Monday, December 30, 2013

Plantain Soup

I can’t believe that Christmas-time is over. I feel like we had so much fun on Christmas and we built so much momentum as we approached it, that it’s kind of a bummer that it’s over. The house still looks Christmassy with all the decorations and the Christmas tree still looking beautiful. I can almost taste all the great food we had and the fun times we shared that day. But it’s over now. Well, is not really over just yet, since we still have New Years Eve and New Years Day to look forward to. And a New Year means we get new resolutions to work on for the next 365 days ahead of us. 

I’ve become pretty good at keeping my resolutions in the last few years. For 2012 I decided that I’ve had enough of my own whining, so my New Year’s resolution was to stop whining. Man that was hard. If you ever get to see me sick, or sleepy, you’d know what I mean. Still, the day-to-day whining was too much, and it had to go. I’d like to think that part of my weight loss success had to do with me not complaining about things as much, and working hard on them instead. For 2013, I had a different kind of resolution. I decided not to use elevators unless I absolutely had to. I’ve been good so far so I’ll count it as a success! I haven’t decided what my 2014 resolution will be just yet, but I’m sure I’ll find something. Self improvement never ends.

Of course, the holiday season was not just fun. It brought some stress, and it also brought some worries. As an example, my mother had surgery a few days before Christmas. I hear (since we don’t live in the same country) that she seems to be OK, and she’s constantly improving. The worst part of her recovery though, is dealing with the dietary restrictions imposed by her doctor. According to her, the instructions were that she can’t eat solid foods for a while. That means she struggles trying to keep her diabetes under control while following the unclear and somewhat generic advice her doctor gave her. 

Even though her mother (my grandmother) could’ve easily (and happily) survived on soup alone, it’s not really my mom’s cup of tea (which she doesn’t like either). So I thought I could come up with a soup she would actually like, using only ingredients found in the Island*. OK, I did use some sour cream to garnish the soup (which makes it optional) even though it doesn’t really exist there (unless it was recently introduced and I’m just not aware of it). Plantains on the other hand are a ubiquitous in the Puerto Rican markets and supermarkets and are the core of my soup. They’ve been a staple ingredient of our cuisine since brought to the Island by the African slaves centuries ago.

Although plantain soups are not really that common, there are a few recipes around, using mostly green plantains. Ripe plantains though, seemed more appealing to me. I guess it’s only natural since I’m obsessed with both sweet potato and butternut squash soups, and the ripe plantains bring those sweet notes I seem to be always longing for. The sweetness was balanced by hints of spiciness, and although a garnish, by the sour cream. Luscious and rich, but light on the calories; this soup has it all. 

One last thing, before I forget: Happy New Year! Make it count!

On the road shortcut
Nutritional info per serving (Serving size 2 cups, serves 4)
337 calories, 55 g carbs, 13 g fat, 5 g protein

1 large onion
1 green pepper
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons of olive oil (1 for making the sofrito, 2 for cooking the sofrito)
½ teaspoon tomato paste
8 cups hot chicken broth
3 ripe plantains
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 teaspoons reduced fat sour cream (optional garnish)
8 small sweet peppers (optional garnish)

1.       Make the sofrito. Using a food processor or a blender, purée the onion, the pepper, and the garlic clove with 1 of the tablespoons of olive oil.
2.       Preheat a stockpot over medium heat and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sofrito and cook for 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for an additional minute.
3.       Add the previously-warmed chicken broth, the salt, paprika, cumin and cayenne pepper. Stir. Add the plantains and bring the soup to a boil.
4.       Once it starts boiling, cover the stockpot and lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
5.       Using an immersion blender or transferring in 2 batches to a regular blender, purée the soup.
6.       Serve hot and garnish with a teaspoon of sour cream, and a small sweet pepper if desired. (Sour cream can be substituted with Greek yogurt).

  *Note: I'm not a physician. This soup was designed based on my interpretation of what my mother may like. It is not intended to control her diabetes.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Santa and I

“Have I been a bad boy, Mami? Is that why Santa didn't bring me any gifts?”

