Saturday, June 29, 2013

Yo', chill


The heat is here. Man, is it possible for me to go to work, to watch TV at home, or let's say, walk outside in jeans without sweating? Is that too much to ask? Yes, yes it is. So, instead of whining and whining about it I decided to just deal with the damned heat. And I did it the only way I know how to: by making myself a refreshing, tasty and healthy treat (and by putting an AC unit in the window - you know it had to happen).

Back home in Puerto Rico, we have several treats to make us feel refreshed through the hot summer (and spring, and fall) days. Of course, beers and piña coladas do the trick, very effectively if you ask me. But there are other refreshments, that are non-alcoholic, and that bring out a smile in children and grown ups alike. The first one that comes to mind is called a "limber". The idea is to take your favorite juice or beverage, add sugar, and then you freeze it as a solid block (using a disposable cup). You just suck on it until it gets soft. When soft, you can bite into it. It is especially fun when it actually has fruits inside. Another traditional treat is the snow cone, which we call piragua (PIR, from piramide and AGUA - water). These ones used to be popular in public spaces or there would be a dude going around the neighborhood pushing his piragua cart. He, the piragüero, would shave or scrape the ice, and then he would add your favorite syrups for flavor. Then there were the sorbets. Those were usually awesome. Normally a guy would sell them on the street, pushing a cart with the containers. I loved those. They would usually have somewhat traditional flavors (coco, piña, acerola, parcha - read coconut, pineaple, Puerto Rican cherries, passion fruit, respectively) and they would always be inexpensive, as long as you were away from Old San Juan. And well, of course, we had ice cream.

Ice cream is so good, and so inexpensive in Puerto Rico that one would really be tempted to have one a day. For some reason I do not know, there are many local "parlors" owned by descendants of Chinese immigrants. But Chinese or not, the ice cream is great and a great way to deal with the heat. Limbers and ice cream both have a top selling flavor that I always considered my favorite: mantecado. Damn it, it's so good. Mantecado, is basically custard and just the thought of it makes me crave one of those now.

In order to keep my calorie intake low and to honor my new found love for frozen yogurt, I decided to take a mantecado recipe, and turn it into a delicious custard-froyo. So when my friend Jen wanted to know the recipe, I thought it would be a good chance to make it again, to kick the heat in the butt with with some froyo, and to share the recipe with her and everyone here. It's froyo time, y'all.

I used 5 cups of non-fat unflavored yogurt. I'm not gonna lie here. Fat really helps making your froyo smooth and it is how I made it in my original recipe. Fat helps because it prevents the formation of ice crystals, keeping your dessert creamier. Full fat yogurt and Greek yogurt work best for this recipe. However, I'm also a fan of turning it out, no matter of your starting point, so I went for it using what I had.

A great thing about this recipe is the fact that eggs are used, because they help maintain the creaminess of the yogurt, and the flavor they bring is great. So I added five beaten eggs to the yogurt, one cup of sugar, half a teaspoon of salt, one tablespoon of vanilla extract, and cooked it for 5 minutes in a double boiler. You want to stir constantly, so the eggs don't start cooking on the side of the bowl. Remember, you want a thin cream, not scrambled eggs, not flan. After 5 minutes you remove it from the heat you let it chill in the fridge until it is very cold (this may take a while...)  After that you can put it in the ice cream maker and follow your manufacturer's instructions. After my ice cream was ready, just for fun, I used some low fat granola to top it, and had it for breakfast.

This frozen yogurt is nice and tarty. Creamy and delicious. It is also refreshing and it strangely has some notes that reminds me of a lemon flavor. The one thing I don't like is that I used a "fancy" vanilla extract that keeps coming back to bite me in the ass. Every time I use it I get this aftertaste I don't like, but that I know it's from the damned vanilla. I'll send a note back to Madagascar to complain about it. Still, this froyo still rocks, especially calorie wise. Half a cup has about 200 calories, and when I added the granola, I still kept it under 250 calories. There's about 10g of protein to keep my muscles happy, and plenty of flavor to keep me happy. It's a win-win situation.

