Food finds in San Juan, PR

After three and a half years, I made it out of the continental US!! My last trip was our babymoon to Istanbul when I was six months pregnant with my daughter. After having two kids back to back, managing getting them through infancy, we finally made it! Now, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the US (and the influence is apparent in any supermarket, shopping mall or any commercial area dotted with American chains). There are a lot of shared services (US Customs, highways, currency) so you can definitely take a breather if you’re traveling with small kids.  One less thing to worry about, you know? But the flip side to that is that everything is imported! When we drove through the rainforest and some of the mountainous regions near the center of the island, there is no denying the lush, fertile environment. Banana, papaya and tomato just growing randomly here and there. The land is just wringing with potential for agriculture. But as a sector, it is practically non existent (apart from some coffee and rum). It is probably due to its function as a trading post for hundreds of years. But far from indulging in some gorgeous tropical fruits like I anticipated, I was greeted with bananas from Ecuador! Driscoll berries! Pineapples from who knows where!

The first picture above shows some fruits I got from a fruit stand off Rt. 149 some 20 miles from San Juan. After some crowdsourcing, I figured out that the green fruit is soursop or guanabana. After allowing it to ripen for two days as the seller suggested, I could not manage a knife sharp enough to deal with this thing! It reminded me of this Portlandia bit when they attempt to open a dorian. A lot of people aren’t crazy about it – but they add it to their drinks. Go fig.

The second picture is a traditional Mofongo (mashed plantain base) with shrimp (in a garlic, tomato sauce) atop. You can top it with any meat or fish (or bacalao – dried salted cod, but I wasn’t a fan).

The third is a picture from the local grocery store (Dorothy, you’re kind of still in Kansas).

One thing that was great about Puerto Rico, is that good coffee is universal. Everyone from hole in the wall diners to this fancy scene out of Williamsburg offers a good cup o’ joe. This place is Caficultura and it’s right in the middle of old San Juan (a few blocks down from where we stayed). And it is every American tourist’s dream. The owners of this place have figured out that while some tourists may venture to try some bacalao and plátanos, most of them would LOVE some traditional American foods, dressed up in “tropical flavors”. See exhibit F, if you will. The french toast with pineapple marmalade and coconut. Exhibit C, though, is more along the lines of traditional puerto rican food. The mallorca bread with tangy/sweet guava jam. Definitely worth trying but not nearly as good as a quesito (puff pastry with sweetened cream cheese filling).

Finally, we have Jose Enrique. A bit more upscale, without being stuffy. A little bit further out from the more touristy parts of town like Old San Juan and Condado. Our appetizers of crab ceviche on plantains, cheese fritters and fried fish (I forgot what kind of fish!) were amazing. The fritters came with this sweet and spicy sauce that I will have to try to recreate (definitely had honey, orange juice, hot peppers and cilantro). We ordered Caribbean cherry and the house juice (a blend of pineapple and other juices). For the main course, my husband got the whole fried fish (I believe it was yellowtail) and I got the pan seared sea bass in a romesco ragout with artichokes. The creaminess of the vegetables perfectly complimented the texture of the fish. His yellowtail came with some sweet potatoes and papaya that I wasn’t crazy about.

If we had more time (and a sitter for the kids) we would definitely check out the

Banana Date Nut Bread

IMG_2408I bought quinoa a week ago. I still don’t have the guts to prepare it, out of fear of what happens to unfortunately too many of my experiments in healthy-food-ness. Make it. Eat some the first day. Then a day goes by: everyone opts for the other options in the fridge. Another day goes by: my mom brings over a vat of chicken curry. Another day goes by: take out time! By day 4, no one will be eating what they hadn’t eaten the past 4 days (my chia seed pudding is currently suffering that fate)! So while I procrastinate on the quinoa, I tried to make some healthier substitutions in my usual banana bread. After going through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was all like “yeah! butter! if french people can douse their food in it, why can’t we?”. Then I read an article that scared the pants off of me about saturated fats. So what to do?! There’s got to be a balance between the Paula Deen fried mac’n’cheese-wrapped-in-bacon death on a plate and quinoa/kale/green smoothie diet.IMG_2403So, here is my answer. Banana bread. I know bananas have a bad rap for the amount of sugar in them, but hey, they have potassium. That’s important, right? Personally, I’d rather eat natural foods with natural sugars (like coconut water) and vitamins/minerals than an artificially flavored protein shake to curb my appetite! So, on to this bread. Does it have sugar? Yes. But there’s fiber from the date and whole wheat flour. Does it have fat? Yes. But it’s coconut oil and supposedly the saturated fat in that is better for you. And nuts! Good fats that keep you full longer! I cut the amount of sugar from the original recipe by a 1/2 cup. If you’re rolling your eyes at me at this point, I’m ok with that. This isn’t a cake baked in a loaf pan that you can call a breakfast. It’s hearty. It tastes good. And you don’t have to feel guilty for having a slice. Have it with a glass of milk for a snack, or with coffee for breakfast.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 5 medium bananas, smashed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup chopped, pitted dates
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Bring the buttermilk and eggs to room temperature: set the half cup of buttermilk out and let it come to room temperature while assembling the rest of the ingredients. Place the eggs in a bowl with lukewarm water (cold ingredients will cause the coconut oil to congeal).
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9x5in loaf pan with non-stick spray (or grease with butter).
  3. Combine coconut oil and sugar in a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until combined (or use any electric mixer) for about 2 minutes. Add the bananas, eggs, and buttermilk, one at a time until combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, and baking soda. Slowly add to the wet ingredients with the mixer running, until combined.
  5. Turn off the mixer. Add the dates and pecans. Stir with a spatula or wooden spoon to combine (scraping off the sides and bottom).
  6. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour 15 minutes (start checking with a toothpick at 1 hour 5 minutes. It should come out dry).

