Friday, September 28, 2007

A Review of: Casa Oaxaca

I have an imaginary restaurant in my head. In this ideal restaurant of mine, all array of wondrous dishes are served, and healthy, organic and free-range options litter the ample menu. Waiters refill your water glass before it is empty and can comment knowledgably on any food item that you might have a question about (no "well, I don't like fish so I really can't say..." here!). The seats are comfy, inviting one to linger, and the noise level is low enough that one can converse with ones fellow diners without shouting.

This imaginary restaurant grows with every culinary outing that I make. If I like a dish, such as, for example, the fabulous marscapone and goat cheese stuffed baked dates at Komi, they immediately get added to the menu. As you can imagine, its one of those bulky multi-pagers, where you just can't decide what to get...because everything is delicious here at Cafe Lyra!

I realize, looking over my blog entries of the past weeks, that despite my best intentions, I have yet to post a review of a restaurant in Washington DC. I always meant to toss in a few reviews for potential local readers (or maybe just to spout off to myself). And I have a lot of good restaurants to write about too! So after this long delay (I guess I was too busy eating...or maybe it was that paper I was writing), here goes my first attempt to describe a recent dining experience that added yet another delicacy to my fantasy restaurant menu.

Just last Friday José and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal out. At first we thought of hitting up the new and Tom-approved Las Canteras, a Peruvian restaurant in Adams Morgan,(for those not in the know, Tom Seitsema is the food critic for the Washington Post. He has rarely steered me wrong-the man knows good food!), but then we decided Mexican sounded better and made a reservation at Casa Oaxaca, which had also received the thumbs-up from the Washington Post.

Tom's review of Casa Oaxaca had praised the Ceviche de Huachinango con Piña (red snapper ceviche with pineapple), so I was looking forward to a real treat. We arrived at the appointed hour and were promptly seated. The restaurant takes up two stories of a converted row house on 18th street, in the heart of Adams Morgan, a lively bar district that is usually full of drunk frat boys by 3 in the morning. Casa Oaxaca's decor reflected none of this chaos-instead it transported us straight to Mexico. We were greeted by a large dish of imported candies at the host station and a warm and friendly interior with bright cushioned benches along the walls. Burnt orange walls sport Olmec inspired woodwork and Rivera-esque paintings featuring south-of-the-border landscapes, and small wooden tables fill the cozy space. Downstairs from the dining room is a basement bar that looked inviting and busy although we didn't venture down to check it out.

Unfortunately the restricted space of the row house meant that we were crammed in between two other small tables along the wall, both already taken by eager customers. Casa Oaxaca is far from the only restaurant with cramped seating in a high rent district like DC- a lot of places could take a lesson from Komi and remove some of their tables-so we didn't take it personally. Our server was friendly and prompt and I was soon perusing the small Oaxaca focused menu while sipping their house margarita.

Let me stop for a minute and talk about margaritas and Casa Oaxaca. Tom's review raves about the 20 odd tequilas on the menu, and with good reason. You can spend from 6 to upwards of 15 dollars on a shot of premium imported tequila, meant to be sipped slowly during the meal, not downed a la the frat boys down the street. While I wasn't about to dish out extra dollars for special tequila on our first visit, I did order the house margarita (7 bucks), and let me tell you something: I don't know what tequila they used, but it was THE BEST margarita that I have ever had. I'm still upset that José dragged me out the door before I could finish it (I tipple too slowly for some). The menu also offers mezcal, another agave-based liquor that Tom Seitsema describes as going down "like liquid smoke, from a volcano". Something else to try next time...

The menu is short and sweet. It is divided into several sections: Antojitos (appetizers), Los Favoritos de Casa Oaxaca (Casa Oaxaca favorites), Platos Fuertes (entrees), Famosos Tacos (famous tacos) and of course, Postres (desserts). For my antojito I had already settled on the ceviche, and José ordered the Rellenitos de Platano Macho (plantain patties stuffed with black beans). For the main course we decided to try one of the famous Oaxacan moles with an order of Mole Amarillo con Pollo (yellow mole with chicken), as well as the Tom-recommended Arrachera Oaxaqueña (grilled skirt steak with black beans, guacamole and tortillas dipped in chipotle sauce).

While we waited for our appetizers we munched on sticks of jicama flavoured with a little chile powder and lime juice-a great way to kick start the appetite without drowning it in salsa and chips like at every other Mexican restaurant.

The appetizers arrived quickly and we dug right in. My ceviche was stylishly presented as a molded cake with a delicate fanning of ripe avocado on top, but to my disappointment, the dish didn't live up to my expectations. It may be that I am biased: Belizean ceviche is usually full of slices of fiery scotch bonnet pepper, while this one was relatively mild and to my taste, a bit tame. The pineapple was a nice touch, but I feel it would have played off the fish better if a bit more spice add been added to temper the sweetness. There was also a bit of a "fishy" flavour-yes, I know, it is raw fish, but I'm talking about a low-tide fishiness that lingered on the tongue just a tad too long. It wasn't bad, and I did polish it off, but at 12 dollars a plate, I doubt I will be ordering it again.

The rellenitos de platano macho, on the other hand, were a whole other story. They instantly won a space on my fantasy restaurant menu. Crispy and sweet on the outside, as a good fried plantain is meant to be, these little cakes were stuffed with superb refried black beans. Served with a generous sprinkle of freshly shredded queso fresco, these hot and savory cakes disappeared almost immediately. It was all I could do to snatch a bite or two from under Josés fork. They were fabulous.