I used an ice cream maker to make this recipe. Of course, ice cream has existed long before ice cream makers and electricity existed, so there are several techniques you can follow to freeze your ice cream if you don't have an ice cream maker (5 ways of making ice cream-no machine required). But realistically, unless you can delegate this process to a hyperactive kid, you may want to stay away from shaking your custard by hand for half an hour. I think the best method is the one that takes the longest, but it requires less work (Custard-style ice cream making-machine free). Do not let summer get the best of you. Have some ice cream, frozen yogurt or frozen treat. It can be so satisfying to know that you made it, and you controlled the ingredients you are feeding your body with. Go ahead, give it a try. 

On the road shortcut

5 cups of non-fat yogurt
5 large eggs, beaten
1 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

Mix the ingredients. Cook in a double boiler for about five minutes, stirring constantly. When you get a thin cream remove it from the heat and chill in the fridge. When it's very cold, proceed to make the ice cream following the manufacturer's instructions, or make it by hand.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The morning-after, or eating la vida loca

Special events are the spices to condiment our lives. Is that too corny? It totally is. It's still true. For the last few weeks I've had nothing but crazy schedules, not enough sleep and LOWs (lots of work). So I had been looking forward to this weekend because I was going to take a much needed break Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon (Father's Day)! I worked for 10 hours on Saturday (yeah, I know, I've been bitching about it like-forever), but I was perked up because I was going to a friend's housewarming party afterwards. Also, I found out a high school friend was visiting Cleveland (yes, people do visit Cleveland) so I arranged meeting her after the party. So when the working day was over, I went to warm up that house, and in exchange, the hosts warmed me up with Caribbean food. There was Cuban-style rice & black beans, stewed chicken, and yuca (root, what Tapioca is made from). There were also desserts... Man, there was flan and tres leches (sponge cake soaked in 3 different milks). I ate some of everything and flushed all that food down with sangria. Yummy.

The house had been warmed, so my best friend and I went down to a bar to meet our high school friend. We really got some serious remembering done of some pretty good times, over beer. Who would have known that memory and beer could work on the opposite direction as well? The more you know...

The next day was Father's Day. Of course, my father lives in Puerto Rico, but my partner's family lives here so we get to celebrate his father. His mom organized a brunch at their place and took care of the food. We had scrambled eggs, fried chicken, breakfast links, quiche-Lorraine, hash browns, bagels, veggies... we had it all. We had biscuits, cookies, éclairs, and rum balls, her specialty, for dessert. Not only everything was delicious, but everything was beautiful. My only contribution to this feast was a fruit salad. It was a fairly simple one but it had a punch of flavor. I used one pound of strawberries, one pint of raspberries, one pint of blueberries, eight dried figs, and one apple. The apple and figs brought different textures to the salad. The crunch of the apple was absolutely needed and the tartness of the fig deepened the flavor. I made a simple dressing using the juice of half a lemon and 3 teaspoons of honey. I like calling this dressing the homeopathic dressing. Man, I did love having lemon juice and honey to treat my colds as a kid. Anyway, the dressing brought out the flavor of the fruits, gave the salad depth and prevented the apples from browning (reacting with oxygen and becoming Fugly). It was actually pretty good.

The next morning I realized that I needed some detox time so I needed to get back in the kitchen and do some cooking. I wanted something healthy, and as always, tasty. But I wanted something I could leave unattended to do some work. Apparently, I love asking for too much, so I also wanted something I could eat again the next day, because I knew I would be way too busy all week. I decided to roast a chicken. After I pat-dried the chicken, I seasoned it with a quick dry rub. I used salt, pepper, herbes de Provence, and brown sugar. I don't think I can share the quantities of those, though. It was one of those days I go on automatic, and it's as if a rat would take over and cook for me (I really have to get out more). All I remember is that the sugar was one teaspoon, because it was the only ingredient I actually measured. The side dish was supposed to be uncomplicated as well, so I just peeled 2 turnips, cubed them and seasoned them the same way as I seasoned the chicken, plus I drizzled them with olive oil. I placed the turnips on a Dutch oven, got the chicken on them (breast down), and roasted at 450 for a bit over an hour. I actually took it out of the oven too early and it wasn't ready so it had to go back in... I guess the thermometer is just not good enough for me.

