May 272013
Black Bean Tostadas with Crispy Kale, Avocado, Cotija, and Lime

Black Bean Tostadas with Crispy Kale, Avocado, Cotija, and Lime

Years ago, a friend came home from an educational trip to Cuba with a basic recipe for Cuban black beans. She made them for me once; I took note of the flavor profile, and they’ve been a staple in my kitchen ever since.  The method she brought back seasoned the beans with cumin, garlic, Cubanelle peppers, and of course, salt.  Cubanelles can be hard to find here in the States, but Anaheims are a decent substitute. I take some creative license and often incorporate– depending on the season– spicier peppers (usually jalapenos or serranos),  sauteed kale, mushrooms, or summer squash, but in this case I thought I’d deconstruct my additions a bit and see if I couldn’t come up with a dish featuring more-varied textures and colors.

Here, I serve this version of Cuban black beans over warm, oven-crisped corn tortillas, piled high with a salad of crispy kale, diced avocado, fresh lime, and finely crumbled Cotija cheese. (Cotija is a salty, crumbly white Mexican cheese. It’s worth seeking out, as no other cheese quite matches its earthy saltiness. Run it over the finest setting on a box grater, and you’ll get a fine crumble.)

Don’t be shy with the fresh lime juice– it brings everything alive.

And if you rank among the kale-fearful… try this! Tuscan kale is not only good for you– it has a wonderful umami-driven flavor once cooked.


IndieCulinary Cuban-Style Black Bean Tostadas with Crispy Kale, Cotija, Avocado, and Lime

Yield: 6 tostadas


    Crispy Kale
  • 1-2 heads Tuscan kale
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Cuban-Style Black Beans
  • 3 cups cooked black beans
  • 1/2 cup cooking liquid, or chicken stock, or-- if you're using canned beans-- don't drain them
  • 2 Anaheim (or Cubanelle) peppers, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt, to taste (The amount you'll want and need will vary based on whether you started with dried or canned beans, and what level of salt they have to start. Taste often and be generous-- beans need salt to pull out their flavor.)
  • For the Tostadas
  • 6 corn tortillas
  • Cuban-style Black Beans prepared as below
  • Crispy Kale prepared as below
  • 3 ounces crumbled Cotija cheese
  • 3 avocados
  • 3 limes


    Make the Crispy Kale
  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Wash kale; remove or cut off any large stems.
  3. Cut kale leaves crosswise into 2-inch ribbons.
  4. Toss kale ribbons with a few good drizzles of olive oil.
  5. Spread in a single layer on one or two cookie sheets, depending on how much kale you have-- don't stack it too much and give the ribbons some room to crisp.
  6. Leave in the oven approximately 20 minutes, or until crispy. Check on it and give the kale a toss when it's halfway through. Don't let it burn-- it will get bitter.
  7. Make the Beans
  8. Bring the beans, liquid, peppers, garlic, and cumin to a low simmer in a large saucepan. Salt to taste. The beans are ready once the peppers have softened.
  9. Assemble the Tostadas
  10. Lay the 6 corn tortillas on a cookie sheet without overlap; bake 10 minutes at 300 degrees F or until crisp.
  11. To plate, top each tortilla with about a half cup of Cuban-style black beans.
  12. Top the beans with a high stack of crispy kale.
  13. Top the kale with half a diced avocado, per tostada. Then add a few more pieces of crispy kale to the very top.
  14. Squeeze half a lime over each tostada. (Press and roll the limes hard with your palm before you cut them in half-- this will help to release the juice.)
  15. Sprinkle half an ounce of crumbled Cotija over each.
  16. Serve!

May 242013

Just in time for the start of summer, I give you– The Coco Tamarindo.

The Coco Tamarindo

The Coco Tamarindo

I developed this recipe for a Food52 contest, too– the theme was coconut. It didn’t make it into the finals over there, but it sure made its way into our hearts around the indieculinary household. It spawned a joke– “when marital projects collide.” My wife came home from work– intending an entire evening of more work– only to find that I was in the middle of a cocktail photo shoot on the deck. My project won.

My write-up from Food52, below:

The journey to my new favorite summer cocktail was circuitous but ultimately worthwhile. 

A couple of days ago, I had a different idea for a coconut-themed recipe. My original intention was to candy some citrus and aromatics typically found in Thai dishes, and then work them into a coconut macaroon. I prepared a rich simple syrup, dropped in my diced lime, ginger, green chiles, etc., and wandered off to do the laundry, daydreaming not only of the macaroons to come, but of the flavorful simple syrup I’d have once the candied items had been strained out. Bonus cocktails! 

Then I sniffed something unusual in the air and ran downstairs to discover the concoction had gotten away from me. It had become a rapidly boiling caramel. I pulled it off the heat, pivoted to, “I’ll make a brittle!,” mixed in some peanuts and coconut, and spread it on a silpat to harden. Once it was sufficiently cooled, I tried it out. First bite– “Yum, I think I’m on to something here.” Aftertaste– “Oh my word, that’s bitter.” So that didn’t work out. 

But this story is not about the failed macaroons, nor the bitter brittle. It’s about how I mourned, more than anything, the loss of that flavored simple syrup. The whole time it had been simmering on the stove, I’d been dreaming up new cocktail recipes for it, most of them featuring creamy coconut milk. And so rather than try again with the macaroons, I committed myself wholly to developing the sort of cocktail I’d gotten so excited about. 

So, simple syrup take two. Still in the mood for the not-going-to-happen-this-week macaroons, I wanted serious coconut flavor in this cocktail. I decided to not only use coconut milk for creaminess and flavor, but to see what I could do to infuse a simple syrup with coconut, too. So I toasted shredded coconut in a hot pan to help its flavors bloom and then added a 1:1 water to sugar ratio that I knew would be enough to dissolve the tamarind pulp. The resulting syrup was all I’d hoped for, with definite notes of toasted coconut mingling with the distinctive sweet-and-sour tamarind. 

