Monday, March 23, 2015

Vegetarian Tortilla Soup with Potato, Corn and Lentils

I don't often set out to make specific recipes, usually preferring to gather inspiration from a variety of recipes and make use of what I have. However, I was intrigued enough by this soup I came across on the Wednesday Chef to go out and buy the special ingredients needed. It's a simple potato soup that becomes a flavorful vegetarian tortilla soup by adding chipotle chiles in adobo, avocado, lime juice and crushed tortilla chips. It definitely lived up to the hype.

I'd never used chipotle chiles in adobo sauce before. Chipotle chiles are actually smoked jalapeƱos, and they are often marinated in adobo sauce, a blend of vinegar, garlic, tomato, paprika and other spices. They come in a little can, and since the recipe only calls for one or two chiles (we used one and a half), what to do with the rest? I chopped them up and divided them in an ice cube tray to freeze. Now I have several frozen cubes of chiles stored away that can easily be thrown into soups, stew, beans, etc. I'm already thinking of pulled beef with the smoky heat of adobo and chipotle served alongside parsnip mash or cornbread. Not to mention more of this soup. We are visiting Evan's parents right now in Florida, taking a break from the winter that never seems to end, so we will probably still be all about soups when we return.

A few changes I did make to the original recipe: I subbed in rutabaga for a third of the potatoes, since I ran out of potatoes and had extra rutabaga in my fridge. To keep it vegetarian, I used vegetable broth instead of chicken broth. I also added a cup of cooked lentils at the end, at the same time as the corn, to add protein to this otherwise carb-heavy dish. We found this soup to be so rich and tasty on its own, that we left off the shredded cheese, but you might decide otherwise. You can find the original recipe for Amelia Morris' corn, chile and potato soup over on The Wednesday Chef.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Costa Rica Ecotrip

It's been over a month since we returned from our trip to Costa Rica. People liked to ask if it was a delayed honeymoon, since that is becoming more common these days. However, I maintain that even though the trip we took right after our wedding was short and fairly local (to the Berkshires), it definitely felt like a honeymoon, as we were still basking in the newness of being married. Instead, I call this our First Married Trip, and it was amazing. Evan and I have both been to Costa Rica before, and we had always wanted to go together.

I faced my fears and flew in a 12-person plane.

I searched high and low for an ecolodge that would offer both rainforest and beach, and I found a real gem -- Saladero Ecolodge, located in the southwest of Costa Rica, across from the Osa Peninsula on the inside of the Golfo Dulce. Because it's on a gulf and not the ocean, the water is warmer, calmer, and better suited for swimming and kayaking. The property is located right on Piedras Blancas National Park and is only accessible by boat. To get there, we had to stay overnight after arriving in San Jose, fly an hour on a tiny plane the next morning, followed by a 45 minute boat ride. I had a lot of anxiety about traveling to such a remote place, but the tiny plane ride was smoother than I expected, and once we settled in, I realized it was very much worth the trip. We'd love to go back someday, maybe with our families.

 Saladero Ecolodge is down there in one of those coves on the Golfo Dulce

Approaching Saladero

Evan had been to a similar ecolodge, Tiskita Jungle Lodge, with his family before and loved it, which is what inspired our trip, but like many Costa Rican ecolodges, Tiskita is quite expensive at $300-400 a night. Saladero offers a great deal, since it's much more affordable at $200-$260 a night, which includes all food and most activities. It is very self directed, so we were free to do whatever activities we pleased whenever we wanted. We only paid extra to take a special kayak tour through one the world's oldest mangrove forests, which was worth it to glide through the quiet, primordial-feeling corridors of those giant trees.

 Our cabin

 The view from our cabin

In true ecolodge fashion, there was limited electricity powered mostly by solar energy. I'm normally a night owl, so it felt refreshing to wake up early and fall asleep more in tune with the natural rhythms of the sun. It was hot midday, but cooled off at night so we were okay without air conditioning -- much more comfortable than the nighttime heat when I stayed at a Virgin Islands ecolodge. The meals were a real treat. Much of the delicious food came from the property -- bananas, pineapples, juices, root vegetables, chickens, eggs, and even homemade coconut oil.

The banana garden at Saladero

Pathways lined by pineapple plants

Our days went something like this: Wake up early to coffee and a delicious breakfast in the open air dining area overlooking the gulf. Go for a morning hike on one of the three trails through the rainforest to see what wildlife we could see. Take a kayak out on a fifteen minute ride to a nearby beach with a coral reef offshore. Snorkel among vivid hued fish. Take some time to savor being alone on a quiet, tropical beach. Return to the ecolodge in time for lunch and look up what fish we saw. In the midday heat, retreat to the cool shade of the hammock grove for reading and napping. Later in the afternoon, take another walk in the woods. Or practice yoga on a platform tent overlooking the gardens. Or try fishing.

For happy hour, head to the main house for to enjoy chips and salsa and cold beers while indulging in the one hour of internet availability. Watch the daily evening storm clouds roll in and multicolored sunsets descend over the gulf. Eat a communal dinner and delicious coconut desserts with the other guests to the glow of solar lanterns. Retreat to our cabin to play cards or do crossword puzzles and read before bed. Wake up and repeat for several luxurious days.