Our entrees arrived a short while after we had finished the appetizers (kudos to the kitchen and wait staff for great timing). I was a bit saddened to see that my delicious corn tortillas were not dipped in chipotle sauce as advertised on the menu, but the steak was still juicy, a bit chewy as skirt steak will be, but flavourful and great with a tortilla, more of the delicious refried beans and some good guacamole. The chicken with yellow mole sauce wasn't quite as memorable. The mole amarillo, we decided, was just too bland for our palates-more like some kind of cafeteria sauce than we would like. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't that wonderful, and certainly didn't have the bold character of other famous moles from the region. It may have been our mistake to not sample the mole negro or the mole coloradito, both promising more spice and flavour than what we ended up choosing.

We decided to forego dessert, as the hearty portions of the platos fuertes had filled us right up, but the flan de horchata sounded particularly intriguing. By far the best food that night: the rellenitos de platano macho and the margarita. I would avoid the ceviche and the mole amarillo unless you prefer bland food. On our next trip I hope to sample the kekas that Tom mentions in his review, and see if the mole negro lives up to its name. And yes, despite the disappointments, there will be a next trip. It's worth it for the rellenitos de platano alone. Casa Oaxaca would also be the perfect spot to grab a drink and an appetizer at the welcoming bar downstairs before braving the seedier drinking venues further down the street.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Yes, of course you can pair Garlic with that! Roasted Garlic, Honey, Raisin and Goat stuffed Apples with Cashews and Pseudo-Saffron Rice

I was trolling through different blogs the other day and ran across what has got to be my favorite food blog event so far. Danielle at Habeas Brulee has come up with a "Yes, of course you can pair garlic with that!" food event. All one has to do is cook something pairing garlic with another food that it normally isn't associated with and submit it to Danielle for testing. I knew this was my chance-yes, this was the event I was going to enter! With garlic as the medium, how could I not?

You see, my entire family loves garlic. For years my brother religiously set the table with a garlic press next to his knife and fork so he could make fresh garlic bread to go along with whatever our meal happened to be. In Belize we nail it over doors to keep evil spirits and vampires away. How many foods do you know that defeat evil beings and make good food great all at once? Considering garlic's superhero profile, how could I not be a fan?

When I think of pairing garlic with something extreme, the first thing that comes to mind is garlic ice cream. The problem with that is, its the first thing to come to everyone else' mind as well. It's cliche, passe-like Cubism, its already been done.

So I had to get more creative. As usual I had an enormous pile of fruit and vegetables in the kitchen, and I turned to these for inspiration. I wanted something seasonal, something yummy and filling, definitely a main course. It was then that pictures started forming in my head. Roasted garlic-that was the ticket. Mellow and autumnal, with deep undercurrents of sweet garlic flavour. I envisioned a classic fall dish: baked apples. But this time with a savoury twist. Baked apples filled with a garlic, apple and goat meat stuffing. Garlic and Apples-not common bed fellows, but I was sure it would work, especially with a dash or two of cinnamon and curry and some raisins to bring it all together.

So the Sunday before last I ran to the farmers market and made my purchases: garlic (of course), big firm tart baking apples, and ground goat meat from Cibola Farms. Then all my ingredients sat around until this Sunday when I finally got around to putting my recipe in action.

Roasted Garlic and Goat Stuffed Apples with Honey and Raisins
(served with Pseudo-saffron Rice)

Serves three people. About 310 calories per serving (one stuffed apple). If you eliminate the cashew nut topping, each apple is only 263 calories and much lower in fat.

3 heads and 3 cloves of garlic (I used Chesnok Red, an endangered heirloom variety)
1/2 pound ground organic and/or free-range goat meat
1 medium onion, minced
3 large tart baking apples
2 tbsp raisins
1/2 tsp oregano
about 1/8 tsp cinnamon (one large dash of cinnamon)
a sprinkle of nutmeg
1/3 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground paprika
about 1/3 tsp good curry powder or to taste
about 1/2 tsp salt or to taste
about 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 tbsp clover or other neutral honey
1/2 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons finely minced or coarsely ground cashews (optional but delicious!)


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix together the ground goat meat, cumin, oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper and let sit in the fridge. Place the three heads of garlic on a piece of tin foil and let them bake in the oven until they are soft. Let cool and squeeze out the cloves of garlic into a bowl. Set aside. This can be done ahead of time, and even up to a day before. Just store the garlic in an air tight container. Thinly slice the three fresh cloves of garlic and set aside.

2. Take the apples and after washing, use a sharp knife with a thin blade to cut a large hole out of the center. You don't want to just cut out the core , or else there wont be enough space for the stuffing, so cut out a hole that is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom (like an inverted cone). Make sure to cut out the blossom end (at the bottom), but don't make a large hole through. This way the filling won't leak out all over the place, but there will be plenty of space for the goat meat. Here you can see what it should look like:

Now, take the flesh that you cut out of the apples, get rid of the core and seeds and mince the rest into tiny pieces. This will form part of the filling, so don't throw it away! Preheat your oven to 350 degrees once more.

3. Once you have your apples and roasted garlic prepared, heat the 1/2 tablespoon of honey in a nonstick frying pan over medium high heat. Once it begins to liquefy, add the three cloves of sliced garlic and cook, stirring, for a few seconds. Don't let them burn. Dump in the goat meat and stir, cooking, until it is browned all over. Stir in all the roasted garlic, the raisins, the minced onion and apple and the curry powder, salt and paprika. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the apple is soft and the onion is translucent. Add a tablespoon or two of water to the pan if the stuffing seems dry.

