Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Upside-Down Comfort

Upside-Down Comfort
by Victoria Challancin

There are times when I miss my family and my roots so much that I just get over-whelmed by the need of comfort food.  I may not have lived in rural South Florida since the 70s, but roots I have there. And while I occasionally feel, in a weak moment, that I claim expedient parentage (i.e. sometimes I glam onto my French-Italian paternal links, and sometimes my mother's down-home Southern "Georgia" genes), when I look for comfort, I look toward the south, the Deep South, that is. The Deep South of the United States.  It seems not to matter that I haven't lived there really since the mid-70s when I first left for an overseas posting; I still look to my mother's home cooking for comfort.

And what better old-fashioned comfort than a basic Chicken Pot Pie, I ask?  But when I wanted to teach it in my classes for Mexican cooks, guilt took over and I just had to tart it up a bit, make it modern, pretend that it was far more upscale than it really is.  When I spied these modern, upscale, tarted up chicken pot pie disguised in 21st-century garb (in the September edition of the Canadian magazine Chatelaine), I knew I had found a perfect marriage:  comfort food + a hint of modernity to make it truly acceptable for a cooking class.

 Puff Pastry Squares with Onion and Peppers

I have made many Chicken Pot Pies, in my day.  Many.  Often pretending that they were modern and fresh, I always secretly knew that I was just seeking basic comfort, just like my Mom, and occasionally Swanson's jazzed up frozen ones, offered me in my youth.  I have made them whole wheat crusts, Cheddar crusts, latticed crust, with biscuits, with biscuit mix (yes, I know...), with herb-enriched pastry, with frozen pastry, with phyllo...and filled with many things other than the basic chicken and vegetables as well.  So when I saw this recipe, I just took the basic idea and then decided to wing it with the filling.  I forgot when writing it down that I sometimes add a splash of sherry, which my own mother would never have done.  Nor did I here, for that matter.  But only because I forgot.  

Cook's Notes:  What you are looking for here is just a basic mix of vegetables to go with your chicken and sauce(I poached the chicken here).  I have added asparagus, carrots, turnips, rutabaga (oh, I would kill for some rutabaga now, but can't yet find it here), potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, fresh corn...etc.  But to me the essentials really are just mushrooms, broccoli, and peas.  Yes, frozen peas.  I know.  I know.  I am stretching it here.

Upside-Down Chicken Pot Pies

(Recipe by Victoria Challancin, inspired by the September 2015 edition of Chatelaine Magazine)

Serves 4

500g puff pastry (for San Miguelenses:  from Buena Vida Bakery via Luna de Queso), thawed
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
1 small red onion, cut into thin rings
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin rounds (or a mix of red and yellow peppers)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil for greasing baking sheet
2 skinless, cooked boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
3 cups milk or half and half (light cream)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric (optional)
1 1/2 cups rich chicken broth
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup mushroom slices
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional--you could also add a healthy splash of sherry to the broth)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.  Unroll pastry and extend it to a square, measuring 10 x 10 inches.  Cut into either4 large squares or 16 2 1/2-inch squares (or desired size).  Score a border of 1/2-inch around each square and prick the inside with a fork.  Set on a lightly oiled baking sheet.  Brush lightly with egg wash and top each square with slices of onion and bell pepper.  Bake in center of oven until pastry is lightly golden, 18 to 20 minutes.

Melt butter in large pot. When melted, whisk in flour. Cook, whisking constantly for 1 to 2  minutes to make a roux. Slowly whisk in milk or half and half  and turmeric until evenly mixed. Bring to a gentle boil, then stir in chicken, broccoli, mushrooms, and salt. Cook until broccoli is tender-crisp, 3 to 5 more min. Stir in frozen peas and cook for about 45 seconds.  Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, if using, and season with salt and black pepper. Spoon about 1 cup chicken mixture over each baked puff-pastry square if using large ones, or over three squares if small.  Garnish with a touch of chopped parsley, if desired.

 Puff Pastry Squares with Chicken Pot Pie Filling

 Proper Chicken Pot Pies (and under no circumstances are you to ask what is going on behind them with one of my student's experiments)

Parting Shot:

 ©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bánh Mì Brown Rice Salad and Oxymorons

 Bánh Mì Brown Rice Salad and Oxymorons
by Victoria Challancin

I do love the typical foolery of good oxymoron, and yet I cringe at being the creator of one.  "Oxymoron," you ask? What does Bánh Mì Rice Salad have to do with oxymorons?  Because the term "báhn mì" is Vietnamese for "bread", and there is nary a whiff of bread in this salad.  So to back up...let's examine exactly what we are talking about here.

