Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Puerto Rico- A Necessary Getaway

Beach culture, Friendly faces and Amazing Food Courtesy of Puerto Rico

Part II

We spent a couple of days in Old San Juan, visiting the forts and walking along the cobblestone streets, dancing & drinking. Two standout experiences included dinner at the Parrot Club on Fortaleza which served up classic Latino dishes & dinner at Latin Roots, a more casual Lechonera (specializing in roasted pork) that offered live salsa music & dancing during the after-dinner hours.  The Parrot Club really delivered superior service, the waiter was quite possibly the most attentive I’ve ever experienced. The setting did seem a little bit more Havana, Cuba (palm plants & typical plaza-like setting) than Puerto Rico, but didn’t detract from the excellent dining experience. I had some sort of shrimp dish while Jeff opted for the winning mofongo, which I eyed with jealousy the entire meal. (My coveting someone else’s food is a common occurrence)

Latin Roots, the most suggested lechonera in Old San Juan did not disappoint. They have a room devoted to roasting a whole pig over an open flame with their restaurant sitting adjacent. We stared at the pig upon entering knowing exactly what we were ordering.  This traditional style of roasting stems from the town in Puerto Rico known as Guavate where dozens of kiosks line the road ALL serving roasted pig or lechon. The pig is slow roasted for 6-8 hours ensuring a seasoned flavor that is moist and tender but with a crispy skin! People drive from all over the island for this perfect lechon, but since I did not rent a car, Latin Roots became our option. Jeff & I both had the lechon platter with two local root vegetables, I chose Yuca and Yautia. Both vegetables are tubers and have a potato-like consistency, the Yautia having a slight nutty flavor. Mmmm carbohydrate-y. The lechon was phenomenal, really just perfect with just the right amount of crispy skin, served alongside arroz con gandules (rice & pigeon peas). We also ordered mojitos that were perfectly mixed and muddled, beautiful looking & refreshing alongside the pork and heavy root vegetables. Looking at our cleaned plates we both knew that a pork dish like this would not likely be in our near future again for some time.

On Saturday, we headed along PR’s north coast to Pinones an area known for a beautiful stretch of beach and dozens of little food Kiosks. Pinones was about ten minutes away from our hotel area but the difference in locations was unreal. Pinones is more rustic, the beaches a little more secluded with a foot trail through mangroves & rock formations lining the road. There are two lagoons in Pinones where the locals harvest crabs, clams & oysters, which become the main ingredient in most of the food they make.

Originally home to refugee freed slaves, Pinones is an area that has stood still in time, reminiscent of a Puerto Rico lifestyle that existed prior to tourism development. The battered shacks serve up a variety Afro-Caribbean artery clogging food specialties, with each deep fried delight not costing more that $2 to $3 dollars.

The food is all cooked by women who look like mothers and grandmothers on open flames in giant kettles. It was here where I got my fix!  Excellent, giant bacalaitos (cod fritters) and crab stuffed alcapurrias (fried tube shaped snack made of a mixture of plantains, yautia, and stuffed with meat or fish). We ate & ate and hung up our hats on fried food afterwards!

What else? Travel outside any major (or minor) city in Puerto Rico and be sure to stop along the roadside shacks for traditional Puerto Rican favorites. Outside of El Yunque 

I gorged myself on amazing pasteles (a tamale-like loaf made with plantain and root vegetable paste & seasoned meat mixture stuffed and wrapped in either banana leaves or parchment paper), freshly cut coconut & more alcapurrias. 

We also stopped along the highways to pick up fresh local fruit and came back from Areceibo with tiny, super ripe pineapples, mamey (a cross between a cantaloupe & sweet potato), mini bananas (which are sweeter) & mangoes by the dozen all purchased inside a broke down bus on the side of the road.

 I have no doubt that the majority of the fruit had come from the vendor’s own backyard! But it was fantastic and we had fresh fruit for breakfast & dessert whenever we felt like it back at the hotel!

Overall, the trip was exactly what we needed- the perfect balance of sightseeing, sunbathing, eating and relaxing. I left with some local recipes for mofongo, which I plan on attempting. We’ll have to see how that goes! I’m not sure it will be quite the same minus the sunshine… *sighs*

Oh, one other thing I discovered! Remember that annoying Daddy Yankee Raggaeton song from a few years ago? Gasolina actually refers to these CapriSun like pouches that are premixed alcoholic beverages, packaged complete with their own straw inside! The alcohol content going up to 11% on certain varieties! I know, my mind is blown too! It all makes sense now! 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Puerto Rico- A Necessary Getaway

