Tag Archives: vacation cooking

13 Coconut Fajitas, 25 piña coladas, 1 million pots of coffee

16 Jan

I could live a long and happy life eating nothing but rice, beans and plantains (mo’ mofongo, please!). Throw in fresh seafood and coconuts and I’m doggy-paddling along the lukewarm ocean coast of my personal food heaven.

All hands on deck: The motley-est of crews

While it could have been a bummer that the six days my college friends and I spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico, were invariably cloudy, the afternoon thunderstorms were secretly the best thing that ever happened to New Year’s Day 2011. We’ve always had an endless ability to entertain one another (why else would we have devoted our better years to Tufts theater?) and a proclivity for doing so whether or not we we’re in public, where we tend to isolate in the same manner while spending more money. So, we joked that the penthouse apartment we rented for the week (yup, two bedrooms, 13 people, that’s math even I can do – ahhhh, to be broke) became our ship.

The mess hall (photo snatched from Molly O's FB ~ Muchas gracias, chica!)

Securely boarded against the rocky seas of light rain and heavy hangover, we sent particularly cabin-feverish or past-due for chore crewmembers out to procure only the most essential of booty – coffee, cigarettes, and queso. Back at the homefront, we had the perfect excuse to do nothing but read (The Alchemist – thanks, love!), cook and lazily maintain a light buzz.

Kitchen crew on a voyage to dry land. Not on New Year's Day, I'm cheating.

My first mates Molly and Erica and I took command of the galley (yes I did google the pirate term for kitchen, thank you) bright and early (i.e., 3:30 p.m.) this New Year’s morn, kicking off 2011 with a breakfast of Bacon Cheddar Pancakes bathed in maple syrup. Hint: Thanks to Armando’s genius, Molly caramelized the bacon in brown sugar first. Hoh. My. God.

Not the prettiest of pancakes, what they lacked in finesse they sure made up for. In sugar.

Fresh off this resounding success (slash surely still sugar-high), we again took the reigns for dinner.

I adore how elegantly fajitas feed a group, easily accommodating vegetarians/meat lovers and spice freaks/those who can’t handle the heartburn alike. I don’t think the thrill of “build-your-own” anything ever really wears off, either. Humans are simple creatures. I mean really, Coldstone Creamery is not a success because of the lame singing.

Plus, fajitas are cheap and delicious. Of course I adhere to a strict policy of abstinence when it comes to math on weekends, but there’s no way this works out to more than $3 a person.

COCONUT FAJITAS TO FEED THE WHOLE CREW

***Except LA CHUUUPACAAAABRA!! He is both real and not welcome.***

For the chicken:

  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 4 lbs chicken breast (we had leftovers, which naturally went in the January 2 breakfast scramble)
  • a couple jalapeño peppers
  • a couple cloves of garlic
  • fresh lime
  • S/P
  • Brian T. Smith to brilliantly oversee chicken marinating

For the fixings (use your imagination, but these were ours:)

  • 2 or 3 big onions
  • 6 bell peppers (green were cheapest, so we used 3 of these + 1 each red, yellow and orange because I like pretty things)
  • the ubiquitous Goya arroz amarillo (or any kind of rice, but when in Rome, and Rome is Puerto Rico, use this)
  • salsa (buy or make – we would have made made but tomatoes were all imported desde Los Estados Unidos, entonces muy caro)
  • beans (we had frijoles negros and refried)
  • avocado or guacamole (see step 1 of earlier post of Mint.com fame – hells yeah!)
  • cheeses (we had queso and cheddar)
  • sour cream
  • tortillas, enough for everyone to have 2
  • hot sauces
  1. Put the Lime in the Coconut. First, make your marinade. Dump your can of coconut milk into a big bowl. Cut up the jalapeños – since they’re just going in the marinade, no need to de-vein or de-seed them, but for the love of all that’s holy wash your hands well after touching. There are far too many related horror stories inappropriate for the level of family-friendliness this blog attempts to maintain, so fill in your own blanks but please, please scrub those digits. Mince garlic. Add both to the milk, squeeze fresh lime over everything, salt and pepper as you like. Leave the chicken breasts whole but remove any nasties and plunk them right in.  Let marinate for at least a half hour.
  2. How many pecks of red bell peppers did all your preppers pick? Cut peppers and onions in half width-wise and slice into into thin strips. Add as they’re ready to a giant saucepan or stockpot (likely the singular such instrument you have in your shabby rental kitchen, doubling as pancake griddle and short order egg station) over low heat. Let them caramelize, stirring when someone wants to do something, until the boys are back from their booze run. Don’t worry, this will somehow take hours, but the longer the better for these babies – you want at least 60 minutes. If you like, and you don’t have any strict vegetarians, splash some of the extra marinade over the peppers and onions – just make sure you cook it down for a good long time.
  3. Make ghetto tin foil baking trays or I suppose real ones if you’re fancy and bake the chicken at 375 until it’s done (these took at least 45 minutes), basting every so often. The coconut milk will infuse it with flavor and moisture, and you want these to be pretty well done so they shred easily. When they’re done, let them cool enough to touch, then get right in there and rip it up with the hands you cleaned so well, right??
  4. Fix yer fixins. Meanwhile, slice the avocado (drizzle with fresh lime juice for flavor and so they don’t brown), put beans in a dish, shred cheeses, etc. See Erica Finkel with queries, she is a condiment/fixings genius.
  5. Warm the tortillas. Wrap the whole stack in tin foil and pop in the oven for a few minutes.
  6. Go assembly line style and let every damn sailor build their dinner to their little hearts’ desires. Also, make them pour you a big old glass of wine, or if you’re lucky, Baba-Yan’s signature champagne punch. You deserve it.

