Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Traveling with Mr. Rogers
What’s cooking? Dominican Rice with Plantains and Bacon, and Grilled Fish Dominicano

I had my doubts from the beginning. You’d think the idea of a trip to the Dominican Republic – escaping an onslaught of wintry weather (even in Austin!) – would be one anyone would embrace. But it was billed as a golf trip, and I do not play. And while I’m happy to have those nice stretches of time on my own, it’s all the associated activity that drives me crazy. At least in my experience, the Golf Playing is invariably preceded by the Golf Talking (what they’ve heard about the course, who designed it, how the teams will form, carts vs caddies, blah blah...), and followed by the Golf Analysis (who played well/poorly, that crazy thing that happened on the 15th hole, the birdies, the bogies, blah blah...), and, at least in our house, there’s also the Golf Watching and the Golf Napping. So the idea of a week spent – regardless of venue – enveloped in Golf made my eyes roll back in my head.

Adding to my discomfort, did I mention that I barely knew any of the other 12 people on the trip?

We breezed through customs at the airport in Punta Cana, and headed for the car rental counter. Just as we got there, the lights in the airport dimmed, then went out. After a couple of minutes, they came back on, but that brief interruption was enough to fry the computer systems of our rental car company, and it was a full 2 hours before we could finalize a contract and make our way to the only van available on the island, which we needed for carrying... the Golf clubs.

The a/c in the van didn’t work really well, the odometer was closing in on 100,000 miles, and the hatch door wouldn’t stay open on its own, so that one of us literally had to hoist it up in order to get our suitcases in or out. This trip is doomed, I said to myself.

As we headed out of the airport, I realized I needed an attitude adjustment. It was a vacation, after all, to an island I’d never visited before, staying at a house that – if the photos were to be believed – was fabulous, and as for the people,... Well, at times like these, it’s helpful to remember Mr. Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), who I’m told always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker he once met: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love, once you’ve heard their story.”

It turned out that the rental car was a complete aberration on the trip – the lone 0 in a field of 9s and 10s. Yes, there was lots of Golf, but the house was even better than the photos, the people were mostly lovable, and the island is beautiful. Best of all, though, the house staff included the delightful Guillermo, our chef. Guillermo spoke almost no English, and I was one of only two Spanish-speakers in our group, so the Kitchen Goddess was consulted on the menu for almost every meal, and Guillermo and I spent some part of every day discussing the local cuisine and the many wonderful ways to prepare it. What fun!

Our charming and gracious kitchen staff. Guillermo is the big guy on the right.

* * *

One of the Dominican foods Guillermo introduced me to was plantains, plátanos in Spanish.

On the outside, plantains look almost exactly like bananas. And, in fact, they are members of the same family. So were my grandmother and my great Aunt Irva. But my grandmother was sweet and soft – like a banana – while my Aunt Irva was more of a plantain – thick-skinned, starchy, with less sugar, and not really edible raw. Hmmm...

Well, anyway, it turns out that with the right treatment, plantains are delicious. So maybe, with the right treatment, Irva might have been a little easier to take. Or maybe if she hadn’t been named Irva. We’ll never know.

In any case, the first thing to know is that, as plantains ripen, their flavor changes dramatically. Green plantains are firm and starchy, tasting much like potatoes. You have to cook them – bake, boil, or fry – first, then mash them and combine them with other foods. One such treatment is a mofongo, a dish that originated in Puerto Rico but is ubiquitous in Dominican restaurants: green plantains that have been cooked and mashed with garlic paste and formed into cups that are then fried and filled. The ones pictured here – from one of Guillermo’s dinners – are filled with chopped shrimp and topped with guacamole. Mmmm...

The riper plantains – which look like beat-up bananas, as in the photo here – are relatively sweet, and when cooked, taste like a cross between butternut squash and sweet potatoes. When you fry them, you get a slightly crispy outside that’s actually sweet.

Dominican cuisine is highly flavored without being spicy.  Guillermo made a perfectly delightful rice dish for us, to accompany a marinated whitefish that was so good, some of our folks were heating the leftovers for breakfast the next day.

