El Yunque

August 29, 2012

One of the funniest things about Puerto Rico is seeing how the familiar blends with the unfamiliar. The same mail trucks that deliver my mail at home also deliver the mail down here, and for the same 45-cents. It was with that odd sense of familiarity that we visited the U.S. National Park El Yunque; which is the Spanish word for anvil, but is somehow translated to mean white lands. However, this mountain is far from a typical national forest. El Yunque was originally set aside by the Spanish in the 1880’s, making it older than any other National Park, and is the only rain forest that is part of the U.S. National Park system. El Yunque has more species of trees than all other national parks combined. We were serenaded by Coqui frogs; whose name is derived from their song (“co-qui, co-qui”); during every moment of our hiking. Eventually we made it as far at Mt. Britton, but the boys ran out of energy at an impressive 3,100 ft, and couldn’t quite make it to the very top on Yunque mountain (3,500 ft).

Entrance to El Yunque

Beautiful mix of tropical trees and ferns

La mina waterfall; about a 1 hour hike

El Yunque has it’s own quarter!


Elaborate roots that you only see in the rain forest

El Yunque receives over 200 inches of rain per year

Nico got tired climbing the mountain; but made it to about 3,100 ft.

Lookout tower at Mt. Britton; not the replica that can be driven to.

Old San Juan

August 26, 2012

Originally, I had huge plans of a trip combining a week in central Europe with 10 days in South Africa for this month. But life has sent me in unexpected directions. So I simply intend to enjoy the blessings that life has offered, instead of worrying about all the things that might have been. My “lemonade” is 11 days in Puerto Rico, and it turns out that  this “consolation prize” turns out to be filled with just as many spectacular experiences as my other ports-of-call that require a passport. Even hurricane Issac was accommodating as it bent a little to our south leaving the island largely unaffected. I do wish my cell phone didn’t work, though, so I would feel like I am further from my daily life back home. Even my frequent shopper card at CVS works.

Old city wall

The boys trying to get into the old city.

Main entrance to Castillo de San Felipe.

Typical colonial architecture

More colonial houses

Houses along a main square

Near the old main gate leading into the city

Part of Castillo de San Felipe.

The cities origins go back to the 1500’s.

Ground Beef Tostadas

August 22, 2012

I have made 5-star tostadas about two years ago, but they took 4-1/2 hours and made a big mess. While I love the rich flavors of shredded meat, my kids are generally just as happy with quick-cooking ground beef. So I made these simple tostadas using Chris Kimball’s recipe for ground beef taco filling. I fried tortillas using Chris Kimball’s Tostada de Tinga technique of poking holes in the tortilla (so they don’t inflate), then frying them in 1” of vegetable oil; holding them flat with a potato masher. The tostadas were a big hit. My son and their friend gave them 5-stars. I agree they came out delicious, but their simplicity mean I can give them 4-stars.

Kid-friendly and easy to make; combines a few recipes.

Anytime you fry it makes a bit of a mess, but it wasn’t too bad and was definitely offset by the happiness of the children.


  1. There was a bit of a “scheduling issue” (i.e. having to do two things at once) when frying the tostada shells, which took about 20 minutes to fry 8 tortillas. I had to turn off the meat, to accommodate frying the shells so I would recommend making them before you start the filling. I keep them warm in a 200-degree oven (but would recommend 180-degrees).
  2. At one point when frying the tortillas my oil becomes too hot, and the tops and bottom of the tortilla fried unevenly. When I saw what was happening, I turned down the oil and flipped the tortillas so that both sides would cook evenly.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $6.00
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time: 5:00. Dinner time: 6:00

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared them today are given below:

Tostada Shell:
3/4 cup vegetable oil
12 six-inch corn tortillas or 8 eight-inch flour tortillas
Table salt

  1. Add vegetable oil to 8″ skillet. Preheat over medium burner. Use the tines of a fork to poke holes in the center and edges of each tortilla; 8 to 10 times per tortilla.
  2. Once at a time, add to oil and hold flat with a metal potato masher, which will keep the tortilla submerged. About 1 minute per tortilla.
  3. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with remaining tortillas, keeping cooked shells warm in a 180-degree oven.

