Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vegetarian Chile Rellenos

I do believe that I am of a generation where almost all of my cohorts in Life have at one time or another felt the desire, need or duty to try vegetarianism.  For Big Mary it was the summer of 1974, when through some sort of cosmic hiccough I was awarded a 1 semester scholarship in modern dance.  Now understand, I was no stranger to a show tune by this time, but I had neither the physique nor the inclination to persue such close contact with leotard & tights ... not to mention a dance belt. 

Nevertheless the gods of chance decided it would be too much fun to resist, and so it was that my path crossed that of Margit Heskitt, a lunatic and questionably talented choreographer who was down to her last 24 hours to fill a spot in Bowling Green State University's Summer Arts Festival.  A quick handwritten note to the registrar and before I knew it, I was lunging and stag leaping with real "honest to god" artistes. Or so it seemed to this freshly hatched high school graduate.

Desperate to fit in on some level,  I found the holy trinity of coffee, cigarettes and vegetarianism was going to be a much more successful bonding experience, than graceful jetes or a perfect 5th position.  And so it was that I learned to drink my coffee black, switch to low tar cigarettes and substitute veggie burgers for beef.  I will spare the reader any further details of that less than graceful summer.  My pas de deux with Modern Dance is best remembered with the haze of these 30+ years.  These days I am happily free of nicotine and unreliant on caffeine, but I do still enjoy meat free cuisine on a regular basis.

Goddess knows there are plenty of reasons for us all to consider vegetarian options when it comes to planning a weekly meal plan.  There's cholesterol, there's methane gas, there's the horrors of the industrial farming of animals, there's the inefficiency of grain to flesh protein ration, it's a karmic and social dilemma.  For Big Mary, the most persuasive point is that sometimes I just get so weary of chicken, beef or pork.  Seafood always tempts, until I see the price tag.  And there's only so much disguising one can do with tilapia or swai.......

So lately, I've been having a lot of fun with grains, tofu, seeds and nuts; and most all of the experiments have been succinctly praised and enjoyed by the Handsome Venezuelan and I.  Here follows one such recipe. 

Vegetarian Chiles Rellenos

½ cup brown rice, raw
4 large Poblano peppers
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, 1/4 inch dice (1 cup)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped *
8 oz extra firm tofu, small dice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon canned chipotle chiles en adobo, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon salt
6 oz mixed vegetable juice (like V-8)
4 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
2 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
1/3 cup Mexican crema** (or substitute sour cream)

Bring about a quart of lightly salted water to a boil. Add brown rice, lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain rice and return it to the pan, cover, and set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 475*. Lightly rub poblanos with vegetable oil. Place on foil lined baking sheet and roast until skins begin to darken and blister. Approximately 10 minutes. Remove from oven and gather foil to completely enclose poblanos. Set aside to cool. When cool, carefully remove as much skin as possible from poblanos. Make a lengthwise cut on each poblano starting at stem end. Remove all seeds, while keeping the pepper as intact as possible. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan. Add onion and garlic. Cook until soft and add cumin, chipotle and salt. Add V8 juice and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 375*. Combine rice, walnuts, onion mix, tofu and 4 oz cheddar cheese. Gently fill the 4 poblano peppers. Place peppers into a lightly oiled baking dish that holds them fairly tight. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining 2 oz shredded cheddar. Return to oven for an additional 7 - 10 minutes.
Serve with Avocado Tomatillo Salsa and drizzle with Mexican crema.* to toast walnut, place nut meats on a baking sheet in an oven preheated to 375 degrees.  Toast for 5-7 minutes, until nuts just begin to darken and are aromatic.  Set aside to cool.
** Mexican crema is often available in the dairy secion with Latin American cheeses

Tomatillo Avocado Salsa

1 pound Tomatillos, husked
3 medium garlic cloves
1 medium jalapeno
1 med/large onion (12-14 oz), peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ large Haas Avocado, ripe
¼ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, packed

Put all tomatillos, garlic, jalapeno and onion in a medium pan. Add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until tomatillos change color to a duller green. Remove from heat, drain, seperate jalapeno and transfer to a blender container. Cut stem from jalapeno and add to blender. Add salt and pulse until mixture is a rough puree. Chill in blender container for 30 minutes.

Add half avocado and cilantro and pulse until smooth. Serve room temperature.

You should know that this Tomatillo Sauce is crazy delicious, not only on these peppers, but chicken, pork, hell even Tilapia!

