Friday, February 24, 2012

Peanut Butter Cookies

Delicate. This is the word that best describes these yummy cookies. Here I share a simple recipe that is sure to satisfy the most discerning of palates! The original recipe I got from here, but I tweaked it to make the cookies a bit more healthful.

-2 cups all purpose flour
-1 cup rolled oats
-1 tspn baking powder
-1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
-1 cup creamy peanut butter
-1 Tblspn honey
-2 tspns vanilla extract
-1 cup brown sugar
-1 cup white, granulated sugar
-2 eggs

What to do?

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Mix flour, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter, peanut butter and vanilla in large bowl until well blended. Beat in both sugars. Scrape down sides of bowl. Stir half of dry ingredients into mixture. Add eggs 1 at a time, stirring well after each addition. Mix in remaining dry ingredients.  

For each cookie, roll 1 heaping tablespoonful of dough into 1 3/4-inch-diameter ball. Arrange dough balls 2 1/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. 
Bake cookies until dry on top and golden brown on bottom, about 14 minutes. Cool cookies on baking sheets 5 minutes. Using metal spatula, transfer cookies to racks and cool completely. (Can be prepared up to 3 days ahead. Store in airtight container at room temperature.) 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sugar [Cane], Part II

I like browsing through The Library of Congress' American Memory digital archive--if you go to the "search" box and type "Puerto Rico," you will be able to see several hundred digital images (mostly maps and photos) of a Puerto Rico long gone. Images of the Puerto Rico where my grandparents, and parents grew up. As I child I caught glimpses of the sugar life, but by that time the cane was mostly growing wild and the Lafayette sugar mill (around which some of my family lives), was closed and decaying: a "corpse of history" (as I call it elsewhere). Here I share a few images that I selected specifically because they focus on the life of sugar cane workers during the first half of 20th century. The photos I feature here were taken by the now iconic Jack Delano. Through his beautifully composed photos of everyday life, we witness the vibrancy of life in mid-century Puerto Rico. (The archive also contains the work of several other photographers aside from Delano). Delano first traveled to Puerto Rico on assignment for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and by 1946 he and wife Irene decided to make Puerto Rico home. His book "Puerto Rico Mio," is for me an incredibly informative visual record of living and working in Puerto Rico between the 1940s and the late 1980s.

 Above: Lunch of a sugar worker on a plantation, 1942, J. Delano

 Above: Sugar cane worker and his woman, 1941, J. Delano
Above: FSA borrower and participant in the sugar cane cooperative, 1941, J. Delano
Above: Crane at a "central" sugar cane gathering place, 1942, J. Delano
Above: FSA borrower who is a member of sugar cooperative, 1942, J. Delano
Above: Crane at "central" gathering place, 1942, J. Delano
Above: Rice in a lunch of a sugar worker, 1942, J. Delano
Above: Rice and papaya lunch in the lunch of a sugar worker, 1942, J. Delano
 Above: Harvesting sugar cane in a burned field, 1942, J. Delano
 Above: Son who brought lunch to father working on sugar cane field, 1942, J. Delano
 Above: Tenants in their garden, 1941, J. Delano
 Above: Burning a sugar cane field, 1942, J. Delano

Monday, February 20, 2012

¡King Platano!: Sopitas de platano

I first ate sopas de platanos a little over a year ago. And I ate it in the cafeteria of a funeral home of all places. We had just caught an overnight flight to Puerto Rico on a cold day in December from Boston's Logan. We landed dazed, disoriented as it often happens when rushing to fly out from the north, in winter, to the sudden brightness of the tropics on the occasion of the death of a loved one. No matter how expected the call, one is never prepared. The sudden "jump" from one dimension (wintry dark days) to  another --the brightness of the warm tropical December sun--which combined with the sharpness of the throbbing-heart pain, is almost unbearable. Though  in the face of irrevocable loss we are stronger than we think. 