Although I have been lucky in my life to travel extensively in Asia (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, and bits of China--many of these countries multiple times), I have never traveled to Vietnam (nor Myanmar, for that matter)--and yet, Vietnamese food is one of my favorite cuisines.  When in Paris, or other places where a concentration of Vietnamese people guarantees good Vietnamese restaurants, I always head there, loving the bright, fresh, clean taste of the food, heady with fresh herbs and just screaming "Healthy!"  Yet, I have never traveled in the country itself.  Yet.

After a bit of experience with a favorite snack sandwich to grab on the go, I thought I had a handle on the "Bánh Mì," or Vietnamese Baguette Sandwich.  That is until I read a post by a favorite Australian blogging friend, Lorraine Elliot of the popular Not Quite Nigella blog.  In Lorraine's post "The Amazing Bánh Mì Race" she reviews a selection of Sydney's ten best bánh mì sandwiches that will make you weep with envy, or at least drool.  Or perhaps lick the screen.

Of course the French occupation of  French Indochina, now Vietnam, left a huge impact on the cuisine, often creating a happy fusion of both ingredients and techniques.  The bánh mì sandwich is one example.  The "bánh mì", or bread, here is a type of Vietnamese baguette, but one made with rice flour as well as the traditional wheat flour, or mì, which yields a lighter loaf.  The bánh mì sandwich typically is filled with "seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled pork patties, spreadable pork liver pâté, pork floss, grilled chicken, chicken floss, canned sardines in tomato sauce, soft pork meatballs in tomato sauce, head cheese, fried eggs, and tofu," or so Wikipedia tells me.  Not having traveled the country, I can only attest to some version of pork belly in the many báhn mìs I have tried.  But my mouth waters thinking of other possibilities.

A bit more fun history of the bánh mì sandwich from Wikipedia, says that a vegetarian version of any sandwiches, such as a báhn mì made with tofu or seitan,  are not really found as street food in Vietnam, but are prepared at Buddhist temples during special religious events.  In the US, the sandwich can also be found under the name of "Vietnamese sandwich", or in Louisiana a "Vietnamese po' boy, or in Philadelphia as a "Vietnamese hoagie," the common thread being the baguette that is used as the bread wrapper.

When I saw a recipe for a salad version of bánh mì in the new edition of Coastal Living Magazine, I new immediately that I would like it.  Filled with the ingredients I expected, I knew it would have that clean, fresh taste that always draws me to Vietnamese food.  And it does!  And I could eat the lovely pickled red onion and carrots just with a fork on their own--soooo good and light.

Cook's Notes:  I doubled the amount of the rice vinegar dressing, and used Mexican pickled red serrano chiles and pickled jalapeños instead of fresh ones.  I had to peel a waxed cucumber as I didn't have any English ones.  Plus, I added some onion sprouts just because I had them and thought them pretty.  I don't think basil leaves would go amiss either, but that might be even less authentic than serving this as a salad.  Not sure.  We made this in one of my cooking classes for Mexica cooks last week and I used pork milanesas, which were already sliced thin.  I should have cooked these on an iron grill pan, to really give the pork that roasted flavor, instead of the "green" pan we used, which didn't really brown it enough.  Still, this is a great salad.

                              Bánh Mì Brown Rice Salad
(Recipe from Coastal Living Magazine, September 2015)
Makes 4 servings

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, divided
4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided 
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 cup julienne-cut carrot
1 cup vertically sliced red onion
1 pound trimmed boneless pork shoulder, cut into very thin slices
2 tablespoons fish sauce, divided
1 tablespoon canola oil 
1/2 English cucumber, thinly sliced 
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
3 cups hot cooked brown rice
Asian chili-garlic sauce (optional)

Combine 3/4 cup water, 3/4 cup rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Add carrot and onion; cook 30 seconds. Remove from heat, and let stand 25 minutes. Drain.

Place pork in a medium bowl. Add 1 tablespoon fish sauce, 2 teaspoons sugar, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt; massage into pork. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes.

Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add half of pork; cook 3 minutes or until lightly charred, stirring once. Remove from pan; repeat with remaining pork.

Combine 1/4 cup water, remaining 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, remaining 2 teaspoons sugar, and remaining 1 tablespoon fish sauce in a small bowl, stirring until sugar dissolves.

Arrange cucumber slices, pork, pickled onion and carrot, jalapeño, and cilantro on a platter. Drizzle evenly with dressing. Serve with cooked brown rice and chili-garlic sauce, if desired

Parting Shot:  A bit of fun from El Zaguán Hotel Bed and Art

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Travel
San Miguel de Allende, México

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shrimp with Vanilla Beurre Blanc on Cardamom-Coconut Rice and Mariachis!

 Shrimp with Vanilla Beurre Blanc on Cardamom-Coconut Rice and Mariachis!
by Victoria Challancin

For those of you who don't live in Mexico, the thought of vanilla with seafood might seem odd.  Odd, indeed!  But over time, given that vanilla originated in the jungles near Veracruz, Mexico, and the fact that Mexico has well over 9000 km of coastline...well, the marriage of the two seems inevitable here, and it is no wonder it found its way to the world of alta cocina, or the haute cuisine of my adapted home.  And what a lovely coupling it is!  Vanilla lends a spicy nuance, a hint of mystery, a note of exotica to almost any dish it enhances, but the sheer beauty of it sings when paired with wine and butter as it is in this dish.

Cook's Notes:  I decided to double up on the amount of tomato, which in retrospect was a mistake, as it soaked up a bit too much of the beurre blanc.  A tablespoon would have been just right.  In fact, the next time I make this, I will double the amount of the beurre blanc instead!

Shrimp with Vanilla Beurre Blanc on Cardamom-Coconut Rice

(Recipe from McCormick’s Gourmet Kitchen)

Serves: 6

3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup jasmine rice
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 8 (1 tablespoon) pieces
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 (3-inch) piece of whole vanila bean
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped seeded plum tomato
12 jumbo (16 to 20 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined, leaving tails on
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
 For the Cardamom Coconut Rice, bring coconut milk, water, cardamom and sea salt to boil in medium saucepan, stirring occasionally. Stir in rice. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 20 minutes or until rice is tender, stirring occasionally to prevent rice from sticking. Fluff rice with fork. Add green onions; toss gently to mix. Set aside, keeping warm. 
Meanwhile, for the Vanilla Beurre Blanc, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in small saucepan on medium heat. Add shallots; cook and stir 5 minutes or until softened. Stir in wine and sea salt. Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Scrape seeds into saucepan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; simmer 15 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in cream. Return to simmer. Gradually add remaining cold butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking to form a creamy sauce. Stir in tomatoes

For the Shrimp, season shrimp with sea salt and pepper. Melt butter in large skillet on medium-high heat. Add shrimp; cook and stir 3 minutes or just until shrimp turn pink.

To serve, place a 2-inch diameter biscuit cutter in the center of a small plate. Press 1/4 cup of the rice mixture into biscuit cutter to form a rice cake. Gently remove biscuit cutter. Top center of rice cake with 2 shrimp. Spoon 2 tablespoons beurre blanc over shrimp and around rice cake. Repeat with remaining rice, shrimp and beurre blanc.

 Los Mariachis
Influenced by both polkas and waltzes, mariachi groups now include such instruments as the violin, guitar, harp, woodwinds, trumpet, guitarrón and the high-pitched vihuela, round-backed guitar which provides rhythm, although in the beginning, only string instruments were used. Originally a form of folk music called Son Jaliscience, designating its origins near Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, this regional style of music migrated from the countryside to the urban centers of Guadalajara and Mexico City as workers began flocking to the cities in the early 1900s looking for work.  What began as a local gathering of musicians/farmworkers, evolved into a sophisticated collection of talented musicians who became an essential part of the national identity.

Eventually, the evolution even included the gradual changing of its name to mariachi.  The name mariachi itself is thought to have derived from the French word marriage, dating from the 1860s when French influence in Mexico was at its height.  Other stories claim it comes from the name of an indigenous tree—or possibly from a local persona called “Maria H,” which would be pronounced Mari-Ache.  Whatever the provenance of the name and the music, both are firmly planted now in the consciousness of the nation.  As a regional folk music from Jalisco, or possibly even Colima, Nayarit and even Michoacán, it has been transformed over time into a national phenomenon, a popular treat for all at family celebrations, political events, and restaurants, a part of the national identity and a mark of great pride. 

