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4 Effortless Yet Elegant Party Appetizers for Busy People

20 Dec

I was recently invited to do a cooking demonstration at Nassau Community College (where my more usual role is as a full-time ESL lecturer in a language immersion program) for the Mom’s Club, a campus club for student-parents where they get support in their struggle to complete their college education while raising children and often simultaneously holding a full-time job!

So these are women who needed a fun mini-workshop that would include some nifty snacks, some honest conversation and maybe even a few ideas for inexpensive and easy appetizers they can easily prepare for their families. I think this line-up delivered.

All hands on deck!

All hands on deck!

It was a pleasure to cook for this small group — thanks to professors Beth Goering and Molly Phelps Ludmar for inviting me and also providing an electric skillet, bread and soft drinks.

Happy holidays ladies!

Happy holidays ladies!

Together — I put everyone to work, of course — we made Spanish-style garlic mushrooms, cilantro-sunflower seed pesto, black olive and walnut paste, and white cheese and red grape skewers. Everything was done within a half hour, so we had time to sit and eat, which is a rare treat for busy moms!

Not my best images ever, but you get the idea!

Not my best images ever, but you get the idea!

Here are the recipes:

White Cheese and Red Grapes (requires toothpicks!)

Cut Latin style white cheese into cubes about the size of the grapes. Skewer a single grape and a single cube of cheese onto each toothpick (this is a job kids love! and it keeps them busy while you are trying to do other things.) and arrange on a serving platter. The cubed cheese is the base.

Cilantro-Sunflower Seed Pesto (sunflower seeds are a terrific alternative to pine nuts or walnuts for those with nut allergies)

One bunch cilantro, rinsed and chopped (YES you can use the stems)

2-3-4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1/2 Cup sunflower seeds (roasted and salted seeds add a lot of flavor)

Squeeze of freeze lemon

pinch of hot red pepper flakes (optional)

extra virgin olive oil

abundant grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or Locatelli cheese

salt to taste

Place cilantro, garlic, sunflower seeds, lemon, and optional pepper flakes in a food processor or blender and whirr until chopped. Add olive oil bit by bit (in a thin stream if you can pour while blending) until you achieve a thick paste. Add cheese to taste (start with about 1/4 Cup) and serve over pasta or as a spread for bruschetta, crackers or sliced bread.

For an easy basil pesto (my second grader makes it!) click here.

Black Olive and Walnut Paste (Tapenade)

1 can pitted black olives (or one cup good seedless black olives if you can afford them), drained indifferently

1/4 Cup walnuts (but add them Tbs by Tbs)

1 tsp capers drained indifferently

2-3 anchovies from a jar, rinsed and patted dry with a paper towel

leaves from 3-4 thyme sprigs

optional extra virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients (except optional olive oil) in a food processor and blend till smooth, adding olive oil as necessary. Serve as a spread for toast or crackers.

For another version heavier on the anchovies, click here.

Spanish style Garlic Mushrooms

2-3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

12 oz white or Cremini mushrooms, stems removed (and saved in the freezer for stock) and wiped clean with paper towel.

3 Tbs dry red wine (I took some mushrooms out at this point to accommodate someone who doesn’t consume alcohol)

1 Tbs chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan, heat the oil until loose and fragrant. Lower heat to medium low garlic and cook gently until golden brown.

Add mushrooms and stir to coat., Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms start to brown deeply and release their juices. Add wine and raise hand eat to a fast simmer for about 5 minutes, until alcohol has cooked off but there is still liquid. Sprinkle with parsley salt and serve with crusty bread.

For a more complex version of these mushrooms that includes butter, click here.

Tostones de Panapén (Fried Breadfruit Disks)

16 Jul

When they talk about flakes of manna falling from the sky, I am sure they are talking about tostones de panapén.

Chunks browned lightly

Chunks browned lightly

Panapén or pana is what Puerto Ricans call breadfruit. The back story of how breadfruit got to the West Indies from South East Asia is actually one of the most famous seafaring tales around: The Mutiny on the Bounty.

The LeBron Brothers are the guys in the Plaza de Mercado de Mayagüez (where my great-grandfather had a booth in the early 1900s) who supply me with the good stuff, already peeled and pared!

