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.
Plate by Jim Shack. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
Crisp air, epic sunlight and shorter days mark the Fall. Time to return to the earth and the warmth of home. Time for crisp fresh apples and juicy pears. Time to plan those visit to the farmers markets for warm apple cider, freshly fried doughnuts and pumpkin picking.
Bartlett pears are now in season and this week we’ve been working our way through a large bowl full of them. Earlier this week I made an easy pear tart that I will share with you in the coming days. Today I am making spiced pear butter with the rest. The methods I used are very similar to Grandma Zona’s Apple Butter recipe. Making pear butter is a great way to preserve ripe leftover pears that you do not want to let go to waste. It’s fantastic on bread or yogurt and can be enjoyed throughout the winter months.
Spiced Pear Butter
8 ripe Bartlett pears, quartered
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup sugar
2 sticks of cinnamon
2 slices of fresh ginger about 1/8″ thick
12 whole cloves
1. Make pear sauce: Place quartered pears and water in a large heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a slow simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and pour the pear and liquid into a large strainer. Strain the pulp and discard the seeds and skin.
2. Return the pear sauce to the large heavy saucepan. Add sugar and spices. Bring to a slow simmer for 3 hrs or until the pear sauce has reduced to about half in volume. Remove from heat. Can the pear butter and let sit overnight at room temperature. Keep in a cool place for up to 3 months or refrigerate for up to 6 months.
Makes 5 cups.
Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
Talented ceramicist, friend and home mixologist Sunetra Banerjee shared this New York Times Mark Bittman article with me earlier this week. It’s a good introduction to making your own drinks and understanding the basic elements of many mixed drinks:
Sour Element + Sweet Element + Alcohol + Ice/Water
Sunetra has introduced me to many delicious drink recipes and I have great respect for her sensibility. One of my favorite Sunetra drinks is one with gin, muddled raspberries, simple syrup and soda – makes me thirsty just thinking about it.
If you are wanting to experiment with mixed drinks at home, you’re going to need simple syrup. It’s super easy to make and can store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1. In a small saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil. Stir and simmer until the sugar is dissolved about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Transfer to a glass jar and refrigerate until ready for use.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds. Bowl by Roger Baumann. Plate by Scott Bartolomei Edmonds.
Life is full of small delights. Guacamole is one such delight. I enjoy this simple dish in its most basic incarnation: chunks of avocado decorated with green onions, a dash of salt and drizzled extra virgin olive oil. But today, I’m experimenting with ginger.
When it comes to guacamole, my thought is: the simpler the better. It’s all about the plump, ripe avocado, the olive oil and the salt, but, adding a little something like minced ginger can really change your experience.
Recently I learned that the ancient Aztecs named this delightful fruit ahuakatl – testicle – and that they prized it as an aphrodisiac. I hold avocado in high regard, not because of its shape suggestive of that hanging fruit between a man’s legs, but because the flavor and texture is so deeply satisfying. Avocado’s silky texture and rich flavor heightens the experience of any meal.
This summer dish is a twist on traditional guacamole. Fresh grated ginger gives it a kick and the radish adds a surprisingly clean, crispy element. Serve it with homemade lemony cumin chips that will make mouths water.
Learn more about avocados here.
1 ripe Hass avocado
1 radish, cut into matchsticks
1 green onion, sliced
1/2 teaspoon of fresh minced ginger
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
Lemony Cumin Chips
1. Quarter and peel a ripe avocado. Cut it into 1/4″ chunks and place in a bowl. Add the radish, green onion, ginger, olive oil and gently stir. Add salt to taste and serve.
Makes 1 cup.
Scott has been making spectacular sauces since we first met. The first time he cooked dinner for me, he served spaghetti topped with a rustic sauce made of fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and other fresh veggies. The dinner was served in dishes he handcrafted just for that occasion. We’ve been together many years now and he still impresses me with his sauces and handcrafted ceramics.
The sauce I share with you today is the latest incarnation of his basic tomato sauce. A few weeks ago he served it. The sauce was so good that I asked him to teach me how to make it. Once you try a sauce like this, you will never want to go back to jar pasta sauce. It’s simple, super fresh, delicious and only takes about fifteen minutes to prepare. All you need to have at home are some fresh tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil.
Simple Tomato Sauce
6 plum tomatoes, blanched, de-seeded, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (optional)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
1. Heat a medium iron skillet at medium-low heat until the oil starts to gently ripple. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Do not overcook the garlic or allow it to turn brown.
