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New World Kitchen: A Sprinkle of Sugar

Cream Cheese Flan with Fresh Strawberry-Passionfruit Coulis

Okay, it's dessert time... and Norman, you sneaky devil, you have redeemed yourself.

When I saw cream cheese flan in his book, I knew I had to make it because once upon a time the most delicious flan I ever ate contained exactly this. I know that's a hard thing for poor Norman to live up to, especially since memory often makes things better than they actually were, but by golly, he got it spot-on. It is perfect.

What I love about this dessert is that it's the best of two worlds: cheesecake and flan. If you like either one, you'll love this. If you like both, even better. It's got creamy caramelized undertones from the condensed milk, a fragrant whisper of almond, and a texture like wet silk. The sauce was my creation, but I think its freshness and acidity complement the rich flan perfectly. It isn't the lightest dessert in the world, but it has that magical ability to slide into the cracks in your stomach no matter how full you think you are.


Cream Cheese Flan with Fresh Strawberry-Passionfruit Coulis
Serves: 8

For flan:
1 cup sugar
seeds from 1 vanilla bean (or if you haven't just won the lottery, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
5 large eggs
5 ounces cream cheese
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

For sauce:
2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
4 fresh passionfruit, halved
1/3 cup sugar, or to taste (I didn't actually measure, I just added)
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 additional passionfruit, for garnish (optional)

For the flan, start by preheating the oven to 300F/125C. Melt the sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat and cook it until it turns into a smooth dark amber caramel. Quickly pour into the bottom of an 8-inch soufflé dish or other round mold (or several smaller molds).

Add all the ingredients for the flan to a blender and blend until smooth. Pour through a strainer into the caramel-lined mold. Set the mold into a larger baking pan and pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the mold. Cover the mold with foil. Bake until the flan has set, about 2 hours (less for individual molds) - a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Let cool and refrigerate overnight.

For the coulis, combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth (this can also be done with a hand-blender, my best friend). Strain the mixture into a bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Taste for sugar and add more if needed. Keep chilled.

When you are ready to serve, run a knife along the inside of the mold to loosen the flan. Pour about 1/2 inch of hot water into a large pan and set the mold inside for about 8-10 minutes, so that it will unmold more easily. Remove it from the water, place a platter over the top, and invert. Serve the flan drizzled with the fruit coulis, with some extra passionfruit pulp on top, if desired.


New World Kitchen: A Piece of Meat

Braised Duck Legs with Orange Chocolate Sauce

There is a wonderful story that accompanies this recipe in Norman's New World Kitchen. Many years ago, a housekeeper in Venezuela named Juanita was gastronomically light-years ahead of her time. She was a gourmet in a country that didn't yet know the meaning of that word, inventing dishes so complex and delicious they would rival today's hautest cuisine. One of the dishes she invented was this, and one of the people she taught it to came to work at Norman's restaurant. When I first spied this recipe in the book it lept off the page at me, begging - no, demanding - to be made. It seemed to represent everything I look for in food: hearty, rustic character, bold, intriguing flavors, and of course that element of the unexpected - in this case in the form of chocolate.  

And really, what could be more New World than chocolate? If you're a fan of Mexican food, for example, you no doubt will have tried mole, and chances are that the mole you tried contained chocolate. It's a fantastically complex sauce to make, often containing a dozen different varieties of chile, some of them indigenous to specific parts of Mexico, along with nuts, seeds, herbs, dried fruits, onions, garlic, chocolate and bread. Although by the standards of what we normally eat it seems avant-garde, in fact it probably links us back to some of the earliest dishes human civilization invented, as nearly everything that goes into it was indigenous to the New World.  

Mole for me remains one of the great culinary mysteries, however, as I've tasted absolutely delicious versions in restaurants but never been able to replicate an edible version myself at home. I've always blamed my failures on the authenticity of my ingredients or the lack of patience to toast, grind, simmer and strain all those components properly. Perhaps that was another reason this particular recipe appealed to me so much: it had the most obvious characteristic of mole, namely chocolate, but the preparation looked like a summer breeze in comparison. I also knew its description would turn heads at the dinner table - and let's face it, when you're slaving away for hours in the kitchen, you might as well be making something that turns heads!

But enough with the lead-in. It's truth time. I followed this recipe to the letter. I browned, I caramelized, I braised and I simmered. I bought the best components I could get my hands on: dark, bitter Venezuelan chocolate, fresh Tahitian limes that I spent an hour squeezing... But honestly, I could barely eat the results. The duck was fine, delicious in fact - the braising method produced a succulent, tender, perfectly cooked leg that I would be happy to make again, and the long slow cooking of the onions and oranges produced a savory compote with a slight citrusy note that was incredibly tasty. But the chocolate sauce - really the component that 'makes' this dish - was awful, just all sourness and bitter, and it was so powerful that even a few cautious dribbles on the duck and onions threatened to spoil them too. Everyone at the table was polite and oohed and aahed, but when I asked if it was something worth making again there was a curious silence. Dear Norman, I'm sure you meant well with this recipe and I'm even more sure Juanita was an excellent cook, but maybe it will take a few more light years for our under-evolved tastebuds to catch up with her culinary genius.