Strained, combined with rum and coconut milk, shaken, poured, and garnished with a lime wedge, this drink was an immediate hit around the indieculinary household. Round 1 was consumed on the deck immediately following the cocktail photo shoot, round 2 was shaken up to accompany dinner, and round 3 was also enthusiastically poured before the remaining toasted coconut-tamarind syrup and coconut milk were wisely stored and transferred to the refrigerator to await another evening on the deck. 

This recipe makes enough syrup for 16 cocktails, best enjoyed outside, in celebration of summer.

IndieCulinary's "The Coco Tamarindo" – A Summer Cocktail


    Toasted Coconut and Tamarind Syrup (makes enough for 16 cocktails)
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 5 ounces tamarind pulp
  • The Coco Tamarindo (These measurements make one cocktail)
  • 2.5 ounces golden rum
  • 1 ounce toasted coconut tamarind syrup
  • 1 tablespoon coconut milk
  • 1 lime wedge, for garnish


    To make the Toasted Coconut and Tamarind Syrup
  1. Toast the coconut in a stainless steel pot until lightly golden. (Stir frequently; it will quickly burn if left unattended.)
  2. As soon as most of the coconut has toasted, add the water to stop the browning process.
  3. Add the sugar and tamarind pulp directly after the water, and stir.
  4. Keeping the syrup on a low simmer, stir frequently and break up the tamarind pulp with your spoon as it softens.
  5. Once the tamarind pulp has dissolved and you have a rich, deep golden brown, sweet-and-sour coconut-tamarind syrup at hand, strain into a bowl through a fine mesh strainer to remove all the coconut and remaining fine tamarind pulp and fibers.
  6. If you want to have your cocktails right away, (and let's be honest, you do), stick the bowl of syrup in the freezer for 15 minutes to chill a bit. And if you have enormous self control and you're making this syrup in advance, (admirable! and a great idea!), just cover it and stick it in the fridge.
  7. To make The Coco Tamarindo (one cocktail)
  8. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes.
  9. Measure and add the rum, toasted coconut tamarind syrup, and coconut milk.
  10. Shake, strain, and pour into a cocktail glass.
  11. Garnish with a wedge of lime.

May 182013
Balsamic Strawberry and Olive Oil Cake

Strawberry Balsamic and Olive Oil Breakfast Cake

Every so often I step out on this site and develop a recipe for instead. (There are contests! It’s fun!) But I’m thinking about my main site, this one, the whole time… really, I am. Don’t be like that.

Anyhow, I came up with this cake for Food52 last month. Now that the whole contest it was involved in is over, I figured I’d post it here too.  They took some gorgeous shots of the cake while they were testing it. (Check them out.) The recipe ended up being a “Community Pick” on the site. Read up on the genesis of the cake below, followed by the recipe.

And let it be said… if you are pro-breakfast, and pro-cake, then you must be pro-breakfast-cake! Spread the gospel.

From my Food52 submission:

Balsamic vinegar and strawberries are a classic pairing. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil are a classic vinaigrette. Surely, I thought to myself, all three must come to sweet-and-sour harmony in a cake. 

This recipe came together in my head as I thought about the theme of this contest. (Note: The theme of this particular Food52 contest was vinegar.) I knew I wanted to take the vinegar idea in a sweet direction. Vinegar caramels came to mind, and then I thought of a tartly sweet caramel sauce. That made me think of upside-down cakes, and all at once, the recipe came together. I decided to build on the usual technique for making an attractive upside-down cake: spiral your fruit or toppings at the bottom of the pan, pour over a caramel-based glaze prepped on the stovetop, pour your batter over that, bake, cool, and invert to oohs and ahhs. In order to make sure the flavor of the vinegar was heightened and emphasized, I wanted to include it in both the glaze and the cake. Olive oil cake seemed an inspired pairing with the balsamic vinegar, and so I adapted an olive oil cake recipe I’d worked on previously, swapping in balsamic vinegar for the rosewater I’d previously featured. To keep the aesthetic of the cake spring-like, as a match for the season and the strawberries, I used golden balsamic vinegar instead of its darker, thicker sibling. 

This cake comes together quickly. Dense and moist, with an intriguing tartness to offset the jam-like quality of the strawberries, it is rich with eggs and not too sweet. Oh go on, make it for breakfast.

P.S. A big shout-out to Foodaholicposts for trying out the cake, complete with a great photo of the strawberry top!

P.P.S. Another shout-out to If you’re looking for photos of the finished cake, they also did a fantastic job with the strawberry spiral. I think it’s even better than mine. 🙂

And, they also worked up a gluten-free version of the recipe. Check it out here:


Strawberry Balsamic and Olive Oil Breakfast Cake from indieculinary


    For the Golden balsamic vinegar glaze and strawberry spiral
  • 1 pound fresh strawberries
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup golden (or white) balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • For the Cake
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup golden (or white) balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cup cake flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cups olive oil