2. Add the chopped tomatoes, basil and thyme. Stir and cook briefly until the sauce starts to bubble and turn it down to a slow simmer for 5 more minutes. Add salt to taste and remove from heat.
Makes 3 servings.
Plate by Jim Shack. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
Fresh and easy to make, this cranberry relish recipe has become a favorite compliment to our roasted turkey. I prefer to use fresh cranberries and crystallized ginger. If you pack the relish into heated canning jars, the jars will naturally seal and will keep in the refrigerator for two months. This recipe sure beats canned cranberry sauce.
The original recipe can be found at epicurious here.
Spiced Cranberry and Orange Relish
1 1/3 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
2 small navel oranges
2 cups fresh cranberries (8 oz; thawed if frozen)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
1. Bring sugar and water to a boil in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer syrup, without stirring, washing down any sugar crystals on side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water, 5 minutes.
2. While syrup simmers, cut oranges, including peel and pith, into 1-inch pieces, discarding any seeds, and combine with cranberries, cinnamon, and cloves in a food processor.
3. Add sugar syrup and pulse until fruit is finely chopped. Transfer relish to a bowl and stir in ginger. Chill, covered, 1 day for flavors to develop.
Makes 8 to 12 servings (about 4 cups).
One of our favorite fall escapes is to a little family farm in Cornwall, NY called the Jones Farm. Grandma Phoebe and her family make freshly baked goods daily: wonderful pies, delicious linzer tarts, lemon bread, apple cider doughnuts and more. You will often find Grandma Phoebe by her fudge offering samples. The farm has become a required stop anytime we drive out of the city on a weekend to enjoy the Hudson Valley. Last Sunday we took such trip.
After enjoying some fresh apple cider and picking up some fresh strawberry rhubarb pie (so good that Angelica now wants it for her birthday), some lemon cake and a few other goodies, we headed out to enjoy the rest of the day. Our next stop was a farm offering apple picking and hay rides. I picked up a half bushel of macintosh apples. Yes, half a bushel. So all week, I have been finding ways to use these apples and Grandma Zona’s apple butter came to mind. I prepared a batch and canned it as soon as it was ready. Apple butter will keep in a canning jar for a few months.
I was introduced to canning by Scott’s family. Scott’s parents were both raised in Powell, Wyoming, where farming was their means of livelihood. Powell is a small rural town in a semi-arid desert. Farming this dry land often saturated with minerals that make the land inhospitable to vegetation, was their means of survival. Preserving the food they raised during the short summer months was an important part of surviving through the winter.
Scott’s mom Dorthy and Grandma Zona are both avid canners. They can what they raise, like bird egg beans, green beans, beets, potatoes. Also fruits like peaches and cherries end up in mason jars for winter enjoyment. I still remember walking down into Grandma Zona’s root cellar, a space carved into the ground, perhaps about 7 feet wide by 7 feet deep, lined with wooden shelves stacked high with cans of fruit and vegetables and home made soap. I have great respect and admiration for this tradition of food preservation.
Grandma Zona’s Apple Butter
8 macintosh apples, quartered
1 cup water or apple cider
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1. Make apple sauce: Place quartered apples and water (or cider) in a large heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and pour the apples and liquid into a large strainer. Strain the pulp and discard the seeds and skin.
2. Return the apple sauce to the large heavy saucepan. Add sugar and spices. Bring to a slow simmer for 3 hrs or until the apple sauce has reduced to 5 cups (about half in volume). Remove from heat. Can the apple butter and let sit overnight at room temperature. Keep in a cool place for up to 3 months or refrigerate for up to 6 months.
Makes 5 cups.
This recipe was inspired by an epicurious recipe: Catfish in Spicy Tomato Sauce. I found this sauce delicious, easy to make and versatile. It would be a wonderful base for vegetables, fish, poultry, or pork. In my opinion, the flavor of the catfish did not go well with this particular sauce, but lighter flavored fish like tilapia and haddock would work well. The original recipe calls for canned tomatoes, but i find the fresh stuff is so much better. Serve it with corn tortillas, tamales or even polenta. Even though this is not a true mole (which is an art form and takes hours to make), the flavors are reminiscent of mole.
6 tomatoes, blanched, de-seeded, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
3/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1. Heat olive oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, spices, and 3/4 teaspoon salt, stirring, until garlic is golden, about 1 minute. Add chopped fresh tomatoes; coarsely crush tomatoes with fork or potato masher. Add sugar and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 12 minutes.
Makes 2 cups.