Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Silence of the lambs: beans there, egged that

After spending so much time indoors in winter, I have learned to look forward to a holiday to have a good old fashioned cookout and entertain family and friends. The outdoors are calling me, man. I felt that this Memorial Day weekend would be the perfect time to accomplish a few things. First, there was no more holding back on all the lawn, yard and gardening duties. No sir. The winter was gone and those outdoors were begging for some needed relief. So, yard work, which I call "the original crossfit", had to happen, and it did... That hard work paid off because now a nice cookout was possible, and so it was arranged. And then it rained... Anyway, Memorial Day was still happening, and my Romanian family was coming for the promised Memorial Lunch, and they deserved something yummy, even if it had to be indoors.

Staples of cookouts can do some serious damage to the job you've done all week by working out, and eating well. However, most health gurus recommend having a cheat day per week. No, that's not the day you let loose and lustily hit on the first person who winks your way. It means that for a meal (or a day) you eat whatever you want, guilt free, as long as you keep your nutrition under control the rest of the time. It's a way of keeping yourself from feeling deprived, but it also works by making your body work harder at burning those excess calories that it isn't use to deal with (at least not anymore) and fire up your metabolism. Still, I don't think a cheat day should be an excuse to eat food lacking anything that is nutritionally decent (yeah, I'm talking about you, frozen burger patties).  So in the spirit of a cheat day, I decided to go for burgers, lamb burgers to be precise, and surround them by nice food, that would be suitable for a cookout, and more than focusing on reducing calories, I would focus on bringing nutritional goodies to the table (and hence to my body).

I was asked to make the lamb burgers, and a flan; that's how it all started. We just needed a side dish. I thought that it was probably a good idea to have habichuelas en escabeche, or pickled beans. Beans have many nutrients, and are great sources of fiber and protein. The pickle treatment would bring out their flavor and would introduce some sour notes to the lunch, as well as bridge the lamb burger flavors to the dessert. Also, the flavors of that dish would probably resonate well with an Eastern European audience, since sour dishes are so common in their cuisines.

I did not really have time to pickle beans, or to actually work on this dish, so I went to one of my favorite cookbooks: Daisy: Noon and Night - by Daisy Martinez, and I found this great recipe for pickled butter beans, and passed it on to my partner in crime. Daisy's approach is basically making a salad with the beans, and then having a vinegar-rich dressing. You start by preheating a sauté pan, and then adding olive oil. Then you sauté thinly sliced garlic until it's lightly golden, and soft, which takes about a minute. Then you remove the oil from the heat, and add white and cider vinegar in equal proportions to the oil and garlic from the pan. The dressing goes on the salad made of butter beans (or Lima beans), thinly sliced red onions and diced tomatoes. To finish it off, you add salt and pepper, bay leaves, and cilantro, and let them sit for a bit. In our case, we kept them overnight in the fridge, and served them at room temperature.

The flavors on this dish were amazing. You might think this will turn just vinegary, but it wasn't. There was a very playful sweet taste that comes from the garlic. Also, the usage of two vinegars added multiple layers of flavors that get powered by the bay leaves, and the onions. Nice, summery refreshing, and very ricas, that is the summary. I think butter beans and probably faba beans are the only types of beans that would work on a salad like this, because of their size, their consistency and their flavor. Other beans, in particular the creamier white beans would probably be better off getting the real escabeche treatment, and really getting pickled.

For the burgers, I started with a bit over a pound of ground lamb, and added thinly diced onions, crushed garlic, pepper-stuffed olives, and bread crumbs. The seasonings were just salt and pepper since the lamb has lots of flavor on its own. Everything got mixed, and then the patties were shaped. I made 4 of them and grilled them (under some minor rain) for about 10 minutes, turning every 2 and half minutes. Normally I do one 45-degree-angle turn, then flip, then another 45 degree turn. You probably don’t really have to do the turning part, but since I'm used to grilling pork chops and steaks, where you want those pretty grill lines, I went for it. As I normally do, I tested how cook they were by pressing them. First, I wanted to see the juices that run out to be clear. Secondly, I estimated how well they were done by their consistency. I like mine to be medium/well, and for those the touch must feel like the area between your thumb and your index finger when all the fingers are brought together with an open hand (or you can use a thermometer...). 

Like in every adventure, there are ups and downs, and all of the stages in between. And the road to healthy has all of them. In this case, I checked more carefully the biggest burgers (since they could be potentially undercooked) and when they were done, I stopped them all. It turned out that one of the grill's burners was underperforming and I ended with a medium rare burger, while the rest were medium well. To make things worse, that burger made it to the plate of the guest of honor... Ay ay ay.

