Spices

Roasted Zappallo (Squash) and Carrot Soup with Spicy Popcorn

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I absolutely adore making soup.  I’m not quite sure why, but it’s something that I can always count on putting my mind at ease.  Taking something as simple as water and turning it into a beautifully fragrant and complex broth is just the best!  And then turning that broth into a wholesome pot of (for example) classic chicken soup that offers up spoon after spoon of that one perfect bite is SO satisfying!  Plus, it’s a one-pot meal so cleaning up is usually quick and easy, a huge plus for me!

But let’s be brutally honest.  I usually don’t have time for all of that.  Or, it’s the end of the day, the sun has gone down and the mountain air has turned chilly (or freezing) and all I can think of is a comforting bowl of soup, but time is short and hunger is striking!  Now what???  Back home the obvious answer would be any number of boxed broths which put a pot of soup about a half an hour away from your table.  But, well, those broths are simply not available here in EC.  It was maybe one of the first cooking conundrums I came across when I first got here.  So over the years I’ve come up with a bunch of shortcuts to make a relatively quick but equally satisfying soup which I plan on sharing here on my blog.

My first soup recipe seriously hits the spot when soup is all you can think about, plus it’s easy and works with few ingredients and it highlights a few different ways to layer flavor into your soup without having broth as a base.  It all starts with roasting zapallo, carrots and garlic.  Zapallo (suh-pie-yo)  is a very large variety of squash similar to pumpkin or acorn squash and can be used as a substitute for both or vice versa.  It’s available at the supermarket as well as open-air makets.  It’s extremely economical and has lots of nutritional benefits.  While roasting the zapallo and carrots amps up their flavor, roasted garlic is a much more mellow version of itself and therefore can be used in larger quantities to boost flavor without being offensive.  I also like to use leeks because they also add lots of flavor without being overpowering.  And lastly, this is a blended soup which ensures a quick fusion of flavor without all those hours of simmering.  Ooops…one more thing to keep in mind, sea salt and a decent amount of it.  Most store bought stocks come with salt so adding salt is usually just to taste but when not starting out with a stock it’s usually pretty necessary to start with a healthy teaspoon and add salt to taste from there.  Either way, you cannot be stingy with the salt.

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Sometimes Ecuadorian soups are served with a side of popcorn which is just a totally cool little addition.  I especially love it with this blended soup because it adds one more layer of flavor, texture and spice all the while being super easy and quick!  I popped my corn in a little coconut oil and sprinkled it in sea salt and smoked paprika but these spices could easily be swapped for salt and pepper, chili seasoning or garlic powder.  Depends on your mood!

One more thing.  I didn’t use a lot of seasoning in the soup on purpose.  I really wanted to show just how easy it is to work with natural flavors and still get something delicious without the use of stock but feel free to spice it up.  Lots of things would work, including cumin, chili seasoning, cinammon, etc.

Buen Provecho!

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Roasted Zapallo (Squash) and Carrot Soup with Spicy Popcorn

3 cups zapallo (or acorn squash), cubed
1 cup carrots, chopped
5 cloves of garlic with their skins still on
2 orange camotes (sweet potatoes), cubed
3 leeks, cleaned and chopped
4 cups of filtered water
coconut oil
sea salt
popped popcorn sprinkled in sea salt and your choice of spices

Start by melting a dab of coconut oil on a baking pan in a preheated oven set to 400°F (200°C).  Once melted, add the chopped zapallo (or squash), carrots and garlic (with their skins still on) to the pan.  Mix to coat the veggies with the coconut oil and leave in the oven to roast for 20-25 minutes or until soft and carmelized on the outside, stirring once halfway through.  While the zapallo and carrots are roasting, add another dab of coconut oil to a large pot and melt over a medium flame.  After it is melted, add the leeks and stir.  Cook the leeks until wilted which will only take a couple of minutes.  Next add the filtered water, turn the heat up to high and add the camote (or sweet potato) and a teaspoon of sea salt. Once the water is boiling, turn down the heat, cover the pot and allow the leeks and camote (or sweet potato) to simmer for about 20 minutes or until the camote is soft.  Turn off the heat.  Once the zapallo (or squash) and carrots are roasted to perfection, pull the pan out and seperate the garlic from the rest.  Peel the garlic and add to the pot with leeks along with the zapallo and carrots.  Now it’s time to blend.  If you have a large blender everything should fit in at once but with a small blender it will be necessary to blend in batches.  After everything is blended, put the soup back in the pot to reheat and season with a little more salt if necessary and black pepper.  Serve the soup with a side of spicy popcorn.

