Monday, July 27, 2009

Nitza tried to kill me (a tale of three dishes)

This past weekend, I decided it was time to cook during daylight hours. Maybe it was the fact that I had to deal with fish heads and I wanted to make sure I had the proper support awake and alert, or maybe it was the thought of bringing my daughter in to finally participate and teach her the song "Fish Heads", just for fun. Maybe I just should have known better.

Recipe #3: Caldo de Pescado (Fish Stock)

I took a trip down to my trusty Publix fish market with the kids and my parents in tow. This was going to be un show (a show) - pure drama. We were on the hunt for fish heads (gross). As I approached the fishmonger (well, not fishmonger actually, just the dude behind the counter), I smiled and asked him for fish heads, chuckling to myself as if I was going to be the jokester of the day. The dude turned to me and said, "sure, how many?"

How many? Did he just say "How many"?

Not like "Ma'am, did you say fish heads?" Not like "excuse me, did you say fish heads, as in actual gross slimy heads of fish with eyes bulging out and guts flying everywhere?"

Nope, none of that. I said I wanted two heads, he picked them up from the ice (they had their bulging eyes and flying guts removed), wrapped them and put the $2.64 sticker on them. That's it. Over. Fish heads wrapped. The most horrifying part of the mission: My dad's shock at the fact that they actually charged me for the heads.

I bought the rest of the usual cast of charaters that now dance in my head as I sleep at night and dream of caldos: green peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic cloves, parsley and salt. Got home, unwrapped the fish heads and went to grab one. Ewwwww - slimy! Yay! A little drama - at last!

But not that much, so as I got confident in my dead fish skills, I grabbed it again and turned to put it in the olla de presion when I caught a glimpse of something orange inside the fish (it was sliced down the middle of the head for me already). Time to call the husband in to Kitchen Stadium.

Honey? What is that?


Brains? Brains on fish are orange?

Yep, think so.

Cool! I have fish my...soup? Gross!

Ok, I got over it, threw it all into the pressure cooker and calculated the time at 20 minutes (beef was 30, chicken was 25, so fish must be 20) from the time the chaca chaca started in the kitchen and the kids started to sing, "fish heads fish heads, roly poly fish heads..." That was my cue to quickly shower and get ready. Did I forget to mention that I had a baby shower to get to at 2pm?

This was, by far, the easiest soup to make of the caldos to date. Mom held the strainer while I scooped everything out and we put the broth straight into two plastic containers - a little over 6 cups of broth in all.

I invited my parents and my in-laws over for dinner in order to participate in my first full Nitza (almost) menu. No, I wasn't going to serve fish broth for dinner - that was just the base of the first course! But, before I get to my first course, I decided to skip ahead into the Arroces y Pastas (Rice and Pasta) section of the book. I know, I wasn't going to do it, but really, I can't have Sunday dinner and serve soup alone, so why not venture a little and knock out another recipe while I was out there. And here's the part about Nitza trying to kill me.

Recipe #194: Arroz Blanco (White Rice)

Now, I know you're all asking yourself how a little white rice ever hurt anyone. South Beach and Atkins lovers aside, the rest of us know that white rice is harmless and as easy to make as any basic recipe. The worst part about venturing into Nitza's Arroz Blanco recipe is that I already knew how to make white rice. My white rice is good, easy and foolproof. But, a deal's a deal so I tried it her way.

Let me translate her way for you:

In shallow pot (I didn't believe her about the cacerola llana so I used a deep pot), heat oil and add some garlic cloves until they are golden brown. Remove the cloves and (here's the part where it gets life threatening) baje el aceite de la candela. Now, did she mean lower the heat or did she mean to take the oil off the heat? I read it as lower the heat. Then, take water and salt and pour it into the pan.


