A “Fiery” Evening

I was walking with my friend TJ over to his place to make dinner the other day, when we both saw it: a towering cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky (see photo at the end of this post). We walked closer towards Boylston Street and realized said cloud was the coming from the Prudential Center…we later learned that an 115,000-volt transformer had caught on fire at the adjacent HIlton Hotel. With the cacophony of sirens and a dark, smoky sky just outside our window, we prepared a spicy Asian meal that was all too fitting for the “fiery” event we had just witnessed: Spicy Chicken Chop Suey and Sesame Green Beans.
Chop suey is believed to have originated in Taishan (a coastal city in the souther Guangdong province), and was introduced to the United States by Chinese immigrants during the early 19th-century. It’s literal translation means “assorted pieces.” The traditional preparation includes a meat with chopped vegetables and aromatics, which are all cooked in a starch-thickened sauce and served over rice or noodles.
This dish was a definite winner – though the ingredient list seems substantial, most are pantry items you will have on-hand for the repeats you will guaranteed be making of this dish. Wanting a spicy kick, I decided gave it an extra dose of pepper flakes. Feel free to substitute any meat for the chicken, and any other vegetables for that matter (carrots and sugar snap peas would be excellent!) It can ultimately be an “assortment”  to your liking – click HERE to see how to make this spicy dish. For the side, I just blanched the green beans, then pan-seared the heck out of them in a bit of olive before tossing in some cloves of garlic, sesame oil, (lots of) red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Delicious!
Unable to shake the “fire” theme, my musical pairing for this meal is Manuel de Falla’s “Danza ritual del fuego,” from El Amor Bruj0 (Love, the Magician) – 35 minutes in length, this Gitanería (gypsy ballet) was originally scored for an “assortment” of performers: cantaora voice, actors, ballet dancers, and chamber orchestra. It was adapted the following year for orchestra and mezzo-soprano. In the work, our heroine Candela is desperate to drive away the ghost of her dead lover, and appeals to the fire-god in hopes of vanishing his haunting spirit. The “Danza ritual del fuego” marks her attempt to do so, in which she seduces her lover and pushes his spirit into the flames. The work has a bohemian flair, yet maintains de Falla’s Spanish touch. The recording below is with the Chicago Symphony and Daniel Barenboim, enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auRUxPPqDcQ

Sources Cited:
“Chop Suey,” Wikipedia.com
“Ritual Fire Dance (Falla)” Wikipedia.com

(taken on my phone while walking with TJ)

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A Star-Worthy Spread

The Academy Awards: an evening of glamor where the “who’s who” of Hollywood gather to honor the year’s most celebrated films. For a hostess, it is the perfect excuse to throw a party – but this couldn’t be just any part, it had to be in true Hollywood form: red carpet entrance, formal attire, and of course classy hors d’oeuvres.  For this post, I though I would share three of the dishes featured in the extensive spread: Coconut-Crusted Chicken Tenders, “Eggstremely Good” Deviled Eggs, and Fiery Jalapeño-Bacon Bites.
It’s worth mentioning that I created appetizers to pair with each of the various film nominees. These chicken tenders, for example, were grouped with The Descendants: a film starring George Clooney that takes place in Hawaii. Though simple in concept, the flavor of these was extraordinary (and a wonderful twist on the standard breaded variety). They can be served with any dipping sauce, though sweet chili sauce works quite beautifully – click HERE to see how to make these tasty chicken tenders! 
I think deviled eggs have received a bad rep as the appetizers found at any and every gathering, devoid of flavor and character. In reality, they provide the perfect canvas for creativity: wasabi, curry, even smoked salmon are all flavors to try! On top of that, they are great for large parties (budget-friendly!) and such an elegant addition to any affair. I paired these with the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (as their title suggests).
While deviled eggs are a classic, a solid foundation is vital to their success which, of course, starts with boiling. Too often are we plagued by hard-boiled eggs with gray, chalky yolks. Yet there is a trick to guarantee a perfectly cooked center every time – removing the eggs from the heat once the water reaches a boil. I was apprehensive of this method at first glance, though it is utterly foolproof. Click HERE to see the recipe for these “eggstremely good” bites!
These aren’t just spicy…they are downright addictive. Who would have thought the simple trio of jalapeño, cream cheese and bacon could have so much moxie? Warning: you will NOT want to stop eating these once you’ve started…a fate many of my guests fell victim to. I paired these with the film Girl with a Dragon Tattoo given their dangerous, “fiery” appeal. I guarantee these WILL be the star at your next event – click HERE to see how to make these addictive bites.
Movies are an addictive diversion: the excitement, the passion, the humor – it compels us to buy tickets or press play time and time again. With that in mind, I wanted a piece that truly captured the energy of the “movie magic”; a piece that pulls you in, and has a palpable, compelling story. Funnily enough, I was only recently introduced to this work, yet it is the ideal match: Poulenc’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Composed during the German occupation of Paris, the piece is replete with passionate energy. It is dedicated to Federico García Lorca – a Spanish poet assassinated during the Spanish Civil War. The first and third movements are driven by a dark, potent energy that bring listeners to the edge of their seats, while the second evokes a deeper emotion for which we have no words (though Lorca does, with Poulenc attaching the following quote by the poet to said movement: “The guitar makes dreams weep”). The following recording is with violinist Josef Suk – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o41e7qcSwSw

