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In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, I am stealing the link off of a friend to this fun Texas Monthly recipe blog.  Thanks, Anna!

http://www.texasmonthly.com: Sweet Texas Heat. Photograph by Adam Voorhes

There is some debate as to how “authentic” Cinco de Mayo is.  Truth be known, it is much more celebrated in the US than in the homeland (much like St. Patty’s Day).  However, the Battle of Puebla was real, the victory over the French was real, and I don’t see a reason to boycott it just because Chicanos & Friends generally have a little more fun with it than folks actually residing in Mexico.  As a Chicana, I am happy to link over to this fun jalapeño-infused tequila drink recipe for today’s celebration!  There are also a number of Margarita recipes if you’re not feeling that frisky.  Click here to access the Texas Monthly recipe blog.

Viva La Raza!

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This may not be an authentic Eye-talian recipe, and it may not be the most exciting or original food ever, but when you are looking for a fast, easy, minimalist, yet filling and delicious dish to throw together, this is a good one to have on hand.  And it is really, really good.  Like whoa.  I have to say, this meal is definitely staying on my short list for visiting family and friends.

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 20-25 minutes.

Servings: 2.  Or one, if you’re me.

one fileted chicken breast, chopped into smaller pieces.

5 “nests” of spinach fettuccine

approx. 5-6 Tbsp fresh cream

about 3-4 pinches of shredded emmental cheese

2-3 dollops of creme fraiche

about 3-4 Tbsp grated parmesan

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

This is your basic pasta recipe… nothing too shocking.  While you set the water to boil in a pot, rub some olive oil, salt and a small dash of pepper on the chicken and set to bake until it is white through and through.  For me, this is in my toaster oven for 15 min (I’m not sure what temperature it is).  Of course, you can also pan fry it, but baking is healthier and it also keeps a nice moist texture to the chicken.

Add a little bit of salt and a bit of oil when the water comes to a boil, before adding the pasta.

When the pasta has boiled, strain and place back in pot.  Over low heat, stir in about a Tbsp of oil, and the cream, creme fraiche, and the emmental and parmesan.  When this has reached a nice smooth consistency, give it a taste and add salt as needed.  Toss in the cooked chicken pieces (they should be done by now) and stir those in.  When everything is nicely coated with the creamy cheese sauce, transfer to plate, and top with a sprinkle of grated parmesan and freshly cracked black pepper.  Serve with toasted bread and a nice glass of chilled white wine for a nice, relaxing meal.

Looking into the eye of the tiger

A recent study seems to point to the possibility that chocolate, while believed to temporarily lift mood, can actually act as a depressant over the longer run.  Of course, the results seem inconclusive and maybe even a little bit contradictory, but still interesting.

I’m sure the researchers accounted for this, but I actually wonder how much is the cocoa and how much is the additives and sugar.  You may have heard that the flavonoids in chocolate, that have antioxidant effects, are richer in dark chocolate and therefore dark chocolate is actually good for you.  The Mayans consumed cocoa as a bitter drink used in special rituals and spiced it with chilies, nothing like the sweet treat that the Europeans later developed.  So “chocolate” really does seem to be a subjective term reflecting a mixture of cocoa and other ingredients.  (Of course, I’m not a scientist, so who knows how they controlled that factor in the experiments.)

The only time I, personally, feel depressed post-chocolate is when I’ve lost my self control and have eaten the whole thing in one sitting.  But hey, if it’s dark chocolate, I do feel less depressed about it.

Read here for the full article on the study.

Tomatoes and Avocados as sweets?  Yes, these “faux veggies” deserve a second look. Their versatility practically begs us to play around and find new ways to use them. Who’s to say there aren’t other potentially fantastic “double agents” just waiting to be discovered?

Another of my favorite tapas from Mercado de la Reina (see Sobrasada with Brie) is a slice of toasted bread topped with a sweetened tomato jam and a slice of soft goat cheese. Given that the tomato is, in fact, a fruit, this shouldn’t have surprised me the first time I tried it. But, it did. Cherry and grape tomatoes tend to be the sweetest. The recipe for my recreation of this yummy tapa coming soon.

For now, I bring you some ideas for cool concoctions with that clandestine fruit, the avocado.