Caramel Cupcakes

IMG_2372 My sweet friend Rabia is expecting her second baby and one of the organizers of her baby shower, another long time friend, Nargis, tapped me to supply the cookies and cupcakes for the event! It was such a treat to experiment with new cupcake recipes, challenge myself with making sugar cookies shaped like books (theme was bring a book for baby), and contribute to such a lovely tablescape (made by Nargis!).IMG_2370Instead of doing the usual chocolate/vanilla selection, I decided to try a caramel cupcake recipe that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. It’s from a magazine from Fine Cooking entitled “Celebration Cakes” (that I think I got from a Lowe’s or Home Depot). If you’ve never worked with caramel, it might be a little tricky to get it right. But a little practice with caramel is so worth it for the world of concoctions you can make. The burnt sugar added some wonderful deep notes to the cupcake. And it came out moist and perfectly tender.IMG_2380 Along with the cupcakes, I made sugar cookies in the shape of books by slightly bending my square cookie cutter to a rhombus shape. And, because everything tastes better with chocolate, I applied a chocolate glaze made out of 10 tbsp butter and 10 oz of semi sweet chocolate chips (melted). I did the outline of the book with a ziploc bag with the tip cut. I filled in the “cover” by applying a dollop of the glaze and smoothing it out with the back of a spoon. I applied the “pages” with a simple powdered sugar/milk concoction. And the lettering – traditional buttercream. IMG_2375For the frosting, I used Ina Garten’s cream cheese frosting from her Flower Cupcakes, tinted in blue and pink. Recipe for the caramel cupcakes from Fine Cooking below. Their suggested pairing is a butterscotch frosting. If you’d like for me to share that recipe, just let me know. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup plus 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degree F and line a standard muffin pan with liners.
  2. Put 1/3 cup sugar in a shallow skillet and heat over medium high heat. This takes several minutes so while that goes, bring 1/3 cup of water to boil in a small saucepan. Keep warm. Once the sugar starts to melt, swirl it around every once in a while to help it along. Once it becomes a deep amber color, turn off the heat and carefully pour the water into it. It will sizzle so stand back. The caramel will harden so return to a medium high heat and stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve the caramel.
  3. Spray a glass measuring cup with non stick spray (I don’t know if this step is necessary, but I did so for good measure). Pour enough of the liquid caramel to a 1/2 cup measure. Let cool until warm.
  4. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a small bowl. In your stand mixer, or in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for 30 to 60 seconds. With the mixer running, slowly add the 3/4 cup sugar. Beat for about 1 minutes, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Add eggs, one at a time, beating for 60 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the bowl, add vanilla and continue beating. Switch to low speed and add 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Follow up with 1/2 of the liquid caramel. Add another third of the dry ingredients, second half of the caramel, and finally the last third of the dry ingredients.
  5. Divide the batter evenly. I like to use an ice cream scoop for this. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
  6. Wait to completely cool before frosting.

Easy Fried Rice

IMG_6406 Ever since I started cooking for myself, my taste for takeout has rapidly declined (pizza and sushi exempt). Take chinese takeout for example: when I was a kid, it was the ultimate treat. My Friday lunch if I used my allowance wisely. I’m not sure what you know about Bengali moms, but they are pretty militant in their meal regiment. Rice, vegetable saute/bhorta, some kind of protein curried, and daal. That is what you have for dinner, every night. Without fail. Every bengali kid who grew up here knows the struggle to have something different on the table (first world problems, I know). And the retorts that follow: “Eh? Pizza? How is that any kind of food? What with all that cheese…and they wonder why American kids are so fat!”. This is usually said as one or more uncles are stuffing their faces with beef or goat curry and are working away at a Mt Everest sized mound of rice on their plate.

