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Pork tacos for my employees today. I insist on serving them pork even when I know plenty of leftovers always end up going to the mission on our donation days. I love pork so much, I can’t help but try to bring others to my side with a spicy, shredded pork taco, or a tender sandwich oozing barbecue sauce. Funny how many of them don’t eat “swine” (as my banquet manager says!). Religious, cultural or vegetarian reasons prevent so many people from partaking of my favorite meat. I try to share my love of pork with as many people as possible, but so many resist. I really don’t eat much meat, and except for a really great burger, I can usually do without cows. However, I can’t imagine life without a juicy, brined and seared pork tenderloin, still slightly pink on the inside. Whether sweet and salty, with a tart-sweet fruit sauce, salsa or chutney, or thinly sliced with homemade cilantro-lime aioli on a whole wheat roll, it always leaves my taste buds dancing. Most recently, my favorite cut of meat shared a plate with a fresh mango salsa and wonderfully quick couscous. A popular combination that I never tire of, though the type of fruit I use varies with the season. If you can find a local or organic pork tenderloin, grab it while you can, and enjoy one of my all-time favorite dishes.

Another version of pork tenderloin with mango salsa I did a couple of years ago. I told you I love this combination!

Maple Syrup Brine for Pork

1/4 cup real maple syrup

4 cups very cold water

1/4 cup kosher salt

Combine all ingredients, stirring well until salt is dissolved.

Seared Maple Pork Tenderloin

Yields about 4 servings

1 pkg pork tenderloin (about 2 lbs)

1 recipe Maple Syrup Brine

olive oil

sea salt and black pepper to taste

Place the pork in a large container and cover with the brine. Marinate in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours, but no more than 12 hours. More than this will cause a chewy texture and an ultra-salty piece of pork.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the pork from the brine and dry it off gently with paper towels. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Heat a large, oven-proof  sauté pan over medium high heat. Add a small amount of olive oil to the pan. Make sure the pan is very hot, it should be almost smoking, but not quite. Add the pork gently, with tongs, being careful not to splash any oil. Leave it along for a couple of minutes, until you can start to see the pork browning. You want a nice, golden brown color. Flip the pork carefully, and cook the other sides until it is evenly browned. Place the pan in the preheated oven, and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the internal temperature reads 145 degrees. I prefer my pork still slightly pink in the middle, but not bloody. Let the pork rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing to allow the juices to redistribute. Serve immediately.

I like to turn any leftovers into sandwiches, with homemade aioli or barbecue sauce and any veggies I have lying around. Just thinly slice the meat and serve any way you wish. Also great in tacos!

Mango Salsa

1 mango, peeled and small diced

2 tsp cilantro, minced

2 Tbsp red onion, minced

1/2 ea jalapeño, minced

1/2 tsp olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and serve immediately.

Also great with pineapple instead of mango, or add some red bell pepper or cucumber, or anything else that sounds good to you! Have fun and experiment.

And an appetizer version I made at work with cranberry chutney.

A month straight of Oregon rain really starts to get depressing after a while. I actually love the rain (as long as I’m not stuck walking in it!), a good thing considering where I live. I can’t stand hot weather, and the more rain I see, the longer I get to avoid hot, sweaty, sleepless nights. But, after a dreary May filled with windstorms and flooding, the sun finally burned through the clouds and even I rejoiced.  I ignored the pile of soaked socks in the laundry basket and skipped past the sink of dirty dishes. I could not stay inside on such a lovely day. No, today needed celebration, sun and food. Time for a picnic. The refrigerator still bulged with leftovers from the Mexican fiesta we threw for my boyfriend’s family, so I decided on a menu not involving the traditional sandwiches and salads. I grabbed as many ingredients from the refrigerator as I could, and chopped them up into a couple different salsas. A bag of organic corn chips, a couple of bottles of water, and a picnic table next to the river completed the meal. We feasted on avocado pico de gallo, mango-radish salsa, tomato-cucumber salad, and slices of juicy mango. Yes, my boyfriend asked for meat as I pulled the food from the cooler, but as he polished off the last salsa-topped chip, he admitted he did not even have room for a chicken wing. The sun continued to shine as we walked along the river and as I took some time to photograph the nature around me. A wonderful day, a wonderful meal, and a small dent in the products in the refrigerator. A very productive and mood-lifting day!

Avocado Pico de Gallo

Yields about 3 cups

1 avocado, peeled and small diced

4 roma tomatoes, cored and small diced

1/4 cup minced red onion

1/2 jalapeño, seeded, stemmed and minced

2 Tbsp minced cilantro

1 tsp olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and serve immediately.