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Spray an 8-inch cake pan with olive oil spray. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper (this is an important step -- it will help your cake release from the pan after baking without disturbing the arrangement of your strawberries). Spray again with olive oil.
  3. Remove stems and slice strawberries vertically. Arrange them in a spiral, starting with the outside layer and overlapping slightly at the bottom of the cake pan.
  4. Combine the brown sugar, golden balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and honey in a stainless steel pan and whisk to emulsify. Bring to a boil and stir frequently until thickened enough that it drips more slowly from your stirring spoon. Remove from heat and pour carefully over the arranged strawberries.
  5. To make the cake batter, start by whisking together in one bowl the sugar, buttermilk, vinegar, and eggs.
  6. In another bowl, whisk together your dry ingredients: the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  7. Add your wet ingredients to your dry ingredients in three stages, stirring to incorporate each time. Add your olive oil in 3 stages, folding and stirring to incorporate each time.
  8. Slowly and carefully pour the batter over the strawberries. Don't pour too rapidly, or you'll displace your carefully-arranged spiral.
  9. Bake for approximately an hour. The cake is done when the top is golden and it has pulled away slightly from the edges of the pan.
  10. Cool for 10 minutes, and then run a knife between the cake and the pan to make sure it is completely loosened.
  11. Put a flat plate atop the pan, and then, using potholders to protect your hands, quickly flip the cake while holding the plate tightly to the pan.
  12. Slowly lift the pan, and the cake will be sitting, covered in parchment paper, on the plate. Peel off the parchment paper and be greeted by a beautiful spiral of sweet-tart fruit atop a golden cake.

Apr 082013


Buckwheat, Flaxseed and Chia Seed Flapjacks, Topped with Berries and Cream

Buckwheat, Flaxseed and Chia Seed Blueberry Flapjacks, Topped with Fresh Berries and Cream

I love a good pancake/flapjack for Sunday morning breakfast as much as the next girl, but unless I want to lose a whole weekend day to lethargy, napping, and regret, I tend to avoid them. Simple carbs soaked in maple syrup are no way to start a productive day.

Yesterday, I was at the Westside Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market and discovered that the strawberry crop has arrived! I bought 3 baskets of local, organic, peak-of-red-ripeness strawberries and happily carted them home. I then became fixated on the idea of serving them over pancakes with whipped cream for Sunday morning breakfast. I knew the time had come to build a better flapjack.

First, I thought of buckwheat. Buckwheat actually bears no relation to typical wheat– rather, it’s a seed, so buckwheat flour is the result of milling the seeds. (And it’s gluten free, for those of you who are on that path by necessity or choice.) It’s a traditional choice for pancakes in many cultures.

Since buckwheat doesn’t form gluten strands, it doesn’t create as much structure as wheat would– but I knew I wanted a hearty pancake. So to not only  build structure and increase binding, but also to improve the nutritional profile, I decided to incorporate ground flaxseed and whole chia seeds into the formula. These little seeds are full of Omega 3s, fiber, and protein.  (As a note of interest– chia seeds, when they touch liquid, actually expand and create a gel. This makes them an excellent binder in baked goods.) I made sure to include some baking powder, in concert with buttermilk, to give the flapjacks some rise. (Baking powder reacts with acid and heat to leaven a baked good.) An egg (for further binding) and a little honey and salt (for taste) rounded out the recipe.

I’m pleased to announce that they turned out beautifully, and were delicious served with some fresh berries and lightly-sweetened whipped cream. Even better- no need for a nap afterwards. This breakfast provided great energy for the day ahead.

The Better Flapjack, Plated

The Better Flapjack, Plated


It would be easy to change the flavor profile as your cravings and the seasons change. I couldn’t resist taking advantage of strawberry season today, but catch me in December, and I’m thinking I’ll swap out the blueberries and swap in some finely diced nuts and some ground ginger, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon, and top them with some caramelized apples. Hmmnnn… perhaps that idea need not wait for December. Or hey– roasted, mashed pumpkin with the spices mentioned above. Or glazed peaches with brandy, butter, and pecans.

I think we have our go-to flapjack.


Better-for-You Buttermilk Berry Flapjacks - from

Yield: 4 large flapjacks

Serving Size: 1 flapjack


  • 1 Cup buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 Cup ground flaxseed meal
  • 1/4 Cup chia seeds, whole
  • 1 Teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 Teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 Cups buttermilk
  • 3 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons honey
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Cup wild blueberries, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw)


  1. Melt your butter and set aside to cool a little.
  2. Scale and mix your dry ingredients, (buckwheat flour, flaxseed meal, chia seeds, baking powder, salt), together in a bowl.
  3. Combine your wet ingredients, (buttermilk, honey, and egg) in another bowl and whisk together.
  4. Stir your wet ingredients into your dry ingredients.
  5. Stir your butter into the batter.
  6. Fold in the blueberries.
  7. Heat a large nonstick pan or skillet and melt equal parts butter and seed oil, (such as sunflower or peanut), enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.
  8. Use a large spoon or ladle to drop enough batter at a time to make 8-inch round flapjacks, pressing on top of the batter with the spoon to flatten it out so it's no more than 1/2 inch thick.
  9. Once flapjacks are lightly browned on the bottom, flip them. (Do not overcook-- lightly browned is as far as you want to go.)
  10. Once the other side is lightly browned too, remove from heat.
  11. Serve garnished with fresh berries and lightly-sweetened whipped cream.


Mar 252013


Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders, Honey-Butter Glazed Vegetables, Goat Cheese Polenta

Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders, Honey-Butter Glazed Vegetables, Goat Cheese Polenta

Turning out a crunchy and delicious fried chicken tender is easier than popular mythology would have you believe. The chicken tender is a small, oblong piece of white meat connected to each breast, which is usually separated during the butchering process– almost like a breast in miniature. These 4-6 inch long, thin, boneless pieces will fry up quickly in the pan, and you’ll get a favorable ratio of crispy batter to meat, if you’re into that sort of thing– and who isn’t?

Here’s what you do: marinate 12 chicken tenders in a mixture of buttermilk and your favorite hot sauce, (I like Frank’s Red Hot for this purpose.)  Let the chicken marinate in the fridge overnight if you have a chance.

When it’s time to fry the chicken, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of flour, and 1 teaspoon each freshly ground black pepper, ground paprika, and ground garlic.  Whisk the spices into your flour. Then, after letting the excess buttermilk drip off each chicken tender, dredge it in the flour and set aside.

