Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Check out my trash can!

Ceviche on the way... Curing in fridge overnight. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Food Versatility

Food versatility is the best. Some foods that I consider versatile, in the sense that they compliment many types of foods whether in side dishes or pairings, are the chickpea, avocado, banana, feta cheese, and fruit jam. Also, the egg. When I was home for Easter, I made hummus and guacamole for our big family party. The hummus was pretty standard; however, I don't mind saying that I took the guac to whole new levels. Check out the ingredients I used:

You will see the traditional avocado, the tomatoes, the lemon, the onion, and the garlic. But what is that bottom left yellow ingredient? My friends, it is the pineapple, and the avocado simply embraced the tropical fruit into its mushy depths like a long-lost pal.

The sweet tangy chunks added a whole new dimension to the family party staple dip.

Who can resist the creamy greenness? Or brownness for that matter. The hummus turned out wonderfully. It was my second attempt at making the dip, and first time I found success in my attempt.

Chickpeas, garlic, tahini, salt, tomatoes, salt, and salt.

So speaking of versatility, I am curious to know what other people have encountered in guacamole or hummus. Some odd ingredients that I have included in a homemade guac, depending on my mood that day, include grapefruit instead of lime or lemon (eh, it was okay- not enough sour methinks), pineapple (as shown above), and curry powder (!). This is why I am talking about versatility, flexibility. The avocado is just as happy chillin' with some sweet tropical fruit as it is doing a spicy dance with curry flavoring. Now, that is my kind of fruit!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Falafel, Shawarma, and other funny words

Today I ventured downtown to Reading Terminal Market by way of the 44 Septa bus. Recently deemed by my friend Matt as the "Las Vegas of food," the Market never fails to overwhelm my senses. As a result, I typically spend a total of 10 minutes standing baffled in the middle of an aisle as shoppers bustle around me in all directions, not sure which stand to purchase lunch from. As predicted, it happened again today.

After finally deciding that I indeed was in the mood for a lamb shawarma at Kamal's Middle Eastern Specialties, I backtracked and ordered, enjoying it alongside a Sam Adams seasonal brew (I forget which one) at the Beer Garden.

The last time I remember eating this kind of Middle Eastern food was on my tour of the great South of Chile. It is common knowledge in Chile that it would be a sin to live in the country and not travel to the south. I did that in November 2008 during a five-night, six-day tour of Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas, Chiloe, and Valdivia. Although each city was special and enjoyable in different ways, Valdivia was my favorite. From the fresh free-flowing honey beer in the Kunstmann factory, to the rich chocolate made daily in the Entrelagos chocolate factory, to our comfortable hostel stay in an actual family home complete with homemade breakfast, the city of Valdivia was a culinary and foodie haven.

My friend (Matt, the same one who dubbed Reading Terminal as Las Vegas) and I stumbled upon La Ultima Frontera (The Last Frontier) by accident on our first night in town. Hungry, lost, and weary, we were not having any luck with finding a nice pub. As we were about to give up and turn around, we heard the inviting sound of laughter and clinking glasses coming from what appeared to be a house on the corner or the street, practically hidden behind a tall hedge that wrapped around the property. We walked up the front pathway onto the lawn and found what would be our second home in Valdivia. Flaking red paint adorned the siding of the converted house, and a porch sat on the lawn attached to the restaurant. Abundant seating could be found inside, while a couple tables and mismatched chairs provided seating outside the house.

A delightfully charming and homey atmosphere (hand towel hanging in the bathroom), friendly and personal service, interior décor of the political-revolution type (think anti-Bush art, Che Guevara posters, etc.), and of course exquisite food and drink were for me the four highlights of La Ultima Frontera.

For dinner the first night, I ordered a shawarma while my friend Matt ordered a falafel, each costing around $3.500 Chilean pesos (7 USD). Both were colossal in size and taste, served on thick pitas with delicious meat, lettuce, tomato, and sauce, not to mention the homemade spicey sauce served in a dish for each table. We returned the next night for dinner and had a different waiter, until Pedro, our waiter from the previous night, spotted us and took over our table from the other guy. Feeling pretty full from lunch, I ordered a simple grilled cheese for $2.000 (4 USD), which turned out to be enormous and somehow the most delicious grilled cheese I have ever eaten. Matt got falafel again.

We returned the next day for lunch before our bus back to Santiago. I ordered a plate of tacos for $3.500 and Matt ordered, surprisingly, falafel. The seemingly high prices on the menu were justified by the incredible quality of the food, and the large portions (understatement).

Besides the excellent food and drink selection, La Ultima Frontera plays an active role in the culture of local art and activism. During our second time in the restaurant, our waiter Pedro informed us that they would be showing a movie on the lawn later that night. Matt and I stayed to watch the documentary about underground punk music in Valdivia, made by local art students and played on a large projection screen.

If you ever find yourself in Chile, check out Valdivia and all of its foodie glory...