Mango-Radish Salsa

1 mango, peeled, and small diced

4 large radishes, stemmed and small diced

2 Tbsp minced red onion

2 tsp minced cilantro

1/2 jalapeño, minced

1/2 tsp olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients and serve immediately.

I added 1 diced roma tomato to this when I made it, but I prefer it without. I just needed to use up some tomatoes fast!

Growing up, Sunday mornings meant cold cereal. We looked forward to those mornings because our parents made them special. We never ate cold cereal any other day of the week, just Sundays before church. The rest of the week Mom cooked us pancakes, waffles, hash-browns and eggs, applesauce oatmeal, Scottish oatmeal, Cream of Wheat or breakfast burritos. I laugh now, remembering that we thought the processed, boxed cereal beat out the other homemade treats. Strange kids. Now I prefer any other option, including oatmeal, but with that silly thing called a job, I find few mornings with time for measuring cups, sauté pans or even boiling water. I just don’t like getting up any earlier than I need to! So, I typically make the most important meal of the day a bowl of granola. But, have you ever read the ingredients on a box of the stuff? And the healthier options just get me even further into debt. My version below includes olive oil, flax seeds, maple syrup, all my favorite ingredients! I added applesauce to reduce the fat content (plus, the applesauce really helps to create wonderful clumps, the best part!), and used maple syrup and honey as the sweeteners. And I know with every bite exactly what I am getting.

Granola - Before baking

I love that you can really make a granola recipe your own, as long as you keep the proportions of liquid to dry ingredients correct. Feel free to experiment! That is the best part of cooking. I didn’t add dried fruit to mine because I just don’t like it that much, but definitely add some if you are a fan!

Cinnamon-Almond Granola

3 cups rolled oats

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp sea salt

1 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut

1 cup Scottish oatmeal (you can substitute quick oats, or just add more rolled oats. Do not use steel-cut oats)

1/2 cup golden flaxseed meal

1/2 cup golden flax seeds

1 1/2 cups sliced almonds

1/2 cup applesauce, very smooth (I used my recipe and pureed the applesauce in a food processor. Chunky applesauce is yummy, but doesn’t work as well as an oil substitute!)

1/2 cup real maple syrup

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine the oats, spices, salt, coconut, Scottish oatmeal, flaxseed meal, flax seeds and almonds in a large bowl. In a separate bowl combine the remaining ingredients and mix well. Thoroughly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Spread the granola evenly on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring well every 15 minutes. The granola should be very golden brown when done. If you like it extra clumpy, as soon as you remove it from the oven, place another sheet of parchment paper on top of the granola and press down firmly and evenly. Remove the parchment and let the granola cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Granola - After baking

I finally found time to for a trip to my local farmer’s market! Not even the lively Oregon rain could keep me away this time! I can’t wait for all the summer harvests of corn, berries, tomatoes and stone fruit! But in the meantime, I found huge displays of tasty root vegetables and leafy greens. I didn’t buy much this time (I need to clean out my refrigerator first!) but I couldn’t ignore the rainbow of carrots, baby turnips and beets. I love waking up early and having a fresh carrot to crunch on! No comparison to the grocery store variety. So much sweeter and crispier.

I also picked up a quesadilla from the Canby Asparagus Farm booth for my boyfriend. Filled with cauliflower, a rainbow of bell peppers, onions, zucchini, grilled chicken, and of course, asparagus, this local treat always satisfies. The way they throw the cheese directly on the grill until it melts and gets a little crispy, plus their chipotle-spiked salsa, really makes this quesadilla special. It gets a little messy if you try to eat it with a plastic fork while you walk, but who cares? Can you really wait until you arrive home?

I started my morning with a bowl of homemade granola and organic milk, so I skipped the market lunch, but did pick up a marionberry lemonade. They squeeze the juice right in front of you, and offer endless combinations of fruit to add to your tart-sweet drink. Very refreshing, even in the rain!

Find a farmer’s market near you and support your local economy!

If you live in the Portland area, you need to try Pambiche. Great Cuban food at reasonable prices and fabulous desserts as well. I don’t eat out often anymore, but when I do, I try to make it mean something. I prefer to support the local businesses as often as possible. No one makes a better Cuban sandwich than Pambiche (not a lot of Cuban competition around here) and they serve it with salty-sweet-crunchy tostones (fried plantain chips) and banana ketchup. But, I can’t always justify going out to eat, when I can replicate the results in a satisfactory manner at home.

