Easy Red Lentils

Every culture has a food they believe will promote prosperity in the coming year. Some people ring in the new year by eating grapes, others by chomping down a bowl of black-eyed peas. For me, New Year’s Eve means whipping up some lentils. In many Spanish-speaking countries, lentils symbolize prosperity and good fortune.

This past weekend, I got hit with a whammy of a cold that left my head feeling foggy. Although I felt totally drained, I didn’t want to dismiss my tradition of eating lentils. I mean, what if I suffered a year of misfortune?? Instead, I whipped up a batch of Easy Red Lentils, adapted from a delicious Indian recipe from Aarti Sequeira. This dish is a cinch to put together, requiring just a few spices and a bit of time. The result is a delicious, comforting dish that will warm you from the inside out. Happy New Year!

 

Easy Red Lentils

Adapted from Aarti Sequeira

What You’ll Need:

1 cup red lentils, picked through for stones
2 cups water
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
1-15 oz can diced tomatoes
1 jalapeno, sliced in half
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon canola oil
Kosher salt
fresh cilantro, for garnish

Put the lentils in a strainer and rinse in cold water. Place the strainer in a larger bowl and cover the lentils with water. Let them soak for 30 minutes, then drain.

In a medium saucepan, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin and mustard seeds, then the spices. They should sizzle and the seeds may even try to jump out the pan. Heat the mixture for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, being careful not to let it burn! Add the onions, garlic and ginger. Saute for 3 to 5 minutes, until aromatic. Add the tomatoes, jalapeno and lentils. Mix everything to combine. Add the 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low and let the lentils simmer for about 40 minutes, until very soft.

Stir the lentils with a wooden spoon, mashing some so the mixture thickens.  Add salt to taste. Serve in small bowls and garnish with cilantro. Enjoy!

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Short Rib Ragu Over Pappardelle

If you haven’t heard, humble cuts of meat are in. Once unpopular, these tough, fairly inexpensive cuts are now on the rise, making frequent appearances on restaurant menus and dinner tables everywhere.

Short ribs, cut from the rib and plate primals of the steer, are a favorite in my house. Braising breaks down the tissues and tenderizes the beef, resulting in rich, meaty flavor. In my book, braising and wine go hand-in-hand, so I decided to pair some short ribs with a robust bottle of Zinfandel. The outcome was insanely delicious. Shred the beef and serve over pasta for a meal guaranteed to impress.

Short Rib Ragu Over Pappardelle

Serves Four

What You’ll Need:

5 lbs bone-in short ribs
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-Virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bottle (750 ml) red Zinfindel wine
3 cups low-sodium beef stock (approximate)
1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped
fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
1 lb pappardelle (or other flat pasta)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pat the ribs dry and season liberally with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven, heat about two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Brown the ribs on all sides, in batches, if necessary. If the olive oil gets soaked up between batches, add some more before searing the next batch of ribs. Once browned, remove the ribs to a plate.

Add the onions to the pot and cook till tender, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute. Pour in some of the wine and scrape up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan using a wooden spoon. Pour in the remainder of the bottle of wine, then add the porcini mushrooms. Return the short ribs to the pot. Add enough beef stock to completely cover the ribs. Add the rosemary and thyme, then bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook until the ribs are tender and falling off the bone, about 2.5 to 3 hours.

Remove the ribs from the pot and set aside to cool. Using an immersion blender, blend the juices and vegetable until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, if needed. Bring the sauce to a simmer and reduce until thick, about 20 to 30 minutes.

When the short ribs are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and shred. Return the beef to the pot with the reduced sauce. At this point, the ragu can be cooled and stored in the refrigerator for the following day. This will allow the flavors to fully develop. This is a great make-ahead dish!

When you’re ready to put the meal together, re-heat the ragu. Fill a large pot with water and season generously with salt. Bring to a boil. Stir in pasta and cook until al dente. Drain pasta and combine with short rib ragu. Serve with a sprinkle of fresh parsley. Enjoy!

Spicy Chicken Soup

I have a confession to make…I don’t like chicken soup. I find it dull and a bit depressing. There, I said it. Sometimes I feel a bit strange admitting I’m not a fan of chicken soup. People look at me strangely, give me that what’s wrong with you? glance. My husband, on the other hand, loves it. Homemade, from a can, in a restaurant, with noodles, with rice — he’ll eat them all. Recently, I decided to challenge myself and try to create a chicken soup we both could enjoy. Not an easy feat, I know. First, I knew that it had to be spicy. John’s family is from Mexico, and he definitely loves heat. I wanted to create layers of bold, rich flavor. Using ancho chiles, onions, fresh corn, tomatoes and shredded chicken thighs, I was able to do just that. One spoonful of this soup and I knew I created a keeper. When John tasted it, he thoroughly agreed. This soup is perfect for chilly days like the ones we have now, when you want to warm your body from the inside out.

