Thursday, March 4, 2010

DAISY MARTINEZ: Irresistible!

Daisy Martinez first showed up on PBS in her first TV series--Daisy Cooks! She was a breath of fresh air, sexy and personable and a very skilled TV cook ( she is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and worked as a private chef before turning to TV). I acquired her Daisy Cooks!, the companion cookbook to the series because I wanted to know more about Latin cuisine. At the time I often had lunch at a local Dominican Republic coffee shop near my Soho office, and wanted to know how they prepared their delicious Pernil (roast pork shoulder). I liked the series, but kept thinking that her audience was more Food Network-oriented than the more staid PBS food show viewer. Now Daisy can be seen on the Food Network and she has a new cookbook, DAISY: MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT: Bringing Your Family Together with Everyday Latin Dishes (Atria Books ; ISBN: 978-1-4391-5753-4). Like Latin music, you cannot easily categorize Latin cooking and Daisy Martinez refuses this easy categorization too. Based on her many travels, Daisy presents a delightful collection of recipes that covers much of Latin America and a little of Spain too!

One of the inspirational sources for this new collection "occurred to me when my youngest child, Angela, turned eight and Santa Claus, coincidentally, stopped visiting our house," Daisy writes in the Introduction to DAISY: MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. "I sat my children down (all four of them!) and said that in previous years, my husband, Jerry, and I had spent a small fortune on gifts for Christmas that were all but forgotten within two weeks. From now on, Mom and Dad would be giving them memories as holiday gifts. You could have heard a pin drop in that room," she continues. "Before they could shake off their shock and begin to protest, I explained that starting the following year, we would travel as a family to a different country each year during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day in order to experience that country through its food, historic sites, and cultures. The whoops and hollers were exactly what I had hoped for."

It's a good thing the Daisy's fine home cooking had set the standard for her children's curiosity because the family travels through Spain and Latin America have ranged widely from Barcelona and Madrid, Cuzco and Lima to Oaxaca and the Yucatan, Puerto Rico and as far south as Buenos Aires (a city teeming with superb restaurants). For me that diversity began with Arepas, gluten-free corn cakes that are popular in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. I first encountered the recipe through a friend who was testing recipes for them for a magazine last year. I liked these appealing cakes which are about the size of an English muffin, and can be split and stuffed with ham and cheese, or scrambled eggs (I think they would make a great cocktail sandwich, stuffed and cut into bite-sized pieces). Daisy's Arepeas are simple to make and are flavored with cotija cheese (a popular Latin American cow's milk cheese) and minced fresh chives. The humble, yet addictively delicious Stoveotop "Wrinkled" Potatoes are a popular tapas treat in Spain and a delightful reminder of my visits there. Braised goat is very popular in the Dominican Republic, and Goat Braised in Coconut Milk from the "Buffet" section will grandly feel a crowd of twelve besides introducing you to this delicious meat. Empanadas, savory little stuffed turnovers are wildly popular and every Latin American country has its own version (including the dough). Daisy offers four different fillings, my favorite being with bacon and shrimp. As for Pernil, nothing could be simpler or more aromatic than Daisy's festive version of Puerto Rican roast pork shoulder . This is a perfect holiday entree, economical--and will serve a lot of guests. The book also has some wonderful desserts, the most eye-opening is something called Crepe and Dulce de Leche Stack. Crepes are slathered with a thick coating of dulce de leche, toasted pecans and powdered sugar until you have a stack of seven or eight layers of them--my idea of dessert heaven.

In DAISY: MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT, Daisy imparts her kitchen wisdom on every page. In addition to the many fine color photos of finished dishes, and step-by-step instructions, you'll find basics on many ingredients including sofrito, the essential Latin American staple that "is the heart of the Latin kitchen, dry and wet Adobo rubs, and other condiments, a glossary of commonly used foods and products, and menus. On nearly every page, Daisy offers notes in which she explains various techniques, or warmly imparts her secrets and wisdom for making the reader a better cook, plus her suggestions for many variations a recipe can go through.

From breakfast to a late night snack, Daisy Martinez makes you her co-conspirator in your kitchen, introducing the reader to all the flavors, aromas, and generous fun that are at the heart of the Latin kitchen. Daisy is a born teacher, and we've long needed an advocate like her to give us a thorough grounding in this wonderful cuisine.

AREPAS (corn cakes)

Arepas are gluten-free corn cakes that are popular in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. In Venezuela, they are served as a side dish with huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomato, bell pepper, and onion). They can also be split, some of the creamy filling scooped out (or not!), and filled with mozzarella cheese, any type of ham, or the above-mentioned scrambled eggs, among other things.

Makes about twenty 3-inch arepas. Prep time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended resting time). Cook time: 35 minutes.

1 cup precooked white cornmeal (the most common brand is Harina P.A.N.)
2 cup finely grated cotija cheese
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon salt

1. Stir the cornmeal, cotija, chives, salt, and 1 1/4 cups hot water together in a large mixing bowl. Stir to make a slightly sticky dough. Set aside to rest until the dough is softer and no longer sticky, at least 20 minutes, or up to 2 hours.

2. Preheat the oven 350 degrees F.

3. Form 3 tablespoons of the dough into a ball, then press it flat to make a 3-inch disk about 1/2 inch thick. Repeat with the remaining dough. Line the disks up on a baking sheet as you form them.

4. Heat a large well-seasoned cast-iron or heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add as many of the cakes as will fit without crowding and cook, turning once, until browned in spots on both sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a separate baking sheet an repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Bake until the cakes are crisp and feel light when picked up, about 25 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.

Arepas filled with ham and cheese: form 4-inch arepas using about 1/4 cup of the dough for each. (This recipe will yield about twelve 4-inch arepas.) Panfry and bake as above. Slice fresh mozarella 1/4-inch thick (you'll ned 8 to 12 ounces) an cut into pieces more or less the size of the arepas. After the arepas have rested for a few minutes, split them into top and bottom halves and scoop out most of the creamy center, or leave in if you like (Careful, the centers will be quite warm.) Lay a slice of the cheese and a thin slice of deli ham, folded as necessary, over the bottom of each arepa. Top them off and serve warm.

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