Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tortilla espanola - Spanish frittata with potatoes

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Spanish tortilla omelet with potatoes and onions

The day before Hurricane Irene struck the East coast last August, I was in Vermont fetching my older son, Emery, from music camp. Hurricanes come with fair warning these days, so I'd been listening to the weather reports and reworking our travel plans as the storm's path shifted.

It looked like we might not be able to make it all the way back to my mom's house on Long Island before the bridges were closed, and I had no intention of getting stuck in the Bronx. Instead, we drove a few hours south and rode out the storm in western Massachusetts with my friend Sarah and her family. Sarah and I have known each other since middle school - as it happens, we both went to the very same music camp from which I'd just picked up Emery.

Some old friends feel like strangers when it's a long time between visits. Sarah feels like family. We spent the storm catching up, calming the kids, cooking, and obsessing over whether tree branches were going to fall on our cars. (They didn't.)

Slice the potatoes and onions thinly, and be careful not to let them brown

The wind blew and the rain fell, but the kids still got hungry, so we foraged in the pantry and Sarah made an authentic Spanish tortilla. In the 80s and 90s, while I was starting my career in publishing in New York, Sarah took off for Europe and played in an orchestra in the Canary Islands. She ate this tortilla often during those years but only recently figured out how to recreate it properly, with the help of Mark Bittman. The secret, Sarah told me, was olive oil - a lot more olive oil than reasonable cooks might be inclined to use. I've never been to Spain, so I can't vouch for its authenticity, but Sarah's tortilla was delicious. We forgot all about the storm as we sat around the table.

I made my own version of Sarah's tortilla when I got back to California, with red potatoes freshly dug from my garden. With a green salad, tortilla espanola makes a wonderful lunch or light dinner. I let my onions get a little too dark - don't make that mistake. You want to get the potatoes and the onions soft without letting them color.

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Tortilla espanola (Spanish omelet with potatoes)
Serve this traditional Spanish omelet with a green salad for a light lunch or dinner. Keep the heat low so the potatoes and onions soften without browning.
  • 6 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 pound potatoes, any variety (I use Idaho potatoes when my garden stash is gone)
  • 1/2 medium-sized onion
  • 6 eggs
  • salt and pepper to taste
Heat 3 Tbsp of the oil over medium-low heat in a large oven-proof skillet. Cast iron works well if you have one.Slice the potatoes and onion thinly and add to the oil - no need to peel the potatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook the potato mixture, stirring gently every so often, until the potatoes are tender. Keep the heat low, adjusting if necessary, so the potatoes and onions do not brown. Remove the potato mixture and wipe out the skillet.Preheat your broiler with the rack about 4 inches from the heat. While it's heating up, beat the eggs with a fork; add a little salt and pepper to the beaten eggs. Put the skillet back over medium-low heat and add the remaining 3 Tbsp olive oil to the skillet. When it's hot, return the potato mixture to the pan and pour over the eggs. Cook the omelet slowly, lifting up the edges as they set to let the raw egg run underneath.When the tortilla is set but still runny on top, put the skillet under the broiler. Watch it closely - it only needs a minute or two in the oven to cook the remaining eggs. When the top is golden brown, remove the pan from the oven and slide the tortilla onto a cutting board. Let cool 15 minutes before cutting.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 4-6 servings

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trader Joe's coffee cake with pears

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Most of the time I bake from scratch. I like the process of scooping and sifting. I like being able to adjust the amount of sugar, substitute one flour for another, use nutmeg instead of cinnamon. I like putting my own personal stamp on a recipe.

But sometimes a good cake mix is a godsend. And I love coffee cake. And it's been a long few months of back-to-back business travel. And I was tired. Which is why I decided to try Trader Joe's cinnamon crumb coffee cake mix.

I'm pretty sure I could have made a better coffee cake from scratch. The topping was a little sweeter than my preference. The cake had a tiny bit of that metallic aftertaste you always get with cake mixes. But there was something awfully nice about getting a cake into the oven without having to think too much.

