Category Archives: Food

chocolate-coconut cupcakes with coconut-rum frosting

When I had the opportunity to sample Tropical Traditions‘ coconut oil as part of their press review program, I admittedly jumped to do so. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with trying different cooking oils lately. They are a wonderful – and simple – way to incorporate extra flavor into a dish.

Coconut oil is just so cool. When the jar arrived at my house, it had been outside in the Atlanta summer – the contents were completely liquid. But after a couple of hours chilling in 71-degree air conditioning, its contents solidified. The texture is different than anything I’ve seen before. It’s soft enough to easily scoop out, but there’s definitely a little resistance to it. It’s almost the texture of peanut butter, if peanut butter weren’t so rich. Since the oil reminded me of butter – soft at room temperature, liquid just barely above it – I wanted to see how it would hold up in frosting. Rum-coconut frosting was born. And with it, chocolate-coconut cupcakes that also incorporated the coconut oil with butter.

The results? Fantastic. The frosting is sweet and light, with amazing coconut flavor. And the cakes are rich but far from heavy. The coconut flavor shines.

They were thoroughly enjoyed.

coconut_chocolate_rum_cupcakes

Chocolate-Coconut Cupcakes (adapted from “Crazy about Cupcakes” by Krystina Castella)
2/3 cup boiling water
½ cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 ounces butter (1 stick), at room temperature
4 tablespoons coconut oil
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
9 ounces flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup yogurt

In a small bowl, stir together the boiling water and the cocoa powder. When the mixture becomes a smooth paste, add the bittersweet chocolate. Stir together until melted and smooth.

Using an electric mixer and a whisk attachment, cream together the sugar, butter, and coconut oil until fluffy. On medium speed, this should take five minutes or less.

Add the eggs one at a time, blending well between each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. When all four are well-incorporated, add the vanilla and continue to blend.

Next, add half of the flour, the baking soda, and the salt. Mix on slow speed until uniform. Add the yogurt and stir well, then the rest of the flour. Finally, add the chocolate and mix on slow speed just until the batter is just blended.

Pour into cupcake liners, filling each about two-thirds, and bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. This recipe will make about 24 medium cupcakes.

Coconut-Rum Buttercream Frosting
4 ounces butter (1 stick)
½ cup extra-virgin coconut oil
1/4 cup rum
¼ cup milk
1 pound powdered sugar, or to taste
Sweetened coconut flakes, to taste

Using an electric mixer and a whisk attachment, beat the butter and coconut oil until fluffy. Add the rum and milk in a couple of additions, blending between each. Adding a little at a time, incorporate the powdered sugar, whisking until the frosting is fluffy and somewhat firm. Frost cooled cupcakes, and dust with flakes of coconut.

Disclaimer: the coconut oil was provided as a press sample by Tropical Traditions.

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empanadas de Xavier

baked_empanada_bite

When people find out that my boyfriend is from South America, they often want to know if he has a sexy accent. Unfortunately, I’m not sure. When we first met, his voice definitely seemed different. But now that we’ve been together for a while, I don’t notice any accent. His voice is just his voice.

Since I’m not with the guy for his accent, I have had to find other benefits of dating a foreigner. That’s become Ecuadorian food. Xavier doesn’t cook much, but when he does, he knocks it out of the park. For one, he makes the best fried eggs I’ve ever had. And he’s been known to make tilapia with a lime-onion sauce, which is just awesome. But mostly, I have been trying to learn his comfort foods. I started with something that I loved eating in Ecuador: locro de papas, which is a potato soup loaded with avocado and cheese. (It is even better than it sounds!). Next came something that I’ve been promising Xavier for years. The boy adores empanadas, and I promised to make some for him. But for some reason, they eluded me.

I was a little nervous about tackling empanadas because I didn’t know where to begin. An empanada is not a universal thing. There are as many kinds as there are types of sandwiches! Seriously. You can make the pastry shell out of almost anything. Flour, corn, rice, or even green plaintains. The filling options are similarly endless. You can go sweet, by using fruit or fresh cheese. Or you can keep things savory with meat and olives. Or you can mix the two! A popular Ecuadorian empanada is stuffed with cheese, but dusted in sugar after it’s fried. Xavier had his heart set on meat empanadas. I couldn’t find any that looked good. Most incorporated things I don’t care for, such as olives.

Fortunately, my future sister-in-law saved the day. I sent her a Facebook message and she replied with a recipe for empanadas de carne, or meat. It was in Spanish, so I clarified a couple of things with Xavier so we could make these to the letter. The results were excellent. I can assure you, although they might be somewhat traditional in South America, olives are not missed.

