Monday, April 25, 2005

tres leches cake

I don't know how I have lived for 30 years on this earth without tasting Tres Leches cake. For those who haven't tried it, it is a Cuban specialty that basically involves a white cake soaked in three different types of milk: condensed, cream, and evaporated. This past weekend, on my quest to try locally owned establishments, I headed out to Numero Uno, a Cuban restaurant that has been an Orlando institution since 1974. Amy had eaten there before with her friends Pat, Kathy & Vance and recommended it wholeheartedly. I've been looking forward to trying it, since most of my experiments with Cuban food have involved fast food or food that claims to be (but isn't necessarily) Cuban.

Advertising itself to be the best Cuban food north of Miami,Numero Uno did not disappoint. Amy, Nour and I started with a carafe of fruit-laden sangria and several appetizers-- empanadas, tostones, and papas fritas. The empanadas were stuffed with cheese or beef and were just OK. The tostones, fried green plantains stuffed with saucy chicken and cheese, were out of this world, as were the papas fritas, which were basically mashed potato croquettes, done perfectly. We got three different entrees, the best of which were Amy's braised lamb, covered with spicy tomato sauce, and Nour's ropa vieja, slow-cooked beef practically falling apart into another smoky, spicy tomato-based sauce. All were served with rice and a side of simple yet filling black beans.

But the cake, the cake. What can I say about this cake? I like cake but rarely do I eat a slice that thrills me the way this one did. When Amy said we had to try this, and that it involved condensed milk, I was already sold. I intended to take only a bite (sorry, Amy) but instead found myself fighting for every last morsel. The three sweetened milks of the "tres leches" combine together to add a wonderful complexity that is sweet but not cloying, and the cake surprisingly does not turn to mush or fall apart. I would put it in the same category of food as the Indian gulab jamun, which is basically fried dough in a syrupy sauce, also another favorite of mine, but tres leches is perhaps its superior. It is cake, and definitely not fried dough. Where, when, will I eat it again? This dilemma crowds out other thoughts and has, in the days since we left Numero Uno, taken on increasing urgency.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tamale Corn, Pinto, and Black Bean Casserole

Although I'm slightly prejudiced against the word "casserole," which for me conjures up visions of jello molds, tuna, Stove-top stuffing and cream-of-mushroom soup, I've decided to include the word in the title of this post, because I know of no better way to describe a whole mess of ingredients thrown together and baked in the oven.

Last night I was craving something meatless, involving black beans and Mexican flavors, but I didn't want something typical, like burritos or enchiladas. Searching through a few food websites, this recipe in particular, which I have adapted from Cooking Light, intrigued me. I played with the ingredients a bit and changed its original lackluster title, but I was pleased with how this turned out. Extremely pleased-- I'd give this five stars, and I'll definitely make it again. It has layers of complexity to it-- the salty-sweet-spicy cornmeal topping, baked to a golden-brown hue, and the bubbling, rich tomato-bean chili beneath. I enjoyed it with a Yuengling beer while watching the DVD of Sideways.

We have guests staying with us right now, so I made a lot, but our friends were out at the theme parks until late last night, so I was expecting the 13x9" casserole to remain untouched. I was pleased when I opened the refrigerator this morning to find it almost entirely gone.

Don't be deterred by the ingredient list-- this is not difficult or time-consuming to prepare.

Tamale Corn & Black Bean Casserole
1 cup chopped onion
2 minced garlic cloves
1 cup cream-style corn, divided
1/2 cup canned green chiles, drained & divided
1/2 cup salsa
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (unless you don't like it hot)
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 can black beans, drained
1 can pinto beans, drained
1 can stewed tomatoes, Mexican flavors, undrained
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
2 egg whites, lightly beaten

Heat oven to 375 degrees F and spray a 13x9" pan with cooking spray. Saute onion & garlic for 3 minutes with a dash of cooking oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 cup of the corn, 1/4 cup chiles, salsa, spices, beans, and tomatoes, bring to a boil. Reduce heat, simmer 15 minutes. Pour into 13x9" pan, sprinkle with half the cheddar cheese, set aside.

Mix together cornmeal, flour, sugar, and 1/4 tsp. salt in a medium bowl. In another smal bowl, combine remaining 1/2 cup corn, 1/4 cup chiles, 1/2 cup cheese, buttermilk, 1/4 cup oil, and egg whites, then add to cornmeal mix, stirring just enough to mix together. Spread batter evenly over bean & corn mix. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until corn bread is lightly browned on top.

If you use reduced-fat cheese, this supposedly has 376 calories per serving, with a serving size equal to one cup.

Ole Ole!