Staring into the expired body of a love one, a thought crosses your mind: "the void--this gap--between the migrant and the homeland grows deeper with every loss." And every loss is a piece of "home" that returns to the earth, ever more this is the home-land of my ancestors. This isn't about melancholia, nor nostalgia. But about the reality that home is actively forged elsewhere--the same forces that propel our migrations, our global dispersions, are the same forces that make "our foods" available wherever we are. And so how lucky am I? That in our contemporary world, I can find platanos pretty much anywhere!  I'll never forget the day I went to dinner at a restaurant on the Yaqui Reservation (in the Arizona dessert), and right there on the menu they advertised tostones! Out of all the places where I expected to find tostones, this was the absolute last. I asked the Yaqui woman behind the counter: "how did you guys learn to make tostones?" And she said, "oh, we went to play baseball in Puerto Rico and the baseball player's wives taught us, and we just loved plantains so much that we decided to put it on our menu!" 

Needless to say, that sopita de platano made an impression on me. It was delicious! Here I replicate my body-memory of that wonderful soup. The best part is that this soup will not disappoint. The recipe I share here is amazingly uplifting, warming, filling, comforting--just like I remember from that funeral home cafeteria a year ago. Comforting sopita to anchor you in the face of living in our dizzying world. Green and grounding, here is king platano in full splendor for your delight!

-10 cups water
-5 platanos
-1 carrot
-1/2 cup fresh cilantro
-1 tomato
-2 celery stalks
-5 cloves crushed garlic
-1/4 tspn oregano
-1/4 tspn lime juice
-1 1/2 packets sazón
-1 tspn garlic powder
-salt and pepper to taste

What to do?
Bring water to a boil: add the platanos, carrots, celery, garlic, tomato, cilantro, oregano, sazón, lime juice, garlic powder, salt and pepper. 
Cover and let cook on low-medium heat for about 15 (to 20) minutes or until platanos are soft. 
Turn off and put the soup in a blender--blend until it turns into a cream. Put back in saucepan on low and cover for about 5 minutes then serve.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Baked Empanadas

The last year we lived in Puerto Rico, my mother owned a small cafeteria. It was located on the grounds of a gas station and across the street from the town's public hospital ("el cdt" as is called in these neo-liberal times). There was also a mechanic’s shop next door, and the buzzing world of hospital goers, gas getters, and customers who brought their broken-down jalopies to the mechanic’s shop. La plaza del mercado (central market) was located right beside my mom’s cafeteria, and a little further down the street was the middle school where I was enrolled. The kids from my school, me included, went to the tiendas (stores) right across from the school: a pizza shop that served the most delicious and cheesiest pizza ($1.00 per slice), and the candy/icey/malta/empanadilla/alcapurria/bacalaito store to which kids flocked during lunch (.50 for a empanadilla de pizza and another .50 for a coca-cola).

My mother’s cafeteria catered to the adults. And so her mainstay was empanadillas (chicken, beef, pizza, or seafood), and beer—very cold cans of Budweiser to be exact (it was the early 1980s). (It was at this very cafeteria that my mom--to her great delight--sold one of her chicken empanadillas to Raúl Juliá !) It was a time when our home-town was still buzzing with life, before everyone, or seemingly everyone migrated pal' norte (to the north), leaving as my aunt says: “the old and the dead” to run the town.

And so my point: growing up I saw (and sometimes) helped my mother make hundreds upon hundreds empanadillas, which she would then bring to her cafeteria in proper food boxes, freeze, and fry day after day for her customers. (She would make her own empanadilla dough too). I have always loved eating empanadillas, and so in honor of that most special childhood favorite, here is a vegetarian (or vegan, if you do not add eggs), simple recipe you can make at home any day of the week!

-discs for empanadas (I get the goya brand, pictured here)
-bella mushrooms, diced 1 cup
-black olives (pitted) diced, 1/2 cup
-raisins, 1/3 cup
-5 garlic cloves, minced
-2 potatos 
-2 carrots
-sweet peas, 1/2 cup
-2 eggs (optional)
-sofrito, 1 Tblspn
-olive oil, 1 Tblspn
-sazón, 2 packets
-tomato sauce (salsa de tomate), 1/2 can
-oregano, 1/4 tspn
-garlic powder, 1/2 tspn
 -water, 4 Tblspn
-salt and pepper to taste

What to do? (makes enough filling for 15 empanadas)

1. Cube your potatoes and cut your carrots into small pieces and add to a sauce pan with boiling water.
2. Boil your eggs--you want hard boiled eggs-optional-if vegan, skip eggs!
3. In a large pan set to low, add the olive oil, the sofrito, mushrooms, raisins, black olives, and garlic--mix gently, let it come together (see photo 1).  
4. When potatoes and carrots are soft (and cooked) add it to the mushroom mix--also add the eggs (which should be cut into small pieces) (see photo 2)-let this come together for a few minutes.
5. Then add the sweet peas, the water, tomato sauce, oregano, garlic powder, and salt and pepper to taste. 
6. Cover and let it cook in low-medium heat for about 10 minutes (see photo 3).
7. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
8. Take the discs out of the bag and fill your empanada.
 9. Use a fork to close the edges.
10. Place empanadas in cookie sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the shell is brown and cooked on all sides.