This girl is coco-nuts!



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Summer Tour, Part III: Bologna, by way Caroliina.

18 Aug

What could be more a more retro-fab American way to make Monday night dinner than by playing sous-chef (or “pinche,” as my Oklahoman grandfather would call it, partially in mocking deference to his partially-Chilean wife) for your Irish/Hungarian mom while she makes her family’s favorite Italian recipe? Nothing I can think of, except maybe doing it barefoot in a bathing suit while sipping a Red Hook nestle-chilled in a personalized wedding beer koozie. In the South. Also, just owning and using several beer koozies.

Recognize that koozie, Lynne? Tim + Vanessa 2009. That one's for you!

Although my personal kitchen hero Marcella Hazan would no doubt turn up her discerning nose at the thought of serving her famed five-hour Bolognese to a soundtrack of pre-season football (sorry, ‘Cell, but the fam loves the G-Men and I had given Mark Sanchez my heart even before my roomie and I managed to use his unparalleled visage to stop a lady-cop from impounding her car), I think she’d have to approve of the spirit behind the afternoon of prep for the feast.

There is no better vacation to me than the one my family takes every year to Oak Island, North Carolina, precisely because there’s literally nothing to do but nothing. With no museums to feel guilty about not visiting because you’re secretly uninterested in “learning about local culture,” nor any social scene to feel the need to put on heels for, these precious days on the bath-water warm Atlantic are reserved for sunning, swimming and reading crappy Jane Green novels. Evenings, meanwhile, follow one mandate alone, and needless to say it’s one of my favorites: eat, drink and be merry. So, after a morning of soaking up plenty of sunburn and several men’s magazines pilfered from the office (PR: it’s good for subscriptions), Mom and I retired to the rental house kitchen together to kick off the meal that will always make me think of the seemingly effortless love and care she devotes to feeding her family.

One of my earliest, and most visceral, food memories is the familiar grumble of thrilled hunger I’d feel when I’d come into our kitchen on Wedgewood Road and peer over the red and black granite countertop of the island to find on the stovetop a pot of stewing tomato sauce. Not plain red but flecked with the tiniest curls of almost grey-bluish beef simmering amidst barely detectable slivers of onion, carrot and celery. Fascinated, I would stand on tiptoes to reach for the wooden spoon resting next to the burner to skim the layer of thick orange fat layer that gathered sedentarily between the slow, frothing bubbles.

Marcella describes it better than I can, as just reading one of her recipes paints a picture of the domineering, bourbon-swilling dame responsible for teaching American there’s more to red sauce than Ragu brand long before Mario Batali did: “the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.” Hers was the first (new) cookbook my mom ever gave me for Christmas, and I vividly remember sitting in the backyard of my apartment in San Francisco in a stolen patch of January sunlight tuning out Jean-Claude, our French super who wears a beret and drives his three ancient whippet dogs everywhere in a van adorned on each side (roof included) with a perfectly replicated Pink Floyd album cover, while I pored over each of her directions. I could hear each one as sternly resolute as if they came straight from the mouth of the Italian grandmother I’ve never had. It’s pronouncements like these I love – Marcella, on Pasta:

“There is not the slightest justification for preferring homemade pasta to factory-made. Those who do deprive themselves of some of the most flavorful dishes in the Italian reperatory… They are seldom interchangeable, but in terms of absolute quality, they are fully equal.”

One more favorite before I tell you how to make the damn dinner. On tomatoes:

“The flavor of fresh tomatoes is livelier, less cloying than that of the canned, but fully ripened fresh tomatoes for cooking are still not a common feature of North American markets, except for the six or eight weeks during the summer when they are brought in from nearby farms. When you are unable to get good fresh tomatoes, rather than cook with watery, tasteless ones, it’s best to turn to the dependable canned variety.”

I’ll spare you her thoughts on the acceptable canned varieties. Obviously, they’re Italian.