Line a cookie sheet with paper towels and set it near your stove. Select a large frying pan. (Cast iron is a great choice– some people say the only choice— for fried chicken.) Add oil to a quarter inch deep. Heat the oil until it shimmers. Fry your chicken tenders, a few at a time, flipping once after a golden crust has formed on the bottom, and moving them to the paper-towel lined cookie sheet as soon as they’re a deep gold on each side. Salt them immediately, while they’re still very hot, and then fry up the next batch. Don’t stack them– they’ll get soggy. (A note about frying– don’t overcrowd your pan. Too much food added to the pan at once will drop the temperature of the oil and affect your ability to achieve a quick and crispy crust. Overcrowded food may also steam, further thwarting your attempts at crispiness.)

Obviously fried chicken pairs deliciously with all sorts of things, but it’s Spring, and there are some lovely carrots and radishes at the Farmer’s Market, so what do you say we roast and glaze them, and serve the whole lot over polenta?

Let’s turn back time a bit and get your vegetables roasted before you fry the chicken. Gather 6 large, 10 medium, or a couple dozen small carrots, and a couple of hearty bunches of good-sized radishes. Go outside the radish box and choose a different type than usual. In Spring, Farmer’s Markets are full of French Breakfast radishes, for instance (as shown in the photo at the top of this post.) Radishes mellow considerably and lose their sharpness in the oven.

Always peel your carrots, no matter what you’re planning to do with them, (even if they’re just going into mirepoix for stock.) Carrot peels are bitter. Cut your peeled carrots so the size of each piece roughly matches the size of your radishes. A few diagonal cross-cuts should achieve that, and look attractive to boot.

Toss your carrots and radishes with olive oil and kosher or sea salt and distribute in a roasting pan. If you add flavorful aromatics and peppers to the roasting pan, (with carrots, I particularly like to use whole peeled garlic cloves and stemmed and vertically-halved jalapenos), their flavors will be infused into the olive oil, and that flavored oil will in turn coat the vegetables. Then you can either serve these roasted flavor-enhancers with the vegetables, or pull them out before plating if you’re going for a more subtle effect. (Note: the roasted garlic at minimum is always a huge hit at my table.) Stick the pan in the oven at 350 or so and roast until tender.

While the vegetables are roasting, make your polenta. The ratio for making polenta on the stovetop is 1 part dried ground polenta to 4 parts liquid. For this dish, since I had a cup of buttermilk leftover from earlier, I decided to include it for a little extra tang. So 1 cup polenta to 1 cup buttermilk + 3 cups water + a few shakes of salt, and away we went. I kept it at a simmer, stirring frequently, until the polenta was cooked. Towards the end, I stirred in a quarter stick of butter and about 4 ounces of goat cheese, to further kick up the tangy flavor profile I’d started with the buttermilk. Once that was incorporated, I left it alone on very low heat and just stirred once in a while to keep a skin from forming on the top. (Handy tip- if you’re working with dairy or an acid, don’t use an aluminum pot. The pot will react with your ingredients, and your food will turn an unappetizing gray. Stainless steel is a safer bet.)

Now, to glaze your vegetables. Let’s turn back time to before you fried your chicken, again. You pulled half a stick of butter out of the fridge and let it soften. In that case, making honey butter is this easy: Take your softened butter and whip it together with honey, (say, 1 teaspoon, although you can adjust to your tastes.) Fold in half a teaspoon of your favorite finishing salt, (I like crunchy Maldon), and you have a luxurious glaze at the ready.

To plate: mound a serving of the soft polenta in the middle of the dish. Carefully pile a serving of roasted vegetables atop the polenta. Let a generous spoonful of the honey butter melt over the roasted vegetables; it will create a luscious glaze which drips down to flavor the polenta as well. Place three of the buttermilk fried chicken tenders atop the honey butter-glazed vegetables and goat cheese polenta, and serve.

Mar 112013

The next time you bite into some quintessentially American food– peach pie, mac ‘n cheese, a fried artichoke heart– you probably have Thomas Jefferson to thank.

I’d had an inkling that he was responsible for bringing a lot of culinary concepts back over from France, (and thanks to a visit to Monticello, I’d known he was an avid gardener), but I didn’t know the depth of it until I was assigned a paper on the topic in “American Regional Cuisine.”

Jefferson’s contributions span not only the introduction to the United States of foods and techniques popular in Europe, (particularly France, where he spent some years as a diplomat), but also the introduction of an incredible variety of non-native fruits and vegetables to the Colonial U.S.

An avid gardener and horticulturalist, Jefferson carefully designed the landscape of Monticello, his Virginia estate, to include a series of gardens, orchards, and vineyards. His plantings provided not only beauty, but also an enjoyable outdoor laboratory for his horticultural experimentation. Plus, he was proud to grow an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables– previously unseen in the New World– for his kitchens.

Jefferson’s “kitchen garden,” as he termed it, was located on the Southeastern slope of Monticello; below the mountaintop house. His meticulous records, (which he kept for all of his endeavors), show that he grew peas, broad beans, scarlet runner beans, broccoli, cauliflower, endive, eggplant, radishes, cucumbers, various lettuces, cabbages, okra, tomatoes, beets, carrots, squash, asparagus, artichokes, and sea kale.  His orchards featured peaches, cherries, plums, apples, apricots, figs, pears, and almonds.  In “berry beds” he grew early strawberries, as well as currants, gooseberries, and raspberries.  Even edible nasturtium flowers were grown for his table– which is to say, for livening up the plates, rather than the vases– of his guests.  His vineyards were planted with French grape varietals (a different species than the grapes native to North America, though he grew those as well), and were the progenitor of winemaking in America.

Jefferson also generously distributed these non-native seeds and cuttings from his gardens and orchards to neighbors and friends. As a result, many of the old-world varietals he brought back for his own estate also took root beyond it.