Nothing at all about asking her trusty chef at home to WAIT UNTIL THE OIL COOLS. And yes, fine, that's something that everyone knows (as my mother and mother-in-law so clearly explained to me). But since I usually follow normal recipes that explain little details like that, I had never experienced the EXPLOSION that happens when you pour water into hot oil. My poor kids and dog ran for their lives as my husband came running into Kitchen Battlefield to see what the heck was going on.

I didn't have to explain. He just started laughing (thanks, honey) and asked me not to confirm what he knew had happened. It's probably because he must have run like a bat out of hell when his mom did the same thing when he was 4 - I just know it.

Anyways, back to the oil that's now cooled and my water and salt. Poured it in - no popping, all's safe - brought that up to a boil. Now, Nitza's very careful to emphasize the importance of adding the rice inmediatamente (immediately) when the water starts to boil, so not to lose one bit of the valuable ratio of una libra de arroz (yes, she said one pound of rice - which I measured into my scale and measured back into my measuring cups and got 2 1/2 cups, but my mother in law says that in Cuba, 1 pound of rice meant 2 cups of rice) to the mixture you have concocted in the pot. Lower the heat to simmer, put the lid on it and set the timer to 30 minutes. Don't open it! You'll lose valuable steam! Geez, paranoia for some things are evidently acceptable. Hot oil and cold water? Not so much.

I must admit, however, that I am now a true believer in putting my family at risk by following this method (but by following the arroz blanco for dummies way as I have explained it) for making white rice. It was absolutely, hands down, the best white rice I have ever had. Anywhere. Sorry, rice-queens in my family. This was the best.

And now, for my final trick, er, dish...we venture back into the soup chapter for the first course.

Recipe #23: Sopa de Camarones a la Crema (Shrimp Bisque)

So, this is where the fish stock comes in handy. I had my daughter help me with this one at certain points because the prep was really easy. I took out a mixing bowl and put flour, salt, black pepper, milk and parsley stems (with stems cut off, just the maticas (little trees), as my daughter calls them), all in there.

Now, time for a translator again. Oh, Mo-om...

Nitza says I need to osterizar my ingredients. Yes, good, do that.

Osterizar? Yes, Mimi (that's me), osterizar, usar la batidora.

As in the act of using Oster's Osterizer blender. Seriously. Osterize became a verb in Cuba. Nitza writes, Anadale la harina "osterizada" con la leche, sal, pimenta, cebolla y perejil.

Back to the process, where I add some rabanadas (slices) of onion to the ingredients that have already been mixed well with (gasp!) my hand blender and hand blend some more (might as well make that a verb!) I pour all this into a large cacerola (soup pot), along with my fish stock from the morning, and crank the heat up.

Now, here's where you see the fun again - she wants you to keep stirring, while you osterizar peeled, deveined, boiled with no-tail shrimp with heavy cream. Impossible! So, that's where you figure she must have had help in that kitchen. No single person can handle this if you follow her recipe. Good thing the abuelas are hanging around the kitchen just waiting to dive in. Ok, ladies, get working! I put my suegra on stir duty while I osterizar the shrimp and cream and get my mom started on the toast that will be the topping for the soup (so gourmet!).

The shrimp cream mix is added to the cacerola and you let it heat through until it becomes creamy with a good consistency (think clam chowder - the white one). Once you see a few bubbles forming, as if it wants to boil, shut the heat off and you're done. Let it sit until you can get everyone to the table and put those little toast tips (plain white bread, crusts cut off, make 2 triangles out of each slice, spread butter and sprinkle some parmesan on each one and bake until toasty) on each soup.

The crowd went wild. Everything tasted sooooo gooooood!

Oh, I forgot to mention that we ate the rice with a pre-cooked chicken hot from the deli. Preparing 3 recipes in one day was enough for me. And, in my own taskmasterish kind of way, I'm thinking ahead to Recipe #4: Caldo de Huesos de Pollo Asado (Roasted Chicken Broth).