Sources Cited:
Program Notes – WPAS: Itzhak Perlman, violin and Rohan DeSilva, piano,” Strathmore.org

Jamaican Me Hungry!

There’s something almost to good to be true about grilled meat with fruit – chicken, pork, fish, anything. Not only is it incredibly easy to prepare, but it always delivers amazing results! All it takes is a little creativity – for this occasion, I had leftover bananas from a bananas foster evening (will be blogged about one day if I can beat the melting ice cream in time!). Swordfish steaks were on sale at Whole Foods, so naturally I bought two and made Jamaican-Spiced Swordfish with Banana and Pineapple Salsa.Swordfish are very popular sporting fish, yet these agile predators are no easy catch: measuring up to 14 feet in length and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds, swordfish are quite powerful and highly elusive. As a food, its tough meat is a comparable trade for steak. While considered to be a delicacy, the FSA advises consuming swordfish (shark and marlin as well) no more than once a week; pregnant women and children should avoid it entirely. When choosing swordfish at the store, look for steaks with for healthy pink meat and dark red strips.
This salsa was DELICIOUS! I mean, who thought bananas could take the leap from sweet to savory so effortlessly? As I learned with a previous fruit salsa, ginger does wonders in these settings, so I added a touch to this recipe. Feel free to substitute another fruit for the pineapple, like mango or peach. This salsa was ridiculously good with swordfish, though any fish will do (heck, try it with steak even!) – click HERE to give this fantastic entrée a shot!
This was quite unique recipe, and almost “daring” in theory – thus I wanted a musical piece that was edgy and provocative. I tend to think of Piazzolla when I think of “edgy”, and his Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) captures a raw energy that pairs perfectly with this dish. The original composition was written for his own quintet, with bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar, and double bass. It has since been transcribed for a number of ensembles, from piano trio to solo violin with string orchestra. I have included a recording of the transcription for piano trio below of the third movement: Primavera Porteña (Buenos Aires Spring). Definitely take the time to listen to the to other three as well, it’s worth it – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJzogioRx6A

Sources Cited:
– “Swordfish,” Wikipedia.com
– “Mercury in fish: your questions answered,” Food Standards Agency website.
– “Estaciones Porteñas,” Wikipedia.com 

Making Meatless Count

I have a theory when it comes to cooking vegan: make it count. Vegan fare should fully outshine the fact that it is without meat, so I take explore a number of ways to do this: flavor, aesthetic, novelty, heartiness, etc. I’ve mentioned my neighbors who are vegetarian by choice, and I love having the chance to cook wholesome dinners with them. But my self-challenge in vegan cooking is to hook the non-veggies who swear by bacon, and this Moroccan Butternut Squash and Chickpea Tagine did just the trick.
You may feel overwhelmed by the ingredients and step involved in this stew, but it’s a lot easier than it looks. The harissa, which you can buy from a store, is extremely simple to make and really gives this dish that extra umph! The other cool ingredient in this dish is the preserved lemon – that may sound a little eery, but it did give this stew a fantastic edge. I’ve included a quicker version for preparing these in the recipe itself.  Canned chickpeas are also always an option, but there really is a special added value to taking the time to cook dried chickpeas. They take a while to soak (overnight), so put that into your prep work if planning on using dried.
Seeing as how I nearly tripled the original recipe, this made a LOT of food. I wanted to accommodate a sizable dinner party (9 people), and ended up with delicious leftovers for a few days after. I served this dish with a whole wheat couscous, but I imagine it would be equally delicious served with pita bread or over rice. Click HERE to make this vegan showstopper today!
For the musical pairing, I wanted to reflect on the complexity of flavors and components. That brought me to a work I had seen performed live a few years back: Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor “Souvenir de Florence”. The four movements are quite diverse in quality: the first movement, in D minor, opens the piece on an impassioned, almost violent note. The second movement settles into the relative F major, bringing the timbre back to a calmer state. The latter two movements assume a Russian feel, with a third movement that’s almost playful transitioning into a driven, frantic fourth. This divergence of style made it the perfect match for the complexity of this dish – included is the actual performance of the work I experienced by Boston’s very own A Far Cry ensemble (arranged for chamber orchestra). I’ve included the fourth movement below – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUmxHXsxsug

Sources Cited:
“Souvenir de Florence,” Wikipedia.com

A Palette of Colorful Fare

I need to use my actual cookbooks more often. The internet is addicting given it provides access to millions of recipes (with photos, a big plus for me!), but I have SO many real cookbooks that it’s a shame I don’t use them more often. I was hosting a dinner for my new neighbors Albert Oppenheimer and Mike Dahlberg, and wanted to finally start utilizing these wonderful resources. So I started to peruse the beautiful book by David Tanis, A Platter of Figs (great title), and flipped to the “summer” menus. That’s when I saw it: a gorgeous dish that uses everything I love about cooking, and so I made this beautiful rendition: Grilled Cod with Indian Spices and Yellow Tomatoes.
The ONLY thing I changed here was using cod instead of hailbut. I prefer the latter, but the cod at the market looked so much fresher that I couldn’t resist. I followed the rest of the recipe to a T. What’s fantastic about this dish is how everything on the plate works perfectly together. The serranos and spices give it just the right kick, making you instantly reach for a second bite rather than your glass of water (a spiciness which Albert enjoyed immensely). The cool raita provides an amazing depth of flavor, and all of it is framed by gorgeous yellow tomatoes.  There’s not much else to say about this dish other than MAKE IT! Click HERE to learn how. 
Have you ever bought something from the market just becaus it looked cool? That was the case with these Chinese eggplants. These amethyst beauties looked liked something from outer space, so naturally I wanted to know how to cook them (that is natural, right?) Anywho, this cultivar, when compared to the familiar American eggplant, is far more delicate in flavor, has thinner skin, and less seeds (the cause of the bitter taste many affiliate with eggplant). I sort of “made-up” this recipe for Indian Spiced Eggplant, using the knowledge I know from previous attempts combined with my preferences for preferring eggplant (see my previous post to learn more about preparing eggplant). Click HERE to learn how to make this spicy, flavorful dish today! 
The pairing for this dinner was inspired by a live performance I saw the other night which just so happened to include one of my dinner guests, Mike Dahlberg (cellist). His string quartet was playing for a function, and it was a piece I had never heard: Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3 in B flat Major. They performed the third movement: Agitato (Allegretto non troppo). This movement features a killer viola part (played beautifully by their violist, Jason Amos) and so I have included a recording of that movement (by the Jerusalem Quartet). The overall depth and flavor of this movement helped to inspire my pairing. The viola, in my opinion, is a very “colorful” instrument that I felt paired beautifully with these two dishes. Please listen to the entire work if you have the time, it’s worth it – I hope you enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNrkUmZsMTU 

Turning up the Heat!

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but my apartment building is becoming a remake of the Friends sitcom. THREE of the eight apartments are  close friends of mine, meaning I will be spending (most likely) 80% of my time hanging with friends in this very building. For a food blogger, it’s perfect – I have a built-in group of recipe testers who all have eclectic tastes. I decided to throw an impromptu party the other night, and the relentless summer heat merited a night of frozen margaritas. Not wanting to submit to serving only chips and salsa, I decided to also make Baked Stuffed Jalapeños and Potato Skin Bites with Chorizo.
Jalapeños are a tough bunch to work with – when cutting one, you’re fine with a simple paring knife and board. When cutting 20, it is almost crucial to have gloves on if you plan on touching anything for the next several hours. While the seeds and the veins are notably hot, it’s the oils that are the culprit for irritating skin. Trust me, with the cheap price of gloves your hands will be thanking you for it.
These are quick to make, and the result is fabulous! Any number of cheese can be stirred into the cream cheese as well, such as monterey or cheddar, but I chose to go with just the basics. You can also leave in a few of the seeds if you are daring, but I’ll warn you that these little guys pack a punch as is – click HERE to learn how to make these spicy bites!
This second dish was a little bit more complicated. Roasting the potatoes was a synch, but removing the pulp (using a teaspoon worked best for me) was a little trickier. Be sure they are cool enough to handle, otherwise you’ll be playing “hot potato” with the floor (and the floor’s gonna win, it always does).
I hadn’t really worked with chorizo prior to this dish. My friend Brian was given the task of removing the casings, and that turned out to be quite the chore. Slicing the sausages in half and removing it with a paring knife was our discovered shortcut. When browning the chorizo, you really have to break up the pieces with a spoon. You can use bacon in this, but chorizo adds a great taste that is definitely the centerpiece of these little bites – check out this recipe by clicking HERE.
For the pairing, I wanted to turn up to the heat to complement these spicy treats. What better way than with Le Grand Tango, by Ástor Piazzolla. An Argentine composer, Piazzolla is known for tangos that feature elements of jazz and classical. His love for music emerged when, after moving to New York with his family, his father purchased bandoneón for him from a pawn shop. His music is both lively and tragic, and is really fun to perform. This is a great piece, and I hope you enjoy the recording (even though it sadly ends 2 minutes before the end…another setback of YouTube…).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eamRlKTe7rU

