Fried Yuca Root

fried yuca plateIn the spirit of cooking with foods from South America and Mexico, I decided to give yuca root (cassava) a try.  There are several ways to prepare this popular food, but since I love to deep fry food I decided to use this method.

The two-step process starts with par-boiling the yuca, then frying it. Cutting the yuca is a daunting task, but with a cleaver and a very sharp knife you will be rewarded with crispy, yet creamy yuca fries that are worth the effort. Try serving these instead of french fries as a snack and see what your friends think.

Fried Yuca Root

51

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 Fries

Serving Size: 5 Fries

Ingredients

  • 1 yuca root, cut into 1 by ½ inch sticks
  • Oil for frying

Process

Cut the ends off the yuca root. Cut yuca in half. Strip off the outer skin. Cut the root down the middle, then cut into sticks.

In a sturdy pot, heat water to a boil. Drop in the yuca sticks. Boil for 8-10 minutes. The yuca will split and fray. This is normal. Drop the yuca into ice water to cool them down. Drain on a sheet tray lined with paper towels.

In a heavy-bottomed pot heat up the frying oil to 350 degrees. When the oil is hot, drop in the yuca sticks. Fry until they turn golden brown. Drain again.

Serve with Tamarind Chutney, or Cilantro Chutney.

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Experimenting with Yuca Root

cut yuca rootBecause I like to do things the hard way, I figured I would attempt to make my own cassava flour. I purchased the yuca root at my local grocers, brought it home, and followed the recipe. Grate, boil, oil, knead, mash, and make empanadas . My first attempt at making tapioca flour turned out to be a disaster, but I’ll make another attempt. I’m a determined chef.

I made my own tofu, once. I made my own tamarind paste, once. And now I’ve made my own tapioca flour. All in the search for food knowledge. How easy or hard it is to duplicate something that I can find at the market? Tapioca flour is now available from several companies. Tamarind paste is prevalent in local Asian and Indian markets. And tofu I can buy in abundance. But making the food from the start gives me an understanding of how the recipes developed and how other people who don’t have access to pre-made foods cook.

It is an experience. One I will continue to pursue and document in this blog. Having the ability to make my own food is a good survival skill. The cook is the least likely target in a hostile situation.

What exactly is yuca root (not to be confused with yucca, which is a different plant)? It is known by different names in different parts of the world. Cassava, tapioca, manioc, mandioca, kappa, and mogo. Here’s a little of the history.

yuca rootCassava originated in South America. Archeological evidence shows that it dates back to over 10,000 years ago in Central Brazil. It migrated its way through the continent, up into Central America and Mexico. Eventually it took root in the Caribbean.

Enter the Spanish Conquistadors, and the Portuguese, who then brought the crop back to Europe, and into Africa and Asia where it quickly became a staple food in many areas of these continents.

The cassava or yuca root can grow in harsh conditions, making it an ideal food for drought-ridden areas. It is prolific in the tropics and has a high yield. You cannot survive on this root by itself, as it is loaded with carbohydrates, but not protein. It can be ground into flour, but has to be soaked and rinsed in order to remove the trace amounts of cyanide found in the root.

Cassava is the root that produces tapioca. It also has many commercial applications. Here in the Southwest, we like to fry it, mash it, roast it, and put it into stews and soups. As a thickening agent, it’s a great alternative to the potato.

Yuca may not have lots of protein, but it does have qualitative amounts of calcium and vitamin C and contains significant quantities of thiamine and riboflavin.

Does this mean you should run out and buy all the yuca root you can possibly find? Maybe not. Should you try it? Yes. Or at least find a local Latin or Dominican restaurant that carries Yuca Fries, or Yuca Fritters, traditionally served with pink sauce. I served mine with tamarind chutney. Come back on Wednesday for a look at how to fry yuca.

Is My Vegan Diet Healthy?

onion and mushroom sauteIt is no secret that I cook and (mostly) eat vegan food. The reason is due to my partner’s diet. She has been a vegetarian for over 20 years, and 100% vegan and gluten-free for the last five years. As the cook in the house I have adapted my cooking style to meet her dietary requirements. At the same time I was working in commercial kitchens, which meant cooking with animal products. I honed techniques in these kitchens that made me a better chef. I gained a large knowledge base which I now share on this blog. I learned to cook specialty diets like gluten-free and vegan while at these jobs.