If you’ve never made empanadas before, there’s a little bit of an art to it, but it’s simple once you find a rhythm. Before you do anything, make sure you have some white rice on hand. You can quickly throw a little on the stove to simmer, or just have leftovers. Meanwhile, you’ll saute a mixture of ground beef, carrots, peas, and spices.

beef_peas_carrots

When the beef is browned, reserve the mixture in a separate bowl.

empanada_fillingNext, you’ll saute garlic and onion together until they’re soft. You’ll add rice to this mixture, infusing those grains with tons of flavor.

garlic_onion_rice

Mix all of that together with the beef. There’s your filling.

empanada_filling

Okay, here’s where things get interesting: assembly time! The easiest way to do this is to set up a workstation. I use a cutting board. Have a sheet pan ready for your finished empanadas. I’m right-handed, so I use that hand for scooping filling, folding pastry, and crimping. My left is just support. Have a bowl of egg wash and a bowl of filling handy.

Working with one at a time, place an empanada shell on your workstation. Use your fingers or a pastry brush to paint the edges of the circle with egg wash. Moving quickly so the egg stays moist, place filling in the shell. I try to keep the meat towards the shell’s center, but it’s easier said than done.

empanada_fillingCarefully fold the pastry in half, keeping the filling away from the edges. It may take some practice, but once you get used to the motion, it’s easy to keep things tidy. Use a fork, if necessary, to poke and prod filling back inside.

empanada_foldingWhen things are folded nicely, use the ties of a fork to press the pastry’s edges together and crimp them decoratively. You could skip this step, but I think it does a great job of sealing the empanadas while making them pretty.

empanada_forking

When they’re ready to go, brush them lightly with the remaining egg wash. That will help them turn shiny and pretty in the oven. Yes, these are baked to keep them on the healthy side. Look how cute they are, ready for their tanning session!

empanadas_for_bakingThey will emerge about fifteen minutes later, golden brown and crunchy outside, with tender filling within.

empanadas_baked

Bite one open. If you like things spicy, pour some hot sauce inside. Enjoy.

empanada_ajiYou could call these authentic Ecuadorian empanadas, because they came straight from Ecuador. But it’s important to remember that anywhere you try empanadas, they’ll be made a little differently. This is our version. I think the important question to ask is, are they good? Are they worth it? Well, I wouldn’t want to embarrass my Ecuadorian by disclosing how many of these he ate. Let’s just say yes, and yes.

Empanadas de Xavier
15 medium empanada shells (until I master these, use this Ecuadorian blogger’s recipe)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 carrot, chopped finely
1/2 pound lean ground beef
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 cup peas, shelled if fresh or frozen
1/2 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white rice, cooked
1 egg, beaten

In a saute pan over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until hot, then add the carrot. Saute until soft but not browned. Add the beef, salt, cumin, paprika, oregano, and salt to taste. Cook until browned, using a wooden spoon or spatula to separate the chunks as finely as possible. When browned, add the peas and allow the mixture to cook together. Remove and place in a bowl that has some extra room.

Now would be a good time to preheat your oven to 400F.

In the same pan, add the remaining oil, the onion, garlic, and salt to taste. Saute over medium-low heat until the ingredients almost melt into one another. Add the cooked rice to the pan and let it all cook together for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally to mix things up. Add this onion-rice mixture to the bowl with the meat. Mix it together.

Take your empanada shells and fill them according to the photos. Working one at a time, moisten the edges of each shell with a little egg wash. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling into the middle. Fold the shells in half, using the tines of a fork to seal the edges.

baked_empanada_whole

artichokes francaise recipe

As a college senior, I waitressed at an Italian restaurant and gained ten pounds almost instantly. It was hard not to: the food was great. I lived for the staff meal at the end of each shift, a small dish of pasta with gravy and a single meatball. And more often than not, servers would order additional food from the kitchen. We spent hours around those delicious plates. Cravings would build up over the course of an evening, usually to be satisfied in the darkened side dining room towards the end of a shift.

My first few months at this restaurant were an educational experience. I learned how to tie a tie, to uncork wine with grace, to reel off ten cuts of pasta from memory. And there was always something new to try. One night, another server had ordered Artichokes French after her shift. She was enjoying them in the darkened side dining room when I wandered in to chat.

“How are those?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re amazing,” she told me around a mouthful of artichoke.

“I’ve been serving them a lot, so I was wondering,” I replied. “I’ve never even had artichokes.”

“Well, you’ve got to try these,” she insisted, holding out a forkful.

I chewed. Wow. The artichokes were a little crispy at first bite. They had been battered in egg before a quick pan-frying. Within, they were tender and delicious. Their flavor was great by itself, but I loved the buttery sauce they were doused in. There was definitely lemon in there, and some white wine, but it was perfectly balanced. The artichokes were phenomenal.