Anyway, the burgers that were actually cooked were very good. The combination of ingredients brought out the flavors of the lamb, and retained its juiciness. The burgers had a very Mediterranean/Greek feel to them. They were tender and lamby (which is good if you really like that lamb flavor to be strong -I do). I had some lettuce, feta cheese, red peppers, red onions, mayo, ketchup and German style mustard waiting around for discretionary use as toppings. The feta cheese was a must... It was heavenly; it was like having another Easter, which would be Easter number 3 for us... A yogurt sauce would have gone well with the burgers, but it was left behind this time... But maybe it'll make a comeback soon, since it’s mostly yogurt and garlic, for me.

Finally, I had to make the flan, for which I ALWAYS have to remember that it needs time to cool down in the fridge. That means that I had to make the flan around midnight, because we finished all the yard work past 10 pm. I wanted it to be a Puerto Rican style flan, which is fairly sweeter than other flans. I started by making the caramel. I find caramel making fun to watch - (I may need some more hobbies, ha?). Basically you melt 2 cups of sugar using 2 tablespoons of water. But you HAVE to be careful. You have to make sure you don't touch the caramel. There is a lot of energy in sugar, and it gets released as intense heat- read that as "it burns like a bi-atch". That is why in living organisms the process of harvesting the energy from sugar is so complex and in multiple steps, because otherwise the heat will just burn your own cells.

Enough with the science and back to the kitchen; as soon as the sugar turns into caramel you have to remove it from the stove so it doesn't turn bitter. The caramel solidifies quickly, so it has to be transferred  immediately to the dish where the flan will be made. While it solidified and cooled I beat the eggs, added the milk, and then some sugar. That was it. This was a country style flan, which is code for I was too lazy to strain the mixture. Then it went into the oven, and got baked at 325 for 1hr and 10 minutes, using a larger dish with water underneath (bain-marie/double boiler idea). However... this was around 1am and I felt asleep, so I did not notice the water evaporated completely, which -spoiler alert- made my caramel a touch bitter. The flan was still very delicious. Now it had a taste much closer to crème brûlée. And there is none of it left, so I guess it wasn't too much of a biggie.

I think it is a good idea to have your cheat day consist of a nice lunch like this one. You'll get nutrition, you get to enjoy guilt free of the food you crave, and you get to have the rest of the afternoon to burn off those calories, if you chose to. My lunch was festive, delicious, and fun. I did not miss the outdoors at all. The important part of eating well, whether you are having a regular day or a cheat day, is that you have to remember that you are worth food that is good, that is delicious, and that you enjoy. The more food you cook, the better you will be at making your meals delicious and nutritious, and the fewer incidents, like the two I had this time, you will have. And when you do mess up, be ready to learn what happened, why it happened, and what the end result was. Now go and have fun with the people you love, and enjoy guilt free your meal, and all that life has to offer. Can I get an AMEN?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Stick to your ribs

Every kid has a favorite food he or she loves and craves. I remember the kids in my neighborhood and their affairs with their treats: the nutella, the candy, the chocolates, the local pastries and desserts. But not me. No, my heart had room for one love, and one alone: Barbecue Ribs. I loved those ribs... In fact, I liked ribs so much and ate them so often, that I had a ribs-related injury. No, it wasn't the roundness that came with my weekly ribs consumption... I broke one of my molars in half, vertically, eating THROUGH the bones of my ribs. Now it's out, I eat bones.

Anyway, ribs are often avoided by dieters because... Well, because of their fat content. Yes, even the leanest ribs, have more than twice the calories and a little less protein per ounce than boneless chicken breasts. But please, indulge me; ask yourself a question. Are you really looking forward to a life of boneless chicken breasts? Be honest. That's what I thought.

In all honesty, I believe all food that is natural is healthy. That said, calories are calories, and I can't eat ribs all the time. But a restrictive diet is a diet you won't keep for long. I believe the main dietary problem with ribs is not the fattiness of the meat... but our brains. Yes, our brains. It doesn't matter for how little time we entertain the idea of having ribs we immediately want to coat them with barbecue sauce - read, sugar-, side it with mayo (yeah, you can call it slaw or potato salad if you feel like it), and finish it all with beer. That is the problem, as I see it. I say, enough with the nonsense. It's time I claimed my ribs back.