Beach culture, Friendly faces and Amazing Food Courtesy of Puerto Rico

Part I

Back in February between the multiple blizzards we experienced here in New York, I had decided that I needed the beach AND I needed the heat, as quickly as possible. My beach experience had to meet the following criteria: must be in or associated with the US, no passport necessary, no language barrier, no currency exchange, minimal flying time. The reason why I had such stringent criteria is because I happen to travel quite frequently for work and the above usually has me equating my travel experience with a work experience & my ultimate goal here was relaxation.  My desire for warm weather was not one that I alone shared. I recently read some travel statistics that cited 2010/11 as having the largest number of tourists to the Caribbean from the North East! YES, everyone was sick of the snow this year. So I booked my trip to Puerto Rico the soonest I could manage. 7 days in the heat and sun & amazing food- THIS is what I needed. Jeff & I arrived in Puerto Rico on a Sunday; we were staying in the Isla Verde/Carolina area, which luckily for us was about 5 minutes away from the airport. Our hotel was on a long stretch of beautiful beach that was PACKED with people, for good reason, the sun was blazing and it was about 93 degrees, ahhhhh! After settling in and unpacking our goal was simple, fill our bellies. Several recommendations took us to a small unassuming casual place called Mi Casita (My Little House). Every suggestion came with the following advice “Eat the Mofongo”, hell’s yes. Mofongo is not pretty to look at, it’s a blend of ground plantains (green bananas) combined with chicharron (crispy pig’s skin), spices and garlic and shaped into a mound & served with or without meat or fish inside. This particular variety was just straight up plantains served with a side of broth. I got my mofongo at Mi Casita with grilled pork & it was UNBELIEVABLE. This meal set the pace for the whole trip.  

The other culinary goals I had set for myself on the trip: alcapurrias, piononos, bacalaitos & pasteles!  So we did all the obligatory tourist things, we hiked through el Yunque rainforest, visited the vast underground Camuy cave system, wandered through old San Juan, walked through El Morro AND San Cristobal forts, deposited way too much money at the local casinos and ate our way across the island. 

At one point we took a tour at the Bacardi rum factory, which turned out to be extremely disappointing, unfortunately. Years ago, the tour used to take you through the actual distillery, where the rum was fermenting. You could smell the rum in the air & they prohibited photography because of the high alcohol content of the rum in its various stages. NOW, the tour takes you through staged sets, much like Epcot Center, completely separate of the factory, fakey, manufactured & boring. The “guides” force-feed you corporate messaging & give you a hard sell on which Bacardi variety to buy at the gift shop. They also show you a produced corporate video complete with terrible Bacardi commercials from the 80’s; at least it was good for a laugh! Terrible tour aside, we did leave with two bottles of Bacardi rum- a new Dragon Berry flavor and Big Apple each about $11, which is great. The tour included some free samples at the bar, which allowed us to try some new flavored rum we normally wouldn’t have considered. I’ve already muddled myself a Dragon Berry mojito and the Big Apple rum tastes great with just tonic & a some lime juice, really refreshing and light.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gateway Vegetables

Continuing with the theme of “gateway vegetables” and seasonality, I’m taking this opportunity to provide another great asparagus recipe.  Asparagus really can be considered a superfood as they are rich in folate, potassium, vitamins A & K and fiber.  They aid in digestion, reduce inflammation and even may reduce the risks of certain kinds of cancer.  I can understand the hesitation that some might have in regards to asparagus.  I myself am not 100% certain I liked these as a child. Asparagus are a little weird, almost like tiny trees that spear out of the ground like thick swamp reeds or something. You can almost imagine them growing in some alien terrain.  BUT anyway, the way my mother always prepared asparagus was blanched and drizzled with a little olive oil and vinegar, which happens to be a very simple, typical Spanish way of cooking them. My mother also always preferred white asparagus over the green kind, ALSO very Spanish as these are grown in Mediterranean climates in the regions of Granada, Malaga, Toledo, Cadiz & Murcia. There is no flavor superiority between white and green asparagus and the only difference is the conditions under which they are grown- green needs the light to develop its color, while white needs to be grown devoid of light, again, like some alien albino plant.

So, how do you get those asparagus opponents to enjoy this vegetable? FRY IT OF COURSE! The below recipes uses panko breadcrubs, which I prefer to Italian, only because the result is less heavy & they seem to absorb less of the frying oil. Be sure not to overcrowd your pan when you are making these, make sure the oil is hot enough and fry it in batches, allowing each to drain on paper towels. One trick to keep ANYTHING that you fry from combining to form one giant mass (Voltron style) is to hold the item under the oil with tongs for a few seconds. This seals the asparagus and prevents it from sticking.

The aioli served with this recipe, quite frankly kicks ass.  Anything with garlic and smoked paprika is going to be a win in my book. The method of cooking the garlic with the skin on twice in boiling water softens up the texture nicely.  This aioli would also make a delicious addition to simple sandwiches- try a smear on a turkey sandwich or in a potato salad with some diced pickle. YUM!

