I was introduced to Indian cuisine (as well as many other exotic Asian cuisines) during my first visit to Australia when I was in my mid to late twenties. From the moment I entered that restaurant I encountered such an awesome bouquet of spices and flavors that I knew that this was going to be a fun learning experience.
I was there with a fellow traveler from New Zealand, who was surprised that I never had Indian cuisine before. I let my companion order for me. Beer was required, of course, and then there were appetizers, an awesome bread basket, curries, tandoori, and so many other tastes that my mind went into sensory overload. I fell in love with the cuisine immediately.
Among the breads that were served, there were some spicy lentil wafers. One bite and I was hooked. This had to be the single most exquisite taste I ever had.
"What's this?" I asked my companion, referring to the tasty wafer.
"That? That's just a papadum," he answered.
Papadum! Yes. I was hooked.
In my mind, I waxed poetic. O, papadum, that spicy burst of lentil flavors mingled with black pepper, garlic, cumin, and chiles!
Of course, when the waiter came back to see how we were doing, I ordered more papadum. I couldn't get enough.
My friend was mildly amused at my reaction to the papadums. I think he couldn't understand how I never encountered Indian cuisine, let alone papadums, before. Well, I did see an Indian restaurant or two in Coral Gables when I was living in Florida, but I never ventured inside. Now, I was kicking myself for not having the guts to try something new! I could have been enjoying papadums for five years if I had just tried it. I made a mental note never to pre-judge any cuisine before actually trying it from then on, and I have lived by that vow ever since.
My companion suggested that I look into an Australian author named Charmaine Solomon. A visit to a bookstore found a discounted copy of her cookbook entitled "The Complete Asian Cookbook," which had recipes for all sorts of Asian cuisines, from Sri Lanka and India to Japan and China.
I went to the Indian section and found a recipe for papadum and was immediately crestfallen. The "recipe" called for papadum wafers! It didn't tell me how to make them myself? Where would I find papadum wafers, especially in America?
Where? Well, there were shops that specialized in foreign food ingredients, and it wasn't difficult for me to find Papadums.
So, within a few weeks of my first visit to Sydney, I had some "raw" papadum wafers in my hand, ready to fling into some oil in a frying pan.
The wafers expanded in the oil, and I ended up with a slightly burned (from overcooking) gnarled looking object. My nose told me that this was indeed a papadum, but it did not look like those flat, wonderful wafers I had at the restaurant.
The papadums I made tasted wonderful, though, so I decided to ignore the ugly looking misshapen wafers, and concentrate on the taste.
I introduced my wife to "proper" papadums at a nearby Indian restaurant in Lowell (called "The Himalayan" on Middle Street, which is no longer in business, but another Indian restaurant called "Bombay Mahal" is in the same location today). She thought the ones in the restaurant were too spicy, but she eventually came to like them almost as much as me.
One day, when I was at an Indian grocery in Nashua, NH purchasing papadums (of course!), I mentioned to the lady at the counter that I loved papadums, but they always exploded into those crinkly blobs when I cooked them. She told me that I was not using enough oil. The next time I cooked them, I doubled the amount of oil and found that they were much easier to keep relatively flat (not as flat as I've seen in the restaurants, but much better than I was able to achieve previously).
Since then, I've found that some papadums work well in the microwave (of all places!) with flatter results.
I'm glad I've solved the mystery of the papadums, but even when they were curled and misshapen, they still tasted great.
Note: I will be out of the country without Internet access through next week, which means that next Friday's and Monday's blog entries will be skipped. My next entry will be posted next Tuesday or Wednesday.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Monday, August 27, 2007
With two out of two children in college this week, Sandra and I are starting to experience the empty nest syndrome. That is not to say that we're feeling any major depression or loneliness. After all, we managed the first seven years of our marriage without children, and we still have a couple of cats to feed, water, and take care of (Hmm, I remember the kids PROMISING that they'd take the cats way back when I agreed to let them stay. Luckily, I never believed that for a minute!).
The most noticeable change to our lives in the empty nest will probably be cooking. What used to be a no-brainer meal for four is now too large for just the two of us, so we will need to keep reminding ourselves to reduce the amount when we are purchasing. That package of a dozen chicken breasts for $1.99 a pound is no longer as good a deal as it was before: be thrifty that way too often and you'll soon find your freezer overflowing with food you'll never use before it gets freezer burn.
Another thing we took for granted was having one or two talented children able to either cook a meal for us (Chardonnay loves making Spicy Pork!) or do the "sous chef" chores like peeling shrimp or dicing vegetables. Now we have to do it ourselves. Not a big deal, but it's a change of mindset.
There are many books out there on how to cook for two. It's not that it's rocket science, but rather constantly reminding ourselves that three quarter pounds of ground beef is probably going to be more than enough for a meal and that we can get by with a single breast of chicken, etc.
Yesterday was our first "just the two of us day," so we made baby back ribs in the smoker. A single rack was good enough for both of us. We seasoned the ribs with generous amounts of various BBQ seasoning rubs, lit the coals, soaked some mesquite chunks, added water and beer into the drip pan of the smoker, assembled everything, and let the ribs smoke for about four hours. Later on, Sandra sliced up a small Italian eggplant and zucchini with some spices and olive oil, microwaved a couple of Idaho potatoes, and I prepared a single Portabello mushroom with olive oil and seasonings. After the ribs were smoked, we started the gas grill and the put the veggies, mushrooms, potatoes on the grill. Meanwhile, I "painted" some BBQ sauce on the smoked ribs and put them on the gas grill as well (only to finish cooking; we wanted to ensure they were cooked through). We finished with some roasted corn on the cob.
The meal came off perfectly, which made us happy that cooking for two isn't going to be such a chore. In fact, after a couple of weeks, I'm hoping that it will be just as easy thinking of cooking for just the two of us as it was to cook for three and four hungry mouths in the past.