Jefferson’s contributions to American cuisine, largely brought back with him from France, include ice cream, french fries, macaroni, (though the term macaroni as they used it was closer to our catch-all term for “pasta”), wine, waffles, mustard, meringues, many types of cookies and desserts, several of the fruit and vegetable varieties mentioned above, and more.

It’s a fun exercise to reflect on his gardens and kitchens, now, at the beginning of spring, as we plan our own gardens for the coming warm months. Complicated though his legacy may be– you can’t deny his brilliant palate.


Feb 102013

The Mexican dish “Fideo” first came to my attention several years ago, when my grandmother spoke of it while reminiscing about the dishes her mother used to make for her as a child. I’d never had it, but recently my grandma reported that she’d tried making it for herself and her youngest grandchild, and that it had been a hit with both of them. I filed it away in the “things to cook one of these days” section of my brain. (It’s right behind the amygdala.)




I’m not sure what brought fideo back to the forefront of my consciousness this month, but suddenly I was obsessed with preparing this dish I’d never even tried.

I quickly read through a few traditional recipes and saw how basic their flavor profiles were. (Broken-up dried noodles, (“fideo” means “noodles” in Spanish) toasted in oil, and then cooked in tomato, onion, and Mexican chicken bouillon, were the mainstay ingredients and methods, with ground beef being a common addition.) I had almost everything I needed– or wanted to substitute, such as chicken stock for the bouillon– on hand.

As I stood at the stove toasting the noodles, I thought of how the pilaf method (more on that in another of my posts) must have come to Mexico with the Spanish, on whose cuisine the Arab peninsula (original home of pilau) had an enormous influence, since the Moors had occupied Spain and brought their cuisine with them. The pilaf method (in which you toast your grain in fat– usually oil– before you introduce liquid) is big in Mexican cuisine; it’s the first step in creation of the ubiquitous “Spanish rice.”

Wanting a lighter, more vegetable-oriented dish than the traditional introduction of ground beef would allow, I decided to pull a bit more from the Arabian Peninsula-by-way-of-Spain pantry instead and swap chickpeas and olives for the meat. I added cumin, (now also a popular spice, “camino,” in Mexican cuisine), to the spice profile, and because I’m on a Tuscan Kale kick, (and because it’s in season here in coastal California for great swaths of the year), I added that, too.

Topped with shredded jack cheese, the dish is warm and creamy and comforting. (Even the toasted noodles seem creamy; even risotto-like.) It’s the perfect choice, (did I mention one-pan and easy?) for a cold night after a long day at the office, as winter transitions to spring.

Fideo - from


  • One box dried angel hair pasta
  • 32 ounces crushed tomatoes in juice
  • 8 ounces chicken stock or broth
  • 1 white or yellow onion, diced
  • 2 jalapenos, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 3 cups cooked chickpeas
  • 1 cup large, pitted black California olives
  • 2 heads Tuscan (dino) kale
  • 8 ounces jack cheese, shredded
  • A few good glugs of olive oil
  • Salt, to taste


  1. Cover the bottom of a large stainless-steel pan with a few good glugs of olive oil; bring to medium heat.
  2. Once the oil is hot, break your dried pasta into thirds and drop it into the oil.
  3. Stir the pasta frequently as it begins to brown.
  4. Once lightly browned, push to the side of the pan and add diced onions and jalapeno to the vacant side.
  5. Stir each side frequently; once the onions and peppers are softened, incorporate with the pasta and continue stirring frequently as the pasta becomes a toasty brown. Add the cumin and oregano and stir to incorporate.
  6. Once the pasta and aromatics are browned, add the crushed tomatoes with juice, the minced garlic, and the chicken stock. Stir to make sure the pasta is submerged.
  7. Leaving that to simmer, remove any large middle ribs from the bottoms of your Tuscan kale leaves; then cut the leaves into inch-wide horizontal strips.
  8. Stir the kale, chickpeas, and olives into the simmering pasta dish.
  9. Taste, and add salt; as much as necessary. (Amount can vary based on the saltiness of your other components. Be sure to taste, rather than guess.)
  10. Once the pasta is tender and the kale wilted, the dish is ready. Serve in bowls with generous helpings of shredded jack cheese on top.


Jan 272013
The simple heart of a vinaigrette- acid and oil

If you’ve been suffering the unbalanced flavors of most store-bought vinaigrette– frequently too sweet, with suspicious ingredient lists, a viscous mouth feel, and way too heavy a hand with the celery seed, (I’m looking at you, red wine vinaigrette from a certain quirky alt-grocery chain), keep reading.

The simple heart of a vinaigrette- acid and oil

The simple heart of a vinaigrette- acid and oil

A vinaigrette is incredibly easy to make, and is based on a simple ratio of acid to oil that you can memorize. (Yes, that’s right– you’ll be able to whip up a vinaigrette any time and anywhere. No salad will go undressed in your presence.) And once you have the basics down, you can customize your signature vinaigrette to your own palate, and/or whip up new ones all the time, based on what you have on hand.

Making a custom vinaigrette to dress a salad or roasted vegetables, or serve as a marinade, is just this easy:

The basics:

  • A bowl
  • A whisk
  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar or citrus juice

If you are lazy:

  • A blender instead of the bowl and whisk

If you want it to hold together for more than a minute:

  • An emulsifier (dijon mustard, honey, or egg yolk)

Kick up the flavor a little more:

  • Salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper

Go classic:

  • Minced shallot

Customize it:

  • Maple syrup or honey
  • Fresh or roasted garlic
  • Fresh or roasted tomato
  • Minced fresh herbs
  • Minced olives
  • Soy sauce
  • Fresh ginger
  • A different oil (sesame, walnut, hazelnut… the list goes on and on)
  • A different vinegar (a nice Balsamic is always a solid choice; white wine and red wine vinegars are classic; apple cider vinegar is popular for a reason, and champagne and fruit-based vinegars can add a milder, sweeter tang…)
  • A different citrus juice (lemon and lime are tart enough to stand alone; orange and the like may need a boost from a tarter citrus or a complementary vinegar to produce a sufficiently tangy vinaigrette)

The ratio for  a basic vinaigrette is 1 part acid to 3 parts oil. Use a good quality olive oil, (you don’t have to go crazy; just something you like the flavor of), and a vinegar or citrus juice that tastes good to you, and you’re 90% of the way there.

