Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My New Love Affair

I probably won't always be able to pick out a main dish and a dessert for each country but I decided to try one out this time around. For a couple years now, I've had a shy, flirty affair with alfajores. We've seen each other in restaurants, they've always looked so enticing up on their tray, but I've cast my eyes down and walked way, always resisting temptation. Sunday, I gave in to temptation.

Honestly, I don't think anyone can blame me. What better way is there to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than bustling around in your kitchen? And when you know you will be treated to a sweet little something at the end? If I could spend every day like that, I would. Anyway, I took the opportunity to try out a couple recipes: one I've seen pop up every now and then for dulce de leche, and the other from http://argentinastravel.com for alfajores. I'm not sure if Argentina can claim rights to the cookie or dulce de leche, but the treats are definitely among their traditional eats.

Dulce de Leche

1 or several cans of sweetened condensed milk

Poke a small hole in the top of each can and set in a large pot. Fill the pot with water until just under the top of the cans. Boil water for approximately 1 1/2 to 3 hours, depending on desired consistency. Add more water to the pot as necessary to keep water level just under the top of the cans.

Cool cans, open, and enjoy!

Just a word about this recipe. I had to try it because it sounded so easy and so completely different than anything I've tried--not the result, but the cooking method. I've seen recipes that say to fully submerge cans (without poking the hole) but I was too scared of causing some explosion in my apartment that I opted for the slower method of allowing a release of potentially too much pressure. Shorter cooking times result in a runnier dulce de leche that would be perfect for drizzling over ice cream or cake or anything needing a topping. Longer cooking times yield firmer, if not solid, dulce de leche. I boiled two cans for 2 hours and produced the epitome of temptation, a slightly-firmer-than-pudding cream that is ideal for sandwich cookie filling, but also extremely difficult not to eat straight from the can.

The recipe pulled from argentinastravel.com says it's an adapted version of the recipe included in Argentina Cooks! by Shirley Lomax Brooks (which I believe may now be a book on my Christmas list...)


1 3/4 cups flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 lb butter (1 stick), at room temperature
1 tsp lemon zest (optional)
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 recipe dulce de leche
Grated sweetened coconut (optional)

Combine flour, salt, sugar, and baking soda in a bowl. Cut in the butter, then mix by hand until well incorporated. Work in the lemon zest and then mix in the egg yolks and vanilla. Shape the dough into 2 balls and chill for 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 325*F. On a floured work surface, roll out each ball of dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut into 2-inch rounds and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes or until done. The cookies will be dry but not brown.

When cookies are cool, spread a generous spoonful of dulce de leche on one cookie and top it with another. Press together gently.

For versions with coconut or nuts, roll the seam of the alfajor in shredded coconut or chopped nuts.

Before I pledge my love for these cookies, I have three recommendations. First, use the lemon zest, even though it's optional. Because of all the sugar from the butter cookie to the dulce de leche, I think the lemon zest adds a necessary hint of freshness to the cookie. I don't think it's a great enough amount to make you fully aware of citrus; these are still sweet, creamy cookies, not fruity. Second, I think refrigerating the dough for 2 hours is too long. I had to work with the dough a little longer to warm it up enough that it would roll out nicely. I think an hour should be sufficient time. Third, you technically only need one can of condensed milk to make enough dulce de leche for this recipe. I personally think you should throw in another can for good measure, but that's just so there's enough to taste "for quality assurance" during baking and throughout the rest of the day.

Now my ode to the alfajor: why did I wait so long to give in to temptation?! These really are so easy to make and so fantastically delicious! I've already said enough about the dulce de leche--really, it should be called dulce divino because it is just heavenly. Pared with the butter cookies, it's almost impossible to eat just one. The cookies themselves are soft but not chewy, which I think probably makes the best sandwich base because they have enough substance to stay together when you take a bite. I rolled mine in coconut and the final product looks so inviting and so festive, I can't wait to make these during Christmas... don't get me wrong, though, I'm not waiting that long before I make them again!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Sunday Milonga

My kitchen spent all of Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have to admit I didn't really know much about Argentina besides the tango... but, seriously, if you've never seen Argentine tango, you're missing out; I love to salsa and I'll run to the dancefloor when I hear a cha-cha, but I am flat-out mesmorized when I see Argentine tango. Anyway, that's dance, not food--but I will admit that I was wondering if the food would wow me as much as the dance.

I had to research this one a little more. Apparently Argentina is heavy in the meat exports so their normal diets are very protein-rich. Lots of beef, lots of carne asada. If I didn't live in an apartment (with no balcony), I would have definitely hit the grill for this "trip." Having that option removed, I looked into another interesting influence: Italy. A great deal of traditionally Argentinian food has roots stemming from Italy (due to high immigration). I could've made spaghetti! Ha, not exactly the results I'm aiming for with this blog. I did find, however, that one of the most common dishes are milanesas. There are TONS of variations, but the recipe I chose is probably considered their Milanesa a la Napolitana. It's a breaded sirloin steak topped with tomato sauce or a slice of tomato and melted mozzarella. Customarily served with french fries or something to that effect...

Milanesa a la Napolitana

2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
3 tbsps grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsps fresh parsley, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1 lb beef sirloin steaks
Oil (for frying)
1 large tomato
mozzarella cheese, sliced

Whisk eggs and milk in a shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl, combine bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Dip steaks in egg mixture, then coat with crumb mixture. Dip steaks back in egg mixture and again in crumb mixture (you will be double-coating).

