Find warm comfort in Orlando’s Mills 50 District

After a summer long routine of unforgiving heat and thunderous storms, the upcoming cold season can be dark and menacing to Central Floridians. As the temperature drops below our usual 80’s comfort zone, it becomes a common thing to see one or two parkas wandering about the city in search of some respite from the not-so-cold. Fortunately, I have a beloved gem of a restaurant not too far from home to appease my hunger for soupy comfort on those dark, cold nights ahead. It is Thuyen Vien, also known as “the little pho place” amongst my group of friends.

Pho chay with herbs and sprouts on the side.

Pho chay with herbs and sprouts on the side.

In the 1970’s, hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants sought refuge from the Vietnam war in Orlando, opening businesses and settling in a stretch of Colonial Dr. just north of downtown Orlando, now known as little Vietnam or Mills 50 District. Since then, they have contributed to the community by sharing their culture, food, and way of life with the rest of the Orlando community.

Along MIlls 50 one finds a vibrant array of Asian markets and restaurants that produce some of the most exciting and flavorful food in the area. As is the case with Thuyen Vien, a tiny hole in the wall restaurant that sits sandwiched in a shopping center between a boba tea business and a jeweler. You walk into this unpretentious vegetarian restaurant and you are instantly greeted as you scan the room for an empty seat. The tables are humble dinning sets that look like they’ve been snatched right out of an Ikea catalog. The walls are decorated with colorful Buddhist imagery that entertains the eye as you wait on you food. The best part about this joint is the menu, which is ubiquotously placed in the center of the table and has about 6 items to choose from, all priced $5.

My ultimate favorite is the #1 pho, which is vegan pho in this case. Traditionally, pho is a Vietnamese soup served with beef or chicken broth and rice noodles, topped with herbs and bean sprouts; its vegetarian sister is pho chay. Although pho chay lacks the beefy broth that is simmered with bone marrow over low heat for several hours, this version does not lag behind. An exotic blend of toasted spices ( star anise, cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon) carrots, celery, onions, and dried mushrooms go into the broth that I like to make at home. The fungi bring forth a strong umami taste that creates a memorable broth capable of captivating even the most carnivorous of palates.

And so I sit on an empty seat, right on a corner overlooking the communal garden shared by the shopping center. There’s a rainbow of orchids adorning the greenery and the music emanating from the speakers above melodically spit out chants that lull me into a peaceful state of serenity. My food arrives, and as I take that first whiff of steaming veggie broth, my mouth salivates in anticipation for the delicious meal. It never fails, I have eaten this soup more than 100 times before and every single time I never cease to feel its comforting effects. Specially on a Florida winter day like today.

Food for Fall

Florida weather has finally dipped into the 60’s, it happened late last night as we slept. As a result, the morning welcomed us with a crisp breeze and a sunny (yet not humid) start to what we hope to be the beginning of autum. That is to say, the start of a season for baking nice buttery pastries and pies. And in the land of eternal heat waves, a little break is always celebrated with something warm and carby. Because we still have late summer eggplants in our markets down here, I decided to stock up and make a savory gallette. For those who have never heard of a gallette, it is a simple, rustic style tart that is made with a buttery and flaky crust. The dough is rolled out into a circle and the filling is placed in the middle, leaving about 1 1/2 inches of exposed dough, which just gets folded over the filling. It is perfect for a quick dinner.

I have made many pies and tarts before, but this time I wanted to try a new recipe. As I perused through the usual list of food blogs, I came upon a pie crust that required sour cream. This was a recipe adapted from the smittenkitchen.com food blog. I had nothing but greek plain yogurt, so I took the risk and decided to use it as a substitute.

The result was a lovely crust that crumbled at first bite. The flaky morsels of crust that were left behind on the plate were almost eaten immediately because it would have been a crime to leave all the buttery, golden goodness behind.

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Caramelized Eggplant Gallette

The crust is actually the star of this dish. The filling, the supporting actors. You can throw in any veggies that you have in the fridge and make a nice hearty filling. In my case, I had eggplants, shallots, red peppers, and garlic.