You can freeze your empanadas for up to two-weeks (but I warn you, these are SO delicious that they won't last very long)!


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sugar [Cane], Part I

sugar life.  
(poem, 2006.
photo, arroyo, PR
dirt road in sugar field 2001)

para los espiritus que viven entre la caña

In the beginning life was sugar.
Life was ocean and fish.

Life was the machete.
It was the sugarcane seasons.
It was growing,
and burning sugar fields.
And then again,
and then again,
and again.

Life went and came and went and came
just like the cane did.

The sugar cane told life and death.
It told blood and sweat.
It told worries.
It told love.
Sometimes it told inside the sorrow of death
and under the rains of May.
The petals of life unfolding
and the earth moving beneath them.

Green, blue, brown and salt all around them.
Stars and sun and rain too.
Fresh air the scent of sweet ripe mangoes.
The scent of her passion inside a heavy
sugar-cane cutting body
or inside the melodies of his molasses 

Sounds of people living in bright moods.
Noise to bear witness to one's life.
Raspy voices worn with despair
worn by living here and there:
with the dead and in the living
traveling in place,
swaying in the breeze,
in unison with the cane stalks,
reaching for the sun,
reaching for the sky,
outstretched hands in the wind.

People living in unimagined possibilities.
And they used their eyes to watch the world and each other.
And they used their language in emotional ways
telling it "like it is"
for better
or love
or worse
or compassion.
But telling "it."
me & you & us, and the others,

And they knew their world and what it was used for.
They knew the soul of their earth
and the directions of the breeze
and the essence of the moon
and the beauty of ritual for those of us left behind.
They knew about colors and light
and about the meaning of shadows on the wall.
The dark cover of endless nights keeping them company.
They knew about the stillness of the spirits.
And about the call of pigeons.
They knew about suffering
They knew all about hate and disdain, of those who stood like towers over them 
but they,
they told stories,
they held each other
they stood tall like the cane
they laughed,
they built joy,
they built home-land,
they built.

Hands so precious.
Hands that shaped the world.
Muscles that birthed life and sustained it.
Hands that shared worlds living inside other hands.
They shared grief
and wisdom and the flavors of their emotions.
They cooked with raw warm emotions,
that melted one into the other
into the other.

“Fish broth and ocean?", she asked

--"Si, gracias!", I said. Staring gently into her dignified eyes.
Me: seeing the world in those watery orbits for the first time
For the first time.
what sugar did for this world,
how sugar brought us together,
how sugar makes us into who we are.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Decadent, Valentine's French Toasts

Actually, these would have been even more decadent if I had been eating them while relaxing on a hammock on a beach in Fiji. One can dream, right? In honor of that Fijian vacation I have been dreaming about, I made these succulent French toasts to warm up on the occasion of a very frigid New England morning (it was 10 degrees! this morning). These are my own creation: banana-walnut bread french toast, topped with warm berry compote, toasted coconut flakes and maple syrup.

First, I made banana-walnut bread using fresh bananas, toasted walnut, and whole-wheat flour. Here is the recipe, which in its original form came from here-I substituted all-purpose, unbleached flour for whole-wheat, I also used 1 cup of sugar (instead of 1 and 1/2 cups), everything else is the same. (I made the bread the night before and so it was ready to be turned into French toast in the morning!). 

 What to do?  
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl cream together the sugar and the butter; add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
Beat in mashed bananas and vanilla and continue beating until mixture is smooth.
In a large measuring cup stir baking soda into the buttermilk and add it to the banana mixture along with the flour and chopped nuts. **Remember to toast the walnuts before adding them--put them in a small saucepan and on medium-heat toast them for a few minutes, watch them carefully as walnuts can burn very easily!
Stir the batter until it is just combined.
Pour batter into a greased and floured 9x5 inch loaf pan and bake for one hour or until tooth pick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Transfer the bread to a rack and let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes.
Turn it out onto a rack and let it cool completely.