The instructions were clear and simple. Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone; I peeled a ripe, beautiful red Bartlett pear and lay thin slices over the crumb layer in the middle of the cake. The pears softened in the oven and kept the cake moist without making it mushy. Soft, fluffy cake. Spicy, sweet crumb. Tender, soft pears. This cake didn't last long.

I'm not telling you to give up baking from scratch. Far from it. But if you're in the mood for coffee cake and you've had a long day, I think you'll like this mix.

Note: No one paid me anything to write about this cake mix. I'm happy to write for free about products I really like.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Postcard from Philadelphia: Reading Terminal Market

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Making the most of a quick lunch break from the convention center: Amish pickles, preserves and jams from Lancaster County and Italian muffaletta sandwiches at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Smoky roasted chickpeas

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Airplane food. Airport food. Hotel food. Conference food. Vending machine food.

This has not been a month of clean eating. Lots of business travel means too many meals outside my own kitchen and thus more or less out of my control. It's a good thing I didn't take Eating Rules' October Unprocessed challenge. I would either have failed miserably or starved, neither of which would have made me particularly pleasant to be around.

Today, my one day this week in my own zip code, I worked at home. I've gotten used to snacking, a habit I know I need to break. But today, I thought, at least I can snack on stuff that won't make me feel like crap.

And so I roasted chickpeas. If you've never roasted garbanzo beans in the oven, you're missing out on a healthy snack that provides both crunching satisfaction and essential nutrients. I like them roasted with garlic salt and smoked paprika, but you can take this recipe in many different directions. Cumin and chili powder. Ras-el-hanout (a Moroccan spice blend). Garlic and cayenne. Herbes de Provence. Dry mustard powder? Wasabi powder? Cinnamon sugar? The possibilities are endless.

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Smoky roasted chickpeas
A healthy snack that tastes dangerous but causes no guilty feelings whatsoever. Smoked paprika adds the essence of bacon but keeps things vegan.
  • 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp garlic salt (or substitute 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp garlic powder and 1/4 tsp dried parsley)
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.Dump the chickpeas into a strainer and rinse them well. Drain thoroughly, then turn the chickpeas onto a wad of paper towels. Using another paper towel, press the chickpeas gently until they're dry.Put the chickpeas on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle over the olive oil and sprinkle on the spices. Toss the chickpeas with your hands until everything is mixed and the chickpeas are well coated.Roast the chickpeas in the oven for about 40 minutes, shaking the pan every 10 minutes or so to let the chickpeas cook evenly. Remove the pan from the oven and let the chickpeas cool on the baking sheet. Taste and salt again if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: about 2 cups

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Leftover turkey tostadas with avocado crema

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It's only mid-October and I'm already thinking about turkey. That's because I hate Halloween. I know hating Halloween is a cardinal sin of parenting, but I dread the costume stress, can't stand the cutesy orange and black cupcakes and cookies, and fear the buckets of leftover candy (or, rather, my lack of willpower when faced therewith).

So I'm skipping Halloween and going straight to the day after Thanksgiving. When you're knee-deep in leftover turkey and can't face another plate of cranberries and stuffing, make these tostadas for lunch. It's a simple combination: savory turkey, melted cheese, corn tortillas gone crisp in the oven, and a smooth avocado crema as decoration. I made two per person, but I could have made twice as many and they would still have disappeared.

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Leftover turkey tostadas with avocado crema
Leftover turkey takes a Mexican twist in these simple tostadas. Use any leftover avocado crema as a sandwich spread.
  • 1 medium avocado
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 8 corn tortillas
  • 2-3 cups leftover Thanksgiving turkey meat (light or dark), diced or torn into small pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups Mexican cheese blend or Monterey jack, shredded
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit, and scoop the flesh into your blender or mini-chopper. Add the lemon juice and salt. Puree until very smooth. Put the avocado crema into a squeeze bottle or a zip-top bag (cut a tiny piece off one corner if using a bag).Lay the tortillas on the baking sheet. Divide the turkey meat and then the cheese evenly among the tortillas. Put the baking pan in the hot oven for 8-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbly and the tortillas are crisp and brown around the edges.Drizzle the avocado crema over the warm tostadas. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8 tostadas

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Baked tilapia provencale

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Tilapia baked with roasted tomatoes, olives and artichoke hearts
I am not a fan of fish. I know how good it is for me. I know I should be feeding it to my family. So I try. But honestly, fish isn't my thing.

Which is why I'm constantly looking for ways to dress it up. Often I'll roast the fish plain and then throw together a quick mayonnaise-based sauce, like this lime sorrel sauce. But last night, faced with a container of fresh farmed tilapia from Costco and only half an hour until we all fainted from hunger, I decided to try something different.

I went with the flavors of southern France. I spread the filets on a foil-lined baking sheet and spooned over some oven-roasted tomatoes I'd put up a few weeks ago. I scattered marinated artichoke hearts and green olives over the top, squeezed some lemon juice over it all, and baked it in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. The fish was flaky and tender, the tomatoes melted and coated the filets, and the juices from the lemon, artichokes and olives kept the whole thing moist. Even I liked it!

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Baked tilapia provencale
Mild, white tilapia with the flavors of sunny southern France - a quick weeknight fish dish everyone will love. Serve with rice or couscous to catch all the juices.
  • 2 lbs tilapia filets
  • 1 1/2 cups roasted tomatoes (or 1 15-ounce can diced peeled tomatoes, drained)
  • 1 cup marinated artichoke hearts
  • 1 cup green olives, pitted and quartered
  • 1/2 lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.Line a sheet pan with foil. Lay the tilapia filets on the pan in a single layer. Scatter the tomatoes, artichoke hearts and olives on top of the fish. Squeeze the lemon juice over the top, season with salt and pepper, and drizzle the olive oil over the whole thing.Bake the tilapia about 20 minutes, until the fish is flaky and the vegetables are starting to melt. Do not overcook or the fish will be dry. Serve with rice or couscous.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 6-8 servings

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Zucchini rice casserole

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I was lamenting on the In Erika's Kitchen Facebook page the other day that I can't seem to take a good casserole picture. I finally figured out the two main problems.

The first is a timing issue. In general, I make casseroles for dinner. How much natural light do I get in my kitchen at dinnertime? Not much. Are the overhead lights a necessity? Yep. So my photos end up like the one above: dark and yellow, with weird bright reflective spots. I can Photoshop with the best of them, but I can't do much with pictures like this.

The second is a texture issue. Casseroles mostly look like mush, with few distinct ingredients. Also, notice the similarity between the texture of the zucchini rice casserole above and the granite countertop on which it's sitting. Not much contrast.

I'd like to think that there's a third issue involving ugly baking pans, requiring me to buy some beautiful new casserole dishes, but alas, I don't think that's actually part of the problem.

This is one of the best recipes I know for using up leftover cooked rice. I mix it in a big bowl with shredded zucchini, chopped green onions, grated cheese and some kind of cream sauce for a binder.

Yes, sometimes I go for the canned cream of mushroom or cream of chicken stuff. So sue me. When I have time (or I'm out of the cans) I prefer to take a few minutes to make a roux and add some milk, season it with salt and pepper, and use that to bind the casserole. Bake for about 45 minutes and you've got a warm, cheesy, salty, vegetable-filled dish that everyone will love. Even if the pictures look like crap.

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Zucchini rice casserole
This is the perfect way to use up leftover cooked rice. Use any cheese you like - I often grate up odds and ends and mix them up for this casserole.
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups leftover cooked rice (white or brown)
  • 1 pound zucchini, grated (2 large or 5 small)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated cheese (any kind - try cheddar, Gruyere, smoked Gouda, mozzarella, etc.)
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a medium-sized casserole dish with cooking spray.Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and stir 1 minute to make a paste. Add the milk, whisking constantly, and bring to a simmer. The mixture will thicken as it heats up. Remove it from the heat, season with salt and pepper, and set it aside to cool a bit.In a large bowl, mix together the rice, zucchini, grated cheese and green onions. Add the cream sauce and stir to combine. Turn the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Bake the casserole for about 45 minutes; the edges should be bubbling and the top golden brown. Serve hot.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8 servings

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Maple pear muffins

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Once a year, at the end of the summer, I spend time in Vermont. I drop my older son at Kinhaven Music School - incidentally, the same magical place I spent summers as a teenager - and spend a few days driving around the Green Mountains with my windows open, my favorite music blasting, and my taste buds primed for real Vermont cheddar, early-season apples and anything maple.

