Saturday, January 10, 2015

What to cook when it gets cold?

It’s been just about as cold as it gets during winter in Houston lately and that’s had me thinking about cooking comforting, uncomplicated, and relatively easy meals. This first one is a soup, comes together rather quickly and can be served within an hour from start to finish.

Potato Leek Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil (more if needed to cover bottom of your pot)
3 leeks*, white and light green parts only, cleaned well and finely sliced or chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
1 large shallot finely sliced
½ cup white wine
Small bunch of fresh thyme tied together with kitchen string. (If you don’t have fresh a couple of teaspoons of dry will do)
1 bay leaf
3 lbs potatoes but into chunks (Yukon Gold or Russet)
6 cups low sodium chicken broth (more if necessary to cover potatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
½  teaspoon fresh ground pepper (white if you have it)
½ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
½ cup heavy cream
Sour cream, chives or finely sliced green onions for garnish

Heat a heavy bottomed 4-5 quart pot (I prefer an enameled cast iron pot) over medium heat. Add olive oil, leeks, garlic and shallot and cook over medium heat until the vegetables have wilted and become translucent, but not browned. Add white wine to deglaze. 

Stir in thyme and bay leaf, salt, pepper and potatoes. Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and continue to simmer until the potatoes are fork tender.

Remove the thyme and bay leaves. Let pot cool slightly and then puree using an immersion blender. Alternately, you can puree in a blender or food processor in batches. Pay attention not to overfill your container if you need to work in batches. Return to pot. If the mixture is too thick you may add more broth to bring it to a desired consistency. Stir in sour cream until it melts into the soup. Stir in cream. Adjust seasonings and serve. Garnish with a big dollop of sour cream, and minced chives or green onion.

* To clean leeks – Cut off the tops and bottoms of the leeks, then cut in half lengthwise. Rinse each half under running water making sure water gets to each layer and to remove any sand and grit between the leaves.

The second recipe requires more cooking time than it does prep time, but you can have this delicious meal on the table for dinner in just over an hour once you get it simmering.

My cousin Marcella Lolos shared this recipe with me years ago after she cooked it for dinner one night and I love it.

Marcella’s Hungarian Goulash

2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tb butter
3-4 lbs stew meat (cubed)
1 large onion chopped
3 garlic cloves minced
½ tsp dry mustard
3 tsp paprika
¾ cup ketchup
2 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups water (or enough to cover meat)

Add olive oil and butter to a heavy bottomed 5-6 quart pot (I prefer enameled cast iron). Brown meat in batches over medium high heat until nicely caramelized. Reserve meat.

Add onions to pot on medium heat and stir until they become translucent and slightly caramelized. Add garlic and stir for one minute. Stir in dry mustard, paprika, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar. Return meat to pot. Add about a teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper, then pour in enough water to cover meat by at least half an inch.  Bring to a simmer. Cover and continue simmering about an hour or until meat becomes tender and sauce reduces and begins to slightly thicken.  Serve over buttered noodles.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Aji Peruvian Cafe - The next best thing if you can't get to Machu Picchu

I was recently indoctrinated to the wonders of Peruvian cuisine when I was invited to an impromptu dinner by my commercial real estate broker and cousin, Gus Lagos. Gus knows a good thing when he sees it, so he was quick to invite me to Aji located off the beaten path in West Houston. 
We were warmly greeted by co-owner Pilar Forkel upon our arrival. One thing Pilar does not lack is personality. She is a breath of fresh air and was eager to describe the national dishes of Peru. That evening I sampled causitas, mashed potatoes flavored three different ways and topped with Peruvian chicken salad. Each iteration was replete with it's own flavor and sauce. 

Picante de Mariscos
The Picante de Moriscos bursted with fresh flavors from the sea and was enrobed in a spicy cream sauce, served with rice and deftly fried yucca. 
Saltado de Carne
The Saltado de Carne, which is tenderloin stir fried with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro has left me wanting to have this dish again. The flavors are terrific. 

Tres Leches Cake
That evening we finished the meal with a most different version of the South American sensation, Tres Leches Cake. It was layered with a filling that was described as fruit based. I am somewhat of a Tres Leches aficionado and I have to say  I found it absolutely delicious. It's unusual to find a layered Tres Leches rendition and especially one so moist. 

It was inevitable that I had to make a return visit to Aji, so within about two weeks I was back, this time with my dear friend and fellow foodie Susan Poe in tow. 

One of the most refreshing drinks I've ever had is a Chicha Morada and it's made from purple corn. I had never heard of it, but it's such a surprising mix of flavors including hints of cinnamon and fruits. I have asked Pilar to please bottle and sell this elixir. You must try one when you visit! There are also many fresh Peruvian juice drinks on offer. 
Fried Pork Sandwich
I couldn't deny Susan the opportunity to try the Causitas, and they were just as good if not better than what I remembered from my first visit. But I was anxious to sink my teeth into one of the Peruvian sandwiches on the menu. I chose the fried pork. The pork is not breaded. It is simply deep fried and layered with thinly sliced sweet potato slices and salsa criolla. Trust me on this one. 
Spaghetti Huanciana
Susan opted for a very festively colored pasta dish, that was 

topped with the aforementioned beef saltado, so how bad could it be?! The sauce gets it's vibrant color from cilantro and a Huancaina sauce. I feared it would be pasty but it was smooth and silky with an unusual hint of evaporated milk that mellowed out the flavors. 

Chocolate Cake with dulce de leche filling
Once again desert was unavoidable. This apparent Peruvian specialty marries a dense chocolate layer cake with dulce de leche and a thick creamy chocolate frosting. If I had to do it again, I would have ordered a tall glass of cold milk to go with it.

All in all Aji Peruvian Cafe is a small local restaurant that brings something different to the neighborhood. There isn't a plethora of Peruvian restaurants in Houston and I welcome this newcomer whole heartedly. 

Ahi does not however come onto the scene without a touch of controversy. The chef and some three employees who are all quite happily turning out dish after dish to locals and Peruvians from all parts of town used to work at another much larger Peruvian restaurant called Latin Bites. Co-Owner of Latin Bites, Carlos Ramos has made accusations in an actual press release that Aji has allegedly copied many of Latin Bites' recipes. Having researched Peruvian cuisine in the last few weeks it is my opinion that both restaurants serve traditional Peruvian dishes and that's where the similarities end. I don't believe Aji's meager eight tables could possibly be a threat to the few other Peruvian restaurants in town.  

If you live in West Houston Aji Peruvian Cafe should be on your restaurants to try in 2015 list. Maybe they should be on your list even if you don't live nearby.