachs that churned with the roll of the sea, we came away with a single prized catch and an enhanced appreciation for the rigors of ocean fishing and just how lucky we were that only our sea legs were tested. After setting on dry land we learned just how dangerous crossing the Columbia Bar can be. Later reading that this channel is often referred to worldwide as “The Graveyard of the Pacific” pretty much assured us that this would be a one and done experience. Let’s just say we’ll be sticking to serene rivers and bucolic fly-fishing venues for our next adventures.

We did, however, manage to land one amazing salmon... and, in hindsight, appreciate it all the more.

The tamari-sesame ginger glaze comes together quickly, sweetened with a just a bit of brown sugar and simply rubbed onto the non-skin side of the fillet. Then, beginning skin-side down, pan sauté the fillet (though you can easily cook it up on the grill) just until it shows a nice doneness about midway through. Then flip it, pull the skin off with tongs, season with a touch of salt and pepper and flip it back over after about a minute or so to just slightly sear off this newly skinned side. (While some may prefer starting skin-side up, I like the greater latitude you get starting skin-side down... believing you can better control the rate at which the fish cooks... the skin kind of serving as a little buffer against cooking up too quickly.) A fork to test the doneness works wonders. I like to see just a slight flakiness in the texture of the fillet, pulling it off the heat when it’s just slightly under done as it will continue cooking a bit.

The colorful slaw is a perfect partner, providing a lovely, fresh crunch that is equally flavorful with the addition of a citrus vinaigrette infused with the rich umami qualities of red miso and tamari sweetened with honey and freshly squeezed orange, lime and grapefruit juices. It takes the whole protein-salad combo pairing up one notch on the flavor adventure scale… with the added benefits of keeping you on dry land and testing nothing more than your ability to chop and use tongs.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Grilled Kale Salad with Hazelnuts & Honey-Bleu Cheese-Fig Vinaigrette

Just when I thought I had exposed every personality trait a head of kale might present... whirring it into a variety of smoothies to coax its more savory tendencies and rich nutritious properties into fruity morning blends; taming its traditionally robust nature with delicious vinaigrettes in various salad pairings; encouraging its gentler side with a slow sauté; chopping it into hashes and mashes, soups and stews; and roasting and grilling it to crisp perfection  ... we came across a lightly grilled kale salad in recent travels that showcased yet another flavor profile from this hearty green. And one that is not to be missed.

At Forage, a delightful restaurant tucked into the Listel Hotel in the West End neighborhood of Vancouver, British Columbia, the menu is just that... foraged from the land and sea in and around this beautiful area hugging the pristine waters north of Washington State, supporting local farmers and fishers. Though there was not one dish of the many we savored that didn’t completely please our palates, this seemingly unassuming little salad was such a welcomed treat. Simple. Elegant. Brilliant.

Akin to the magic that grilling imparts upon a modest head of Romaine lettuce, enticing textured nuances of smoky, sweet flavor in both crisp and delicate folds of wilted greens... kale is similarly transformed with a light toss on a hot grill. While grilling or roasting kale on high heat for a good bit of time will render a crunchy chip-like consistency, just a light tossing on a hot grill will coax a delightfully subtle, smoky-sweet quality and, in so doing, gently tame kale’s sometimes tough demeanor. The salad we tasted featured a light vinaigrette that melded sweet honey and creamy, pungent blue cheese... and possibly a little marmalade of sorts. The gist is that it had that lovely sweet-savory balance that works wonders on this humbled green. It was delightful perfection.

In my own take on the salad we so enjoyed, leafy bits of curly green kale (torn or roughly chopped from its tough center stems) are grilled until they just begin to wilt... too little time and you won’t tame its stiff bristle; too long and it loses its subtle charm and crisps up too much. It’s just a minute or more, depending on how hot you get your grill. When it begins to show a slightly golden burnt tinge here and there and just a sublime wilting, it’s ready. Like the Forage-plated salad, this version is lightly laced with a flavorful dressing that pairs beautifully with the grilled kale for a strikingly simple, yet elegant plating. Then, like its inspiration, it’s topped with a good crunch of chopped hazelnuts.

This salad is such a welcomed introduction to yet another satisfying profile of the many pleasing faces of kale... subtly tamed and pleasingly humbled, yet still nicely assured… displaying all the qualities of a great dinner partner.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pear, White Chocolate, Almond & Oatmeal Cookies {for Stemilt Growers}

When I think of chocolate chip cookies, I have a go-to recipe that I rarely waver on. It’s one that originated on the back of a bag of chocolate chips and over the years melded into a recipe that better matched my own personal palate... a cookie that is subtly crisp on the outside, though relatively supple on the inside. Not overly sweet. Not wafer thin, not super-sized. And never snap-crackle crisp.

While I always consider that particular recipe a chocolate chip cookie recipe, I can’t remember a time that I made it and not added a good heap of quick-cook oats. That bit of oats makes all the difference in the texture and consistency of the batter… and ultimate cookies. Not to mention the flavor.