Spicy Chicken Soup

Makes 6 to 8 servings

What You’ll Need:

3 lbs chicken thighs, poached, skin removed and shredded
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 ears of fresh corn, kernels removed
1 large onion, chopped
1 serrano pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large ancho chiles, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, seeded, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1-28 oz can of diced or crushed tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 handfuls cilantro, roughly chopped
2 limes
avocado, sliced
sour cream, for garnish

In a large pot, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat. Saute the corn kernels for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onions, garlic and serrano pepper. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the cumin and smoked paprika. Let saute for an additional 5 minutes.

In a small food processor, puree the ancho chile with some of the chicken stock until smooth. Add the ancho, tomatoes and remainder of the chicken stock to the pot. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to medium-low. Let simmer for 10 minutes, allowing flavors to combine.

Using an immersion blender, puree about half of the soup. The goal is to thicken it just a bit, but still have some pieces of onion, tomato and corn throughout. Add the shredded chicken and let simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the juice of one lime and mix in half of the chopped cilantro. Ladle the soup into bowls. Place a few slices of avocado on top, then add a dollop of sour cream. Sprinkle with cilantro, then squeeze some fresh lime over everything. Enjoy!

Double Cut Pork Chops Smothered in Chipotle Mushroom Sauce

For my husband and I, the sight of double cut pork chops smothered in mushroom sauce always brings a smile to our faces. This month will mark our sixth wedding anniversary, and in November, we’ll have made 11 years together. Eons ago, when John and I had first begun to date, we tried hard to surprise one another with thoughtful gifts and memorable eating experiences. One Valentine’s Day, we drove down to SoHo for dinner. I had scoured the internet for a great Cuban restaurant in New York City and my research led me to Cafe Habana. Not only were the reviews promising, but upon further reading, I learned Cafe Habana was a fusion of Cuban and Mexican cuisine. This little fact caught my attention immediately. John is Mexican and I’m half Cuban. I took it as a sign that we were meant to eat there.

It took about 45 minutes to make the trip from White Plains to lower Manhattan. Armed with MapQuest directions, I played co-pilot while John navigated the car through the city. When we finally found our way to the corner of Prince and Elizabeth streets, John was the first to spot Cafe Habana. My jaw nearly dropped. The place was a hole in the wall. Literally. Bohemians were spilling out the door of this un-spectacular, teeny restaurant. I remember groaning and slumping down into my seat. Despite my protests, John parked the car and we made our way down the block. I suggested we find somewhere else to eat, somewhere that looked a little more substantial, but John convinced me to at least peer through the window. We stood on the sidewalk, watching the restaurant patrons. It was like observing sardines in a can. Tables were crammed together and people were practically sitting on one another’s laps. Next to me, I heard a gasp. I looked over at John, who was staring through the window with wide eyes. “It’s my corn!” he said. I followed his gaze. Inside, a couple were sharing a plate of corn on the cob. When a look of confusion passed over my face, John explained that in Mexico, street vendors sell corn on the cob, or elotes, with crema, cotija cheese, chili powder and lime. “We have to eat here,” he said firmly. So, we did.

Even after all these years, I can still remember our first meal at Cafe Habana. It was the first of many. We shared a plate of grilled corn, which was every bit as delicious as John promised it would be. We each ordered the same entree, Chuleta de Puerco a la Pimenta, which turned out to be grilled, double-cut pork chops in a mushroom and chipotle au poivre sauce. Putting it mildly, this pork chop blew our mind. The pork was juicy and flavorful, cooked perfectly. The sauce had just the right amount of spice to cut through the creaminess. It was heaven.

It’s been five years since we made the move from New York to Connecticut. I love the quiet and calmness of living on the Connecticut countryside. If there’s one thing I miss, one thing, it’s Cafe Habana. After that Valentine’s Day so many years ago, Cafe Habana became “our” spot. John and I shared our secret place with few and far between. Somehow, bringing other people there made it less special. Once, after finding out some friends of ours had eaten there, we admitted to being a bit envious. Silly, right?

Since trekking to SoHo is no longer an option for us, especially with a three year old, I decided to attempt to recreate “the” pork chop. After a bit of experimentation and tweaking, I was finally thrilled with the results. For a true Cafe Habana experience at home, serve with frozen mango margaritas, tostones con mojo, rice and beans. Prepare to die and float to heaven.

Double-Cut Pork Chops Smothered in Chipotle Mushroom Sauce

What You’ll Need:

4 pork chops, 1-inch thick, bone-in
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup flour
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
2 chipotles in adobo sauce, finely chopped
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
parsley, for garnish

Put the flour in a shallow pan, add the salt and pepper, then mix with a fork. Pat the pork chops dry with a paper towel, then dredge them in the seasoned flour. Shake off any excess.

Heat a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat and coat with olive oil. Fry the pork chops for about 4 minutes on each side until golden brown. Remove the pork chops from the pan and set to the side. Add more oil to the pan, if needed. Toss the sliced mushrooms to the pan and saute for 10 minutes. Sprinkle some of the seasoned flour into the pan and cook for one minute. Add the chipotle peppers and chicken stock. Let the liquid cook for 5 minutes, allowing it to reduce and thicken slightly. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon black pepper into the sauce, more if you like it very peppery. Add the heavy cream and return the pork chops to the pan. Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the pork chops are cooked through and the sauce has thickened. Serve and enjoy.