Braised Duck Legs with Orange Chocolate Sauce
Serves: 4-6

For the duck:
2 oranges
8 duck legs (I used only 4 because they were quite large)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 Spanish onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 leeks, white part only, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme
2 bay leaves, broken in half
5 cups rich chicken stock
salt and pepper

For the sauce:
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups fresh orange juice
1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice
5 oz extra-bitter chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter
dash of red wine vinegar, optional

Preheat the oven to 300F/125C. Grate the zest from the oranges and set aside. Peel the oranges and separate the segments, discarding any seeds.

With a sharp knife, score a crisscross pattern in the skin of the duck legs. Season with plenty of salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large roasting pan over medium-high heat. When very hot, put the duck legs in (in batches if necessary), skin-side down, and let sear until brown (protect yourself from splatter!). Turn once and sear the other side as well, then remove to a plate and let drain on paper towels. Pour off the excess fat from the pan.

Spread about half the sliced onions in the roasting pan and place the duck legs on top, skin side up. Scatter the garlic, leeks, celery, orange segments, thyme and bay leaves over the legs, and cover with the remaining onions. Pour 4 cups of the chicken stock over everything, cover the pan with foil, and place in the oven for 1 hour. After an hour take the pan out and stir the onions around. Re-cover the pan and place in the oven for another approximately 1 1/2 hours, or until the duck is fork-tender. During this time, stir the onions every 20-30 minutes, and I recommend taking off the foil for the last 40 minutes of roasting so that the skin crisps up nicely.

While the duck cooks, make the sauce. Heat the reserved orange zest, sugar, orange juice and lime juice over medium-high until it boils. Turn down the heat slightly and let it simmer until the liquid is thick, amber-colored and coats the back of a spoon, about 40 minutes. Take it off the heat and whisk in the chocolate and the cream. Heat the remaining cup of chicken stock and gradually add it to the chocolate mixture, whisking constantly. Don't let it get too thin - only add enough so that the mixture is smooth and glossy and coats the back of a spoon.

When the duck is cooked, remove the pan from the oven and set the legs aside on a plate. Put the pan over medium-high heat on the stove top and cook until the liquid in the pan reduces to a thick glaze on the onions. Taste and adjust for salt. Add the legs back to the pan and keep warm until ready to serve. Whisk the butter into the chocolate sauce and add a little vinegar if it seems too sweet. Serve the duck on a bed of the braised onions and drizzle with the chocolate sauce, with plenty of rice alongside.


New World Kitchen: A Bite of Salad

Coconut Almond Snapper Fingers with Grapefruit Avocado Salad and Grapefruit Vinaigrette

Occasionally in life we have moments of clarity when the blinders of routine fall away and we see things we somehow never noticed before. This kind of clarity can affect the way we look at our friends, our partners, our habits... even our cookbooks. The realization that hit me recently, in a flash of stomach-shrinking horror, was the uncomfortable fact that I have never cooked a single recipe from more than half the cookbooks on my shelf, despite the massive amount of blood, sweat and cash I've invested in my collection (which has, over the years, been dragged across continents with me). That's not to say I'm not familiar with the food within; every book I buy spends at least a week or so on my bedside table while we get to know each other intimately. I often go so far as to make notes about which mouthwatering things I intend to make first, and many books on my shelf have little telltale fringes of multicolored post-it notes peeking out from particularly enticing (but as yet uncooked) recipes. Apart from being entertained, I do know that I learn a lot from simply reading these cookbooks, and I imagine that I'm also gradually accruing a sizeable mental arsenal of techniques that I'll be able to apply to other things I cook. I also know, however, that no amount of reading substitutes for getting one's hands dirty. So with that in mind I have set a goal for the next few months: to bring my cookbooks one by one out of hibernation, and to introduce them to a part of my house few of them have ever had the good fortune to meet - the kitchen.

A couple of weeks ago, I chronicled a dinner that I had made from recipes in a new cookbook of mine, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons. What I really enjoyed about that meal, apart from the fantastic recipes, was the way that by cooking everything from one cookbook I really got a feel for the tastes of the author and the style of food within, and the meal seemed to have a kind of coherence that I often don't get when I assemble recipes from different sources. I decided this would be a good thing to do whenever I have the opportunity, and it would allow me to cook several recipes from some of the books I've been neglecting. All I need is the occasion, namely a few extra willing mouths who will risk the gastronomic unknown in exchange for a potentially decent meal.

