Thursday, March 27, 2014

Puerto Rican-fried chicken

I’ve been waiting all week for my Puerto Rican night to happen. The ever-increasing expectations I’ve nourished for days, inspired me to cook the “Puerto Rican-Fried Chicken” I’m posting today. Still, even as my excitement built up, an underlying nervousness started surfacing, mostly because in Puerto Rico, we are almost brainwashed to believe we somehow represent our country in everything we do. As an unofficial ambassador to the Island, I knew I had to watch the Puerto Rican feature “La espera desespera” (Hopeless Hopeful) at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Unfortunately, I’ve come to find out that unofficial diplomacy works in two directions; not only your actions depict the country as a whole, but when someone from the country messes up, it somewhat reflects on you. At that point I felt that if the audience didn’t like the movie, I’d be somewhat responsible for letting them down. It’s pretty messed up.

The film festival often screens a handful of movies outside their main theaters. My movie (note how now I’m claiming ownership) was to be shown in one of those locations, in an area where many Puerto Ricans live. So, as if the stakes were not high already, I asked friends to meet me before the film for dinner at a Puerto Rican restaurant adjacent to the theater. Turned out that dinner was good (thank God). I had a mofongo that was excellent with shrimp in garlic sauce (that was perfect). My friends seemed to enjoy their dinner as well, and in a really nice gesture, took care of my tab. They’re just too sweet. So, no shame so far. But we were still waiting for the movie…

A couple of minutes into the film, we knew how it would be: fun! It was such a good film that I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets an award or two. It was funny and clever, the acting was excellent and the direction was awesome. As a bonus, the movie was shot mostly in the last neighborhood I lived in when I used to live in San Juan, and actually one of my best friends had a cameo appearance. Bam! It was a great night.

As we left the theater, we stopped by a local coffee house (Gypsy Beans) for coffee but had to buy some sweets. I’ve never seen such beautiful pastries; they were absolutely gorgeous so we had to buy something! We went for polvorones (think Spanish shortbread or Mexican wedding cookies) and slices of coconut cake, and chocolate cake to go. The Puerto Rican night was a success.

Now that I’ve enjoyed all this Rican-ess in full glory, I’m ready to share my Puerto Rican Fried Chicken recipe. Back home people eat fried chicken at least once a week. We don’t bread our chicken; but it gets fried with its skin, which brings lots of flavor. At the end, you can reduce the fat calories by not eating the skin. But I’m warning you that it will be hard, because it’s so good! Like many of the foods we eat, this chicken is simple, humble and unpretentious, but it’s absolutely delicious. I’m not that into frying, so I modified the cooking a bit. I start by searing the meat in a little bit of oil, and then continue on to roast it in the oven. At the end, the chicken is absolutely delicious, and the rendered fat can be used as a “sauce”, to dip your chicken, your bread or your side dish, or you can save it and use it as a base to cook something else the next day! 

On the road shortcut

Nutritional information per serving (4 servings):
394 calories, 0 g carbs, 27 g fat, 37 g protein (eating the skin)
295 calories, 0 g carbs, 14 g fat, 32 g protein (if you don’t eat the skin)

4 chicken quarters, bone-in, skin-on
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon spice blend (I used Morton’s Nature Seasons)
1 teaspoon oregano

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Season the chicken with salt, spice mix, and oregano.

Preheat an oven-safe skillet. Add the oil and let it warm up until it gets hot (about a couple of minutes). Sear the meat starting with the skin down, about 3 minutes. Flip the chicken, and sear for 3 more minutes. Transfer to the oven and roast at 450F for 40 minutes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Roasted Brussels sprouts with leeks, peppers and carrots

I missed Saint Patrick’s Day completely. I did not go to the Parade Downtown Cleveland, and I did not go out for a drink (or twenty) either. I don’t want to alarm you but I think I spent Saint Patrick’s SOBER!!! Damn it. What bothers me the most about missing out is that there are only a few times a year when the City comes to life, and public places are, well, public and filled with people. St. Patty’s was one of those, and I blew it. I don’t necessarily have a “thing” for being crowded either. Still, living in a city where people don’t go places just for the sake of going somewhere has made me develop a genuine need to see and be with other people. I think it’s so fun and so important to get to interact with people beyond those I know and like. Of course, just like with alcohol, I enjoy it with moderation, and only in these public settings. 

I didn’t bother with such things while living in San Juan or Madrid because there is people everywhere, and I’ve got my share of interactions constantly. In other words, there were always people everywhere. Even in my hometown there are always people in the public square; some eat ice cream, some play dominoes, and some just sit to enjoy the breeze. Either way, there was always chatter and laughter. Down there, friends and strangers often chat the night away. It’s not about the search to find a best buddy, or the desperate pursue of a new romance. Back home it’s just natural to be comfortable talking to others whether you know them or not.

Even though I missed Saint Patrick’s, I’ve got another shot at people-watching (and chatting) these days. The Cleveland International Film Festival is in full swing, giving Tower City and the nearby areas some new life. Sure, nobody really enjoys limning in for a movie. But when you do, you can witness the energy of a dormant city, coming back to life with the arrival of spring. In a sense, this festival marks the end of our collective hibernation, and for a few days, strangers talk to each other just for the hell of it, and even if denied, they like it. 

It doesn’t hurt that the scenery in the films is often gorgeous. So far, I’ve seen the beauty of the coastal towns in Mexico (The Empty Hours) and the amazing city views of Copenhagen (in the eponymously film called Copenhagen). Next, I’m about to be transported back home with my next movie, a Puerto Rican movie (Hopeless Hopeful) that will likely be the subject of my next post, accentuating the Puerto Rican-ness of the dish.

