Tortillas and guac any day in May

Tortillas on the Griddle

Back in her homeland of Mexico, Eva Rojas grew up on corn tortillas made with fresh masa. She learned to love the textured tradition of the family diet, and ate tortillas dressed with everything from avocados to tomatoes.

She still savors warm tortillas, and prepares them at home in her Cold Spring kitchen. She also keeps them on hand to share with the children she cares for at ABC Soup Day Care. Not only are the corn tortillas gluten free, but they’re not messy or sticky, and the children shine when she offers them as an occasional snack.

“When I make tortillas, I make a lot of them,” Eva said. “I always made them for my children when they were growing up.”

It was right about this time last year, with a nod to Cinco de Mayo, that she shared a batch of her tortillas with a few staff members at The Paper. Fellow scribes in attendance at that Monday morning staff meeting — sorry Tuesday staffers — finished these off while they were still steamy. Eva’s guacamole and salsa vanished quickly as well.

To recreate the traditional food she learned to make in Mexico City, Eva prefers fresh masa. It’s prepared through a process where corn seeds are dried and treated with a powdered lime and water solution, then boiled to loosen and remove skins to prepare this stage of the corn, the nixtamal, and finally ground. But the fresh corn dough isn’t readily available at every corner market in New York like it is back in Mexico so she uses masa harina, corn flour, as a substitute.

Eva Rojas uses a tortilla press in her Cold Spring kitchen.

Eva Rojas uses a tortilla press in her Cold Spring kitchen.

“In Mexico, in many places, they make the masa freshly ground every day. You can buy tortillas or one or two pounds of the masa,” she said. “It’s fresh and if you buy it, you are usually going to use it right away.”

She’s taught me how to replicate her tortillas using a small tortilla press. Ambitious cooks who want to start making tortillas right away can get by without a press by using standard kitchen plates to help flatten the dough. She recommends cooking tortillas with a comal, a flat griddle which is typically used in Mexico. If you don’t have a comal, any griddle or cast-iron pan will do. And with dough in general, consistency is paramount.

“You have to add the water little by little,” Eva said. “But it has to be warm, not too hot. You keep adding until the consistency is good.”

Once the consistency is right, form the dough balls and press on. Depending on the size of your griddle, cook one or several tortillas at a time. The tortillas also take on a crunchy dimension when fried, and fried tortilla strips serve as the foundation for another revered Rojas family dish: caldo de tomatoes (tomato soup). Using three tomatoes, one garlic clove, the juice of half a lemon, a sprinkle of salt and just a pinch of fresh cilantro, blend ingredients. In a small saucepan, heat the tomato mixture until it bubbles and reduce the heat to low. After grilling several fresh tortillas, allow them to cool to the touch, then slice the tortillas into strips. In a few tablespoons of canola oil, fry the strips for two minutes, and remove them from the pan. Layer the fried strips in a bowl, top with the tomato mixture, and add a spoonful of sour cream to the broth-covered tortillas.

The caldo is a miniature feast but tortillas and guacamole make the perfect match. Everyone seems to have their own recipe for the bright green dip, but to turn out her own Mexican guacamole, Eva leans to inspiration from the Mexican flag which is green, white and red and emblazoned with an eagle.

The colors of the flag of Mexico — green, white and red — inspire a classic recipe for guacamole.

The colors of the flag of Mexico — green, white and red — inspire a classic recipe for guacamole.

“The white is the onion, the green is the avocado and the red is the tomato,” she said, “and you have the colors of the Mexican flag.”

With three medium Hass avocados, one medium onion and tomato, juice of half a lime, three quarters of a bunch of cilantro and salt to your liking, mix up colorful guacamole. (After pitting the avocado, don’t toss the seed. If placed in prepared guacamole, it will prevent browning.) Eva recommends mashing avocados with nothing but a fork. Mash, mix and pass the tortillas.

Tortillas

Makes 1 dozen

2 cups corn flour (masa harina — Eva uses the Maseca brand.)

