Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bacon Blue Burger and Grilled Sweet Potato Wedges

I am a scientist. At least that what I tell myself. As any other grad student, I am stubborn. Anyone who has at least tried to get a Ph.D. in sciences knows that grad school isn't about revolutionary findings that will shape the world for years to come. No, no, my friends. Grad school is about failing... a lot. It's about learning how to avoid self loathing when an experiment fails. It's about doing everything in your power to save that failing plan of yours, even though your inner self's only contribution is a constant "you should have gone to business school". At the end, a Ph.D. is about not giving up in the face of adversity.

The great thing about this Ph.D. resilience is that once you've built it, you can use it to deal with anything life throws at you, for instance, cooking. Earlier this week, I had leftover bananas from last week. Against my better judgement, I decided to make a pie out of them. I told myself, "self, why don't we make a blueberry-banana pie? They work well together in smoothies, so why not a pie? " Oh my, lets just say the pie was a bit of a disaster... There's not even a point in discussing the flavor (which was ok if you were wondering, but certainly nothing to blog home about). I made quite a few mistakes. The worst one was that I didn't use any corn starch, so everything was liquidy at the end. I started with frozen blueberries and they never really cooked, so it was like eating "fresh" blueberries, and to top it all, they released so much water... My combined stupidy resulted in a perfectly baked crust, and a great crumble top getting totally soggy.

Oh, I was so annoyed, but it was time to move on. The birthday of a good friend of mine was approaching and she refused to celebrate it. I mean, come on! You have to do something... So I decided to solve the problem with a "clever" idea. I was to make a birthday cake, a rum cake to be precise. That way we could have the birthday cake, and we could feel like we were at happy hour at the same time. I found a recipe from a Puerto Rican cookbook written in the 50s, that had less details than an Amish dress. I followed the strange and overly simplistic directions and baked the cake. It was a beautiful cake, so I was happy. I left it cooling to decide later whether I wanted a frosting or not, but when I came back the cake had collapsed in the center because, you guessed it, it wasn't fully baked. It was such a tall cake that the toothpick test said it was done, but it wasn't. I wasn't about to give up. No sir. I'm stubborn. I rebaked the damned cake, frosted it with a simple vanilla frosting to retain the moisture, and topped it with sweetened coconut flakes to round the rum and vanilla frosting flavors. At the end it was edible, and according to the ones who ate it, the cake was good. I liked the flavor, but it wasn't as good as it could have been (plus I could taste all that drama...). Maybe next time. 

With a bruised ego, I decided that my last two failed attempts at baking had left me with way too much sugar in my system. It was time to go for a wholesome, summery, and low calorie dinner that will bring my spirits back up. Logically, I decided to make a burger. You know what they say... "burgers make everything better". Oh, wait; maybe I'm the only one who says that... Blue cheese and bacon are probably my favorite toppings for burgers. Even though both of them are good sources of protein, they are high in calories and high in fat. Thankfully, both of them have powerful flavors, so I don't really need to use (or eat) that much of either, so I can get away with using them without adding too many calories to my burgers. Instead of having fries as a side, I decided to make grilled sweet potato wedges to pair with my burgers. I was so excited I told myself "I'm loving it".

I started with the sweet potatoes, since they take the longest time to cook. I salted cold water and added two medium sized sweet potatoes, and brought them to a boil. I boiled them until they were almost cooked. I left them cool a bit just so I could touch them, and I sliced them as wedges (first in half and then as wedges). I brushed them with olive oil, and seasoned them with salt, pepper, cumin, oregano and brown sugar. I left them sitting on the side until it was time to grill them.

For the  burgers I used a mixing bowl and added the meat, the blue cheese, and the bacon. I seasoned with the mix of my spices (salt, pepper, cumin and oregano) and mixed everything. I split the meat mixture into four and shapped them as balls. I pressed them with my hand making a little bit of a dip in the center, because when the burgers grill they tend to rise at the center, so when they do, they will just even out and they won't have a hump. I fixed the patty shape and went to the grill. I grilled them over high heat for about 5 minutes. I flipped and transferred to another side of the grill over a medium flame, and cooked for 4 more minutes for well done. Please, never-ever press your burgers while grilling. You will loose all the juicyness of the meat. Leave them alone, flip them once and gently check their doneness. 