Sources Cited:
“Ástor Piazzolla.” Wikipedia.com

A Colorful Plate with a Fiery Bite

As some of you may know, I am a MAJOR fan of spicy food! I’m that crazy one who stacks a spoon wasabi onto each piece of sushi, and uses crushed red pepper flakes in nearly everything! My new favorite spice: chipotles en adobo. I regularly have a can of these stocked in my pantry or fridge. When I invited several friends over this past week for dinner, I found the perfect way to showcase these smoky favorites of mine: Ancho Chicken Thighs with Chipotle Peach Salsa. (Note: this photo was taken with my new lighting set! SO happy to not have to worry about taking late-night photos anymore!!!)
Being from Georgia, you can see why I LOVE this salsa! But really, this is a fantastic topping for any grilled food. It’s the perfect balance of sweet with heat. I used a combination of white and yellow peaches (to add color). The chipotle peppers pair perfectly with the fruit, and a touch of ginger gives it the finishing touch! Coating the chicken in chili powder was optional, but it made for one fantastic meal! Be sure to have plenty of chips on hand for the leftover salsa – it’s truly addictive, and you’ll be licking the bowl clean (not that we did…ahem). Click HERE to learn how to make this fun, spicy entrée!
I wanted my musical pairing to the reflect the firey, colorful aspects of this dish. That led me to one of my favorites YouTube recordings: Danzón No.2, by Arturo Márquez. The personalities of this work, as well as the overall spirit pair beautifully with the fresh, bright flavors of this dish. The particular recording I am referring to is by the world-renowned Venezuela Youth Orchestra. While this work is a definite showstopper, it’s this ensemble that sends this piece over the top. I hope you enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vwZAkfLKK8

Building Intensity through Flavor and Substance

I love tacos – they are quick, easy and perfect for those last-minute get-togethers! Yet keeping a ravenous group at bay in order to snap a few photos is a nearly impossible task. I have already had several parties where tacos were the main event…which you can tell never made it to this blog. Yet my most recent endeavor was saved by an age-old trick: the marinade. This made preparation the day of a breeze, giving ample time to snap some awesome photos! No taco party is complete without salsa and guacamole (my recipe HERE), both of which we had plenty! The fillers were two recipes that gave this taco bar a unique twist: Grilled Tamarind Chicken and Tequila-Lime Shrimp Skewers.
Tamarind soda…having never even used Tamaring before, this ingredient seemed a little far-fetched. I received my FineCooking issue this month, and was dying to give this recipe a try. About Tamarind: primarily indigenous to tropical Africa, the Tamarind tree can be found in areas throughout Arabia, South Asia and Mexico. The fruit resembles a pea pod, and is often brown or reddish-brown in color. It imparts a sweet and sour taste, resulting in its popular use for a number of dishes ranging from sorbets and sweetened drinks to soups and salads.*
The beauty of this marinade is two-fold: one is the tangy flavor imparted by the tamarind, and the other is the tenderizing effect from the soda itself (you can find it in the Asian or Latin aisles at your supermarket). The recipe is SO simple, and yet this was some of the tenderest chicken I’ve ever made for tacos! The flavor was subtle, yet a delicious tangent from conventional Tex-Mex marinades. Click HERE to learn more about this unique recipe!
Normally these two ingredients imply a very different kind of evening…yet for culinary purposes, they can be a powerful pair. Tequila has (understandably) received a horrible reputation, yet it is this very repute that has made it a premium liquor in both production and standards. The blue agave plant is the base for tequila, and is to this day still harvested manually by “jimadores,” who know and understand the plant like the backs of their hands. The distillation process is equally venerable.**
I’ve made this marinade before, and it works like a charm! No worries if you’re not a tequila fan: the alcohol cooks off, leaving a unique flavor that won’t (at least shouldn’t) stir up any bad memories. The shrimp only need to cook briefly, making for a quick and easy meal. Feel free to eat these with tacos, or straight off the skewer (which you may be tempted to do): click HERE to check out this awesome recipe.
Considering this meal was a taco bar, these dishes each started out with a single idea, then were built upon with other ingredients – salsa, guacamole, bean salad, cheese, sour cream, etc. The idea of building multiple items upon a theme led  to my musical inspiration: Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (thanks to my awesome subletter Erin Bollacker!) This piece is built upon an ostinato, or a musical phrase/rhythm that is repeated over and over again. Gradually, more instruments are added to the theme, growing in volume and size. The climax is a massive finale with the entire orchestra playing in tandem – not unlike a finished taco brimming with fillings and sauce! The ostinato context, on the other hand, reflects the simplicity of making these delicious tacos. The video link I’ve included is of the Vienna Philharmonic with (my favorite!) Gustavo Dudamel conducting – the opening solos are absolutely breathtaking! Mind you, this is a 20 minute recording, which should be ample time to assemble at LEAST 2 of these awesome tacos (perhaps 3) – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamarind
**http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tequila

