The Best Diet

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So I’m on this Cemita Diet. And it’s working out pretty well so far. You see, I am constantly recipe testing everything I make for this blog (and for my full-time job as a cook). Most of the things I note while I’m recipe testing, is of course, the taste of the products I’m making, the shelf-life of the food, and if it’s so good I can eat the product repeatedly. This tested true for this Cemita recipe, which I ate 4 times within the last 2 weeks. Hence, the Cemita Diet. And it’s not a bad diet to be on.

And what makes this sandwich even better? The FRESH BREAD I made. That’s right, fresh sesame seed buns. As Sir Mix-A-Lot protested: My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun. Clearly he was talking about bread buns, AMIRITE?

I can attest that this sandwich, a Mexican torta, native to the Pueblo region, is as tasty as it is beautiful. Layers of your choice of meat (in this case, I made shredded chicken), Panela cheese (a Mexican soft, white cheese, similar to Queso Fresco and Mozzarella), ripe avocado slices, chipotle aioli, crisp butterleaf lettuce, tomato and red onion, and a pápalo* salsa roja on a sweet and soft sesame seed bun. If you’ve never tried a Cemita, you’re in for a real treat–every bite is tastier than its predecessor. Perfect with an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day, I’m almost positive the next Big Diet trend, is gonna be that of the Cemita.

(*Cook’s Note: pápalo, also known as Bolivian Coriander, tastes a bit like cilantro, but isn’t actually related to either herb. It’s a relative to the daisy plant, and has a very astringent, floral and minty taste. All the reasons certain people who hate cilantro, are all the qualities that make the pápalo plant so refreshing and delicious.)

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Cemita Poblano de Pollo
(Pueblan-Style Chicken Torta Sandwich)
Yields 2-4 sandwiches

INGREDIENTS
2 each Cemita rolls (recipe HERE)
1/2 cup prepared chipotle aioli (aioli recipe HERE)
2 avocados, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
5 ounces Panela cheese (about half a wheel), cut into batonnets
1 cup shredded chicken (recipe HERE)
1/2 cup pápalo* salsa roja (24 ounces canned tomatoes; 2 cups papalo leaves; 1 sprig fresh oregano, picked; 2 jalapenos, tops cut off; roughly chopped; 2 garlic cloves; 1 small red onion, peeled and roughly chopped; 1 lime, juiced, salt to taste)
4 pieces butterleaf lettuce
1/2 tomato, thinly sliced into 4 slices
1/2 small red onion, sliced into a fine julienne

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METHOD
Make the chipotle aioli. Add 1/2 cup of canned chipotles (with sauce) into 2 cups of aioli. Mix together. Place in refrigerator.

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Make the pápalo salsa roja. In a food processor or blender, combine all of the ingredients till well incorporated. Season to taste. Place in refrigerator.

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Slice each roll in the center horizontally. Place into a toaster oven or oven at 375 degrees for about 7 minutes, or until lightly brown.

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Liberally spread both inner sides of the rolls with the chipotle aioli.

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Add the avocado slices and Panela cheese to both sides.

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Place about 1/2 cup each of shredded chicken on the bottom halve of the cemita roll for each sandwich.

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Spoon 1/4 cup each of the papalo salsa over the chicken.

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Add the lettuce, tomato and onion.

Cover with the top halve of the cemita roll. Slice the sandwiches in half. Enjoy

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Dining In…

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One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1996 film, Big Night. But it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I was introduced to this foodie classic by a roommate who told me about it after I had made a dinner of risotto and chicken. (We then watched the movie together later that evening.)

The film centers around two brothers, Primo and Secondo, immigrants from Italy, who own “Paradise” a restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. The restaurant is in danger of closing as its competing restaurant, another Italian-owned restaurant, “Pascal’s” is taking all of its business. As popular as their competitor’s restaurant may be with locals (think Bucca di Beppo-style decor) the restaurant does not have the heart and soul of the true Italian cuisine that the brothers’ restaurant embodies.

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The chef, Primo (beautifully played by Monk star, Tony Shalhoub) is the soul of the restaurant–preparing special dishes he brought from Italy to the States. While Secondo (played by Stanley Tucci, doing triple duty as actor, writer and director of the film) is the businessman of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant has to close, but a chat with Pascal leads Secondo to believe that he has set up a final dinner, a “Big Night”, where famous Italian-American singer, Louis Prima is supposedly invited to dine at their “Paradise.” The dinner is meant to be something special, a final goodbye to the restaurant and its roots. Cooking for a big-time star like Louis Prima not only excites Secondo, it pushes him to encourage  his brother to create a special, final meal.