The Crust
Like I mentioned before, i adapted this recipe from the smittenkitchen.com blog. This is the flaky crust recipe as it appears in their site. I ommited the sour cream and subbed with yogurt.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into
pieces
1/4 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup ice water

1. Cube the butter and chill. Scale all ingredients and chill for atleast 30 minutes. The cold ingredients will make for a flakier crust.
2. Combine your salt and flour, add the butter and start to disentigrate with your hands until the butter is the size of small peas. You can also use a food processor for this step but I don’t like to was all the extra dishes : )
3. Mix the water, yogurt, and lemon together. Add half of the wet mixture into the dry and start to form a dough ball. Add the rest of the wet mixture as needed to form a cohesive ball. Once the ball is formed, place it on a large piece of plastic wrap, then place another piece of equal size wrap over the top and start to form the dough into a small disk as you press down. Chill for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven at 350 degrees during this time.
5. Once your dough is chilled, pull it out and with a rolling pin start to flatten it out until it is only 1/4 of an inch thick. Make sure you keep a semi round form. remove the top plastic. Now, with some ninja chef skills, grab the corners of the bottom plastic film and flip the dough over onto a sheet tray.
6. Spoon the filling of your choice onto the center of the dough and work your way out, leaving a 1 1/2 inch thick border. Fold the border over the filling and bake until the crust gets golden brown. You will begin to smell the aroma of browned butter.

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I grated some aged parm cheese onto my pie to make things a little more interesting. As it turns out, I have not been the first to use substitute yogurt for cream. Apparently the yogurt acts as a binder for the dough. Several sites, including Foodandwine.com feature pie crust recipes that include yogurt. The main reason as to why yogurt has made such a visible difference in the taste and texture of my pie remains a mystery. I will surely investigate and return with answers soon. Meanwhile, I’ll be eating my pie! Happy baking!

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A simple lunch

There is no better act of love than to treat yourself to a beautiful and delicious meal, prepared by your own hands; a meal that comes from deep within the heart and nourishes your soul and spirit. There is nobody to impress with elaborate technique or ingredients. No picky eaters to cater to. Feeding yourself is all about you. Nothing else matters.

Lazy Saturday afternoons can elicit cravings for freshly baked dark rye bread, warmed just long enough to create a spongy middle and crispy outer crust. This dark canvas crates a perfect contrast to a soft grassy goat cheese that can be spread against the warm surface of the bread. A buttery sliced avocado adds a subtle richness and freshly picked sweet Thai basil leaves deliver an exotic punch of flavor that will elevate your senses.

Its the simple things in life…..

Happy 3 day weekend!!

The dangers of riding on bicycles and other meatless Monday adventures

In observance of meatless Monday and its message of sustainability and “being green” I decided to ride my bike to work this morning ( my car was also acting up but that’s another story).  Orlando is not the most biike friendly city in the world and so I find myself riding on the sidewalk at a much slower speed all the time. This might have saved me from a great deal of pain this morning because in a not so bright display of common sense, I rode my bike with  my apron rolled up against my handle bar ( we cannot take large personal bags into work so a backpack was not used). As I made my way to work down the cobblestone sidewalks of historic Winter Park, the apron straps became loose and got tangled on my front wheel pulling the entire apron to come between the break pads and the tire and causing a sudden halt. Luckily I was not going as fast and so I simply did a semi front flip over my handle bars and landed on my right arm. So the lesson this Monday is;  Be green but safety first, wear a helmet and do not try to balance anything on your handle bars as you ride (wear a backpack).  However, back to being green, riding a bike to work is the perfect way to complement your going-green-for-meatless-Mondays effort. Seriously, when people at work found out I had ridden to work they seemed so surprised, as if it was an out of this world concept… When did riding a bike become such an archaic way of transportation? I don’t get it? Anyway, on to the food!!