Savory Beef Empanadas

Empanadas are a savory treat that have been a favorite of mine since I was a young girl. My mother would make them often, as a midday snack or sometimes for dinner, filling them with chicken, beef, seafood or cheese. I usually preferred a combination of beef and cheese, biting into the flaky crust while it was still hot, then watching the cheese ooze out.

For those of you not familiar with empanadas, they’re basically turnovers filled with meat. In some Latin American countries, they’re often referred to as pastelitos. I grew up calling them empanadas, so that’s what I continue to call them! They make a great appetizer, snack or side dish. Many people make their own dough, but there are so many great, pre-made doughs out there that I save myself the time and purchase Goya Discos. Empanadas are also a great way to use up any leftover meat — shredded chicken, ground beef, pork — the possibilities are endless! Give this recipe a try. I guarantee your mouth will water at the sight of these flaky turnovers packed with flavor.

Savory Beef Empanadas Over Moros y Cristianos

Beef Empanadas

Beef Turnovers

What You’ll Need:

1 cup picadillo
1 14-oz package Goya Discos, thawed
vegetable oil, for frying

On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll out each disco until about 1/2″ larger in diameter. Place 1 tablespoon picadillo in the center of each disco. Moisten the edge with water, then fold the disc in half, using a fork to crimp the edges and seal it.

Fill a deep frying pan with 2 inches of oil, then heat over medium-high heat. Fry the empanadas until golden brown, turning only once. Make sure not to crowd the pan or the temperature of the oil will drop, resulting in greasy empanadas. Fry in batches, if necessary. Transfer to a plate with paper towels to drain. Serve hot. Pairs well with moros y cristianos.

Note: These empanadas can also be baked, if preferred. After assembling each empanada, brush the tops with an egg and water mixture. Bake in a preheated, 375 degree oven for 10 minutes.

A Spanish Side: Moros y Cristianos

Moros y Cristianos, or black beans and rice, is a classic Cuban dish. The name literally translates to Moors and Christians, the “Moors” being the black beans and the “Christians” being the white rice. The name of the dish is a reference to the battle that began in eighth century Spain, between the Christians and Muslims. Spain has had a huge influence on the food and culture of Cuba.

This dish goes great with many beef, pork, poultry and seafood dishes. It’s a simple, one-pot meal that takes just 20 minutes to prepare.

Moros y Cristianos

Black Beans and Rice

What You’ll Need:

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 ounces slab bacon, rind removed, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium size green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 15-ounce cans black beans
2 cups long grain rice
4 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Cook the bacon for 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onion, bell pepper and garlic and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients. Cook until all the water has been absorbed and small craters form over the surface of the rice. Stir with a fork (using a spoon will result in mushy rice), cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until the rice is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Please refrain from lifting the lid before then, which will only allow your steam to escape and lengthen the cooking time. Discard the bay leaf. Serve and enjoy!

Cheap Eats: Picadillo

Every culture has their own cheap eats. You know, foods that are inexpensive, yet delicious. Picadillo is definitely a cheap eat. For those of you who have never heard of it, picadillo is a beef hash traditional to many Latin American countries. The name comes from the Spanish word “picar,” which means to chop.

Picadillo is an extremely versatile dish. Growing up, I remember my Abuela serving it with white rice, black beans, a fresh salad and lots of Cuban bread. Picadillo can also be used to fill tacos or savory empanadas. Topped with sweet plaintains, it becomes the base for a Tambor de Picadillo y Platano.

I prefer to use ground chuck for my picadillo, which gives a good beef to fat ratio. Fat not only adds flavor, but also ensures your meat isn’t dry. If you’re a little more health conscious, feel free to use a leaner cut. Ground round is 85 to 90 percent lean; ground sirloin only contains 8 to 10 percent fat.

When you try picadillo for the first time, you’ll marvel at how such a simple dish can taste so good. This is comfort food at its best.

Picadillo

A recipe from my childhood

What You’ll Need:

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium-size onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef, preferably chuck
2 packets Sazon Goya
1/2 cup tomato sauce (Recommended: Goya Tomato Sauce with Onion, Cilantro & Garlic)
1/4 cup red wine
1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives, roughly chopped

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over low heat, then add the onion and bell pepper. Cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the onions and pepper have softened. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add the ground beef to the pan, using a wooden spoon to break apart any large chunks. Season with Goya Sazon. Cook the beef until brown, about 10 minutes. Drain off the excess fat.

Add the tomato sauce and red wine to the pan, gently stirring to combine all the ingredients and make sure the beef is well coated. Let simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, allowing the sauce to reduce . Add the chopped olives. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve hot. Goes great with rice and beans. Enjoy!