Spicy Shrimp with Fried Plantains and Mango Avocado Salsa

I left August 29, and I’ve finally returned. I’ve seen Kenya- the Masai Mara, Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani Beach- hiked in New Hampshire and dined in Boston, battled sandflies in Michigan, worked in Atlanta, celebrated weddings in North Carolina, biked Orange County, waved at seals in La Jolla, and shopped in Los Angeles. Two months, and more travel than I could possibly squeeze into a (relatively) functioning work schedule, and I wait on the edge of my seat to finally settle down and relax in Chicago. It’s the right moment, see, because while the dog days of summer and picturesque, perfect days of early fall are tantalizingly beautiful along the Chicago lakefront, they are also days of activity and adventure. You can’t slow down; I won’t slow down; not until the leaves fall. So here it is, the first day I could smell the crispness to the air, the undefinable quality that forebodes the dropping temperatures and the consequently required heavy jackets. After four years in and outside this city, it feels almost comforting to notice this change. While Chicago thrives in the summer, at its heart, it is a winter city. Many may argue against that, but genuinely, those who live here endure and make magic of these (truly) 8 months of cold weather. So much so, that it only feels right, somewhat like a homecoming, to be back among the chilly air and more brusque breezes. No one will admit to liking it; far from it. I’d rather perpetual September and October for the rest of time. But it is calming, to be on this side of things. I’m ready to slow down, embrace it, and warm up by the artificial dry heat of my antiquated radiators. This is made significantly better by a pumpkin-clove candle from Anthropologie, which is the best smelling thing to ever enter my apartment. All I need now is the return of my dachshunds.

I had intended on sharing a recipe for sweet potato ramen in a curried broth, which was excellent, innovative, and aesthetic. But, somehow, I threw out the recipe. Usually I remember a recipe well enough, but I can’t be certain in this one, and it’s worth doing right. I’ll have to repeat the process (possibly not burn my hands on the soft boiled egg next time), and share in the coming months. What I’m sharing today is, quite obviously, a remnant from my weeks doing Whole 30. The biggest problem with Whole 30 is going to Kenya immediately afterward and forgetting all of it. Problem? Maybe that’s the best thing to do. Regardless, I did eat well during that challenge, from a health and flavor standpoint, and some recipes bear posting, even outside of my current dietary restraints (of which I have none). So, without further ado, a very delicious, albeit distinctly summery, dinner.

shrimp and plantains

Spicy Shrimp with Fried Plantains and Mango Avocado Salsa

Serves 4

  • 1 lb large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, tossed in the juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flake
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 2 plantains, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tbsp. ghee
  • 2 avocado, diced
  • 2 mango, diced
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Salt & pepper

In a mixing bowl, toss together the avocado, mango, shallot, and lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.

In a large sauté pan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the shrimp and season with the spices above. Turn after 2-3 minutes, once the bottom side is appearing lightly pink and opaque. Cook another 2-3 minutes and remove from the pan.

In the same sauté pan, add 2 tbsp ghee over medium high heat. Add the plantains and toast for 2-4 minutes, until golden brown. Flip and cooked the alternative side. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan.

Plate the shrimp and plantains with a side of the mango avocado salsa. Enjoy!

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“Chipotle” Sofritas Salad Bowl

In a world without many Chick-fil-A restaurants, Chipotle is my go-to fast-food of choice. Besides the fact that you can almost achieve a “healthy” order if selective at the toppings bar, you can get your food topped with a mountain of guacamole. I nearly always order the vegetarian salad bowl, simply because it comes standard with a mountain of guacamole instead of requiring a surcharge. I appreciate that Chipotle does seem to research the sources of their meat and dairy, but I tend to order vegetarian at restaurants unless I know it’s from a good source. Recently, however, I noticed Chipotle had upped their vegetarian offerings: sofritas tofu as a flavorful “meat” option. I never had heard of sofritas previously, but I love tofu, and it looked enticingly spicy and delicious. The downside: guacamole was now an extra again. But no matter: I’m a gainfully employed member of society; I can spring for the extra topping. I ordered my usual bowl- lettuce, black beans, fajita vegetables, medium salsa, pico de gallo, little bit of cheese, huge glob of guacamole- but added the sofritas as well. The verdict was: delicious! The sofritas really imitates classic taco meat in texture and flavor, with just a hint of extra spice. I knew within a few bites I’d be recreating it at home.

