Plantains with lime, cotija, and honey

If you are working from home during this pandemic, you have probably thought more than once since March about the weirdness of time passing. On one hand, we’ve been doing this foreverrrrrrrrrrr. On the other hand… no, it’s been forever.

But within that space of Marchunetember, or whenever we are, time passes oddly. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s already Thursday (I know, it’s Monday. But you know what I mean). Sometimes the afternoon just will. not. end. We are feeling the first hints of fall here in Southern California: two beautiful overcast mornings in which the gloom was not smoke, thank-you-very-much, cool enough that I wanted pants on my dog walk. Yet later this week we are supposed to rocket back into temperatures in the 90s. There’s a bit of everything at once.

So this is a little dish that speaks to all of those things. It makes a nice lunch for one, but it would be an equally delightful afternoon snack for two. It could easily be doubled or tripled to feed your pod.  It’s sweet and salty and sour and a little spicy – in fact, it would go so well with this kicky, smoky, spicy mix that you might as well plan to serve them up for a happy hour together, whether that means margaritas, palomas, or puckeringly good lemonade.

I like a mostly-ripe plantain for this, yellow with streaks of brown on the peel, because I enjoy the mix of textures: crisp, fried exterior with cushiony softness inside. But you could also do them tostones-style, frying less-than-ripe plantain slices over medium-low heat first to soften, then smashing them flat and frying again over higher heat on both sides for even brownness.

I ate mine with a fork, as you can see from my not-quite-in-focus close-up, but if you want to go nachos style and use the plantain pieces as scoops, I say go for it.

Plantains with lime, cotija, and honey

Serves 1 as a light lunch or 2 as a snack

15-20 minutes

1 large, yellow plantain, peel removed, cut into about ½ inch slices (I like mostly ripe, but see above for another option)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons butter

salt and red pepper to taste – I like the fruity heat of aleppo pepper

1 lime, which you’ll use for zest, supremes, and juice

1-2 tablespoons crumbled cotija cheese

1-2 teaspoons honey

about 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

 

  • In a cast iron or other skillet, heat the vegetable oil and butter over medium-low heat until the butter is melted. Add the plantain slices, dust with salt and pepper, and continue to cook over medium-low for 4-6 minutes, or until they are nicely golden brown on the bottom. Don’t rush it. Don’t turn up the heat. They need to cook inside but not burn on the outside.
  • As plantains brown, flip, dust the other side with salt and pepper, and cook on the second side until it is also nicely browned, around 4-5 minutes this time.
  • While the plantains are cooking, zest the lime and reserve that zest for serving. Then use a sharp knife to cut a thin slice off the top and bottom. Remove the remaining skin and pith by cutting it off in strips from top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. When you have removed the skin all the way around, cut supremes: slice between the fruit and the membrane that separates each segment. This is a useful step-by-step as well.
  • To serve, pile the fried plantains on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Add the lime supremes and cotija crumbles. Squeeze on some juice from the remaining carcass of the lime. Drizzle on the honey, then scatter the cilantro and the reserved lime zest over the top.

Raincheck

So…. here’s what happened.

I had all the plans in the world to make us something: a kale-based “Caesar” salad that subs out the croutons for well-seasoned cubes of tempeh. It’s tasty, it’s on the light side, it’s relatively easy, but I just wasn’t excited about it. I confessed this to N., who said, “or we could order Eureka,” which is a restaurant just around the corner (or two) from us with a perfectly crispy, perfectly spicy chicken sandwich I’m quickly becoming obsessed with, and suddenly the plans for salad – wait, what salad?

So then I thought okay, I’ll just snap a few pictures of my perfect chicken sandwich to show you, so at least you get some tasty content, right?

And then I ate it. And remembered when the plate was empty that I’d intended to record my dinner.

So… next week?

Labor Day Grill

Happy Labor Day, and thank you unions!

I don’t have a recipe to share with you – as was the case a few weeks ago, the recent heat in our area meant we didn’t cook so much as throw anything that could be grilled in that general direction.

The ubiquity of grilling and barbecues at Labor Day weekend parties (at least in other years – if you’re having a party this year, it involves masks and social distancing, right?!) got me wondering: why do we celebrate this holiday, first signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894 (as a response, by the way, to a huge strike of railway manufacturers, workers, and their union demanding better treatment – this article explains a bit more, including work we have left to do!), with grilled and picnic foods?