So when Stemilt suggested a chocolate chip cookie recipe when it came time to work with a few of their beautiful, ripe pears… I had to rethink my tried and true way of doing things. Adding fruit to cookie batter isn’t new… especially dried fruits. Adding fresh fruit takes a little more thought… for me, at least. A purée of fresh fruit adds flavor as well as sweetness to a cookie batter. It also loosens the consistency so it requires a little balancing of flours, sugars, butter, etc.

And, what about incorporating fresh pear? Well… in many applications white chocolate, almonds and oats pair beautifully with pears... so a chocolate chip cookie didn’t seem too far fetched.

Adding fresh fruit is a sweet option to reducing the refined sugar component in cookies. The trade off is a bit of crispness. The solution is to keep them petite. Fresh out of the oven, with a little rest to cool, they are at their peak level of crispness. They soften a bit over time... but that doesn’t temper their appeal.

In these wee cookies, fresh pear is introduced in both a puréed form and a diced form... the sweetness of which keeps the need for refined sugar to a minimum. The end result is a cookie that tastes like it should be healthy for you... with just a delicate sweetness. Little bits of white chocolate chips and almonds add a delicious pop of decadence and crunch…  subtle reminders that moderation is still the best policy... even if the cookies are tastefully disguised as healthy morsels.

For recipe details, visit Stemilt’s blog, The Stem.

Disclaimer: While I am being compensated by Stemilt Growers as a guest contributor to The Stem, the views and/or opinions expressed on A Savory Nest are my own.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Watermelon-Mint-Lime Zest Sorbet

Sorbets are a bit like good friendships and general happiness… balance is required to achieve success.

Too sweet and they can be off-putting. Not sweet enough and they can be hard-edged… icy. Artificially sweet… not really interested in pursuing. Well... you get my drift. Apart from the flavor profile you’re going after, the right level of sweetness is critical to producing a sorbet that will be both texturally and tastefully pleasing.

The good news is that anywhere in that balance zone, the flavor will be great and… truly… from a purely personal perspective, anywhere in the granita to sorbet zone will produce a light, satisfying, refreshing dessert.

Since I’ve become fairly obsessed with the generous sprinkling of lime zest on virtually any cut and combination of fresh fruit, this watermelon-mint-lime zest profile is particularly pleasing. The subtle mint infusion of flavor (and sweetening) is introduced in the form of a simple syrup. In this prep, it’s a 50:50 ratio of sugar and water infused with a good bit of mint leaves that I muddle just a tad as the mixture heats up… dissolving the sugar and resulting in a thin syrup. The watermelon just gets whirred up separately in a blender. Then these two components get popped into the fridge overnight (or freezer for a few hours if time is a factor) so that everything is good and cold before getting introduced to your ice cream/sorbet machine. (Just make sure both of these “mixes” are housed in non-reactive containers to cool.)

Then comes the mixing… getting your fruit blend sweetened up just right to please the palate and the spoon. Tasting is always a good test. However, with sorbet, going a bit sweeter is often better as it will temper a bit once it gets its time in the freezer. So what's sweet enough? Too much sugar and your sorbet won't freeze correctly; not enough sweetener and your sorbet will freeze rock hard. Without purchasing technical gadgets to determine the right amount of sweetener to add (there's a whole technical side involving "brix" and such), an “egg test” is a good little barometer for the home cook (and kind of fun to do). More on this later.

First I add a good bit of zested lime to my watermelon blend. This base should be place in a bowl that is deep enough to allow an average size egg to sit at the bottom of your bowl with just enough head room to cover from view. Straining your simple syrup through a fine sieve (so as not to get leaves in your sorbet), begin adding some of your syrup to your watermelon blend. Then take a well-washed egg (yep, right from the fridge) and gently place it in the bottom of your bowl. If it doesn’t float up to reveal a nickel size bit of it through the top surface of your liquid then you need more sweetener. Continue adding the simple syrup and testing the egg float. Once the egg rises to view that nickel size portion through the surface of the watermelon blend in your bowl, then you are pretty much good to go. Taste it too… it should be on the sweeter side, but pleasing.

Since all your ingredients should still be good and cold, you can then proceed to “churning” in your machine… super cold ingredients into your ice cream/sorbet maker makes for a good churn. With mine (Cuisinart ICE-21), I just get the machine going (simple on-off switch) and then pour my mix slowly in as the machine is turning. It takes about 8 to 10 minutes to get a nice consistency. Place it in the freezer to firm up (the door is a good spot as it’s less likely to get overly hard there). You may have to leave it out to soften a bit before serving (10 to 20 minutes if it’s really firm). Or… churn and serve right away (going a bit beyond the 8 to 10 minutes… or when your machine cuts off telling you it’s ready). Always best to keep an eye on it to ensure its doing its thing correctly.