Anywho, takeout became less of a treat as I started making things like fried rice, fried chicken or tacos at home. The takeout versions just seemed laden with MSG, salt and grease. I used to be a little incredulous of Rachel Ray always insisting that the food you cook at home is so much better than takeout because you control what goes in there. But once you wean your taste buds of those noxiously high amounts of salt and fat, you can appreciate well made food. Food that someone didn’t just throw salt and fat at to make taste good. Rather, food that took time and thought to cook. Tasting along the way to make sure everything came together at the end.

IMG_6411Not to say that this recipe doesn’t include oil or sodium. I make mine with light olive oil (as opposed to extra virgin) and soy sauce, along with fresh garlic, ginger powder, and a generous serving of sriracha afterwards. It’s very versatile though: use any leftover meat you may have. And it’s quick and easy enough for a weeknight meal. You can use any combination of vegetables you like, as long as there are some root vegetables (onions, carrot, celery, etc.) along with corn, peas or even zucchini. For the protein, you can substitute eggs, small cubes of beef, shrimp or even tofu. And the cilantro is optional (I would put cilantro on everything if I could).

Ingredients

  • 1 cup short grain rice
  • 3 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed root vegetables, chopped small, comparable to the size of peas (I used onions, carrots and green peppers)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp ginger powder
  • 2 tbsps soy sauce
  • a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 cup cooked chicken, cubed (if using left over curried chicken, rinse under water to get rid of the spices)
  • 1/4 cup frozen peas
  • 1/4 cup frozen corn
  • a handful of cilantro, chopped

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan or pot, rinse the rice with cold water. Then add water to cover (the water should cover the rice by at least an inch). Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium while preparing the vegetables.
  2. In a wok or large skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the vegetables and let them soften (about 5 minutes depending on how big you cut them). Add garlic, ginger, soy sauce and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to medium.
  3. Working quickly, and keeping an eye on your vegetables so they don’t burn, drain the rice in a colander. Add to vegetables. Add chicken and frozen vegetables. Combine over medium heat. Be sure to break up any big chunks of rice (short grain rice is very starchy). Cook until frozen vegetables are heated through. Top with cilantro and taste for seasoning.
  4. Serve with Sriracha or any hot sauce of your liking.

Coconut Egg Curry (Deem Bhuna)

IMG_2326This weekend was a welcome respite from the bitter cold of the past few months. Temperatures soared to the 50s (watch out LA, we’re catching up). I refused to wear socks…despite that fact that all the snow hadn’t fully melted. We took it all in. Enjoyed our walks instead of rushing from building to car to store then back.

But now the week has begun and and with it, freezing temps. So you can imagine my efforts to avoid multiple trips to the store. I’m pulling out all the stops to use up pantry ingredients. And I know how my readers love a CHEAP, QUICK and DELICIOUS weeknight meal.IMG_2322This doesn’t look like your usual curry (for lack of liquid). This type of dish is called a bhuna: where the liquids are allowed to evaporate for the most part, leaving a concentrated flavor enhanced usually by a large amount of caramelized onions. Most Bengalis would leave a dish like this for special occasions, typically shunning the high amount of cholesterol by the egg and coconut milk combination. Except now, according to recent studies, the cholesterol/fat found in both is good for you (but perhaps not for South Asian populations??). Who knows what to believe anymore with studies constantly disproving what we thought to be true for so long. I’m going to go with my usual wisdom: enjoy in moderation!

Ingredients

  • 6 eggs
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 12 oz can coconut milk
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 3/4 tsp cumin
  • 3/4 tsp coriander
  • a pinch of turmeric (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 green chilis (or more if you like)
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper (or white pepper for a more mild heat)

Directions

  1. Place the eggs gently into a small saucepan and add enough water to cover the eggs. Bring to a boil over hight heat, then put the lid on and turn off the heat. Let sit for 6 minutes. Then run under cold water to help cool down enough to peel. PEELING TIP: crack on the counter and roll around. That helps loosen the shell.
  2. In a small nonstick saute pan, heat a tablespoon of oil over high heat. While it heats, toss the eggs with a pinch of turmeric and salt. Once hot, add the peeled eggs and let it sear on one side, after 30 seconds or so, stir to brown the flip side (do the best you can with this). Remove from heat.
  3. In a large saute pan, heat the remaining oil over medium high heat. Add the onions and saute until they are brown around the edges (8 to 10 minutes). Add the coconut milk, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric (if using), bay leaf, chilis, salt and pepper.  Let it simmer over a medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, toss to combine, and check for seasoning.

VARIATIONS

Simple bhuna: ditch the coconut milk for water. Increase turmeric to 1/2 tsp.

Tomato and cilantro: use 1 cup water instead of coconut milk and add 1 tomato, diced. Garnish with 1/4 cup chopped cilantro.