The most straightforward answer seems to be that our method of celebrating has little to do with the holiday’s origins – we don’t think much about labor on Labor Day (aside from perhaps being happy we aren’t doing any), nor that many people who labor away don’t get any break on this day intended to celebrate workers. Our celebrations, beer and burgers and potato salad with or without mayo, center around a final gasp of summer glory before the inevitable slide into fall temperatures, which, I guess, are real in some places…

It’s interesting that this tradition of barbecue, used on a day intended to celebrate the people – the work force – is also such a people’s cooking method, by which I mean its origins are multiple and in many ways quite humble. I’ve alluded previously to the African diasporic origins of barbecue; meat can be slow cooked over a fire while the labor force – Black slaves, in this case – works all day.

But indigenous American and Caribbean groups also used this low-and-slow method of cooking meat over a flame, and as the method spread, brought north and west by colonizing and colonized groups, adaptations were inevitable. The British added basting for moisture, painting the meat with sauce while it cooked. German and French immigrants contributed to the mustard-based sauce popular in parts of South Carolina.

And grilling meat over a fire is hardly just an American practice. Kebabs figure in Indian, Pakistani, Arab, and Turkish foodways. Though we usually think horizontally when we grill or barbecue, gyros and al pastor, itself developed from the shawarma of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (right? I had no idea! Consider this a plug for David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, though be warned: the language is not exactly G-rated), tend toward the vertical: a tall spit standing between floor and ceiling from which slowly rotating meat is carved. And then there’s Nigerian suya or mixed grill, spicy with cayenne, earthy with ground peanuts. And of course there are so, so many more.

All of these origin stories, these food traditions and adaptations, have become part of the American story with all its tangles and troubles, as have the people who imagined, cooked, and ate them, contributing their ideas, their labor, and their traditions. So in some senses, far from just a final excuse to cook over flames while summer fades, grilling on Labor Day seems like just the right way to celebrate.

More-than-just-a-salt-rim

To date, I have three out-standing margarita memories. To be clear, that’s not memories of outstanding margaritas, necessarily. Just three memories, standing out in my mind, of margaritas.

One is a blended cranberry margarita from the now long-defunct Chevy’s in Beaverton, Oregon. N and our friend J and I ended up there one evening on the way home from Christmas shopping in Portland. Power was out through half the city as a result of wind storms, and while we drove half-lost through the winter darkness, J fell asleep in the backseat clutching a thermos of tepid coffee. He’d been up all the night before with some friends and a new date, the woman he’s now been married to for almost a decade. None of this relates to that margarita, of course, but it was frosty and tart and crunchy with ice crystals, and I was at once smitten and sad that it was only a seasonal special.

Another is a straightforward affair of tequila, lime juice, and simple syrup made in my kitchen a few years ago by our friend I. He’s a bit highbrow of a purist about his booze, so he supplied the good stuff, and no triple sec to be seen. He also brought the best citrus juicer I’ve ever seen, and though I don’t remember the drink itself beyond that it was tasty, I remember the sink being full of lime skins, bright green and juiced almost dry.

The third is just this January, a month so long ago it feels like years. N. and I were on our way home from a visit to my aunt and uncle in Florida, in the Denver airport, and I was coming down with a cold. (Visit? What is that? Airport? How did we even dare?) As we exited our plane in Denver, I saw two people walk past carrying gigantic taco salads, the kind that are served in a perfectly crisp, slightly greasy, deep-fried flour tortilla, and suddenly that was all I wanted in the whole world. With the help of a few airport staff we found the place they were from, and I knew I was getting a taco salad and a margarita for dinner: the idea of a citrus kick and, I joked, a little antiseptic from the tequila, would surely help “cure” me. It didn’t, of course, but it was a blissful half hour during which I was too busy stuffing my face to feel my symptoms.

All this to say, during the past month or so I’ve been on a margarita kick. I’ve been pretty low-brow about it, using bottled margarita mix from the store, and adding some extra lime juice, and sometimes orange juice, to make it more interesting with minimal effort. Instead of the traditional tequila, I bought myself a bottle of mezcal, which is made from agave and often has a distinctive smoky flavor.* My first mix-up, salt assiduously applied to the rim of my glass for “authenticity,” was good, but missing something: the smokiness of the mezcal I had seemed to call for heat in the drink. Ah, I thought, this needs some spice in with that salt. A few experiments later, I had it perfect. Five major tastes are represented: sweet from some raw sugar, sour from the lime juice that sticks the crystals to the glass, salty from, well, salt, and both bitter and spicy from a few shakes of smoked chili powder I happened to have in the spice cupboard.** It’s that, rather than the margarita itself, that I’m serving up for you today.

