Monday, January 23, 2012

An Elusive Pepper

Ever since our recent California trip, my husband and I became obsessed with a simple pepper.  A small, light appetizer resulted in an all-engrossing internet hunt for these little green guys.  It was a very simple dish of blistered Padrone peppers served with nothing but olive oil, sea salt and some smoked goat cheese on the side. It was fresh, unique and completely satisfying; I knew I had to re-create it at home. 
 Padrone peppers come from a Padrone region of Spain and are a very common tapas dish.  I have never seen them sold anywhere in my region and all of the specialty internet sites listed them as out-of-season, so of course I was disappointed.  Everyone knows that patience is not one of my virtues.  I encountered a similar dish at a Manhattan tapas restaurant, but the menu listed them as Shishito peppers instead, and after a taste, I was absolutely sure that these were the same thing.  So I went back to the internet and placed myself on a long, long waiting list.  As it turns out, the Shishito peppers come from Japan, and yes, they are very similar in taste to the Padrones , and that I am not the only one out there who wants them, it took more than two months to get my shipment from California ( which is where all the specialty produce grows these days…I am so envious of people who live there).  They cost a fortune and when finally arrived, I could not wait to cook them, but… life has other plans.  Family matters turned somber that weekend, cooking anything, especially these peppers had to wait and I forgot about them, leaving for a business trip on Monday.  After a few days away I finally remembered that I didn’t even open the original plastic packaging, that my poor little, precious peppers were suffocating in the fridge.  Of course I tossed and turned all night at the thought (wouldn’t you?).  My poor husband got a frantic call at dawn to go and check on my pepper’s  health.  But they survived and when I returned home a simple tapas dinner with a very special bottle of wine was made… it was well worth the wait.
The wine we opened was also discovered on the same day as the peppers.  When visiting great Santa Cruz wineries we found a very unusual Pinot Noir at the Beauregard winery.  The wine came with a story.  In 2009 when California was ravaged with fires, most winemakers discarded the grapes that were exposed to smoke.  But some of the Beauregard Pinot grapes were saved and blended to create a very special, smoky Pinot Noir.  The wine is very interesting; it has a quality of almost Isle Whiskey, were the smoke doesn’t ruin it, but enhances the flavor.  Paired with my simple peppers (yes, I do pair food to wine occasionally, not the other way around), it was beautiful.
A great dish does not have to have many incidents or be complex, this is a perfect example.  Serve it as an appetizer or as snack.  Because these particular peppers are not hot (they have a bit of spice to them and one in 10 may be hot, it is like a lottery) they work well on their own.  I do not think other kind of chili will work… but you can try.

Blistered Chili Peppers with goat cheese.
½ lb of fresh Padrone or Shishito peppers
1 tbs of olive oil
Coarse sea or grey salt to serve
Goat cheese (optional) – If you can find a smoked goat cheese, go for it.

Heat the olive oil in the skillet until very hot.  Blister the peppers on all sides; it only takes a few min.  You need to turn the frequently and do not overcook, you are just looking for blistered skin only.

Salt them generously before serving along some goat cheese. 

Open a nice bottle of Chablis or a light red such as Pinot Noir and enjoy!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mexican Tortilla soup

It is a New Year and that means a whole slew of New Year resolutions.  By the second week of January it usually becomes apparent that most of them will not survive.  How many of us have wowed to go on a diet come January 2nd, just to find themselves gouging over the kitchen sink on something fatty, salty and terrible, or is this just me?  Speaking of sustainable dieting, denial is never the answer.  Healthy and light food should be delicious, satisfying and fun.  It also means cooking more at home, eating out less, and a constant challenge of finding ways to entertain your deprived palette, which wants nothing less than a croissant.
In my house it is almost impossible.  My kids do not want to eat diet food come January, so I keep cooking their favorites, like pastas, braised meats and such.  The dogs have their own menu, which I have to cook as well. And I now have to figure out each night what my dear, dieting husband will have for lunch the next day.  It is exhausting… My solution is soup.  Make a pot; it will last a few days.  It is delicious, satisfying, provides infinite amount of variations and it is easy.  One of my favorites is the Mexican Tortilla soup.  It must be one of the most argued recipes on the planet, with each cook and chef claiming true authenticity.  I don’t know what all the fuss is about, it is one of the easiest soups to put together and if the right spices are used, the flavor will be authentic; my secret spice is Mexican Oregano.  It is nothing like the dried oregano we are used, Mexican Oregano is much more fragrant, has hints of mint and immediately transports you south of the boarder.
Here is my recipe for the Mexican Tortilla soup.  I give a few variations to lighten the calorie count without giving up the taste.  By my calculations, a bowl of this soup is about 200 – 220 calories.

Mexican Tortilla Soup.

0.5 lbs boiled chicken breast shredded (used to make stock)
12 to 14 cups of home-made chicken stock (made with chicken breast the stock is lighter in fat)
1 tbs of olive oil
1 yellow onion diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 celery ribs, diced
1 tomato, seeded and diced
1 small jalapeno pepper diced very fine (remove the seeds and ribs if you want less heat)
1/3 cup diced sun dried tomatoes (I like the smoked kind)
1 small chili in adobo diced plus one tbs of adobo sauce
1/2 tsp toasted cumin
1 tsp hot Mexican chilli powder
1tsp smoked paprika (hot or sweet)
1 tbs Mexican oregano
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 ripe avocado
½ cup chopped cilantro
Juice of ½ a lime
5 or 6 tortilla shells cut into matchsticks
1 cup vegetable oil for frying tortillas (optional – See Note).

Preheat a large heavy bottom soup pan.  Add olive oil, onion and celery.  Cook on medium heat until the onion is translucent.  Add the chopped garlic and jalapeno and cook for 2 more minutes.

Add both fresh and the sun-dried tomatoes, chili, adobo sauce and all the spices and cook for a few more minutes. 

Add the stock and bring to a boil.

Simmer the soup for about 10 minutes, then add the shredded chicken, check for seasoning and simmer for an additional 10- 15 minutes. 
While the soup simmers prepare the tortillas.  Preheat the oven to 375F.  Spread the tortilla matchsticks on a baking sheet and bake for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring a few times, until the tortillas are crispy.
Note:  If you are not counting calories, go ahead and fry the tortilla strips in vegetable oil. Drain on pepper towels.   You will get a little better texture than with the baked ones, but honestly, the taste and the crunch is not really sacrificed with the lighter version. 
The fried or baked tortillas can be kept for a few days in a pepper bag or an uncovered container, Re-crisp in the oven if they become soggy.

Dice the avocado and toss with cilantro and lime juice.  Serve the soup with some of the avocado-cilantro mixture and tortilla chips.

According to the dieting husband, this was worth going on a diet for!