When the kids come home for an extended stay around Christmas, we can start the bigger meals once again. I wonder if anybody will be hungry for a crown roast of pork? Hmm?
Friday, August 24, 2007
Oh, how I love soups.
That seems to be a simple statement, but the word "soup" probably conjures up a different image for me than it does for you.
I was brought up with the "Campbell Soup" model of soup in my life. My mother wasn't a good cook, and her idea of soup was to take a can, and some water or milk, and heat gently. If you were to ask me my favorite soup, it would almost definitely have to be beef barley: I preferred soups where the meat does most of the talking, as opposed to the ones where the vegetables have the last word.
Moving up to New England, I learned to love clam chowder (the New England variety). From there, I entered a Renaissance of "cream soups" (cream of mushroom, cream of celery, etc.) and worked to perfect my ability to create a bunch of cream soups.
Well, the fact that I'm lactose intolerant can hint at where my cream soup madness ended up. I still love clam chowder and cream of mushroom soups, and count them as my favorites to this day, as long as we are talking about soups that I'll have once or twice a year (and damn the torpedoes when it happens!).
Then I discovered Vietnamese soups.
I can wax on and on about Vietnamese soups, but I think it should suffice it to say that the Vietnamese are to soups what Picasso is to canvas.
I learned about Phó when I was working in Boston. It's basically a soup with a complicated broth over noodles served with fresh meat. It's simple, it's disarming, and--most important--it's delicious.
One day when I was sitting at a Vietnamese restaurant in Boston's "China Town," a co-worker suggested that I'd like a different soup, called "Bún Bò Huê." It wasn't on the menu, but was listed on a piece of paper on the wall written with most the vowels having various accents. I took the bait. I ordered the soup, and was treated to what I can easily say is my favorite soup of all time. It's spicy-red in color (and taste), with a pungent taste of fish, pork, and beef, served with spaghetti-like noodles and even some pig's feet.
I know that it's difficult to describe in words the ecstasy that I had in tasting this wondrous soup for the first (and then second, third, and umpteenth) time, so I won't bother. Instead, I'll simply call it my favorite soup. It was very spicy and delicious, and I could easily find it in Boston's China Town... until that restaurant closed its doors.
That was back in the early 1990s. I visited many other Asian restaurants, but never found Bún Bò Huê on the menus anywhere.
Phó, on the other hand, was easy to find. Lowell, Massachusetts is a place where you can find many Southeast Asian restaurants, and Phó is pretty popular at most of those places.
Earlier this year, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant that I have frequented a few times, and found it was under new management and under a new name, called "Pho Da Lat." The name implied that they had Phó, and I like that soup, so I decided to give the new place a try.
On the menu, item #73 reads "Bun Bo Hue," (interestingly, without the accents!) with the sub-title that it was the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. Do you think I hesitated for a moment? No! I ordered the soup, and was rewarded with that wonderful taste that I remembered from fifteen years ago.
I've been there quite a few times since (and now make it a regular weekly visit), and the Bún Bò Huê has been great every time.
On Google, you can find recipes for this soup. My wife isn't a fan of spicy soups, so I've never tried making it at home. I may do so, though, and if I do, I promise to share the recipe here.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Yesterday afternoon, my daughter Chardonnay called me up to ask what was for supper. I hadn't made any plans, and she asked if she could pick up some ground pork. I smiled at the request, knowing that she wanted "Spicy Pork." I told her to pick some up at the supermarket and she could make the dish for dinner. Later on, I called her back to make sure we had plenty of "Sticky Rice" for the dish, and we did.
I first had this dish at a lovely restaurant called Southeast Asian Restaurant in Lowell, MA, right next to the National Park. This place was run by Joe and Chanthip Antonaccio, until the summer of 2007, when it was purchased by somebody else who has promised to use the same recipes. I've been there once since the change of ownership, and things still seem to be very good there.
For lunch, Southeast Asian Restaurants has a (very) spicy version of this disk on their buffet, and for dinner, you can order it from the menu. (We always do!)
I've never found a recipe for this on the web, and the description from the menu is quite simple: "Ground pork, tomato, chili peppers, scallions (Very Hot)."
I have a recipe book called "The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam" by Bach Ngo and Gloria Zimmerman, and in it is a recipe for pork chops with classic Vietnamese seasonings and tomato paste. I substituted ground pork for the pork chops and adjusted the seasonings a bit until I had something that approximated the dish from the restaurant.
When I first joined Cisco Systems, Inc., human resources were requesting recipes from employees, and I submitted this recipe from memory (after doing a bit of a Google search for some product names). The following is my re-adaptation of the recipe I submitted to Cisco.
1 ½ pounds ground pork
1 Tbs Asian chili flakes
1 Tbs Asian chili sauce ("Sriracha" Hot Chili Sauce is recommended... get it at Asian markets)
⅓ cup soy sauce
⅓ cup fish sauce (Nuoc Cham)
1 cup water
2 Tbs sugar
1 six oz. can Tomato Paste
1 egg (optional)
⅜ cup Thai Basil, sliced (optional)
½ bunch scallions (green onions), sliced
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro (coriander leaf)
3 cups Sticky Rice (also known as Sweet Rice or Glutenous Rice)
3 cups hot water
Brown ground pork in a 5 quart Dutch Oven over medium-high heat, crumbling it as it cooks. Add chili flakes as the pork cooks and stir well.
In another 4-quart pot, combine 3 cups hot water and sticky rice. Bring to a boil, and then let it boil for exactly one minute. After one minute, add cover to pot, and dump the water OUT of the pot, using the lid to keep the rice in the pot. Set heat to very low, and allow the rice to simmer for 25 minutes.