Cooking and eating vegan does not necessarily mean that what I am eating is healthy. We have, over the years, lived off of Amy’s microwaved meals and canned chili and soups. I have a deep love affair with fried foods that I cannot seem to shake. I make french fries and potato chips on a regular basis. I am also an avid bread eater, unlike the gluten-free partner. I do avoid breads that are over-processed, but a good boule or focaccia makes my mouth water.

“Healthy” diets tell you not to use oil. Cook with coconut water and coconut oil. Don’t eat fried foods. Don’t eat foods that are over cooked. Only eat organic, non-GMO foods, only eat raw. Only, only, only.

I have incorporated the idea that fresher is better into our daily eating. I plan the weekly menu and buy only enough to cook for the week. That way food is not sitting around the refrigerator and it’s not rotting away. I transform the raw ingredients into savory, mouth pleasing, belly filling dishes that we nosh on all week.

One of the go to meals we eat is brown rice spaghetti with jarred pasta sauce enhanced by garlic and crimini mushrooms sautéed in a bit of sunflower oil and margarine, then added to the sauce and served with steamed broccoli and cauliflower. Yes, it’s mostly processed foods. But it is a satisfying and complete meal as well. And the mushrooms impart their earthy goodness into the pasta sauce.

Our friends are constantly commenting that they know when they come over to eat it will be “healthy.” I don’t cheat and make animal protein for those that visit. But I’m not going to guarantee the “healthy” part. I’ll provide the flavor party and a protein-packed, nutrient-rich dinner, but healthy? I’ve also heard “I’m trying to eat healthier so I’m eating more tofu.” Tofu is not the be all and end all of a healthy diet. It is actually on the GMO no-no list. Soybeans have been genetically modified to the point of not being exactly good for you. Do you know where your favorite restaurant is sourcing their tofu? Do you know if it is organic and non-GMO? How is tofu any more healthy than a 3-bean salad (which has as much protein), or a lentil loaf? Tofu is just a more readily available meat substitute in many restaurants.

I like to incorporate different proteins into our diet, tofu being just one of them. Legumes play a large part in our diet, so do mushrooms, and salads – which might include falafel or some other bit of yummy, delicious, tasty fried food bits. One of my favorite all time snacks is onion pakoras.

So when you hear that your friends are converting to veganism, just remember: there are so many ways to be vegan, and so many different diets to follow, not all of them healthy. And there is at least one, if not several, blogs dedicated to the vegan junk food addict.

Cilantro Pesto on Pizza? You bet!

Cilantro pesto pizza with toppingsHere is one of my favorite recipes: Cilantro Pesto. It works well in rice, in wraps, with red chili tofu, and is a great condiment for dipping vegetables. Combined with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) this pesto packs a great punch for both your immune system and your tongue! One of our favorite uses for this pesto is as the base sauce for pizza. It is a flavorful alternative to red or white sauce and a great conversation starter for guests who are used to more traditional pizzas. Once it’s made, you can eep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. 

Cilantro Pesto

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 ounces

Serving Size: 2 ounces

Cilantro Pesto

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches cilantro
  • ½ cup pepitas, toasted (pumpkin seeds)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 1/8 cup lime juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Water for blending
  • 1 tsp salt

Process

Place all ingredients in a blender. Pulse until the ingredients come together but are still a little rough. This is a pesto, not a sauce. Taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with Chili Powdered Croutons, Red Chili Tofu, or just use your imagination.

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Here’s another tasty Cilantro recipe, Lime Cilantro Dressing. Use it on salads, and in rice.


The Power of Cilantro

Cilantro in a glassI’ve been using cilantro in cooking for years. Growing up in the Southwest, it is easily accessible. I’ve always enjoyed the flavor, the smell, and the taste. What I did not know was the considerable health benefits linked to this one plant used as both herb and spice.