While the stuffing is cooking, take your three prepared apples and place them in a pan (I used a round metal cake pan). Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of water in the bottom and put them in the preheated oven. Let them cook for 10 minutes while you finish the stuffing. Taste the garlic-goat meat mixture and adjust seasonings if necessary. If you can't taste the curry at all, you may need a touch more, as curry powders vary widely in potency. Add the lemon zest and juice, stir until well combined and turn off the heat. If you want at this point you can put the stuffing in an air tight container and stick it in the fridge until you are ready to make your apples. It will keep for at least 3 or 4 days, allowing you to put this together as a special weekday meal with little time needed for preparation.

4. Pull the apples out of the oven and fill with the goat stuffing. If you have any left over, consider yourself lucky-it is equally good stuffed into a pita or served over rice. If you are using them, top each apple with a tablespoon of cashews. Put the apples back in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until they are tender all the way through (you can test one with a knife if necessary). Once they are cooked, set each one on a plate and surround with a bed of pseudo-saffron rice (the recipe follows below). Serve with lemon wedges and enjoy!

Pseudo-Saffron Raisin Rice

Serves 3. Total recipe about 400 calories, 133 calories per serving.

The cheap and easy version of saffron rice, this dish cozies up equally well to a wide range of asian inspired meals, and goes marvelously with the garlic stuffed apples. The rice can be made ahead of time and reheated on the stovetop or even in the microwave. It will keep fine in the fridge for up to a week in an air tight container.

1 cup long grain brown Basmati rice
about 2 cups water
about 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 medium onion, minced.
2 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp tomato paste or thick plain tomato sauce (do not use ketchup!)
1 hearty dash curry powder
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
about 1/2 tsp lemon zest or more to taste
2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp olive oil


1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan to medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent. Add the rice and stir until coated with oil, cook while stirring for 1-2 minutes. Add the water, turmeric, raisins, tomato paste, salt, pepper and curry powder.

2. Put the heat on high and bring rice to a boil. Stir occasionally until the water is absorbed and the rice is partially cooked. Lower the heat to medium-low, add a dash of water if necessary to prevent sticking, and cover the pot. Check and stir occasionally as needed until the rice is cooked through.

3. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice, stir until well combined and serve with the stuffed apples. Basmati rice can take a while to cook, so if you want everything to finish at the same time, I would start cooking the rice at about the same time as you begin making the goat stuffing (step 3 for the stuffed apples). Once the water is added the rice won't demand too much attention.

I was very pleased with how well this came out. The stuffed apples, all browned and delectable on top, look amazing on a bed of this rice, and they taste delicious too-make sure you get a little of everything on your fork for a true taste sensation! If you don't want to bother with the apples, the stuffing is great by itself, or with rice or pita, but make sure to try it once as written here, maybe for a weekend dinner with a nice side salad.

Note: my camera broke over Labor Day weekend on a trip to Atlanta and since then I have been using Jose's digital camera which, though very convenient, doesn't have all the wonderful zoom capabilities of mine. I also took these pictures at night, with flash, so they don't reflect the glory of this dish quite as well as I would like.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tropical Paradise Ice Cream

I warned you all that I would start using Mercede's "lower" fat ice cream recipe as the base for various hedonistic and indulgent experiments. I wasn't kidding around. Here I unveil before you the first ice cream recipe that I can truly call my own. Tropical Paradise Ice Cream is a delicious blend of some of my favorite tropical flavours. Every mouthful brings the sweet mellow taste of bananas and coconut milk, chewy bites of dates, sharp bursts of crystallized ginger and crunchy cashews.

I will admit that despite all this fabulous flavour, the ice cream didn't turn out exactly as I hoped. The only thing that went wrong in my mind is that it is very sweet-a bit too much as far as I'm concerned. I think this was because I used the same amount of sweetened condensed milk as for the base recipe, but added 3/4 cup of dates and 2 bananas, which are both sweet in themselves. The end result is that the ice cream is a bit sugary for my tastes. However everyone else who tasted it disagrees with me about this, so I will leave it to you to decide.

The next time I make the recipe (which will only be after the quart and half of it that is stored in my freezer is all eaten), I am going to use only 1/2 of a can of sweetened condensed milk and replace the rest with lite coconut milk and see if that tones down the sugary-ness a bit. I will report back when the results are in. Here I give you the recipe as I made it yesterday. And if any of you want to try making it with more coconut milk and less sweetened condensed milk, please do so and let me know how it turns out.
* I have edited this recipe because despite the great flavours, I found that the cornstarch was unnecessary and added a, well, starchy taste to the ice cream. It freezes up just as well without it, proving that you don't have to make a custard in order to have a good ice cream.

Tropical Paradise Ice Cream

The recipe as written makes about 6 cups of ice cream, with 2,451 calories in the whole recipe and 204 calories per half cup serving.

1 cup lite organic coconut milk (about half a can. Use 1 1/2 cup if you would like it less sweet)

One 14 oz can of nonfat sweetened condensed milk (or 1/2 can if you would like it less sweet)

2 cups of low fat milk

2 tbsp rum*

2 bananas-one mashed, one frozen in the freezer (you can put it in the day before)
3/4 cup chopped dates (about 6 large medjool dates)

3/8 cup cashew pieces (you can up this to 1/2 cup or even more if you desire. Try toasting these beforehand for an even richer flavour)

1/4 cup crystallized ginger, minced (I would use 1/2 cup if you want ginger in every bite)

*I used what I had, which was a light Bacardi, but you should really use a good quality dark rum or coconut rum if you want to emphasize the coconut flavour-the Belizean Traveller's coconut rum would be my choice but you can't buy it in the USA. If you don't consume any alcohol this can be omitted.


1. Heat all the different milks (the coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk and low fat milk) in a large saucepan, stirring now and then so nothing sticks, until they come to a boil. Add one half of the chopped dates, lower the heat until the milk is simmering, and stir until they begin to break apart.