I grilled the sweet potatoes on the side of the grill that was still hot, for 5 minutes, turning them twice. I used the upper part of the grill to toast the whole wheat kaiser rolls I was using as buns. Please, don't ruin your burger using cold bread. Just don't. When everything was ready, I used olive oil mayonaise on my rolls, assembled my burgers, and served them with my sweet potatoes.

The burgers were very, very good. I loved their blue cheese and bacon flavor. Since I was using sirloin, which is the leanest cut of beef, the bacon and blue cheese really helped keep my burgers tender and juicy even at well done (I prefer medium, but since I was doing two well done, I made them all well done). The best part is that because bacon and blue cheese are powerful flavors, I didn't have to use much to get all the flavor, but only a few of the calories. It was like having my favorite burger at Red Robin without the calories. My burgers were 317 calories per serving and the grilled sweet potatoes were only 122 calories. It was definetely more than just a "happy meal"; it was a great one. I usually don't buy burgers from fast food places, and only seldomly from restaurant chains. When I do, it's from Red Robin because, lets face it: It is a happy, happy place, and their burgers are yu-mmy! However my favorite burger, the "bleu ribbon", has a hefty 1052 calories, and that's without the bottomless fries!!! My burger had all the flavors I love, for a third of the calories (on a cheat day, go to Red Robin just for fun and have any of their great burgers - non payed advertisement, lol).

Finally, a good result! That's all a scientist can ask for. 

Got a healthy recipe for burgers you love? Share it on the comment section!

On the road shortcut

lb ground sirloin 
1 oz blue cheese, sliced or crumbled
2 slices uncooked bacon (18g)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon cumin

In a medium mixing bowl add the meat, the blue cheese, and the bacon. Add the spices (salt, pepper, cumin and oregano) and mix. Split the meat mix into 4 and shape them as balls. Press them with the hand and make a little bit of a dip in the center, so when the burgers are grilled and rise at the center, they won't have a hump. Fix the patty shape. Grill them over high heat for about 5 minutes. Flip and continue grilling on a side of the grill that's over a lower flame, and cook for 4 more minutes for well done.

317 calories, 30g carbs, 11g fat, 18g protein per serving.

Grilled sweet potato wedges 
2 medium sweet potatoes 
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper 
1 teaspoon oregano

Use a medium saucepan; add some salt to cold water and use to boil 2 medium sized sweet potatoes until they are almost cooked (20-30 minutes). Let them cool a couple of minutes or so, until cool to the touch and slice them into wedges (first in half and then into wedges). Brush them with olive oil, and season them with salt, pepper, cumin, oregano and brown sugar. Grill over high heat for abour 5 minutes, turning them twice.

122 calories, 24g carbs, 3g fat, 2g protein per serving.

Calories from Red Robin's Bleu Ribbon Burger were taken from
Calories from my recipe were calculated through

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The hot chick with the blue ribbons

One of the best qualities of summertime, the longer days, brings great opportunities to finally finish all the home projects that have been waiting all year round. Indeed, we have dedicated the last couple of summers almost exclusively to home projects, but this year we've had the chance to cash in the summer fun (you know, when is not raining, what the hell?) and we've been able to enjoy ourselves. We've spent time with our friends, we've done our share of grilling, and we've done some partying here and there. But of course, one still has to keep up with home stuff, especially if you are borderline OCD like me (yes, everyone knows about my dirty laundry-folding habits). While giving the house some general TLC I noticed that our book collection has grown like crazy during the last few years (and it's certainly doing better than my flowers and without any watering). All those books contain all these great recipes but they're just being ignored, the way I ignored the treadmill for so many years (and we all know how that one ended). I decided to make an effort to make more and more of those recipes.