Cilantro, also known as fresh coriander and Chinese parsley, has been used in medicine and cuisines around the world for over 5,000 years. Thought to be one of the oldest cooking herbs, traces of the plant have been discovered in tombs in Egypt and an ancient cave in Israel. Cilantro provides a healthy dose of Vitamin K, Vitamin C, and E. Reported health benefits include aiding digestive health and relieving anxiety. There is some research that indicates it can alleviate the food poisoning known as Salmonella. It can act as a preservative that helps prepared foods last longer. Combine it with citrus and the shelf life of salsa and other foods increase by 3-4 days.

Cilantro regularly appears in cuisines around the world — Latin American, Asian, Indian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian, to name a few. Cilantro has traveled the world. Brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, it was quickly adopted by the native populations. It is found in the modern cuisines of Mexico as well as Sonoran and Southwestern cuisines.

I use cilantro and its seed, coriander, on an almost religious basis. We always have chopped cilantro in the refrigerator and it goes in salsas, pesto, Tomatillo Sauce, and many other recipes. When I sauté, I usually add both cumin and coriander. Together they double health benefits while enhancing flavor.

Chopping herbs is easier than you may think. Take the bundle, roll it up, and put the edge of the knife close to the leaves. Using a rocking motion, slice the herb back and forth (this is called chiffonade). Once sliced, you can come back and chop it until it’s minced. Then use it at your leisure.

Wednesday I’ll be sharing a cilantro pesto pizza sauce.

Evolution of a Recipe

cookingI’m  not sure what you think about the recipes you find on the internet. Many food bloggers find recipes they like and re-share them. Some develop recipes and share them right away. Coming from the culinary industry, I have been a part of a culture that develops recipes and passes them on verbally, chef to chef. We don’t stop cooking to write something down; we tell each other. And that is how you end up with some meals on your plate when you go out to eat. The cook making that food learned it from the guy standing next to him, who learned it from a chef, and so on.

When I set out to develop a recipe, I have to stop and think about it. Cooking is instinctual, visceral. I make quick decisions. Working in commercial kitchens I’ve had everything at my fingertips. Cooking at home I have to stock up prior to cooking. In order to develop a recipe and share it with you, I have to stop and think through these steps. Do I have my camera? Do I have a notebook and pen? If not, is the computer nearby to take notes? Do I even have all the ingredients for what I am cooking? Double check shopping list. I’ve had to run out in the middle of a cooking session because I forgot that one vital ingredient. I have developed a schedule where I write down recipes that will be posted. Then I plan out a cooking session. This involves a grocery list of items I will need. Do I necessarily have the recipe? No. But I know what I want to cook.

This is the evolution of a recipe, from thought to plate. This is how it gets out of my head, into my hands, and onto this blog.

Developing an Eggplant Recipe

For this week’s recipe, I had eggplants. I wanted to do a fried eggplant steak, a riff on Eggplant Parmesan. The eggplant needs to be coated and breaded. I don’t use eggs, milk, or bread crumbs because of dietary restrictions, so I had to think about the available ingredients in my pantry to make this a successful gluten free, vegan fried eggplant steak recipe.

I sat down and sketched out a recipe, then followed it. I made a mixture of oat flour and spices. I tasted it and refined it some more, until I was happy with the result. Then I considered the traditional steps of breading: 1) flour, 2) egg wash, 3) bread the product. I skipped the first step and coated the eggplant with coconut milk, then breaded the cutlets. Don’t ask me what I was thinking. It was a crucial mistake. The flour helps the milk stick, which helps the coating stick. Usually in these recipes the ingredient used is Panko bread crumbs, a very specific type of product developed for breading. It is used in almost every kitchen I’ve ever worked in. We dredge everything from eggplant to pork chops in Panko. I chose to use oat flour, which comes close to the texture of bread crumbs.

On to the next step: Frying. I know, it is going out of fashion, but I still love fried food. I filled my pan up to just below where the eggplants would not be fully submerged, and let the oil do the work. Then I drained them. When I took them out, one was falling apart on me, so I tried it. It was not bad. Next time I’ll add more seasoning, and I won’t skip the flouring step. See above.

I realized when I took the steaks out of the pan, they are brown. I have brown lentils right now for pilaf, not red and I plan on using pesto for the sauce, not an Italian tomato sauce. So now what do I do? The colors on the plate would be brown, white, and green. Not very appealing visually. See, for me, a recipe has two steps, how you cook it, and how it looks on the plate. I may have to do just a little tomato puree, just to get the color and acidity right. Still red, green, and brown? Need to work on the color scheme. (Garnishes are important for a reason!)