Makes 8 cups of soup

Flavor Infused Wine and Garden Burger

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I’ve been living in Cuenca for so long now, sometimes it seems like forever.  I’ve been climatized, acculturated and intigrated into Ecua-life.  In other words, I’m pretty much used to it.  So much so that when I actually do go back home, things get weird.  A few of the real problems I’ve had are where exactly to get off the bus, how to greet someone without freaking them out and air-kissing them, and how to successfully cross the street.  But those might be stories for another day…

One thing that has never ever changed are my friends.  They are the BEST friends that a girl could have.  No matter how long I’ve been here, their pillar-like friendship never ceases to topple.  They offer stability and loyalty without compare and it is a wonderful thing to be able to count on.  For instance, last week I finally had the confidence to put this food blog out there, officially let one and all know that this is something I’ve been working on and invite them to take a look.  I’m not one to call attention to myself so honestly it was not all that easy but thanks to my friends, the response was SO reassuring and it meant SO much to me.  That’s why I’m dedicating this recipe to them!

Why this recipe?  Well, one reason is because this recipe is a bit of a labor of love.  There are a decent amount of steps.  You need to precook lentils and brown rice plus take the time to roast up some veggies to carmelized perfection.  It’s a little bit of an investment but all my friends are worth it and I’m sure yours are as well!  Another reason is because these garden burgers just happen to be spicy, complex, full of life and layers of fun!  Qualities of which the “constants” in my life ALL possess.  And last but not least, the secret ingredient that truly make these burgers stand-out, VINO!  That’s right, red, red wine!  I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t love it and if you don’t, you can’t be my friend….just kidding!

I wish all my friends were here to share these burgers with me but instead I’d like to say, thanks!!  Thank you so so so much for all of your support and friendship!

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1 small carrot
1/2 medium red onion
1 small red pepper
1 medium tomato
2 cloves of unpeeled garlic
1 1/2 cups of cooked lentils
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons chili seasoning
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons red wine
1 egg
4 tablespoons quinoa flour (or flour of choice)
sea salt

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Chop the first three ingredients into bite-size pieces. The chopped veggies should amount to 1 1/2 cups all together. Slice the tomato in two.  Place the chopped veggies, tomato and the unpeeled garlic cloves on a baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 2 good pinches of salt. Roast the veggies until a little brown around the edges, about a half an hour. Once done, remove the peels from the roasted garlic and the tomato and discard. Add the veggies, including the tomato and garlic, to a food processor. Also add lentils, brown rice, parsley, chili seasoning, thyme, paprika and wine. Salt the ingredients with another good pinch of salt. Pulse serval times on a low setting until just combined. At this point you can taste the mixture to see if the salt and level of spiciness are just the way you like them. Adjust if necessary and pulse to combine. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. If the mixture is a little warm, allow to cool down to room temperature. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and then add the egg. Stir well to combine. The mixture will probably be just a little liquidy. I needed 4 tablespoons of flour in order to firm the mixture back up again. I would suggest adding the flour tablespoon by tablespoon until the mixture is firm enough to make into a patty. Once the desired consistency has been achieved, heat enough oil in a skillet to cover the bottom and adjust the heat to medium. Scoop out a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, form into a patty and place into the skillet to brown. Repeat until you have 4 burgers. Allow to brown 3-4 minutes on each side. Repeat until you have finished off the mixture.

Recipe makes 8 medium sized burgers.

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Chicken in Curried Red Pepper Sauce

Paprika Chicken 1

Let me just say that the current spice selection here in Cuenca is amaaaazing, especially compared to what it was just a few years ago.  A few weeks ago I was scanning the spice section at the super market and low and behold there it was, with a little glow all around it, CARDAMOM, the only ingredient missing from my pantry to make chai tea. a recipe I had been dreaming of for weeks, maybe even months.  I grabbed it off the shelf like it was the only one of it’s kind and held it close!  Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but I’m pretty sure that I did a little skip down the aisle on the way to show Marcelo my find and I’ve been living on chai tea ever since.  Yeaaaa, that’s an exaggeration too, I’ve made it like twice, but my point is that a craving for something that is far far away and nearly impossible to substitute can just turn into an obsession.  So if you’re thinking of coming here for an extended period of time and you like food, especially international fare, it’s probably a good idea to pack some spices.

