Cuban Comfort Food (by any other name)

My first encounter with today’s dish was during a college tour trip to Manhattan.  We were visiting Columbia University with our son, who was then nearing graduation from high school.  When the time came to grab some lunch we popped into a Cuban joint across Broadway.  Sadly, in the intervening five years the place has closed, but it was there I sampled Ropa Vieja for the first time and was instantly hooked by this savory, bright-tasting meaty concoction.


Recently I made some Ropa Vieja for some friends whom we hadn’t seen in some time.  One of them was born and raised in Honduras, so when I introduced the dish by its Cuban name, she didn’t recognize it.  All that changed, however, the moment she took her first bite.  She instantly brightened up and said: “I know this dish. In Honduras we call it salpicón.  This is just like my dad made it.  This is comfort food for me.”  Needless to say I was deeply gratified at her enthusiastic response, despite the fact that I had cooked up this down-home Honduran fare entirely by accident.

Whatever you prefer to call it, here is what you will need for 6-8 servings:

  • 1 cup beef stock or low-sodium beef broth
  • 1 can (15 oz.) crushed tomatoes
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jar (4 oz.) pimentos
  • 4 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 ½ to 3 lb. flank steak
  • ½ cup green olives, sliced
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish

You can do this dish either in a slow cooker or using a Dutch oven braise.  Either way, combine the stock or broth, tomatoes and paste, onion, garlic, peppers, pimentos, dried spices and sugar in your cooking vessel and mix well.  Season the flank steak well with salt, and cut it into pieces of about a half-pound each. Push the pieces down into the sauce until they are completely covered.  Cover and cook on low heat, about 8 hours for a slow cooker or 3-4 hours for a Dutch oven.

When the steak is quite tender, transfer it to your cutting board and shred it with a pair of ordinary forks, like so.

IMG_0993 (1)_edited

Return the shredded meat to the pot, along with the olives, cilantro and vinegar. Adjust your seasonings with salt and pepper, then cover to cook for another 30 minutes or so.

And with that, you’re ready to serve it up with a garnish of fresh cilantro.  Ropa Vieja is a great stand-alone dish, but also goes very well over a bed of rice.  We served ours with a side of my signature Cuban black beans, and there were big happy grins all around – even if we were actually eating Honduran food.  Until next time: Eat well, my friends!






Strawberry Pavlovas – Gluten Free Yumminess

Thankfully neither I nor Lolly have much to worry about in the way of dietary restrictions. Yes, we try to keep things reasonably balanced and healthy, and she does have an allergy to kiwi (and also shrimp, if her more recent paranoia is to be believed), but otherwise we eat whatever makes us happy. Occasionally, however, I cook for friends where gluten sensitivity is a problem, so one of my go-to dessert options is Strawberry Pavlovas.


These are basically baked meringue cakes that are made with no flour. They are also very low fat until you put the whipped cream on top. Here is what you will need to make 6 servings:

  • 1 pint strawberries
  • 1/4 cup sugar + 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • Whipped cream for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper.

Hull and chop or slice the strawberries according to your preference, then toss them in a bowl with the 1/4 cup of sugar until they are evenly coated. Refrigerate them until the pavlovas are ready to serve.

In a food processor, mill the 3/4 cup of sugar using the pulse button until it reaches a fine texture (or simply use extra-fine sugar). In a medium bowl, whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until they are foamy, then add half of the fine sugar and whip until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl, sift the rest of the fine sugar with the cornstarch. Add this to the egg whites along with the vanilla and vinegar and blend until incorporated.


Spoon the mixture into 6 piles on the parchment paper. Use a spoon to create an indentation in the center of each pile.


Bake for 40 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the pavlovas in the oven untouched for at least another 20 minutes to finish.  Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

To serve, simply top the pavlovas with the strawberries and pipe on some whipped cream.  These are always a big hit whenever I make them, even for us non-gluten-sensitive types.  The cakes are sweet and crumbly, with an interesting chewiness to the texture.  Prepare for big happy grins all around. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!



My Favorite Seafood Bisque

This week we’re coming off the drama of Lolly attempting to amputate one of her own digits while working in my kitchen last Wednesday evening.  She disrespected my razor-sharp Shun chef’s knife and, not surprisingly, it bit her.  So, after a trip to the ER for some stitches, she has sworn off cooking in any form for the foreseeable future.  But she has not sworn off eating as long as I’m the one taking my chances with those viciously sharp implements of doom that populate my kitchen.  And tonight she wanted seafood bisque.


This recipe is my adaptation of one that I found in an older edition of the Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home book. Every time I have made this dish so far, it has been extremely well received.  It’s doubly enjoyable because it’s super-easy and comes together in under an hour beginning to end. Here is what you will need for 6 servings:

  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 medium shallot, chopped
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1 qt. seafood stock
  • ¼ cup long grain rice
  • 1 tbsp. ketchup
  • 2 lobster tails (about 4 oz. each)
  • 1 lb. imitation crab or lobster meat
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne
  • ¼ cup dry sherry

A quick note on ingredients:  I use imitation meat for this dish for a couple reasons.  First, the taste is beautiful and so is the color.  Second, a full pound of real crab or lobster meat will cost you multiples more without making a dramatic difference in the taste, and the color will actually be less attractive, in my humble opinion.  Imitation crab or lobster meats are both made predominantly of Alaska pollock, which is a respectable fish in its own right, so they’re basically interchangeable, and unless you’re a hardcore New England purist about your bisque, the imitation stuff will work just fine.

So let’s get started already.  In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat and sweat the shallots until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and, when it has begun to boil, stir in the stock, rice and ketchup. Bring the heat up to high just until the mixture begins to boil, then back it down to low and cover the pot to simmer until the rice is cooked, which will take about 20 minutes.

While that is going on, bring a separate pot of water up to a full boil. Add the lobster tails and cook them for 4 minutes, then remove them from the water to your cutting board to cool until you can handle them comfortably.  Using a pair of good kitchen shears, cut through the shells and remove the tail meat.  Carefully remove the dark colored vein at the top center of the tails, then dice them up and set them aside for now.


Back to your main dish, when the rice is finished, remove the pot from the heat and add the imitation meat.  Now it’s time to puree the soup.  My tool of choice is my handy-dandy Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender, but you can also use your Vitamix or similar stand blender if you work (very carefully) in batches.  Either way, blend the soup to a smooth, creamy consistency, then whisk in the cream, salt and cayenne, followed lastly by the sherry. Return the pot to low heat to maintain serving temperature, and stir in the reserved lobster meat to add a little texture to the finished dish, but keep back some of it for garnish.


And with that your bisque is ready to serve. Garnish with a light sprinkle of cayenne and some of those last bits of reserved lobster meat, add a little crusty buttered bread on the side, and you’re off to the races. We absolutely love this dish, and there are big happy grins all around whenever I make it. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!



Thai Chicken and Spinach Soup

For my two-year blogiversary (no, that’s not really a word, in case you were wondering), I decided it would be fun to circle back around to where I started things two years ago – with Thai food. Lolly has been pestering me to make her a Thai soup with lots of coconut milk and bright, authentic Thai flavors, so this dish seemed to fit the bill. This is another interpretation of the traditional soup Tom Kha, which was featured some months ago in my earlier post A Pair of Thai Classics.  Same basic idea, but with the flavor profile heading off in a little different direction. Also, this version is much heartier and comes across more like a stew than a soup. I made this in a slow cooker over the space of about 6 hours, but you can get the same results in about half the time simmering on the stovetop.


Here are your ingredients to satisfy 6-8 hungry souls:

  • 4 bone-in chicken breast halves (about 4-5 lb. total weight)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 qt. chicken broth
  • Zest one lime, and juice of 3 limes
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp. light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
  • 12 oz. small white mushrooms
  • 3 cups (about 2 cans) coconut milk
  • 1 can (8 oz.) sliced bamboo shoots
  • 1 bag (5 oz.) baby spinach
  • ½ cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves
  • Chopped cilantro and scallions for garnish
  • Cooked jasmine rice for garnish (optional)

Season the chicken breasts with salt. In a large capacity slow cooker or stock pot, combine the chicken broth, lime zest and juice, fish sauce and brown sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Lay the chicken pieces breast side down in the liquid, and sprinkle with the peppers and mushrooms. The liquid should be enough to cover the breasts, or close to it anyway. In a slow cooker, cover and cook on low heat for about 4 hours, or on the stovetop simmer on low heat for about 2 hours.

When the chicken is cooked through, use a pair of tongs to pull it out of the broth and move it to your cutting board. The meat should pull easily off the bones. Using two forks, shred the chicken meat, then return it to the broth. Stir in the coconut milk, then add the bamboo shoots and spinach, pressing all the leaves down into the liquid. Put the cover back on and continue cooking on low heat for 1 to 1 ½ hour in the slow cooker, or about 30 minutes on the stovetop, until the spinach is tender.