The whole experience felt like a good balance of indulging and relaxing, but in a healthy way. Because we were able to get out in the forest and water most days, we saw a lot of birds, fish and other wildlife (see our 40+ species identification list below). I haven't typically been as into birding as Evan, but even I got into the act, since I was the one who spotted the howler monkeys and an owl.

Evan seeing what he could see in Piedras Blancas National Park

Enjoying the hammock grove

Snorkeling at the nearby coral beach


Evan caught a fish on his very first cast, and then of course none after that.

Sunsets over the Golfo Dulce

Early morning river tour

Kayaking through one of the world's oldest mangrove forests

White faced capuchin monkey

Mottled owl at Finca Rosa Blanca

We had a coda to our trip because our return home was delayed by a few days by a snowstorm. That sounds like a dream, but it was actually a bit stressful. Moreso because neither of us speak Spanish. Due to timing, we had already left the ecolodge by the time our flight was changed, so we had to figure out last minute where to stay near San Jose instead. (Which is not the nicest area of Costa Rica). We had to show up at a hotel in Alajuela hoping they would have a room open, which they just barely did.

I then took Evan to Finca Rosa Blanca, a Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farm and luxury hotel. I had taken their coffee tour on my work trip to Costa Rica three years ago and knew Evan would love it. The tour is very informative not just about how they grow their coffee sustainably, but also about the general process of coffee from cherry to cup. It was an unexpected splurge to stay overnight, but we took full advantage by staying more than 24 hours to enjoy the pool, grounds, and open-air lounge area, before returning for one more night at a budget hotel in Alajuela.

The main lodge at Finca Rosa Blanca

Our private patio at Finca Rosa Blanca, overlooking the San Jose valley

Organic coffee farm at Finca Rosa Blanca

While we hadn't felt up to venturing on a long public bus ride to another region, we did successfully navigate taking a bus between Alajuela and Santa Barbara to get to Finca Rosa Blanca. The buses seem like a pretty reliable form of public transportation both within and between cities there, like in New York.

Our last morning in Costa Rica felt like bittersweet deja vu. There we were having breakfast in the courtyard of the same hotel as our first morning there, again preparing to head off to the airport, but this time to end our journey instead of to begin it.

Hotel Los Volcanes, our first and our last morning in Costa Rica

(Mostly spotted at Saladero Eco Lodge)

Birds and Mammals
Yellow-headed caracara / laughing falcon?
Magnificent Frigate bird
Great egret
Scarlet macaw
Cherrie’s tananger
Blue-gray tananger
Chestnut-mandibled toucan
Black vulture
Golden-naped woodpecker
Lineated woodpecker
White hawk (hunting from limb)
Blue morpho butterfly
Hummingbird (one of the hermits)
Little blue heron
Boat-billed flycatcher or great kiskadee
Howler monkeys
Variable seedeater
Ringed kingfisher
Boat-billed heron
Pan-tropical dolphin
Orange-billed sparrow
Great currassao
White-faced capuchin
Blue-crowned motmot
Montezuma oropendola
Brown jay
Hoffmann’s woodpecker
Mottled owl
White-eared ground sparrow

Panamic sgt. Major
Cortez rainbow wrasse (male and female)
Cortez angel fish
Panamic nightsergeant
Green moray eel
Scissortail damselfish
Pana grayshy
3-banded butterfly fish
southern stingray

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Healthy Breakfast Fruit Bread

My latest breakfast phase is a riff off the Blue Sky Bakery muffin. I got hooked on their muffins when I lived in Williamsburg and could get them at Variety on my way to the subway. I now live closer to the source, since the bakery is on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. (Sidenote: I wish there was a list of all bakeries in NYC that serve their muffins. It's hard to find a good muffin, rather than the pervasive airy nothingness at most cafes.) Anyway, their bakery not on my way to work, and since I'm not a morning person and am always running late, there isn't time to go out of my way for breakfast. Amazingly, Smitten Kitchen found and shared the recipe.

They are great as muffins, but then I got the idea to bake it as bread. It is a lot easier to dump batter into one loaf pan than it is to spoon it into many muffin tins. Furthermore, I store the bread sliced and frozen, so I can bring one slice to work daily to toast for breakfast. This is a game changer when it comes to baked goods. No more overeating to finish a loaf while it sits out all week either drying out or getting overly moist. And the toasting ensures that it always satisfies that Blue Sky Bakery craving alongside my morning coffee - a hearty bread with a crisp exterior and steamy fruit. So far I've made it with blueberries, diced plums, and cranberries, and I've also sometimes added diced walnuts.

Some other changes: I don't usually have bran, but I do always have oats, so I grind oats into a rough flour in my food processor. I love the toothsome texture and flavor added by the oat flour. To increase the nutritional value: Honey in place of refined sugar; coconut oil instead of a more commonplace oil; and the addition of flax seeds. However, coconut oil and honey cannot be blended by hand, since both tend to clump when combined with cold milk, so I do have to get out my hand mixer, even though I generally prefer to mix batter with a fork or spoon to avoid extra cleaning.