Idea #1
-Moroccan Avocado Shake
When on a walk through Marrakesh with a friend a few years ago, we passed a fruit shake shop. These shakes were not made with ice; simply the fruit, sugar syrup, and water or milk. I was surprised to see avocado on the menu. Avocado, like tomato, is actually a fruit, although we typically see it salted and prepared with vegetables and/or meat. I decided to go for it and asked for a water-based shake. The resulting product was what I have since referred to as the “Guinness of fruit shakes.”

Thick, sweet, and retaining its avocado flavor, I can say I have never tasted anything quite like it. All in all, I liked it. If only I had stopped drinking when I was full instead of challenging myself to the full glass. I have since thought of other ways to incorporate avocado into mousses and other desserts with less… avocado-ey intensity (see below), and I highly recommend it as a daring and different addition to your home menu. If you don’t want to mix the sugar and water to make the syrup, you can substitute honey. And I recommend adding ice cream or yogurt. And maybe a banana if you’d like.

Idea #2 + Recipe
-Avocado Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Frozen Custard
The Moroccan avocado experience opened my eyes to utilizing the remarkable dexterity of the avocado is as a dessert.  The Philipines, Brazil, and many other countries also know the secret bliss of the sweetened avocado in shakes as well as in ice cream.  There are also some intriguing recipes online for avocado lime pies and avocado chocolate mousse and pudding, but I wanted to do something different. Something that combined the elements of avocado, banana, chocolate, and frozen summer treat. With chocolate chips. Maybe this isn’t the most surprising thing, since my favorite gelato flavors are mint chocolate chip and double chocolate chip.

So avocado chocolate chip it is. By far one of the most delicious things I have ever made. And the only equipment I used included a fork and a bowl. Of course, if you have a blender or processor that would make the texture slightly more consistent. But it’s absolutely not necessary.

The one thing that surprised me–and made me kind of happy in a weird “Look at me, I’m a crazy cook” sort of way–was that I could not find any recipes like it already on the internet! Mousse, pudding, ice cream, yes, but not everything together.  (This is also a lot easier than the ice cream because you don’t need a machine.)  It’s the little things, right?

So this is how it goes, I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is! If you want to make it less chocolatey (although I can’t imagine why!), use either less cocoa or omit the cocoa altogether. Play around with it!

And this time… I have tons of pics!

Skill Level: EASY
Preparation time: About 10 minutes to mix ingredients, plus freezing a few hours or overnight.
Servings: 2-4, depending on how large your serving cups are.

1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
1 banana, not yet mushy and relatively firm

1 tsp lemon juice
3 heaping teaspoons of cocoa (unsweetened)–knock this down to 2 to moderate the “chocolateyness”
1/8-1/4 cup sugar (I eyeballed it; you may want to add slowly, to taste)
About 3-4 Tbsp. dark honey
150-175 grams (5-6 ounces) of creme fraiche (sour cream can substitute)
4 or 5 Lindt dark chocolate thins (70% cocoa)

Mash the avocado, banana, and lemon juice in a bowl with a fork or else in a processor.

No, it's not guacamole. It's avocado and banana mush.

Add the cocoa, sugar, and honey and continue mashing/processing.

My favorite honey in the world

Add the creme fraiche last.

Adding the creme fraiche. OK, maybe I had a little too much fun with it.

Grab the chocolate thins in one hand and break them into little bits by squeezing your fist a few times (yes, it really is this easy). Fold them into the mixture.

Lindt 70% cocoa dark chocolate thins

The most nutritious chocolate treat... ever?

Pour mixture into parfait cups or, if you are at a loss for pretty display glasses like I am, just use regular old drinking glasses, if they can be frozen. Freeze for several hours or overnight.

Ta Da!

You should end up with a gelato-like, nutritious, delicious banana double chocolate chip frozen custard. I am in love with it. Enjoy!

NOTE:  The frozen gelato-like texture may be somewhat difficult to achieve as the ingredients can tend to “overfreeze,” making long thaws necessary.  I am going to play with some ingredients (no milk though) to see how to improve this.  For now, my suggestion to get the perfect frozen texture is to pop it in the freezer for about 3 hours after making to achieve the texture, then transfer to the fridge for 3-4 hours for storage before serving.  Longer freezing time may require longer thawing time.  If you only keep it in the fridge instead of freezing, you will achieve a very rich pudding instead.  Could also be used as pie filling–seems to have gone over well that way according to other recipe blogs!  However you serve it–it’s delicious!

