Sunday, December 27, 2009

Garlic Pork

To be in Trinidad during the holidays is to experience the ultimate fusion of cultures. What started as a predominantly Spanish tradition has now morphed into an amalgam of influences left by the many nationalities that once governed or settled on the islands. And nowhere is it this more evident than in the food. (To my great delight.) There are over fifteen dishes that are specific to the season. The British left their sponge and fruit cakes, the Spanish left their pastelles (similar to arepas), the Africans introduced their paime (a sweetened disk of cornmeal, raisins, and coconut steamed in banana leaves), the Portuguese their garlic pork, just to name some of the more popular ones.

Trinidadians take the holiday season very seriously. We even have our own version of holiday music. Like celebrating christmas itself, this music originated with the Spanish. Called parang, it began as Spanish versions of carols. Today, parang music has diverged into soca parang and chutney parang, the former referring to holiday music with a soca /calypso rhythm and while the latter is the same only with an Indian rhythm. My paternal grandfather was a traditional parandero (parang singer.) And he was good too, having been part of a parang group during his time - the sixties and seventies. When I was growing up in rural Trinidad, these groups would go from house to house in the neighborhood in the same way carolers do here in the United States. The only difference was that they were invited in for food.

Like everywhere else in the world, it is a time for family and freinds. But unlike other places, it is taken to an extreme. Family can show up for days after December 25th, all the way into the first and second weeks of the new year, sometimes unannounced. So it is very important to have food ready. And lots of it. Of the foods mentioned above, fruit cakes and garlic pork can be made in advance, so many home cooks start preparations weeks, even months, before. But spoilage is not a serious issue: our fruit cakes are soaked in so much alcohol that not even the hardiest bacteria could survive. And garlic pork, once properly sealed in airtight containers, can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. (I usually don't go past four days, however.)

While Christmas is over with in the US, the Trinidadian girl in me still feels like celebrating...with food. Here is my version of garlic pork.

Garlic Pork
Serves 4 to 6

2 lbs boneless pork, cut into cubes
2 heads garlic, grated
2 tbsp red pepper flakes
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 cups white wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

1. Combine all of the ingredients and place in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least two days. Maximum four days.
2. When ready to cook, remove the meat from the marinade. Add to a large stock pot with just enough water to cover, and boil until the meat is cooked through about 10 minutes. Drain.
3. Add a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil to a hot skillet and cook the pork in batches until golden brown on all sides. * Sprinkle with cilantro and serve warm with chutney or in whole wheat rolls.

*Alternatively, the boiled pork can be cooked in the oven at 400 degrees F, for fifteen to twenty minutes until browned. (I prefer the skillet version, though.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Date and Cheese Tarts

"You're not going to put that on the blog, are you?" asked my husband as he sat down for dinner about a week ago. He was referring to the squares of flaky puff pastry, pasted with cream cheese and topped with sweet, fresh dates, almonds and sea salt that I had just prepared and was serving with a healthy heaping of baby lettuce. The same pastry tarts I so hurriedly prepared even after a day skiing at Afton Alps. My first ski lesson, I fell twice, my shins hurt from the pressure against the ski boots; in fact, my entire body hurt. (Skiing is a full body work out. ) And after being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, caused by the first snow storm of the season, for two hours, when all I wanted was to get home and crawl into bed, I still decided to make dinner.

"What do you mean? Is it not good? Well, I like it and, yes, I am planning on posting it. " This really was not the conversation I wanted to have now.

"I like it too! But I'm not sure that everyone would consider puff pastry healthy. As far as I know, it's made with a lot of butter."

He was right. More than fifty percent of the calories in puff pastry is in the form of fat. Your arteries cringe at the thought, don't they? This is why I have avoided baking with it for a long time, opting instead to make my tart and pie crusts from scratch - so that I can control how much butter goes into them.

But on this day, I had purposefully planned to make pastry tarts for dinner, knowing that we would have spent hours skiing. Although I had not skiied before, everything I heard and read about it prepared me for the workout it was supposed to be. Even for a beginner. Back home that evening, it seemed that my body was just too heavy for me. It wasn't that any particular muscle hurt but the general feeling for being completely exhausted. I couldn't think of a better time to have a rich and buttery dinner: after a vigorous workout. (I deserved it dammit!)

I found these pre- cut, single serving squares of dough on my last grocery trip. Not only are they conveniently packaged and separated with wax paper, it also is a good way to use just the right amount. No more thawing the entire roll just to get enough for one tart then refrezzing the rest, or being inadvertently forced to use up the roll. And if you're counting calories, each square is two hundred and twenty. Maybe I'll make this meal a post-ski tradition.

Date and Cheese Tarts with Almonds
Makes 4 servings

4 squares puff pastry dough (5x5 inches)
1 cup mejdool dates
1/4 cup fat free cream cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan
salt and pepper
slivered almonds (optional)

1. Set the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Cut the dates in half, discard their seeds, and flatten slightly with your fingers.
3. Place the puff pastry squares on a baking sheet, spacing them evenly. Spread an equal amount of the cream cheese unto each square, top with parmesan and dates, followed by salt and pepper, and the almonds, if using.
3. Bakes for 15 to 20 minutes until the tarts have puffed up and are golden brown.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Homemade Hummus - a low fat recipe

Talk about easy. Making hummus can be summarized in three quick steps: 1) add ingredients to food processor, 2) puree, and 3) eat. But leave it to me to complicate things a little. I thought I'd at least try and lighten up this Middle Eastern staple. Which is not to say that I have anything against the traditional ingredients used in original recipes. The distinctive flavors of chick peas with creamy tahini and fresh parsley, served with warm pieces of pita bread, solicits day dreams of antiquated seaside villages, and brilliant, blue Mediterranean waters, permeated by the actual aromas of sesame, olive oil, and lemons.

Since my goal was to reduce calories, the first ingredient I manipulated was tahini. Tahini is simply toasted sesame seeds which have been ground into a paste. Sesame seeds are also used to make sesame oil so it follows that tahini would contain a good amount of fat. I decided to substitute it for greek yogurt. Low fat greek yogurt, in particular, because it contains just enough fat to lend a creamy texture to the dip but, at the same time, is not as high in calories as tahini. (One hundred and twenty calories per cup of low fat yogurt compared to eighty eight per tablespoon of tahini.)

Next came the lemon juice. I discovered Moroccan preserved lemons last spring and have been using it in most of my seafood dishes and stews, so I always keep some in my refrigerator. The preserving solution also comes in handy but not in a calorie-specific way. It simply imparts a strong, tangy flavor and can be used in most savory dishes that call for fresh lemon juice. But where can one find Moroccan preserved lemons, besides Morocco? They are not as elusive as the name might suggest. I know that Whole Foods carries it as do many imported food stores. But if you can't find them at all, go ahead and use the juice of fresh lemons - the fact that your hummus is fresh and homemade will eclipse any minor ingredient substitution.

Homemade Hummus
Makes approximately 2 cups

1 can chick peas
2 garlic cloves
1/4 plain greek yogurt*
2 tbsp preserved lemon juice **
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Drain the chick peas from the can and add to a pot with just enough water to cover them. Boil for ten minutes. Drain and add to food processor with the garlic, yogurt, and lemon juice. Puree until smooth.
2. Fold in the parsley, and transfer to a serving bowl. Just before serving, drizzle with the olive oil and garnish with pickled peppers (optional.) Serve with pieces of pita bread or whole grain crackers.

* Here I used low fat greek yogurt for a lower calorie hummus but for the traditional version, simply use the same amount of tahini instead.

** If you can't find preserved lemon juice, use the juice of fresh lemons.