I love this recipe served tapas style with a variety of finger foods & a great beer. This is also a nice alternative to French fries, if you want to get the kiddies to try them, serve them alongside a burger.  Asparagus “fries” hold up well and I think they would also work really well in cocktail party, lord knows we should give those pigs in a blanket a rest…

Serves 6 (but I devoured these ALL with Jeff)

For the aïoli
4 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice, more to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the asparagus fries
3 cups vegetable oil
2 large eggs, beaten
1 medium lime, juiced
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup panko
1 lb. thick asparagus spears, trimmed

Make the aïoli
Put the garlic in a small saucepan, add cold water to cover by least 1/2 inch, and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, drain and repeat the process once more. Rinse the garlic with cold water to cool and then peel and mince the cloves.

In a medium bowl, whisk the poached garlic with the mayonnaise, olive oil, smoked paprika, and lemon juice until smooth. Add more lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour to meld the flavors.

Make the asparagus fries
In a 3-quart saucepan heat the oil over medium-high heat to 375°F.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with the lime juice and 2 Tbs. water.  Put the flour on a small plate and season generously with salt and pepper. Put the panko on another small plate. Dredge the asparagus in the flour and shake off any excess. Dip the asparagus in the egg mixture and then the panko to coat. Working in batches, fry the asparagus until golden-brown, about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. Sprinkle with salt and serve with the smoked paprika aïoli.

Monday, April 4, 2011

If You Don’t Eat Your Vegetables….

Recently at my office we had a week- long health and nutrition seminar.  As part of our nutrition day, we had various experts come in to lecture us on the virtues of vegetable consumption.  They were preaching to the choir, because frankly, I’ve never had a problem incorporating vegetables into my diet.  Given, my mom fed me less than inspiring vegetable dishes as child growing up.  I seem to remember eating a lot of those boxed, frozen string beans tossed in oil & vinegar for some reason, (this probably had something to do with her being sick of cooking for us EVERY day) but anyway, I subscribe to the belief that if you don’t like to eat vegetables, you might be “doing it wrong”, what’s not to like really?  The concept of not liking vegetables is foreign to me.  But as I sat there listening to the nutritionist talk about portion size, one of my coworkers raised his hand questioning, “Can you let me know of some ‘gateway’ vegetables? I don’t like to eat vegetables because to me they taste like plants, well because, THEY ARE PLANTS”.  The nutrionist went on to answer beginning her sentence with “Kids like” before stopping herself to realize she was answering a question from a grown ass man.  Does a grown ass man really need baby carrots drenched in ranch dressing? I say NO!

So I am making this a call to action: spice up your vegetables, because they CAN be delicious and you will want to eat them (practices Jedi mind trick).  Let’s start our road to delicious vegetable consumption with the much maligned asparagus.  Spring is here and it just so happens to be asparagus season.

Some tips on purchasing & cleaning asparagus:
  • Choose spears that are firm, with tightly closed tips
  • Look at the ends. Do they look hydrated or do they look dry and woody? Opt for what looks fresh and plump, leaving the dry spears for someone else to buy!
  • Thickness or thinness of asparagus is not an indication of quality but rather one of personal preference
  • The thinner spears are tender & sweet while the thicker spears are meatier, with a stronger asparagus flavor
  • Trim away the tough woody base, either by cutting about a half inch away or by bending the asparagus and allowing it to snap. Asparagus will break naturally where the stem toughens

Below is a recipe for a lovely spring pizza that I put together.  Rather than using sauce, it calls for gruyere cheese and jarred artichoke hearts (which go on sale rather regularly!)  It’s light and perfect for spring and again, is a great, quick option when you have ready-to-use pizza dough on hand.  I like to buy my pizza dough a few at a time and freeze them, they thaw really quickly on my granite countertop which sucks the cold right out of them.  30 minutes to pizza.

Spring Pizza
Prep Time:  15 Minutes
Total Time: 30 Minutes


1 Jar (12 ounces) marinated artichoke hearts, drained but reserving the marinade
1 large bunch of asparagus trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pint cherry tomatoes- halved
1 pound of pizza dough
Kosher salt & pepper
Garlic powder OR 2 cloves of garlic minced
3 cups of grated gruyere cheese


Preheat oven to 500°. In a medium bowl, combine artichoke hearts, asparagus and tomatoes.  Roll out your dough, I like to roll it into a rectangle shape, only because it fits on my baking sheet better.  Brush all of the dough with the marinade from the artichoke hearts jar.  Top the dough with all of the vegetables (and garlic if using fresh), leaving  a 1 inch border.  Brush border with additional marinade and season pizza with salt, pepper & garlic powder (a light sprinkle IF not using garlic powder).  Bake pizza for 10 minutes, remove and add shredded gruyere cheese, baking until crust is golden and cheese is melted, an additional 3-5 minutes.

*Recipe courtesy of Everyday Food