Woodfired plate by Roger Baumann. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
The preparation of many dishes that are close to my heart begin with a simple ritual: chop an onion, chop some pepper, mash two garlic cloves, set a handful of washed cilantro aside, heat a little oil in a heavy cast iron pan, add the onions, add the peppers and the garlic and then lovingly stir and watch over this mix until the onions become glossy and the aroma fills the kitchen. The simple preparation of these ingredients is the base to many Puerto Rican dishes and it is called sofrito.
I learned this ritual in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a young girl. When it was time to cook at Mima’s house I would grab hold of the pilón (mortar and pestle) to mash the garlic and help her prepare the sofrito. This ritual became second nature and when it was time for me to start cooking, these were the ingredients that I naturally stocked in my kitchen. Back then, my sofrito consisted of these ingredients: a yellow onion, one half a green bell pepper, two cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh chopped cilantro – these were the ingredients that were available in most grocery stores in Montana. This sofrito would flavor anything from arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and empanadilla filling to habichuelas guisadas (stewed pink beans).
It has always been my belief that rice and beans is the measure of a Puerto Rican cook and in my family, Mima has always won the ‘best beans award’. For over fifteen years, I have been trying to make Mima’s beans but was never quite satisfied with the results – my beans were good, but were definitely missing that Mima quality. So, last year when Angelica and I visited my grandparents, I asked Mima to please show us exactly how she made her beans. I took notes.
What I learned was that the secret to Mima’s beans is her sofrito. She uses fresh local ingredients which include: yellow onion, pimiento del pais (green cubanelle pepper), ají dulce (small sweet peppers), garlic, culantro (also known in Puerto Rico as recao) and cilantro. The flavors of the local peppers and herbs, especially that of the ají dulces and the culantro really give the sofrito that “grandma’s garden” taste that I was missing by using bell peppers.
Although sometimes hard to find, cubanelle peppers, ají dulce and culantro can be found in some latin markets. In New York City you can usually find these ingredients in any grocery store in Spanish Harlem or at the Essex Market in the Lower East Side, which has a great selection of fresh latin ingredients. Now anytime I want to make rice and beans, I make a special trip just to get these ingredients. The flavor payoff of making sofrito with the right ingredients is well worth the effort.
Puerto Rican Ají Dulces. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
Note: Ají dulces are small colorful peppers that have a strong herbal flavor, they are not spicy. However, they can be easily confused with a very spicy pepper like the habanero because they are similar in size and coloration. Be careful when selecting them or ask your grocer to make sure they are ají dulces. Learn more about the ají dulce here. Learn more about culantro and cubanelle peppers.
Cubanelle peppers in Ponce’s Plaza del Mercado market. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 green cubanelle pepper, seeded and finely diced
3 ají dulces, seeded and finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced or mashed with a mortar and pestle
3 culantro leaves, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast iron skillet over medium heat until the oil begins to ripple. Add the onions and stir to cook until they become glossy but still crisp in texture. Add the cubanelle peppers, ají dulces, garlic and cook for a few minutes longer until the ingredients begin to release their aroma and the onion becomes transparent and soft, add the culantro and half the chopped cilantro (see note).
Note: Sofrito is the base to many dishes. This basic preparation will be followed by your main ingredients and finished off with cilantro. In some cases, you will also add annatto to the sofrito. I prefer to add the final half of the fresh cilantro toward the end of the cooking process to brighten the flavor of the dish.
Photo from Nordljus.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and if you are looking to treat your lover to a romantic candlelit dinner, then consider ending the evening with this sexy dessert. It’s a chocolate caramel tart conceived by Claudia Fleming, renowned pastry chef and author of the cookbook “The Last Course”.
This exceptional tart starts off with the required Valentine’s Day ingredients of chocolate and caramel. But the dessert itself is much more than just putting two good things together, this tart is about thoughtfully prepared elements using the best ingredients to bring about an experience of texture, intense taste sensations and visual appeal. A not-so-sweet chocolate crust is the container to a rich, buttery soft caramel which is then topped with a dark chocolate ganache glaze. The tart is garnished with fleur de sel salt that makes a bite of this dessert sing in your mouth. Just imagine this thick, deeply golden flow of caramel flowing from the dark chocolate ganache glaze as your fork sinks into the tart to take your first bite. This tart is unforgettable.