Most of my foreigner friends have, at the very least, a short list of old stand-bys that they routinely bring back with them.  I personally enjoy bringing back smoked paprika and my favorite chili seasoning, both of which you will find in the list of ingredients for the recipe below.  I also bring back a high quality dry spicy curry blend, a chicken and fish seasoning which can be used to liven up dressings, potatoes, etc., a southwest spice blend, organic veggie bouillon, a pickle spice mix, among a few others.

All of the basic dry spices are most certainly available in Cuenca.  Things like, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, oregano, basil, nutmeg, allspice, dill, basic curry powder, turmeric, cinnamon and lots, lots more.  Even though these are available, some say things like cinammon, just don’t taste the same.  I can remember feeling like that 6 years ago when I first arrived but after so many years, I’ve learned to rely on what is available and only bring back the things that are truly important to me – it’s all a matter of personal taste.

Almost all are shocked by the sad lack of pepper.  I think most assume, as I did, that Ecuador is a South American country therefore the pepper situation must be awesome.  Not really….there are a few different kinds of fresh peppers that can be found around town but when it comes to dry seasonings the selection is slim.  There are ground black pepper and black pepper corns (which can be priced pretty high) and nestled among my beloved cardamom, the other day, I did spot ground chipotle chili powder which was a first and equally as flabbergasting!  I just can’t vouch for it because I’ve yet to try it.  That’s about it.  And since we are talking about pepper we should probably mention salt.  Readily available are table salt and sea salt.  There are some specialty shops in town that carry some nicer salts like pink himalayan salt but I wouldn’t exactly say they are readily available or economically priced.

Let’s hope I’m not boring you too much with that long list of spices above but I wanted to try to be as thorough as possible for my spice loving foodies out there!  These things are important to me…there must be somebody else out there who feels the same, right? right?  guys?  But seriously, if you have any questions or I can check into the availability of a spice for you, please let me know in the comments.  Now on to the recipe!!  Because it is anything but boring!  It is SO YUM!  It’s saucy and sweet and spicy and quite simple.  Even more important, this recipe is full of natural goodness!  It is easy enough to be a weeknight meal or interesting enough to be dressed up for company.  Your choice.

1 large red pepper
1 medium white onion
3-4 cloves of garlic
6 small peeled tomatoes, cooking water reserved
(or 1 sixteen ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, juice reserved)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
(1/2 teaspoon or less if using canned tomatoes)
a pinch of crushed red pepper
1 pound chicken breast, cubed
extra virgin olive oil
black pepper to taste

If you are peeling your own tomatoes, start by putting them in a large pan, covering them in water and bringing the temperature up to a boil.  After about 2 minutes, check to see if the skins are splitting.  Remove the tomatoes with split skins and leave the ones that have skins in tact to keep cooking.  If the skins have not split after another minute or two, remove those tomatoes as well and set them all off to the side to cool, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.  Next, roughly chop red pepper, onion and garlic.  Saute these vegetables in a large skillet over medium heat in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes.  Then, add 1 cup of reserved cooking water (or the juice from the canned tomatoes).  Add paprika, curry powder, chili powder and sea salt.  Turn the heat down to a simmer.  Peel the tomatoes.  If the skins have not naturally split, use a knife to make a small slit in the skin and pull off the skin.  Add the peeled tomatoes to the skillet, gently smashing them and breaking them up.  Let everything simmer together for about 20 minutes.  The liquid will reduce down and become a bit syrupy.  Move all the skillet contents to a blender to cool down.  Wipe out the skillet and add 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Add cubed chicken and cook over high heat until the chicken is just cooked, thoroughly white on the outside and inside but not overcooked.  Season the chicken with a little bit of salt and pepper.  Turn off the heat.  Blend the red peppers and tomatoes on the highest setting until you have a thick sauce.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and bring the heat up to a simmer.  Cook everything together for another 5 – 10 minutes.  Serve over steamy brown rice or quinoa and garnish with a little plain greek yogurt and flat-leafed parsley.

Serves 3-4

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