Text and recipe - Edward Magel
Photos - Yder Leon Laya
© 2011 Big Mary's Kitchen

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spicy Chocolate Relief from an Italian Heat Wave

Chipotle Spiced Brownies

One of the techniques I've recently been employing to buy some relief from the summer heat of 2011 is to time travel back to our Italian Grand Tour of 2006.   Remembered best by the Italians as the summer they won the World Cup in soccer.  Remembered by all tourists as the most diabolical summer heat torture since the martyred Saint Lawrence requested to be turned over on the grate so he could be cooked on the other side.  Ooohhhh Big Mary will pay for that one...

But it was crazy hot in Italy that July.  We arrived in Rome, greeted by the Handsome Venezuelan's expat niece, already apologizing for the heat.  Hmmm not the exact welcome we were hoping for.  By the time we had arrived at the Hotel Santa Presede and rejected two rooms for the lack of functioning air conditioning, we began to understand that it was more a matter of cultural translation than engineering.  Clearly air conditioning to Italians was a relative term not so clearly experienced by pampered Americans like ourselves.  We experienced a similar discordance trying to locate some ice cubes for "en suite" cocktails later that night, when handed a tiny tray of pellet sized cubes more typical of a summer hail storm in my neck of the woods.

But what the hell....  We were on vacation, in the heart of Rome, so we just leaned out the windows like all the other nonnas, watched the pigeons drift over the 15th century church across the street and sipped delicious cheap red wine until sleep became an option.

Italy made it into the World Cup finals just in time for us to head to Florence.  There we found the same lack luster air conditioning as well as a few degrees tick up to 98* Fahrenheit... BUT we were somehow booked into the hotel's handicapped suite.  Complete with a marble tiled bathroom as large as our bedroom, completely open for wheelchair accessibility.  It took the Handsome V'man less than 5 minutes to block the door's threshold with towels and create his own marble lined wading pool to cool his fevered brow and more....

We were moved to another room the following day.  There was no explanation, but since the new room was on the top floor terraced with a Duomo view... I asked no questions.  It was still hot as one of the lower rings described by Dante, but with that view.... you weren't going to catch me arguing with my fate.
And it proved the "punto perfetto" to watch a long evening of celebration as the city celebrated their team winning the World Cup.

But that energy just added fuel to the fire apparently, as we melted off the train in Bologna and faced an undetermined hike from the termini to our hotel.  Luckily the early hour and new surroundings distracted us as we trudged the many blocks to our destination.  Happily arrived, we registered and were handed a map to where our actual lodgings were.   Really?  Another 6 blocks?  It's kind of amazing what vacation energy can help you accomplish...

20 minutes later we arrived, sheltered most of the way by the gorgeous and oh so smartly engineered porticos of Bologna which harness both shade and breezes to make Life seem like not an altogether ill-conceived notion after all.  And that brings us dear readers to Gelato Cioccolato Azteca and the inspiration for this blog post.

To the right side of the gates that welcomed us to our brief residence in Bologna was a gelato stand that proved to be renowned among the cutting edge gourmands in a very "gourmand-town".  It took less than a sidelong glance from me to confirm gelato was just what was needed to comfort these two about to be "Ugly Americans".  We are both about 99% sure it was called Gelato Stefino, but at that moment in time we were both 100% sure that Cioccolato Azteca was what we wanted.  Sitting back on the bench under the portico, sweat dripping from several "orrifi", we started giggling from travel fever as we dug greedily into the gelato we clutched in our hands.  I think it was the Handsome Venezuelan that said it first... "It's so spicy it hurts, but I can't stop myself!"   And that's the memory I hope to honor here.

Fair warning... these brownies don't come close to the "It's so spicy it hurts..." moment.  But they do deliver a great punch not only of heat but rounded spice.  If you experience anywhere near the reception they got at a recent backyard smoked food fest... you'll be doing good.
Side Note:  The air conditioning in Bologna, could have powered a meat locker!  That didn't phase our enjoyment of Cioccolato Azteca!  If jaded memory serves, we were there 4 times in 2 days! 

When I started to head into the kitchen to develop my idea for Spicy Chipotle Brownies, I googled the idea to look for a base recipe to fiddle with.  The tiniest amount of research delivered a recipe on one of my favortie blogs (The Smitten that was everything I had in mind and more.  And so I pass on her delicious recipe, based on one from Baked, a recipe here in Brooklyn.  I have made only the slightest of changes, never being content to leave well enough alone.  In her blog Chef Deb mentions that a spice free version can be made by eliminating the chipotle, cinnamon or cardamom.

Chipotle Spiced Brownies

Yield: 24 - 48 brownies Depending on size

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons chipotle powder
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
11 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees farenheight. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9 x 13 glass or light-colored metal baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, cocoa powder and chipotle, cinnamon and cardamom together.

Put the chocolate, butter, and instant espresso powder in the top of a double boiler ( or in a 3 -4 qt heat proof or metal bowl) and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally,
Heat until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn
off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the white and brown sugars.
Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The
mixture should be room temperature.
Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture, one at a time and whisk until combined. Add the remaining 2 eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter.