The first time I made sofritas from a block of tofu, I topped it on a salad with a few toppings and called it a day. It was delicious, but I wanted to really imitate the Chipotle bowl, just to compare. So I set off to make it again… and it only took 3 months! But really, there are a lot of components to a Chipotle bowl, and to the point of not spending tons on groceries, I’ll admit I skipped over a few of my standard bowl toppings, knowing I wouldn’t miss it much. And, at the end of it all, I think the sofritas tofu is really spot on, the toppings a perfect combination, and… this is the kicker… no guacamole required. This was a definite mistake, as I for some reason didn’t buy enough limes, or have cilantro, or have enough garlic, to make my favorite guacamole. After pondering lame versions, I decided sliced avocado would have to do. Not the same, but certainly nothing to be mad about. Avocado in its truest form is pretty darn delicious as well. In total, this is totally something to check out, either at home or at your neighborhood speedy Mexican joint; it really would please vegetarians and meat-lovers alike.

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“Chipotle” Sofritas Salad Bowl

Serves 2-3

Sofritas

  • 1 block extra firm tofu, pressed for 30 minutes
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 2 tbsp. grapeseed (or other neutral) oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 3/4 tsp. cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
  • pinch of dried red chili flake

1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly

1/2 yellow onion, sliced thinly into half-moons

1 tbsp. grapeseed oil, divided

1 cup black beans, tossed with 1/4 tsp. cumin and salt and pepper

1 avocado, sliced

1/2 cup shredded cheddar and/or monterey jack cheese

4 cups shredded romaine lettuce (about 1 1/2-2 romaine hearts)

Dressing of choice, if desired (I went without; strong considerations- chipotle ranch or spicy lime vinaigrette)

To prepare the sofritas, first press your block of tofu for at least 20-30 minutes. Once pressed, whisk together the juice, oil, garlic, and spices to create a marinade. Break up and crumble the tofu with your fingers into a small mixing bowl. Pour the marinade over the top and toss the tofu until evenly covered. Allow to marinade for 30 minutes to an hour (or until you want to make dinner). When ready to cook, heat a sauté pan over medium high heat and add 1/2 tbsp. grapeseed oil. Add the sofritas to the sauté pan and distribute evenly, allowing to cook without stirring for at least 5 minutes or so; this is to facilitate browning the tofu. Once beginning to brown, stir the sofritas and continue to cook until browned to your liking, about another 5-10 minutes. Taste and season as desired, and set aside to cool slightly.

In another sauté pan, heat 1/2 tbsp. grapeseed oil over medium heat. Add the bell pepper and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened and browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

In the same sauté pan, heat the black beans until warm. Remove from heat and set aside.

To prepare the salad, plate the romaine. If using dressing, toss the romaine lightly with dressing before plating. Next, add the peppers and onions, then a pile of sofritas, then the black beans. Sprinkle 2 tbsp. – 1/4 cup of shredded cheese over the salad, then add the sliced avocado on top. Then take a fork to it and mess it all up so everything is evenly distributed. Dig in and enjoy!

This makes a pretty big salad- definitely a dinner salad. But it’s intention is to compete heartily with the Chipotle burrito, quesadillas, and tacos! It’s very satisfying, and you won’t miss out on the extra cheese, meat, and tortillas at all. (Of course, if you wanted to be really indulgent, you could add some tortilla crisps to the salad and just go all out).

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How people actually eat salads… a mess of delicious ingredients, available at every bite.