If you want your vinaigrette to hold together, you need to emulsify it, which is to say that you need to get tiny droplets of your oil and acid to stay together, rather than separating as quickly as possible, as is their custom. Dijon mustard, (or really, any mustard– mustard seeds have a coating that contains a compound that helps oil and liquid bond together), honey, and egg yolk all function as emulsifiers, so any of these are commonly whisked into a vinaigrette. (I have a perhaps not-unreasonable fear of salmonella, so I avoid using egg yolk in my own vinaigrette.)

It’s conventional to season your vinaigrette with a bit of salt and pepper. As you saw in the list above, any number of aromatics, herbs, and other flavorful ingredients can be easily added to take your vinaigrette to another level. (And don’t feel bad about pulling out the blender if you’re using additions whose flavor will be more evenly dispersed if pureed, like tomatoes, olives, garlic, or fresh herbs. Really, don’t feel bad about pulling out the blender at all. I’m just attached to my whisk.)

Fail-Safe Vinaigrette, for two


  • 3 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon good vinegar or citrus juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey or maple syrup, if using a tart vinegar or citrus juice

Cooking Directions

  1. Grab a mixing bowl and a whisk.
  2. Pour your vinegar or citrus juice into the bowl.
  3. Add the mustard.
  4. Add the honey or maple syrup, if using.
  5. Add the salt and pepper.
  6. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in your olive oil.
  7. Your emulsified vinaigrette will appear before your eyes!
  8. Toss it with a salad or some roasted vegetables, or use it as a marinade.

Next time, for extra credit, try any of the variations I discussed in this post. Experiment with different oils and acids, add some minced aromatics (like shallots or garlic or ginger) or herbs, sub a little soy sauce for the salt, try a bit of a different sweetener. But really– even just this basic, fail-safe recipe will do, as long as you use a good olive oil and a tasty acid. Happy dressing!

Jan 132013
Close-up: Good Luck Gumbo

Close-up: Good Luck Gumbo


A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the house, preparing a grocery list and plotting some upcoming meals, including for New Year’s Day. I asked my wife what she wanted for New Year’s dinner, and she said, “Black-Eyed Peas, and Greens, of course!” Now she’s from the North and I’m from the West, but an aunt from the South has gotten us firmly entrenched in this New Year’s Day tradition. Those dishes are meant to be good luck, and to foretell a prosperous year, (the greens represent paper money; the black-eyed peas represent safety from hunger, dating back to their role as a staple food during the Civil War.)

I was willing to roll with it, but I wasn’t super excited. Until I thought of gumbo.  And then I thought, “Why not add the greens and the black-eyed peas to the gumbo? And call it ‘Good Luck Gumbo’?” Then I Googled it to make sure no one else has had that idea, and it turns out everyone and their monkey is doing this.  But — I came by the idea without undue influence, so I think I’ll just plunge ahead with my version and add it to the chorus of Good Luck Gumbos out there.

Gumbo with Black-Eyed Peas and Greens, Served Over Rice

Gumbo with Black-Eyed Peas and Greens, Served Over Rice

Let’s talk a little bit about gumbo and its history. Gumbo is a flavorful, braised, thickened stew that’s served over rice. It’s a Cajun dish, and showcases many of the hallmarks of that cuisine– besides being braised, it uses a roux, it’s boldly flavored, it frequently includes a sausage that encases odds and ends of meat cuts, and you use the aromatic “holy trinity” of that cuisine– onions, green peppers, and celery– to kick off your flavorings. Cajun cuisine shows strong influences from French culinary tradition, which makes sense, given the strong French influence in Louisiana. The cuisine often utilizes a roux, (cooked flour and fat, used for thickening), borrowed from French culinary tradition as the base for sauces, and Cajun chefs generally prefer a darker roux.  Since butter burns more readily than oil, it makes sense to use oil in your gumbo roux, which you want to be dark (or “chocolate”– more on that below.) Cajun cuisine, having developed among the poorer residents of early Louisiana, often extended dishes with rice– hence the habit of serving gumbo over that grain– and in an attempt to use all parts of the animal, often uses a variety of sausages (Andouille, a pork sausage popular in the region, makes an appearance in many traditional gumbos.)  And to wrap up the French connection, that “holy trinity” of three diced vegetables is a descendant of the French mirepoix, (which is onion, celery, and carrot.)

Good Luck Gumbo, Plated and Ready to Eat

Good Luck Gumbo, Plated and Ready to Eat


Let’s concentrate on roux for a moment. Roux is a combination of cooked flour and fat. The starches in the flour will react with the subsequent application of liquid to thicken that liquid, giving you a thick gravy, sauce, or stew (depending on quantity of liquid, and your ultimate aim.) Cooking the flour in fat first removes its “starchy” taste, (which you’ve likely encountered in an ill-conceived homemade gravy), so starting with a roux is a much safer path to tastiness than adding a slurry (starch mixed with cold liquid) later.

As you cook your roux, it will proceed through different stages, common ones being– from light with shorter cooking time to dark with longer cooking time–  “blond,” “peanut,” and “chocolate.” The darker your roux, the more intense and complex the flavor of your eventual sauce. But on the flip side, the lighter your roux, the greater its thickening power.