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And the meal, well, it’s definitely something memorable. With about 6 courses, the Big Night meal is a culinary adventure that shoots to inspire any foodie, chef, student, and home cook alike. I often dreamt of recreating my own Big Night meal, and I thought that my (belated) housewarming dinner with a few friends would be the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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Instead of 6 courses, I opted for 4. The dinner centers around pivotal scenes and dishes in the film. I tried to be as ambitious yet realistic as possible. I had a day and a half to create this meal by myself, so I definitely had my work cut out for me. After pulling an all-nighter and waking up early the following morning to get this meal prepared before my guests arrived, I am incredibly happy with how well the dinner went. By the time my guests arrived, I already had the timpano in the oven, the sorbetto in the freezer, and I was able to cook the stracciatella and the risotto a la minute, right in front of my guests. The reveal of the timpano and slicing it at the table, and then pouring the Prosecco over the sorbetto was another visual treat my guests enjoyed. It appears, we, too, had our own Big Night.

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Big Night-Inspired Menu

zuppa: stracciatella (Italian Egg Drop Soup)

primo: risotto con capesante (Seared Scallop Risotto)

secondo: timpano (Baked Pasta Pie)

dolce: sorbetto alla fragola con prosecco (Strawberry Sorbet with Prosecco)

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

A Delicious Start

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In the Big Night dinner, the meal starts off with the zuppa (soup), although the film didn’t specify what type of soup was served, I opted for lighter fare. A light, clean-tasting soup felt like the best way to begin a four-course meal.

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This stracciatella (Italian for “to tear”, or “to shred”, the term is used to describe other foods, including stracciatella ice cream with its shreds of chocolate.) is so easy to make and requires only 5 ingredients–so convenient when you’re preparing a four-course meal for four people all by yourself! But remember: don’t stir the mixture in too much–the clumps cooking in the hot stock will create lovely little semolina dumplings once set.

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Stracciatella (Italian Egg Drop Soup)
Serves 2-4
Recipe adapted from Simply Recipes

INGREDIENTS
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups spinach leaves, stems removed and chiffonade cut (kale, chard and arugula also work well)
1 Tablespoon semolina flour
3 Tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (use a Microplane if you have one)
1 large egg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

METHOD
Heat the chicken stock in a stock pot and bring to a boil.

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While your stock is heating up, in a medium-sized bowl whisk together the egg, Pecorino Romano and semolina flour.

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Stir in the chiffonade-cut greens into the boiling stock. Lower the heat to a simmer. Slowly pour in the cheese/egg/flour mixture into the stock. Do not stir the mixture, allow it to sit in the simmering stock for about 2 minutes.

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Once the batter looks set (it will cook rather quickly) give the mixture a gently stir to incorporate all of the ingredients. The clumps of batter have now turned into mini dumplings. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve!

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Return to the main story HERE

(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

Un Dolce Finale

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To complete a rather heavy (yet balanced!) Italian feast, inspired by the glorious meal shown in the classic film, Big Night, I wanted to incorporate a light and fruit-forward dessert. When planning the final course for this special meal, I consulted with my good friend, Brett, who is the pastry chef assistant at a superb Italian restaurant in Oakland that I used to work with him at. He immediately suggested a strawberry sorbet topped with some Cava or Prosecco. It was pure genius. This recipe of my Strawberry Sorbet from a few years’ back is my go-to. Just make the sorbet a day-ahead and pour a bit of Prosecco tableside and just see how delighted your guests will be!

Sorbetto alla Fragola con Prosecco (Strawberry Sorbet with Prosecco)
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
1 quart strawberry sorbet (recipe HERE)
1 bottle Italian Prosecco

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METHOD
Make the sorbet at least 1 day before serving.

When ready to serve, leave the sorbet out in room temperature for about 20 minutes to soften a bit. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop 2-3 scoops of sorbet into each bowl. Pour enough Prosecco over sorbet to just cover. Repeat for all bowls. Serve!

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Return to the full story HERE

(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

You Can’t Have the Mango!

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Why is it that every time I hear this song by Everything But the Girl, I’m reminded of Chris Kattan’s Saturday Night Live character, Mango? Does it give you flashbacks, too?

I digress. So the whole thing with mangoes started when my parents came to visit me in Portland recently (yay!). I was so excited to host them in my new apartment. We went on a road trip and visited our family in Idaho. It was such a lovely week, I’m so glad to have spent some quality time with my family. Working in the hospitality industry, it’s hard to get the time to take long vacations and spend time with loved ones. I really want to (and will!) make an effort this year to work less and spend more quality time with the special people in my life. Promise.

Back to the point of this story: My mom brought me a bunch of mangoes (it’s her favorite fruit), her reasoning being that I “need to eat more fruit.” (She thinks I don’t eat enough fruit, which is pretty much true.) But I somehow forgot about them, and when I finally remembered that I had them (in actuality, a telephone conversation with my mom asking me if I had eaten said mangoes) I found them overripe in my fridge. I was bummed; they were too mushy to eat raw. And I’m really hesitant to eat things with weird textures. (Random fact about me: I don’t care for eggplants or bananas because of their weird mushiness.) Yet I tasted the overripe mangoes and figured they were still salvageable, so I made this delectable Mango Coffee Cake instead.