(Side note: this took place in 2007, and I’d just met that girl. I didn’t know it then, but she would eventually become a very good friend. And if you try these, you’ll understand just how generous she was to share: if I had ordered these, I’d want every bite for myself).

Artichokes French became one of my favorite dishes when I worked at that restaurant, but the chef refused to give away his recipe. Since I’ve left, I’ve tried to figure it out on my own. I’m not sure how these would compare to the original, which I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. But you know what? They’re pretty good on their own.

I call my recipe Artichokes Francaise in the original spirit of the dish. (I suspect that restaurant went with “french” to ease pronunciation difficulties; their patrons had enough difficulty ordering “pasta pollo”).

artichokes_francaise

Artichokes Francaise

2 cans whole artichoke hearts, drained and halved
1/4 cup Sciabica Mission Spring Harvest olive oil, or extra virgin oil of your choice
3/4 cup flour
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, divided
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Splash of chicken stock (optional)
Salt and ground black pepper

First, you’ll prepare the artichokes for pan-frying by battering them. In a medium bowl, mix the flour with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper. In another medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, Parmesan, 1 tablespoon of parsley, and a few pinches of salt and pepper.

Roll the artichoke halves into the flour, then dip them in egg.

Next, cook them. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium. Pan-fry the artichoke halves, flipping once, until crispy and golden brown on each side. Do this in batches if necessary so you don’t crowd the pan. Let them drain on a paper towel.

When the artichokes are done and the saute pan is empty, you’ll make the sauce. Deglaze the pan with white wine. When almost all of it has bubbled away, add the lemon juice, and chicken stock (if using). Stir everything together and let it cook down to almost nothing. At that point, add the butter bit by bit, then parsley, salt, and pepper to taste.

Place the artichokes in a serving platter, pour the sauce on top, and serve as a side dish or appetizer.

thai temple: Tampa’s most unique brunch?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Tampa, Florida. It’s a beautiful city with lots of wonderful memories for me. After all, my best friend lives there and whenever I visit it’s a great time. I met Xavier in Tampa – while visiting said best friend, actually – and lived with him there for four months before we made the move to Atlanta. I was job-hunting the entire time, but unemployment left lots of time to explore the city. I guess what I’m saying is, I know Tampa fairly well. But I’d never heard of Thai Temple before our most recent trip.

I am so glad that changed.

So, what I’m referring to as Thai Temple is actually called Wat Tampa. For whatever reasons, my friends in Tampa call it Thai Temple and I’m sticking to that for sentimental reasons. Basically, it’s a Buddhist temple that opens itself up into a marketplace every Sunday. A variety of vendors set up shop, and for nominal donations to the temple, you can enjoy anything from soup to curry to orchids to a watermelon-carving class.

You leave Tampa proper, drive around the bay, and go through what seems to be a residential neighborhood. After you park, this is what you see:

The first building you see after parking

The first building you see after parking

If you care to meditate after stuffing yourself stupid with delicious food, this is where it happens. I didn’t check out the action this visit due to time restraints, but one of these days I will.

So there are a couple of buildings next door, and vendors set up their wares all around. The cooking happens out in the open. If you want fried bananas, you can follow those bananas from the peel to the oil to your dish.

IMG_3143

Fried banana vendor

We opted to get some spring rolls first. Maybe they’re not the most authentic of fares, but I can’t resist spring rolls. Perfect ones have a flaky crunchy exterior that yields to tender filling. Maybe it was because we were incredibly hungry and eating them in line, but these fit the bill.

Spring rolls, waiting to be demolished

After the fires of hunger had been tampered by delicious spring rolls, we moved into line for the most popular item: noodle soup. Everyone got the same broth and fish balls, but you could customize the toppings and noodles in your bowl. We stuck to roast pork and medium noodles for a standard experience. Garnished with chile sauce and washed down with Thai tea, it was a perfect brunch. One item I might not have enjoyed – fish balls were surprisingly tasty. They were the texture of fluffy matzoh balls with a faint taste of the sea. The soup was closer to pho than any Thai soup we’ve tried previously. I’m not complaining.

Before we sat down to eat, we put in an order for a special dessert. More on that later, because we were informed that it would be a 45-minute wait! Aly labeled a styrofoam box with her name. The vendors placed it in the long pile of boxes to be filled.

Noodle soup and Thai tea.. perfect brunch

Noodle soup and Thai tea.. perfect brunch

As nice as it was to sit and eat overlooking water and palm trees, we got up to explore a little more.