And with that, you’re finished. Serve it up with some fresh cilantro and scallions. If you like, put a scoop of cooked jasmine rice in the bottom of the bowl before ladling in the soup. This dish is hot, hearty, healthy and satisfying. It will definitely fill you up and warm you up on a cold New Year’s Day. We chowed down on it with a big happy grin, and I’m sure you will too. Until next time: Eat well, my friends.


Fat Chicken – The Other Other White Meat

First of all, I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to all my dear readers, as I toast you with a glass of fine Glenlivet 18-year scotch while I write this humble missive.  Thanks for hanging around and reading my culinary ramblings for the past two years.

Okay, admit it – like us, you’re tired of always having turkey (or ham) for major holidays, but you don’t know what else would be a suitable substitute worthy of the occasion. I can cook a pretty mean turkey, but let’s face it, sometimes the same ole same ole gets a little … well … old.  So, what does our family do when this awful quandary presents itself?   We turn to fat chicken.  No, that’s not really the name of the dish, but it’s what we have been calling it for many years because that’s what you will be if you eat this recipe too often.  Lolly discovered it in a cookbook long ago, and it has been a family favorite ever since.


Christmas in the Johnson household this year has been a modest affair – just me, Lolly and our 21-year-old son Alex gathered for a simple holiday dinner.  The fireplace is glowing, the ground outside is covered with snow (in Kentucky of all places!), and from our kitchen wafts the fragrant aroma of fat chicken.  Here is what you will need to make 4 servings:

  • 4 boneless chicken breast halves
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. dried basil leaves
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tbsp. fresh grated parmesan
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup dry white wine

Preheat your oven to 375. Melt the butter by whichever method is most convenient for you.  In a shallow dish (a pie plate works very well), mix the bread crumbs, basil, oregano, parmesan, garlic powder and salt.  Pound the chicken breasts to a uniform thickness of about ½ inch.  Dip them in the melted butter, then coat them in the bread crumb mixture and place them in a glass baking dish.  Keep the rest of your butter, as you will need it soon enough.


Bake the chicken for about 45 minutes until it temps about 160. While that is in the oven, combine the reserved butter with the scallions, parsley and wine.  If the butter has begun to congeal, pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds and it will be right as rain. When the bake time is finished for the chicken, pull it out and pour the butter-wine-herb mixture over the top like so:


Then it’s back into the oven for another 5-10 minutes to finish and, voila!  You have fat chicken ready to serve to your nearest and dearest.  Plate it up with whatever traditional sides you would otherwise serve on your feast day, and munch it down with big happy grins all around.  Until next time, a very Merry Christmas to all, and eat well, my friends!


Classic Spaghetti Carbonara

Have you ever watched those shows about the mob and observed how many wiseguys and goodfellas tend to be a tad hefty in the waist? Today’s dish is a big part of the reason for that. Any true son of Italy has grown up on this incredibly simple but intensely flavorful pasta recipe. It’s a staple dish of every Italian grandma, and comes together faster than you can say “Bada bing.” Okay, maybe not quite that fast, but you get the idea. The only downside is that from a fat and cholesterol perspective it’s kind of a heart attack on a plate, so it’s not something that you want to eat every day.


Here are your ingredients for 3-4 servings:

  • 1 lb. spaghetti (linguine also works well)
  • ½ lb. thick cut bacon
  • 3 eggs, well beaten
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Fresh chopped basil for garnish

Traditionally a carbonara sauce is made with guanciale rather than bacon, but that can be hard to find in most American markets. Pancetta is also a good option, but I find that regular old bacon lends a very nice smoky, salty flavor to the dish.

Cut the bacon into half-inch pieces and, in a very large deep skillet, cook it over medium heat to render the fat and brown the bacon to a nice crisp texture. While the bacon is frying, get your pasta boiling in some well salted water. While those are doing their thing, whisk the eggs thoroughly to ensure any curds are broken up, then crack LOTS of fresh black pepper into the eggs. Don’t be shy about it. The pepper is the backbone of this recipe’s flavor profile. The name carbonara translates roughly as “coal-burner” style, and comes from the way the pepper creates the appearance of little bits of soot throughout the sauce. So, just when you think you’ve given it enough pepper, guess again. Be bold. Give it a bit more, and maybe a bit more after that.