La Ultima Frontera
Vicente Perez Rosales 787
Tel. (63)235363

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Leche con Platanos

On my first day at Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile, I attended an orientation breakfast with the other extranjeros (exchange students) in my program. There was a thick, white-ish, frothy drink at each place setting. Not knowing what it was, I brought it to my lips and indulged in one of the simplest yet most nourishing drinks I had ever tasted. I learned the name of the drink, leche con platanos, and that it was simply that: milk with bananas, blended with a little sugar.

The following weekend, I traveled to the beach with my host sister Loreto, her pololo (boyfriend) Luis, and my fellow study abroad friend Ali. On our first full day on the coast, Loreto and Luis took an early bike ride. Ali and I slept in, and upon waking up, decided to explore the town. Determined to get to the ocean, we walked from our condo up in the hills down to water level. After dipping our feet in the water, we realized how hungry we were. Although it wasn't a hot day, the sun was blazing, and we were parched. The only thing Ali could think about was a smoothie. Unfortunately, we did not know the Spanish word for smoothie, and so we walked around town for at least 30 minutes asking where we could find "la bebida con hielo y fruta" [insert blender noise and mixing hand motions]. As expected, we were only met with blank stares.

All of a sudden I remembered the glory of the leche con platanos, and we set off in search of one. After walking at least two miles, we stumbled upon a glorious little bakery. To Ali's dismay, they did not have smoothies, but I convinced her to try the Leche con Platanos.

We sat through another long wait, and finally saw our drinks floating towards us atop a fine tray. The foamy, smooth and richly creamy yellowish liquid soothed both our appetites and our taste buds. The tang of the banana was balanced wonderfully by the subtle creaminess of the milk, and sweetened to perfection with a dash of sugar.

A year and a half later, I found myself craving the drink that I came to love so much in Chile. While home for Easter, I made some for my dad, my brother, my mom and myself. I improvised this version, and the flexibility of the flavors in a banana allow plenty of room for creativity and innovation. Here is the latest version:

Leche con Platanos (y Piña)
One and a half ripe (or overripe) bananas
A couple slices of pineapple
2ish cups of milk (I prefer whole, unpasteurized, local cow milk, but whatever you have will work!)
One tablespoon of honey (I use raw honey-richer and healthier)

Blend all ingredients together to desired consistency. Adjust for personal taste. Enjoy this filling, refreshing, sweet, and tangy treat as breakfast, a dessert, or midday snack.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What do you get when you combine the Jackson 5 and a can of chickpeas?

...Fried chickpeas, of course!

My final rendezvous with my old friend Garbanzo was a casual snack, perfect for munching alongside a beer or even a glass of red wine. It was the quasi-healthy version of potato chips. It was the fried chickpea. This was an easy way to utilize an oversized can of chickpeas and an alternative to fatty processed snack food.

Directions for making fried chickpeas:

Start humming “ABC” by the Jackson 5.

Substitute the words “fried chickpeas” for “ABC” so the lyrics read “fried-chick-peas; it’s easy as 1-2-3,” etc. in your mind.

Pour a layer of olive oil in a deep pan. Dump as many rinsed chickpeas as you care to into the pan.

Bask in the beauty of the sound of deep-frying.

Fry the beans for about 7-9 minutes, or until golden brown and crunchy. Don’t be afraid to overcook; better a tad charred then not crunchy enough. It’s all about texture here.

Spread out chickpeas on an oven pan when done frying and sprinkle with sea salt, thyme, and really anything else you think might work well. I drizzled some tahini (sesame seed extract) over top of the beans. Crushed red pepper would also work well, as would chili sauce and/or rosemary and garlic powder.

Bake in warm oven for 10 minutes.

Enjoy with a beer while watching the NBA playoffs.

** Recipe adapted from

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Two Dates with the Chickpea

On the first day of my life with chickpeas, I boiled some white Jasmine rice, placed it on the side burner, and went about concocting a chickpea topping. With my new Slap Chop, the As-Seen-on-TV vegetable and fruit chopping device, I mashed up some tomato, spent the next couple minutes separating the gooey sections of tomato from the skin that refused to succumb to the Slap Chop, and rinsed a can of garbanzo beans. In the frying pan, I heated up some olive oil, chili sauce, salt and pepper, and threw in the tomato bits, followed by the chickpeas. Just like that, I had taken a step in the right direction in my cooking life. I let it simmer and crackle for 20 minutes or so, and—voilà—a successful first outing for the chickpea and me.

After my lunch of rice and the tomato-chickpea mixture, I digested over a cup of coffee. About an hour later, I headed outside to the nearby track to start my first day of endurance and speed training for the Broad Street Run, a 10-mile run in May. I was a little nervous as to how the lunch would sit. An hour and a couple miles later, I officially approved the chickpea as a pre-workout meal. I was full of energy for the run and not full of food. The caloric value of the chickpea had provided the perfect energy boost, free of any feelings of bloating or heaviness afterwards.