When meat is completely cooked, add chili sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, water, and sugar, and stir until it boils. Add tomato paste and stir to thicken. If desired, drop egg in middle, and let it sit there for about four minutes to cook. Once cooked, stir the egg throughout the sauce... it will thicken the sauce some more. Taste sauce and correct seasoning as necessary (usually sugar may be needed, but if it's too sweet, add more soy sauce). Once the seasoning is perfect, add basil (optional), scallions and cilantro and continue to let the sauce simmer as the rice finishes.
Note that the sauce does not have to have too much liquid. in Laos, dishes are prepared with less liquids to accommodate the use of sticky rice!
When the rice is finished simmering (it will be quite sticky!), serve.
If doing individual servings, put the rice in a small bowl and the sauce in another bowl. Alternatively, put the sauce into a big bowl in the center of the dinner table and serve sticky rice in individual small bowls.
In Laos, sickly rice is traditionally eaten separate from the sauce. It is eaten with the hands, and can be dipped into the sauce, or you can press a small portion of the rice into a patty with your hands, and clutching the patty in your fingers, pick up the meat and sauce with the rice.
If you find this sounds a bit messy, it is perfectly acceptable to simply serve the sauce over the rice and eat with a fork (or chopsticks). However, it won't be the traditional Laotian way of eating this sort of meal. When you are feeling a bit more adventurous, try it the traditional way. It's especially fun for younger kids!
After preparing this meal the first time, feel free to experiment. Find the amount of chili flakes and sauce that tastes perfect to you and your family. The measurements were made one time when I was teaching my children how to cook this dish; generally, I just eyeball everything and it usually comes out perfectly.
Monday, August 20, 2007
I've seen quite a few places with quesadillas on their menus, and a lot of them are forgoing the traditional Mexican theme. None of them ever appealed to me until I was having lunch at Chip Shots Grill and Sports Pub in Littleton, MA. On their weekly specials menu was a quesadilla with fried chicken, cheese, and broccoli. The chef called it "Cassie's Quesadilla" (after one of the waitresses that made the request). Since I have a strong dislike for broccoli, I simply smiled at it and commented (to Cassie) that if they replaced the broccoli with bacon, that might be a quesadilla I'd try.
Little did I know that Cassie talked to the chef. When I looked at the specials menu the very next week, they had a quesadilla named after me, which was fried chicken, cheddar cheese, and bacon. Color me impressed—I think it's nice when a restaurant chef would consider the opinion of a patron enough to name a dish after that patron!
I had the quesadilla, and I must admit that it was delicious! I had it a couple of times that week, bringing leftovers home to my family (like it or not, I can never finish a quesadilla at lunch time at Chip Shots!).
So, without further ado, I'd like to present, Barguy's Quesadillas.
|Source:||Chip Shots Grill and Sports Pub, sometime in 2005|
|Yield:||One quesadilla (two servings)|
2 large (quesadilla or burrito style) flour tortillas
4 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz Chicken Tenders, fried as for chicken fingers, cut up into 1" pieces, cooled
2 slices bacon, crumbled
Parsley or cilantro for garnish (if desired)
Sour cream for garnish (if desired)
A grill pan and a heavy frying pan
Heat the grill pan on a burner over medium-high (at most) heat. On another burner, heat the large frying pan over medium heat. Put a tortilla on the grill pan and heat for about 30 seconds to a minute. Flip over. Meanwhile, put the second tortilla on the frying pan to heat.
On the (flipped) tortilla in the grill pan, assemble the quesadilla. Sprinkle the tortilla with half of the cheddar cheese, to cover the tortilla to within ¼" of the edge. Sprinkle half the bacon on top of the cheese, and then arrange the chicken pieces on top so that they cover the tortilla evenly. Add the remaining bacon on top of the chicken, and then sprinkle the remaining cheddar on top of everything.
Flip the tortilla from the second frying pan onto the top of the assembled quesadilla (hot side down), and then place the frying pan on top (turning off the heat of the second burner if you are only making a single quesadilla). Continue to heat until the cheese on the bottom of the quesadilla has melted nicely (about a minute to two minutes).
Flip the quesadilla by flipping the frying pan over the grill pan and turn both pans together so that the quesadilla is now upside down with the frying pan on bottom. Slip the quesadilla from the frying pan to the grill pan.
Grill for another minute until all the cheese is melted.
Move the cooked quesadilla onto a cutting board and cut into six slices, pizza style (a pizza cutter will work wonderfully here). Sprinkle with parsley or cilantro, if desired.
Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream on the side.
Friday, August 17, 2007
This article was inspired by Perfect Popcorn from one of the recipe sites I constantly monitor. I differ in opinion of what I consider to be "perfect," so I decided to share my own definition.
It's interesting to me the way the preparation of popcorn has evolved over the years. When I was younger, we would use vegetable oil and a four quart saucepan. We laughed at those so-called "popcorn makers" that would come along every year, usually around Christmas time. Why pay good money for something that has limited use when you can get better results from a saucepan and a stove that you already have?
Making popcorn on the stove was still quite easy. Just heat up some oil with a couple of kernels until the oil was hot enough to pop them, add the rest of the kernels, and shake back and forth over the burner for a couple of minutes until the popping stopped. It didn't take too many attempts to get to the point where you knew you hit the sweet spot--that point where you get the maximum kernels popped with the fewest kernels burned.
Despite how easy it was to make popcorn without a special cooker, there were always other gimmicks. Jiffy Pop, with its instantly recognizable expanding foil pan, was very popular and was responsible for a lot of hit-or-miss popcorn... it was too easy to overcook or not shake it enough to burn the kernels. However, when it was done correctly, the popcorn was delicious. I remember seeing plastic versions of the Jiffy Pop pans for microwave use, but that was even more gimmicky and I only tried it once or twice—disappointing.