Summer Lovin’

Whether it be a picnic or a movie night, no summertime hang is complete without chips and dips. I’m not talking about those prepackaged salsas you can buy year round at the local corner store – I’m talking about dips that feature the fresh, colorful harvest of this season. Though the former is more convenient, the flavor and depth o the latter is far more enjoyable. I had a group of friends over the other day to watch one of my favorite Pixar films, Toy Story 3, and I decided to make two seasonal favorite of mine: Guacamole Auténtico and Mango Salsa.
The taste, health benefits, and overall aesthetic of the vibrant avocado has made it one of summer’s most beloved fruits. The word avocado comes from the Spanish term aguacate, which had been a simplification by Spanish explorers of the original Aztec name “ahuacatl.” Ancient cultures believed the fruit to be a symbol of fertility and passion (given its suggestive shape). Today, it is still seen as a natural aphrodisiac due to its nutritional benefits and rich taste. Though there are signs of cultivation dating back to 500 B.C., the avocado wasn’t introduced to the states until 1871 in Santa Barbara. California still stands as the number one producer of the nation’s avocados, accounting for 90% of the total crop. Fun Fact: an avocado tree in California can produce as many 500 fruits per year – that’s 200 pounds of avocado!*
This guacamole is a knockout, and I recommend using only the freshest of ingredients for it. The only thing I omit is the hot sauce given that it feels like a slightly less “authentic” ingredient. I also use jalapenos in place of the serranos to tone down the heat for those less predilection towards spicy fare. Although many purists would be furious at the inclusion of cumin, the slightly earthy flavor it provides with a touch of spice is a perfect complement to the avocado (as an added bonus, many Arabic cultures see cumin as a symbol of love**). This is a delicious guacamole, and comes together in no time – click HERE to learn how to make this summer standard.
When most hear the term salsa, they think tomatoes – I imagine very few picture mangoes as part of the equation. The mango, like the avocado, is another pitted fruit. Originating in Southeast Asia, mango comes from the Tamil term “mangkay.” The mango is featured prominently in this region, serving as the national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines. The mango, like the avocado is seen as a symbol of love and fertility.* Hindu culture uses mango leaves as decorations in doorways for weddings and religious ceremonies.^ This salsa is almost a simplified version of another variety I’ve featured on this blog. Like guacamole, the mango is the main ingredient, with a few other flavors and textures to provide body. This was surprisingly addictive, and not terribly spicy due to the mango’s sweetness. Click HERE to learn how to make this twist on salsa!
Given that these are both fruits symbolic of love, I thought it would be appropriate to choose a musical selection to match. I decided to go literal with this one, and chose Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume, or “Dreams of Love.” These three solo piano works are based on love poems Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath: “Hohe Liebe“, “Gestorben war ich,” and “O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst.”Liszt simultaneously composed song equivalents for these three poems, though these (unlike the piano solos) are rarely performed.^ Each piece represents a different type of love: exalted love, erotic love, and unconditional love. The most famous is No.3, which many simply refer to as “Liebesträum” (despite it being the title for the entire set). I have included a recording of this work, performed by Evgeny Kissin. Enjoy!


Sources Cited:
* “California Avocado History” Avocado.org http://www.avocado.org/california-avocado-history/
**”Cumin Seeds.” The World’s Healthiest Foods http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=91
^http://www.allaboutmangoes.com/about_mangoes/about_mangoes.html
^^http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebesträume