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A Cuban-Style Picadillo

cuban picadillo

I’ve traveled to many parts of the world and whenever I’ve been abroad, I’ve tried to sample as much of the local food as possible. On those occasions, I made it a point to learn about the food as well as consume it. It’s fun to discover where and how a particular dish came to be, and especially how history, geography and climate affect the food that people eat. And while I’m traveling much less these days, I still have a deep interest in these things. That’s how this Cuban Picadillo recipe came to be.

I was researching another recipe using some cookbooks I found at the local used bookstore and perusing some Web sites when I stumbled upon a recipe at the New York Times site for something called Cuban Picadillo. One of the comments there mentioned a version of the dish by Nitza Villapol, who I learned is known as the Julia Child of Cuba. A few searches later, I knew I had to try my hand at picadillo.

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Roasted Chicken Breasts with Fall Fruit

Roasted Chicken Breasts with Fall Fruit

One of the best things about fall is that the fresh ingredients available now are distinctive. By that, I mean that the fruits and vegetables I can get right now are so specific to the season and if I just listed them — apples, pears, cranberries, squash, pumpkin, etc. — you just automatically start visualizing falling leaves, brightly colored trees, cool temperatures and football games. And the cooking emphasis changes, too, for the season. I’ll be doing more roasting than grilling, more soups and stews than sauté. That’s where this recipe began — as a search for ways to put fall fruits into a main course.

I found the basis for this roasted chicken breasts entrée in a magazine called Midwest Living. I don’t recall the exact issue, but the link in the recipe below will take you to the original. After reading it through, I knew exactly how I wanted to adapt it — by emphasizing the fruit (especially the apples) and enhancing it with just a bit of smoke to remind me of the burning leaves that once were a hallmark of fall for me. (I don’t think we’re allowed to do that anymore.)

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Classic Carpaccio

This isn’t exactly a recipe, at least in the way I normally I think of them, but more of a “how to.” No cooking is required. And yes, I know it’s a “meatless Monday,” but what the heck, carpaccio is one of the finer things in life if you’re not revolted at the idea of eating raw meat. If that’s not your cup of tea, move on. Nothing to see here. Some time ago, I posted a lamb carpaccio, and some of what I said there applies to all carpaccio. This, however, is the classic version, the one you’ll see in many Italian restaurants or in steak houses and other fine restaurants. 

The components for assembly are listed below so I’ll focus here on the beef — steak actually. I use tenderloin, the cut that’s used to make fillet mignon. It’s very lean and tasty. A good rib roast is the second best choice. It has to be cut into paper thin slices. If you can, find a butcher who is willing to use a slicer to cut/shave it for you (assuming you don’t have your own). If not, put the tenderloin in the freezer for about 15 minutes and you’ll be able to slice it thin (about 1/8 inch) with a well-sharpened knife. That’s not the end of it, however. The slices you’ve cut with a knife have to be placed between a couple of pieces of plastic and pounded with a meat mallet (or something else smooth and heavy, like a rolling pin, until they’re so thin you can practically see through them.

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Shrimp with Sriracha Lime Dip

Shrimp with Sriracha Lime Dip

I’m always on the lookout for interesting small plates I can make for a special lunch or as a first course for a more elaborate dinner. Shrimp are always a good bet for that. I actually devised this Shrimp with Sriracha Lime Dip in response to the need for a small light dinner entrée, but I think it actually would work better as lunch or an appetizer, so I’ll offer it up here in that capacity. If you use about a pound of shrimp, it will make four nice portions easily.

The shrimp themselves are straight forward. Use your favorite marinade or your favorite rub to make a marinade, and after half an hour or so in that, give them a quick sauté in some butter or olive oil. For this version, I used Mangia’s Shrimp Mojo, which for me has the perfect balance of flavor and heat. I didn’t want the shrimp themselves to be too spicy. The real bang comes from the dipping sauce.

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Basic Techniques Every Cook Should Master

When I was young, my single mother, brother and I lived with my grandparents and my grandmother did the lion’s share of the cooking for us. Her bank of recipes was limited to a couple of cookbooks, a few she had handwritten and tucked into those cookbooks and whatever she had memorized. Today’s cooks have access to millions — perhaps billions — of recipes thanks to thousands of blogs and web sites (like this one).

With all that information available, one might think that great cooking would be commonplace. Yet from what I can see, at least, there are far too many people for whom preparing a meal is a mystery. Most of them can put a meal on the table, of course. They can follow a well-written recipe, perhaps, or open a jar or box or package of something and follow the accompanying directions, but they’re not really cooking, I think. The creative aspect — the art — is missing. 

I created Discovery Cooking because I wanted develop my own creative abilities in the kitchen and more important, to document my progress so that other, like-minded people might also benefit from my experiences. For the most part, I try to do that through recipes that I develop myself, sometimes from scratch, sometimes by adapting and mastering classic dishes, and occasionally by trying to reproduce something I’ve encountered while dining out. I love to talk with chefs, with other food bloggers and anyone, really, who knows more about cooking than I do. I’ve even taken a few cooking classes. And if I were to distill what I’ve learned to a few things I think very serious cook should know it would be this: It’s important to get to know the ingredients you’re working with (and these should be as fresh and wholesome as you can find). And it’s critical to master a few basic cooking techniques and understand which ones are appropriate for the ingredients you plan to use.

Assuming you have good ingredients, there are just five basic techniques in cooking: sautéing, poaching, roasting, braising and grilling.

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Lemon Rosemary Roasted Chicken

When I was very young, my grandmother was the one who cooked Sunday dinner and it was generally a mid-day affair that featured either a melt-in-your-mouth pot roast or a stuffed roasted chicken. There were other main dishes from time to time, but those were the two meals you could count on most Sundays. So when I was teaching myself to cook, roasting a chicken as my grandmother did — right down to the sage and onion dressing cooked in the bird — was something I picked up early and made for a number of years. Then, the lovely Carol and I began traveling, for business and pleasure. And early on, when I was still a bit uneasy with food I couldn’t recognize, roasted chicken was one of the things I’d order in restaurants, trying to be “safe.”

It was somewhere in a small town in France that I did just that, and discovered this wonderful roasted chicken. After a bit of a language struggle with my terrible French and the waiter’s reasonably good English, the chef came out and explained how the dish was made and I was shocked that the fragrant, juicy half chicken on my plate could be so simple.  

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Langostino Tails and Gnocchi in Beurre Blanc

Langostino Tails and Gnocchi in Beurre Blanc

Sometimes a really elegant dish doesn’t take a great deal of time or skill. And this is one of them. It started when I came across some frozen cooked langostino tails at the local Trader Joe’s. When I was researching the shrimp scampi recipe I posted a couple of weeks back, I learned a good deal about the naming of various crustaceans, so when I found the langostino tails, I knew a little about them and knew that a beurre blanc would be perfect for them.

First, the langostino. Like their cousins, the Norwegian “lobsters” that the French call langoustines, they look a lot like stylized miniature lobsters and the tails have a similar mild flavor, but when cooked they have a texture that more closely resembles shrimp. They’re imported mainly from Chile, and it’s almost impossible to find them not cooked and frozen, and even more rare to find them whole, whether frozen or fresh. Fortunately, the cooked frozen tails, when gently thawed, are none the worse for the processing. (Chilled, you can even use them like you would chilled steamed shrimp — say for a cocktail.)

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