In the meantime, all this life in both the movies and in real life reminded me that even though it’s still like 20F outside and the tulips are still nowhere to be found, spring has started. I cooked something to further state that hibernation is over; it’s time to let the sunshine in. I roasted Brussels sprouts with leeks, peppers and cherry tomatoes. I served them with “Puerto Rican-fried chicken” and like I said, I’ll post the chicken recipe on its own later this week. In the meantime, I’ll share the recipe for these sprouts. I really liked their caramelization/blackening of the Brussels sprouts because it intensified their flavor, and gave them notes that reminded us of cauliflower. I am aware that a black sprout looks like a burnt sprout. But do yourself a favor and think of roasted peppers: They are burnt, and they are awesome. Still, I’m sure they may not be for everyone, so if you are interested in making them, feel free to play with the roasting time and temperature. It’s your kitchen, after all. 

On the road shortcut

Nutritional info per serving (4 servings)
131 calories,  23 g carbs, 2 g fat, 6 g protein

2 slices bacon, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 pint cherry tomatoes
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
12 ounces Brussels sprouts
1 teaspoon apple vinegar
1 tablespoon bourbon

Preheat the oven at 450F. 

Meanwhile, use a heavy, oven-safe cast iron pan to cook the bacon for 3 minutes, or until it has released the fat. Sautee leeks, pepper and carrots for about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and make sure they are coated in the juices; cook them for about 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the sprouts and stir to coat with the juices. Add vinegar and bourbon and stir well. Transfer to the oven and roast uncovered at 450F for 40 minutes.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cheddar Monte Cristo Sandwich

Don’t you hate it when you want something and you just don’t get it. Or when what you get is not in tune with what you had envision?  I know I do. But I’m not a spoiled brat, and I know No means No. That is not the problem, or what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the times when you spend time feeding your expectations only to be disappointed by the end result. That hurts, and the pain, even for something unimportant and inconsequential, seems to last forever. 

The aftermath of unmet expectations can be complex. Sometimes is a matter of dealing with your expectations themselves. For example, during the weekend I went to see a Shakespeare play (Titus Andronicus) turned into a musical – a rock musical to be precise. So, for some unknown reason I envisioned a Rent-like musical, with a killer soundtrack I would buy and then sing for months (if not years). Deep down I knew chances were slim. I was going to the “World Premiere”, and we were told in advance that we were sort of the test audience as well. Let’s say it wasn’t like Rent at all, and I was somewhat disappointed. But the play wasn’t the problem, my expectations were. In fact, the musical was fun and entertaining. Since it was at the Cleveland Public Theater and it was Friday, we had FREE BEER at the end. Suddenly the whole thing was getting better. And since it was the premiere of a project years in the making, they brought snacks as well, and the cast mingled with the audience for the rest of the evening. They had me at FREE BEER, so I was screaming BRAVO! And I got over it fast.

Other times, the expectations are fine but the product isn’t. Another last-weekend example. I went to a local dinner chain that shall remain unnamed (mostly because I have always enjoyed eating there in the past). I ordered a Monte Cristo sandwich, and it was, well, a disappointment. I mean, I was starving, but I still was eager to wait for it. NOT WORTH IT; it was OK at best. Luckily, I was in good company so I enjoyed myself, but the sandwich, hmm, not so good.

So I started the week craving my sandwich. A Monte Cristo is basically a ham sandwich made with Gruyere cheese and French toast. They didn’t even give me the traditional preserves that come with it. Nada. Anyway, I ended up making French toast to make me feel better. They were really good, so I thought I killed the craving there, until I realized I didn’t. So I decided to just make the sandwich myself. I’ve never made it before, but I’ve made plenty of Puerto Rican grilled-sandwiches, cheese melts and Croque-Monsieurs (and Madames), so how hard could it be?

I’m glad I did, because I finally feel I satisfied my craving without indulging in too many calories. I did take some liberties and deviated from the standards. First, I wasn’t feeling like having Swiss cheese, so I went for (reduced fat) sharp cheddar, and I’m not apologizing for it. I really enjoyed its sharpness. I didn’t use butter to toast this sandwich mostly because I felt I had enough calories already, and I went easy on the vanilla mostly because I’m trying a new brand and I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t overpower my sandwich. Often the Monte Cristo is topped with powder sugar and served with preserves, but just like with the butter, I dropped them to stay within my calorie/sugar budget. It still turned out very good, hence, I’ll share it with you.

On the road shortcut
Nutritional info per serving (one serving):
506 calories, 40 g carbs, 19 g fat, 36 g protein.

2 large eggs
¼ cup 2% Milk
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 ounces of French bread, sliced into 2 slices
Cooking spray
2 ounces ham
1 ounce cheddar cheese

Mix eggs, milk, vanilla extract and maple syrup in a dish that can fit the bread. Add the bread slices and soak them until they have completely absorbed the mixture. I do 7 minutes per side, starting with the non-crust side down. I flip them and let them soak for 7 more minutes, and then maybe 5 more minutes on the first side.

Spray the slices with cooking spray. Place them on a hot griddle pan with the non-crust side down under medium high fire, and gently press. Cook for 3 minutes, and flip them. Cook for 2 minutes, gently pressing the bread slices. Add half the cheese on one slice, and the other half on the second slice. Split the ham between the two slices. Assemble as a sandwich and cook for one more minute per side.