On this occasion, the 65th birthday of our close friend, his staff hired the mariachis as a surprise to play poolside at a small gathering of friends who gathered at his house to celebrate his birthday.  What started out as a festive display of familiar Mexican tunes which were familiar to all, slowly evolved into a touching serenade of haunting melodies, which strummed gently at my heart as the musicians paid tribute to a loving man and dear friend.

And what birthday party would be complete without...
the Music...

A violin solo...

Handblown Mexican glasses...


 And a birthday cake...

Parting Shot:

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Travel

San Miguel de Allende,

Friday, August 7, 2015

Two Sweet Corn Recipes and A Mexican Fiesta!

Two Sweet Corn Recipes and a Tale of a Mexican Fiesta!
by Victoria Challancin

Sweet Corn Season.  Does life get any better?  Perhaps my love of this vegetable stems from growing up in western Palm Beach County, where the rich black earth produced, what to me, is the best corn in the world.  During the season, a crate of corn would magically appear on our doorstep at least once a week--and our family of five consumed it all, every time.  With gusto.  While my mother usually cooked it in a skillet with bacon, these recipes I am giving you here represent perhaps more modern ways to enjoy this seasonal treat.

The first recipe is for a warm corn salad with two kinds of cheeses and a citrus aioli.  Rich and delicious.  The second recipe is hardly a recipe at all, just sweet corn sautéed in butter and tossed with fresh basil.  Equally yum.  And so worth sharing.

Recipe:  Grilled Corn Salad with Citrus Aioli
(Recipe from Food and Wine Magazine, August 2015)
Serves 8
10 ears of corn, shucked
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lime zest, plus 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, finely grated or pressed
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 ounces queso fresco (or farmer's cheese or ranch cheese), crumbled (1/2 cup)
2 ounces queso cotija (or feta), finely crumbled (1/2 cup)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the corn and a generous pinch of salt and return to a boil.  Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 5 minutes.  Drain the corn and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise with the lime and lemon zests and juices along with the 1 tablespoon olive oil, the mustard, garlic, and cayenne.  Season the citrus aioli with salt.

Light a grill or preheat a grill pan.  Brush the corn with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Grill over high heat, turning occasionally, until lightly charred all over, about 5 minutes.  Transfer to a plate and let cool slightly, then cut the kernels off the cobs; discard the cobs.

In a large bowl, toss the corn with the softened butter.   Stir in the citrus aioli.  Ad the cheeses, parsley, and cilantro.  Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

Make ahead:  The aioli can be refrigerated overnight.

Recipe:  Fresh Summer Corn Sauté with Basil
(Recipe from Cooking Light, August 2015)
Serves 4
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 cups fresh corn kernels
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons torn basil leaves

Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add corn, salt, and pepper; sauté 4 minutes or until crips-tender, stirring occasionally.  Sprinkle with basil and serve.

See?  I told you.  Almost a non-recipe.  It is that easy.  And that good.

My son Zachary and his girlfriend Isabel, on her birthday

A Tale of a Mexican Fiesta
I asked a moment ago if life got any better than Sweet Corn Season, and well, yes, it does.  Indeed it does. In Mexico, with loving Mexican friends and family, it certainly does.

In life it doesn't always work out that we love the families of those that become almost unintentionally intertwined with our own, but happily in the case of our son's wonderful girlfriend, Isa, and her equally wonderful extended family, it does.  To have our families mesh together in harmony and in fun as well is an added benefit to having Isa in our lives.  It is a joy, a much-appreciated joy.

Mexican fiestas, big or small, are just a Force of Nature.  I know no other way to describe them.  Full of life, unbridled joy, music, food, dancing, with people of all ages participating at every level--the are always almost uncomprehendingly wonderful.  And Isa's twenty-second birthday fiesta was no exception.

Hosted by her family at their delightful B&B, Zaguán Hotel Bed & Art, which is a B&B, café (I could weep over the eggs baked en cocotte with olive oil and roasted garlic...sigh...), and art gallery combined, the venue was perfection itself.  Creative and fun, the location just cries out for a party.

Life...in people and surroundings...

