Monday, February 28, 2011

Beets... it's what's for dinner!

One of the most satisfying and comforting vegetables out there, in my opinion. Biting into a beet is almost like biting into a perfectly cooked piece of beef tenderloin. It IS the beef tenderloin of vegetables. I mean, take away the the "t" at the end and replace it with an "f" and what do you spell? BEEF! This is one kind of "red meat" that you don't have to worry about, though.
To bring out the best in this curious root vegetable, you'll want to oven-roast them. This is my favorite way to cook almost any vegetable- it really brings out the vegetable's best qualities and it is a very simple cooking technique.

Set the oven to 400 degress F. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy clean-up.
Begin by cleaning the beets under running water and then cut off the tops with the greens. If you need to, cut some of them in half to keep them all the same size for even cooking. Toss with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt. Cook in the oven at 400 until just fork-tender. It's usually about 20 minutes, but it may take a little less or a little longer depending on the size of the beets. Once you take them out and they have cooled completely, you need to peel the skin off the beets. If you have cooked them just right, the skin will peel right off. Don't be afraid of the red tinge on your fingers... it's the sign of a true cook! Everyone will know you're quite a cook the next day because of the tell-tale red all over your fingers! The beets are now ready to eat...
My favorite way to enjoy my freshly roasted beets is by tossing them into some fresh baby greens (delicious with arugula!), plenty of fresh, crumbled goat cheese and topped off with a nice Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil. Mmmmm... absolute comfort food to me in terms of a good salad! That dark jewel-tone color just seeps into me and makes me want to eat them all (at which point the jewel-tone color actually finds its way back out shortly after-you have been warned! wink, wink)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Valentine's Birthday Dinner

My Valentine has a Valentine's Day birthday. As I mentioned earlier, it was known growing up in my family  that the birthday boy or girl got to ask for their favorite dinner on their birthday. I didn't have to ask twice to get Maverick to tell me what he wanted his birthday meal to be: "Ajiaco!"

Ajiaco (pronounced "ah-heeya-co") is a delicious, heart-and-soul warming potato soup with chicken and corn along with other toppings like avocado, cream, and capers. The chicken gets 'fall-off-the-bone-tender' as it cooks slowly, the potatoes cook down to lend their texture and flavor to the broth, and the corn-on-the-cob adds its extra special flavors at the end. In Colombia, they use three different kinds of potatoes for Ajiaco: "criolla", "pastusa" and "sabanera." "Guascas" are also a typical herb used in the ajiaco for flavor. Everywhere else in the world, a "guasca" is known as a "weed" and they have been known to be found almost everywhere, unbeknownst to me until now. (And I consider myself Colombian? I'm off to go look in my backyard to see if I have any "guascas" growing back there!)
Originating in Bogota, ajiaco is one of the most typical dishes of the Andean region and it happens to be one of my favorite foods in the world. The thought of it alone conjures up every memory of mine in Bogota, many times eating a bowl of ajiaco, and mostly of my mom's perfectly cooked ajiaco on Christmas Eve. This is a really tough dish for me to measure up to in my mind as it is one of the main dishes that I turn to for real comfort. I don't like to cook it because I am literally afraid of messing it up. I don't feel like this about any other dish that I can think of.

 All of that being said, this is how the rest of the story goes:

I consider myself very fortunate to have married a man that appreciates my Colombian heritage. Maverick not only loves all Colombian food you put in front of him (who doesn't???), he also wonders why I don't cook the stuff for him EVERY. DAY. So when he asked for ajiaco for his birthday dinner, he knew what my first reaction would be.
"No. I don't have the right ingredients to make it taste like it should. Sorry. Pick another dish. It just won't be the same."
To which he very pragmatically replied, "I knew you would say that. I was just kidding. Cook me whatever you would like."
I love that man, and so then I thought about it. And the more I thought about it, the more I knew that I HAD to cook ajiaco for his birthday dinner. So I (reluctantly) went to the store and got the potatoes, corn, chicken, chicken stock, and cilantro that I needed. I kept going over my plan-of-attack in my head and I couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of reluctance to cook this dish. And then I called Chef. (I should really have a red phone with a direct line to him for moments like this.) I usually have a pretty good idea of how to cook things, but I needed help here because the last couple of times I had attempted ajiaco it took me literally ALL day and that did not fit into my Monday plans. This is one of the few dishes that I have encountered that really brings me to my knees. Ajiaco seems to be my challenge as a chef and I was about to meet it head-on for the third time. The first two times were forgettable...edible, but forgettable nonetheless.
Chef was his usual brilliant self. He dumbed the dish down enough for me to not feel any anguish over it anymore. It was just a "stew", as Chef put it. It's just a slow cooked, potato and chicken stew... then add the other ingredients. I could do this.
So I set to it. And can I just say... it turned out really, really, GREAT! ... even by my own impossible standards. Thank you, Chef! You saved me, again!
So if you would like to attempt this quintessential Colombian dish, just follow this very simple recipe. It is the perfect dish to feed your body and soul on a cold winter's day!

Ajiaco (Colombian potato and chicken stew with corn)

You will need:
1 whole chicken cut into quarters
Baby potatoes (or any small potato)
2 large Idaho potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 Russet potato, peeled and cubed
1 onion, finely diced
4-6 pieces corn-on-the-cob
1 carton Chicken Stock
3-4 c. water
salt (to taste)
Heavy Cream

Add about a Tbsp. of butter or olive oil to the bottom of a stockpot and melt over high heat. Add finely diced onions and cook until translucent. Salt the chicken on all sides and brown chicken on both sides at this time. (You may trim the excess fat and skin off of the chicken before cooking, or leave the skin on. It is a matter of personal preference.) Add the chicken stock.
Dice the 3 large potatoes into about 1-inch cubes or smaller and cook slowly with the chicken in its broth until the potatoes have essentially cooked down almost completely in order to thicken the broth. At this point, add the corn-on-the-cob and then the baby potatoes, cut to bite-size.  The soup will have simmered on low for the total of about an hour to an hour and a half. Add almost the entire bunch of cilantro at the end and let simmer for 10-15 more minutes before removing the cilantro (to prevent bitterness). Take the chicken and corn out of the stock pot. Shred the chicken and serve separately with the corn for each person to add. Serve the ajiaco in bowls, allowing each person to add their desired amount of fresh, shredded chicken, and corn-on-the cob. As a final touch, add some fresh avocado, a drop or two of heavy whipping cream, and some capers over the top. Enoy!