This is a non-recipe type of recipe, which is to say, I’m supplying some quantities here but you might want to adjust them depending on what you like best. The actual beverage I’m pouring into this glass is a mixture of mezcal, bottled margarita mix, a squeeze of juice from an orange and an entire lime, stowed in the freezer for a few hours to get slushy.

* When I first tried it, I thought mezcal was a type of tequila, but in fact it’s the other way around. All agave-derived alcohols are mezcals, but some mezcals, based on where they are produced, how they are distilled, and what type of agave they come from, are classified as tequila. See here and here for more.

 

** No, spicy is not usually categorized as one of the five tastes. That honor belongs to umami. But I think spicy is a definitive taste on its own that doesn’t necessarily intersect with one of the others. So for my purposes, I’m allotting it space.

Enough for 2-3 cocktail glasses,
depending on diameter (mine is about 3 inches across):
1½ teaspoons raw sugar
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon smoked chili powder (or just your favorite chili powder)
zest of one lime
small wedge of lime, to wet the lip of the glass

 

  • On a small plate or the dry, clean lid of a container about an inch wider in diameter than your cocktail glass, combine the sugar, salt, chili powder, and lime zest.
  • Holding the glass upside down, run the wedge of lime around the lip so it is evenly wet, but not dripping.
  • Before the lime juice dries, lightly tamp or spin it through the dry mixture until the lip of the glass is evenly coated.
  • Carefully pour in your cocktail, and enjoy.

 

Dog Days

They’re here.* The “dog days” of summer. As a kid, I thought, probably like most people, that this referred to a hot time of the year when dogs panted a lot. It didn’t occur to me to question why we would name a time of year after dog tongues; dogs were, after all, the best animals in the whole world.

It turns out “dog days” has nothing to do with terrestrial canines at all. Instead, they are the period during which Sirius, the Dog Star, rises just before the sun and can be seen in the same region of the sky. For the ancient Hellenic peoples, they were a time of foreboding – fevers, crop damage, war – all of this could happen under the nose, if you will, of Canis Major.

Foreboding, coincidentally enough, is the feeling I get when I think about cooking right now. For the past week I’ve strategized not what might be photogenic and delicious to share with you, but what I could make that would a.) use our grill as the only heat source, or b.) not involve cooking at all. So in lieu of an actual recipe, here are just a few shots of things I’ve cooked – or not, as the case may be – in the past few months. Just to tide us over.

 

Pink Champagne cake I made for newly married friends.

 

Allium “bouquet”

 

Cold, Thai-inspired tofu “salad”

* Actually, the Farmer’s Almanac claims the “dog days” fall between July 3 and August 11 each year, but since seasons mean next to nothing in Southern California – a place in which summer weather stretches until November, that strange thing called “fall” doesn’t truly exist but “June Gloom” is a season all its own – and stars, dog or otherwise, are everywhere, I think it’s fair to extend the range a bit.

Sourdough Soft Pretzels

I think it took me a little longer to fall into the sourdough-everything craze than it did some people, but that could be because I’ve been nurturing a little starter for some time now. Left with a bit of discard, though, from a (semi)weekly bake of my standard sourdough loaves, I decided to branch out from pancakes, and revisited the humble-but-stellar pretzel. Thus although I don’t have a clever or nostalgia-laced story to offer today, in an effort to get myself back into this blog-thing I supposedly have and considering that we mowed through the first batch of these in about twenty minutes and were already planning a second, they certainly seemed worth sharing!

I’m adapting two recipes here: one from King Arthur Baking Company (have you seen they’ve updated their name?!), and one from Smitten Kitchen, which she in turn adapted from Martha Stewart. The KAF (or, I guess, KABC?) recipe doesn’t include the traditional boiling step, moving their shaped dough straight into the oven after a single rise. I wanted the extra browning and chewy texture the baking soda boil offers (I have neither the materials nor the courage to use food grade lye… at least not yet…), so I used SK’s procedure for that part.