Tortilla Soup! Ah yes, Mexican comfort food at its best. Crunchy baked tortilla strips, creamy, buttery avocado, and a smoky chipotle spice make up this classical south of the border delicacy. I figured it would be fitting to make today because a looong time ago I worked in a Mexican kitchen. My first job ever! Delicious Mexican Eatery is known to El Pasoans as the home of the most authentic Mexican food you can get (other than your abuelita’s home ofcourse). In fact, Julia Child payed a visit long ago and got a few tips herself from the very knowledgable ladies that work in the kitchen. There was a daily special everyday of the week and Mondays was always tortilla soup day.  That tortilla soup had chicken, but today I made mine with veg stock and a side of black beans.

To make a hearty and healthy tortilla soup you need to saute a small onion in a deep pot.  Add small diced celery and garlic. Sweat for 5 minutes the add 1 tbs of chipotle powder, 1 tbs ancho chile powder, and 1 tsp of cumin. I like to get my chile spices from Pensey’s spices because they are always so fresh tasting, but you can actually grind up the dried peppers yourself if you have time.  Now add 1 cup of finely diced tomatoes and allow to simmer for five minutes.  This will build the foundation to all the flavor in your soup.  Now you’re ready to add veggie stock. If you don’t have any stock you can use water instead or even chicken stock if you decide to make this soup some other day! I used 2 qts of veg stock.  Allow the broth to simmer for at least 30 minutes so that all the flavors can concentrate and you get a richer soup. While the soup is simmering, bake a corn tortilla until crisp and golden. Please don’t burn it. I always burn mine =(.  To serve ladle some soup broth into a bowl, top with crunchy tortilla pieces, avocado wedges, a bit of grated queso blanco ( found in any supermarket), and lots of cilantro, epazote, and lime!!!! Eat with black beans on the side for the perfect dinner! Enjoy and happy M. Monday!!

My Meatless Monday, an inspired vegetarian meal

What exactly is Meatless Monday? Why does it matter, and why should we care? Meatless Monday is a grassroots organization which has been around to promote a healthy lifestyle since the days of World War I. It started as an effort to promote restraint towards the consumption of certain items so that those items (meat, wheat, etc) could be reserved to feed the troops abroad. Since 2003, it has been revived by Sid Lerner after he noticed a spike in  lifestyle diseases among Americans.  Many of these diseases were preventable through healthier food choices.  This non-profit simply encourages that you make a conscious effort at the very beginning of your work week to start with a healthy and sustainable meal that will also promote a healthier planet.

This leads me to a very interesting issue that I come across with in the culinary industry; vegetarian cooking.  As chefs, we must have an open mind about food. Whether we are herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores (although I highly doubt anyone can be a carnivore and live to be 40), we are chefs because we love food, we respect food, and we want to bring people closer to food. We want them to enjoy it and respect it like we do.  That is why I feel very disappointed when vegetarians visit the restaurant where I work and find that they have very limited options available to them.  Many chefs will claim that everything must have bacon fat in order to taste good, or that vegetarian cooking is uninspiring and dull. I don”t respect a chef who thinks that way.  A chef must always have an open mind and be ready to learn from everyone, whether the teacher is a fellow chef or just a home cook.

I was inspired to make this quick meal yesterday (Sunday) and had my leftovers for Meatless Monday.  Although I am not a vegetarian, I strive to eat sustainably everyday and save my meat consumption for occasions when I can learn new cooking techniques from trying a meat dish or when friends and family share their food with me. Food is all about sharing after all.  Speaking of sharing, I have several vegetarian friends who are always on the go, and I wanted to share this recipe with them. I prepared quinoa/garbanzo bean patties yesterday. They are extremely versatile because they can be made in advance and stored in the freezer until they are ready to be eaten. They can also be eaten with sauteed veggies on the side or with a pita wrapped around them. Either way, they are very healthy as they are  low in fat and high in protein (quinoa is very high in protein).

Quinoa/Garbanzo Patties

1/2 cup drained and roughly mashed garbanzos

1 cup cooked quinoa (squeeze out excess liquid)

1/3 cup minced cilantro

1/4 cup minced oregano

2 minced garlic cloves

1/4 c greek yogurt (plain)

1/3 cup minced sundried tomato

1/4 cup tahini paste (sesame seed paste) optional

OR 1 beaten egg

Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare mix the herbs into the mashed garbanzo beans. Add tomato, yogurt, and garlic. Mix well then add the quinoa and mix well again. Season with salt and pepper to taste.   Add the tahini paste if available ( it is not necessary but it does help bind the patty together). If no tahini is available then just add a beaten egg. Now to the fun part.  Shape the mix with your hands into small patties about 3 inches in diameter. place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake at 350 °F.  after 15 minutes check for a golden crust on the top of the patties, turn to the other side and bake another 15 minutes.