3. Remove the saucepan from the stove, scrape the mixture into a metal bowl and place it in another, larger bowl filled with ice water and ice cubes. Place in the fridge and allow to cool.

4. Once it is tepid, pour the mix into a blender, add the rum and mashed banana, and blend until completely smooth. Return to the metal bowl and the fridge and this time chill until quite cold. This may take an hour or two, or you can let it sit overnight.

5. Pour this mixture into your ice cream machine and once it begins to thicken, pull the frozen banana out of the freezer and cut it into small pieces. Add the cashews, remaining dates and the pieces of frozen banana to the ice cream as it finishes churning. Then pack the ice cream into a container and place in the freezer to harden up for an hour or two.

This ice cream, just like the key lime pie ice cream from which the base recipe is derived, does not harden up into a lump of ice in the freezer, despite the fact that I omitted the eggs found in Mercede's original recipe. I think it must be the sweetened condensed milk and the rum that does the trick.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Late Summer Stir fry with Bean Paste

In case you thought all I ate these days was ice cream and bread, I share with you here my dinner-a typical quick meal using what I had lying around, which in this case was a huge pile of organic vegetables, fresh and crisp and straight off the farm. Having a small kitchen, all the veggies and fruit that aren't supposed to be refrigerated have begun to take over. The last of the tomatoes and peaches, along with autumn's first sweet potatoes, Asian pears and butternut squash are all squeezed into a small space between my sink and the toaster and they don't like it one bit. They are on a bid for total kitchen domination. Every morning I find that their ranks have swelled, their lines advanced towards the counter edge. The only way to stop them? A large frying pan, my friends, and a sharp knife.

Yesterday evening I picked up some bean paste with chili in the "Latin American and South-East Asian" mini-aisle of Whole Foods. While I had certainly eaten my share of the stuff at various restaurants across DC, I had never cooked with this highly popular fermented bean goo. Until now that is. Armed with my cutting board and favorite German blade, I set about the vegetables with a vengeance. They never knew what hit them. Sweet potato, corn and fresh green beans-none were spared.

The great thing about stir fries is how adaptable they can be. Consider the quantities here as guidelines rather than rules. If you want more onion, throw some more in. If you like lots of garlic, peel a few more cloves. More sweet potato? Sure, why not? Just don't overdo the bean paste or you won't be able to eat it without a big glass of milk to cool your palate.

This recipe is a bit lacking in protein and I think it would work great with some tofu, shrimp or chicken marinated in rice vinegar and bean paste. See variations (below) for some ideas.

Sweet Potato and Green Bean Stir fry with Bean Paste

Makes about 6 cups. 832 calories for the whole recipe, 139 calories per cup.

1 1/4 cup diced sweet potato

1 cup green beans, cut on the diagonal

corn kernels cut off of one cob of corn

1/2 medium onion, diced (or more as desired)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 green chili, sliced into thin rounds

2 tbsp seasoned rice vinegar

2 tsp cornstarch

1 1/2 tsp bean paste with chili (or 2 tsp if you like it spicier)

1 tsp lite organic soy sauce

1 tsp sugar

1 pinch ground ginger (about 1/4 tsp)

1 pinch turmeric (about 1/4 tsp)

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

About 1 cup of water

2 cups cooked rice (preferably brown)

1 tsp vegetable oil


1. Mix the vinegar, cornstarch, bean paste, soy sauce and sugar together in a small bowl until smooth. Set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan or a wok on medium-high heat. Add sweet potato and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring as needed, until the pieces are cooked most of the way through. (You can test one by trying to cut it in half with your stirring utensil). If you are using shrimp, chicken or tofu, add it before the sweet potato, cook until browned on both sides, then toss in the sweet potato and proceed as usual.

3. Add the other veggies, the ginger and the turmeric and black pepper. Keep cooking and stirring for 5-10 minutes more.

4. Add rice, cornstarch mixture and water as needed (I used about 1 cup). Cook for 5 to 10 minutes more, stirring as needed, then serve. You might want a dash more rice vinegar to top it off at the table. This is a light dish which would make a good side for some protein, or, as I plan to do next time, you could just add some meat or tofu in at the beginning.


  • Marinate seafood (try shrimp, scallops, even squid) or beef or chicken strips in rice vinegar and bean paste for half an hour, brown in the pan on medium high heat, then add the sweet potatoes and proceed normally.

  • In step four, after adding cornstarch and rice, stir in 3-6 lightly beaten eggs or 3/4 to 1 1/2 cup Eggbeaters or egg whites for a light fried rice that is complete in protein.

  • Experiment with your veggies: toss in some fresh bell pepper strips or Chinese cabbage or even a can of water chestnuts.

  • Add a little lemon zest to the pan right before serving for a more sprightly flavour.

  • Try stirring in a handful of cashew nut pieces or peanuts after cooking the sweet potato.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Vegan with a Vengeance and Carrot Raisin Muffins

I am not vegan. I'm not even vegetarian. I guess my approach might best be described by the new American term "flexitarian", a word which has spawned a new generation of cookbooks just for us occasional-but-not-every-single-day-of-our-lives meat eaters. Frankly I think it's all marketing. After all, quite a large percentage of the world's population is flexitarian and has been so for some millenia, so its not like this is some strange and unusual new culinary lifestyle or, even worse, "diet". But I digress. Let us return to the purpose of this post, which is to shout the praises of my favorite vegan cookbook.

One does not have to be vegan or even vegetarian to enjoy and appreciate Isa Chandra Moskowitz's great book, Vegan with a Vengeance. Isa, a modern, hip chef and product of the New York City Punk scene, eschews fancy lingo, expensive cookware and any cooking technique that cannot be safely performed in a cramped city apartment with bad ventilation. That is not to say that this book avoids anything that might be considered more "advanced" cooking-to the contrary, it has a whole section devoted to brunch and recipes include creations such as orange-rum tea cake, knishes (three ways), spanakopita, sweet potato crepes and ginger-pear waffles.

