Vegetables & Sides
When the weather gets colder my food cravings automatically start to wander southward in an effort to stave off the inevitable fact that winter is a coming. One of my all time go to favorite frigid weather culinary escapes was ducking into a Cuban Chinese diner called Mi Chinita on 8th ave and 18th street when I was living in NY in the late 70’s. The windows were all steamed up and the place was always packed. Believe me, this was transportive fare!
I don’t know a lot about Cuban food’s evolution, but migrant Chinese workers that arrived in Cuba after slavery was abolished added their indelible culinary fingerprint to the local diet.
Likewise, Cuba has had had an influx of Mexicans laborers from the Yucatan since the 19th century who have added their voice to an evolving Cuban cuisine.
Fast forward to Cuban’s emigrating to the US during Castro’s revolution and opening up Cuban Chinese American restaurants in the 70’s and 80’s.
Long story short, Cuban cuisine is a fascinating melding of cultures that is undeniably a part of the ever evolving inclusive tastes of the American palate.
I am a great fan of tacos in any form, including those filled with a Chinese stir fry paired with the essentials of a typical Cuban plate that includes well seasoned black beans, rice, and fried plantains/ tostones. This is hearty food with all the bright flavors of the tropics that are a welcome respite from the chills of fall and winter.
Cuban Chinese Tacos
Needed: 1 package each of street size flour and corn tortillas(4 ½ “ / 11cm in diameter) warmed before serving
- 1 pound chicken, pork, or beef thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoon corn starch divided
- ¼ cup cold water
- oil for stir frying
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled, quartered, and sliced
- 1 each red and yellow bell peppers, quartered, seeded, cut into thin strips, and halved
- 2 or 3 serrano green chiles, quartered, seeded, cut into thin strips, and diced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 inch knob fresh ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 carrot, peeled, thinly sliced, and diced
- 2 cups shredded bok choy or green cabbage
- 1 chayote, peeled, quartered, center core removed, and diced
- 1 cup chicken stock divided
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 2 or 3 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine or sherry
- red chile flakes to taste
- soy sauce to taste
Place the sliced chicken pork, or beef in a bowl. In a cup combine 1 tablespoon of corn starch with ¼ cup cold water and stir until combined. Pour the mixture over the meat and swirl to combine. Add a little more water if needed to just cover the meat and set aside for 30 minutes. This step will tenderize the meat.
Select a wok or a wide skillet and heat over medium high heat. When the pan is hot add several tablespoons of oil and swirl the pan to coat the pan with oil. Add the meat in a single layer and cook the meat until it is seared and begins to release from the pan. Turn the meat over and seer until browned and then transfer the seared meat to a plate and set aside.
Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and add the onions and stir fry briskly. As the onions sear they will pick up the remaining bits stuck to the pan adding flavor to the onions. Continue stirring until the onions begin to wilt.
Add the sliced bell peppers, diced serrano chilies, and sliced garlic and stir fry until the onions are translucent. Add the ginger, carrots and stir fry until combined.
Add the bok choy, or cabbage, and the chayote and toss to combine. Add a little chicken stock to lubricate the pan and continue stir frying until the vegetables are just wilted.
Add the sesame oil and toss. Then add the oyster sauce, Chinese cooking wine, or sherry, and toss until combined. Add the chile flakes to taste.
In a small bowl combine 1/3 cup stock combined with the remaining 2 tablespoons of corn starch and stir until combined and smooth.
Add the seared meat to the stir fry and then slowly stir in the corn starch mixture and continue stir frying for another two minutes or until the liquid has thickened and nicely coats the stir fry.
Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Then set the stir fry aside and ready for filling the soft warmed tortillas.
As pictured, have ready a pot of hot and spicy black beans, a bowl of hot steamed rice of your choice, and fried plantains/ tostones. Fill the tortillas and add to the plate and you are ready to go!
Note: Tostones are fried plantains Cuban style, which are actually twice fried until crispy. By all means make them if you know how. There are several tostone making videos available if you are feeling ambitious. Or instead simply pan fry plantains or unripe bananas, sliced in half lengthwise, which are a a fine substitute. The slight sweetness of the fried bananas are a nice foil for the spicy heat of the tacos and the black beans
For basics on how to cook beans (click here)
Pesto making season has arrived!
Fresh basil varieties are abundant this time of year and what we cooks have been waiting for with unapologetic anticipation. Being able to stow away the essence of summer’s flavors into jars or bundled into the deep freeze is a task relished. Bringing some of the bright tastes of summer back to life at the table during the long winter months is always warmly savored by one and all.
With that in mind I came home from the market with a bundle of Italian basil and, to my surprise, a bundle of Shiso . My immediate thought was a Shiso pesto!
Most of you are probably familiar with the delicate green shiso leaves garnishing sushi in Japanese restaurants. Shiso has a fresh light mint like flavor with just a hint of citrus and cinnamon. It is indeed the perfect compliment for sushi.