 Dancing...Isa's grandmother and mother...

 Good food...oh yes, and more to come...

Multiple generations...Isa with her maternal grandparents (the little ones got away)

The Food:  La Parrillada
Perhaps the most common food served at a Mexican fiesta is fresh vegetables and a mixture of meats grilled and then served with soft corn tortillas and a variety of salsas to spice them up.  Known as a parrillada in Mexico, (a grill is called a parrilla), these barbecues are often a communal effort.  And in spite of the fact that Alfredo, Isa's father is a superlative chef, I saw at least five different people lending a hand to the grilling efforts at this party!

 Grilling cactus paddles, chiles poblanos, quesadillas, and foil-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with cheese
 And steak, of course...

 Brochetas, or kebabs, with arrachera to come...

 Grilled nopal cactus...
 Steaks, arrachera (marinated skirt steak), and  chimichurri-coated salmon...
Grilled/roasted poblano chile...the heart and soul of Mexican cuisine to me...
Sausages, or chorizo, and beef brochettes...did I mention these?

Yes, friends, family, dancing, and good food are all essential elements, but then there is...the MUSIC!

The Music:  Son Jarocho

I have lived in Mexico for 28 years.  Over time, I have experienced countless fiestas.  No matter the occasion, each one was studded with multiple generations enjoying with great gusto the good food, dancing, and always the music, whether piped-in popular songs with or without a dj, mariachis, local groups...or just friends with guitars.  But the music at this particular party was special indeed.  And a little different.

For Isabel’s twenty-second birthday, we got to experience it all:  four generations of family, a parrillada (Mexican mixed grill), dancing (Isa’s beautiful grandmother insisted I dance, but my gringa hips just didn’t move like hers!), and a special kind of music.

Like celebrations all over the world, no Mexican fiesta would be complete without some form of music.  Lucky for us, at Isa’s birthday party, it came in the form of Son Jarocho music, played by guests, many of whom came with their instruments in hand.  Son Jarocho is a centuries-old style of regional Mexican folk music which originated in the coastal state of Veracruz and bits of the coastal areas of southern Tamaulipas state as well.  The actual term jarocho, is a colloquial term for anyone or anything from the port city of Veracruz.  In terms of its musical reference, it represents a fascinating fusion of indigenous, Spanish, Caribbean, and African musical elements that evolved over time in that busy port city.  The lyrics include typical references, often full of humor, to love, nature, sailors, and other less widespread subjects such as cattle-breeding as well!

The eclectic ensemble of of musicians that slowly gathered at this party brought with them an interesting array of instruments, including 3 jaranas (more on these later), a guitar, a double bass (contrabass), and drums in the form of tabletops.  After a few songs, I asked one Mexican friend, Cesar, about the music, specifically wanting to know if these songs were really old, as I suspected.  His answer:  !Muy muy viaja!  Very very old.  I knew that already in my bones, but it felt good having it verified.  He said most of the songs were from Veracruz, but some from the state of Jalisco as well.

At another point, it seemed to me that the music was just flowing in an improvisational way, with one singer calling out a lyric and another spontaneously answering it--much like a modern jam session, but with ancient sounds and instruments.  A little research later proved this to be true.  These improvised verses are called décimas—and their content can be quite racy and funny as well.
The jarana jarocho is the instrument most often associated with this style of music, and we were blessed with three!  The jarana looks like a large ukulele or small guitar, which upon closer inspection revealed 8 strings, 4 singles and 2 sets of  pairs.  I have no idea how this works, nor did I need to.  I just was happy to let these authentic tunes and slightly strange music wash over me.

The double bass was provided by the daughter of the friend mentioned above, a delightful 22-year-old, Estrella, who is studying jazz on the bass in Mexico City, and who is soon to transfer to Los Angeles to continue her training.  I have known her since she was a very young child, but hadn't seen her in years.  Her father, a well-know political activist, conservationist, and preservationist of Mexican culture, is a musician as well.  But as for this son jarocho style of music...I suspect it is just in her genes and that she never studied it at all, so effortless was the process.  Watching and listening to her and her father as they played off each other, sipping smoky mezcal the whole time, was a rare treat, one I won't soon forget.


Estrella on the double bass..


The jaranas...

Ah, Mexico, I do love you so...

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Travel
San Miguel de Allende, México