As my dad cut the chicken up, I asked him and the guests to keep their bones. Hey, there are only so many hours in the day! I don't think Nitza expects me to roast a chicken to then make the broth for it. At least not this early anyways!

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Caldo de Pollo (Chicken Stock)

It's 8pm on a Tuesday, I'm still in the office when my husband calls to remind me that we don't have milk or baby food for the next day. Oh well, I guess I'll have to go to Publix (!!!!!)

Recipe #2: Caldo de Pollo & Recipe #6: Sopa de Pastas

With my list in tow, I set out to prep for recipe 2 in my journey - plain ol' chicken stock or caldo de pollo. With last week's revelation that there were 49 recipes in the soup chapter alone, I thought it was time to hustle and see what I could do to hit a few recipes in one shot.

Nitza shows you how to make caldo de pollo and also lists a sopa de pastas a few recipes down, which pretty much gives you the green light to add pasta by 1 tablespoonful for each cup of broth you have. Oh, pasta, like as in chicken noodle soup. There we go - 2 soups: chicken broth and chicken noodle soup - brilliant!

But, wait. Pasta? Nitza, what pasta exactly? Cuban pasta? There isn’t such a thing as Cuban pasta. Do I get spaghetti and break it into the soup? Time for a lifeline...Oh, Mo-om!

The conversation sounded like this, right from the Publix parking lot:

¡Mami! Como se llama esa pasta que se le hecha a la sopa. No es spaghtetti y no se llaman "noodles". ¿A que sopa? A la sopa. ¿A la sopa de pollo? ¡Si, a la sopa de pollo! Fideos. ¿Fideos? Fideos. ¿Hay fideos en Publix? Si, niña, tienen que tenerlos.

I ran for the ethnic aisle first. But, the Publix on Monza doesn't have an ethnic aisle, it's all mixed into the store. Plan B: go to the pasta aisle. I could feel Nitza laughing at me as my eyes scanned spaghetti, vermicelli, angel hair...and then, there she was. My fideos with Diana's picture on it. You know her, Diana, that green lady with a flower in her hair. She's like the lady in the brooches.

I had found them - my fideos. The same package I had known as a staple in the house. The same package I just thought was part of the landscape of the kitchen. You see, sopa de pollo, was just something that people made for you. It was something that was always there and the fideos in it was something you just took for granted – you never even thought about where they came from.

I didn't mean to prepare the recipe that same night - it was 10:30 p.m. already. But, after the success in finding fideos and the fact that the carnicero (butcher) had removed all those gross things from the pre-cut fresh whole chicken I bought (Señor, ¿Ud me pudiera quitar esas cosas feas que vienen en esa bolsita adentro del pollo?), and the fact that it wasn't really that late by my standards...I got going.

Kids were asleep, husband was watching the TiVo'd Le Tour de France and I took out my olla de presión (note: my mom called after reading my first post last week to clarify that Hoya, as in Oscar de la Hoya, was not the proper way of spelling Olla de Presión). So, I propped up my cookbook, alongside my grandmother's edition that I obtained last week when bragging about my caldo de res. Turns out, my grandma let it slip that she has had the original Cocina al Minuto that she had hid in her suitcase when she fled Cuba in 1961. She had it safely tucked away all this time. ¿Lo quieres? ¿Que si lo quiero? ¡Abuela, voy para allá ahora mismo!

This was going to be easy: chicken all cut up by someone that wasn’t me, water, salt, tomatoes, green peppers, onion, garlic and perejil (parsley) from last week because I had followed Rachel Ray’s (sorry, Nitza) suggestion of wrapping the herbs as soon as I got home from the store in a paper towel and putting it into a Ziploc bag. Turn up the heat and let the pressure cooker rip for 25 minutes this time (after all, it’s just chicken, not beef like last week’s 30 minutes). And again, soup! Ok, joke’s over – you’ll get soup every time you follow this pattern.