I decided to start with one of my favorite dishes, turned healthy. I went ahead and picked up one of my favorite books, "Now eat this!" by Rocco Dispirito and flipped the pages until I finally found his version of chicken cordon bleu. This is a dish of American origin (no, it didn't come from France), created sometime during the 1940s, and it was very popular in the 80s and 90s when I was still a kid (I still get carded when I go to bars, just so you know). Cordon bleu translates to "blue ribbons". Blue ribbons used to be associated with a high order of knights in France (L'Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint-Espirit); very prestigious guys. The association stuck around almost synonymous with prestige, and when referencing the dish, it probably just references that it's a "prestigious" or "fancy" dish, just like with the famous food academy. One of the close relatives of the chicken cordon bleu is the traditional Swiss dish made from a veal fillet used to wrap ham and Gruyere cheese, battered and fried. In that part of the world the breaded veal, pork and chicken fillets are very popular (schnitzels), so all they had to do was to add the ham and cheese, and wrap it (now suddenly KFC's chicken - ham and cheese- chicken sandwich with no bread doesn't seem that crazy any more, just nasty). There's also an Ukrainian dish, "Chicken Kiev", which is made from a thin chicken fillet, it gets stuffed with butter, rolled, breaded and fried, is also a likely influence in the development of the chicken cordon bleu.

I love chicken cordon bleu. My mom went through a short phase of making those often when we were kids (although I have reasons to suspect she bought them frozen, they were very good). Suddenly she stopped making them, and never made them since. I have to say that as a cordon blue expert (do not mess with me, sista), this recipe is amazing. All the flavor is there; I knew that from the get go since I had it before, but I've never made it myself. I feel like everyone should now this recipe, and since I found out Mr. Dispirito has published online as well, I figured I wouldn't be sued for sharing it with you.

Rocco's recipe is beyond amazing. It has 4 times less calories (4-fold less, for my scientist friends), and 12 times less fat than the regular cordon bleu. That means that a serving (4 ounce boneless chicken breast) is only 333 calories (it's kinda scary how precise he gets), 6.6 g of fat, 43 g of protein (my guns are already thanking me for it) and 24 grams of carbs, 3 of them of fiber. The only catch is that you need to start 2 hours ahead you want to cook, because the cheese sauce takes about 2 hours to freeze, but if you do it the day before, you're all set!

You'll need:
1/2 cup evaporated skim milk
2 teaspoons cornstarch 
1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese (I used Gruyere, because that's what I had)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Nonstick cooking spray

4 chicken cutlets, (4 ounces each) pounded very thin (I scissor-cut a giant-1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast because that was on sale!)
3 ounces thinly sliced lean ham (from the deli counter)
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs, such as Ian's all natural
4 large egg whites (whisked until extremely foamy, but before peaks hold)

Act I - Prepping the cheese sauce
1. In a small sauce pan, whisk the evaporated milk (constantly) into the cornstarch until it boils. Reduce the heat to low and cook for a minute to thicken it.
2. Whisk the cheese into the sauce, until is melted and smooth.
3. Whisk in the chives and season with salt and pepper to taste (about 3/4 teaspoons each to me).
4. Spray an ice cube tray with cooking spray (you'll need 8 of the spaces)
5. Split the sauce into 8 of the cube holes.
6. Freeze until the sauce is hard (2 hrs). (I did it overnight, so I covered the ice tray with Saran Wrap to prevent "freezer smell").

Act II - Making the chicken
1. Preheat the oven at 450F. The chicken will be cooked on a roasting wire rack, so to minimize the mess, place it under a foil-lined baking sheet, or roasting tray.
2. Prepare the breading station. You'll need the breadcrumbs and the flour each on a shallow dish, and you'll need the egg whites in a medium bowl.
3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 of pepper across divided among all the cutlets). 
4. Line the chicken with the ham.
5. Place 2 sauce cubes per chicken cutlet.
6. Roll up the chicken to encase the filling. Secure with toothpicks.
At this point some of my rolled chicken cutlets were not looking pretty, and God knows I was annoyed and angry Spanish was used. However, they were gorgeous at the end, so have patience. (Note that that's a note for myself in the future.)
7. Dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking the excess. Then dip them in the eggs to coat them completely. Dredge now on the breadcrumbs to coat completely. Do this for every cutlet.
8. Place the chicken on the wire rack.
9. Spray the chicken with cooking oil (lightly).
10. Season with salt and pepper to taste (I didn't).
11. Bake until breading is golden brown and cheese is fully melted (25-30 minutes).