The Martha Stewart recipe I adapted it from called for a glaze, but I decided to top the cake with my Vegan Caramel Sauce that I upgraded by steeping the coconut milk with star anise for about an hour.

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This recipe is best served warm and with coffee. (Duh.) Store the cake in room temperature wrapped in plastic. Upon serving, just reheat it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. It still tastes really good even after a week.

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Mango Coffee Cake with Coconut-Star Anise Caramel
Recipe slightly adapted from Martha Stewart

INGREDIENTS
FOR THE STREUSEL TOPPING AND CENTER
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

FOR THE CAKE
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for your baking pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream
5 overripe mangoes, flesh scooped and mashed lightly

Vegan Caramel Sauce

METHOD
First make the streusel topping. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cut in the butter using a pastry cutter or rub in with your fingers until small to medium clumps form. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Make the streusel center: Mix together the remaining 1/4 cup of brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. For the cake: Butter a 9-inch tube pan with a removable bottom. Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon salt into a bowl and mix together.

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Beat the butter and granulated sugar with a mixer on medium-high speed till fluffy, about a minute. Add in the egg and vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the sour cream and mashed mangoes, beginning and ending with flour. Continue to beat until well combined.

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Pour half of the batter into the greased pan. Sprinkle the streusel center mixture evenly over the batter. Pour in the remaining batter, and spread evenly using an offset spatula. Sprinkle the rest of the streusel topping.

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Place into the oven and bake until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack, and allow to cool completely. Remove cake from pan, and transfer to parchment.

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Make the caramel sauce. While still warm, drizzle over cake and let the sauce drip down to the sides. Let set for 5 minutes before serving.

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Don’t Mess With Cookie Lyon

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By a show of hands, who’s also obsessed with Fox’s television show, Empire? I just can’t get enough. I was introduced to the show via some friends at work who also share my love for VH1’s Love and Hip Hop.

“Oh girl, you think Love and Hip Hop is good, you definitely need to watch Empire. You’ll thank me later,” one friend said.

“You’re not watching Empire yet? Get on it, girl! It’s like a scripted, well acted version. But 1000-plus times better. Trust me,” another friend exclaimed.

So I gave in to the peer pressure and watched the pilot that night. My expectations were exceeded. Are you kidding? This show is phenomenal. (Know that I don’t use that term lightly.) My girl Taraji P. Henson is KILLING IT as the lead heroine, Cookie Lyon. Mama is fierce! And I just can’t get over how gorgeous Jamaal (portrayed by actor Jussie Smollett) is.

(Side note: Did anyone realize a young Jussie was in THIS movie?) The relationship he and Cookie have is so beautiful to watch, like how a mama lioness watches over her cub. This show proves that a mother’s love is stronger than just about anything.

With all this talk about Miss Cookie, I got to thinking: It’s been a few weeks since I’ve made some actual cookies at home. So I got to the kitchen and started baking away. These cookies are such a great twist on the classic chocolate chip cookie. The brown butter deepens the flavor and the pecans add spice with a nice bit of crunch.

(Editor’s Note: All television show screenshots are property of 20th Century Fox.)

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Brown Butter Spiced Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies
Cookie recipe slightly adapted from Joy the Baker
Spiced pecan recipe by A Streetcar Named Devour
Yields about 3 dozen cookies

FOR THE SPICED PECANS

INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 cup water
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup pecans, whole

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Add all ingredients into a mixing bowl and thoroughly coat the pecans.  Spread the pecans into a single layer onto the sheet tray. Place into the oven for 15 minutes. Once done, remove and allow to cool.

FOR THE COOKIES

INGREDIENTS
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans (recipe above)

METHOD
Place half of the butter into a medium skillet. Melt the butter over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally to avoid burning. The butter will begin to foam while cooking. Once the butter starts to smell nutty and the color is light amber, it’s done. Carefully remove the butter and pour it into a small bowl to cool down.

While the brown butter cools, mix the other 1/2 cup of butter with the sugars, until the mixture is well incorporated. Add in the vanilla and the egg. Once cool, pour in the brown butter. Mix until smooth. Slowly add in all the dry ingredients until just incorporated.

Place the dough into a sealable container and into the refrigerator to cool for at least an hour. Even better if it’s overnight.

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When you’re ready to bake the dough, preheat the oven to 350°F. Scoop the refrigerated dough in 2-tablespoon scoops onto a parchment- or Silpat-lined sheet tray, lining them so that they have plenty of space as they will spread considerably once baked. Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, or until they’re a pretty golden brown. Remove from the oven, and allow them to cool for at about 5 minutes.

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