I made it out to Berlin recently to visit friends.  I thought that, without a doubt, I would walk away with some new wonderful currywurst addiction.  Instead, I fell in love with Kartoffelsalat, or German potato salad, which I picked up as a side dish one damp and chilly afternoon at Curry 36, an apparently famous (according to my travel buddy and Lonely Planet) currywurst stand under a city rail overpass.   (The currywurst was okay, too, but nothing in comparison.)  After that, it seemed like Kartoffelsalat existed everywhere I went.  There are a few different kinds, of course, Germany being a relatively large country and made up of various regions that like to claim cultural independence from each other (try referring to a Bavarian as German and you’ll see what I mean).

Anyways, this particular potato salad was served cold (or Kalter), as opposed to this type of hot German potato salad.  This salad had a light but slightly creamy sauce to it, and my friends and I couldn’t figure out exactly how that was done. Yes, it could have been mayonnaise, and according to the internet it was mayonnaise. But it didn’t taste like mayonnaise.

I looked high and low on the internet but I just couldn’t find exactly what I had fallen in love with.  So I had to improvise. One friend had suggested perhaps sour cream–and that got me thinking.

I took the basic recipe of peeled and cooked potatoes, marinated in onions and a little bit of the water they were boiled in, mixed with vinegar, mustard and seasoning.  Having recently become ridiculously attached to creme fraiche (which is related to sour cream), I thought this would be the perfect addition to add the slightly sour, slightly tangy, creamy texture to the salad that I was looking for.  It came out great!! I also added things not mentioned in the recipes I was looking at, but that had made such a big difference in Berlin: fine rings of radishes, and sometimes green onions and chives, depending on the place. So delicious!

For the dill haters out there, just know that I usually don’t like dill either, but just a little bit of fresh chopped dillweed does add an almost summery quality to the salad.

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 3 hours, including skinning and boiling the potatoes beforehand, and 2 hours of marinating.

Servings:  6-8.

2 lbs. (1 kilo) peeled and boiled medium potatoes

1/2 onion, sliced thin into strings

1/2 lb. (approx. 200 g) radishes (depending on how strong an influence you want–I love radishes), sliced very thin

2-3 tsp fresh dill, chopped

2 tsp fresh green onions (optional), chopped

2 tsp fresh chives (optional), chopped

a few dollops of creme fraiche (approx 3 Tbsp, depending on your preference)

1 Tbsp mustard (more if you really love mustard)

salt to taste

Okay, I cheated once again and used vacuum-sealed, pre-boiled, pre-skinned potatoes, although in this case I do think it would be better to use fresh potatoes because you want to save some of the water in which they’re boiled.  Also, the potatoes in Berlin were a tiny bit firmer than the usual typical American potato salad, and the pre-boiled ones were too soft for my preference.

Chop up the onion into thin strips, slice the potato into disks, mix these in a large bowl and pour a small amount (1/4 cup or less) of the water the potatoes were boiled in (if you have it) over the mixture.  Cover and marinate at room temperature for 2 hours.

After marinating, add vinegar and mustard.  Supposedly the texture would be “creamy” as-is, according to every internet recipe I saw, but it was nothing like what I had in Berlin.  So, I decided to add a few dollops of creme fraiche, which immediately thinned out upon contact with the water, mustard, and vinegar.  That definitely did the trick!

Nice and creamy potatoes, after much ado!

Add in the dill, radishes, green onions, and chives.  You’re ready to go!  Enjoy!

Vegan Fusion Cooking

When I made my third, and last, attempt to go vegetarian, I was living in one of the most difficult places in the world to try this–Armenia.  Things have changed a bit since I lived there, but at that time it was very difficult to keep to a vegetarian diet, especially when the local cuisine is based on meat, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and more meat.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, fruits and other produce in the summertime did help, but the winter was brutal for anyone even thinking of foregoing meat.

In fact, I did such a poor job that I had to occasionally allow myself some fish just to keep myself from keeling over.  My skin turned gray, my hair went brittle, I gained weight from all of the carbs I was eating to feel full.  I clearly did not know what I was doing.  I literally dreamt of meat-filled banquet tables.  I remember waking up one morning, salivating, thinking I had bitten into a chicken leg.  It’s true.  Suffice it to say, this did not work out for me.  After seven months of trying, I gave up.