I woke up a couple of days ago craving a Cuban sandwich slathered in yellow mustard and dripping melted swiss cheese. I tried to ignore the craving and decided to start my morning with homemade granola and a walk. I spent the morning walking the Springwater Corridor, but not surprisingly (I do live in Oregon, don’t I?), ended up getting rained out. Luckily, I found myself on Milwaukie Avenue by the QFC grocery store as raindrops pelted my ponytail. I decided to look around, and found a good selection of organic options. Well, for May in Oregon, anyway. I also found the Draper Valley chicken that I serve at work, but could not locate in local grocery stores. I felt satisfied with my purchases as I exited the store with a natural pork shoulder (very hard to source organic meats! Come on pig farmers!), a pack of organic ham, organic swiss cheese and some whole wheat buns. Oh, and a jar of pickles. Not organic, but cravings for Cuban sandwiches compare to cravings for chocolate or ice cream. Not easily ignored. A Cuban sandwich must include pickles! This summer I promise to can tons of my own kosher dill pickles, but until then, I find myself at the mercy of the grocery store shelf. I arrived home with my treasures, and immediately stuck the pork in the oven. Now, many fancy recipes for pulled pork exist, but when a Cuban sandwich craving strikes, I prefer to go the quick route. Cut the excess fat from the meat, rub it generously with kosher salt, throw some water in the pan and let it go.  Ok, so not the quickest route, as the pork takes about 3 to 4 hours in the oven. Most alternatives take longer though! Finally, several hours later, I sat down to enjoy my yummy, pork-stuffed creation. Worth every minute of preparation, and definitely satisfied my Cuban craving. Only problem, I woke up the next morning with my mouth watering for more salty ham, tender pork and tangy pickles stuffed in whole wheat bread. At least this time my refrigerator already held all the ingredients I needed! Maybe by the end of this week I will tire of the combination. Maybe.

Help! The pan of applesauce is crushing me!

Pulled Pork

1 piece of pork shoulder (mine was about 3-4 lbs)

kosher salt

water

Cut the excess fat from the meat, the more fat you remove, the leaner the pork will be. Rub generously with kosher salt and place in an oven-proof dish. Add about an inch of water, and cover with foil. Bake at 300 degrees for 3 to 4 hours, or until the pork easily shreds apart when touched. If you have to force the pork to shred, it has not cooked long enough. Remove the pork from the liquid immediately (be careful, it will be hot and should fall apart easily), and cool briefly. When cool enough to handle safely, shred with your hands or with two forks. (I prefer my clean hands, a chef’s best tool!) Refrigerate until completely cool (under 40 degrees) then cover and store in the refrigerator. If your pork shoulder is bigger, it will take longer to cook. A full-sized pork shoulder can take as long as 12 hours. Just pay attention to it and check it occasionally for tenderness.

Cuban Sandwich

Yields 1 sandwich

1 whole wheat hamburger bun or other whole wheat roll

2 thin slices of organic Swiss cheese

2 thin slices of organic ham

2 tbsp pulled pork

2 baby dill pickles, thinly sliced

organic yellow mustard

olive oil

Preheat a sauté pan over medium low heat. Spread both cut sides of the bun with yellow mustard. Add a slice of Swiss to each bun half, then a slice of ham. Top the bottom bun with the pork, and then the pickles. Add the top bun. Add a teaspoon of olive oil to the preheated sauté pan. Add the sandwich, then top the sandwich with a piece of foil and something heavy to press it. (I used the pan of homemade applesauce I had cooling on the stove!) Cook for a couple of minutes, or until the bottom of the sandwich is golden brown. Make sure the heat isn’t too high, or the sandwich will burn. Keep an eye on it. Flip the sandwich, and repeat the process with the foil and heavy object. Cook until golden brown. Remove from the heat and serve.

I fell in love with a Mexican . . . cheese! Yes, my boyfriend hails from DF, or Mexico City for all the non-Spanish speaking folks. He introduced me to fresh Mexican cheese, or queso fresco. Great on tostadas, enchiladas, tacos, taco salads, taquitos, pretty much anything with jalapenos or cilantro included in the recipe. Beats the heck out of greasy shredded cheddar. Cheddar has its applications as well (a grilled cheese sandwich with gooey, sharp white cheddar and garlicky kosher dill pickles, yum!), but when cooking Mexican food, nothing beats fresh queso fresco (kind of redundant, huh?). It doesn’t really melt, but caramelizes if baked in the oven or under the broiler. Yummy! One problem, it never goes on sale! Once and a while, maybe, by fifty cents. Pretty expensive stuff. And when I started to shift my eating habits more towards the organic options, I couldn’t stand the thought of cutting out my new favorite cheese. So, I researched my options the way I always do, online. I found plenty of recipes for homemade queso fresco, and they sounded so easy, I wondered why I never thought of it before. I tried it out with some organic milk, and sure enough, it turned out wonderfully! And so easy to make. I can now make my own organic lime and sea salt queso fresco, with my own spin and control over sodium and preservative content. I am so in love with this cheese, that the other cheeses may start to get jealous. Oh well, I may have one great love, but I can have some fun on the side once and a while, right? I mean you, cheddar!