¼ teaspoon salt

1 to 1 ¼ cups warm water

  1. Thoroughly whisk corn flour and salt in mixing bowl. Gradually add warm water and mix. Dough should be moist with elastic consistency. Knead dough in bowl. If dough is too dry, add warm water by the tablespoonful.
  1. Divide dough into 12 pieces and form into 1- to 1 ½-inch balls. Cut two pieces of plastic wrap large enough to cover a plate of 6 to 7 inches in diameter. If you have a tortilla press, place a sheet of the plastic wrap on the opened press and position a dough ball on the plastic. Place the second sheet of plastic on the dough ball and close the top plate and apply pressure with the handle. (If using plates in place of the tortilla press, place a small plate on top of the dough ball covered by plastic and press the plate firmly to flatten the dough ball.)
  1. Open the press, remove the top sheet of plastic and lift the tortilla using the edges of the remaining plastic. Holding the plastic side in your palm, gently remove tortilla and flip it onto a hot ungreased griddle or pan. Cook tortilla on one side, 1 to 2 minutes, until edges begin to brown. Turn tortilla over and cook on other side.
  1. Remove tortillas from griddle and set aside to keep warm in a covered dish or wrap in a towel. Best when served warm.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

 

Cook On: spruce up the kitchen with modest utensils

Tool Stash

We may think we know our neighbors, closest confidants and even ourselves, but a more complete picture may be stashed on kitchen shelves and counters. It’s not the pantry — blushing with expired preserves or neglected boxes of dated pasta — that gives us away, but a cabinet or tool drawer, where we store, stuff and tuck kitchenware. Some kitchens bulge with too much, while others suffer the consequences of meager attention.

Last summer my family stayed in a home away from home for a few days during a gathering in Florida. Located in close proximity to the beach as well as the grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, the cottage exceeded our needs. It was one of those property agreements brokered through a third party. The owner secures personal items in a locked storage room and guests rent the rest of the space — kitchen utensils included.

Modest utensils may be the hardest workers in an everyday kitchen.

Modest utensils may be the hardest workers in an everyday kitchen.

The lush herb garden spilling over the back patio hinted that the owner invested real time cooking in the home’s kitchen. But it was the complete set of razor-sharp kitchen knives, cutting boards worn with use and a selection of pans of a certain quality that revealed details about the owner who stepped out for the week to generate a little income from the property.

The homeowner, subliminally, shared a philosophy: Stocking the right utensils helps hands in the kitchen. Some of us are wishful when it comes to essential tools designed for food preparation and table service. An ambitious friend has accumulated a colossal collection of the latest cooking and baking products but doesn’t cook much. The desire is there, but the pasta maker serves more as a decoration than a workhorse in the kitchen. It’s easy to fall for the latest gadgets on the market, but limiting acquisitions to items that justify their keep with frequent use can control kitchen clutter. My go-to cooking tools include the basics, a santoku knife, cast-iron skillet and a collection of assorted spoons, and occasionally the day arrives to retire tools that time and technology have improved.

One of my most reliable tools was purchased thanks to a neighbor who dropped by during dinner prep one evening. Artemis, born and raised in Asia, knows her rice and probably prepares it six days a week. She insisted that I surrender my old rice cooker. It was smallish, with two settings, but did the job. Politely, my friend questioned how it could possibly suffice, and most importantly, she mentioned the products she had avoided and suggested a few models to research. A rice cooker equipped with Fuzzy Logic technology — essentially a computer chip that adjusts time and temperature for precise and consistent cooking — soon replaced the old small appliance. The rice cooker has paid for itself in producing pillowy rice for the last few years, and it also turns out perfectly steamed vegetables.

Another practical tool is the mandoline slicer. Interchangeable blades offer a choice in creating everything from julienne slices to curly cuts to course grating and fine zesting. But do note: Absolute attention is required for those who want to keep all of their fingers intact. The blades are super sharp. Distracted slicing is not recommended.