That said, Vegan with a Vengeance is great for the beginning cook, vegan or not. The book is divided into 10 sections, the first being an introduction that explains how to set up a basic kitchen (helpful advice for vegans and non-vegans alike), and a well-stocked vegan pantry. Isa's personal stories about food and punk culture in NYC make each chapter a fun read, and handy technical explanations address a myriad of different topics such as how to make the perfect vegan pancakes, roast garlic, "tame your tofu" and bake vegan desserts.

Then there are the "Punk Points" which are concise instructions on how to deal with ingredients related to a specific recipe. As if this wasn't enough, "Fizzle Says" are little boxes scattered throughout the book where the Post-Punk Kitchen's resident feline mascot provides translations and describes exotic foodstuffs as needed. The result of all this easy to digest information is a very user-friendly volume that would be perfect for anyone just learning their way around a kitchen.

The book includes chapters on brunch, muffins and scones, soups, "little meals, sammiches and finger foods", sides, pizzas and pasta, entrees, cookies and bars and desserts. A couple page color photo spread illustrates delicacies such as fresh mango summer rolls, lemon corn waffles with blueberry sauce, green Thai curry, matzo ball soup and ginger macadamia coconut carrot cake.

I can personally vouch for the banana split pudding brownies, which taste like banana pudding and chocolate fudge and are only 172 calories per brownie. And just this week I tried out her recipe for carrot raisin muffins and came away impressed yet again. Eventually I'm going to have to move out of the baked goods department and experiment with the black eyed pea and quinoa croquettes or if I'm feeling particularly adventurous, maybe some baked potato-edamame samosas with coconut-mint curry.

As if this cookbook wasn't enough, Ms. Moskowitz is also the author of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and has a very popular public access TV vegan cooking show in New York City. You can check it out online at her blog The Post-Punk Kitchen.

One great thing about these recipes is that they are very adaptable. I must admit that my version of the carrot muffins used regular old 2% milk instead of soy (but it was organic, surely that must count for something!). I know, its sacrilege. But they turned out delicious. I also used whole wheat pastry flour, added ginger, substituted dates for half the raisins, and tossed in some sunflower seeds for added crunch. Their nutty flavour perfectly complemented the carrot and spices. I will be making these again.

Carrot Raisin Muffins (with Dates and Sunflower Seeds)

This recipe makes 12 muffin, at 171 calories each (with 2% dairy milk and the dates)

1/2 cup raisins (or 1/4 cup raisins and 1/4 cup chopped dates)

1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground dried ginger

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup rice or soy milk (or 1 or 2% regular milk)

1/4 cup canola oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups grated carrot

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Prep your favorite muffin tin. I used nonstick, which didn't need any oiling for these-just let the muffins cool a bit before popping them out.

Soak the raisins in a little bowl of hot water while preparing the batter. Sift or stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt and spices in a large bowl. Create a well in the center and stir in the milk, oil and vanilla. Stir until just combined, then add the grated carrots, raisins, sunflower seeds and chopped dates. Fill the muffin tins 3/4 full and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the middle of one comes out clean. The book says 18-22 minutes, but in my electric oven it took longer than that.

I plan on lowering the heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and baking them for half an hour next time, as some got a bit crispy along the bottom at the suggested 400 degrees. These are great plain or toasted with a bit of peanut butter. Here's to vegan (and not-so vegan) cooking! *raises a muffin in toast*. Yes, I know its a horrible pun but you are all just going to have to deal.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Key Lime Pie Ice Cream: Heaven in Margaritaville

Mercedes of Desert Candy is my hero for making an epic 20 ice creams over the course of one month in her backbreaking (yet mouthwatering) August Ice Cream Challenge. One afternoon a couple days ago I was drooling my way through her selection of ice creams when one jumped out and grabbed my eye: Key Lime Pie Ice Cream (lower fat). The combination of key lime and lower fat, (not low fat, mind you, but "lower" fat), caught my attention. Anything "lower" fat is my preferable alternative to future decades spent tossing back cholesterol fighting pills and getting winded climbing a flight of stairs.

Besides, I love key lime pie! But my boyfriend loves it even more. If it is on a menu, he will order it, even if it is bright green and topped with a mile of miracle whip. He will then proceed to taste it with a connoisseur's palate, turning up his nose if it is too sweet, not lime-y enough, or ensconced in the wrong type of crust. Despite this harsh critique, there is never any left by the end of the analysis.

So as soon as I saw Mercede's oh so simple recipe for key lime pie ice cream I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my bag and ran to the Whole Foods on the way home, picking up graham crackers (organic of course), key limes (there were no organic ones unfortunately) and nonfat sweetened condensed milk (definitely not organic-when is someone going to put out an organic line of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and their delicious cousin, dulce de leche???). Upon arriving home I yanked out a pot and set right to work. A couple hours later we were tasting the most delicious, most creamy, most key-lime-pie-y ice cream I had ever eaten. Soooo delicious! So silky smooth! This is the kind of ice cream that Jimmy Buffet would write a song about-or combine with some kind of rum. Thank you so much for this recipe Mercedes!

See for yourself how easy it is to make:

Mercede's Key Lime Pie Ice Cream

This recipe makes about 4 1/2 cups, at approximately 169 calories per half cup serving.