Lime and Sea Salt Queso Fresco

I adapted this recipe from the recipe on this website.

Yields about 1 cup crumbled queso fresco

1 qt whole milk, do not use ultra pasteurized

1 lime, juiced

1 tsp sea salt

Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the milk almost comes to a boil. Tiny bubbles should  form around the edges of the pan, but do not bring the milk to a full boil. If you use a thermometer, the milk should reach about 195 degrees. Add the lime juice. Stir and then remove from the heat. Let sit for about 10 minutes. The curds should start separating from the whey almost immediately.  After 10 minutes, stir and then pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer. (There are uses for the whey if you want to save it). Sprinkle the curds with the sea salt. Gather the curds in the center of the cheesecloth, and form it into a loose ball. Top it with a plate and some weights (canned food works well) to help with the draining/firming process. Refrigerate (make sure there is a bowl under the strainer!) for a few hours until the majority of the whey has been pressed from the cheese. Remove the cheesecloth and store the cheese in the refrigerator in a covered container for 5 to 7 days, depending on the freshness of the milk.

If you read any of my other blog posts, you will notice the word mom mentioned many times. This post continues my theme of mom-inspired creations, which may never end. Sorry if you tire of hearing about this wonderful woman, but her hard-working example in the kitchen made me who I am today, a lover of food, cooking, and all things culinary. She ruined me for many things, including her famous apple pie (I may never even attempt to replicate her specialty) and also pancakes. Rarely did her pancakes drip with maple syrup. Her homemade oatmeal pancakes came with a variety of toppings. Applesauce, peanut butter, berries, jams, whipped cream and her simple berry syrup made from apple juice concentrate, frozen berries and corn starch. Mom taught us to cook as soon as she could, and pancakes topped the list of items we enjoyed helping her make. No Krusteaz or Bisquick for her, just a few fresh ingredients in a bowl and an electric griddle. It is her fault I am a pancake snob. Yet, I am sure she would not complain about me blaming her for that. I never order pancakes from a restaurant. Restaurant pancakes rarely taste like anything other than white flour and grease from the over-used griddle. Spongy rounds of dough made from prepackaged mix do not appeal to me. Why buy them when I can make them better? I often say that I never make the same recipe twice. I enjoy experimenting and trying new versions of the same classics. However, I found my new favorite pancake recipe a few days ago. A recipe destined to fulfill my pancake cravings for years to come. No more searching the internet in vain for new pancake inspiration. I found pancake heaven. Filled with whole grains, low in fat and sugar, and even great reheated! My kind of recipe. They may even threaten the popularity of the homemade waffles that typically fill my freezer. I adapted this recipe from Flaxseed Meal Pancakes from Bob’s Red Mill. When looking for a whole-grain recipe, I typically start with Bob’s. I highly recommend anything with his smiling, bearded face on the label.

Golden Flaxmeal Pancakes

Yields 12 each pancakes

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 tsp sea salt

3 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 cup Scottish oatmeal

6 tbsp golden flaxseed meal

1 1/2 cups organic milk

2 tbsp real maple syrup (no fake sugar syrup!)

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

olive oil

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon. Add the oatmeal and flax-seed meal. In a separate bowl combine the milk, maple syrup, egg and vanilla. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry, and combine. Do not over mix, or the pancakes will be tough. The batter should still be lumpy. Heat a non-stick skillet (or electric griddle or whatever you cook your pancakes) over medium heat. Drizzle one teaspoon of olive oil in the pan, and then add the pancake batter, in 1/4 cup portions. Flip when the edges of the pancakes start to dry and bubble. These pancakes may take longer to cook than the typical pancake recipe, because of the whole grain ingredients. Cook the pancakes until cooked through (the pancake should feel spongy and springy when you touch the middle of it). Do not flip the pancakes over again! Flipping them again will only dry out the pancake. This goes for all pancake recipes. Remove them from the heat and continue with the rest of the batter. Eat immediately, or refrigerate for a quick breakfast later in the week. Much better fresh, of course, but I don’t feel like cooking at 4:30 in the morning, so sometimes I make a huge batch of these and grab one as I run out the door. Great bus stop food! Minus the toppings, of course.