When the chicken was actually cooked, it was all I could have asked for. It was juicy, tender and with a great flavor. I had dinner/lunch (dunch???) at one of my favorite restaurants a few days before and I had a half chicken... Mine was better! Plus, I love herbes de Provence. I use them for everything. LOVE them. The flavors of the turnips were great, and it did resemble the Kohlrabi from my very first blog post. I guess the internet was right about that one. It was a great combination that would otherwise be unlikely, and unseasonal. Sue me...

There was some leftover chicken and I had it, as planned, for dinner the next day. This time I had it with some whole wheat spaghetti, with a drizzle of olive oil and one ounce of freshly grated parmesan cheese, some fresh oregano, and fresh thyme, salt and pepper. It was nice, and life was good again.

Let's talk about efficiency and calorie savings. I really can't think of many things that can keep you full, satisfied, and happy for fewer calories. A turnip is just 30 calories for the whole thing. The chicken varies based on size and the piece you actually eat, but it can be very low-cal, especially if you avoid eating the skin (which was very hard in this case, because man, that damned skin was delicious). The spaghetti was about 200 calories per serving, and since mine was whole wheat, I was more than ok with it. So both dinners were less than 500 calories for me.

During these few days I got to hang out with friends, have a great time with family, and I even got to lose about 3 pounds. Enjoy what you like with moderation, and if you really like something, take your time to enjoy it.  Don't just shove it in and swallow (no comments, please). Take your time to enjoy the flavors and to enjoy your company. Give your brain the chance to get the message: "Dude, I'm good. You can stop now." Just listen to it; for Christ's sake, it's a brain.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The testicle monologues: on white babies and identity thieves

As Father's Day approaches, I find myself among those who kindly remember the good times spent with their fathers and do their best to ignore all of those occasions of heavy yelling and teenage anger that happened in between those nicer days. If your father happens to be a good cook, those memories are bound to include some pretty good food moments as well. Back home, my father cooks dinner during half of the week. He makes the most awesome pork roast (which he is FORCED to make for every special occasion), but I think it is his roasted turkey that deserves the highest praises. 2-3 days before Thanksgiving he starts marinating the turkey in olive oil, garlic (lots of garlic) and spices, (which is the base of a traditional “mojo”) and then that glorious Thanksgiving Day he gets up early in the morning to start slow roasting the holy bird. When I was a kid he would ask me to taste the turkey every hour until it was ready. Those were the days, man.

There is something else my father would make that I loved eating. Once in a while he would make another family favorite, the one we call in our hometown a "gazpacho sandwich". Gazpacho normally refers to a tomato, garlic, cucumber and bread soup that you purée and serve cold. However, I never actually had that soup until I moved out of the country (to Spain, of all places). For us, a gazpacho is an avocado and codfish salad. It is so, so delicious; it's full of nutrition, and its freshness makes it a favorite for those hot dry summer days. Since earlier this week I've been craving having my gazpacho boricua, and even though there isn't any cooking involved in my version, I still decided to go forward, make it and share it with the world.

Cod fish is one of the most common ingredients found in a Puerto Rican household. In a Puerto Rican supermarket you can find it dry, fresh, canned, frozen... the only way you won't find it is inside of a cereal box as a gift. Even though I eat it and I like it in gazpacho, I am not a big fish eater. So I decided to eliminate the poor fish from my plate. Instead, I decided to bring other friends to bring body and crunch, and protein to my salad. One of the new ingredients in my gazpacho was a baby bok choy. Bok choy is a form of cabbage, Chinese, and its name translated from Mandarin means white vegetable (or so Wiki claims), and it's a "baby" because it's harvested early. I decided to use the baby BC because in addition to adding crunchiness to my salad it would be a nice contrast to the green onions I was using to substitute for regular onions. Then I added sliced cherry tomatoes to get a bit of acidity and flavor.

