Thursday, March 19, 2009

Plaintains & Salsa & Key Lime Pie - Oh My!

I belong to a gourmet cooking club, the "Foodies." We get together every few months for a meal that everyone has helped cook and generally have a great time. Alcohol is always involved. Recently I decided to host again, which generally means putting a menu together and offering up assignments, and preparing the main course. Braising is a favorite cool weather cooking method of mine and I really wanted to cook up a pork shoulder, which is cheap right now. Cheap and good equals a big YES! My favorite braising cookbook is All About Braising, by Molly Stevens, and I highly recommend that you get a copy. She writes endless instructions, which is great for beginners, though a bit too endless for me. Since her recipes are really really good, I forgive her. I am not going to copy her recipe down for you, but briefly, I made a Caribbean braised shoulder, marinated with crushed coriander seeds, allspice berries, garlic and other goodies as well as orange and lime juices. Everybody went nuts over it, so go buy her cookbook!

Since we were going Caribbeanesque, fried plaintains had to be included. They aren't at all difficult to prepare and are really good as long as you serve them with something tasty on the side. Be sure to sprinkle with a little salt, otherwise they are bland.

Fried Plaintains (Platanos)

2 large very green plaintains
vegetable oil
kosher salt

Peel the plaintains by cutting off each end, then slice through the peel all the way down the side. Pull off the peels - they are really stiff and a little challenging to remove. Cut slices crosswise about 1/2 inch thick. Heat enough oil to cover bottom of large nonstick frypan. Oil should make small bubbles when you add the slices. Don't overcrowd the pan. Fry until golden, turn and brown other side. Remove to paper towels to blot oil, then mash down to make them fairly flat, about 1/8 inch or so thick. Add more oil as needed; fry the batch a second time, sprinkle with a little salt. Repeat with remaining slices. You can safely keep them warm in a 200° oven until serving time for half an hour or so.
While nosing around different ideas in order to come up with a salsa to serve with the plaintains, I was reminded of the basics for building salsas. A little onion, cilantro and some heat are my holy trinity of salsa making. Add the kinds of fruits you enjoy; I chose starfruit, pineapple and fresh mango. I didn't want to use a whole pineapple so I bought an 8 ounce can of pineapple chunks in their own juice, which worked great. You don't have to limit yourself; try some other fruits that look good to you in the produce aisle. If pomelo had been available when I was shopping I would have added it too. Pomelo looks like a grapefruit, has a very thick rind, and has a mild grapefruity flavor. If you use a pomelo or other citrus fruit you need to supreme it, meaning slice off the skin and rind, down to the fruit. Then cut the slices away from the membranes; a sharp knife is mandatory unless you like mangled fruit.

Chunky Tropical Salsa

2/3 of a large starfruit
8 oz can pineapple chunks canned in their own juice
1 medium mango
about 1/2 small red onion, diced small
1/2 red jalapeño, minced
1 tb chopped cilantro leaves
juice of 1 lime
pinch kosher salt

Cut all fruits into 1/4 inch chunks. Mix fruit together, then add in onion and jalapeño a little at a time, so as not to overpower the salsa. Do the same with the cilantro. Stir in lime juice. Taste. One or two pinches of salt will bring out the natural flavors of the salsa. You don't want to taste the salt. Yields about 2 cups. Serve in a bowl garnished with starfruit slices if desired, and fried plaintains on the side.
Note: this appetizer was a huge hit; not a bit was left over. Try it with my blessing!

In my humble opinion, no tropical meal is complete without key lime pie. About 20 years ago Paul and I went to Florida, namely Orlando, so I could feed my inner kid and play in Disney World, and then down to Key West. I got hooked on two things - melon coladas and key lime pie. Charlie's Steakhouse and Seafood in Kissimmee had great food, but what thrilled me was the soft serve melon coladas! Oooh baby I mean a real soft serve machine! Innocent that I was, I'd never experienced that before. And they were delicious! Sadly, even though I tried them in other places, they just didn't thrill me. After coming back home I bought a bottle of Midori melon liqueur in a pitiful effort to feed my addiction but I couldn't replicate the coveted flavor and had to give it up. Forever. At least until I return to my soft serve lover in Kissimmee.