 

 

An Enchilada Dinner Party, Part 1: The Sides

In theory, it’s healthier and more satisfying to eat with people. You slow down, socialize, and relax; it becomes an experience rather than a quick means of quieting an empty stomach. But in actuality you’re often alone, or at least eating your own meal, and there’s not much more to it than spoon-mouth-swallow-repeat. And that’s fine (I hope), but in order to alleviate the redundancy of lonely eating, sometimes a dinner party is in order. Living in Chicago, it seems like it would be easy to get a group of friends together several nights a week. In every TV show I know featuring a group of friends in a big city (which is pretty much every TV show), group gatherings are a nightly occurrence. It’s almost as if these TV shows don’t accurately portray the busy schedules inherent in our actual reality (gasp!). But in real life, it’s hard to find time. Everyone works different jobs, everyone is an obnoxious amount of public transit away, and everyone has his/her own life to uphold. So the dinner party is thought of, pondered about, mentioned in passing, and usually forgotten. But with a little bit of effort, and a lot of in-advance planning, it comes to fruition: a fantastic weeknight in with friends, food, and awkwardly invasive dogs. It is so worth the preparation, the extra time, the poor sleep that night, and the slightly-more-rough-than-average day at work.

I’d highly recommend, if I can, an enchilada dinner party. Not only were several trays of these enchiladas downed by a moderate group of people in barely enough time for the dogs to lunge at the plates, but they were very conducive to prepping in advance and, consequently, quick to pull together the day of. But enough about enchiladas; we’ll get to those later. What about their classic additions, the staples of Spanish and Mexican-inspired cuisine? Every party needs its drinks and appetizers.  I’m of course talking about guacamole, the most delicious of dips, as well as sangria, the fruity-yet-classy drink of the Spanish gods. The recipes for these sides are barely recipes, more like a list of components, but they certainly become greater than the sum of their parts. With recipes this delicious, easy to prepare, and relatively hands-off when the guests arrive, we’ll certainly be doing this again.

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Red Wine and Clementine Tempranillo Sangria

1 pitcher, serves 10-12

2 bottles of Tempranillo wine

1/2 bottles sparkling clementine juice (available at Trader Joe’s)

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

1 lemon, diced

1 orange, diced

1 apple, diced

In a large pitcher, mix wine, sparkling clementine juice, and lemon juice. Dice the fruit and add to the pitcher. Chill to serve.

That’s it. Easiest recipe ever. But this sangria earned compliments ALL around. It’s slightly sweet, just barely effervescent, and full-bodied without the burdensome dryness red wine can at times impart. And then obviously, the fruit is the best part.

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Classic Guacamole

Makes ~ 3 cups

6 ripe avocados, pitted

3 limes, juiced

1/3 white onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, minced

1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

1/2 – 3/4 tsp. salt, to taste

1/4 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

In a large bowl, mash avocados. Add the juice of 3 limes and minced accompaniments and stir. Add chopped cilantro, salt, and pepper and mix until thoroughly combined. Serve with a ton of your favorite tortilla chips.

This is another easy recipe, but, again, oh so good.  The beauty of an enchilada night is that the snacking and drinks are nearly as good as the dinner, leading to an evening that is indulgent, spicy, fresh, flavorful, and an all-around good time.

But don’t serve your guac yet; it really goes best before enchiladas, and those recipes are coming soon.

Mexican-inspired Sweet Potato Bowl

When I buy avocados, I buy a lot of avocados. Once the craving hits, it’s easy to imagine eating an avocado at every meal for days and days. Avocados on toast, avocados on tacos, avocados in smoothies, avocados everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s January, which means avocados are both impractical and not in line with the culinary expectations of the season. Anyways, all of this is to say, I have too many avocados in my refrigerator, just chilling out at perfect ripeness totally ready to eat whenever I feel so inclined. I’ve shoved them aside, grabbing an orange, a carrot, the lettuce, the spinach… and then when finally my produce drawer dwindled to some constant bottom remnants, I found the urge to swing back to a Mexican- flavor-inspired meal. This dinner is pretty much always an option given my pantry and refrigerator staples. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have a full jar of rice in the cabinet, and it’s rare not to have a sweet potato or two up on the top shelf. So while a deviation from the standard, unthinking, grab-and-go dinner fare, this is just as quick, just as easy, and probably just as available.  Plus! Look at that. We’re vegan, we-eat-plants people again; how healthy and economically-conscious of us.