I always pick up a few cookbooks on my Vermont trips. I'm partial to hyper-local recipe collections, those little soft-cover pamphlets you find when you're traveling that you know you can't get anywhere else. On my last trip I bought the second and third editions of The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook, published by the Vermont Maple Foundation, the nonprofit that works to protect Vermont's maple industry. The two booklets have dozens of recipes using maple syrup and maple sugar, but I was in a muffin mood.

These maple syrup muffins are delicate and not too sweet. I added grated Bartlett pear to the recipe and sprinkled the tops with cinnamon mixed with maple sugar (but regular granulated sugar is fine too). Split them in half, toast them up and top them with a slice of Vermont cheddar for a perfect, Vermont-inflected breakfast.

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Maple pear muffins
Neither too sweet nor too rich, these delicious maple syrup muffins go perfectly with a thick slice of Vermont cheddar. Adapted from The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook, Second Edition.
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup grapeseed or canola oil
  • 1/2 cup pure Vermont maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup milk (whole or low-fat)
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tsp sugar (maple or white)
  • 1 ripe Bartlett pear
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, oil, maple syrup, milk and 1/4 cup of the sugar.Cut the pear into quarters, then peel the pieces and remove the core. Grate the pear into the egg mixture and mix to combine.In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add to the egg mixture and combine gently with a large spoon or spatula. Do not overmix. Divide the batter among the 12 muffin cups.In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 2 tsp sugar and the cinnamon. Sprinkle over the muffins.Bake the muffins about 25 minutes or until light brown. Remove the muffins from the pan and cool on a rack. Serve warm with butter or Vermont cheddar.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12 muffins

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Love truffles? Enter the Oregon Truffle Festival's One Big Truffle Recipe Contest

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Black and white Oregon truffles (Photo: Oregon Truffle Festival)

In January, one of my culinary dreams is coming true. And yes, it involves truffles.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at Travel Oregon, I will be heading up to Eugene for the 7th annual Oregon Truffle Festival, which this winter runs January 27-29, 2012. Chefs, foragers and truffle maniacs like me will spend the weekend learning about, digging for, cooking with and eating white and black Oregon truffles, those aromatic little nuggets that take every dish they touch to a whole new level.

I love all truffles, but I'm particularly fond of the zippy little white and black truffles from Oregon. The wild mushroom guy at the Santa Monica farmers' market has them in season, and I've been known to show up late to work on winter Wednesdays because I've stopped to pick up truffles before heading to the office. The last time I wrote about Oregon truffles I got caught up in automotive analogies, so if you find that sort of thing amusing, click over to read about why Oregon truffles remind me of Corvettes, along with a great recipe for wild mushroom risotto with Oregon white truffle oil.

I've got a few tasks ahead of me: make plane reservations, buy some rain (mud) boots for the foraging, and figure out which of my truffle recipes I want to enter in the One Big Truffle Recipe Contest. Original recipes featuring black or white Oregon truffles? I've got a dozen to choose from. The weekend is inspired by One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking, a huge collection of home cooks' recipes by former New York Times food writer and James Beard award winner Molly O'Neill. The judges will choose three finalists from the recipe contest submissions, and those dishes will be served as part of the gala dinner, with the winner chosen by the participants.

Trained dogs sniff out the truffles (Photo: Oregon Truffle Festival)

[On a side note, I was actually interviewed for One Big Table a few years back - someone on O'Neill's staff found my French lentil salad recipe and liked the romantic story attached. It didn't make the book's final cut, which disappoints me to this day.]

If you want to enter the contest (Dorothy at Shockingly Delicious, I'm looking at you), whip up your best truffle concoction and send it on in. (Read the rules before you submit - there are a few details there about ingredients and such.) All three finalists will get to attend the festival gala dinner to see their creations in action, and the winning recipe will be included in O'Neill's ongoing One Big Table project. A second chance to make it into One Big Table - my fingers are crossed....