I remember a "kit" available in stores called "T.V. Time," which included some yellow oil/paste (which was the oil you were supposed to melt) and the kernels and explicit instructions on how to cook the perfect pot of corn. I loved the taste of the popcorn resulting from those kits; the oil gave the kernels a great buttery flavor without the need for pouring butter over the popped corn afterward.
In the 1970s, the powers that be came up with "microwave popcorn." Before those silly bags came along, the common wisdom was that a microwave was totally unsuitable for popcorn. I'm not sure which company started the microwave trend; it may have been Pillsbury, but it could have been Orville Redenbacher. No matter, the early versions were quite a travesty and resulted in a lot of bags of burned kernels due to the vagaries of microwave ovens and some silly instructions ("Wait until there are only one or two seconds between pops!")
Nowadays, microwave popcorn is much better, and some ovens even have a special "Popcorn" setting that is supposed to magically ascertain the proper amount of time and power for that perfect batch. It's still hit or miss, and still seems a waste of money over purchasing simple kernels without the overhead of the bag, whatever-oil-substance-they-use-to-cook-it, salt, and marketing.
One place that comes to mind when you think of popcorn is the local movie theater. Unfortunately, very few theaters seem to make it "live" the way they used to with those machines with the rotating arms. Instead, the popcorn is made somewhere else—in the back, at some "popcorn factory?" I guess I'll never know. I've never liked popcorn out of the bag (does anybody REALLY purchase those bags in the snack aisle?), so just thinking of it is a downer.
Some pubs and bars have those classic popcorn machines, though, and they make some great popcorn when used correctly.
So... what do I think makes the best popcorn? Well, as I mentioned, I loved "T.V. Time," I like stuff that comes out of the pub-style popcorn machines, and I don't really mind some of today's microwave popcorn—it's damned convenient to spend a minute or two popping and then throw away the bag without having the wash a pot. What all three have in common is that great buttery taste that doesn't need melted butter to be applied afterward. I've found that adding butter afterward has the effect of making the popcorn soggy.
In the 1980s, I tried making popcorn with a number of oils. Butter was my first choice and resulted in some vile-looking brown popcorn (don't try it... believe me!). I used vegetable oil, corn oil, peanut oil, coconut oil with varying degrees of success, but I knew I was still missing that buttery taste.
In the mid-1980s, I learned about Indian food on my first trip to Australia, and when I got a cookbook, I learned about a special oil used in that cuisine called "ghee," which is also known as "clarified butter." Without the milk solids, ghee is simply an oil distilled from butter and ghee has a higher flash point, which means it doesn't burn as readily as butter does. I wondered if popcorn could be made using ghee, and it turns out that it can... and makes a wonderful batch of it!
Clarifying butter takes time. You basically need to melt some unsalted butter in a large, thick pan over low to medium heat until the milk solids sink and the water is boiled off. It can take from twenty to thirty minutes. You are not interested in the solids on the butter—just the golden-yellow transparent oil on top. Since the milk solids are not in the ghee, it will keep for a long time, especially if you keep it in a jar in the refrigerator.
|Yield:||About two quarts of popcorn|
2 Tbsp ghee
⅓ cup of high quality popcorn kernels
Salt to taste (I use "popcorn salt"—see note)
Heat the ghee in a 4-quart saucepan on medium high heat. Add a kernel or two into the oil and cover the pot. Add a bit of salt to the oil.
When the kernels start to pop, add the rest of the popcorn kernels to cover the bottom of the pot in a single layer (use less kernels if you cannot keep them in a single layer).
Shake the pot over the burner gently.
Wait for the popping to slow down. This requires some experience to get a "feel" for the popcorn.
Remove from heat and dump the contents of the pot into a large bowl. Add additional salt to taste.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Last autumn, Sandra and I travelled for the first time to Cape Cod.
You'd think that the fact that we live forty minutes north of Boston would mean that we visit the cape every year, but the truth of the matter was that nearly everybody reports that the cape is crowded in the summer, and there isn't much to do the rest of the year there. Well, those reports were wrong.
The two of us stayed at a motel in Wellfleet, MA (about halfway up the cape). For dinner, we took the advice of somebody on the Chowhound's New England board and visited a delightful restaurant called "The Wicked Oyster." Even the name was charming! (The restaurant doesn't seem to have a web site, so I'll give it's location: 50 Main Street, Wellfleet, MA 02667, phone (508) 349-3455.)
We had some terrific food there, and since that was our one and only visit to the place, I'm not qualified to give the place a real review.
The point of this article was that I had an appetizer at The Wicked Oyster that was quite memorable. It was an Oyster Stew that combined Wellfleet Oysters (but of course—we were in Wellfleet!), milk and cream, and a lot of fennel with some other spices.
Well, the recipe haunted me, so I eventually found myself doing a Google search for oyster stew that included fresh fennel, and came upon a recipe called "Lonny's Oyster Stew" on a web site called Sunset, which seems to approximate that wonderful stew I had at The Wicked Oyster.
Oh, and by the way, the cape is wonderful in the autumn. It wasn't crowded at all, and the two of us had fun exploring the cape together. We'll probably visit again this year, and you can bet that The Wicked Oyster will be one of our stops for dinner!
Lonny's Oyster Stew
|Yield:||Makes 6 servings|
¼ pound pancetta or bacon
2 leeks (¾ in. thick), white parts only
2 heads (3 in. wide) fennel
1 teaspoon crushed fennel seed
6 cups half-and-half (light cream) or 2% milk
3 jars (10 oz. each) shucked oysters and their liquor (4 cups total)
¾ cup chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon Pernod, Sambuca, or other anise-flavor liqueur (not sweet)
Fresh-ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons
butter or margarine
Cut pancetta into ¼-inch dice. Put in a 5- to 6-quart pan.
Trim and discard root ends from leeks, then rinse well and chop.