newworld.jpgThis weekend I had the perfect opportunity, as my delightful parents-in-law were visiting and claimed to be willing to eat whatever I wanted to serve them. As the basis for our meal, I chose a cookbook that has been on my shelf for about a year, has lots of little pink and orange tags poking out, yet inexplicably has never been used. The book is called New World Kitchen: Latin American and Caribbean Cuisine, and it was written by the well-known Miami restaurateur Norman Van Aken (chef-owner of the eponymous Norman's). The food in this book covers a lot of ground, as indicated by the title; Jamaican jerk teams up with purple potatoes from Peru, mojos from Cuba and moles from Mexico. Many recipes are traditional, and many are his own interpretations of ingredients that are common to these regions. What appealed to me most were the bold flavors and unusual combinations - things like chicken and rice stewed in coconut milk with pigeon peas, currants and green olives; conch salad with pickled onions, sweet peppers and watermelon; and guava marmelade-filled fritters with vanilla cinnamon-sauce - clearly New World food reinvented for the new millennium.

Another thing the book has going for it is Mr. Van Aken himself. Unlike many chef-authors who either have no discernable personality on the printed page or else are finicky and pedantic in their instructions, Norman is humorous, charming, and relaxed in his cooking style. He also has many informative and entertaining stories to help explain the history and traditions behind his recipes. The only problem I encountered, which I realized may have been the reason this book had never been used, is that many of the ingredients he calls for are difficult-to-impossible to find here in Scotland (conch, taro, Peruvian dried potatoes? Forget it!), and he doesn't consistently suggest substitutions. Other things may be available but would have taken some serious sleuthing to find, and I unfortunately had limited time to procure the ingredients I needed. So, after carefully considering my options, I chose the most interesting recipes I could make with the ingredients available to me, and hoped for the best.

Over the next few days I'll be posting the recipes from Norman's book that I chose to make for dinner last weekend. I set out with the intention of remaining as faithful to the printed recipes in this book as possible. I did end up making a few alterations, perhaps changing quantities or combining elements from different recipes, but overall I behaved myself remarkably well and resisted the urge to deviate too much. The first installment of this meal was a light, refreshing, yet very fragrant salad, which everyone loved. I combined two separate recipes to make this, the coconut almond snapper and the grapefruit vinaigrette. The construction of a salad with the avocado and grapefruit segments was my own invention. I would feel free to experiment with the fish used (my mother-in-law intends to try it on salmon), and I imagine that jumbo shrimp given the same treatment would be exquisite.

Coconut Almond Snapper Fingers with Grapefruit and Avocado Salad
Serves: 6 as appetizer, 4 as main course
Source: New World Kitchen by Norman Van Aken

For the fish:
1 cup whole unblanched almonds
2 cups fresh or dried unsweetened coconut flakes
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
1 1/2 pounds snapper filets (or other firm white fish), cut into 3- to 4-inch-long "fingers"
Vegetable oil for deep frying

For the salad:
4 mixed salad greens, washed and patted dry
2 ruby grapefruits
2 ripe avocados
1/3 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon sherry or red-wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
fresh mild red chile pepper, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Begin by spreading the almonds and coconut (if using fresh) on a baking sheet and toasting lightly in the oven for 10-12 minutes. Put the almonds in a food processor and grind coarsely, then mix with the coconut in a shallow bowl. Set about 1/4 cup of this mixture aside for sprinkling over the salads. In another bowl mix the flour with plenty of salt and pepper, and in a third mix the coconut milk with the cayenne pepper and Tabasco. Season the fish fingers with salt and pepper. Dip them first into the coconut milk, then coat in flour. Dip again into the coconut milk, then coat completely with the coconut-almond mixture. Leave them to dry on a plate until you are ready to fry them. Heat the oil in a heavy pan to 350F/180C. Doing only a few at a time, slide the fish fingers into the hot oil and fry just until cooked through, not more than 2 minutes, turning halfway through. Remove to a paper towel and repeat with remaining fish.

For the salad, heat the olive oil with the garlic in a pan until it just begins to get fragrant. Quickly remove from the heat and let infuse for 20 minutes. Strain the oil into a bowl, discarding the garlic. Mix the oil with the honey, vinegar, salt and pepper, and two tablespoons of the reserved grapefruit juice (see next step).

Arrange the mixed greens of individual plates. Peel the avocado and thinly slice. To prepare the grapefruit, cut the whole peel off with a sharp knife, trimming off any bits of pith or membrane that you miss (the flesh should be exposed). Working over a bowl to catch the juice, remove the individual segments one by one, cutting on either side of the separating membranes, and dropping the freed segments into the bowl. What you should have are grapefruit segments with no membrane attached. Lay the avocado and grapefruit on the greens, drizzle with the dressing, and lay the fish fingers on top. Garnish with a sprinkle of the reserved coconut almond mixture and a few slices of red chile pepper. Serve immediately.

Note: I liked the salad very much as is, but I think it might be even better with mangoes instead of grapefruit. The fish fingers themselves would be very good as a finger food, but I think they would need a dipping sauce, preferably something sweet, spicy and garlicky, or perhaps a fresh fruit salsa.