Know Your Roux

Know Your Roux

To make your roux, add your flour and fat to the pan, keep the heat manageable, (it can burn and stick if your heat is too high– medium heat is fine), and stir frequently until you reach the color you want. For gumbo, you want a chocolate roux. This will take some time and a lot of stirring, but it’s worth it. Concentrate closely on the state of your roux as you approach a chocolate color.  It will smell nutty, then toasty, and just when it is on the very edge of smoky, add your liquid. You now have the base for a deep and complex stew, you roux-master, you. Now get out there and make some gumbo.

Good Luck Gumbo


  • 2 cups dried black-eyed peas
  • 1 head greens, such as Collard
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 3 individual stalks celery, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 andouille sausages
  • 8 cups chicken stock or broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • to taste, salt
  • to taste, black pepper
  • more olive oil, for frying the sausage and vegetables
  • 3 teaspoons filé powder
  • 1 bunch scallions, diced for garnish

Cooking Directions

  1. Soak your black-eyed peas overnight.
  2. Wash your greens; remove any thick stems or ribs. Cut the leaves into narrow strips. Pre-cook in salted water until nearly tender; set aside.
  3. Slice your andouille sausages to between 1/4-1/2 inch a slice, on the bias.
  4. Pull out a nice big cast iron dutch oven, heat some olive oil, and fry up your sliced andouille until lightly browned. Pull out the browned sausage and set aside for later.
  5. Put your diced trinity veggies (green peppers, onion, celery) into the hot oil and cook until soft.
  6. Add the minced garlic, spices, salt and pepper and cook briefly while stirring to bloom the spices. Pull out your vegetable/spice mixture and set aside for later.
  7. Add your measured 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup olive oil into the hot dutch oven. Stir frequently and carefully until you achieve a chocolate roux. This will take some minutes and patience, so turn on some music first.
  8. As soon as your roux has reached the chocolate stage, add the chicken stock or broth, pour the vegetable/spice mixture back in, add your pre-soaked black-eyed peas, and leave to simmer.
  9. Once your black-eyed peas are tender, you can serve any time. Shortly before you're ready to serve, turn off the heat.
  10. Once the gumbo is no longer bubbling, stir the browned sausage back in, add the cooked greens (and a little of their vitamin-packed cooking liquid), and stir in the filé powder. (Don't ever add filé powder to a bubbling stew; if it gets too hot it will get stringy instead of thickening the stew properly.)
  11. Taste; add more salt if necessary.
  12. Serve over cooked long-grained white rice.

Dec 222012

I grew up in California, one side of my family is Mexican, and let me be the first to tell you that it simply is not Christmas without tamales.

The Sumptious Interior of a Beef  in Red Mole Tamale

The Sumptuous Interior of a Beef in Red Mole Tamale


Some people will tell you that the proper Christmas tamale is sweet; the masa infused with cinnamon and raisins, or for the even more wayward, pineapple or strawberry. These people are wrong.

The tamale you really want, this time of year, is one of savory meat in a spice-inflected red chile sauce, encased in flavorful, airy masa (treated ground cornmeal mixed with liquid and fat– more on that below), and wrapped and steamed in a corn husk.

Another acceptable variation, (although to some members of my family, this is blasphemy), is the cheese-and-jalapeno filled.  Gooey, melting white cheese (Monterey jack is fine) and jalapenos en escabeche, (pickled jalapenos, with carrots and onions– like these) are an inspired filling.

Now that we have our basic description of the proper tamale out of the way, I have a confession. I’ve never made the masa from scratch. Some years ago, when cousins and uncles and I revived the tamale-making tradition, (which had otherwise taken a 15-year or so hiatus in our particular branch of the family, which spent the nineties and early aughts relying on the kindness of strangers, (or at least their willingness to sell us a few dozen) and the occasional benevolence of a distant relative), we discovered that prepared tamale masa could be purchased from Mexican markets and bakeries. This purchase can cut hours from tamale production time, (which already takes the better part of a day.) Reader, we purchased it. We have not looked back.

That isn’t to say that purchased masa should be used as-is! There are a number of– let’s call them “masa hacks”– that will render your purchased masa just as good as homemade.

Masa hacks:

1. Try to purchase your masa from a place that makes their own tamales.

2. The smaller the store or bakery, the better. We’ve had some incidents with poorly-mixed masa from giant Mexican supermarkets who are mixing thousands of pounds of it in bulk, in the back. Someone wasn’t checking the bottom of the industrial mixer.

3. Typically, purchased prepared masa needs a little help in the form of added broth, fat, and/or air. The air is added by kneading it. The broth and fat are saved from your tamale meat’s cooking liquid. Sometimes purchased masa feels dry or grainy. In that case, add broth and knead. You test it by pinching off and rolling a little ball, and dropping it into a glass of ice water. You want it to float, (ideally suspended about halfway up the glass.) If it sinks, you need to add more of the liquid fat from the cooked meat, or incorporate more air. Keep repeating these steps until your masa floats.

4. Beyond texture and airiness, if you’re looking for more flavor, both the broth and fat incorporation described above should help, and you can also add a little of your prepared red mole.

The meat:

Beef or pork? Pork is more traditional, so I say go full puerco. But if you have die-hard beef fans in the family, and/or the friends with whom you are sharing the tamale-making experience this year have just purchased 1/4 of a grass-fed cow from a humane rancher near Petaluma, (as was the case for us), then beef it is.