My next undertaking in the world of garbanzo beans would be a little riskier. I was proud of my first meal, but knew that I had to step out on a limb for the next recipe. I was at my family home a few weeks ago, and my father had taken my brothers to Atlantic City for a basketball game. It was just my mom and I on this cold and rainy night. So I told her to sit back, relax, and let me do the cooking.

I picked up the ingredients from the local supermarket, choosing everything as fresh and raw as possible; I even opted for the ginger root and garlic bulb, instead of the packaged or powdered form of the two. Back at home, I set out my ingredients, chickpeas smack-dab in the middle of the spread (cauliflower, ginger, garlic, sweet potato, tomato, onions, rice, oil, salt and pepper, and curry powder).

Task for the night: chickpea and cauliflower curry.

I felt proud once again, as I chopped the veggies (even managing to dice the onion without too much eye pain), boiled the rice, and measured out the curry powder. In fact, I felt like a natural chef as I mixed and matched, stirred and combined. Aromas exploded in the air around me, as ginger mixed with garlic, oil married onions and curry powder to top the sizzling chickpeas and cauliflower. The tomatoes and purple sweet potatoes rounded out the curry; I had added the latter, which was not part of the recipe I was following. When the curry was browned to perfection and the house was about to burst with beautiful bold odors, I turned the heat off and served dinner to my mom.

We lit a candle, set out placemats, and dished out helpings of the brown rice and chickpea curry.

“Delicious,” was all my mom could manage, through a mouthful of chickpea, cauliflower and rice.

Indeed, my second date with chickpeas was a great success. I conclude that there was definitely room for improvement, but considering my limited experience in the culinary arts, it was a pretty darned good dinner. The almost-fruity spice of the curry powder was to the chickpea what blush powder is to a beautiful woman; it highlighted the innocent and naïve nature of the chickpea, while also indicating the adventurous side of the bean. Coupled with a boiled artichoke, this meal made for a wholesome, diverse and wonderfully Mediterranean dish.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

40 Days of Chickpeas

The first time I remember consciously eating a chickpea, I was but a lass, with my family at my father’s Indian colleague’s home for dinner. In fact, it was a night of many firsts for me in digestive respects. It was the first time I can remember eating an ethnically diverse meal, departing from my family’s typical Irish meat-and-potatoes repertoire. It is one of the first meals that I remember distinctly; I can still imagine the bold smells, fiery tastes, and unlikely textures of the food. For these reasons, the chickpea holds a special place in my heart, though I only recently returned to the chickpea as a dietary staple as I became a short-term vegetarian for 40 days of lent.

The kabuli garbanzo bean is an adorable little bean, no bigger than my thumbnail, and no heavier than a paper clip, a close resemblance to what I imagine a little brain would look like. The charming crevices and crannies dug into the surface ensure that, like snowflakes, no garbanzo bean is identical to the next. This is a comforting draw of the chickpea.

Another draw of the garbanzo is its great nutritional content. The chickpea might just be one of the healthiest foods out there. From what I gathered while reading up on the chickpea, it is quite a strong source of, but not limited to, the following: protein, vitamin B, fiber-which lowers cholesterol, magnesium-which is good for the heart, iron, and manganese-an energy producer and antioxidant defender. To top it off, for those who have mental blocks against greens and other healthy stuff, the sweet and grainy taste of the chickpea does not give it away as a healthy food.

In my recent food investigation lifestyle kick, I have come to identify myself as an anti-industrialist foodie. What this means is that I avoid processed foods as much as possible, and do my best to eat natural foods that have been grown and/or raised ethically. In learning of the horrors of the national meat industry, I decided to become a vegetarian for a while, and used Lent as my excuse to do so.

I entered the 40 days of Lent with pure dread and anxiety. How would I survive, let alone enjoy life without chicken, cow, and pig in my diet? If that sounds like an exaggeration, well, it wasn’t. I actually became a vegetarian fearing for my life. Doesn’t most if not all of my nutritional value come from meat?

Well, chickpeas provided the answer to my dilemma. Filling, healthy, protein-packed, easy-going, and unassuming, they would provide the necessary substitute for animals in my diet. The only problem was my self-doubt and tendency to demean myself when it comes to cooking. Basically, I always thought of myself as a lousy cook. Proof: as of last year, I lacked the skill and knowledge necessary to successfully make a hard-boiled egg.

Luckily for me, it is pretty hard to screw up when cooking with chickpeas. They are so amiable a food, one would be hard-pressed to find a flavor that doesn’t go well with chickpea. I even imagine they would be a pleasant surprise as a dessert, dipped in melted chocolate or caramel… perhaps that shall be my next culinary endeavor.

Furthermore, garbanzo beans contain just enough flavor to be the main act in any dish, they are even tasty when eaten casually in the raw. They are nearly impossible to overcook. Margin for error: infinitesimal.

Stay tuned for tales of my excursion with the chickpea.