I went to the market, and I got lean, boneless ribs. I decided  the best way for me to work my ribs, was to braise them. I seasoned them with salt and pepper and seared them in grapeseed oil, about 3 minutes each side. I removed them and place them in a prewarmed Dutch oven. I reused the pan I seared the ribs in to sauté together 2 small onions, a shallot, an ancient sweet pepper, 2 jalapeño peppers, and after the veggies were soft, I added 3 cloves of garlic. I wanted to impart the ribs with layers of flavors. The onions and ancient pepper would bring the sweet notes, and a thought of spiciness would come in with the jalapeño. A minute after the garlic was added I used bourbon to deglaze the pan, and to use the oakiness as a reminder of the smokiness of a barbecue sauce. I used brown sugar and cocoa powder the bring out all the notes of sweetness, spiciness and smokiness, and blend them. Diced tomatoes sealed the fate of the ribs. I let them simmer a bit, and everything went into the Dutch oven, covering the ribs. They went into the oven for 2 hours at 325F.

Half the work was done. Now I had to make sure that I balanced the dish with a fresh side that was low in calories to keep the calorie count in the decent range. I decided to make a simple slaw. I sliced a red cabbage, shaved a carrot, and sliced some scallions. I dressed it with olive oil, raspberry vinegar, and honey (but mostly vinegar).

What can I say about that dinner? It was delicious! The meat was super tender, well seasoned, and full of all the magic the thick sauce brought. The ribs and the sauce weren't hot per se, but there was a spicy reminder that jalapeños were present. And the sweet notes... They talked me into eating a bit more than I had planned. It was great. And it went well with the refreshing, somewhat sweet and fruity, and so delicious, slaw.

All the flavors of the ribs would combine very well with steamed rice, or quinoa. Roasted potatoes would also pair well. Still, don't get too carried away and start adding carbs like crazy, because the calories will add up. Save them for later. I would suggest a drink pairing, but to me, with ribs, anything goes. Just remember, keep the calories on the DL so you don't feel guilty afterwards. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Kohlrabi - expect great things

Sometimes, for some obscure and unknown reason, I feel like an artist. I need some inspiration. I'm not really sure of what exactly it is that I'm looking for, or what is it that I want to accomplish, but I have this feeling that I will recognize the signs when I see them. As part of my inspiration search, I decided to give the West Side Market, in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, a friendly visit. Now, if you haven't been to the West Side Market, you may not appreciate the abundance of both food, and of visitors at the huge location. The Market, even though at a glance it may look like an old fashioned approach to buying food, has actually been growing its reputation on specialty and gourmet items. I was sure something would catch my eye. And it was a trio of kohlrabi.

I had actually never seen kohlrabi before, or at least I never paid attention to it. You see, I grew up in Puerto Rico, where everything thas is edible has a loud presence... And it screams EAT ME! The Kohlrabi is technically a winter vegetable, so you can imagine... To me it was the definition of droopiness. But once again, in the interest of trying to spice things up I went for it.

Kohlrabi is actually quite a common item in the cuisines of central and northern Europe. Like its name suggests (kohl - cabbage) it is yet another cultivar of cabbage. That means that it is an artificially selected form of cabbage, grown for its stem as the part of the plant you'll eat. The rabi part of the name, suggests its similarity to turnips, which I have never eaten either... Which make things interesting... Anyway, the point is that they are supposed to be somewhat sweet. They are also very nutritious stems. There is a good amount of fiber, some protein, and a very long list of vitamins and minerals you may want to check out; they will probably give your multivitamins a run for their money. Some people claim you should not eat kohlrabi if you have thyroid problems, but I don't really know if that's true. Actually, I heard about that after I had finished eating them... So, I guess is a good that I don't have thyroid issues.

So, how to cook it? A soup would have probably been a safe choice. That is, after all, the Euro-way. However, I wasn't really in the mood for it. I looked around the kitchen, and I saw some of the other friends I brought home from the market. Now things were getting fun. I noticied I also had two staples of the Puerto Rican cuisine I don't get to eat too often: a plátano maduro (ripe plantain) and a ñame (yams - not sweet potatoes, not at all). When you see a plantain, you can know its sweetness level based on its color. Green is savory, Yellow is somewhat sweet and Yellow/Black is sweet. Yams are savory and delicious. So immediately, I thought of one of the most common dishes we have in Puerto Rico: viandas. Viandas refers to a a family of dishes made of a collection of roots (yes, those Spanish Roots you see in the supermarkets), green bananas and sometimes pana/panapen (breadfruit) boiled together. The magic of the dish relies on the different tones of each ingredient echoing the next; it goes from the savory taste of green bananas, to the sweetness of the local varieties of sweet potatoes (batata) balanced by spectra of the savory/sweet notes of each of the components. 