The main ingredient was, of course, the Avocado. The word avocado is a transliteration of the Spanish word aguacate, which comes from the Nahuatl language in which it literally means testicles, since them people thought there was a similarity between the 2 (or 3, I guess). While I lived with my parents, we ate avocados almost every day, but normally on their own, as a side with our dinner. Actually for many years we had our own homegrown avocados, huge MFs of about 8 inches in length each (I wonder how the Aztecs would have called those ones...).

For this gazpacho, I used 2 cubed Haas avocados (not as great as my homegrown ones, but, hmm). The moment avocados are sliced, there is a reaction with oxygen, and the avocados start turning brown. To prevent their browning I use a little bit of olive oil. I mixed all my ingredients, and finished it by adding the juice of a lemon (citrusy and refreshing) fresh basil leaves, fresh lemon thyme, a crushed clove of garlic, salt and pepper. After some gentler mixing (folding) it was ready. I went back to my roots and served it over a small (7oz) whole wheat baguette, Papi style. As good as this salad/sandwich can be without them, I added 4 sliced boiled eggs to increase the protein content, since the fish was gone and a boy needs his protein. At the end, I split the sandwich as 2 servings. 

I loved this sandwich so much... First, it is extremely delicious, and very healthy. The avocados had the perfect ripeness and a perfect butter-like texture. The mixing was gentle enough to ensure not pureeing them and end up with a guacamole instead (unrequested translation - guacamole = testicle sauce, just saying). As creamy as the salad is, it still had some crunch to it, courtesy of the green onions and the baby bok choy, who by the way, delivered extra nutrients to my already nutritionally rich gazpacho. The tomatoes added a nice taste, and their acidity was amplified by the lemon juice, although it was not overpowering. The basil brought aroma and flavor, and the thyme elevated that lemon freshness, scent and taste to unprecedented heights. The garlic helped bringing everything together, not being a dominant flavor in this recipe, and neither were the eggs but I could feel enough of the yolk taste to keep me happy. I thought it was a nice sandwich so I gave myself two thumbs up.

This sandwich is very healthy. Although each serving provides about 748 calories, it still has 27g of protein. The fats from the avocado and olive oil are healthy fats and since they are present in controlled amounts they are very good for you. If there's anything in this blog that you have to make, it's gotta be this sandwich/salad. It's good for everyone: if you're a vegetarian it's good, if you're a vegan remove the eggs and you're done, and if you don't eat gluten just drop the bread and dig in. You can control the calories by eating less bread, or making it a smaller portion. Either way, the flavors will be there and the smile in your face will follow. Happy Father's Day!

On the road shortcut
2 Haas avocados, cubed
1 teaspoon olive oil
Juice of a lemon
1 clove of garlic, crushed
4 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1 stem baby bok choy, chopped
3 scallions, chopped
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
4 boiled eggs, sliced
7 oz whole wheat baguette

Make the salad by gently mixing (folding) all the ingredients in a large bowl and serve it in the whole wheat baguette. Alternatively, mix all the ingredients minus the eggs, and assemble separately.
Nutritional info:
748 calories per serving, 62 g carbs 46 g fat, 27 g protein

(Revised on September 2013)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On the many ways to take a leek...

It has been a hot spring and it seems like the summer will be a steamy one. Oh, and the temperature will probably be hot too (I couldn't resist it... too many Cougar Town episodes wrapped around my brain). But seriously, there are days when the house gets so hot that the thought of baking or roasting seems masochistic at its core. In those days, my thoughts shift towards eating out and drinking ungodly amounts of beer; if not for the food and booze, at least for the very effective relief from the heat, courtesy of the arctic-set air conditioning. Unfortunately, my belly and my wallet were not willing to put up with these desires any longer so I had to find ways of staying on my calorie budget, but keeping the house's temperature as undisturbed as possible. Salads and cold soups are good at keeping my chill but I'm a meat eater; there's that. Sandwiches won't cut it for diner and the slow cooker is too fall-ish to do it often during the summer. So by elimination, the grill and I became good friends (I guess I'm not too friendly...).

I've been feeling like eating leeks lately. I love leeks. They just have this mild, oniony taste that I love. Normally I use leeks either as a base to make soups or I sauté and serve them next to meat. However, I felt I should be more "adventurous" while cooking my leeks this time. I concluded that I could use the leeks to make some healthy burgers. Trust me; you don't want to even attempt to comprehend the thought process I went through to decide what to make...