2 cups milk (I used 2%, but you can use whole if you like)

2 whole eggs

1 (14 oz) can fat-free sweetened condensed milk

pinch salt

1/2 cup key lime juice (freshly squeezed)

1 tsp key lime zest


1. Beat together the eggs in a small bowl. I used my hand held egg-beater for this, but a whisk is just as good. Place the milk, sweetened condensed milk, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Slowly add a small amount of the milk mixture to the eggs in a stream, stirring to combine. Pour the tempered eggs back into the saucepan with the milk while stirring constantly.

Return the saucepan to moderate heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (do not boil or it will curdle). Strain the mixture through a sieve into a bowl and add the key lime juice and teaspoon of lime zest. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator (you can expedite this by placing the bowl in an ice bath and stirring to cool, then chilling in the fridge).

2. Churn the chilled custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Fold in 2 sheets (or more if you like) of crumbled graham crackers in the last few minutes of churning. Note: Don't skip the graham crackers!!! They are what turns this from lime ice cream into key lime PIE ice cream, and their crumbly texture and more sedate taste are the perfect foil for the citrus!

The other great thing about this ice cream: it doesn't freeze solid like the frozen yogurt I made earlier. Maybe its the eggs, maybe its the sweetened condensed milk, but it stays creamy and scoopable even in the icy heart of the freezer!

If you look at Mercede's recipe on her blog, she offers up a plain vanilla ice cream version of this. Considering how low in fat this recipe is compared to many others, I will probably be using it as a base recipe for a lot of ice cream experiments. If it stays creamy without have a dozen egg yolks in it-that's my kind of ice cream! (Although sweetened condensed milk has always seemed a little iffy to me...what is in that stuff anyways?).

A Tale of Ice Cream and other Frozen Extravaganzas

I have always loved Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt and anything else Frozen, Creamy and Delicious. Yes, I know, "you scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream", but my love of these frozen delights is deeper than that. It is born out of a childhood largely bereft of ice.

Until I was four years old my family possessed a wonderful machine: a kerosene powered refrigerator that didn't need to be plugged into an electrical outlet. This was a wonderful thing considering our only source of electricity was our generator, a noisy, gas guzzling affair that we only turned on when necessary. Having a full sized refrigerator and freezer in the middle of the jungle was a great luxury, especially during the hot and dusty dry season.

Then came the Unfortunate Occurrence. We went away on a trip for several months and when we returned, the fridge would not work. We had, of course, turned it off before leaving and now it just would NOT turn back on. We tried everything. We gave it fresh kerosene, a fresh wick to burn it with, we banged on the pipes round the back of the thing, and following advice from friends in town, we turned it upside down, on its side and backwards in the hope that this would somehow liven it up again. All to no avail. Our refrigerator was no more.

And as we quickly found out, it had been one of a dying breed. Nowhere could we find another kerosene burning refrigerator. We searched all over Belize, we searched all over the USA. We asked everyone who lived in rural areas or near Amish communities, where a refrigerator that didn't depend on electricity should be a popular item. No luck. After scouring half of North America we gave up and realized that the Era of Ice was over. No more opening that big yellow door to dip cold water out of the cold water jar. No more buying chicken in town and freezing it for the weeks ahead. Even worse- no more banana popsicles! No more icy treats to cool off a hot day! Our beloved refrigerator was turned into a food safe, we bought some big ice chests, and life went on. But sans the frozen treats. The ice chests only kept ice and chicken cool for a couple days and certainly weren't cold enough to freeze anything in.

And so the rest of my childhood was spent yearning for ice cream, that distant exotic treat that was only available in far off urban centers like Belize City and my grandmother's house. My favorite flavours depended on what country I was in. In Belize it was the Soursop ice cream, the Rum and Raisin, the Coconut, or the Pineapple sherbet. In the USA it was Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream or Orange sherbet. I remember a wondrous day when my grandmother allowed me to get four scoops all at once, which I selected by color and then ate happily sitting on a bench in the mall.

Once I moved to the states I became a big fan of Ben and Jerry's, especially their peanut butter cup and chunky monkey ice creams. I would also buy fat free frozen yogurt, as a healthier alternative to B&J's high calorie indulgences. Despite baking my own bread from scratch for years, I never dreamed that I would end up making ice cream at home. To me ice cream was a high art that was beyond me, something better left to the professionals. That is, until a few months ago, when I started reading food blogs during the height of summer. Ice cream, sorbet and sherbet recipes were EVERYWHERE. Everyone seemed to have an ice cream maker and boy were they having fun with them! Recipes ranging from Beet Ice Cream to Salted Caramel Ice Cream to Frozen Yogurt and intensely flavoured Sorbets were being posted daily from all parts of the world.

I wanted in! I wanted to make my own ice cream too! But I was afraid. Afraid of becoming a slave to the machine-a die hard ice cream addict, churning and devouring new and rich flavours day and night. While certainly they would be delicious, I thought, all those eggs and heavy cream would kill me in the end for sure! The debate in my head raged for several weeks. I reminded myself that healthy eating does not include huge doses of cholesterol and saturated fat, amply provided by the "heavy cream" and "5 egg yolks" called for in many an ice cream recipe. It seemed every time I saw an ice cream that I liked, it was based upon a custard that could harden my arteries just from looking at it.

But despite all these logical arguments, ice cream lust won out in the end. I convinced myself that I would make sorbets and frozen yogurts, that custardy ice creams would be a rare event, and that surely making them was more healthy then buying them at the store! In a rush of self indulgence I purchased my ice cream maker and impatiently waited for it to arrive-after paying 50 dollars for the item itself I just couldn't justify overnight shipping as well. Luckily it showed up only two days later, handily preventing me from gnawing my fingernails off in anticipation. I opened up the box and stuck the bowl in the freezer that very night.