There’s no need to waste your hard-earned cash on expensive cuts at tamale time. You want cuts that will take well to slow-cooking; their fat and collagen breaking down gradually to produce tender and sumptuous meat. If you’re using pork, think country ribs or shoulder. (Bone-in will have more flavor and also will release umami-overloaded marrow into the meat– just be sure to buy heavier cuts to make up for the eventual removal of the bones.) If you’re using beef, a couple of nice big chuck roasts will do nicely. The rule of thumb is a pound of meat to a pound of masa. You’re going to want dozens of tamales, so get at least 15 pounds of meat. Get 20 or 25 if you have a big crew to help with assembly.

So now that you have your meat, preparation is this easy: Fill a large stock pot halfway with water. Peel and quarter a couple of onions; drop them in.  Peel and smash several cloves of garlic; drop them in. Add a few dried bay leaves. Salt that water like you mean it, add the meat, (don’t bother trimming it– you can remove any fat that doesn’t break down later, when you’re shredding it), and bring it to a low simmer. (Do not boil. Never boil. Boiling is the last thing on earth you want to do to meat. It will make it tough and stringy.) Then walk away. Check on it once in a while to make sure it hasn’t crept above a simmer (tiny bubbles– not big, not rolling); lower the heat if it has. In a few hours, you’ll have tender and flavorful meat. Reserve your broth and the liquid fat floating atop it for later. As soon as the meat is cool enough, shred it, removing the bones and any chunks of fat that haven’t broken down. Remember that each shred of meat you expose will soon be coated in tasty red mole, so don’t leave giant chunks of meat unless you have something against red mole. And if you do, you shouldn’t even be making these. Go eat some gingerbread and call it a day.

The mole:

And now, you make your red mole. It’s really very similar to the mole traditionally used for chile colorado, (which I’ve written about previously), so I’m just going to give you that recipe again, with the minor modifications that make it scream “Christmas.”

Red Mole, for Tamales


  • 12 dried California chiles
  • 12 dried New Mexico chiles
  • 12 dried chiles de arbol
  • 12 dried Guajillo chiles
  • 8 cloves of fresh garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1 stick cinnamon (try to get real cinnamon, as opposed to cassia*.)
  • 4 cups pork or beef broth*
  • To taste, salt (be generous*)

Cooking Directions

  1. Remove stems and shake off seeds from dried chiles. (If necessary, wash and thoroughly pat dry first.) (Note: other varietals of dried chiles may be substituted as per your preference and spice tolerance. Visit my Chile Colorado post for more information on your various dried chile options, and their flavor profiles and spice levels.)
  2. Toast the chiles until color deepens, but stop short of charring them. They will toast quickly in a hot pan. (Or just stick them in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes-- it's easier and there's less chance of burning them. They'll smell incredible when you pull them out. Do not allow people to eat them at this juncture, though they may ask.)
  3. Meanwhile, have a couple of quarts of water ready at a boil.
  4. Carefully pour the water over the chiles, place something on top of them to keep them submerged, and leave them for 20-30 minutes.
  5. Place the softened chiles in a blender with at least 4 cups of the broth produced by the cooked meat, plus the garlic, salt and spices. Blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust salt and other seasonings as necessary.
  6. Pass the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer to capture any remaining bits of tough skin or seeds. This process can take a while; press the sauce against the strainer with a spatula or other implement to hasten the process.
  7. *Cassia is commonly sold as cinnamon in the US. You can tell the difference by looking at the stick-- is it tightly coiled with many papery layers? Then it's real cinnamon. Is it more loosely coiled, with one thick layer that just looks like a pinched letter "C?" That's cassia. You'll have a better chance of finding real cinnamon at a Mexican supermarket.)
  8. * Use the broth derived from the meat you've cooked for the tamales.
  9. * Use more salt than you think you'll need, Taste after the first good whirl of all the ingredients in the blender, and add more salt as needed; it really brings the rest of the flavors alive. And since the salt-- or at least its flavor-- seems to be lost more rapidly in steaming than some of the other flavors, you should really ere on the side of "seems too salty" at this point. Your tamales will be perfect by the time they're done steaming.


Beef tamale, fork-ready

Beef tamale, fork-ready


Now that your red mole is ready, pour it over your shredded pork or beef, and mix to combine the two thoroughly. Give your new meat-and-mole mixture a taste. It’s not too late to add more salt if you think it needs it.

Do not, under any circumstances, allow your tamale crew to make tacos out of the filling at this point. They will plead, and cajole. Stay strong.

Okay, on to…

The assembly:

The night before, you left dozens of corn husks submerged and soaking in water. Now they’re pliant and ready to be filled.

Place the corn husk in your hand, with the narrow, pointy side towards you. Starting about 4 inches up the husk from the narrow point, spread the masa thinly, from one side of the husk to the other, leaving about a 1 inch gap of uncovered husk at the wide top.

Now add filling vertically up the middle of the tamale. Don’t spread your filling to the sides like you did with the masa. Just a nice, vertical line of spicy red meat.

Add a single black, California olive. This is my family’s signature move. You won’t regret it.

Now gather the left and right ends of your husk and press together so that the masa thoroughly encases the meat, and press the masa together to form a seal. Fold your husk left or right, and bring up the bottom few inches that you left uncovered previously. You’ll have a perfectly folded tamale.

Once you have a couple dozen ready, fire up a big stockpot with a steamer insert, with enough water to steam the tamales but not to actually touch them. Place your tamales in vertically, and steam them until the masa is firm. This can take up to four hours. (Check your water levels frequently and replenish as necessary, or risk a scorched black pot.)  Lucky, you’ll be wrapping up the other several dozen in the interim. Keep steaming in batches until they’re all done! (You can also freeze unsteamed tamales, for steaming at a later date… just allow six hours instead of four for that endeavor.)

Finally, pile your steamed tamales on a plate, gather everyone around, and open your fragrant packets of deliciousness. Everyone’s eyes will sparkle with holiday cheer, (although that may just be as the result of the wine and cocktails consumed during tamale assembly), but still– it will be festive. Merry Christmas!