Monday, January 25, 2010

The Manipulation of a Recipe or Where Has All the Flavor Gone?

So I don't know how long this has been going on but I’ve been noticing an annoying little trend in ethnic recipes lately. I first noticed it a few years ago in a cookbook I bought from a terrific Spanish restaurant in St. Augustine called The Columbia and in watching the countless cooking shows that I do the trend seems to be popping up more and more. This trend is the watering down or flattening of a recipe.

Now for the average person who just wants to imitate a recipe but has guests, family members etc. who can’t handle intense flavors, spices etc. or doesn’t like anything foreign (which I think defeats the purpose of making the dish to begin with but I digress) this kind of thing might be ok. But for Foodies like me who are aiming for an authentic culinary experience or who want to recreate a dish that’s as close to something that was enjoyed while visiting a restaurant, a foreign land or might be having a foreign visitor for dinner, having an authentic recipe to follow is very important.

Being Puerto Rican and knowing the look and smell of a dish while it’s cooking and when it’s ready and being familiar with the seasonings and ingredients involved, when I come across a recipe for a familiar dish and the recipe itself looks a little off, it makes me wonder do all people of different backgrounds go through this or is it just a few select nationalities who have fallen victim?

Case in point, let’s go with one of my all time favorites, Relleno de papa. This is a fried potato ball filled with savory beef (also known as picadillo) and MAN is it good:-D However, on three occasions I’ve come across a recipe and procedure and the only thing all three seem to agree on is the ball should be fried in oil. I’ll show you what I mean:

According to The Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook, you make mashed potatoes and allow them to rest at room temperature (this is so you don’t burn the hell out of your hands when forming the balls). Then you make 3 inch potato balls, make a well in said ball with a spoon, fill with a tablespoon of picadillo and then reshape, sealing the meat inside. Then coat with eggs and bread crumbs like when making something like chicken tenders or nuggets, cover and refrigerate for an hour. Then fry until golden brown on all sides. The picadillo (pronounced peek ah deeyoh and is not the Mexican cousin of an animal in Texas thank you) involves sauteing onions and peppers, adding tomatoes and garlic, then adding meat, oregano, bay leaves and cumin. Once you stop seeing red on the meat you add salt, pepper, vinegar, raisins, olives and wine and simmer for 15 minutes.

So as mentioned, I’ve got real problem with this. First, I HATE when people decide to add fruit to meat! I don’t know if it’s a thing done in Spain or the restaurant is trying to appeal to its non-Spanish consumers but I’ve never in life eaten, cooked or ever heard of RAISINS going into picadillo! This burns me as much as encountering raisins and grapes in curried chicken. I don't know if it's authentic but the resulting clash in texture, especially when unexpected, makes me want to punch kittens! I also wonder at the use of burgundy, cumin, oregano and garlic as the seasonings involved. Tasting the meat as I went along (I did NOT add raisins, sorry I just refuse, nyah), I found it to be flat and tasteless and only when I added sazon and beer (Budweiser not Heineken, it adds more of a kick) did the meat start to sing. I'd encountered this same problem with their Ropa Vieja recipe. What really got to me was the food at The Columbia is not flat and tasteless and the smells wafting through the restaurant are just phenomenal. It made me wanna cry:) So what was with the craptastic meat dish I kept getting? Is this common practice among eateries and chefs who put out cookbooks? Is it a fear of giving out trade secrets or that people will get so good at replicating the recipe they won’t come in and eat there anymore? If this is the case then fine, either don’t put out a cookbook, publish only recipes you're discontinuing if you do, or let us know this is only a variation of recipes used at the restaurant!

Anyway, whenever I make a dish, any dish, I tend to research it for various methods, spices, flavors etc. and possible history in an attempt to make it as authentic, and tasty, as possible. I royally suck at chicken teriyaki, yes I admit it, hell I can't even spell the thing never mind make it but I will persevere! So after a couple of battles with my favorite cookbook I started googling and came across a recipe that looked and felt more like what I was used to and aiming for and I found it on a great site called El Boricua.

According to El, picadillo is ground beef or pork seasoned with sofrito (if you’re like me you love making it fresh but tend to be a bit lazy or don’t have time, resulting in a large jar of the Goya stuff finding a home in the fridge) but when preparing picadillo for the relleno you lessen the amount of liquid so that the meat is dry but still a bit moist. For the potato balls they suggest making mashed potatoes from potato flakes and the mixture should be thick, dry and sticks to a spoon before mixing in a slightly beaten egg. Once again it’s suggested you shape the balls (oiling up your hands first so the mixture doesn’t stick to them), making an indentation and sealing up a tablespoon of picadillo inside. Then the balls are rolled in cornstarch so as to not fall apart during frying.

Now, I know the purists and old school readers out there are balking at the idea of using instant mashed potatoes instead of making it from scratch and I agree, if you have the time you absolutely should do it from scratch. Nothing tastes better than a meal that’s made completely fresh. However, in a pinch, I have used instant mashed potatoes and flakes and depending on the type you use (I REALLY don’t suggest going generic on this one) it doesn’t come out too bad.

Finally there’s Food Network’s Sunny Anderson who has some fairly decent ideas but she comes across to me as someone who’s trying SO hard to be the next Rachel Ray that she turns me off completely. Anyway, she recently attempted Relleno de Papa, calling them “Chicken Stuf’t Potato Puffs” and suggests combining butter and sazon in a glaze, making mashed potatoes with potato flakes, chips or panko, egg, cornstarch, chili powder, garlic powder, and salt and pepper. The filling, which no longer qualifies as picadillo, blends peppers, rotisserie chicken, oregano, and salt and pepper. To make the balls she agrees on rolling the mixture by hand and making an indentation, however, she then suggests making a second ball to sandwich the filling in between and pinching the seams betwixt the two. Then you roll the ball again between your hands before coating it with egg and more potato flakes (repeat egg and flake coating if you didn’t cover it completely the first time) before frying.

Now, other than the obvious no-no of cross contamination by repeatedly dipping the ball between the egg and flakes (why not just make sure you get it right the first time?), the biggest challenge when cooking relleno de papa is keeping it together during frying. This is why you cool the potato mixture down, make the deep well, don’t overstuff, seal it off correctly by rolling just right and finally dipping. By sandwiching two balls together you run a real risk of the whole thing falling apart and causing a hot burning mess that no one can eat. Oil flies everywhere, things burn and before you know it you’re so discouraged you toss the whole thing away and vow never to make anything ethnic or unfamiliar again thus losing out on a truly terrific epicurean experience.

I’d just like to take a moment to advise anyone attempting Relleno de Papa, especially for the first time, to be sure to have lots of time on your hands as we’re easily talking a 3 hour process. Most people suggest assembling and refrigerating them the night before and leaving the frying until right when you need them to avoid the hassle and chaos that could ensue if you don’t. One final note, as you’re bringing the temperature of the oil up for frying, I highly suggest allowing the balls to get as close to room temperature as you can or at least taking the chill off and keep the kids away from the stove as the impact with the hot oil could be fairly volatile to start with.

Anyway, I’ve gone off track. In my attempts to duplicate dishes from the various ethnicities on this great planet of ours I ask my fellow Foodies for assistance. What pitfalls are there to avoid when cooking certain dishes? What rookie mistakes are made that can be avoided? Have you noticed ingredients or methods being substituted or sacrificed in the interest of time and modernization that just shouldn’t be? What is that the books aren't saying? Share with us won’t you?

El Boricua’s Picadillo recipe
Sofrito Secrets
The Columbia Restaurant
Sunny Anderson’s chicken stuffed potato balls

Friday, January 22, 2010

Portland Harbor Hotel Heats Up Winter With Annual Ice Bar

As promised, the following is a link to an article in the local paper, Maine Today, about an awesome event benefiting three children's charities. If you're in the Portland area with ten bucks and a weekend to spare, come on down to the Portland Harbor Hotel for some cool art (no pun intended), nice drinks and good food:)

News Pile: Portland Harbor Hotel Heats Up Winter With Annual Ice Bar January 28, 29, and 30 |

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A New Challenge

Today I was honored with a commission by an old friend for a Doo Wop Birthday Party in March. The challenge is to make 50s themed candles small enough to serve as party favors for at least 70 guests. We put our heads together and started thinking old fashioned milkshake and ice cream sundae candles, jukeboxes, Elvis, poodle skirts, hula hoops, roller skates, rock n roll, the possibilities are endless.. until a furtive search turned up the lack of possibilities in candle molds (methinks I may have to study up on mold making one of these days). I did find a few things that could work though and after going over color scheme with my client/friend and talking pricing we've agreed on pink poodles, pink and black (I'm going to attempt some kind of swirl pattern) musical notes and chocolate sundaes with a cherry on top, all chocolate and vanilla ice cream scented and all the size of a 3oz votive candle.