We had our half dozen chewy, slightly tangy results dunked in a beer cheese sauce – a simple, roux-thickened mix of stout, milk, mustard, and cheddar whisked into a smooth, thick cheese gravy,* and, in an attempt to be slightly virtuous, a side of sautéed cabbage.

Enjoy the sequence of pretzel-shaping shots below, featuring N. as my arm-and-hand model (he was also very keen to perfect his technique, so even though I told him he only needed to shape one pretzel while I photographed, he did three of the half dozen we made that night before I pushed him aside – I wanted to play with dough ropes too!).

* cheese gravy sounds weird, I know. But this had more body than just a sauce; it clung thickly to the pretzels and could have made a great macaroni and cheese base. It didn’t have the right ingredients or flavors to be a queso (Tex-Mex) or a fondue (Swiss), so I’m going to embrace the weirdness. Cheese gravy it is.

 

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 12 (but easily halved; I’ve included quantities for both below)
2-3 hours (it will take longer to twist and boil 12 pretzels than it does for 6)

 

For 12:
¾ cup + 2 TB water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 TB honey
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
3-3½ cups bread flour
¼ cup milk
1 TB butter
1½ teaspoons salt

 

For 6:
⅜ cup + 1 TB warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ TB honey
½ cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
1½-1¾ cups bread flour
2 TB milk
½ TB butter
¾ teaspoons salt

 

For the boil:
water to fill a 12-inch skillet
¼ cup baking soda
2 TB brown sugar

 

To bake:
Coarse salt or pretzel salt

 

  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and honey in a medium bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and smells like bread. Add 1½ cups of the flour, and all of the sourdough starter, milk, butter, and salt.
  • Using the dough hook, knead into a smooth but slightly sticky dough; for me this took about 5 minutes on medium speed. If it really seems like it is too wet (too sticky), add the remaining ¼ cup of flour and knead at least 2 minutes longer.
  • Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 45 minutes, ideally in a warm place. It will only rise a little bit, so don’t be alarmed.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then dump and pull your risen dough out onto a lightly floured board. Using a knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 even lumps (or 6 if you are making a half recipe).
  • Now the part that can seem intimidating: shaping the pretzels. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your fingers and the palms of your hands to roll the lump or ball of dough into a long, even rope about 18 inches long. Above you can see N. measuring the one he’s working on. Note: too much flour on your board here is not a good thing. You don’t want the rope to stick (as you can see some of ours did), but you do need some friction or the dough will just slide around on the board instead of rolling and elongating.
  • Drape the 18-inch rope into a U shape on your board. Holding each end between your thumb and forefinger, but leaving the bottom of the U on the board, gently cross the left side over the right side about 2 inches from each end. Repeat, again crossing the (new) left side over the (new) right side so you have two twists in your pretzel. Now, again holding one end in each thumb and forefinger, flip the ends down to the bottom of the U shape to form a pretzel. Pinch the points where they intersect with the U a little bit to keep them in place. Gently but quickly, relocate your shaped pretzel to one of the lined baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • When you have twisted all 12 (or all 6) pretzels into shape, stow them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This is a pretty soft dough, so plunging them right into the boil might result in disintegration.
  • While the pretzels chill, fill a 12-inch skillet about ¾ of the way with water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to preheat the oven to 350F, and to line an additional baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • After at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, remove the tray(s) of pretzels and set them near the stovetop. Carefully, (carefully!), add the baking soda and brown sugar to the boiling water. There will be a lot of abrupt bubbling and fizzing! Stir gently to disperse and dissolve, then carefully add the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time. I find this should be done gently but with speed, to prevent the dough from stretching out of shape.
  • Let the pretzels boil in the bath for about 30 seconds, then use a strainer or spatula to flip. Boil another 30 seconds on the second side, then carefully, again using the strainer or spatula, remove the pretzels from the water and arrange them with space in between on the empty parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, letting the water come back to a boil between each batch. They won’t grow too much in the oven, but you don’t want to overcrowd them; I would suggest no more than 4 on each baking sheet unless they are very compact.
  • While the pretzels are still wet from the baking soda bath, sprinkle on some coarse salt or pretzel salt, then slide into the preheated oven and bake 25-30 minutes, until they are deeply golden and have a slightly crisp crust.
  • Remove from the oven and consume, with glee, as soon as they are cool enough to handle (or, if you’re me, a few minutes before that…).