While I am rethinking how it looks on the plate, I’m also thinking about the flavors and the structure of the food. Do the flavors and textures work together? Is the color palette pleasing, will my diners get excited just to have a bite of this latest creation?sliced eggplant

Why I Do the Work

I cook because I have a drive, an impetus to take a pile of raw ingredients and transform them. I enjoy feeding people. And I like sharing what I learn with others. That means writing it down. The process can be long, involved, and arduous, yet rewarding. That moment when you take a bite of my food and smile, or when you make the recipe, and get it. That’s why I cook; that’s why the recipe process is so important.

I was continually asked if I wrote down the recipes I was cooking for my partner early in our relationship. The answer was no. I was learning in kitchens, gaining knowledge first hand, then coming home and applying that knowledge in my own kitchen. Write it down? That’s crazy talk. How can I take time to stop in the middle of the creative process and scribble down the exact amount of a coffee mug of vegetable stock or a pinch of salt or a squirt of apple cider vinegar? Then it occurred to me that writing it down could lead to making a cookbook someday, or sharing the recipe with you on this blog. It changed my perspective.

Most professional cooks do not write down their recipes. We are given recipes by chefs. They are the ones who take the time to write it down. We tell each other what we learned or saw and we duplicate it. The particular gift of a professional cook or a chef is being able to retain many recipes and many techniques in our heads, while simultaneously pulling down a hard dinner service. So I had to learn. Write it down in a format you will understand. Take a picture. That’s really important. Share it. That’s what gives a recipe life. Eat it. That’s what makes the process worth it.

roasted chayote

Roasted Chayote

roasted chayoteSo many people who live in the Desert Southwest don’t seem to understand that underneath all the spiny, sharp things that desert plants are covered in, there is edible food. I’ve been exploring foods native to this area for years, and the chayote is one of the foods you can incorporate into every day cooking, if you have a good supply of them. Chayotes are grown world-wide, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find them in the produce department at your grocery store.

Below I offer a simple recipe for roasting chayote. You can also include it in salads or savory dishes like my Calabacitas recipe, to showcase the earthy, pungent flavor of this “pear” of the desert.

Roasted Chayote

51

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Serving Size: 4 or 5 slices each

Roasted Chayote

Ingredients

  • 2 chayotes*, cut into wedges
  • Salt
  • Chili powder
  • Lime

Process

Slice the chayote like an apple and season with salt. Broil for about four minutes on each side. Remove, cool, give a generous sprinkle of chili powder and lime. Serve with Polenta and Portabello Mushroom Fajitas.

Notes

Chayotes come in small to medium sizes, depending on the season. They usually weigh in at 1/4 to 1/3 lb each.

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fuzzy chayote

The Earthy Goodness of Chayote

chayotesThe conquest of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations by the Spanish led to the disappearance of many native foods.  They disappeared because the priests and the conquistadors made it illegal for the natives to grow their own food. This helped conquer and humiliate an entire population. The conversion to Christianity was well on its way with the methodology employed. More importantly, the Spaniards obtained land to grow wheat, a food imported into the Americas.

After several centuries many of the foods native to Mexico and Central America have staged a comeback. They are now available in North America — foods like chayote, epazote, amaranth, and tomatillos, to name a few.  You can find them in regular grocery stores now, not just specialty stores. Most of them carry health benefits that are stunning. Chayote is reported to help dissolve kidney stones, and help in curing arteriosclerosis, and hypertension.

The chayote has been called a variety of names: Christophene, choko, chocho, merlitin. One variety of the plant has a spiny  outer cover and a firm but soft flesh underneath, the other is the more common, green skinned variety. “Chayote” is a derivative of the original name in Nahuatl, chayohtli, the language of the Aztecs.

I was introduced to this plant while working in commercial kitchens, not while growing up where you can find it in abundance. My Pop exposed me to so many different foods, but besides prickly pears and squash blossoms, I had little knowledge of the foods native to my home. I’ve been on a mission to correct that oversight, and learn everything I can about foods that are from the American Southwest, Mexico, and Central America.