The LeBron Brothers are the guys in the Plaza de Mercado de Mayagüez (where my great-grandfather brought his produce and my great-uncle had a booth in the early 1900s) who supply me with the good stuff, already peeled and pared!

Captain Bligh, on that ill-fated trip was trying to bring breadfruit to plant in the  Caribbean for cheap slave food.

Wikipedia image

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Easy, Hearty, Refried Beans for Bean Dip, Tacos, Burritos, and more

8 Jul

We’ve been having folks over or heading to other people’s houses for watch parties during the World Cup…as die-hard fanáticos del fútbol, this extravaganza of soccer is something we look forward to every four years with great anticipation.

I’ve mostly gonewith tried and true recipes like the incredibly delicious Chipotle Lime Jerk Slow Cooker Chicken and my Seasoned Ground Beef for Sloppy Joes, Tortilla Torcal (Spanish stovetop egg frittata with chorizo, ham and peas from our garden), Grapes and White Cheese (no-cook fab appetizer with just two ingredients — three if you count toothpicks), and such.

Go U.S.A.!

Go U.S.A.! Tim Howard is Hercules!

But for the first U.S. game of the Cup, I also made a new one: bean dip! I was very happy with the results. I did homemade refried beans (recipe below), then just layered it up with salsa and cheese and melted in the oven and served with tortilla chips, sour cream and avocado chunks and everyone liked it. A Lot.

This bean recipe is very versatile for Tex-Mex style foods like nachos, burritos, tacos and the like. Sure you can buy refried beans in a can, but this flavor and texture is more complex and of course the sodium and fat levels are reduced to human proportions. Give it a try!

 

Layered with cheese and salsa, this warm dip is a hot item

Layered with cheese and salsa, this warm dip is a hot item

Refried Beans for Bean Dip or Tex-Mex meals (with garlic scapes)

1-2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbs garlic scapes (or garlic), chopped fine

¼ Cup diced ham (ham steak or deli ham)

½ Cup broth (chicken or veggie; not too sweet)

1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves (or 1 tsp dried)

3 Cups red beans (softened at home or from a can, rinsed and drained)

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a generous pan to medium high. Lower heat and sauté the garlic scapes in the oil until tender. Add the diced ham and sauté an additional minute, then add remaining ingredients and simmer until thickened. Remove from heat and with a potato masher or a fork, mash mixture roughly until you have a thick, rustic paste, adding tablespoons of water or broth as needed. Layer with salsa and cheese in an oven-safe dish and heat up, then top with sour cream, guacamole and olives, or use it to top nachos or stuff tacos and burritos!

Sugar Snap Peas: Five Italian and Spanish Style Recipes You’ll Love

30 Jun

It is the season for sugar snap peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon), and we have had a wonderful harvest of sugar snaps in our yard, and we expect more from Restoration Farm, our CSA.

Almost too ready for picking

Almost too ready for picking

So today I made a special sweet pea dish — Pasta with Chorizo and Peas – for my seven-year-old swee’pea who is in charge of peas at home, from planting to watering to harvesting (he gets assistance in stringing the poles as our peas need strings to climb on with their delicate tendrils. We buy sugar snap seeds from Botanical Interests).

Someone eats a lot of peas as he is harvesting. Someone's mother doesn't mind at all.

Someone eats a lot of peas as he is harvesting. Someone’s mother doesn’t mind at all.

He collected peas between World Cup matches today and then we spent a companionable half hour shelling the peas and eating many of them as we watched Costa Rica play Greece in the World Cup and I put the water to boil. At halftime I made dinner to eat during the second half.

Quite a haul! We can freeze what we don't use. But we'll use it all before that happens.

Quite a haul! We can freeze what we don’t use. But we’ll use it all before that happens.

So the following Pasta with Chorizo and Peas  is a new recipe and below that you’ll find links to some of our perennial favorites: Spanish tortillas and Italian pastas. This recipe uses only the peas, but the pods are edible. I sliced the pea pods into my salad, as he doesn’t like those and I find them wonderfully crunchy and sweet.