Shiso is the Japanese name for what we might otherwise know as perilla in the West. It is from the mint family and originates from the mountainous regions of China and India, but now cultivate worldwide. Perilla is used throughout Asia. The Japanese use shiso for pickling and coloring umeboshi plums and fermented eggplant.
There are many varieties of shiso with leaf colors ranging from pale green, a purplish red, or leaves that are green on top and red on the underside which is what I found here in North Carolina. I do love the subtle flavor of the tender young green shiso leaves so I just had to get a large bundle of these green and red shiso leaves and see what I could do with them.
Making a Shiso pesto defers to the more subtle flavor notes of the shiso itself. What evolved was a deep purplish red pesto with notes of citrus, ginger, and mint to serve along with Japanese soba noodles. You can serve the soba noodles warm or cold along with some sauteed mushrooms. This is an ideal pairing for various mushrooms harvested during the fall months ahead.
For you pesto lovers I will be posting a zesty Thai-Amereicano Pesto in my next post along with links to other pesto recipes I have posted over the years.
Shiso Pesto with Soba noodles and Sauteed Mushrooms
Serves 3 or 4
The sauteed mushrooms can be made in advance. See the recipe below.
- 2 cups fully packed fresh shiso leaves, either green, reddish purple, or reddish purple & green
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
- 1 tablespoon white miso
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated (micro planed) ginger root
- ½ cup walnut pieces
- 2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezes lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons neutral vegetable or light olive oil
- 2 to 3 tablespoons cold water
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- pinch of white pepper
- a bundle or two of Japanese soba noodles
- toasted sesame seeds for garnish (recipe here)
If your shiso leaves are mature remove the central spine of the leaves and tear the leaves before proceeding.
Place the torn shiso leaves, garlic, miso, grated ginger, the walnuts, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until all the ingredients are broken down. Stop the motor and scrape down the sides of the work bowl.
With the motor running ad the oil in a slow steady stream through the feed tube until the ingredients form a thick paste like mixture.
Then begin adding one tablespoon of cold water at a time until the mixture is thinned out a bit and smoother. You will have to be the judge of how much water to add, but keep in mind the texture will firm up a bit when refrigerated.
Stop the motor and add the salt and pepper and pulse until incorporated. Stop the machine and taste the pesto. At this point adding the remaining lemon juice and seasoning with more salt and pepper to taste. Then pulsing several times.
Transfer the pesto to a non reactive bowl, cover with cling film, and refrigerate while you prepare the soba noodles and the mushrooms.
Bring a generous pot of water to a boil. Do not salt the water.
While the water is coming to a boil, fill a bowl with very cold water and set aside.
Once the water is boiling add the soba noodles and, using tongs, continuously stir the noodles for about 6 minutes. You want the noodles to be al dente!
Promptly transfer the noodles to a colander and drain . Then tip the noodles into the bowl of cold water. Using your hands give the noodles a gentle wash. This washing will remove most residual starch so the noodles will not stick together.
Tip the noodles into a colander and drain well. The soba noodles are now ready for serving at room temperature.
If you want to serve the noodles warm, place them in a strainer and immerse them into a simmering pot of water until warm. Then toss the noodles in the strainer and transfer the noodles to a serving bowl or individual serving bowls.
Spoon some shiso pesto on top of the noodles and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
Serve the remaining pesto in a small bowl along with the sauteed mushrooms and light soy sauce or ponzu sauce on the table.
- 1 pint of seasonal mushrooms; cremini, shiitake, or forest mushrooms
- 1 plump shallot, peeled and finely diced
- 1 tablespoon light olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoons sake or white wine
- sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Brush the mushrooms well to remove any soil. Snap off the stems and reserve for another use.
Slice the mushrooms thinly and set aside.
Place a saute pan on the stove over medium heat. When the pan is hot add the oil and then the shallots and saute for several minutes until they are translucent.
Add the sliced mushrooms and toss with the mushrooms. Continue doing this until the mushrooms start to release their juices. Then add the butter and continue sauteing until the juices are mostly evaporated. Add the sake and saute until the sake is mostly evaporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside to use later.
Black eye Peas, also called field peas or cowpeas, are probably the most important African dietary contribution to American southern cooking. Black eye peas are actually not peas at all, but legumes that arrived in the Americas with slave ships from from West Africa. Black Eye Peas are traditionally eaten along with collard greens ( recipe click here) which has provided a nourishing food staple throughout the American south, the Caribbean, and Central and South America since the 1690’s. Earlier varieties have thrived across he Middle East and Asia.
Black eye pea plants are hearty and drought resistant. The peas are nutritive rich with vitamins, minerals, and protein. Prepared much like most other legumes and eaten with various local condiments, herbs, chilies, or pickled relishes. There are more collard greens and black eye peas consumed in” Hoppin John” every January first than any other day of the year here in the South. The green collards insure plenty of green backs and the black eye peas plenty of pocket change for the coming year.
Black eye peas are usually cooked with some variety of smoked pork, but are equally delicious omitting the pork and instead using smoked paprika and finely ground chipotle chile that adds a spicy smokiness to the finished dish. With a splash of cold pressed peanut oil and a spritz of lemon or lime juice just before serving, these black eye peas are sure to become a favorite choice to serve with almost any meal.
