Monday, August 27, 2012

Mexican-Style Pinto Beans

It took me a long, long time to understand that very often the best things are the simplest. In an age where everything is “epic” and “mega” and “huge,” there is great pleasure to be found in things that are straightforward and uncomplicated. A simple pot of beans slowly simmering on top of the stove can provide an aroma that warms the very soul.

When it comes to fixing a pot of pinto beans, I defer to Ralph’s expertise. He takes cues from the memories of his loving mother, who made beans all the time in a simple and flavorful way. One taste and it is easy to understand why this dish is a staple in Mexican cooking because it deliciously delivers good nutrition and energy. 

This is not a “quick fix” recipe – it takes a few hours, but it well worth the wait. They can also be reheated again and again, or even “refried.” This is a large recipe as Ralph prepared a big pot for his annual family picnic, so you could easily cut the ingredients in half if you wanted a smaller batch. It yields a pot of creamy, tender beans in a delicious broth – but the flavor of the beans really shines through. 

Mexican-Style Pinto Beans
3 lbs dried pinto beans
1 fresh ham hock (do not use a smoked can omit this if you want to make a vegetarian version)
Enough water to cover beans by two inches
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 ½ TBSP salt
1 tsp ground cumin

Rinse dried beans in colander to remove any dirt and remove any small field pebbles that sometimes make their way into dried beans. Transfer beans to large pot (we used an 8 quart pot with lid) and cover with enough water to exceed the top of the beans by two inches. Place fresh ham hock in pot (make sure it is submerged in water) and cover. Bring pot to a boil then reduce heat and let simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours.

Check beans for tenderness. If they are still a little firm, let them continue to simmer for a while longer. If they have softened, gently stir in chopped onion, salt and cumin. Cover and return to simmer for at least another hour. After, you can leave ham hock in or remove meat from hock, and add the meat back into the pot, if desired. Serve beans in bowl like soup, or over rice or on the side. Enjoy!

Friday, August 17, 2012

For Your Next Party - Pineapple Coconut Cake!

Different occasions call for different cakes. Some cakes are good, solid general-purpose standards – like a good pound or Bundt cake.  Some cakes are perfectly suited to go with coffee, milk or tea. And then you have an entire gamut of party and occasion cakes – wedding, birthday, anniversary, Easter, etc. So when we were getting ready to attend our dear friend Linda’s birthday extravaganza (she celebrates for the entire week surrounding the sacred date), it was clear that we just had to bring a dessert that screamed “par-tay!”

I knew that the women would outnumber the men at this shin-dig, so I chose to make a cake. In my many years of feeding people, I’ve observed that – given the choice – men prefer a piece of pie while women tend to opt for cake. This is a broad generality, and some people love either option (myself included). This cake needed to be special, but honestly, we didn’t have a lot of time. 

This cake worked perfectly because as its foundation it uses a box cake mix. While I’ll be the first to go on about the virtues of scratch baking, I have never turned my nose up at using a good cake mix. They are real time savers and, in my experience, can produce wonderfully moist, tender and flavorful cakes. I beefed up the cake mix by substituting the required water with pineapple juice and adding a little extra leaveners.

We also used other convenience items like a can of crushed pineapple in juice and a box of vanilla pudding. But we put some effort into toasting coconut to a perfect brown and using real whipped cream for the topping – this took the cake over the top and really made it special. 

This cake was a hit – and was the first one gone. I’m glad the birthday girl had the opportunity to at least get a bite! Bring this cake to your next party – whatever the occasion!

Pineapple Coconut Cake
1 box yellow cake mix (use your favorite brand)
Pineapple juice
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. pineapple extract (optional)
1 20oz can crushed pineapple in juice
1 cup sugar
1 TBSP corn starch
1 3.4oz box instant vanilla pudding
2 cups milk (whole or 2% works best)
I cup coconut
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup toasted coconut

Prepare the cake batter as directed on box – except substitute the required amount of water for pineapple juice. You can also add a teaspoon of pineapple extract if you want, but the cake will still have a nice pineapple flavor just by using the juice. Also add a teaspoon of baking soda and baking powder to the cake mix. Pour batter into a greased 9x13 baking pan. Bake as directed. 

Pineapple topping
While the cake is baking, put the can of crushed pineapple (juice and all), sugar and cornstarch (if desired – this will thicken up the juice a little) in a medium sauce pan and slowly bring to a boil. Remove from burner and allow to cool down a little.
When the cake is done, remove from oven and using a dinner fork, gently poke holes in the surface of the cake. Spread pineapple mixture over the top of the warm cake – the holes you made with the fork will allow some of the pineapple juice to drip into the cake. Let cake cool completely.

After the cake comes out of the oven, and while it is still hot, take one cup of coconut and spread on a baking sheet and put in oven. Toast coconut until light brown – about five minutes. Keep an eye on it! Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Vanilla-Coconut pudding topping
While the cake is cooling, make the vanilla pudding as directed on package. Once mixed, put in refrigerator and allow to firm up and get cold. You are going to spread this on top of the pineapple layer when the cake has cooled completely. Before spreading the pudding over the pineapple, stir in one cup of coconut to the pudding and then put on cake. 

Whipped cream frosting
Make sure the whipping cream is cold. Pour into large mixing bowl and add sugar and vanilla. Beat with electric mixer on high speed until firm. Spread whipped cream over pudding layer. Top whipped cream with toasted coconut. 

Because of the pudding and whipped cream, this cake should be kept refrigerated until it is ready to serve. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Celebrating Summer Veggies - Stuffed Zucchini

Bushels of summer vegetables are stocking the local farmers’ markets and produce stands, and it makes me glad to live in a state like Michigan where we grow an abundant variety of fruits and vegetables. This has been a tough summer – very hot temperatures and little rain – but even under these conditions one kind find all kinds of wonderful seasonal bounty. 

Zucchini is a vegetable that does very well here, and many grow this mild squash in their yards and you almost always see it at the markets. Zucchini can grow quite large, but I prefer the medium sized as the seeds are smaller and they require less work. For this recipe, you can use three medium sized zucchini or even yellow summer squash if you prefer. 

This is a great dish that can serve as a main course if you want to take a break from meat but still feel like you are eating something substantial. It also makes a wonderful side dish to accompany burgers, chicken or pork. It’s a great mix of some of summer’s best fresh vegetables – enjoy!

Stuffed Zucchini
3 medium zucchini – ends trimmed, cut in half lengthwise with the inner seed core scooped out
4 TBSP butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 small hot cherry peppers, finely chopped (or you can use a half of a sweet red bell pepper)
8 oz. fresh mushrooms – coarsely chopped
2 large fresh tomatoes, diced
8-10 Ritz crackers (or ½ cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs)
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Trim ends of zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and using a tablespoon, scoop out center section of squash removing the seeds. This will create zucchini “boats” and provide room to put in the stuffing. Transfer squash to a 9x13 baking dish that has been lightly sprayed with non-stick spray and put aside.

In a large skillet, melt butter under medium high heat and add chopped onion and pepper. Sauté in butter until onions become tender and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add chopped mushrooms to skillet and season with salt and pepper. Cook until mushrooms are tender, fragrant and reduced in size. Add diced tomatoes to skillet and cook until most of their natural liquid has rendered, about four minutes or so. Turn off heat to skillet and stir in the cracker crumbs. 

Using a large spoon, transfer stuffing to zucchini, dividing it evenly between the six halves. Once the zucchini are filled, top with Parmesan cheese and put into oven for 45 minutes. Zucchini should be fork tender but still hold their shape. Remove from baking dish using a long spatula and enjoy!