Trim and discard tops, root ends, and bruised spots from fennel, then rinse and chop.
Add leeks, fennel, and fennel seed to pancetta and stir often over medium-high heat until limp but not browned, about 5 minutes.
Add cream and oysters and their liquor and turn heat to medium-high. Stir often just until soup is hot but not boiling, about 4 minutes.
Stir in ½ cup parsley, liqueur, and pepper and salt to taste.
Ladle into bowls and sprinkle equally with remaining parsley, then add a dot of butter to each.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Mexican in New Hampsha is more or less hit or miss, with less "hit" and more "miss." The exception to this is La Carreta, a restaurant that's been in around for about ten years.
Now, I've eaten Mexican in a lot of places (including Sydney, Australia!), and northern New England isn't a place where you would expect to find good Latin food, but La Carreta seems to have broken the mold up here. I first encountered the restaurant about ten years or so ago when it opened in a tiny strip mall on Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua. It quickly became a favorite lunch spot of mine (I was working in Nashua at the time) and is, to this day, one of my family's favorite restaurants.
The margaritas taste great--sweet, sour, and no too heavily laden with tequila. The beers are served in huge mugs (if you order the large drafts), although they will try to stick a lime on your Mexican draft if you don't tell them otherwise—I don't like fruit in my beer! The tortilla chips are freshly made and served warm, and they are usually refilled before you reach the bottom of the basket. The salsa is one of the best in the area with bits of onion and cilantro to give it a very fresh taste.
Unlike a lot of Mexican restaurants, La Carreta doesn't do the standard Mexican appetizers. No hot wings or taquitos (although they do serve taquitos as a entreé) to be found here, but they have a Queso Fundido (white cheese dip with ground chorizo sausage mixed in) that my wife and kids always insist on having with a couple of side orders of flour tortillas.
La Carreta really shines with its entreés, though. There's the usual combinations of tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and other standard Mexican fair, but there are a lot of specials as well. The Grande Burrito, for instance, contains chunks of seasoned steak to make it an unforgettable dish... and the "Grande" part of the name is no lie—you may find it difficult to finish it! The Chile Verde (green chile sauce with chunks of pork or steak) is done very nicely, as is the Chori Pollo (chicken breast, queso fundido, and flour tortillas). There are also lunch specials consisting of special combinations at a reduced price, lower prices on some of their regular menu items (same portion, lower price), and a couple of lunch-only items, like the Huevos Rancheros.
The food is quite authentic—considering that we are deep within Gringo Country up here. While it may not rival a typical Mexican restaurant deep in the heart of Texas, it's quite good and easily the best in the state.
I've rarely had disappointing service at La Carreta. Meals come out quickly, and water and soft drinks are refilled automatically.
Parking can be tricky at the Nashua location, since it's in a tiny strip mall. The location in Derry has a larger parking area, and the restaurant in Manchester is the largest. They've recently opened a location in Keene, which is where Chardonnay will be attending college in a few weeks, so I know she's looking forward to some good Mexican chow during the school year.
I heartily recommend La Carreta to anybody with a hankering for Mexican food. The food is great, the drinks are wonderful, and the service is prompt. What more can you expect?
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
One of lar3ry's rambles
Who are the people that decide
what is good and what is bad?
When it comes to food,
a burger from McDonald's
is supposed to be bad for you.
A spinach salad, on the other hand,
is supposed to be good for you.
Who makes these rules?
Oh, you may think that the rules
are handed down by people
with University degrees and doctorates,
and endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration,
but I suspect otherwise.
Invariably, the "good" foods
are those that taste like...
well... predigested food already expelled.
The "bad" foods, taste,
as you can easily guess,
like heaven came for a visit.
"Burgers contain fat," those wise ones proclaim.
"Lobsters have cholesterol.
Salads are much better for you," they add.
"Of course, the Caesar salad with
grilled chicken, shrimp, and Filet Mignon,
is no longer a 'good' item.
It's got too much 'bad stuff' in it."
To all this, I say, BAH!
I've heard enough about cholesterol.
I understand enough to know
that cholesterol is what they put into food
to make it taste better.
Our ability to eat meat
puts us near the top of the food chain.
Those that intentionally do without—
the vegetarians and the vegans...
(those infamous "V's")—
are forcing their systems to indulge
in a diet that our omnivorous systems
weren't designed for.
Those PETA people,
the ones for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,
contain a lot of those V's.
They are horrified to think of us
killing another living being,
even if it isn't a human being.
However, the last I looked,
plants are living beings as well.
They exist—they "be."
And somebody comes around
and pulls them from the ground.
Where is the sport in killing plants?
They just lie on the ground,
wherever the wind takes their seed.
They are just—well, they're PLANTED there!
And still I see those PETA types,
tiptoeing through the tulips,
like modern day Elmer Fudds,
with a finger to their lips,
saying, "Be vewy, vewy quiet.
I'm hunting pwants!"
Big sports, you all!
Me, I'll be happy with a prime rib
with a generous supply of au jus—
even that French name gives it a je ne sais quois!
Mashed potatoes or baked.
Even a small amount of vegetables, perhaps.
A good meal, one fit for a king.
Yes, I'll eat some vegetables.
I'm only "pro-life" when it comes
to my own self-preservation.
Vegetables have their uses,
even if I don't consider them
the be-all and end-all of everything.
"Everything in moderation," some people say.
I enjoy moderation myself,
although only in moderation.
And that's where I find myself—
A bit overweight, I guess,
if you define my "ideal" weight
as fitting somebody else's ideals.
I kind of like where I am, though,
and isn't that the main point?
I will continue to enjoy food,
and I won't allow people to
make me feel guilty for enjoying it.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Although it looks as if I'm on a Mexican theme this week, with this recipe following my Macho Dip recipe, the reality is that I'm just putting in some recipes for which I've been asked for as a way to jump-start this blog.