Trying out Ole Ole, the new Spanish restaurant in town, allowed me to keep up my resolution of eating only at local establishments that are not a part of the big chain restaurants. Ole Ole is just a few minutes' walk from the campus where Amy and I work, and last Friday afternoon, we decided to try it. We had everything to ourselves-- both the restaurant, which was empty at that time, and the campus, which is deserted on a Friday afternoon. The restaurant is brightly colored, with lots of yellows and reds and splashy Picasso-influenced art. The food was terrific. We started with fat margaritas and a plate of jamon serrano. The jamon serrano, which is basically prosciutto, reminded me of when Nour & I used to live in Morocco and would go to Spain on vacation. Ham became the forbidden fruit, and after parking the car in the line for the ferry, we'd buy a couple San Miguels and I'd get a sandwich from a local cafe with low-grade jamon serrano and queso manchego, the salty, hard Spanish cheese.

Amy and I also tried their patatas bravas, potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce, which didn't taste anything like they do in Spain, but the waiter said it was an Argentinian recipe. The highlight, though, was without doubt the baked chorizo - sausage and potatoes baked in brandy in an earthenware dish that arrived flaming at our table. We waited for the flames to subside and dug in. After our mid-afternoon tapas excursion, I made Amy go back to campus with me and enjoy the view of the lake, sitting underneath the palm trees, live oaks and Spanish moss. Although my first Florida winter was mild by anyone's standards, at this time of year the weather is absolutely perfect-- in the 70s or low 80s every day and not too humid. What more could anyone ask for-- a good friend, a strong drink, some tapas, and some tropical foliage to sit under?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Moroccan meat & prune tagine, Spinach Dip

Moroccan tagine_meat_prunes
Originally uploaded by rachelita2.
Last night we had my colleague and friend Mimi over for dinner with her husband. Mimi is originally from Cuba and an amazing cook, and she wanted a Moroccan cooking lesson. My Moroccan mother-in-law, Jamila, visiting from Morocco, has been treating my friends to some of the most amazing dishes.

Mimi brought a substantial salad while I prepared a spinach dip with hearts of palm from last month's issue of Cooking Light. The dip was extremely good-- lighter than the usual heart attack-inducing artichoke heart dip but no less decadent. I had a great time talking with Mimi and her husband Jose, who is an historian and has an impressive knowledge of Moroccan history. Over talk of failed coup-d'etats against the Moroccan monarchy and the best places to buy Florida honey, we enjoyed Spinach Dip with Hearts of Palm, Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette, and Moroccan Tagine with Meat and Prunes. Dessert was mint tea and some Ghiradelli brownies.

The tagine (Moroccan stew) recipe appeared on my original website a few years ago. It is really a show-stopper. If you want to produce some of the finest Moroccan cuisine, fit for royalty, this recipe would be one to try.

I am resisting the temptation to call the prunes "dried plums," as the California Dried Fruit board has urged us to do.

Tagine with Meat and Prunes

1 lb. lamb or beef, for stewing, preferably with bones to add flavor
2 large onions, finely chopped
20 prunes
1/4 cup canola oil, plus a generous slug of olive oil
1 heaping teaspoon ginger
beef boullion cube
dash turmeric for color
a few strands saffron,(if you have some), dissolved in 1/4 cup boiling water

1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
2 Tblsp. honey, or more to taste
1/8 cup peeled and slivered almonds, lightly toasted

Moroccans would ideally use a pressure cooker for this, but if you don't have one, a stew pot is fine, just allow yourself at least 2 hours to get the meat tender. Put the beef in a stew pot, chop the onions finely and place on top, and add the regular & olive oils. Start the heat on medium-high and get everything bubbling as you work. Add a heaping teaspoon of ground ginger, a beef boullion cube, dash turmeric, the saffron, and a small amount of salt. Once everything has come to a boil, add just enough water to cover. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and turn heat low enough so that everything is still bubbling, but not uncontrollably.

Meanwhile, boil the prunes in water for about five minutes. Drain.

After an hour, check the tenderness of the meat. If you're using a pressure cooker, it might be done after 45 minutes; it might take an hour or two in a regular pot. When meat is tender, uncover, add prunes, a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon, and 2 tablespoons of honey, or to taste.

Cook for another fifteen minutes, uncovered, boiling off the excess. The sauce should cook down considerably until very thick and not at all runny. The meat should be falling-off-the-bones soft. Add more honey or salt to taste, if necessary. Garnish with toasted almonds. Serve in a big plate in the center of the table with bread for dipping.

Spinach Dip with Hearts of Palm (adapted from Cooking Light)

5 ounces shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese, divided
1/2 cup fat-free sour cream
1 Tblsp. minced fresh garlic
1 14-ounce can hearts of palm, drained and chopped
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry
1 8-ounce block fat-free cream cheese, softened
1 6.5 ounce tub light garlic-and-herbs spreadable cheese (like Alouette Light)
Tortilla chips for dipping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine mozzarella, 1/4 cup Asiago, sour cream, and remaining ingredients, blending well. Spray comparably-sized baking dish with cooking spray, transfer dip to baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Asiago. Bake for 40 minutes until golden brown, serve warm. (22 servings, approximately 128 calories per serving, but this is so delicious that eating only 1/22 of this is probably impossible)