I ate these with tzatziki sauce which consists of grated 1/4  cucumber, 1 minced garlic clove, 2 tbs minced fresh mint, and a pinch of cumin and salt mixed into 1/2 cup of plain greek yogurt.  Enjoy!!

Fun in the kitchen

I was looking through my photo album and found a couple of pictures that reminded me of just how much of a kick I get from being in the kitchen!

This is a gnocchi dish that I made several days ago. Gnocchi is a potato dumpling typical of Italian cuisine. It consists of potato, (boiled, peeled and milled),eggs, and just enought flour to hold it together into a stiff dough. They are so delicious with sage and brown butter.

These were made to satisfy my friend’s potato cravings. She really enjoyed them… Although, while she was helping me roll the dough into dumplings, she did mentioned she would not make them on her own, too time consuming. Haha, that is definitely fine with me, as long as there is wine I’ll be doing all the rolling!

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This traditional French fruit tart is my favorite pastry of all time. It has a sort of elegant simplicity to it, which makes it perfect for special occasions like Christmas and other get togethers. I really love that you can play around with the fruit to decorate in a very unique way. I’ll tell you, no two fruit tarts ever look the same.

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Huevos con chorizo

Nothing says comfort food to me like a big Sunday breakfast of eggs with the mexican sausage ” chorizo”. This was a staple in my home back in El Paso, Texas when I was a little girl. Sunday was the day when my aunts and uncles crossed the border from Juarez, Mexico to take care of their shopping needs for the week and so they stopped at my parent’s home for the ritualistic Mexican Brunch.

One thing is certain about most Mexican food, it is SPICY, so this was no exception in my home. While my aunts and uncles heated the freshly made bread that was brought over from the little Mexican panaderias ( bakeries), my mom prepared a killer scrambled eggs with chorizo dish. And she was serious about the heat! In Mexican cooking tradition it is said that when you make something really hot and spicy, the cook was really pissed off. So the spicier the food, the angrier the cook was when it was prepared. It’s actually kind of scary if you think about it!!!

So my mom must have been a really pissed off cook but her food was so delicious that deep inside you could taste all the love that Mexican moms put into their food.

This Sunday morning  I was missing my family and our Sunday breakfasts together. And while I do not eat the chorizo sausage that I find down here in Florida, I knew that there had to be a way to bring those smoky flavors to my morning egg scramble!  A little chilli powder and some TVP (textured vegetable protein) satisfied the craving.

To make  super easy, guilt free vegetarian chorizo I simply boiled some water, added a 1/2 cup of tvp crumbles ( see picture below) and allowed that to simmer for 5 minutes. I drained the tvp into a cheesecloth lined strainer.  Once drained completely, I placed cooked tvp into a metal bowl and added various chilli powders. Since I really wanted smoky flavors I used chipotle powder, then some cayenne, cumin, ground fennel, salt, and just a tiny bit of Jamaican curry powder. I mixed well and in a non stick pan ( the one used for my eggs) I sautéed mushrooms, onions, jalapenos, and finally added some of the seasoned tvp and cooked until the tvp began to form a crust. This gave it a nice crunchy bite. Then I added my eggs and a little salt.

Wow, try those eggs with a piece Puerto Rican pan sobao ( sweet white bread), and your day will be complete!  Of course, I do miss the traditional Fresh chorizo that is made in my family’s northern Chihuahua ranch just as the pig gets slaughtered, and the vegetarian version does not compare, but I like to reserve that for those very special occasions when I get to visit them.  For now, the smoky flavors and spicy notes from the chilli will have to do. Happy Sunday!

eggs with veg chorizo

veg chorizo seared to create a crunchy crust

TVP used for veg chorizo