I guess Mexican was the first "ethnic" food that I learned to cook. When I was living in Miami, I was at a party where a co-worker named Nancy Kowalski made a quick and easy sheet of nachos by putting tortillas on a cookie sheet, added a can of Hormel Chili (without beans), some shredded cheese and a few diced vegetables, and after about five minutes in the oven, she brought out some delicious nachos.
I taught the recipe to Sandra (this was before we were married), and together we learned to love Mexican food. I believe that Mexican is still Sandra's favorite restaurant cuisine. To this day, Nancy's quick and dirty nachos make up a quick and easy meal. We've refined our style (sliced green onions and freshly chopped tomatoes make up the bulk of the "vegetable" ingredients, and we don't always use canned chili--we often heat up some ground or cubed beef with some taco seasoning instead), but it's still basically the same, easy recipe.
When I was learning to appreciate Mexican cooking, I initially avoided guacamole. It was "too green" for my taste, and I never tasted avocados before, and wasn't willing to give it a try.
One day at lunch, I saw a news segment on channel nine (WMUR, Manchester) where a local chef makes a recipe, and the recipe was for guacamole. I believe that the chef was from a Mexican restaurant in Nashua called "La Hacienda del Rio."
The chef wasn't too particular about quantities, saying pretty much that it was all a matter of taste. I watched as the chef quickly and professionally assembled guacamole from avocados, onions, and other ingredients.
A few days later, I needed to whip up something quickly for a company pot-luck (everybody was supposed to bring something). I remembered seeing the chef on television, and decided to make the guacamole. I figured that a lot of people like guacamole, even if I hadn't even really tried it myself. I went to the store to pick up some avocados, tomatoes, red onion, and limes, and at home, my daughters and I did the preparation and combined everything in a food processor. I tasted it and decided it was pretty good—especially considering that I was in charge of what went into it. The kids loved it as well, and at the party, it was a pretty good hit, since there weren't any leftovers.
Over the years, I've read other people's recipes for guacamole and continued tweaking my own recipe, which is reproduced below from my recipe collection:
|Source:||From various locations|
2 ripe avocados
1 medium red or Vidalia onion, roughly chopped (see note)
1 small jalepeño, stems and seeds removed, chopped
1 fresh lime, juiced
4 tomatillos, halved (see note)
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Peel and seed avocados, and cut in half or quarters, and place into food processor bowl.
Add onion, jalapeño, most of the lime juice, and tomatillos, and cilantro and pulse until the mixture is thoroughly mixed—do not over-process.
Put in serving bowl, and top with remainder of lime juice (to keep the avocado from oxidizing). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Before serving, stir the dip to blend in the lime juice.
Serve with tortilla chips.
Tomatoes may be substituted for tomatillos, but will alter the color from bright green to light brown, which may be unappetizing. Consider dicing the tomatoes and mixing into dip right before stirring.
Sour cream may be added to extend the dip for larger quantities.
I prefer Vidalia onions over red onions, but they aren't available year round. Other sweet onions may be substituted.
Green onions, both green and white parts, sliced thin as well as extra chopped cilantro make good garnishes.
Posted by lar3ry at 3:36 PM
Monday, August 6, 2007
A recipe and an informal review
When Sandra and I first moved to New Hampsha in 1982, we were delighted to find a Mexican restaurant in the town. The restaurant was called "Little Mexico" and had a cute little white-plaster building on Rt. 28.
The building is still there, but alas, the restaurant has gone. They opened an additional location in East Hampstead, NH which isn't that far away, but that place doesn't have the immediacy that the Salem location had for us ("Hey! I don't feel like cooking tonight. How about getting a couple of bowls of chili from Little Mexico?"). Be that as it may, we've continued patronizing the place in East Hampstead. The place has changed in a few ways over the years, and the service has been hit or miss from time to time, but the one constant thing that we can usually count on is the food.
The chili con carne there is outstanding. It's probably my favorite chili "with beans" that I've had anywhere, and that's saying quite a lot. It's thin, soupy style is a personal favorite of mine, and it consists of ground meat, kidney beans, and a perfect selection of spices.
There is another dish at Little Mexico that Sandra and the kids love, which is called "Macho Dip," which is the subject of today's blog entry. The dip is described as melted cheese dip with enchilada sauce and onions, and from the description, it's not that difficult to try to come up with a way to reproduce it at home.
My wife is going to be the matron-of-honor for one of her best friends in a few months, and this past weekend, there was a "Jack and Jill" party for the happy couple. The party was held at a Knights of Columbus hall nearby, and when my wife was picking up food for the party, I asked her if a "Macho Dip" appetizer would be appreciated. She thought it would be a good idea, so I put myself into "chef" mode, and tried to figure out what I would need to make something for a party.
Let me make a confession. I was told there would be seventy people at the party, and I had no idea what kind of quantities would be needed. I figured a cheese dip would need a Crock Pot to keep it warm, and we have two large ones (6 quarts?).
I went to the supermarket and picked up eight cans of Campbell's "Cheese Soup" (basically, cheddar cheese in a soup form). It's a common recipe starter, and I figured that eight cans would easily feed seventy people. At home, I had everything else I'd need for the dip.
At 10am in the morning of the day of the party, I got out the Crock Pot, and put the contents of the eight soup cans into it, filling the pot about halfway. To that, I added a small can of enchilada sauce (I'm not sure about the brand... sorry!). Sandra suggested I add a can of "Tomatoes and Green Chilis" (available in the Mexican section of the International aisle in the supermarket), and I had Chardonnay chop up a medium-sized Vidalia onion (the best onions for ANYTHING!). I sauteéd the chopped onion in about two tablespoons of butter with some olive oil until it was transparent and added it to the Crock Pot.