All in all, it’s so refreshing and light, beautifully flavored with the subtle, summer sweetness of watermelon, lightly infused with mint, and brightened with the lime zest. For an added little pop, add a bit more fresh lime zest overtop when serving… it won’t tip its delightful, welcoming balance one bit… making it a happy and enjoyable choice.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Petrale Sole & Sweet White Corn-Jalapeño Salad

Super easy weeknight meals are equal opportunity pleasers… without bias to the rationale of their appeal. Busy days, lazy days, crazy days… it simply doesn’t matter. In my corner of the world, I often think of them as daughter dinners… my answer to telephone queries of what’s quick and easy?

They’re satisfying, tasty dinners that come together with barely a whisper of thought… ones that can be easily managed after making ones way home after a long day… perhaps.

Dinners that allow ones mind to idly wander the vista of  a water-viewed walk by bay… or sea… to champion the transition of thought to calm respite before arriving home to cap the day.

Or, simply… easy weeknight meals… whenever fancied.

They are the types of dinners that two hands can easily manage… though extras are welcomed, of course. And they are the types of dinners that when choreographed well can be performed in a matter of minutes. Minutes!

Though I tend to gravitate toward salmon or halibut on most fish-faring dinner excursions, petrale sole is a great, quick and satisfying option for a weeknight (or any night) meal. It’s a delicate fish both in flavor and texture, making it a perfect partner for an equally delicate pairing that allows a pop of seasoning to add overall highlight. (Here, a dry Chimichurri* seasoning fills that bill nicely.) A subtly sweet corn salad with little pops of jalapeño, red pepper and fresh arugula offers a wonderful base to support a simply dressed, subtly spiced petrale sole. Sautéed in just a bit of extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt, ground black pepper and a nice sprinkle of Chimichurri seasoning, this fish is beautifully flavored without any risk of being overpowered.

And, what about that done in minutes claim? Honestly, prepping the water to quick boil your corn is the longest and most difficult step in this dance. The being well choreographed part is simply a call to use your time wisely. While your water boils, prep the pairings and dressing for your corn salad. Then drop your corn in to boil… 60 to 90 seconds tops… then remove it to cool while you prep your fish. The key to a great fish sauté is to lay it in the pan (oil preheated to allow a light sizzle) and let it be… don’t pull it up or move it around… 2 to 3 minutes, then carefully flip it to sauté the other side (maybe 60 seconds). The fish will speak to you… the background tempo to this little dance… showing a light whitening through the middle. Once flipped, the first side will be subtly golden. The second side needs just a light touch to finish it off. And violà, dinner is done.

As choreographed here, it’s dinner under 10 minutes … not counting time to watch water boil. It’s so much nicer to factor it in thought by bay or sea.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sweet Cherry & Farro Salad {for Stemilt Growers}

Summer, but a few short months, is the shoulder upon which balances the scale of seasons.

Long overdue from what is often a wet and gray stretch of time where both the light of day and individual temperament are measured in how low or high the sky appears, and meals are measured in their ability to satiate and soothe both hunger and unrest, it is Summer that ties together the two disparate sides of the palate for me: savory and sweet.

It’s not that my ideal of Fall, or the anticipated revelry of Winter disappoint, it’s simply that summer brings a bounty of fruit with her arrival that is unmatched at any other time of the year. It’s this abundance of sweet, delicious, sun-ripened fruit that cajoles me into dessert making and oven baking beyond my own palate’s natural desire. Perhaps it’s the artistry that fruit inspires; the broadened palate of flavor that fruit delivers; or, the versatility and delicate balance that fruit so generously offers. Whatever the rationale for this evening of allegiance, abundance is the intoxicating tipper. For it is Summer that brings an overwhelming bevy of berries, big and small; a preponderance of stone fruits that amass in greater quantity and variety with each and every season; and, of course, favored gems that garner their own level of acclaim and fanfare.

Fresh, ruby-red cherries, sweet or tart, or those delivered with sunshine hues in the form of Rainiers, fall in this latter category of “gems.” Eagerly awaited and gone far too quick, cherries are a summertime favorite. Though often popped in a variety of sweet offerings, they are equally as brilliant in savory ones as well.

In this simple summer salad, plump fresh Stemilt cherries impart a much-appreciated subtle bit of sunshine in an easy farro salad that can be served up alone, alongside a beautiful deli-roasted chicken for an easy no-fuss meal, or melded together with poultry for a wonderful one-dish serving. This sweet fruit imparts a lovely balance of flavor between the nutty, satisfying farro, the delicate bite of thinly sliced fennel and green onions, the appealing crunch of chopped walnuts, and a refreshing pop of fresh Italian parsley and lemon zest… all melded together with a light, lemon-vinaigrette.

It’s a perfect sweet and savory balance… a simple plating that sits between the limitations of Spring and the forgotten bounties that mark Fall’s arrival.

For recipe details, visit Stemilt’s blog, The Stem.