Sunday, January 30, 2011

Potatoes Worth Waiting For

Tonight I said goodbye to the last of the fresh vegetables from CSA share. The pound of red potatoes in my crisper could have probably made it a little longer, but it seemed as if the time was finally right to make them. I didn’t want to wait too long and waste them, after all.

My friend Barb had given each of the attendees at our last Cooking Light cooking club event, a Spanish themed dinner, a small bag of saffron to take home. She received it from a friend and had more than she could use.

I had been burning a hole in my proverbial pocket ever since. I had never cooked with saffron, but certainly had tasted it on my trip to Spain. I found a recipe for Saffron Almond Potatoes on the Cooking Light recipe page and printed it out immediately. It called for red potatoes, which seemed like fate.

The potatoes are roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper, in a sauce of water, tomato sauce, and saffron, that is dusted with paprika. As it cooked, it filled the kitchen with a rich smoky aroma that was the perfect antidote for the snow outside.

I had plenty of time to take the scent in as I prepared the crumb topping, which I was quite excited about. First I toasted slivered almonds, then added them with two garlic cloves, some more olive oil and some toasted bread, to the food processor.

When the potatoes were tender I took them out of the oven and topped them with the almond mixture, while they were still steaming. The combination of the garlic and almond together was tasty enough on its own, but with the spicy, tender potatoes it was an especially nice juxtaposition. These were definitely the special potatoes I had been waiting for.

As I ate the potatoes I took stock of the CSA vegetables I still had preserved. I have quite a few tomatoes left and a few packages of pesto, but that's it. Next I counted the months until my first CSA delivery of the next season. Five. Remembering that I slowed down and savored my special potatoes a little bit more.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Arracache Picadillo Turned into Spicy Potato Picadillo Soup

It has been about a year since I visited Costa Rica. While I was there I visited a banana, sugar cane and coffee plantation. Although we got to try sugar cane fudge and coffee, the highlight of the tour was tasting a local dish, arracache picadillo.

Although we had just a taste the arracache picadillo really stuck with me. I vowed to make it when I returned home, buying a recipe book in the gift shop with the proprietor’s own recipe to make it happen.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve returned to the recipe, again and again. Recreating it wasn’t as easy as I hoped. The first problem was the main ingredient, arracache or arracacha. It wasn’t something an American typically came across in the produce section.

Arracache are a root vegetables native to South America. When our tour guide pulled one out of the ground it looked something like a white carrot, wide at the top and narrow and pointed at the bottom. He explained that it tasted something like a cross between celery and a potato. Later when we ate in the picadillo it tasted distinctive and very good, though I couldn’t say what it tasted like.

Even though the vegetables in my CSA box were varied, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t come across arracacha, so I began searching everywhere else I could think of. I tried Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and the Hispanic grocery stores in Madison.

Language was often a barrier on the Latin grocery story. I held up my recipe book and pointed to arracache in the list and most just squinted before shrugging their shoulders. One woman pointed me to the meat counter.

“Arracache?” I asked tentatively.

She nodded and pointed again to the counter.

“It’s a vegetable,” I said, mad at myself for not knowing such a simple Spanish word.

“No,” she said. “Carne.”

I knew that word, but it didn’t seem right, so I said “gracias” and left.

That was sometime at the end of the summer and the last time I thought about making the arracache picadillo until this weekend. I used of the remaining CSA potatoes last weekend for a tortilla española, and noticed it was growing eyes.

With two bags of potatoes left, I decided I needed to use them soon. One would go for fake arracache picadillo. If arracache tasted something like a celery and a potato, potatoes should be a good substitution.

I started by looking again at the recipe and it hadn’t become any less confusing over the past few months. The problem, besides the missing ingredient, was that the recipe had been written in Spanish and translated into English without someone who knew both languages and the recipe proofing it

As such, it included items such as mincemeat and salami, neither of which seemed right. I assumed mincemeat meant ground beef, but hadn’t seen anything like salami anywhere in Costa Rica. Once in the store, I completely changed course and bought chorizo, mainly because it was an item I had meant to try anyway and seemed like a likely combination of both ingredients.

The rest of the ingredients were easy: garlic, onion, bell pepper, coriander, achiote, chicken stock, tomatoes, oil, salt, and pepper. I skipped the coriander because I’m not a big fan. Achiote is a red spice that is typical in Latin American cooking. I was able to get it at one of the Hispanic grocery stores. It looked like chile powder, but didn’t have a spicy flavor, just turned everything a bright red color.

I cut up the potatoes and boiled them until they were just about tender before draining them. I planned to cook them again with the rest of the ingredients and didn’t want them to get too mushy. Meanwhile I sautéed the garlic, pepper and onion until they were tender before adding the chorizo and achiote.

At this point I looked at the remaining ingredients on my countertop. I had a cup of chicken stock and three whole tomatoes that I had taken from my stash in the freezer. In the pan, the chorizo, peppers, garlic and onions looked to be the perfect consistency of picadillo, which is used as filling for tortillas. Adding the stock and tomatoes would make it too runny.

In that moment I realized why it had taken me almost a year to try and reproduce this recipe. I didn’t want to fail and without arracacha I was destined to do so. With this in mind I poured my chorizo mix into a soup pot and added the tomatoes and chicken stock. About a half an hour later I had my own picadillo recipe — spicy potato picadillo soup.

Sometimes cooking is about recreating a recipe. Other times, one dish serves as the beginning of another. Perhaps I’ll have the arracache picadillo again someday, but tonight I’m having an inspiration.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year’s Chili

So here we are at day one of 2011. With my lawn making a surprise visit from beneath the snow yesterday, it’s almost possible to believe there are only six months until the next CSA season begins.

Of course it’s a bit of an illusion. From my window it might look like spring, as it felt yesterday at 45-degrees, but one step outside proves that winter is here to stay for a while. Back in the teens today, with a wind chills that feel like subzero, I’m glad I still have some of my CSA stash to welcome in the chilly new year.

With my eye on the last buttercup squash, and wanting to start the new year out with a new recipe, I decided to make chili of a different sort. The resulting black bean and squash chili was hearty enough for the chill outside and also healthy way to get back on track after my gluttonous past few weeks.

I added buttercup squash, black beans, an onion, about four of my frozen oven-dried tomatoes, chicken broth, cumin, and ground chipotle pepper powder to my slow cooker before braving the weather to run some errands. By the time I returned a few hours later I needed something to warm me up. I knew the chili would fit the bill by the scent that welcomed me back in the house.

The ground chipotle pepper powder added the right amount of heat to the dish, making my nose run when I ate it, my measure of a good chile. The squash and onion added a nice sweetness to the dish, which was good since I had eaten so many sweets all December. I wanted something healthy to move into January, but I wasn’t exactly to go cold turkey.

The meal warmed me up and made me feel good without making me feel too guilty. I’d be lucky if all my meals accomplished that in the coming year. Here’s wishing you the same in 2011!