I don't know if it's because I'm a protein junkie, but this dish was so satisfying! I was a bit skeptical on the serving size since the rolls seemed a bit small, but I was done after one serving (although based on the flavor I was tempted to go on). The chicken cordon bleu looked so beautiful, and like I said the flavor was amazing. You don't really miss all the butter missing from the original recipe. I think the Gruyere cheese worked so well in this recipe that I might always do it that way.

As a quick, yet delicious side, I boiled pasta in salty water until it was al dente, drained it, and dressed it with butter, garlic and chives. This came mostly as a realization that I hadn't even thought of a side when I only had 10 minutes till the cordon bleu would be ready. Still, it worked really well. It was a simple, yet good pairing to this dish. A side of quinoa, rice, sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes would go well with the chicken too. A glass of Bordeaux or tempranillo couldn't hurt either... Still, if you want to keep the calories low, skip the wine and go for a side of steam veggies instead. They will be delicious and will go well as well!

Note: The history of cordon bleu was based on a quick review from a fellow internet user ( who actually used books for references!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stuffed sweet potatoes, boricua style

After making those delicious Romanian sausages last week, mititei (Be not afraid, little ones), I was on a roll, and I was left wanting some serious street fare, Puerto Rican street fare this time. One has to represent, you know? The most popular street food back home are the "frituras" (fried ones), which are actually different dishes, that just happened to have the deep fryer in common. To an international audience the "pastelillos" or "empanadillas" (small empanadas or turnovers) might seem familiar. Those can be made from a wide variety of fillings, but the most common ones are ground pork, ground beef, and "pizza" (tomato sauce and mozarella cheese). But of the frituras, my favorite ones have always been the "rellenos". Rellenos (stuffed ones) are made of a starch stuffed with ground beef or pork. The most common rellenos are the "rellenos de papa" (potatoes), and in a distant second place the "rellenos de pana" (breadfruit - if you don't know what this is, you have really been missing out on life, my friend). For both of them a purée is made, then they're shaped into a ball the size of a tennis ball, they get stuffed with meat, and finally they get deep fried. They are beautiful. They have a nice golden color, a somewhat crisp exterior, a soft consistency (even though they hold their shape), an amazing texture and a flavor to kill for. This week I wanted to eat a relleno, but I didn't want to drive all the way to the Puerto Rican neiborhoods to buy them, and I could certintly do withouth the calories that come from them. It was time for a plan B (which since I'm a little selfcentered I call plan A - plan Angel).

Like most Puerto Ricans, I'm not a big potato eater. Not to throw shade on all the potato lovers out there, but if you close your eyes and pick at random any of the other roots we eat in the Caribbean, chances are that the one you select will taste better than a potato. Please, don't blame me; I don't make the rules, that's just the way it is. So back home, potatoes are mostly used as ingredients for soups and stews, mostly to thicken them with their released starch. The relleno de papa is one of the few dishes that actually highlights potatoes in our cusine. But when it was time for me to make the rellenos, I realized that the potatoes we had were already called for by another dish we were planning on making. I decided to switch and use sweet potatoes instead, and stuff those. It would just take a few adjustement to really seize the flavors of the sweet potatoes, but nothing complicated.

 I started the process by cutting the sweet potatoes into 2 inch long cubes. I boiled them in slightly salty water (with the skin on) for half an hour. I quickly rinsed them with cold water, just so I could handle them for peeling, but making sure they were still hot. I added butter, salt, pepper, cinammon, orange peel and cardamon, and proceeded to mash them. I added 1 tablespoon of flour to the mash, and after flouring my hands, I mixed it in. I left my sweeties sit while I worked on the filling.

To stuff my sweet potatoes I had to make the "picadillo". Picadillo, means the "thinly cut one" (or ground meat) and it's the traditional stuffing for the rellenos. To make it, I heated a heavy skillet and added a few slices of bacon, and then ground pork. I seasoned the meat using salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, cilanto, achiote. As the meat browned I chopped manzanilla olives (olives stuffed with red peppers) and added them to the meat as well. Normally you would use an "alcaparrado" (which are olives and capers in a brine) to make the picadillo, but I have to admit that I just couldn't find it in the fridge fast enough so I gave up and went for the manzanilla olives. Regardless, about 10 minutes into it, the picadillo was ready. 

Time to stuff stuff. Once again I floured my hands and took my mashed sweet potatoes and split them into three. Why three? Well, I tried making them a bit smaller to make more of them but they were not looking "glorious" enough, so I went for a bigger size. Sometimes size does matter. I shaped them into balls (about the size of a softball) and then I pressed them in the center to make a dip. I added 2 tablespoons of the picadillo to each, and kept the leftovers for another day. Then I closed the dips by gently reshaping the sweet potatoes as a balls again, going from the bottom up, from all sides. I coated the sweet potato balls with some additional flour and baked them at 350 F for 40 minutes. 

Oh, Lord have mercy!  I knew that they would be softer than the original version because they were one, bigger; and two, baked instead of deep fried. But it wasn't bad at all; they held their shape very well. Once I tried them they were so good that all I could think was "why the hell don't they sell these on the streets?". The spices really brought out the rich, sweet taste of the sweet potatoes, and the juices from the meat infused the with additional layers of flavor. They were really, really good.  I estimated these rellenos to be around 450 calories, so it was perfect for a light dinner, plus it leaves you room for a salad (and a possibly a cerveza). 

The main problem I had with the rellenos is that now I want more of them, so I will have to make them again, and again. Oh, well, if I'm forced to I guess I'll have to make them... I'll make sure to keep you updated if I tweak it up and end up making the rellenos even better! ¡Buen Provecho!

On the road shortcut
Sweet potatoes
1.5 lb sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons of butter
3 teaspoons of flour
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon orange peel
1/2 teaspon cardamon

1lb of ground pork
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3 slices of bacon
2 tablespoons of chopped manzanilla olives
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cilantro
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon achiote

Monday, August 5, 2013

Be not afraid, little ones

I’m almost certain that everyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE going grocery shopping. I love farmers markets, supermarkets, supercenters, you name it. If they sell food, chances are that I'm interested in at least seeing what they have and spend a few hours browsing. When I was unemployed and lived with my parents, I used to go to the small market a block from our house, or to the multiple vegetable stands around town, every single day to buy ingredients to make lunch for them. The source of my entertainment during those days of personal financial crisis was to go out and buy food. Unfortunately my parents were more interested in picking up fried chicken with fries somewhere or in having leftovers... At least I would entertain my aunt and grandma with whatever “crazy thing” I ended up making.

When I moved to Cleveland, OH, I moved to the Little Italy neighborhood, right next to my University. Little Italy has a very busy restaurant scene, my best friend lived there, but sadly, there were no supermarkets close by back then. I had to resort to mass buying and freezing stuff when I had the chance to make it to the grocery store (which was hard since I was car-less, too). I eventually moved to an apartment where the neighborhood’s supermarket was within a 5 minute walk, so my “bad” habits kicked in again. I would go grocery shopping almost every other day, partly because I liked doing it, and partly because my apartment had the smallest fridge I’ve seen in my life. It wasn’t a compact fridge per sé; it was a retro fridge close to 5 feet tall, 2 feet wide at the most and barely 2 feet deep. It was bizarre. So I really didn’t have much of a choice. I had to shop almost daily. 

As fun as grocery shopping can be, one has to be aware that the more often you go to the supermarket the more potential there is to overspend. Last week we went to our go-to market and got so much fresh, and tasty produce, that we had plenty to last us through this week. So as "treat" this week we went to Aldi instead of going to the farmer’s market to pick up some pantry items and to see what the special sale items were for the week. I really like Aldi’s products, but I hesitate on buying their fresh produce and meats. But if you know your veggies and your meats well enough, you can always find hidden gems almost anywhere, so I rolled up my virtual sleeves, and got the shopping started. We must be totally insane, and we must lack any kind of self-restrain, because that shopping experience was totally out of control. We bought a cart-full (and I really mean it) of food and items, after we got carried away by their “low prices” and “double guarantees”! I knew I better start cooking everything we bought, or else the supermarket gods were going to force me to shop in hell next time.

