Monday, April 29, 2013

Rethink Your Chile Relleno!

On our recent trip to Mexico our friend, Bill Pecha, made a wonderful Oaxacan chicken dish with tomatoes, olives, raisins and almonds. The flavor was outstanding! It reminded me of a Moroccan tagine, layers of sweet and savory within a rich, creamy sauce. Vince and I loved it.

I should say that the reason we went to Mexico in the first place was to do a site inspection for our upcoming culinary tours! I'm so excited about this opportunity. We've put together a really cool package for a week-long stay with meals, tours and classes. It's going to be so much fun. Check out when you can.

I had picked up a bunch of dried chiles at a mercado during our trip. I'm planning on teaching a cooking class on chiles during the culinary tour. There are so many different ones to try. I think it's a common misconception that all chiles are fiery hot but they aren't (especially if you removed the seeds and ribs/veins). Ancho chiles are good example of that. They have a rich, almost chocolaty sweetness.

After trying Bill's Oaxacan chicken dish I was reminded of a recipe that I'd been meaning to try. It's called Chiles Ancho Rellenos de Picadillo de Pollo which means ancho chiles stuffed with minced chicken. The original recipe was quite lengthy but it only took me about an hour to complete. Use your food processor, if you have one, for all the chopping. That really speeds the process. Anyway, without further adieu, here's the recipe:

Adapted from Savoring Mexico, Mariyn Tausend

1/2 cup olive oil, divided
1 cup finely chopped white onion
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 lbs Roma tomatoes
1/4tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 pounds ground chicken or turkey
1/2 cup Castelvetrano or Manzanilla olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro, firmly packed
1/4 cup finely chopped italian parsley, firmly packed

8 large ancho chiles
4 oz piloncillo, grated or 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2/3 cup cider vinegar
1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 cups Mexican crema or sour cream
1/4 cup finely diced white onion
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup firmly packed cilantro, finely chopped

Core and quarter tomatoes. Place in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

In saucepan on medium, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic, cook for 1 minute, add tomatoes, thyme and bay leaves and simmer for 15 minutes. Add raisins and cook for 10 minutes. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add chicken, stirring constantly for 4 minutes until lightly browned. Stir in chopped tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the olives, almonds and capers. Remove from heat and let cool. Stir in cilantro and parsley*. Check seasoning for additional salt, if needed.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To prepare the chiles, leaving stem on, make lengthwise slit in each chile and remove seeds. (You can start the incision with a knife and use kitchen shears to complete the slit.) Put 4 cups of water in saucepan and add Piloncillo, cinnamon, vinegar and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add chiles, cover, remove from heat, and soak for 15 minutes. Transfer chiles to paper towels to dry.

Carefully stuff the chiles with the picadillo and place in baking dish. Cover and bake for 15 minutes, or until heated through.

While chiles are baking, in saucepan on medium-low, heat crema, onion and salt until warm but not boiling. Strain and add cilantro and keep warm. When ready to serve, pour sauce over the chiles.

*Note: The stuffing can be made in advance, adding the herbs when ready to stuff the chiles

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Double the Pleasure. Double the Fun. Spearmint vs. Peppermint

Okay, so I totally ripped off the tag line from a famous mint chewing gum - well, sort of. I changed it a smidge because it's trademarked but, it seemed like a fitting tag line to use when discussing peppermint vs. spearmint. So, what's the difference? Well, here's a little overview.

Peppermint is a hybrid of spearmint. It's also been called American Mint, Lamb Mint (or Lammint). It was native to Europe and brought to America by the colonists. The leaves are 1 to 2 inches long and have a toothy edge. Peppermint is used in tea and for flavoring ice cream, candy, gum, toothpaste.

Spearmint, also a native of Europe, is referred to as Common Mint, Garden Mint, Our Lady's mint, and Sage of Bethlehem. The leaves are long, spear-shaped and attach to the stalk of the plant vs. stems. Spearmint is most commonly used in teas, mint juleps, mojitos, candy, and gum.

Although they both come from the mentha family, peppermint contains more menthol so it may seem stronger. Spearmint is sometimes described as greener or sweeter while peppermint has a candy cane flavor.

I don't think you can go wrong with either one, it's basically a personal choice according to what you are going to use it for or which plant you like the looks of best.

These perennial herbs thrive in moist, part-sun to shady locations, and expand quickly by underground rhizomes or runners (these are sneaky little shoots that pop up in seemingly random places). I planted some mint in a container full of various herbs thinking, novice gardener that I am, that I could control the stuff with pruning. Wrong! I learned quickly that there is no use struggling with it, because it WILL TAKE OVER. So, I suggest if you plant it, give it its own pot and don't plant it in your open garden.

Mint is best used fresh and should be stored only briefly, in plastic bags or in the refrigerator. Here are some ideas for using fresh mint:

  • Crush mint leaves and fold them in whipped cream for an excellent topping on chocolate desserts.
  • Combine freshly-minced mint leaves with watermelon and feta cheese for a delicious summer salad.
  • Try a traditional tabouleh salad with lots of minced mint, minced parsley, couscous, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, olive oil and lemon juice. 
  • Steep mint leaves in boiling water for refreshing tea that also soothes indigestion, stomachache and, may improve your memory.
  • Make Mint Water. Twist or bruise 1 cup of peppermint, spearmint, or other mint. Place in a clean half-gallon container. fill with fresh, cool water. Chill in refrigerator. Strain and serve on ice. 
  • Make mint-infused rum for the perfect Mojito. Take a bunch fresh mint. Put it in a plastic baggie with a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar and smash it up a little. Then, stuff the mint into a bottle of white rum and wait a few days. To make your Mojito, combine two ounces of infused rum, one ounce of fresh-squeezed lime juice and one teaspoon of sugar and shake vigorously. Pour over ice and top with two ounces of sparkling water. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a lime wedge and enjoy!
What is your favorite mint - peppermint or spearmint? What do you make with fresh mint?