While I still don’t cook very much with meat at home, I definitely don’t turn it down as a guest in others’ homes, and I do order meat at restaurants.  Of course, even if everything I buy at home is ecologically and ethically acceptable, all bets are off when I am eating elsewhere.  Who knows what’s in that burger?  Do we know if those eggs are from open range chickens fed 100% grains?  I’m still trying to reconcile this for myself, but the truth of the matter is I know that I cannot live completely without meat.  I just minimize where I can.  It’s difficult, because as you may be able to tell, I’ll eat almost anything.  Maybe someday I’ll give it another go, and see how far I get.  It will have to be in a country with ample alternatives to meat.

In the meantime, I do enjoy increasing my knowledge of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.  There are plenty of meatless, fishless, eggless, dairyless dishes that I enjoy, and having more recipes under my belt is never a bad thing.  Even if we take small steps at a time, we can make an impact on our health, on the environment, and on the state of animal welfare.  I will expand this discussion of why people go vegetarian and vegan in a later post, and I invite my friends who follow these diets to chime in.  For now, I want to share the Google Books preview of Vegan World Fusion Cuisine, which contains tons of great-looking recipes without any animal products whatsoever, ranging from easy to a bit more sophisticated cooking and preparation methods.  I will eventually attempt some of these recipes myself, but if anyone reading this beats me to it, by all means please write in and share the results!  Click here to see the preview of the book.

Avocado Mousse Tapas

Avocado mousse-stuffed smoked salmon rollsSeafood baked mac and cheese.  It seems that no matter how creative we try to be, someone has already thought of the same thing, or else something extremely similar.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty of room (and need) for creativity.  In fact, the wide range of internet recipes that mob the blogosphere is a great resource–we can find good ideas for new food pairings, improve the recipes we were already working with, and perhaps most importantly, learn from others’ mistakes!

So, when I tried to think of something to do with an avocado sitting on my shelf, I thought that avocado mousse would be a good idea.  Counting on the fact that I am not entirely original, I Googled it and found a slew of avocado mousse recipes, ranging from the savory to the sweet.  Of course, I had also thought of making a dessert with avocado, with banana and possibly with cocoa, and this list of recipes just proved that yet again, many, many people had already beat me to it.  The great thing about this is, I could compare and pick the best ideas and, of course, still add my own to the mix.

I saw that, basically speaking, to make a savory avocado mousse you just mix the avocado with cream cheese.  I also saw that most of the time, people pair the mousse with smoked salmon.  However, the friend of mine at whose house I was going to be eating this snack does not like smoked salmon.  So, I took the basic idea, picked up some specialty cured jamon ibérico to replace the salmon (and also used some leftover turkey slices sitting in my fridge), and grabbed a baguette from my local supermarket, and came up with this:

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time: 5-10 minutes.

Servings: Approx. 15 pieces, depending on the amount of mousse you spoon onto the bread pieces.

For base:

smoked salmon slices, turkey slices, cured ham slices, or whatever sliced soft meat you prefer (thin slices of muenster or another mild semi-soft cheese should make a good vegetarian option)

1 baguette (freshly baked or re-toasted prior to meal preparation)

For avocado mousse:

1 ripe avocado (peeled and pitted)

1/2 package of cream cheese (4 oz.)

1-2 teaspoons mustard (to taste–I find using dijon or other specialty mustard is better for this)

half a teaspoon of garlic butter (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, mix avocado, cream cheese, mustard, garlic butter (if used) and salt and pepper to taste.  I did this with a fork for a few minutes and it was fine, however if you really want to make it as smooth as possible, feel free to use a processor.  Slice the baguette in half down the middle, then into small pieces, 2-3 inches in length.  (I find that the step of slicing it down the middle makes it much easier to eat.)

Lay a small piece of sliced salmon, ham, turkey, or whatever you have chosen on the bread slices.

Note: These bread slices have NOT been sliced in half width-wise. Don't make my mistake!

Scoop about a tablespoon of the avocado cheese mixture onto each piece.

Easy, fast, minimalist, and tasty.  My favorite combination!