Rich flavor that doesn't overwhelm the peas.

Rich flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the peas.

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When Food Allergies Happen to Food People (Gluten-free champiñones al ajillo)

25 Mar

They sidle up to you in the hallway at work when no one else is around. They approach you with the hangdog expression of a sinner headed to the confessional for the same reason they went last week. Or they send you a hesitant text, dangling uncertainly between apologetic and grief-stricken, unable to tell you directly in person. They are embarrassed, bewildered, ashamed.

They are….Foodies with Allergies and they are coming to your house for a dinner party!

This happened to me during the planning of that play-reading party you’ve been hearing a lot about in my recent posts.

Let me clarify. The food allergies didn’t happen to me, the guests with food allergies did (see how quickly I distance my own foodie self from any suggestion of an allergy?). Two friends, food-lovers both, came to me with their tales of woe. One, (who is already vegetarian, for the love of God) has celiac disease, which means her small intestines can’t tolerate gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley. The other is getting tested for possible lactose-intolerance.

Gluten-free tapas...

Gluten-free tapas…

Now it does seem like food sensitivities and intolerances and flat-out allergies are on the rise in our population. The whole peanut thing has taken over many schools, which have nut-free areas. Gluten-free has been the latest way for companies to flog their products as ostensibly healthier because it has less of something.

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Stilton and Toasted Walnut Balls (more Wilde party recipes)

23 Mar

Stilton is to England as Gorgonzola is to Italy, as Roquefort is to France, as Danish Blue is to …oh come on, must I?

As such, this blue cheese was the perfect choice for an Anglo-Irish themed evening during which we were reading Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and drinking Pimm’s and eating beef stew and shepherd’s pie and ushering in St. Patrick’s Day. If it was a bit of a mix of cultural culinary references…well that’s okay by me! I’m American; we screw this stuff up all the time. Just look at the eight page menus at a “Greek diner” and tell me how that makes any sense whatsoever.

A view of the welcome appetizer table. Hot food was later set out in the kitchen for self-service...

A view of the welcome appetizer table. Hot food was later set out in the kitchen for self-service…

So my friend David, who is actually quite famous for his good taste, and who kindly offered to help with the planning and preparations, found the following recipe for Stilton and Toasted Walnut Balls, originally from the BBC. I didn’t so much adapt it as make the instructions more specific to make it more user-friendly. I started it early in the morning and he finished it up a couple of hours before party time.

Rich (very rich, very, very rich) and crunchy and peppery, it has a terrific mix of things going on in every tiny bite. Twenty-six may not seem like much for a party of ten, but trust me, they are very satisfying and most people are not going to have more than two before looking for something more crisp and bracing to balance them.

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Yes! BAKED Broccoli, Spinach and Feta Empanadas (using store-bought disks)

24 Feb

Here is the second installment of 2014: The Year of the Empanada. After my first installment, in which I fried up my stuffings in Goya pre-made disks, I was showered with questions about whether they could be baked instead.

I wasn’t sure, but thanks Kathy Blenk for reporting back that she tried it and indeed they could!

How to pinch in those cute folds

How to pinch in those cute folds (photo Marianne Goralski)

So I decided to go for it as well (later in the year I hope to make my own, but one thing at a time) and was very pleased with the results. Continue reading

2014: The Year of the Empanada (first in an occasional series)

18 Jan

I love empanadas. The “pan” part of the word comes from the word for bread in Spanish, and empanadas are basically stuffed bread pockets. That’s basically…they have many permutations and depending where you are from they might be made with corn dough, wheat flour, fried or baked. They may be stuffed with meat or chicken or seafood or vegetables. We also call them pastelillos in Puerto Rico, pastel referring to pies, much like meat pies are hand-held dough pockets in other places.

Entry-level empanadas...premade discs. Do not be ashamed! I am not.

Entry-level empanadas…premade discs. Do not be ashamed! I am not.

Regular readers know that my son and I are not big sandwich eaters, but empanadas actually do the same job and we love those. You can pack them up for a picnic, grab them on the run and eat them in the car, have them for an afternoon snack after school, serve them as appetizers with an aperitif when your guests walk in the door.