While chayote is a tropical and sub-tropical plant, it is highly adaptable. It can survive the brutal conditions of desert regions. It is versatile, and can be adapted to a variety of cuisines. In many cuisines, it usually gets treated like a pear or an apple, because of the earthy taste.

The chayote plant is 100% edible, from the roots to the tops: leaves, tendrils, even the seed. However, unless you are growing chayote, you’ll fuzzy chayotehave to settle for just the fruit of the plant. It is hard to find leaves, stems and roots.What can you do with this strange vegetable that has spread from Mesoamerica throughout the world? Here in the Southwest it gets chopped up into salads, roasted, and fanned like pears on a plate.   We slice it into slaws and chop it up and cook it in stews and soups. I like to throw it into Calabacitas or serve it as a side dish.  It is also good for pickling. Add a variety of other vegetables, and serve at BBQ’s or Picnics.

Red White and Blue Foods

TGrilling tofu hot dogshe 4th of July hails fireworks, barbeques, and lots of eating ice cream and berry pie. The month of July hosts several note-worthy food observance days, Strawberry Ice Cream Day, Barbeque Day, and Gummie Bear Day. July 4th weekend is actually the largest BBQ Party thrown by the United States, with more chicken eaten then on any other day of the year.

Americans are obsessed with food. Beyond that we are also obsessed with decorating food and creating food sculpture. Any excuse to dye something the color of the particular holiday and all the craft people out there are cooking, mixing, and dying eggs, potatoes, and Rice Krispie treats in color-coded synchronicity.

Independence Day brings out the artistic side of American kitchens as professional and home cooks alike play with the colors of our flag: red, white, and blue. Foods made with berries are red white and blue dessertthe most popular; muffins topped with white frosting and strawberries for the stripes, and muffins topped with the same white frosting and blueberries for the stars.

There are jello stacks, cake stacks, and one friend of mine even made a Rice Krispie treat cake out of red white and blue. There are fruit skewers, refrigerator cookie pinwheels, and even dye-colored popcorn. A quick view on Pinterest revealed too many items to list here.

I’ve never been big with making “holiday” food. I cooked for a living in commercial kitchens where the chefs had people who would dye, color, and decorate. I worked in hot food in banquets. I worked on the line where on any particular day I was kicking out salads or sautéing a special in honor of the holiday. Or, slamming burgers on a grill outdoors. But since I wasn’t a pastry cook and didn’t work in garde manger, I did not have to worry about implementing the chef’s idea of the holiday. I did not have to color scheme plates, then add the colored food to the plate. I’ve seen the results though. Some of them were disasters; others were just fabulous. My favorite was always the Derby Hat they created in the Pastry Shop at the hotel where I worked. Impeccable and precise every year, it was made of fondant and belonged on a debutante’s head.

Red, white, and blue brings out some of the most interesting ideas in food decorating. Get out there and look at some and get inspired for your 4th of July holiday.red white and blue cheesecake

tofu hot dog

Grilling 4th of July, Vegan-Style

tofu_dogThis week hails America’s Birthday. The Fourth of July is just around the corner and with it comes barbeques, lemonade, potato salad, coleslaw, and pounds of marinated proteins on the grill.

What if you are vegan? What if you don’t participate in the yearly ritual of slapping a slab of meat on the grill and charring it til it’s done? I’ve got some answers for you. I’ve done this for years and have found that folks are really receptive to the dairy-free salads and tofu hot dogs that I bring to grill. I’ve also hosted cookouts where it’s veggie burgers, tofu hot dogs, and loads of sides that are made with unconventional ingredients.

Here are two of my favorite dishes for celebrating American Independence Day: Tofu hot dogs with homemade pickle relish, ketchup, and mustard, and coleslaw with a zesty vegan mayonnaise dressing. There are several delicious brands of tofu hot dogs available in most markets.  See below for my personal pickle relish recipe as well as my go-to coleslaw.

They are crowd pleasers – and if you don’t tell anyone they won’t know its vegan!

Pickle Relish

Pickle Relish

Ingredients

  • 2 pickles, finely chopped
  • ¼ red onion, finely chopped
  • ¼ tsp garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. evaporative cane sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Process

Chop the pickles, onions and garlic. Mix all the ingredients together and refrigerate overnight. Serve with tofu hot dogs and coleslaw.

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