So which truffle recipe do you think I should enter in the contest? My shortlist:
Please leave a comment and help me decide!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Chicken with smoked paprika

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This chicken recipe has three ingredients and a huge payoff. It may be one of the easiest and most delicious dinners you'll ever put on the table. The smoked paprika will make you wonder whether you wrapped the chicken in bacon by mistake.

I've served this chicken recipe to my kids, my boss, my boss's kids, my niece and nephew, and most of my friends at one dinner party or another. I get almost as many raves about it as I do for my truffle dishes. Three ingredients. You won't be sorry. And if you still need convincing, ask Girl + Fire or Shockingly Delicious - they're amazing cooks and food bloggers in their own right, and they tell me this has become one of their go-to dinners.

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Chicken with smoked paprika
This chicken recipe has three ingredients, takes less than two minutes to prepare and delivers huge flavor. Smoked paprika is available at gourmet stores and, in my area, at Costco.
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 1/3 Tbsp garlic salt (or substitute 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp garlic powder and 1 tsp dried parsley)
  • 2 Tbsp smoked paprika
Preheat the broiler on high. Set a rack in the oven 4 inches below the flame. (If you put the rack right under the flame, the chicken will burn on the outside before it's cooked through.)Line a baking sheet with foil and lay the chicken thighs out flat. Sprinkle each side generously with the garlic salt and smoked paprika; if the amounts above don't seem like enough, use more. Do not skimp on the garlic salt, even if you're salt-phobic - it's necessary and still will have far less sodium than any chicken dish you will ever eat in a restaurant.Broil the chicken about 7 minutes on each side, until the thighs are cooked through and have developed a nice crust. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8-10 servings

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Plum apple crisp

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When I'm short on time and need to pull together a dinner party dessert, I often default to a fruit crisp. Homey and casual, topped with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream, warm and fragrant and juicy - that's my favorite kind of dessert.

My fruit crisp is more a formula than a recipe. Use fruit that's in season: stone fruit in the summer, apples or pears in the fall and winter, berries and rhubarb in the spring. Don't bother with peeling. Toss the chopped fruit with some sugar and a little flour - the sugar draws out the juices and the flour will thicken everything up while the fruit crisp bakes.

For the topping, mix together quick-cooking oatmeal, chopped nuts, flour, brown sugar and a good pinch of salt. Then, depending on what kind of fruit you're using, add your aromatics: cinnamon and nutmeg for apples, lemon and orange zest for berries, maybe Chinese five-spice powder and white pepper for plums. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Cut in some butter - okay, a good deal of butter - and rub the whole thing together with your fingers until it's clumpy. Scatter and bake. When the fruit is bubbly and running over the sides of the dish, the topping is brown, and the whole house smells like butter, it's done.

One tip: Let the molten lava cool a few minutes before serving. You don't want to burn yourself. And you want to give the ice cream a fighting chance.

I made two of these plum apple crisps. One we ate on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. The other I took to my office, where it lasted less than an hour despite the fact that I called no attention to its existence whatsoever. It was found and suitably demolished. Which made me very happy.

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Plum apple crisp
Make this homespun dessert with the last plums and first apples of the season. If you don't like almonds, try walnuts or pecans instead. This recipe is very flexible - don't worry about measuring or weighing precisely.
  • 1 pound plums, any variety, pitted
  • 1 pound apples, any variety, peeled and cored
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 1/2 cup roasted, salted almonds, chopped
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a large pie plate or 9x13 casserole dish with cooking spray and set aside.Chop the plums into 2-inch chunks and put in a large mixing bowl. Grate or shred the apples into the bowl - I use a hand-held grater, but a food processor works fine too. Add the granulated sugar and 1/4 cup flour and toss with the fruit. Let sit about 15 minutes, tossing occasionally.In another bowl, stir together the oats, almonds, brown sugar, remaining 1 cup flour, salt and cinnamon. Cut the butter into small cubes and mix them into the dry ingredients. Using your fingertips, pinch and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until it is well distributed - the mixture will look pebbly.Pour the fruit and any juices that have accumulated into the baking dish. Spread the topping mixture evenly on top and pat it down lightly. Bake about 45 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is browned and fragrant. Let sit 15 minutes before serving.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8-10 servings

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to make tamales: An afternoon with Chef Kevin Luzande at Playa Rivera

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Chef Kevin Luzande holding a sweet corn tamal, ready for the steamer

Serendipity. A happy coincidence. A random tweet I might just as easily have missed. An unscheduled day on the calendar.