I sliced the bread into thick pieces, and dip it in French toast batter. I use 1 egg (per 4 pieces of bread), and 1 cup of milk, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, whisk together and dip your bread slices making sure they soak up the mixture. I cook the French toasts about 1 or 2 minutes on each side, making sure they are cooked.
In a small sauce pan, I bring together 1/2 cup frozen, mixed berries, 1 tablespoon confectioners sugar, and 2 tablespoons cold water and heat up together until it boils. I then blend everything together in a blender, and this is my (super-easy) warm fruit compote. I toast 1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes in a small pan, making sure that they brown but not letting them burn. 

Then I plate the French toasts, add fruit compote, coconut flakes and the maple syrup! 
There is no better way to wish your loved ones a "happy valentine's day!" than with a delicious meal. (or a vacation to Fiji, LOL!)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cranberries and walnuts: variations of a theme

Cookies. Scones. Bread. These are the treats I made recently (not on the same day, of course!), from one tasty bag of dried cranberries and a bag of walnuts. Needless to say, all three turned out delicious! The cookies are a variation of oatmeal-raisin cookies, except I substituted the raisins for cranberries. This is hands-down the best oatmeal-raisin or (in this case) cranberry recipe I have found! So kudos to the smittenkitchen for a wonderfully tasty recipe! The walnuts add a rich, nutty flavor often missing from most oatmeal cookie recipes.  

Here is the original recipe from smittenkitchen, as I said I substituted raisins for cranberries but everything else is the same.  **One thing I do, is that I hydrate the raisins or cranberries for about 8 minutes before putting them in the mix. All you have to do is set them aside in a bowl of water for so they become plump and full. When you drain them, dry them so that your mix doesn't become watery. 

1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, softened
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt (I often use a half teaspoon, but I like more salt in my baked goods)
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

What to do?
Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C).
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt together. Stir this into the butter/sugar mixture. Stir in the oats, raisins and walnuts, if using them.
At this point you can either chill the dough for a bit in the fridge and then scoop it, or scoop the cookies onto a sheet and then chill the whole tray before baking them. You could also bake them right away, if you’re impatient, but I do find that they end up slightly less thick.
The cookies should be two inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake them for 10 to 12 minutes (your baking time will vary, depending on your oven and how cold the cookies were going in), taking them out when golden at the edges but still a little undercooked-looking on top. Let them sit on the hot baking sheet for five minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool.

Next up, scones & bread! I came across this recipe for quick and easy buttermilk bread, in fact, there are 10 easy recipe variations you can play around with. I used the same recipe to make the cranberry-walnut scones and the cranberry-walnut bread. Both turned out awesome!

Scones. One thing to do when making scones, is to roll the dough onto a well-floured surfaced before separating them into each piece.

 And now the bread.
Here is the recipe. For the bread I used 1 cup of unbleached, all-purpose flour and 1 cup of whole wheat flour. I find that it is best to use butter when baking the 'sweet' breads, and olive oil when baking the 'dinner' breads.

Makes one loaf 
2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (4 oz) white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (8 oz) buttermilk
1 large egg
1/4 cup (2 oz) unsalted butter, olive oil, or vegetable oil

What to do?
Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease or spray with nonstick cooking spray a standard 9x5 loaf pan.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Melt the butter, if using. Whisk it in a separate bowl with the buttermilk and the egg.
Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients. Gently stir and fold the ingredients until all the flour has been incorporated and a shaggy, wet batter is formed. Be careful not to over-mix.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and pat it into the corners. Bake for 45-50 minutes. When finished, the loaf should be domed and golden, and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Let the loaf cool in the pan for 15 minutes before removing and slicing.
Wrap baked loaves tightly in plastic wrap and store at room temperature. Baked loaves can also be wrapped in plastic and aluminum foil and frozen for up to three months. 

Cranberry-Walnut Loaf Variation (pictured above) - 1 c. dried cranberries, 1/2 cup toasted and chopped walnuts, 1 tsp vanilla, zest from one orange. 

For other recipe variations click here. This is a super easy, quick, and tasty list of bread recipes that are guaranteed to brighten everyone's mood at the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table!