March 4th, 2015

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Dear friends,

I ate Carolina barbecue, shrimp tacos and shrimp and grits. I enjoyed strawberry shortcake at a strawberry farm and a two-fisted grouper sandwich at a seafood festival. But the most memorable meal of my recent Florida sojourn was a Cuban feast at the modest Havana Delights Café in Bartow, Fla.

The café is way off the tourist trail so I was lucky to find it, thanks to the non-glamorous location of my friend’s brother’s home in central Florida where we stayed. Dorena and I were surprised he had never been to the Cuban restaurant. It’s the kind of mom and pop, authentic, easy-on-the-wallet place we all dream of stumbling upon.

I had a pork sandwich piled high with juicy citrus-marinated roast pork and caramelized onions, along with a side dish of maduros – fried ripe plantains. Dorena and I both nibbled on a ground beef-filled empanada with a tender, blistered crust. Dorena’s entree choice, crisp-fried marinated roast beef, was my favorite. The beef had been marinated in citrus juices and garlic before roasting, then shredded and fried with more garlic and lime and sour orange juices. It was ropa vieja elevated to sublime heights.

But forget about all that. Back home, while trying to figure out how to make the shredded beef dish (called “vieja” something on the menu but “vaca frita” in descriptions on the Internet), I came across another Cuban recipe I had to make immediately: a Cuban cornmeal pudding with raisins and rum. Vaca frita will have to wait. I am now obsessed with the rum-raisin cornmeal pudding I found in “A Taste of Cuba” by Linette Creen.

This is almost the perfect recipe. It is made with ingredients you probably already have in the cupboard, and it goes together very quickly.

Basically, you just warm milk in a saucepan and whisk in butter, salt sugar and cornmeal, stirring for a few minutes until it thickens. Eggs, rum and raisins are added before it’s poured into a casserole to bake.

You have more willpower than I do if you can wait for the pudding to cool to taste it. It smelled too good for dilly-dallying, so I dug right in. The warm pudding is creamy and rich. It is much lighter than the dense Indian puddings I’ve tasted. I liked the leftovers, too, when sliced them into wedges, as instructed, and served them with whipped topping. The flavors make this a good companion to Italian as well as Mexican and Caribbean meals. If you serve it after an Italian dinner, call it “Polenta Pudding.”

But what the heck, I ate most of it between meals, standing up at the kitchen counter. After returning from sunny Florida smack into a bone-chilling snow storm, it made life a bit more bearable for me.

CUBAN BAKED RUM-RAISIN PUDDING

DSCN1322-001-thumbnail
3 1/2 cups milk
2 tsp. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup cornmeal
4 eggs
1 tbsp. dark rum
1/4 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in butter, salt, sugar and cornmeal. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is smooth and thick and can coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and rum. Slowly whisk in ½ cup of the cornmeal mixture. Pour in a slow, steady stream back into the pan while whisking rapidly to prevent egg from setting. Stir in raisins.

Pour into a buttered, 8-inch round casserole and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until set. Cool slightly, then slice or scoop and serve. Makes 6 servings.

HELP U COOK
Making chicken broth is good project for a cold winter day. Even better is setting it to bubble and then leaving for the day or retiring for the night. I awoke one morning last week to the comforting aroma of homemade broth simmering in the slow cooker on the kitchen counter. The whole house smelled great.

Using a slow cooker to make broth is a no-fail, no-work way to stock your freezer for pennies rather than the 2-plus bucks per quart commercial broths cost. Just load a large slow cooker with 1 quartered onion, 1 chunked-up carrot and about 3 pounds of chicken backs, fat and excess skin removed. Cover the chicken with water, clap on the lid, start it on high to bring up the temperature , and then turn it to low for about 10 to 15 hours. Strain, package and freeze. Or, as I prefer, strain, chill and lift off the fat before freezing.

Tip: Use zipper-lock freezer bags and stack them flat to save space. I freeze broth in various amounts – 1 cup, 2 cups and 1 quart. Measure and label for use later in recipes.

THE MAILBAG
From Cheryl:
Just an FYI to pass on: The Facebook page for the cookbook “Recipes of Youngstown” has a new second edition of local recipes (many of them ethnic recipes people remember from childhood) on sale! Info is on the site, and it’s easy to join group.

Dear Cheryl: Thanks for the heads-up. The first edition was hugely popular, as no doubt the second will be. Proceeds will help restore Lanterman’s Mill at Mill Creek Park. The book will not be released until May 2, but may be pre-ordered from the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s website at http://mahoninghistory.org/2015/01/30/recipes-of-youngstown/ . Single copies are $26.
From S.S.:
Regarding your item on rapini, I love the combination of cooked, drained rapini with crumbled feta cheese. We eat it often in my house.

Dear S.S.: That combination sounds heavenly. The salty cheese would be a good match for the bitterness of the rapini.
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