Not everyone needs a lava mortar and pestle, but the three-legged bowl often used in my kitchen rocks. Also known as a molcajete, it’s an age-old cooking tool. The molcajete helps in the crushing of herbs and spices, and inspires the smashing of just-ripened avocadoes into a proper paste for guacamole. And when making guacamole, the lemon and lime squeezer is a must. Home-away-from-home guests peering around in my kitchen might be fooled by a small display of odd kitchen gadgets on a shelf. Among the items is a vintage aluminum citrus squeezer. Put it to work and it still fully extracts the juice and separates it from the seeds and pulp, but it’s no match for a contemporary hinged squeezer (kept at close reach in a drawer) that makes easy work of juice extraction.

Sweet and sour chicken with vegetables

Sweet and sour chicken with vegetables

A medley of knives, slicers, spoons and pans recently served as instruments to help prepare sweet and sour chicken with vegetables. Naturally, the task could have been handled with fewer gadgets, but when a kitchen functions well, even a slender slotted spoon deserves some of the credit. Modest tools — put into practice — minimize prep time, food waste and cleanup. The best utensils in an everyday kitchen may not necessarily be the most sophisticated, but they’re the tools that see the most use.

 

 

Sweet and Sour Chicken with Vegetables

Serves 6

Chicken

6 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon sea salt

twist of freshly ground pepper

Sauce

½ cup sugar

1 cup stock or chicken broth

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ cup red wine vinegar

½ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Vegetables

6 to 8 medium carrots, thinly sliced

(If you have one, use the mandoline food slicer.)

1 large green pepper, thinly sliced

1 bunch scallions, finely chopped

 

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse chicken thighs and place in sealable bag or container. Mix soy sauce, canola, sesame seeds, ginger, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over chicken, seal container and toss to evenly coat chicken. Place container contents in baking dish. Bake uncovered 45 minutes.
  1. During the baking process, slice carrots and green peppers and chop scallions. Set aside.
  1. In medium saucepan, combine sugar, stock, vinegars, lemon juice and zest. Bring to a low boil and whisk in cornstarch. Remove from heat and stir in carrots, green peppers and scallions. Stir to warm through.

Place chicken thighs on platter or serving dish and smother with sweet and sour vegetable sauce. Serve immediately with fresh garden greens and steamed rice.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

 

Getting wild about maple

Backyard maple syrup

Backyard maple syrup

Wild about maple? Let maple syrup be the perfect springtime transition on your table. Check out my latest Cook On food column and break out the syrup with me.

Humbled and Crumbled

Flatbread

Flatbread

From love to money, any number of agitators can disrupt life, and occasionally, life bubbles over in the kitchen. Some households claim a member who consistently burns the toast or shirks doing dishes. It wasn’t dirty dishes that rattled our harmony, but herbs and spices.

Sugar and spice have long conjured images of everything nice, while herbs turn out favorable buzz for taste, color and health benefits.

Why the fuss? I was prepping dinner for a small party and came up short on cilantro. My husband offered to pick up a bunch and he was soon out the door and on his way to the market.

Cilantro or coriander, Coriandrum sativum, is widely used in the Middle Eastern kitchen. We lived in the Middle East at that time, in a neighborhood with its own small food co-op stocked with essentials. Before long, Greg returned from the co-op with an enormous bright green bunch — of parsley.

Little in the produce section was labeled, and if the herbs had been identified they would have been marked in Arabic. No problem for those with a grasp of food group vocabulary but his was yet to develop. Even though the pungent herb cilantro belongs to the parsley family (Apiaceae), it reserves its own taste and aroma, and my initial reaction lacked any sort of sympathetic herbal understanding.

“Did you notice the difference in the shape of the leaves?” I asked. “How about the scent? Did you sniff it?”

If the story ended there, we would have settled on one of many uses for the parsley. But the same herb mix-up happened again, at least two or three more times. Purchasing cilantro went on to haunt us.

Use crumbled flatbread, eggplant and yogurt for this adaptation of fatta.

Use crumbled flatbread, eggplant and yogurt for this adaptation of fatta.