Heat approximately 1/4" to 1/2" cooking oil in a large skillet, depth is determined by thickness of steaks. Brown steaks in oil for approximately 2-3 minutes or until meat reaches desired doneness. Drain steaks on paper towels.

Transfer steaks to a baking sheet. Top each steak with a slice of tomato (or slices, if multiple will fit), then the mozzarella. Steaks should be almost completely covered. Broil until cheese melts.

Serve with french fries or salad.

This recipe came from a Taste of Home submission, from a woman raised in Argentina. While perusing through recipes, I noticed that some variations used tomato sauce or even a chunky salsa, and some used a fresh tomato slice. I decided to use the tomato slice. Also, the TOH recipe only has the steaks dredged once, while most other recipes I found had a double coating of the crumb mixture.

Although this is another recipe that comes together very quickly (maybe 20-30 minutes, depending on how you like your steak cooked), this is a prime example of how important quality ingredients are. The final product was very tasty and I'm looking forward to finishing off the leftovers, but I should have upgraded the steak that I selected. Considering that I found most recipes to include cutting the steaks thin or tenderizing them into thinner pieces, I thought it was beneficial to pick up thin sliced steaks to save me that step in the kitchen. For a country all-about meat, this recipe really needs high-quality steaks in order to get the best results. The breading and the topping, however, are still fantastic. I'm a fan of the double-coating because it leaves the steaks with a savory, crispy crust. It's almost stuffing-like, as opposed to the crispy chip-like feel of fried chicken. Even better, you can still achieve crispy goodness on the outside and rare steak perfection on the inside (yes, I believe my steak should blush at me when I cut into it!).

Another potential change to the recipe... I never found anywhere to clarify what kind of mozzarella is typically used. There's a huge difference between deli sandwich mozzarella and fresh, so I went with fresh (again, there are some things that are crazy not to use--fresh mozzarella is indisputably among them). Now considering how easy this dish is, I'm certainly going to make it again. I will, however, be more careful next time and get a better quality steak or even possibly a slightly thicker cut. But the combination of fresh tomato and mozzarella and savory--not strong enough to be salty--steak is a perfect way to end the day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sorry GITMO, I'm going to Cuba!

Well, it's probably a good thing I don't get much of a chance to get out of the country because, after a title like that, my passport is probably on the watch-list. Anyway, here's kicking off the first of recipe reviews and I promise I'll try to make sure this is the only post without a picture. Technically, I made this recipe Sunday and it is now Wednesday... so it's gone, nothing to photograph, but I can still tell you it was really good.

Ropa Vieja

1 lb. flank steak
1 small-medium onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, julienned
1 can tomato sauce
4 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup peas (canned or frozen--thaw, if frozen)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Place flank steak in a pot (medium or large should serve) and cover with water. Boil until steak is tender. Remove steak from pot and set aside to cool, saving approximately 2-3 cups of cooking liquid.

In the same pot, add tomato sauce, onion, bell pepper, garlic, olive oil, and bay leaf to the cooking liquid. Season lightly with salt and pepper (you'll revisit the salt and pepper later so no need to go overboard here). Simmer about 15 minutes.

While sauce is simmering, working with a fork or your fingers, shred beef down to spaghetti-like threads. Should have a similar appearance to pulled pork. Add beef to sauce and continue to simmer for approximately 30 minutes. About 10 minutes from complete, add peas, mix well. Test sauce and season with additional salt and pepper, to taste.

Serve on rice.

First off, this dish makes me laugh because it goes against the norm of appetizing names; "ropa vieja" is Spanish for "old clothes," which is alluding to the appearance of the shredded beef and not to the taste of the final product. This particular recipe is a slight variation of the recipe included in the cookbook Keys to Key West Cooking by Margaret Romero. In the original recipe, only one bay leaf is used and one clove of garlic, and no peas are added. For me, one clove of garlic isn't going to cut it mixed in with a pound of meat; I love garlic, and I can guarantee that any recipe I try will include more garlic than the original recipe calls for. As for the peas, I have had ropa vieja once before and it included peas and, personally, I like them; I think it gives a subtle pop to the texture (no, that wasn't meant to be a pun).

Since this was my first attempt cooking the dish, I was a little conservative on time. I had read other recipes and the estimated preparation and cooking time in those were ball-parking a couple hours. I believe my recipe probably only took an hour to an hour and a half--prep to plating. The beef didn't take very long to cook but that may have been the result of a thinner steak as opposed to a boxier cut of meat that would require more time to heat throughout. Still, I may sacrifice the shorter cooking time next time and select a thicker cut so my shredded strands are a little longer.

The rest of the cooking time flew by! Gauging when the meat is done, letting it cool, and shredding it comprises the majority of the work. The rest is basically throwing everything in a pot and letting it simmer. I love recipes like this! Hang out with a glass of wine and stir things around every now and then--can't ask for anything better.

The final product? I have to admit it's probably a good thing I didn't start my blog before cooking this one because it didn't have much of a chance to make it to the plate. I even skipped on the rice and ate it out of the pot! Hey, where's the harm in that--I'm cooking for one. I do imagine that, had I been patient enough to make the rice also, this dish would have been even better because the sauce is a light, slightly-sweet tomato sauce that would have absorb into the rice, almost creating a risotto of sorts. The beef melts down into the heaven that is slow-cooked anything... except it didn't even take as long as most slow-cooked dishes require. And the onion, garlic, and pepper round out the flavor and aroma. This is the epitome of comfort food: slightly sweet, enticingly savory; this is a dish that keeps you wandering back to the kitchen for another fork full.