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Mexican-inspired Sweet Potato Bowl

Serves 3-4

1 cup brown rice

1 can black beans (or about 1 1/2 cups previously cooked)

1-2 avocados, sliced

3 green onions, sliced thinly

1 large sweet potato, diced into 1 in. cubes

2 tbsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp. cumin

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

1/8 tsp. cinnamon

Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

While the oven is preheating, bring 2 1/4 cups of water to a boil in a small to medium sauce pan. Once water is boiling, add brown rice, stir, and reduce the temperature of the stovetop to low heat. Cover the saucepan and simmer the rice for 25-30 minutes, until water is fully absorbed and the rice is fluffy*.

Toss diced sweet potatoes in olive oil and spices, spread evenly in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven until fork-tender and browning, approximately 20-25 minutes.

Slice the avocado and season. Slice the green onions finely and set aside.

Once the sweet potatoes and rice are finished cooking, plate all ingredients together for visual appeal. If you’re like me, though, you want all of these flavors in one bite. If that’s the case, promptly mix all food components into a massive pile and enjoy immensely. Additionally, I know I used a plate for this meal, but I recommend a shallow bowl for neatness when mixing and tossing ingredients together.

This may barely count as cooking, more like preparing with heat, but do not underestimate the delicious contrast between a cool avocado and a spicy, soft-yet-crunchy roasted sweet potato. It’ll have you loading your refrigerator with avocados for weeks.

Brown rice is not always cooked to this ratio or for this exact amount of time, depending on brand and type. Please follow package directions for cooking if dictated otherwise.

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Fish Tacos

Fish tacos. Simple, fresh, delicious fish tacos. I know. It still should be time for soup. It’s some amount of negative degrees outside with extra wind for maximum numbness. I wasn’t supposed to drive to work today, per the meteorologist. I shouldn’t even go outside. Everyone in the education system is laughing at home right now, delighting in the unforeseen frozen temperatures and breaking into another Christmas present, cuddling up with something warm. But, but I want it to be warmer. I want to experience summer time, if only on my palate. I want something fresh and vibrant to lighten up the most gray of all views I’ve ever seen from my window (apartment, car, or otherwise). So I chose fish tacos. The epitome of beach lunches plated on my heavy ceramic serving-ware in my not-quite-heated-enough apartment with wind blistering my window frames. It’s dichotomous. But it’s simple, fresh, delicious… and, darn it, I just want avocados right now.

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Fish Tacos

Serves 4

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 lb. wild Alaskan cod, marinated

Fish marinade:

  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. sriracha sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. chili sauce
  • 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika (or chili powder)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

8 small corn or flour tortillas

2 avocados, sliced

1/4 white or red onion, diced

2 roma tomatoes, diced

Green leaf lettuce, chopped finely (or cabbage)

Spicy aioli:

  • 2 tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp. sriracha sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. chili sauce
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Pinch of salt and pepper, to taste

The night before serving, prepare fish marinade by combining ingredients above in a lidded jar or bowl, shaking or whisking vigorously to mix. Rinse and pat dry the fish filets, place in a dish with an available lid (I used a pyrex baking pan), and pour the marinade over the cod. Spread the marinade evenly over the filets on both sides, cover with the lid, and refrigerate overnight.

The day of cooking, heat a frying pan over medium heat with EVOO. Saute marinated fish for 5 minutes, flip, then saute for 5 minutes longer, until opaque and flaky. Set aside to rest, then break into bite-sized chunks.

While fish is sautéing, prepare the toppings: slice tomatoes, dice onions, slice avocados, chop lettuce, and prepare the spicy aioli by mixing the aioli ingredients in a small bowl and whisking together until smooth. Heat the tortillas in a frying pan over medium heat for approximately 30 seconds per side, or microwave them between damp towels for about 30 seconds.

Once the fish is rested, prepare your tacos. I prefer to spoon about a 1/2 tbsp. of aioli onto the softened tortilla, then place 3-4 pieces of cod on top. Follow up with a massive pile of toppings, choosing more or less of your favorites for your taco (I always go a little heavy on the avocado). A little Chihuahua cheese would certainly not be remiss here; however, I didn’t have any, and was certainly not braving the sub-zero (really) climates to purchase some. A margarita, though… that may have been a good idea. Surf’s up, Brian; dig in.