Korma: Ditch the turmeric. Use milk or half and half in lieu of coconut milk. Garnish with raisins and slivered almonds.

 

Chocolate Chip Banana Pancakes

IMG_2303 Were the first year or two out of college a big smack in the face for anyone else? I remember sitting around  my freshman year sociology class discussing Durkheim, or learning about the Coriolis effect in Intro Mechanics, or even listening to Bashir Abu Manneh’s impassioned lectures on Fanon, thinking, “I’m good enough to get this far, I can do pretty much whatever I want to do.” Well, I couldn’t. Not for a long time. For many of us who graduate from Liberal Arts schools without ultra competitive job offers, Teach For America gigs, or grad school acceptances, life after college is a bitch.  IMG_2271One of my peers in Physics had a nanny gig lined up after graduation. Mindy Kaling, even with her Dartmouth education, nannied for a while when she first moved to the city. I got a part time job pushing paper at a consulting firm (that led to better opportunities later on). I searched for jobs for over a year and a half, whereas I believed with my degree, landing one would be a cinch. It was a humbling experience. I realized that as while you’re dishing out the dough, you can be fooled into a false sense of entitlement. But when it comes to earning a few of those dollars back, intelligence is rarely enough. You need to be practical. Don’t fall into the same millenials boat.IMG_2282 Moral of the story is this: don’t go to a liberal arts school. Of, if you do, do incredibly well, so that you graduate at the top of your class. Become a pharmacist. Or learn to code. Make sure you have a decent internship lined up before your senior year. Harass people to get a decent job offer – persistence pays. I wish someone had told me any one of these.  IMG_2285 What does all this have to do with chocolate chip banana pancakes? Well, I have a lot of time to think while babysitting these guys on the stove. I make these like once a week and they are so incredibly good. I rarely have enough overripe bananas for banana bread, but often have one or two. The perfect amount for providing a hint of sweetness and banana flavor to regular pancakes. They are so light and fluffly…not like these ricotta pancakes I had at brunch a few weeks ago at a pretty popular Greenpoint spot (could NOT finish those dense giants).

I make them “reduced guilt” by incorporating whole wheat. You can even go the full 9 yards by subbing unsweetened applesauce for butter, and blueberries for chocolate chips. I sometimes have blueberries and hand and ALWAYS have chocolate chips. So, here you go.IMG_2305

Ingredients

  • 2 overripe bananas
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups whole or reduced fat milk
  • 3 tbsp butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 1/2 tsps baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Mash bananas in a medium bowl with fork. Add egg and whisk together. Add milk and stir to combine. I like to melt the butter in the frying pan that I’m using to cook the pancakes in. Add to the banana/egg/milk mixture.
  2. Add both flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar to the mix. Stir to combine without over beating (few lumps are ok). Add chocolate chips.
  3. Heat up your griddle or non stick pan over low heat.
  4. Scoop 1/4 cup of batter onto the pan. Cook until bubbles come through, about 1 min. Flip and cook for an additional 30 seconds or until  you achieve a golden brown color.

I prefer this method rather than adding pads of butter to the pan for each pancake, as the coloring is much more even.

Fruit Chaat

IMG_2249 I remember having fruit chaat for the first time at my cousin Lima Apa’s house. I was flabbergasted at how bright and flavorful a simple yogurt dressing made otherwise pretty boring fruit (green apples, red grapes). Since then, I use the dressing as a way to eat more fruits during the winter months. When the mangos are tart and the berries are lackluster. A quick toss, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly the fruit disappears!

The key ingredient in this South Asian fruit salad is Chaat Masala. A tangy/savory/spicy combination of spices that includes salt, chili powder, black pepper, citric acid and green mango. On it’s own, it’s a bit too spicy for me. So a little bit of it, along with a little bit of salt and the yogurt is uh-mazing. It’s available in any South Asian grocery.

IMG_2255I’ve left this deconstructed since it’s not so pretty mixed up. This makes for a great appetizer if you’re hosting a party, or even as a hostess gift. Just leave some toothpicks on the side for people to pierce the fruit with.

It’s so versatile, you can alter it any which way to accommodate most dietary restrictions. Dairy allergy? Use soy yogurt. Counting calories? Substitute lowfat yogurt in the dressing (though I am a big proponent of eating full fat foods in moderation). Allergic to a specific fruit? Just leave everything in their own compartments. Cover well with plastic wrap if transporting or consuming later in the day.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup full fat yogurt
  • 3/4 tsp chaat masala (or you could use a mix of equal parts chili powder, black pepper, coriander, and cumin)
  • 3/4 tsp salt (or to taste)

Directions

1. Mix the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl. You only need a small amount for each cup of fruit – approximately 1 tbsp per cup.