The Kitchen Goddess was eager to reproduce this masterpiece fish. Turns out, Guillermo cheats a bit and uses a flavoring packet (see photo) that the KG cannot find – nowhere, nohow – despite her best efforts, which, as you know, are pretty damn good. But Guillermo sent her off with a sample, and she has used that one sample to reproduce the mix of flavors for all of our benefit.  Lots of garlic and lime, with hints of sweetness from the paprika and parsley. The Kitchen Goddess is not to be deterred.

The KG's marinade spices -- I think it would be good next time to add fresh parsley to the marinade.

Step 1: Remove the ends
Kitchen Goddess notes: (1) Guillermo cooks his rice in chicken broth – “Es más rico,” (it’s richer) he says. And I agree. But if you don’t have any chicken broth handy, or just prefer a lighter flavor, use plain water instead. (2) I found plantains in one local grocery store. Correction – I found one plantain. But a store that caters to a more Latino population will likely have a larger supply. If you buy a green plantain, you may have to wait a week for it to achieve that beat-up look. Have patience. (3) Plantains -- even the ripe ones, are tough to peel. Best is to cut them into pieces a couple of inches long, and slice the skin lengthwise before attempting to remove it.

Step 2: Cut into chunks.
Step 3: Slice skin lengthwise, then remove peel.

Dominican Rice with Plantains and Bacon

Serves 6.

1 cup rice
Chicken broth in whatever quantity directed by your rice package
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for plantain bits
2-3 slices bacon
6 tablespoons grapeseed (or canola) oil
1 ripe (yellow and blackened) plantain
1 spring onion, white and green parts

In a large saucepan, cook the rice according to package instructions, substituting chicken broth for all or part of the water. Add the tablespoon of butter and the ½ teaspoon of salt to the liquid.

While the rice is cooking, peel and dice the plantain (see photo).

In a medium-sized frying pan, cook the bacon until crisp, and remove it to paper towels to drain. Discard the bacon fat and wipe the skillet clean.

Add the grapeseed oil to the skillet and heat at medium setting until the oil is hot. Add the plantain dice and cook, stirring and turning the pieces as they brown, for 6-7 minutes, until all pieces are golden. Remove them to paper towels to drain.

When ready to serve, crumble the bacon and stir most of it into the rice, along with most of the plantain dice. Reserve some of both the bacon and the plantain to use as garnish on top of the rice. Slice the spring onion very thinly on the diagonal, and sprinkle on top.

Grilled Fish a la Dominicano

1 pound whitefish fillet (I used cod, about 1 inch thick)
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, minced
Marinade seasoning:
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon paprika (smoked is best)
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
¾ teaspoon parsley flakes
¼ teaspoon white pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground cumin

Using paper towels, pat the fish dry and place in a shallow baking dish. In a small bowl or jar, combine the olive oil, lime juice, and garlic. In a separate small bowl, combine the spices and parsley flakes, and use a mortar and pestle to grind the blend together until the parsley flakes have turned to powder. (Alternatively, pile the combination between two sheets of waxed paper or baker’s parchment and use a rolling pin or the side of a jar to crush the parsley flakes to a powder with the other ingredients. Then at some point, get yourself a small mortar and pestle –  it’s a useful kitchen tool.)

The only photo I have of the fish. Mysteriously, the cooked fillet disappeared before I could get the camera out.

Add the marinade seasoning to the oil/lime juice/garlic and mix well. Pour all over the fish and marinate 30 minutes. Grill the fish on medium-low for 9 minutes per side. Or bake at 450º for 20-30 minutes, turning once.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When You Just Have to Have It Now
What’s cooking? Twice-Baked Potatoes with Carrots, Onion, and Goat Cheese

A Note from the Kitchen Goddess: The KG has been away on a Caribbean island for a week, and now is working on a nice post about some island flavors. But it’s taking a while. So in the meantime,...

You know how sometimes you just get a craving for a particular food, and nothing will do until you satisfy that craving? Most of the time, for me, it’s a chocolate thing. This time, though, it was twice-baked potatoes.

I’ve mentioned my delightful book group before, and the format of potluck dinners. At our last meeting, my friend Ellen prepared twice-baked potatoes made with carrots mixed into the potato filling. Oh my, they were fluffy and carroty, and I’m pretty sure they had some cheese in them. Ellen said they were really easy – low cal, too! – and she promised to give me the recipe.