At this point, it was important to stir the pot. The cheese is thick, the enchilada sauce and vegetables are thin, and stirring combined everything. The cheese went from a bright yellow to a light brown color mostly due to the enchilada sauce. After it was all mixed together, it was necessary to correct the seasoning. I added about two tablespoons of cumin, and another tablespoon of Chili Seasoning, and then I added about a tablespoon each of onion powder and garlic powder. I had my youngest daughter, Chardonnay, taste the mixture, and it was a bit "raw" to her (the powdered seasonings needed time to "marry" into the dip). I didn't modify anything, but had her taste it again after ten minutes (it was better), and another ten minutes (it was great).
After a couple of hours with the Crock Pot at its highest setting, the dip was ready. I suggest lowering the temperature (or shutting it off) after that period, and checking every half hour or so after you set it out to ensure that the dip is at the right consistency. Serve with tortilla chips, preferably unseasoned like Tostitos™ rather than Doritos™.
I ended up with about four to five quarts of dip, which was way more than enough for the party. There was some leftover afterward, but Chardonnay quickly claimed it for herself (she just loves the dip).
The dip has some useful applications:
- Little Mexico uses it as a sauce for their enchiladas and the burritos (their Verde Burrito is another one of my favorites at the restaurant!)
- Ladle over tortilla chips and add vegetables for nachos.
- Serve as an accompaniment with taquitos.
- Heat and serve over enchiladas as a cheesy sauce.
- Substitute for cheese with fajitas
Friday, August 3, 2007
People that know me know that I have a passion for movies. Since I was a kid, I loved everything about movies. My parents would take me in the car to one of the local drive-ins, and I'd be hooked from the very start, from the dancing food beckoning me to purchase some popcorn, to the animated shorts and previews, all the way through to the end of the movie. It's one of my fondest memories of childhood.
Here in Southern New Hampsha, we have a interesting "dinner theater" experience called "Chunky's Cinema Pub" which combines watching a movie in huge, comfortable seats with dinner with wait service. The idea is that you show up about an hour before your movie starts, order dinner or snacks, and then relax while you wait for the movie to start. It's not a drive-in, but you don't really have to worry about inclement weather or driving off with those cast iron speakers still attached to your window.
I've been a long time fan of the Chunky's movie experience, ever since the first one opened in Plaistow, NH. That venue was fun; it had tables of four and six that could be grouped together for larger parties, and little "pagers" on the table to tell your waitress that you needed attention during the show.
The Plaistow location is long gone, but I'm happy to report that after it closed, they opened two locations close by: one in Haverhill, MA, and the other in Pelham, NH. Recently, another Chunky's opened nearby in Nashua (although my daughter has been there, I've never gone to the one in Nashua). There used to be a location in central NH (now apparently called "Smitty's Cinema Pub") and one or two in Maine near Portland, which I've never visited. My review will be on the Pelham restaurant, since it's closest to my house, and the one I frequent the most.
The food at Chunky's can be best described as Classic American. There are appetizers ("pub grub"), salads, burgers, sandwiches, wraps, and a small selection of entreés. All the menu items have names related to the movie theme of the place. For instance, "Love Me Tenders" is the name given to the chicken tenders entreé, and there is a "Kevin Bacon Burger" (bacon cheeseburger) and "Robert DeNiro Burger" ("Cheeseburger with an attitude") as well. Side dish selections include potato chips, pub fries, cole slaw, pasta salad, baked beans. For an additional charge, you can order waffle fries, onion rings, or a side salad instead. Desserts aren't forgotten, and most have a "Harry Potter" theme ("Gryffindor House Special" is a brownie sundae, for instance). For those over twenty-one, there is a limited cocktail menu as well.
The food is very good, and although it would never be considered gourmet fair, it's quite a bit better than the food I remember from the concession stands at the old drive-ins. The prices are quite reasonable as well. Service is usually pretty good, but when the place is crowded, the wait staff can get overwhelmed. A recent "re-innovation" is that the restaurant now offers a "coaster" that works as a reverse-pager; turn it on and it will let your wait-person know that you need something, which can be very useful in the darkened room when the movie is playing. This is similar to the "pagers" that the original venue had, and is a welcome return.
Although there is a full menu, you are not obligated to have a complete meal. You could just order munchies and drinks, have a bag or two of popcorn, or even pass on the food and/or drinks altogether (although that would miss a lot of the fun of the place to my mind).
The seating is very comfortable, unlike a lot of movie theaters. The seats are converted bucket seats from Lincoln Town Cars and are very roomy, and some of them have arm rests (it seems to depend on the model year of the car from which a particular seat was taken). Unlike the original Chunky's in Plaistow, the theaters in Pelham have long tables mounted together, meaning that your party might be sitting immediately next to another party if the movie you are watching is popular, like the first day of a new Harry Potter release.
Admission to the theater is reasonable, considering the prices at other "normal" theaters, at $7.00 (with a matineés being $5.50), but they have ladies' nights (discounted admission for members of the fairer sex) and other weekly promotions.
My rating: Recommended!
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Another family favorite. This one comes from as far away as Perth, Ontario: Maximillian Dining Lounge, located at 99 Gore Street East. My family summers in Ontario, and this Czech restaurant is one of our favorites. Harmony and I like their special goulash with chopped raw onions and pickles; Chardonnay and Sandra love the Schnitzel.
One outstanding recipe item that my family loves is that restaurant's Consommé, which comes with two or three dumplings (instead of ordering a "cup" or "bowl," you order by the number of dumplings). This is such a simple and elegant starter, that I eventually started to get a craving for it, even when I'm not in Canada. I just had to figure out a way to reproduce it. Since the restaurant doesn't have a web site, I had to scour the web for German-style recipes until I found a rather unassuming recipe entitled "Meatballs for Soup." Unfortunately, this was before I formalized my recipe collection, so I no longer have the original web address. A recent Google search located the same recipe here. That may be where I originally found it, but I found it in (or prior to) 2004, according to my catalog date, and that site has a copyright date of 2006. It seems to be a transcription of a recipe book, so others may have done the same.