Thinking about the chocolate caramel tart brings back memories of an evening Scott and I shared last year. For his birthday, I treated Scott to an overnight getaway at the Battery Park Ritz Carlton. Our room had a telescope to view the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks along the Hudson River, this appealed to Scott’s voyeuristic tendencies. That night we indulged in room service and a bottle of the most excellent Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage cuvée, which we now call ‘naughty champaign’. The pleasurable taste of that sparkling wine is like nothing we had ever enjoyed. Something about tasting something that good certainly makes you feel a little naughty. At the end of the meal, I surprised Scott with the chocolate caramel tart topped with a single lit candle and a sprinkling of salt. It was a delightful highlight to a memorable evening in honor of Scott.
The chocolate caramel tart is definitely a special occasion dessert. Give yourself plenty of time to make it as you will need to make it in phases (pastry first, then caramel, then chocolate glaze). Don’t skimp on the ingredients – make sure you use a good quality dark chocolate (Valrhona, Callebaut, Scharffen Berger are all wonderful chocolates). The end result will be well worth the effort and your lover might just thank you in more ways than one ;)
Looking for other Valentine’s Day treat ideas? Try this Chocolate-Dipped Florentine Shortbread recipe by Pierre Hermé.
Chocolate Caramel Tarts
Chocolate Tart Dough
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1 large egg yolk
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp crème fraiche
Chocolate Ganache Glaze
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 1/2 oz extra-bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Pinch of fine sea salt, such as fleur de sel
1. To prepare the tart dough, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and confectioner’s sugar until combined, about 1 minute. Sift in the flour and cocoa powder and beat on low speed until just combined. Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a disk. Wrap and chill until firm, about 1 hour, or up to 3 days.
2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the tart dough to an 18 x 12 – inch rectangle, 3/16 inch thick. Using a 2 1/2 inch round cutter, cut out 24 rounds of dough and press them into mini muffin tins or 2-inch tart pans, trimming away any excess dough; prick the dough all over with a fork. Chill the tart shells for 20 minutes.
3. Line the tart shells with foil and fill with dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer, or until the pastry looks dry and set. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. (The tart shells can be made 8 hours ahead.)
4. To prepare the filling, place 1/2 cup water in a large saucepan. Add the sugar and corn syrup and cook the mixture over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until you have a dark amber caramel, about 10 minutes. Carefully whisk in the butter, cream, and crème fraiche (the mixture will hiss and bubble up, so stand back), whisking until smooth. (The caramel can be made up to 5 days ahead and refrigerated.) Divide the caramel among the tart shells while still warm (or reheat the caramel in the microwave or over low heat until it is pourable) and let sit until the caramel is set, at least 45 minutes.
5. To make the ganache glaze, in a saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. Place the chocolate in a bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let sit for 2 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Pour some of the glaze over each of the tarts while still warm. Let the glaze set at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving. Sprinkle with salt, if desired, just before serving.
For a large tart, line a 10-inch tart pan with the pastry dough, then prick, weight, and bake as directed, adding 5 to 10 minutes to the baking time. When the tart shell is cool, spoon in the warm caramel filling. Allow the caramel to set before pouring the warm ganache onto the tart.
Plate by Roger Baumann. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
This month’s Food and Wine Magazine features Grace Parisi’s vegetarian recipe for Winter Vegetable Chili. This vegetarian chili recipe with healthy parsnips, hearty hominy and smoky and spicy chipotle and chile powder is perfect for a cold winter day. It’s an easy-to-make recipe and the results are a hearty but light chili that is comforting and healthy. Serve it in a bowl over some steamed brown rice and curl up in your couch to enjoy this excellent vegetarian chili.
Winter Vegetable Chili
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 14-ounce can peeled Italian tomatoes
1 canned chipotle in adobo, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup canned hominy, drained
1 cup canned red kidney beans, drained
Brown rice, chopped red onions, cilantro, sour cream and tortilla chips or bread toasts, for serving
1. In a medium, heavy enameled cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook over high heat, stirring, until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper, parsnips and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chile powder and cumin and season with salt. Cook for 1 minute.
2. In a blender, puree the tomatoes and their juices with the chipotle, adobo sauce and water until very smooth. Add the mixture to the casserole along with the hominy and beans and bring to a boil. Cover partially and simmer the chili over moderate heat until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Season with salt. Serve with rice, red onions, cilantro, sour cream and chips.
Makes 4 servings.