Then a couple of days later, as I noted above, my hubby and I left for a vacation in the Dominican Republic. After a week of chowing down on the most wonderful seafood and lots of drinks with little umbrellas in them, I was in desperate need of food that would put me back on track with my eternal diet. I couldn’t really picture myself switching from broiled lobster and rum punch to chicken broth and celery sticks, so I thought about those twice-baked potatoes, and the more I thought about them, the more obsessed I became. I had to have them. Now.

I called Ellen, and she wasn’t home. I left a desperate, pleading message, but as the minutes ticked on (I’m really not the most patient person when it comes to culinary needs), I decided I’d just make up my own damn recipe. Truly not patient.

It’s amazing what you can do when you have the drive. You picture a dish, you think about the flavors and textures involved, and you look in the fridge and your pantry for a little inspiration. And you prepare yourself for pizza if it doesn’t work out. More often than not, you can come up with something that’s at least edible, and maybe you’ll make some notes as to what was missing, or what you had too much of, and the next time you make it, you’ll get closer to that ideal.

This particular dish wasn’t that much of a challenge – after all, there are lots of recipes out there for twice-baked potatoes, and what you’re adding is mostly carrots. In the end, I included a few items – like the onion and the garlic and the cream – that I’m pretty sure weren’t in Ellen’s dish, but this version turned out so well that I had to practically slap my husband’s hands to hang onto enough of the filled spuds for a decent photograph the next day. And now I can share the recipe with you.

Kitchen Goddess note: I’m pretty sure Ellen used cheddar cheese in her recipe. I’ll bet that would be good, too. But herbed chèvre is what I had in my fridge, so herbed chèvre is what I used. You can try both and let me know what you liked. I did think the herbs added nice flavor.

Twice-Baked Potatoes with Carrots, Onion, and Goat Cheese

Makes 8 servings.

4 medium-sized (6-8 ounces each) russet potatoes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, cut in ½-inch dice (about 1 cup)
2 cups carrots, cut in ½-inch dice
2 large cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chicken broth
2 ounces goat cheese (herbed or plain)
¼ cup cream (heavy or light)
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
Garnish: chopped chives

Special equipment: potato masher or ricer or food mill, for mashing the potatoes.

Preheat the oven to 425º (400º if using a convection setting). Scrub the potatoes under cold running water and pat dry. With a fork, poke holes in 3-4 places around the potatoes, to let moisture escape during baking. Place potatoes directly on a rack in center of the oven, and bake 50-60 minutes or until a fork or a metal skewer easily goes into the potato. (The Kitchen goddess prefers a skewer because she can poke it the length of the spud, making sure it’s soft all the way through.)

While the potatoes are baking, heat the butter in a medium skillet and add the onion. Cook the onion over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, until it’s soft, then add the carrots and garlic. Continue to sauté the vegetables for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken broth, bring the mixture to a simmer, then lower the heat and cook the vegetables, covered, for 10 minutes or until the carrots are tender. Check occasionally to make sure the liquid stays at a simmer.

Transfer the skillet mixture – including any broth – to the bowl of a food processor. Add the goat cheese and process until smooth. Set aside until the potatoes are done.

When the potatoes are done, let them cool enough to handle, then cut them in half lengthwise and use a spoon to gently scoop out the potato flesh, leaving enough potato in the shell that it stays intact. Put the potato flesh into a large bowl and, using your tool of choice, mash until the texture is as lumpy or smooth as you prefer. Food processors are not recommended for this part, as they turn potatoes gummy.

Add the processed carrot mixture to the mashed potatoes, along with the cream, the salt, and 10-12 grinds of black pepper. Stir well. Fill the potato shells with the mixture and arrange the filled shells on a baking sheet.

If you’ll be serving the potatoes soon, put the filled shells into the oven at 400º for 20 minutes. If you prefer to make them ahead of time, the filled shells can rest in the refrigerator, covered tightly with cellophane wrap, overnight, then reheated at 400º for 30-40 minutes, until warm. The filled shells can also be frozen on a cookie sheet, to maintain their shape, then stored in the freezer in zip-lock bags. Reheat as noted above.

When ready to serve, garnish with chopped chives, if desired.