No doubt she’ll recount the entire recipe for the Bolognese I’ve been eating my entire life far better than I can, so I’ll direct you to it: Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce, from The Essentials of Italian Cooking. But, to paraphrase, you first make a soffrito (dice about a handful of onions, celery and carrots, and heat, in that order, in oil and butter until soft).

The best way to get your veggies? Bathed in oil AND butter, clearly.

Sounds simple, right? It is. Although, not so much with Marcella over your shoulder:

“An imperfectly executed soffrito will impair the flavor of a dish no matter how carefully all of the succeeding steps are carried out. If the onion is merely stewed or incompletely sauteed, the taste of the sauce, or the risotto, or the vegetable never takes off and will remain feeble.”

So don’t eff it up.

Add ground beef and cook “until it loses its raw, red color,” S&P it, then add the two secret ingredients – milk (for which Mom took a measuring cup to the neighbors to fill because we only had skim – Americana at its best, my friends) and nutmeg (adding “warm” seasonings like allspice and cinnamon to sauces is a favorite tasty trick I got from Mom which I now suspect she plucked from Marcella herself). When the milk has evaporated, you add the same amount of white wine you added milk until that has evaporated too.

Here, Marcella left me to panic, because by this time in the recipe you have a yellow mass of liquid and it’s almost impossible to tell when exactly that magic moment is. I realized, though, that besides using the residue on the side of the pot to judge when the chalky white line has diminished to more or less where it was was before you added the wine, you can actually smell the sharpness of the alcohol until it has burned away. After that, you add the canned tomatoes, and then you wait. For hours. And hours. And more hours.

In the meantime, go finish off that sunburn. Return to the house to stir the pot every so often – like when the tingling on that awkward spot on your arm you didn’t reach makes you realize you need more SPF 30, when you feel the need to compulsively check your Blackberry despite the fact they’re certainly not paying you to do so, or if you have to use the bathroom in a manner not appropriate for the ocean. (Not that girls poo. Everybody knows we don’t. Ew.)

When it becomes four o’clock somewhere, a perfectly appropriate location being your own mind, I suggest you fix yourself a While You Wait Whiskey, my debut cocktail creation, inspired by a delicious visit to the Whiskey Kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee (thanks for gradumacating, brosef!).

Look, fruits too!! This day has ALL the food groups.

Cut up two or three strawberries into small pieces. Do what mixologists call “muddling” – mash them up how you see fit. I used the detachment from an electric mixer. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice into the mix. Put ice in a glass, pour a shot of bourbon over it (if I had my way I’d of course use Bulleit), add the muddled mix, top with club soda, and stir it all up. Adjust all ingredients to taste. Garnish with a sprig of basil, if you’ve got it, and you’re fancy.

The fam unanimously approved ( After “Stawberries? And whiskey? Katie, you’re so crazy, San Francisco blah blah blah.” Sip. “Oh… that works!” Another sip). Point one, pretension.

Even Brosef, the taste purist (complicating the childhood of yours truly the budding foodie by refusing to go to any restaurants where he'd be forced to eat "fancy pizza"), went for sip 2. Admittedly, the basil was a bit much for him.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When it has, add spaghetti.

Note: I actually think that even if it weren’t a sensible choice by virtue of its being healthier, the nutty taste and grainier texture of whole wheat spaghetti actually makes a nicer compliment to the sauce than traditional white pasta. Sorry, ‘Cell. I will, however, concede the milk battle. Whole – which is four percent fat – just works better than two percent here. It’s vacation.

Sit while the storm clouds you desperately miss on the East Coast roll in.

Meanwhile, open a bottle of wine. It should be full enough to stand up to the meat, but light enough not to overpower the delicate nature of the sauce. We had a Benziger Signaterra “Three Blocks” Red (2006), a Sonoma Cab Sauv (68%)/Merlot blend that is structured but very smooth, with more cocoa than fruit notes. (The bottle was sent to my Mom as part of the wine membership I got her for Christmas, and on a side note for all you wine country visitors, Benziger, a family-owned and run biodynamic winery is one of the best places to to go. I’ll expound later I’m sure.)

This is a completely extraneous shot I'm including only so I can look at it whistfully whilst stranded once again in cubeland braindead zone tomorrow. Sometimes I don't think the gold diggers have it so wrong.

When the pasta is done al dente, strain, “correct the salt” in the sauce, and serve all mixed up topped with parm cheese. After you’ve worked this hard, keep it classy. Make it fresh grated. Do it for Marcella.

Sit down to enjoy it with your adorable family.

But seriously, could they BE any cuter?

And now suspended 10,000 miles in the bumpy air above the Rockies, remembering the vivid sights, smells and tastes that bring me home no matter how far away that may be, I feel incredibly lucky.  Even if it’s precisely the frustratingly fleeting nature of these moments that make them so powerful.

welcome to the good life. catch ya on the flip side.