As I was wondering what our menu of the day would be, I realized that even though I have eaten Romanian food fairly often, I have never actually attempted preparing a single dish. What the hell? I’ve had it with my own tyranny of Puerto Rican, French, Spanish and American dishes. It was time for me to take a leap, and give it a try. I decided to dip my toes in the waters (the Black Sea, I’m thinking) and start by making uncased sausages. These sausages are very popular in Romania where they were invented after a famous chef ran out of sausage casings in his Bucharest restaurant (says wiki, so it must be true). They are grilled and served with mustard. Their names, "mici" or "mititei", both literally mean "little ones", but don't be fooled; they might be small, but they're packing some serious flavor. The only problem with these sausages is that they are so damned good, that I always end up eating one too many (Who am I kidding? I have at least 4 too many). I decided to man-up, and give them a try. Of course, this is some ballsy chef-ing around since there is a Romanian in da house, and he won't be shy in telling me if the little ones turn out to be big failures. So Ángel, chop, chop; get to work, and for the love of God, don't mess it up.

I was a bit hindered when I started.  Since I was working with what I already had, I was not going to be using any lamb or pork as I should for these kids. I used only sirloin and made up the rest by seasoning like there was no tomorrow based on the flavors I thought were supposed to be there (“Fereascā Dumnezeu” -God forbid- I would just go and follow a recipe). I added cumin, thyme, coriander, Hungarian paprika and black pepper. I also used salt, baking soda (rise baby, rise) and beef broth. Then I mixed everything, and shaped them as 3 inch long sausages of about an inch in diameter. I grilled them on the grill (duh... seriously?) for about 10 minutes to well done, and "gata", they were done. All I needed was some mustard and a side dish.

I paired them with corn on the cob. I just boiled the corn for about 5 minutes, and then grilled them for about 5 more minutes. I had some Swiss chard I wanted to eat before it spoiled, so I made that too. I blanched them for 2-3 minutes; drain them, and then sautéed with olive oil and garlic.

It was now time for the judge's critique. "Mmm... Ce buni sunt!"... Ok, I’m making that up; he didn't go into ecstasies and started speaking in Romanian or in tongues. He did like it, though (or so he said...). I liked them a lot. The flavors were well balanced. First I felt the garlic taste, and then it mellowed as I could feel the notes of cumin and the rest of the spices. I loved the fact that there was no garlic aftertaste. I did realize there were some mistakes, though. I should have added some lemon juice to react with the baking soda. I did add some beef stock, which is oniony so it has some acid, but it probably doesn’t work nearly as well. I’ll make sure to add some lemon next time. The baking soda/lemon combo also helps tenderizing the meat when it stays in the fridge overnight, improving the texture of the sausages. Also, although I liked them cooked well done, medium or medium well would have probably been better temperatures, and would've had allowed me to reheat the leftovers more efficiently the next day. My little ones will probably never beat the family recipe, but at least I know I can improvise and make them whenever I feel like having them.

The mici were also very calorie efficient. They were just about 200 calories per serving. They were so packed with protein and flavor that they gave chicken breasts a run for their money. The corn added roughly 100 calories and about 100 more from the Swiss chard (plus 100 of the beer I had...). Not bad at all for a nice summer treat. I’ll keep an eye on the food during the Romanian festival later this month to have an idea of what might be the next Dacian dish I’ll try to make. I’ve been eyeing a beer soup recipe for a while, that's just begging to be made! Why not? It has two things I love, soup and beer!  

Pofta buna!                                                                            

On the road shortcut
1lb ground sirloin
teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoon beef broth

Mix everything, and shape the sausages as 3 inch long sausages of about an inch in diameter. Grill them on the grill for about 10 minutes to well done, less if desired to medium or medium well.