The next day it was Ice Cream Time. The first thing I made was David Lebovitz's frozen yogurt recipe-lauded on Heidi Swanson's website as a "rival to Pinkberry's". I admit it, I have no idea what Pinkberry's is and have never tasted their frozen yogurt, but if Heidi said it was the best, it had to be true. After all, it was a David Lebovitz recipe, and the man is an ice cream god. I wasn't content, however, with plain frozen yogurt (although next time I will take Heidi's advice and try it that way). I wanted peanut butter frozen yogurt, preferably with chunks of banana in it too, but my significant other nixed that idea. So plain Peanut Butter it was. I was, of course, out of homemade yogurt, so I ran to the store and got a container of Fage 2% yogurt and made the recipe with a few alterations:

Peanut Butter Frozen Yogurt

This recipe makes about 3 cups of frozen yogurt, at 291 calories per half cup serving.

2 cups Fage 2% or other Greek yogurt
1/4 cup agave nectar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup peanut butter (I used smooth but I think chunky would be more fun)
1 tsp vanilla

Optional add-ins:

1/4 cup chopped peanuts
1/4 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup Kahlua or other liquors (chocolate, coffee, peanut or banana flavoured probably work best but feel free to experiment!)
1 banana, chopped into pieces
1/4 cup Reese's pieces or other peanut butter candy
1/4 cup malt powder or cocoa powder


1. Microwave the peanut butter for about 30 seconds until it gets soft and melty.

2. Stir together the yogurt, sugar, agave nectar, vanilla and softened peanut butter until completely blended and smooth. If you are adding alcohol, malt or cocoa powder now is the time to stir it in as well. A whisk works great for this.

3. Cool in the fridge for at least an hour or two.

4. Process in your ice cream maker according to the instructions. In the last few minutes of churning, add your solid add-ins. Next time I'm putting in banana and eating it all myself!

How was the frozen yogurt? Well, it churned up quite firm and delicious. The tang of the yogurt was definitely present, which one of my tasters felt was an unwelcome contrast to the peanut butter, but I think it worked well. The texture was smooth and creamy, but by the next day it had frozen rock hard and had to be defrosted for a good 15 minutes before it was scoopable again. Probably if I had used full fat yogurt it might have stayed a bit softer, but I'm not complaining. The yogurt also makes great milkshakes when blended with frozen bananas and milk.

Are there any pictures? No, there aren't and I don't plan on taking one of the frozen brown lump sitting in the freezer either, although I will continue to enjoy my peanut butter milkshakes until it is gone.

Adventures in Yogurt making (with Detours)

Yogurt in the USA

(Warning: If you are not particularly interested in a monotonous harangue about yogurt, its origins, its current popularity and why everyone should make it at home, please skip to the bottom of this post, where you will find the actual recipe, buried alive and gasping for breath.)
Yogurt or yoghurt is one of those quintessential items that everyone seems to eat these days. Bottled yogurt smoothies, sugary fruit yogurt 6 packs and gelatinized flavoured yogurts have proliferated alongside dozens of varieties of plain yogurt, Greek yogurt and organic yogurts of any fat content (0, 1, and 2% or more) that you would care to name. You can get yogurt mixed with strawberry jam, with dulce de leche, with chocolate chips. You can buy yogurt with fake sugar, with real sugar or with no sugar. You can buy full fat yogurt with the cream on top or skim yogurt with no cream at all. You can buy liquid yogurt and yogurt smoothies in a veritable rainbow of colors and flavours. And lets not even mention the yogurt covered raisins, yogurt energy bars and frozen yogurt treats tempting innocent customers from the aisle of every supermarket. Its time we faced it-yogurt is America's newest staple. Breakfast, lunch, snack time, even dinner just wouldn't be the same without it.

But it wasn't always like this. Your average American grandmother did not shop for kefir at her local corner store. Most baby boomers didn't go to school everyday with a strawberry fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt in their lunch bag. In fact, until 1947, Americans had never heard of the yogurt mixed with fruit jam that is so beloved today. It was introduced that year by Dannon, a little company originally founded in Barcelona by a Sephardic Jewish entrepreneur named Isaac Carrosa. During World War II Mr. Carrosa moved to New York City and transplanted his fledgling business with great success. He is credited with being the first to industrialize yogurt, which had until then been a home-made food most popular in Asia and Eastern and Central Europe.

His business was successful beyond his wildest dreams. In the 1970s, thanks to an upsurge of interest in "healthy" eating, yogurt sales shot skyward. According to Natren, a probiotics company: "In the 1970s, yogurt consumption rose in the United States by 500 percent. By the mid-1980s, Americans were spending close to $1 billion on yogurt every year. And for the fiscal year ending November 1995, the National Yogurt Association estimated yogurt sales in this country alone at around $1.38 billion."

Thanks to Mr. Carrosa and others, we now have literally hundreds of types of yogurt to choose from, and food mega-corporations control most of the global market. Despite yogurt's origins in the Old World, since its introduction to the Americas it has not only become popular in the USA, but can also be found everywhere from Canada to Argentina, where plain yogurt is almost impossible to find and dulce de leche is the most popular flavour.

Yogurt in Belize

I love yogurt. When I was a small child growing up in Belize, the dairy industry was practically non-existent and available products were pretty much limited to imported powdered milk, tinned butter and Carnation sweetened condensed milk. Since then an influx of Mennonite farmers from Mexico has changed that situation for the better, and fresh milk and yogurt can be found in most towns, but that certainly wasn't the case when I was 5. Back in the "bad old days" of dairy in Belize, the only times I got to eat yogurt was when we travelled to the USA or when my mother made some from KLIM powdered milk, imported in big metal tins from New Zealand. I don't recall how many times my mother made yogurt-I know it was not a weekly event. Perhaps she only made it once or twice. But I do vividly remember sitting at the table with my brother and father and appreciatively slurping away on a bowlful of home-made yogurt mixed with cashew fruit preserves. It was heaven!