Improvised rolling pin. Yet another reason to enjoy wine responsibly

Improvised rolling pin. Yet another reason to enjoy wine responsibly (photo: Ashley Fifer)

Every country seems to have a version of empanadas; Jamaican meat patties, Indian samosas, even Chinese dim sum (potstickers) could be called empanadas.

Picadillo

Picadillo

This year I want to explore the world of empanadas. My friend Ashley and my godson Sean have agreed to go on this journey with me (and calling them out here is my way of holding them to it). Ashley was my cooking buddy for this first go and took the picture of me rolling the dough. Continue reading

Bacalaitos: Light and Luscious Puerto Rican Cod Fritters

27 Dec

One of the pleasures of visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico is heading straight from Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to a beach area about five minutes to the east. Piñones, a long stretch of relatively undeveloped coastline is where beach shacks under the shade of coconut palms serve up ice cold beer, whiskey con coco, and all manner of snacks or frituras, flour or banana dough shaped in seagrape leaves and dropped into hot fat in blackened cauldrons over coal fires by ladies in hair rollers. Oh my God, I am so glad to be back, you say, toes in the crystal water and tearing into a delicious and greasy and tropical hunk of something.

Break up the de-salted cod as much as you can

Break up the de-salted cod as much as you can

One of the iconic frituras is bacalaitos: fried cod fritters. Salt cod is well-known to Atlantic coastal areas and the Caribbean…the New England cod fisheries have for centuries supplied coastal people with an abundance of this oily fish that preserves really well (if you are interested in the history of cod, you must read Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World).

Sawtooth coriander or recao or culantro adds authentic flavor to this dish, but cilantro is a worthy substitute

Sawtooth coriander or recao or culantro adds authentic flavor to this dish, but cilantro is a worthy substitute

Its popularity has led to overstressed fisheries. While they are being managed, they are not recovering well or quickly enough for me to have them as anything but an occasional treat.

skewered fritters draining, even as the next batch goes in!

skewered fritters draining, even as the next batch goes in!

In Puerto Rico we use salt cod in rice dishes, vinaigrette-style with local tubers, with tomatoes like the Basque people…in any number of ways. Bacalaitos are a good entry-level bacalao dish if you are afraid salt cod is too fishy for your family’s taste. Here it is not overwhelming, but more of a condiment and I daresay that salt cod lends umami (that fifth sensation of rich meaty mouth-feel) to what would be just a fish fritter…like many salted fish it is high in glutamates.

Letting the batter rest gives time for the baking powder to activate. that will give you nice airiness in the fritters.

Letting the batter rest gives time for the baking powder to activate. that will give you nice airiness in the fritters.

Most of the credit for this recipe is shared between Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s classic recipe in Cocina Criolla* and my dad’s adaptations and execution. It makes a perfect light dinner or appetizer…I like it with cold, dry sparkling wine, but of course a cold beer (on the lighter side) is a classic match-up. Kids and adults alike love them; we’ll be doing them up for our New Year’s guests when they arrive. Read on for recipe! Continue reading

Smoked Salmon Spread: No-Fuss Festive Appetizer!

11 Nov

Now that the holidays are coming in with the speed of a freight train, the panic begins. How do I entertain (or get a dish together for a potluck) in between work, activities, housework, paying bills, kids, parents, pets and all the other stuff, stuff, stuff that consumes our rapidly diminishing daylight hours?

Here’s one easy solution that takes just 5-10 minutes to prepare (factor in an hour of chill time), looks creamy and luscious, and can travel tidily with you everywhere! It makes about a pound of spread, so you can divide it up for different events. Mine has capers; I am riffing off an Ina Garten recipe that uses dill instead.

On a cracker, dressed up with some capers...

On a cracker, dressed up with some capers…

I made it this weekend for my Single Mothers by Choice meet-up and it went over very big with chips and crackers. And then I parked a bowl next to my dad (who is OFF the crazy-ass veganplus diet — by doctor’s orders — and is becoming a fun person to cook and eat with again, Hallelujah, Hallelujah) as he was recovering from his successful cancer surgery in a big chair in front of all the sports a man could care to consume…will he ever want to leave the living room? Continue reading

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