That's the beginning of my relationship with Santa Claus, a relationship that using Facebook terms I'd describe as “It's complicated”. As much as I would love to consider myself the troublemaker, I did not start the beef with the old man. No, the roots are much deeper and go well before my time, about a century ago or so. My family, both on the paternal and maternal sides, have lived in Puerto Rico for as far back as I could trace their histories. They were there before the Spanish-American war resulted in Puerto Rico's current political status, and they've been quite proud of their resistance to some of the American traditions, mostly the ones regarding Christmas. To them, Santa Claus is not just against their Roman Catholic view of Christmas (exclusively Jesus-centered), but he's a direct reminder of the conflicts brought by the assimilation to American Culture, and a threat to their deep-routed cultural heritage.

As a result, during my first few Christmases I did not receive Christmas gifts. Those were reserved for what it's arguably our biggest Holiday: Three Kings Days, on Epiphany day (January 6th). Not only they bring you gifts to your house while you sleep, but they also drop off gifts for you in your neighbors', and your relatives' houses. All you have to do is to be good kid, and bring grass (the lawn-kind) in a shoe box as food for the Camels the Kings ride.

However, it didn't matter how much my parents hated and resisted Mr. Claus; there was no stopping him. Many, if not most parents reasoned that their children would have more time to play with their toys before school started in early January if they received their gifts in December. As a result the people around us started teaching their kids about Santa, and they received presents from him. My parents tell me that I started wondering why I didn't receive any gifts for Christmas, and the other kids pointed out that Santa did not bring gifts to naughty kids. Ashamed and full of sorrow, I cried and went to my parents, telling them I knew I was a naughty kid, undeserving and unworthy of gifts. Heartbroken, my parents felt they had no choice but to allow Santa access to our living room and our lives from there on.

Don't get me wrong. We never got much for Christmas anyway. Most of the toys, the good ones I would say, were reserved for Three Kings day. Still, my parents' doing was a gift in itself. They taught us that in a world that can often be harsh, a little bit of magic and wonder is always welcomed. Hopefully we all have a chance to make someone happy this Christmas Day. No gifts are needed, just your own way of bringing some of the Season's magic to someone's life.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 13, 2013


I met with my thesis committee this week to get my project – and me- evaluated (and judged). To me, the whole process feels like being on a reality TV competition. You do your thing, then you leave the room so the committee members can deliberate, and then you come back to get your critique. It has all the elements needed for a good TV show, including the suspense, the crying and all the drama behind the scenes. So if you are a TV executive looking for your next hit TV show – Grad School Shark Tank - give me a call and I’ll give you some ideas.

Some fellow students claim that meeting with their thesis committee is not a big deal. Not to be disrespectful, but that’s a lot of bull… It is very, very stressful, and you need to prepare quite a lot to be ready. You have to prepare a power point presentation, write a progress report and be ready to answer all sorts of questions.  It can go well, but it can also go south pretty quickly. I’ve had some meetings that have gone so bad that I’ve thought of storming out in a song- Broadway style- to protest, but I’m not a good singer and I certainly don’t want to go viral on YouTube “singing” my heart out. I’ll leave that to the cast of Glee. So instead I’ve taken notes and I've worked harder and harder. This time the hard work finally paid off. Now I’m a step closer to that Ph.D. and more motivated to finish than ever.

The last part of getting ready for my meeting was to actually chill a bit during the last few days before my meeting.  We went to see (or to listen to) the Cleveland Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 2 and 3, and we went to Playhouse Square to see Wicked. I’ve been listening to the original cast recording for years, but I’ve never seen the actual musical. I was so excited! Going to the show was meant to be the highlight of the weekend, but I’ve got to say it was harsh, man. The bad acoustics of the theater were nothing compared to the problems created by the people attending the show. The worst of it was this woman saying hi (yelling, actually) from the second floor of the theater to someone in the first floor DURING the second act. She is so lucky that I’m not a witch, because I would so be a wicked one. She would’ve been turned into a flying monkey in no time. Still, I did my best to enjoy, and I did. It was a good performance, but it wasn’t the stress-free evening I was going for.

I still needed another way to relax and to enjoy myself. Frankly, I don’t know a better way than to have a nice homemade meal to feel relaxed and happy. Cooking makes everything better. I wanted to cook, but I couldn’t make anything complicated (or that involved getting many dishes dirty) because of time constrains. Meatballs were the solution to all of my needs. They’re easy to make, they’re done quickly, and they can be low in calories. The ones I made were just 239 calories per serving. They were so good! They were also an inexpensive dish! In my last blog post I said I could cook nice meals regardless of the budget. Well, these meatballs are the perfect example; they were made with just about $5.00 for the whole dish, or just $1.00 per serving! These meatballs really gave me that “everything will be alright” feeling I was longing for!