Sprinkle 1/3 of the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a spatula, fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible. Repeat twice until all the flour is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies
comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then cut them into squares and serve.

I find they cut better after being refrigerated, but definitely let them come back to room temperature to serve
Store tightly covered with plastic wrap. These brownies also freeze well.

Copyright (C) Big Mary's Kitchen 2011
Copy by Edward Magel
Photoes by Edward Magel & Yder Laya

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Cool, Cool Cucumbers

Cucumber Basil Limeade & Chilled Indian Spiced Cucumber Soup

Oh lordy, but this heat makes Big Mary cranky! I understand how it must destroy your image of the nuturing, loving, considerate and pleasant, big bear of a love bug that I almost always am, but lately there's just not enough talcum, air conditioning or sno-cones to keep my mind and mood from chaffing.

Work's been slow, but I think that may be the good news. It only takes a few random freelance shifts in an un-air conditioned kitchen with a raging 12 foot gas grill to make you consider permanently taking up residence in the walk in freezer. And I do mean permanent. Talk about your quiescently frozen treat! (Side note here: Ever wondered about that term on the Popsicle box? Turns out it just means frozen at rest. Not frozen while being churned - as in ice cream. Frozen while at rest - as in my fat butt while resting in the walk in freezer.) But alas, a Creamsicle I was not meant to be, so here I sweat with the rest of you, looking for a little relief.

Perhaps this is why Mother Nature steps up her game in such a timely manner come July and August. A perfectly red ripe strawberry does pull my focus from the rising thermometer ... And I do know the hotter the summer, the sweeter the tomatoes about to arrive. As the Farmer's Market begins to swell with stone fruits, tender greens and fragrant herbs, I seem able to relax by surrendering to the coolingperfume of a local canteloupe. Nothing cuts through the heat like an ice cold wedge of watermelon or muskmelon? It's such an intense sweet wetness. No wonder melons have taken on a metaphoric sexiness.

Yet it's cucumbers than have thrown down the challenge of "Who's the coolest?" The answer it turns out, doesn't grow far from the vine. As I started working on this entry I discovered that a cucumber really is a melon, and with a little research learned it shares the same genus as a muskmelon. Like the tomato, the cucumber is really a fruit, not a vegetable.

And this "vegeruit" or "fruigetable" takes a chill like nobody's business. While I know there are recipes out there for warm cucumber side dishes, forget about those for now and get as cool as that cucumber. I'm offering two options for a cucumber chill down. The first is a crazy cool refresco - Cucumber Basil LimeAde. This refresher has also been known to curry the favor of some icy vodka. Then I like to call her "Down the Garden Path".

Cucumber Basil Limeade
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 2 limes – taken with vegetable peeler
1 small Bunch of Basil, at least 20Basil leaves, well washed
1 large Cucumber, peeled, seeded and rough chopped
1 cup water
3/4 Cup Fresh Lime Juice
24 ounces Plain Seltzer, chilled
Basil leaves, Lime slices & Cucumber slices for garnish
Combine water, sugar and lime zest. Bring to a boil and simmer 3 minutes. Add Basil, return to a boil then remove from heat and let cool.
Puree cucumber with the water in a blender. Strain into a pitcher. Add lime juice.
Strain the sugar syrup, discard the basil and zest, and add the sugar syrup to the pitcher. Stir well, add seltzer, ice and garnish (if using)
Serve immediately

The second recipe is a riff on a raita, that classic Indian curry cooler -

Chilled Indian Spiced Cucumber Soup
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 cup yellow or white onion, roughly chopped
1 medium fresh garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon Garam Masala*
1 cup low sodium chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded & diced (about 3 cups)
1/2 medium jalapeño, stemmed, seeded & chopped (or to taste)
2 cups buttermilk
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, packed
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves, packed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Warm olive oil in a medium skillet. Add onion and garlic. Sauté until soft and transparent, 3-5 minutes. Add garam masala, stir, cook 3 minutes, and remove from heat. Transfer into a small bowl and chill.
Prepare remaining ingredients. Note: Jalapeños vary drastically in terms of spiciness of jalapeño for this reason, reserve the second half of jalapeño in case you wish to increase the spiciness.
Place all ingredients in a blender. On a low speed, blend all ingredients. Increase speed to blend the soup into a smooth puree. Serve well chilled.

* Garam Masala is an Indian spice mixture that varies from household to household, but typically contains : black & white peppercorns, cloves, mace, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise & coriander seeds. A great version is available from

And why is it that cucumbers come off as such cool characters.

Copyright Big Mary's Kitchen
Photos by Yder Leon Laya