I started by selecting the meat. I decided to go for ground round, or 90% lean beef. I know, for someone who still needs to drop a few pounds, that is quite a bold move... However, when you are making a burger, using less fat than that will result in something you will have to talk yourself into eating, and can probably be used for self defense. A bit of the fat will drip as you grill anyway... I seasoned the beef with salt and pepper, and added a finely diced small onion and 2 cubed jalapeño peppers - seeded and deveined. Both would add juiciness to the meat, and layers of flavors, but won't be dominant. 

Then, I took a leek (lol) and finely diced the root and "stem". The leeks don't really have stems, but an aggregation of leaves that have the structural function of a stem. Some people use the upper part of the leaves (the part that actually looks like a leaf) in their cooking, but to me they add a somewhat earthy flavor I normally don't want (plus, there is actual dirt there that you'll have to clean much more thoroughly). The leeks in this burger will add flavor, juiciness and nutrition, so get ready for some serious B-vitamin intake (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9), and manganese (among many others). They will also add yet another layer of flavor that won't be dominant, but will add more complexity to the taste, making it deeper that what you might expect. I shaped one pound of beef, with all the goodies, into 4 quarter-pounders. I grilled them until medium well and toasted some buns I had (which were not whole wheat, even though that would have been better). I used about an ounce of reduced fat cheddar (a slice) to finish up my burger. 

I still had 2 leeks left so I decided to make a side dish of my almost-staple sautéed leeks. But in the spirit of keeping the stove off, I decided to make them in the grill's side burner. I added about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a heated skillet, and after a minute I added the sliced leeks and a sliced small onion. I cooked them until they were soft, about 10 minutes. During the last minute I crushed a clove of garlic into the pan, and then removed it from the heat. The smells were so good... Burgers and sautéed leeks with garlic... OMG. I was a bit greedy and did not stop there. I also made a very simple salad, using a small head of red lettuce, and 2 big tomatoes. The dressing was made of 1 tablespoon of olive oil and like 4 tablespoons of white balsamic vinegar, with some dried oregano and dried thyme, salt and pepper. 

Once again, O...M...G... The burger was juicy and with a fairly complex flavor. It was like they were having their own little game of hide and seek; they just made you wonder what else was in there, because you just can't easily point to them and single them out. The sautéed leeks were AWESOME. I really don't know what I enjoyed more: their taste or their smell. Man, they were just beautiful. The side salad was a nice touch. It was refreshing, and an easy transition between burgers and leeks (since I just couldn't wait and have my salad first). 

Finally, I decided to have some fun with my drinks as well. I made some grapefruit infused water to have some nice refreshing flavor without taking on calories, or synthetic components (I'm talking to you Cri$€£ Light and diet sodas). I also had some late harvest red wine, which normally taste sweeter than other wines, and gives me the feeling of having a light, drinkable dessert - even though it wasn't a dessert wine per se. I finally felt like it was spring in Cleveland, and not summer in the Caribbean. 

The whole dinner had a tag price of around 650 calories, which was right on my calorie budget. The best part of this kind of meal is that it is easily adjustable to control a calorie budget. 150 calories would have been easily cut by just not having wine and another 60 or so could have been avoided by not using cheese. I just didn't have the heart to do either. It's not that I want to sound cheap, but the whole dinner was easy on the wallet as well since the whole dinner was under just $6.50 per person. Regardless of the calorie count, or the penny count, there was nutrition in abundance. There was plenty of protein, there was fiber, and there were many minerals and vitamins. An easy way to increase the fiber count would have been to exchange the buns from regular to whole wheat buns. Oh, bad. It'll be the next time.

 At the end of the day, I achieved all that I wanted. I had a meal that was delicious, healthy and nutritious. I sneaked in some vino, I got a break from the heat, and I used my beautiful leeks in two different ways. I enjoyed the cooking, the eating, and the long lasting feeling that I was getting healthier with every bite I took, and that is all that matters. ¡Buen provecho!