As I mentioned, the soup isn't that difficult to make, and has become an easy meal to make when we a too busy to stand around a stove for a long time. Simply make the meatballs and put into the broth until the meatballs are done. I usually have one of the girls make the meatballs, and them assemble the Consommé. Simple, eh? (That last bit is for my Canadian friends!)
Consommé with (Beef) Dumplings
|Source:||Maximillian Restaurant, reproduced by lar3ry from meatball recipe from somewhere on the web|
Meatballs (Beef Dumplings)
1 ½ pounds hamburger or sausage
2 Tbsp. melted shortening
1 Tbsp. chopped onions
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
½ tsp. salt
⅔ cup dried bread crumbs or ¾ cup quick oatmeal
Combine ingredients and form balls.
Add a little milk if needed.
May be browned before adding the dumplings to the soup.
1 - 1 ½ quarts chicken stock (canned or carton is fine)
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
Additional water, if necessary
Put chicken stock in Dutch oven over medium-high heat and allow to boil.
Lower heat to medium to medium-low (so it continues to boil slowly) and add meatballs to stock.
Continue cooking for 30-45 minutes, until meatballs are fully cooked. Add water or additional stock as necessary if liquid reduces too much.
Sometime near the end of cooking, add parsley to the consommé and season as necessary.
May be accompanied with slices of French bread.
Even better than French bread, serve with German-style "bread dumplings." These may be known as Bayerische Semmelklosse (Bavarian Bread Dumplings) or Brotknödel (Bread Dumplings). You can find recipe boxes for these or similar items in the International aisle in large supermarkets—very much recommended!
Some additional notes:
- At one time, Chardonnay didn't realize that the shortening could be replaced by butter (which is what we always use when we make the recipe).
- We found out the hard way [smile!] that the meatballs shouldn't be added to the soup until the broth is boiling... they swelled in size, absorbing the liquid! Important tip: Don't do that!
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
This recipe is one of my originals. It can be described as a "Shrimp Fra Diavolo with Sausage and Cheese" but that doesn't quite get the entire feel of the dish.
Twenty or so years ago, I was reading a James Beard cookbook (American Cookery) and came across a dish that consisted of shrimp, pancetta, and tomato sauce. I didn't have pancetta, so I decided to use sweet Italian sausage instead, crumbled and browned. Then I added provolone cheese on top, and this dish was born! Sandra and I loved it the first time we made it.
Interestingly, the second, third, and fourth times I tried to make this dish, I failed miserably. I used cooked shrimp instead of raw, and apparently made a number of other mistakes until I got the hang of the dish.
With regard to the hot spices (cayenne, Tabasco, red pepper flakes), I tend to use a lot more when I'm cooking for just myself than when I'm cooking for my family (medium spice) or for company (mild spice). Keep that in mind when you make this.
|Source:||An original recipe by lar3ry|
|Prep Time:||20 minutes|
|Cook Time:||20 minutes|
1 pound uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ to ½ pound Provolone cheese, sliced thin
1 pound pasta (linguine or spaghetti)
Butter (to taste)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Parmesan cheese (to taste)
3 links sweet Italian sausage (frozen is best)
2 Tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp dried basil flakes
1 15 oz can crushed tomatoes
½ tsp red pepper flakes (to taste)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Peel and devein shrimp, removing tails, set aside.
Chop Italian sausage by slicing links into ¼" slices, and then cutting each slice into six cubes about ¼" square. This works best if the sausages are frozen, and the cubes will retain their shape.
Heat olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sausage and fry until they are all cooked (about five minutes). Add garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook an additional minute.
Mix in the crushed tomatoes and basil and stir to blend completely. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
In a 9" x 13" oven-proof dish, spread a small layer of sauce. Assemble the shrimp in the dish, keeping the shrimp in a single layer. With a ladle, spoon more of the sauce on top of the shrimp until the shrimp is completely covered. Reserve remainder of the sauce.
Place slices of Provolone cheese on top of the shrimp. Tear some of the round cheese slices in half in order to have them cover even. You want at most three layers of cheese. Cover the oven-proof dish with aluminum foil and cook at 350°F for 40 minutes.
During the last 15-20 minutes of cooking, prepare pasta according to directions on box. Drain after it's cooked al dente, and drizzle with melted butter and extra-virgin olive oil to keep pasta from sticking together.
After the dish has baked for 40 minutes, remove the aluminum foil from the oven-proof dish, and turn oven controls to "broil." Broil for five minutes until cheese is brown and bubbly.
Serve shrimp and sauce over pasta. Add some of the reserved sauce on top, if desired. Serve with shredded Parmesan cheese.
- Frozen sausage is best for this dish, as you can cut it into cubes easy and they will retain their shape as they cook. If using fresh sausage, don't cut it, but rather peel the casings off and cook the ground meat within it, crumbling it as it cooks.
- DON'T USE JUMBO SHRIMP FOR THIS DISH! It will dilute the sauce too much, as the larger shrimp give off too much water as they cook! Medium to large shrimp work best.
- If the sauce seems too thin, add 3 tbs. tomato paste to thicken.
- Substitute 1 ½ pounds of chicken tenders if you don't like shrimp (we adapted this rule for my daughter, who doesn't really like shrimp).
- Add ¼ pound of Prosciutto ham sliced thin and cut into tiny pieces and 2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese to sauce for additional taste.
- Add up to 3 Tbs Tabasco Sauce and increase red pepper flakes for a much spicier dish!
- Garnish dish with sliced pieces of fresh basil for a more professional presentation.