On the road shortcut
Nutritional info per serving (serving size 2 meatballs):
239 calories, 4 g carbs, 14 g fat, 23 g protein

1lb 93% lean ground beef (calories calculated using 1.13lb)
1 teaspoon salt
½ ground pepper
½ dried oregano
½ dried thyme
1/3 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs
1 jumbo egg (beaten)
2 tablespoon olive oil

cooking spray

optional: fresh parsley (to garnish)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

In a mixing bowl, season the beef with salt, pepper, oregano and thyme, and add breadcrumbs. Add the egg and oil, and mix with your hands.

Using an ice cream scooper, scoop the meatballs (about 10) into a baking dish lightly sprayed with cooking spray.

(Optional: lightly spray the meatballs with cooking spray.)
Bake at 350F for 15 minutes. Turn the meatballs, and bake for 5 more minutes.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Orange Ice Cream

Summer is almost (and practically) over. For the most part, it was a short, hot, rainy summer, and just when it finally started behaving like a good summer should, it was over. But there's no point in dwelling on it anymore. After all, life is all about endings and new beginnings. Gone with the summer are friends who officially said farewell to the city and moved on to new lives and new adventures. In fact, for the second time this summer, I had to say goodbye to a cherished friend. I had planned to stop by the airport last Sunday afternoon to say farewell to our friend. But before that I had to buy groceries for the week. As if it wasn't an emotionally charged day, I came to the sad realization that gone were the days when cherries and berries popped at every corner of the market, and that soon many more would follow. There you go Ángel; you've got your memo: "summer was over". 

I managed to finish my groceries without falling victim of depression, but I was hungry. Sweetie, hungry is an understatement. I was starving. The only logical thing for me to do was to stop at the ice cream parlor next door, and get me some ice cream. (Just for the record I was hungry, not stress eating...) Oh, was I disappointed with my ice cream? I won't go into details of why, but I wasn't too happy. So now summer was over, ice cream was bad, and my friend was leaving. I've just had it. It was about time for me to take matters in my own (brown) hands. Of course, I could do nothing to extend the summer (since I'm not that good at the whole messing with the weather with magic - a la "The craft") and I wasn't about to tie our friend to the city so she wouldn't fly away. But I could do something about the ice cream situation, and as God is my witness, I did. 
 I decided to make an orange ice cream, which is the simplest thing in the world, but the reward is completely out of this world. Sometimes I make low fat ice cream and frozen yogurt, but there is nothing like the real thing. I decided to just go all Paula Deen (minus the butter, y'all) and get a great ice cream that will 1, make me forget about that other ice cream, 2, make me feel better after the farewell and 3, help me extend that summery feeling for just a bit longer. 

Normally I would squeeze oranges for their juice, but I still had store-bought 100% orange juice from the farewell party we had a weekend ago, so I used that instead. To add some complexity, and more of a natural taste, I decided to  incorporate the zest of an orange. I started by adding the zest to the sugar. Then, I added orange juice, heavy cream, and half and half. That's all it takes.
I mixed everything and transferred the mix to the ice cream maker, and after 25 minutes, it was ready. I transferred the content to an air-tight container, and froze it. (Don't have an ice cream machine? Check these machine-free ice cream making techniques:  5 ways of making ice cream-no machine requiredCustard-style ice cream making-machine free.) I transferred the content to an air-tight container, and froze it. A few hours of freezing (3-4) gave good results in terms of consistency, but it was PERFECT after freezing overnight.

Oh, I have to say this is one of my favorite ice creams. I love the flavor, because the OJ and the orange zest give it great aroma and a somewhat sweet, yet delicate flavor. All that heavy cream made the ice cream, well, creamy. It had a perfect consistency so it scooped beautifully.

I usually don't care too much about calories in ice cream (as long as it's simple and not filled with brownies, moose tracks, and such) because the serving sizes are not that big. They are usually less than 400 calories (this one has 389 calories for a generous 1/2 cup). It's not bad for such an indulgence! Just like with booze consume responsably. 

On the road shortcut
2 cups sugar
Zest of an orange
1 cup orange juice
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half and half

Combine all the ingredients, and mix well. Transfer to an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Nutritional info:
Serving size: 1/2 cup (10 servings): 389 calories, 45g carbs, 22g fat, 2g protein.