The key is to bake it at a high temperature like 425. I don't know the science of it for sure, but I think this caramelizes the sugars in the bread and coaxes more flavor out of its low sugar content. When I baked it at 350, it tasted meh to me.

Breakfast Fruit Bread
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup honey
1 1/3 cup milk
1 egg
1 1/2 cups ground oats
1 1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 tbsp ground flax seeds
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup diced fruit or berries

Preheat oven to 425 F. Grease and flour a loaf pan. Grind oats into a rough cornmeal-consistency flour in a food processor. Using a hand mixer, combine coconut oil, honey, milk and egg. Dump in oats, flower, baking powder, baking soda, flx and salt. Use the mixer to blend into a smooth batter. Stir in fruit with a spoon. Spread into loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes, until edges are browned. To freeze: Let cool, slice into 10-12 pieces and store in a ziploc bag in freezer.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Spanish Tapas at Home

We cook a lot, so for Valentine's Day, I tried to think of something to make that would feel more special than any old night at home. I thought Spanish tapas would be fun and mostly easy to prepare. We feasted on bacon-wrapped dates, gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), boquerones (marinated anchovies) on toast and tortilla espanol. We also sliced up some manchego and chorizo and served them alongside olives and extra sliced baguette. This was all accompanied by glasses of Castanon Sidra Natural, a typical Spanish cider with a cloudy pour and funky aroma.

Conveniently, I was able to get most of the ingredients affordably at the Park Slope Food Coop, except for the shrimp, which came from a fish market at the end of our block, and the baguette and boquerones from an Italian market nearby. Park Slope is so undeniably convenient. 

It all came together relatively quickly and simply and would be easy to scale up for a dinner party, except for peeling the shrimp. We had plenty of leftovers, which meant that for less than the cost of a restaurant meal, we were also able to treat our friends to brunch at our place the next day. As we stressed about preparing and plating everything before our food turned cold (because there are a lot of different plates to juggle in this meal), I did remember the advantage of going out to eat -- someone else worries about that and brings you the food when it's perfectly hot and ready ;-)

Bacon-wrapped dates
Plan on making enough for a few dates per person. Depending on the size of your dates, cut each length of bacon in half and wrap one piece of bacon around one or two dates. Bake at 400 for about 10 minutes. For such a small amount of food, consider using your toaster oven, which worked wonderfully for us. If you have extras, leftovers reheat well at a lower heat, like 300.

Boquerones (Marinated Anchovies) on Toast
Boquerones, or marinated white anchovies, are not the same thing as canned anchovies. They have a a light fresh fish flavor that is nothing like the salty, bitter overpowering flavor we associate with anchovies. If you want to make your own, you must start with fresh, raw anchovies for marinating, and cannot start with canned. It's a time consuming process that involves curing them in salt and then vinegar, ideally over a couple days, without ever actually cooking them. So it's easier to get ready-made boquerones. We lucked out and found marinated anchovies at the Italian market Russo's near our home in Park Slope, but you can reliably find them at the Spanish store Despana in Soho. They had already been marinated in vinegar and other flavorings, but we tossed them in oil, garlic and parsley when we got home. Evan served them on toast, but I actually prefer the fish on its own. Plan on about two toasts per person.

Gambas al Ajillo (Garlic Shrimp)
It's time consuming to peel the shrimp (unless you can find pre-peeled uncooked shrimp), but once that's done, they cook very quickly. A half pound of shrimp was the perfect amount for tapas for two.

Preheat a pan over medium high heat. Add a generous coating of olive oil, a sprinkling of crushed red pepper, a teaspoon of paprika, a tablespoon of minced parsley, and two cloves of minced garlic. After a couple minutes, add the shrimp and a squeeze of a quarter lemon. Sautee, stirring often, until the shrimp turn pink. It takes less than five minutes. Season with salt and pepper and another tablespoon of fresh parsley, and serve in its golden, spiced oil.

Tortilla Espanol
A Spanish tortilla is essentially a frittata with potato. The traditional method involves flipping the tortilla, but I haven't had luck with that in the past, so I chose to finish it in the broiler. Be watchful though, because we let ours overcook. You'll only want a to eat a wedge of tortilla each, but the leftovers keep well.

Preheat a cast iron pan over medium heat. Add a generous coating of olive oil and preheat another few minutes. Meanwhile, chop two large potatoes into 1/4" thin rounds and then chop the rounds in half. Sautee the potatoes over medium heat, covered but stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes. Meanwhile, mince one small onion and two cloves of garlic. When the potatoes are golden browned and softened, add onions, garlic, and a little more oil, and sautee until onions are translucent. Whisk eight eggs and pour into the pan. Cook for about 5-10 minutes until the eggs start to set on the sides. Transfer to the broiler and cook another 5 minutes. Slice into about eight wedges like a pizza pie.