When you’re done with the pepper, whisk the cream into the eggs. Most Italians would blanch at the thought of incorporating cream into a carbonara – the sauce is supposed to be made just from the eggs and cheese. However, this sauce is all about technique, and without the cream there is a very narrow margin between a creamy sauce and something resembling finely scrambled eggs on your pasta. The cream makes the latter much less likely to happen, and also adds a beautiful richness to the finished product.

 So, when the pasta and bacon are both done cooking, it’s time to put the sauce together. If you’re concerned about eating too much bacon fat, you can remove some of it from the skillet at this point, but don’t drain it entirely. Instead, you’ll want to keep most or all of the drippings in the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, transfer the pasta directly from the cooking water, and stir it thoroughly to coat it with the fat and mix in the pieces of cooked bacon. Next, pour in the egg-pepper mixture and stir vigorously to cover the pasta. At this point you should see a creamy sauce forming. Next stir in the grated cheese along with about ¼ cup of the pasta water, again mixing vigorously to coat the pasta evenly.


And with that you’re done. Plate it up, garnish with a little more cheese, pepper and some fresh basil and munch it down like a true goodfella. It will put a big happy grin on your face and an extra inch on your waistline. Until next time: Mangia, mangia, my friends!


Persian Chicken and Walnut Stew

Occasionally as I explore the endless world of culinaria I come across some new ingredient that so piques my curiosity that I have to find a reason to use it for its own sake.  In this instance the ingredient was pomegranate molasses. I found it while browsing the Middle Eastern foods section at Jungle Jim’s International Market, which is the ultimately foodie mecca in the Cincinnati area.  Unable to resist the mystique of this very exotic sounding concoction, I scooped up a bottle to take home – where it spent the next several months in my pantry as I inevitably got distracted by a hundred other culinary enthusiasms in the weeks that followed.  At length I remembered it was there and found a good excuse to use it. Here was the result:


Today’s dish is of Persian derivation, and goes by the traditional name of Fesenjan chicken stew.  It is extremely easy to put together, but requires at least a little patience due to the slow braising technique that produces fall-apart tender chicken and a bright, tangy sauce that will leave you wanting more.  Here are your ingredients to make 6-8 servings:

  • 3 cups walnuts
  • 2 oz. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 qt. chicken stock, simmering
  • 1 bottle (10 oz.) pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Sliced green onions for garnish
  • Cooked basmati rice

Start by preheating the oven to 350°.  Line a baking sheet with foil and spread out the walnuts in a single layer.  Roast them for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the oven to cool.  When they are fully cooled, use your food processor to finely chop them, and set them aside for now.  Turn your oven down to 300°.

For the main braise I would recommend a very large, deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid that can safely go into the oven.  I used a 6-quart size, which worked well, but you will need at least 4-quart capacity.  A Dutch oven is also a good option here.  If you have none of those in your kitchen, you can also transfer the food from your skillet to a suitably sized casserole dish.  I prefer to use the same cooking vessel for two reasons:  first, to make sure I’m not leaving behind any flavor; and second, to cut down on dirty dishes.

Start by heating half each of the oil and butter over medium heat.  Using half of the chicken in the first batch, sear the thighs for about 5-8 minutes on each side until lightly browned, then set them aside on a plate.  Add the remaining oil and butter, and sear off the remaining chicken.  Then, using the drippings still in the pan, sauté the onions until caramelized and tender, which should take about 10 minutes.  Don’t be shy about putting some nice rich color in them.

When the onions are finished browning, return the chicken to the skillet.  Deglaze with the hot chicken stock, making sure to scrape all the flavorful stuck-on bits from the bottom of the pan.  Let the stock come up to a boil, then back it down to a simmer, and stir in the walnuts, molasses, brown sugar and salt.  Cover the skillet and pop it into the oven to braise for 2 hours.

When that two hours is nearly over, prepare some basmati rice to serve as the bed underneath your stew.  The finished product will have a thick, rich, intensely flavorful sauce, and the rice will provide a perfect canvas on which to highlight it.  The final result will be brightly acidic, fruity, and subtly sweet, with a rustic, hearty texture and big tender chunks of chicken that literally fall apart at the slightest touch.  The last step is to garnish with the sliced green onions.  We gobbled this down with much enthusiasm, and big happy grins all around.  Pomegranate molasses?  My new best friend – until the next awesome thing catches my fancy. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!