Ground Beef Ingredients:
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 small onion
3 medium cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound 90% lean ground beef
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons cider vinegar

  1. Dice the small onion, which should yield about 2/3-cup. Peel 3 cloves of garlic.
  2. Preheat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in skillet over medium heat for 2 minutes. Sauté the diced onion for 4 minutes, stirring as necessary.
  3. Meanwhile measure out and combine all dried spices into a small cup.
  4. When onions are ready, press garlic directly into skillet and add spice mixture. Cook and stir for 1 minute to bloom flavors.
  5. Add ground beef to skillet. Use a wooden spoon to break up the meat. Cook for 5 minutes, scraping the bottom of the skillet to prevent scorching. The beef should no longer be pink.
  6. Add 1/2-cup tomato sauce, 1/2-cup chicken broth, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, and 2 teaspoons cider vinegar. Heat up to a simmer, then turn down to medium-low. Continue to simmer until liquid has thickened, but not completely dry, about 10 minutes. Stir frequently and ensure that no chunks of meat remain. Adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.
  7. Place in serving bowl and pass toppings separately.

Grates cheese, queso fresco or feta cheese
Fresh chopped cilantro leaves
Sour cream
Diced avocado
Lime wedges

My garnishes; plus sour cream

Made entirely from spices already in my kitchen

Skillet Chicken Fajitas

August 14, 2012

When dining out I’ve always avoided Chicken Fajitas because they can be too plain, so I’ve tended towards the fuller-flavored beef or pork tacos. However, this recipe surprised me by spicing up the chicken; by soaking the raw chicken in a marinade for an hour. Also, this recipe abandons the usual lackluster bell peppers in favor of oven-charred poblanos; much more flavorful. The heavy cream in the Rajas con Crema adds richness to this otherwise lean dish. These are far and away the best Fajitas I’ve ever eaten. My eldest son (the picky eater) only ate the chicken without the rajas con crema. 4-stars.

A fully assembled taco


  1. When cooking on the stove-top, the recipe cooks for just 4 minutes, then relies on the extremely low 200-degree oven to bring the chicken up to the desired 160-degrees. After 20 minutes in the oven, I realized that 200-degrees is too cool to effectively bring the chicken up to temperature. I finally gave up and finished it on the stove-top.
  2. Because I cooked the chicken for a second time in the skillet, there were no remaining pan juices for Step 12.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $13.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  High.
Start time 4:30 PM. Dinner time 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared the recipe today are given below:

1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
4 garlic cloves
1-1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Rajas con Crema:
1 pound poblano chiles (3 to 5)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Serving and Garnishes:
10 flour tortillas (6-inch)
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
Lime wedges
crumbled queso fresco or feta

  1. Trim away any excess fat from the chicken breasts and pound them until they are 1/2″ thick.
  2. In a medium bowl, add 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, lime juice, pressed garlic, paprika, sugar, salt, cumin, pepper, and cayenne together. Whisk to combine, add the chicken to the bowl and toss to evenly coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to marinade at room temperature for 1 hour.
  3. Meanwhile, set an oven rack as close as possible to the broiler element. Slice poblanos chiles in half, remove the stem and seeds, and arrange with the skin-side up onto a baking sheet lined with foil. Some of the chiles  may need to be flattened so that they are the same distance from the broiler.
  4. Broil for 7 to 10 minutes until the skin becomes charred, rotating and adjusting the tray so that they char evenly.
  5. Empty the chiles into a large bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and allow them to steam for 10 minutes. Rearrange the oven racks so that there is one in the middle and lower positions and set oven to 200-degrees.
  6. Peel away most of the skin from the chiles, and slice into 1/4″ wide strips. Remove onions ends, slice in half, then slice onion from pole-to-pole into 1/4″ wide strips.
  7. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to a 12″ non-stick skillet. Preheat over a high burner until the oil just begins to smoke. Add onions and cook for 4 minutes until they become charred. Cook the pressed garlic, thyme and dried oregano for just 15 seconds. Add the 1/2 cup of cream and reduce for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes until the onions are lightly coated with cream. Add sliced chile, lime juice, salt and pepper to the skillet, mix until evenly coated with cream.
  8. Empty the veggies into the same bowl you used to steam the chiles. Cover with aluminum foil and set on middle rack in the oven.
  9. Use paper towels to wipe out the skillet. Remove the chicken from the bowl and use more paper towels to wipe of some excess, but not all of the marinade
  10. Set skillet over high burner and preheat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil until it begins to smoke. Cook chicken for 4 minutes without moving; until the bottom becomes charred. Flip chicken, cook for 2 minutes until the chicken registers 150-degrees. Bake for about 10 minutes until chicken internal temperature of the chicken reaches 160 degrees
  11. Put cooked chicken on cutting board, tent loosely and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Don’t wash the skillet.
  12. Cut chicken cross-wise into 1/4″-wide slices. Put the chicken back into the skillet and coat slices with the juices remaining in the pan.
  13. When serving, put a few chicken slices in a warm flour tortilla. Put some vegetable mixture, cilantro ontop. Squeeze a lime wedge.