What I love about cooked black eye peas is their surprisingly fresh flavor not unlike young garden peas. There is nothing better than sitting down to a plate of black eye peas and a mess of collard greens to grasp the “soul” and goodness of real authentic Southern cooking.
Dried black eye peas are available in most supper markets. Spanish Smoked paprika and ground chipotle chile are available online.
Black Eye Peas makes 2 quarts
- 1 pound dried Black eye peas, rinsed
- 3 tablespoons cold pressed peanut oil + more for finishing
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 3 oz smoked pork or 4 strips bacon, diced (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
- 1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile
- 3 quarts boiled water + more as needed
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 3 teaspoons flaked (Kosher) salt + more to taste
- lemon or lime wedges for serving
Rinse the black eye peas and set them aside to drain in a colander.
Place a stock pot on the stove top on medium heat. When hot add the 3 tablespoons of the oil and swirl the pan. Add the onions and saute for 5 minutes or until the onions are wilted. Then stir in the garlic and saute another minute. If using, add the pork or bacon and continue to saute until the meat is incorporated and the fat is beginning to render. Otherwise do as I do and omit the pork.
Add the bay leaf, marjoram, and the ground chipotle chile and saute until well combined and fragrant.
Add enough boiled water to cover the contents of the pot generously and stir to combine. Then add the dried black eye peas and stir. Add more boiled water if needed to generously cover the peas. Bring the pot back to a very low boil and cook until the black eye peas are tender, but still holding their shape. I have found that generally dried black eye peas will require a shorter cooking time than most other dried beans, so test for d oneness more frequently to avoid over cooking the peas and be sure to add more boiled water only if needed.
Once the peas are done to your liking add the smoked paprika and several teaspoons of salt. Stir to combine and simmer another 10 minutes. Then taste the broth and add more salt as needed.
Serve the black eyed peas with a drizzle of peanut oil and a spritz of lemon or lime juice.
For Poisson en Papillote (click here)
Collard Greens can stir up some animated conversations about an otherwise unassuming bunch of braised field greens. Lordy me! Seems you either love them or hate them, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you happen to come from. That said, collard greens are real comfort food here in the American south. Their legacy reaches way back to native American diets before Europeans ever set foot here in the new world. Wild greens such as purslane, sorrel, poke, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, and chicory were all staples in the native American diet long before the loose leaf cultivars we call collard greens were planted in fields throughout the American south well before the civil war.
Traditionally collards are slow cooked with bacon fat and ham hocks, which are optional, along with some dried red chile flakes. The resulting braised deep green collards are swathed in a savory broth affectionately called “potlikker” here in the south.
Collard greens are in fact one of the most nutritious greens you could ever eat, They are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as well as being low in calories. So whatever your preconceptions may be about collard greens, you owe it to yourself to give them another try. Simple to prepare and ideal fare throughout the growing season. The aroma of braising collards as well as their rich earthy green flavor is sure to win you over.
I prefer omitting the animal fats and meats when I braise collards , but if you are traditionalist by all means include them.
Collard Greens aka …a mess of greens with potlikker (Basics)
Unlocking the deep flavors of collard greens is very straight forward. The secret couldn’t be simpler. By following the wisdom of generations of southern cooks, you want to braise these cut greens at at a very low simmer while being mindful of the texture of the greens as they braise.
- 2 ½ pounds collard greens, center ribs removed
- 3 tablespoons bacon fat (optional), or olive + more for finishing
- 1 small onion, chopped
- ½ to 1 teaspoon dried red chile flakes
- 2 oz ham hock or bacon, chopped (optional) ,or substitute 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 ¾ quarts stock or water
- freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
- lemon wedges for serving
Needed: A large deep braising pan with lid.
Prepare the collard leaves before you begin cooking.
Using a sharp knife, cut out the center rib from the leaves lengthwise and discard them. Stack the leaves lengthwise and then roll them up lengthwise. Slice the rolled up leaves crosswise into ¾ inch slices. Then unfurl the slices and toss them together in a large bowl and set aside.
Place the braising pan on the stove top set at medium heat. When the pan is hot add the bacon fat or olive oil. When the fat is hot add the onions and saute for several minutes until the onions are softened and translucent. Then add the ham hocks or bacon if using, or the smoked paprika. Season with salt, and chile flakes, and stir to combine, and saute for a minute or so.
Add the stock or water to the pan, raise the heat, and cook until the broth is simmering.
Then add the sliced collards . Once the broth returns to a boil, reduce the heat so the broth is barely simmering. Partially cover the pan with the lid. Adjust the heat to maintain a very low simmer and braise until the collards are well cooked but still retaining a slight firmness. Cooking time will vary depending on the age and size of the collard leaves used, but somewhere between 45 minutes to 1 ½ hours.
Serve the collards hot out of the pot along with some potlikker.
Taste and season with salt and pepper, and a spritz of olive oil and lemon juice.