The key lime pie story has a happily ever after ending. We ate that pie every single day on our trip. Sometimes twice. The most memorable incident was in the Florida Keys, Islamorada, I think. We had a wonderful Cuban lunch at Manny & Isa's, and of course, Isa's key lime pie. She was nice enough to give me her recipe. The common denominator of every single k-l pie we had was raw eggs, which I resisted using. I absolutely don't remember where I got it, but I snagged an eggless recipe and wrote it on the same postcard on which I recorded Isa's instructions. My commitment was sealed by buying a bottle of key lime juice at the Piggly Wiggly Market in Key West.

I asked Kendra to make the pie for our dinner. She balked when after searching for recipes and continually coming up with raw eggs and EGAD sweetened condensed milk, which she somehow equates with Velveeta. (I'm going to make a confession - I like Velveeta Shells & Cheese. Shhhhhh) When I gave her my recipe her feathers were smoothed out and she was happy. And it was delish.

Eggless Key Lime Pie

1 package cream cheese, softened
1 can Eagle sweetened condensed milk
6 ounces key lime juice (juice from Mexican limes works too)
Graham cracker or other prepared crust, such as chocolate cookie

Mix first 3 ingredients well; a mixer is helpful. Pour into prepared crust. Refrigerate for several hours. Top with whipped cream. Garnish with a mint sprig or lemon verbena, if you have it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Neck Bone's Connected to the Head Bone

Paul recently asked me to make beans and cornbread and I said I would. I don't cook up a mess o' beans too often, despite writing a while back about baking soda and the gas factor. In the past when making slow cooked down home rustic beans I've used smoked pork hocks. They add a nice smoky flavor as well as a little meat, but the downside is the giant hunk of skin that has to be removed, along with the pool of grease floating on top. So, while perusing the meat counter, I noticed smoked pork neck bones sitting next to the hocks and turkey necks. The neck bones looked fairly meaty and lean so I decided to be daring; afterall, neck bones have been used in southern cooking for ages, right???

In addition, I decided to get out my big crock pot - not the old kind from the '70's you try to wash without getting the cord wet. You can actually take the crock out and wash it! Yay! I figured I'd soak the beans overnight and then cook them in the pot all day while I was at work. No baking soda duties as I wanted to crock'em. Well, they cooked all day on low and when I checked them the beans were still crunchy and the meat was clinging to dem bones. Horroirs! (as Pepe LePew would say) I went to Plan B and poured everything into a soup pot and simmered away for another 1-1/2 hours, until the meat was falling off the vertebrae, so to speak. Also, there wasn't much of a gas factor, if you get my drift. Here's the recipe:

1 lb. dried pink beans
1 package smoked pork necks (about 1-1/2 lbs.)
1 small onion, medium chop
1 small carrot, diced small
1 tb chili powder, such as Grandma's or Gebhardt's
1 tb Spanish hot smoked paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 14.5 oz can reduced sodium chicken broth
enough water to cover by at least 1 inch
anything else you'd like to throw in

Soak the beans overnight, covered with water by at least 2 inches. Drain
and rinse.

Using a large crockpot, add the necks, cover with beans, and remaining ingredients, stir, cover, and fire that baby up - on HIGH. Start first thing in the morning and let it go all day. Meat should be falling of the bones - remove the vertebrae and serve. Please note I don't mention salt; between the smoked necks and chicken broth we didn't need any. So adjust your seasonings at the end. The carrots add sweetness; I cut them small and they actually dissolved into the dish. Sue said it tasted like a cassoulet - a French rustic dish with beans, sausage and esoteric duck legs. Except no duck or sausage, just good ol' American pig necks!

Speaking of beans, here's an interesting movie I snagged from Netflix: Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's. Chasen's was a restaurant that the Hollywood crowd frequented during its heyday. The glitterati weren't the interesting part - the fascinating part was the people who worked there! I loved the waiter who was on a first name basis with Frank Sinatra. Ok, back to
the beans: Chasen's chili was so popular that Elizabeth Taylor had it shipped to her in Rome during the making of Cleopatra. You can get the recipe here. I have it on good authority that this is the real mccoy! I am going to try it out sometime this year; let me know if you do too!