I wasn't sure about the boiling part of the process, but I was decided to keep the idea of the viandas alive in my head, as Grandma would have been insisting, had she been alive. However, instead of boiling my goodies, I would roast them. I made 3 kohlrabies, 1 sweet potato, 1 yam, and 1 ripe plantain. I peeled and cubed them, added salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Since I was going all Puerto Rican on the poor Arian stem, I decided I might as well go all the way and and season with dried basil and dry oregano. Then, they went to the oven for 45 minutes, at 425F, and turned every 15 minutes.

When I got them out of the oven, they were beautiful. And their flavors were amazing. The notes of each one of the ingredients balanced the other, and they allowed the taste of the kohlrabi to shine. It definitely tasted better than cauliflower (which I love), and slightly less sweet than a red cabbage/apple salad. One thing to note is that, if you attempt making this, and you are unfamiliar with the yam, you may want to add it to the roasting pan like 10-15 minutes after the rest of the combo go in, so it is less crunchy, and you have time to acquaint yourself with its texture before you have to deal with the crunchy factor. I loved it, though. I also loved the shiraz that stopped by to make sure everything was in order.

Something like this pairs well with a mayo/ketchup combo of a sauce/dip. But in the interest of health, you can skip it, and instead you can combine it with something juicy, like baked chicken thighs, with sautéed onions and garlic. Any tender meat would pair well. Back home, we normally eat this kind of food with codfish, cooked with onions, garlic and olive oil. You can make a simple olive oil/garlic sauce as a dressing, and it would go very well. Actually, the mayo/ketchup dressing can also be lighten up using 1 part mayo, 2 parts greek yogurt, and 1 part ketchup. Additionally you can have some greek yogurt and add your favorite vinegar, and some dried herbs and even some fresh garlic. It's all good. 

By the end of the evening I had made a new friend. And now that kohlrabi has a place in my kitchen, it will be invited back. Normally I don't have roots and plaintains sitting around, so maybe next time the kohlrabi will make it into a soup... Or maybe not. What can I say? ...I'm kinda moody. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On the road to healthy...

Sometimes, you find yourself at the crossroads... I was 29, 270 pounds, and quite frankly, going nowhere at school/work. The time had come to make one of two choices: To be strong, to make my own decisions and to drive myself into the life I wanted to live, or to be weak, and to let life take those decisions for me. I guess is safe to assume you know I chose the strength. 

Today, I'm 30 years old, and 70 pounds leaner. What made the difference? Well, remember, I made "the choice"... I decided to be in control of what I do, and what I eat. And yes, I could potentially avoid eating fat, and carbs, and whoever the new bad guy is now. But eating just the 10 things that I can afford, that I would enjoy and that would also be "healthy" would bore me up to 300 pounds in no time. So, I decided that instead of just saying NO to foods, I would say yes... Yes to more food. Yes to variety, yes to more flavors, and yes to more techniques for cooking all this food. You see, variety doesn't just keep me from getting bored, it also delivers me the nutrients I need to feel better, to have more energy, and to be able to actually see results after every workout I do. And the more new "things" I try, the better I feel, the happier I am, and the more motivated it gets me, to improve my fitness, and to improve many other areas of life. 

This new approach to life, and to the way I treat myself, woke up my passion for cooking in unforeseen  ways. I really love the challenge of cooking. I love preparing my breakfast, my lunch, and my dinner. And in at least one of these meals, I try to spice things up by incorporating foods that I may not get to eat too often. Oh, and I feel amazing when they turn out to actually taste great!

Now I want to share my enthusiasm and ask you to join me in my journey to try ways of spicing up my diet with new ingredients, with some of the often ignored ones, and even with some of the ones scarlet-lettered as unhealthy. If you decide to read about these adventures, I'll do my best to give you a bit of info on the ingredient I'm using, the technique I went for, and I will do my best to convey you why my choices made sense to my taste buds, and to my lifestyle. But I'm not really that much into hearing, or I guess reading, myself. Lets make this an open conversation. Feel free to give me suggestions, or share with me how you prepare these foods. Let's keep it healthy, and let's keep it delicious. That's all I ask.

Let's make it happen!