We weeded our way through the herb confusion, only to enter a new chapter tense on spices. At a women’s-only gathering where food pageantry was secondary to warm hospitality and engaging discussion with family and friends, a dish made with eggplant and crumbled bread called fatta (fatteh, fatha, or any number of ways to spell it to match the varied ways to prepare it) outshined its competition. Though it was served with platter after platter of colorful selections incorporating grains, vegetables and lamb, I wanted to limit myself to a spoonful of everything else to dedicate room for an indulgent tasting of the fatta (local custom shunned eating lightly). The hostess accepted compliments and insisted on second and third servings with no resistance from the dozen guests at the table.

Closely associated (by marriage) with the royals, she described her family’s preparation instructions. She didn’t exactly have hands-on experience making the dish, but knew expressly all ingredients (and quantities) required.

The ingredients soon made their way to my shopping list but one proved difficult to find. Greg and I shopped everywhere looking for suma’, as one of my friends wrote down for me in Arabic script. We passed up a perfect selection of sumac — which a spice vendor in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market insisted was what we needed. Greg wanted to close the spice deal — but I resisted. Finally, back in the Gulf, my neighbor shared a package of assorted spices. One of them matched that ground reddish-purple spice I hesitated to purchase and turned out to be a petite pouch of sumac which she and other locals pronounced suma’.

Finish fatta with a sprinkle of sumac.

Finish fatta with a sprinkle of sumac.

Regrets and forgiveness ensued, and we finally made fatta finished with sumac (Rhus coriaria, ground from the dried berries of a Mediterranean shrub). Fatta, loosely translated, refers to a dish of crumbled bread, and for this regional adaptation from the Gulf, it calls for a traditional flatbread.

Bake your own flatbread, purchase it at a Middle Eastern restaurant or bakery, or substitute with commercial pita bread, no pocket required. Tina’s Basket in Cornwall offers white and wheat traditional flatbread. Consider day-old bread as an ingredient as it’s destined for crumbling.

Fatta

Serves 8

2 medium or 1 large eggplant, rinsed

½ cup olive oil or light vegetable oil

2-3 pieces flatbread (or large flat pita bread)

1 large onion, chopped

2 pounds minced meat (beef or lamb)

salt

freshly ground black pepper

16 ounces plain yogurt

freshly squeezed juice from ½ lemon

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 cup pine nuts (or preferred seeds as nut substitute)

1 teaspoon sumac

1. Remove stem and thinly slice eggplant no more than 1/8-inch thick. Sautée in oil. Remove from pan and set aside in warm oven. Fry flatbread on both sides until crunchy. Cool 2 minutes on paper towels, crumble bread into small pieces and set aside. (To avoid oil, toast bread 5 minutes in oven at 400 degrees or toss it on a grill for a few minutes.)

2. Mix plain yogurt with freshly squeezed lemon juice, pinch of salt, twist of ground black pepper and sesame oil. Set at least 10 minutes.

3. Cook chopped onion, ½ teaspoon salt, twist of ground pepper and meat until meat is browned through. If meat is high in fat, drain excess.

4. Sautée pine nuts or sunflower seeds in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 2 minutes.

5. In casserole dish or flat-bottomed pan, layer eggplant, meat and another eggplant layer. Top second eggplant layer with crunchy flatbread pieces. Spoon yogurt mixture onto top layer. Dust with sumac and sprinkle with pine nuts or seeds. Serve immediately with green salad and fresh flatbread.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

 

 

 

Make these crab cakes and thank SpongeBob

Icing on the Crab Cake

by Mary Ann Ebner

Crab cakes with beet sauce

Crab cakes with beet sauce

Cook on with Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Dinner plans? Pick up a dozen eggs and cook on with this egg drop soup.

Saffron lifts humble paella

Darlings of the dining scene come and go, but the Spanish dish paella consistently holds its place.

Paella

Paella

Follow this simple recipe in my Cook On food column and transform rice into a flavorful meal.