A bit difficult? Maybe. Beyond the realms of possibility? Never. So long as the willingness, creativity and imagination are there, anything is possible! This is the kind of thing I love about this business, the challenge and ability to come up with something creative and unique while working within a client's wishes:) If things go as well as I think they will, I'll have pictures and prices up soon on my Etsy store.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Volunteering ideas for the average foodie

As the crafty season grinds to a screeching halt (snow piling up outside my window) and I work on my next big creation, I've also began occupying my time with more culinary related things to do. Still hearing a chorus of crickets from the employment front (nothing says great big loser than submitting 23 resumes in 4 days with no reply), I've decided to focus on keeping my skills sharp for a worthy cause and volunteering my services.

First there's this great organization called Share Our Strength, thinking about it now I vaguely remember seeing commercials around Thanksgiving on Food Network. Anyway, their aim is to end childhood hunger in the United States by 2015 and they do this via fundraising events and grants that assist organizations around the country that provide children and families with healthy food as well as in education programs that teach families how to eat right and stay healthy. You don't have to be an award winning chef, doctor, teacher or nutritionist to help either. You can hold a bake sale, eat at an establishment participating in the Great American Dine Out program, attend a Tasteful Pursuit event, or just write a check.

As for me, I'm happy to say I'll be an active participant and volunteer in kitchens at a few events occurring in Portland over the next few months (details to follow as I get them:) but if you want to find out how to get involved check out this link:

They really are great people and what's better than breaking a sweat to fill the bellies of our nation's youth?

The other organization that's come to my attention is a bit more difficult to get involved with but its cause is just as worthy. The Culinary Corps "enables chefs, cooks, food educators, and culinary students to volunteer their professional skills and tackle some of America’s most critical food challenges: emergency hunger relief, cooking and nutrition education, healthy food access, childhood wellness, and culinary heritage preservation." They've gone to places such as New Orleans and Puerto Rico and plan on visiting Haiti once the first responders have left and rebuilding has begun. However, they are making a list of people interested in offering their services so check out for details.

So, between President Obama efforts and the focus on Haiti, if you've started to feel the urge to volunteer by all means do so. Donate blood, give coats, clothes, glasses, food to your local Goodwill, house of worship or school and contact your local soup kitchen or anyone holding a charity event and see how you might be able to offer your services. Whether you're standing red faced over a boiling pot, hammering nails into a wall of a future home, or gathering supplies for a care package to the troops, there's nothing in this world that feels better than the warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction you get in doing something for others, you just can't put a price on that:)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haitian Earthquake Relief

Unless you've been living under a rock the past couple of days, you're aware that there was a massive earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale followed by several aftershocks averaging around 5.0 that savaged the nation of Haiti, already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Thousands are dead, millions are homeless and the people have only just begun to attempt to rebuild.

And so 40% of all proceeds this week will go to Yele Haiti, an organization founded by Wyclef Jean, musician and humanitarian from Haiti who's been active and vocal about the plight of his people for several years. You can also donate $5 by texting YELE to 501501 or get more info by visiting And the thing I like to see best when giving a donation: 100% of all donations to Yele Haiti actually go to the people!

Thank you in advance for you donations and help and may I say a pox on Pat Robertson, literally may a big ole pox land all over your senile bigoted tiny brained head! There's a special extra hot, ultra humid, funky, moldy place in Hell for people like him.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Introducing Foodies

Well I've worked my fingers to the bone to manipulate polymer clay into the little food puns I'd mentioned earlier. There are lots more to come but for now here is the beginning of the line. I'm considering making them fridge magnets instead of figurines and the going rate is $1.50 each.

Let's see, we've got French Bread, French Onion Soup, Snowpea, Cookie Monster, Fortune Cookie Monster, Milkmaid, Milkman, Deviled Egg and Butterfly

Friday, January 1, 2010

My latest lil brainstorm

As I sit on my comfy couch watching the snow fall and flipping between the Twilight Zone and Looney Toons marathons my mind throws around ideas for my next creation until finally I have it:)

Over the next few weeks I'll be creating and posting "Punnies" (the name is a work in progress). These will be cute little clay figures that play on culinary words and words that are given a culinary twist:)

Here are some cartoon renditions of a few of my favorites:)

Cookie Monster


French onion soup


Ok, quit laughing, I never did say I could draw. That's ok, catch your breath I'll wait.... are you done yet? Anyway, as I create these little gems I'll be posting pictures and prices. In the meantime if there's anything you'd like to see, feel free to give me a jingle. Chow for now!