So, for the caldo, I was planning on taking out the chicken just like I did with the beef last week. Except…that the chicken isn’t quite as sturdy as beef and the chicken has lots of bones and parts that fall apart in a pressure cooker and the chicken has a nice fatty skin that jumps right off the meat after 25 minutes in the pressure cooker, it seems. Decisions, decisions. And, of course, Nitza doesn’t help.

Her caldo de pollo recipe literally reads (translation): Follow this recipe just like the one prior (beef stock) but substitute chicken or hen for the beef and the soup bone.

Wow, yep, "just like the one before". Except I had an absolute mess of chicken, bones, parts (that I thought the nice carnicero had removed for me but I guess he only tossed that bag I was scared of), skin fat, veiny things…I could go on. Time to reassess.

A strainer! Ha! Solution was to get a large bowl and ladle out everything in that pressure cooker through the strainer to get the clear chicken broth. Genius! Took out my plastic containers for freezing, scooped out some broth and went to put the lids on the containers. My hands were so slimy and greasy! OMG – how much chicken fat was in this caldo exactly? Abuela never complained and I followed the recipe to the letter (again, Nitza, not so helpful!) and the taste test had proven that I had officially made caldo de pollo. So, I was one with one task.

Now, I found myself with a strainer full of veggies and chicken stuff. So began my process of taking out the bones, skin, veiny stuff and other parts I thought would have been gone so that I would be left with just chicken and vegetables. One hour people - one hour! By this time, it was already past midnight.

Once I had finished my separation process, I realized I hadn’t dumped the fideos in the chicken broth while still piping hot from the pressure cooker. Nitza says if you drop the pasta into the hot broth, within 7-8 minutes, they’ll be ready. Those noodles weren’t softening and my second recipe wasn’t looking promising. But, I left them in there, I chopped up my chicken, threw some back into the broth and let it simmer (very slowly since it was more lukewarm than anything else).

I took out my hand blender (a.k.a. motor boat) and blended everything that had been left behind in the strainer, some broth, and whatever chicken had disintegrated into the mix by itself in the cooking process and then…magic. My hand blender was making cream of chicken soup. I don’t know how it happened, maybe it was a mix of the chicken fat in the stock (as my suegra told me later that I should have skimmed the fat off the top of the broth but I guess in my excitement, I hadn’t noticed that there was fat to skim), along with a perfect puree of the vegetables that made it happen, but it was to die for. What an amazing soup – cream of chicken made without cream!

But wait…Nitza doesn’t have that recipe in her book! Did I actually make three recipes in one night?

Caldo de pollo – CHECK! Sopa de pastas – CHECK! Crema de Pollo (sin crema) – wow!

Making chicken noodle soup has taken on a whole new meaning. Now, I’m sure I won't have to go through this three ring circus each time I want to make sopa de pollo, but the care that someone takes to go through this process way out measures the end result. Our abuelas always knew what they were doing, and the love they put into their soups is what makes everything just right.

Hasta la proxima…when the book calls for Recipe 3: Caldo de Pescado (fish stock) made with cabezas de pescado (fish heads – eeeeeek!) or 2 pounds of fish. You can guess which way I’m leaning, but I think I’m going to have to find myself a fishmonger that will take the eyes, scales, teeth, etc. out of my fish heads!

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Christina & Nitza: The Project

Inspired by Julie & Julia, I've embarked on my own project: to celebrate the Cuban kitchen -- the food, the abuelas who prepared it, and the family that gathered around the table to enjoy every bite. For my generation -- and for my kids' generation -- I'm cooking my way through Nitza Villapol's Cocina al Minuto. With each recipe, I'm taken back to what those housewives of my grandmother's and mother's generation must have been thinking as they tried to follow Nitza's instructions, from her books or TV program. I hope this project moves you to learn how to cook, simply, and to bring the joy (and sofrito smell -- the smell of home frying) back into your home. Click here to read previous posts. Click here to read The Miami Herald article on my journey. ¡Buen Provecho!