Thai Stir-Fried Noodles with Chicken and Broccolini

August 6, 2012

I’ve made a few of Chris Kimball’s other stir-fry recipes, see here and here. But this recipe is unique for its combination of spicy sweetness; made with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. It is served with crispy noodles instead of plain rice, but unfortunately my supermarket doesn’t sell 1/4″-wide rice noodles (only rice noodles similar to angel hair pasta).  I substituted 1/4″-wide Lo Mein noodles (made from wheat), which didn’t become as crispy as I would have liked. They also seemed heavier than rice noodles. The good news is that it was worth the effort. It was a delicious meal and both my kids happily ate a second helping. 4-stars.

Definitely not Chinese stir-fry


  1. Be very careful in step 10 that there is enough oil and that the pan is not too hot. I added the requite 2 teaspoons but noodles stuck to the extremely hot skillet. The noodles were still edible, but I have been soaking the skillet for 2 days and the burned spots have still not come loose.
  2. The recipe takes a bit of planning. You will probably not find the wide rice noodles at your first supermarket. Try and upscale supermarket or you may even need an Asian store.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $10.60.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  High.
Start time 4:30 PM. Dinner time 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared the recipe today are given below:

1/3 cup white vinegar
1 serrano chile
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6-oz each)
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces rice noodles (1/4″-wide)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon molasses
1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 garlic cloves
3 large eggs
10 ounces broccolini

  1. To prepare the chile vinegar, trim away stem and slice your serrano chile into thin rings. Add the vinegar and serrano rings to a small bowl. Set aside until ready to serve in final step of this recipe.
  2. Trim away and excess fat from the chicken and cut against grain into 1/4″ thick slices.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons of water and baking soda. add the chicken and toss to coat. Allow to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes, then rinse in cold water and drain it well to remove any excess water.
  4. Add 6 cups of water to a large stock pot, cover, and bring up to a boil. Empty rice noodles into a large bowl, and add boiling water. Stir to combine and allow to soak for 8 minutes until they become almost tender; stirring only once after 4 minutes. Empty the noodles into a strainer and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. After training well, return to large bowl and evenly coat with 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil.
  5. Meanwhile cut the florets into 1″ pieces, then cut the stalks on bias into 1/2″ pieces. Also, slice the garlic cloves thin.
  6. Add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, molasses, white vinegar, and fish sauce to a small bowl (not the bowl containing the chile/vinegar mixture). Whisk until combined.
  7. Slice garlic gloves thin, and place 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil and garlic a 12″ non-stick skillet set over a high burner. Stir constantly for up to 2 minutes until the garlic turns a deep, golden brown. Add chicken plus 2 tablespoons of the sauce mixture. Toss so that the chicken is evenly coated, then spread out chicken into a single layer. Allow to cook over high burner for 1-1/2 minutes without stirring. Use tongs to flip the chicken, and cook the second side the same way; in a single layer for another 1-1/2 minutes.
  8. Push the chicken to one side of the skillet. Add another 2 teaspoons vegetable oil to the empty side of the skillet, and add eggs. Gently stir eggs with a rubber spatula and cook until the egg has set. Stir the eggs together with the chicken and continue cooking over high heat until the eggs become fully cooked. Empty the chicken into (a fourth) bowl.
  9. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil to the skillet and pre-heat until smoking (should only take a minutes). Add all the broccolini pieces. Add 2 tablespoons sauce and toss to evenly coat. Cover, and cook for 1 minute. Stir,  cover again and cook for 1 more minute. Uncover and cook for 1-1/2 minutes. Stir and cook for another 1-1/2 minutes (Total of 5 minutes cooking time). Empty into the same bowl as the chicken.
  10. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil to the skillet and pre-heat until smoking (should only take a minutes). Add half the softened noodles in the skillet, 2 tablespoons of sauce mixture and toss to evenly coat the noodles. Cook for 2 minutes, and stir after 1 minutes. Empty browned noodles into bowl with the chicken. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil to the skillet and cook the second batch of noodles, adding 2 more tablespoons of sauce.
  11. But when the second batch of noodles is ready, add the chicken back to the skillet. Cook for 1-1/2 minutes without stirring until everything has completely warmed. Empty to a serving platter and serve with the chile/vinegar.

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