That's how Emery, my 12-year-old son, and I ended up spending the afternoon at Playa Rivera with chef Kevin Luzande learning how to make their famous tamales. Free demo, said the tweet. Of course I do! said the boy. A phone call, a reservation, and off we went.

The wall of booze at the bar at Playa - yes, she climbs up that ladder every few minutes
Spanish hot chocolate, thick and sweet
Playa's justly famous blue corn muffins with almond butter

As we waited for the chef to get the staff through the busy part of brunch service, we sat at the bar drinking thick Spanish hot chocolate with house-made marshmallows and wolfing down Playa's famous blue corn muffins. I tried the piquillo peppers stuffed with chorizo and cheese (delicious little bites); Emery had the jalapeno waffle with pumpkin seeds (delicious but sweeter than expected). We chatted with Zak, the other guy who showed up for the demo, and shared a goat's milk ice cream sundae with a blue corn cookie and hazelnuts. Nueva Latina? Southwestern fusion? I'm not sure what label to put on Playa's menu, but everything we tried had personality and sass.

Emery at the demo table with chef Kevin Luzande
Chef Kevin's recipe for tamale masa

Then the three of us moved to a back table to watch chef Kevin make the tamales. He took us through three recipes: sweet corn tamales, mushroom tamales, and pork tamales. When chef Kevin got to Rivera, John Rivera Sedlar's downtown restaurant, the cooks in the kitchen were making tamales by feel rather than by recipe and measure. Chef Kevin tested, documented, insisted on consistency, and then brought that discipline to the kitchen at Playa.

Flattening a pulled pork tamal before wrapping and steaming
Ingredients ready for the tamal demo

We got lots of details: Grind the soaked, dried corn with the meat grinder attachment of a stand mixer to get the right texture, or buy prepared masa at a Mexican grocery - but specify that you want it for tamales, not tortillas, and without manteca (lard). Mix the masa with baking powder, shortening, salt and water. Wet masa is the secret to light, fluffy tamales - go for the texture of muffin batter.

Spreading masa and pulled pork on a banana leaf for pulled pork tamales
Mixing cooked chopped mushrooms with prepared masa for mushroom tamales
Chef Kevin softens banana leaves with a blowtorch - easier than blanching, he says

More tips: Spray the soaked corn husks with nonstick cooking spray so the tamales don't stick. Make them on a scale so they come out exactly the same size each time. Wrap them in heavy-duty plastic wrap so they retain moisture as they steam. And always keep the mixture wet, wet, wet or your tamales will end up dry, dry, dry.

For the sweet corn tamales and mushroom tamales, the filling and masa are mixed together so the flavor permeates the whole tamal. The pork tamales are made sandwich-style: thin layers of masa with an equally thin layer of shredded, seasoned pork spread between. Steam them 50 minutes, and then the best tip of all: After the tamales are cooked, chill them for at least half an hour to let them set - then, and only then, reheat and serve.

Playa chef Kevin Luzande
Pulled pork tamal
Unwrapping a hot sweet corn tamal

Sweet corn and mushroom tamales

We tasted the mixtures before. We tasted the tamales when they were done. "Tamales are my favorite Mexican food ever," declared Emery, and he scooped up every crumb with his plastic spoon. We asked lots of questions which chef Kevin answered patiently. We took a few tamales home. And in the end, he wouldn't even let us pay for our brunch.

This was the first cooking demo chef Kevin's held at Playa. Will there be more? we asked. He smiled. Tell the general manager you liked it, he said, and there very well may be. So, general manager, whoever you are, let me tell you: We liked it. We liked it a lot. And we can't wait to go back to Playa.

Playa Rivera, 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 323.933.5300