A meal with a view

A meal with a view

There was lots to see. We sampled a new fruit: the longan nut. Here it is whole.

longan_nut_whole

Then you peel it…

longan_nut_peeled

Then take a bite, but watch out for the seed inside!

longan_nut_seed

Texture-wise, it’s like a cross between a soft grape and a lychee. It’s sweet but not overwhelmingly so. The longan nut vendor also offered watermelon carving classes. While I did not partake, here’s some of her work.

carved_melons

Finally it was time to pick up our dessert! I was very intrigued about this coconut-scallion concoction, especially since there was a 45-minute wait to get some. When we arrived at the stand, there were still a few people ahead of us in line, so I spent some time watching the vendors make the dessert.

They started with a big iron tray, full of wells. This contraption rested atop a flame.

thai_dessert_pot

The vendors poured a blend of fermented coconut milk and sliced green onions into the wells. One lady led the way with a teapot, followed by her partner who ladled batter to complete each portion.

thai_dessert_ladling

After the pan was filled, they covered them with heavy domed lids. After the treats browned on the bottom, they were flipped and covered again.

thai_dessert_pots

A few minutes later, the vendors plucked fully formed cakes from the tray. They filled our labeled tray and we brought the goodies back to the table.

Dessert served

Dessert served

These were tasty morsels indeed. The skins were crispy but inside, the batter had cooked into a scallion-studded custard. Surprisingly, the sweet coconut went perfectly with green onion. It was impossible to stop with just one bite. Now I know why we waited so long for these!

Thai Temple is definitely on my list for favorite brunch spots in Tampa. Although it gets a little crowded, the food, prices, and variety were worth the minimal jostling.

seared scallops with shiraz-blood orange glazed beet salad and toasted walnut couscous recipes

Seared Scallops with Shiraz-Glazed Beet Salad

Seared Scallops with Shiraz-Blood Orange Glazed Beet Salad and Toasted Walnut Couscous

Let’s pretend it hasn’t been a month since my last post. Let’s pretend that, as promised, I moved through the lovely queue that had built up in my WordPress account. All the lovely stuff I worked on while I had time off from work was posted as planned, and I’m not writing about stuff that already happened months ago.

Anyway, my cooking group, 37 Cooks? We had an interesting event a couple of months ago. This Florida restaurant called The Wine Dive challenged us to create dishes – incorporating a protein, vegetable, and starch – that could be served as specials in their restaurant. The options were limitless so long as our entries incorporated wine in some way. For me, it was an easy decision to use scallops. The Wine Dive is in Florida, right on the coast, and I could imagine that people would go there hoping for delicious fresh seafood. A beet and arugula salad seemed like a nice light pairing to the dish, especially using a sauce made from citrus – another Florida specialty. Although my dish didn’t win the contest, it still tasted great!

Seared Scallops with Shiraz-Blood Orange Glazed Beet and Arugula Salad and Toasted Walnut Couscous

For the scallops:
1/2 pound large dry sea scallops
Grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)

For the wine-glazed beet and arugula salad:
1 small to medium beet
olive oil
2-4 ounces arugula
1/4 cup medium-bodied red wine, such as Shiraz or Merlot
juice of one blood orange (or substitute a regular orange if you can’t find it)
2 tablespoons butter

For the couscous:
1/2 cup couscous
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon butter
Walnut oil
1/2 cup whole walnuts

For all three components, you will need salt and pepper to taste.

Make wine-blood orange glazed beet and arugula salad:
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Scrub your beet, wrap it in tinfoil, and roast for an hour or two until tender when pierced with a fork. At this point, the skin should slip right off. Allow it to cool, then peel the beet and dice it. In a small saute pan heated over medium, saute the beets in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper until heated through. Add the Shiraz and orange juice. Allow the liquid to come to a boil and bubble away until it coats the beets. Add butter and turn the heat down to low, stirring frequently until the beets are coated in glaze.

Meanwhile, toss the arugula in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Top with glazed beets.

Make the couscous:
In a small or medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Season it with salt, pepper, butter, and walnut oil. Add the couscous, stir once, and turn the heat off. Cover the saucepan with its lid and allow it to steam for five minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a small saute pan over medium heat. Allow them to cool, then chop them finely.

Lift the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork after the five minutes are up. Stir in most of the chopped walnuts, reserving some for garnish.

Make the scallops:
Heat a large cast-iron saute pan over medium-high. Season the scallops with salt, pepper, and just a little bit of oil. When the pan is good and hot, sear the scallops, allowing them to cook for a couple of minutes on each side. Be sure to leave them alone and not nudge them until they’re good and browned! Then flip and brown on the other side.

Serve:

Plate the couscous and top with reserved chopped walnuts. Plate the beet and arugula salad, and top with scallops. This portion will serve two adults.

Enjoy.