My Yogurt (R)evolution in the USA

When I first came to "the states", and once I left the confines of college dormitory life and actually had a kitchen of my own, I was very appreciative of the wide array of yogurt available. At first I would often buy 6 packs of yogurt mixed with fruit jam-easy to carry to work and class. I did, however, find them a bit sweet and one day looking at the label I realized that each yogurt had at least 27 grams of sugar! I wasn't about to start eating aspartame, so goodbye 6-packs! From then on I bought plain low fat yogurt in a big container at the local Safeway and mixed the fruit in myself if I wanted it. After a couple years of that I discovered that yogurt was being sold at my much loved Dupont Farmers' Market. Blue Ridge Dairy was my farm of choice-almost every week I would pick up two pints of their low-fat yogurt. It was delicious, smooth and creamy with none of the quivering gelatinous texture of my supermarket brands. I was hooked. Unfortunately I was also on a budget, and after a while I realized that if my mom used to make yogurt, I probably could too, and it would be cheaper AND homemade. Plus then I would have the cash to buy the delicious Blue Ridge Dairy mozzarella and mascarpone cheeses that I had been coveting.

Home-made Yogurt: Easier than you think!

So I began. I looked up how to make yogurt online and found out that it was the most basic of recipes: Heat milk to kill competing bacteria, inoculate with desired bacteria, leave in a warm place. Voila! Yogurt. No fancy yogurt machine necessary, no industrial processing, gelatin, fake sugars or coloring needed. If the public knew how easy it was to make this stuff a yogurt revolution would be in the making! Or at least in my kitchen. And now, in yours. Without further preamble, here is the recipe you have been waiting for:

The Recipe Itself

To make 2 quarts of yogurt you will need:
  • A gallon of milk* (either full fat, low fat or skim-the result will be either full fat, low fat or non-fat yogurt, and textures will differ accordingly.)
  • 8 oz of plain yogurt with live active cultures (look at the label to ensure that the product contains live and active Lactobacilli and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, which are necessary for yogurt production.)

  • 4 pint glass jars with lids (or 8 one cup jars, or 2 quart jars). Plastic won't work here, as the jars will need to be heated during the sterilization process. I use old salsa and peanut butter jars-this is a great opportunity to reuse them instead of tossing them out.

  • A candy thermometer that will measure to at least 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Two large pots, one big enough to hold the milk, the other to sterilize the glass jars.
  • A small ice chest, big enough to fit your jars into but not so huge and drafty that they get lost.

*both the milk and starter yogurt should be organic and from free-range animals, but if that isn't an option you can use the hormone treated stuff and it will still turn out.

The procedure:

  1. Thoroughly wash glass jars. Place the lids and jars (mouth down) into one of the pots, pour in several inches of water and bring to a boil. Put the lid on and boil for at least 10 minutes to thoroughly sterilize the jars, then turn off the heat and let the pot sit as is.
  2. While the jars are heating, pour the gallon of milk into the other pot and put on medium-high heat. Hang your candy thermometer on the side of the pot, stir occasionally, and keep a close eye on the temperature. When it hits 180 degrees Fahrenheit turn off the heat and if you are working with an electric stove, take it off the burner.
  3. Allow the milk to cool to anywhere between 112 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I put the whole pot in a sink of cold water to speed up this process.

  4. When the milk has cooled, mix the 8 ounces of starter yogurt with about a cup of the warm milk, then pour back into the pot and stir until thoroughly mixed. I recommend a whisk for this task.

  5. Using tongs to grasp the sterilized jars (which may still be hot), fill them with the milk mixture and close tightly with the lids.

  6. Pour water heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (55 Celsius) into your ice chest. Place the jars in the chest with the water and shut the lid. Leave there for at least 4 hours. If you like, you can check the water temperature about half way through and add some more hot water if necessary, but either way the milk should begin to congeal and by the end of the 4 hours you should have fresh home-made yogurt in your jars.
A very handy illustrated guide to making yogurt can be found here. Note that the temperature is a bit higher than what I use-either should work, just don't go too high or you will kill your friendly bacteria and the yogurt wont gel.

Other fun Yogurt Products

Greek Yogurt, a thicker version of what you will find in your glass jars, is easily made by pouring your yogurt into a double thickness of fine cheesecloth or a handkerchief and straining it for 5-8 hours. The watery whey will drip out and a thicker yogurt will be left behind in the cloth, ready to be eaten like sour cream or mixed with honey and walnuts for a delicious dessert. Just make sure to put a bowl under the cloth or the whey will drip everywhere. I usually tie the handkerchief to one of my refrigerator shelves and place the bowl underneath, then forget about it for a while. This stuff is delicious, and if you used low fat milk, pretty healthy. Its texture is like that of a thick sour cream and it is a good low fat substitute for that item. Fage is probably one of the most popular new Greek yogurt brands to be found on the market if you want to try it without making it yourself.

Aside from Paneer, Labneh has got to be one of the easiest cheeses you can make. A basic yogurt cheese, it is made by pouring a couple pints of regular yogurt mixed with salt (about 1 tsp) into a cheesecloth or handkerchief and straining it for 24 hours. The longer you strain it, the thicker the cheese will be. About 4 cups of regular yogurt will yield approximately 1 cup of labneh. You can mix this with different herbs and spices, top it with olive oil or just eat it as is.

I hope some of you will try this recipe-it really is MUCH easier than it looks and the results are delicious and cheap and give you serious bragging rights when your friends eat the yogurt you made from scratch.