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In Our Kitchen: 20-somethings expand their repertoire, and so can you

The wok is hot. Chopped snow peas, green onions, and bell peppers are waiting to go. Oil screams as it hits the wok and catches fire. Smoke sets off the alarm.

My boyfriend is trying to kill me.

This isn't the first time.

An attempt at blackened salmon sent up a cloud of spicy smoke that chased me out of the kitchen in a coughing fit. For a whiskey cocktail, he smoked ice, which (1) totally worked (2) made the apartment smell like a dive bar, then (3), burned a hole right through the bottom of a pot. Another night there was a pork shoulder that simmered until midnight. The expectations were high, but so was the heat. We — ahem, Danny — used the wrong peppers. I suffered through a few unbearably spicy bites before giving up.

Well, I'm still here. Despite those few dramatic dinners, our little kitchen more often than not sees some stellar meals. Crispy tofu in a rich, dark soy sauce infused with garlic and ginger. Homemade tortillas and pickled red onions for tacos with tender carnitas. Savory eggplant. Fried avocado. Bourbon banana bread.

We started dating shortly after making pizzas together, but a lot more cooking came after he encouraged this avid food blog reader to start her own. A Little Saffron Would Make This! was created in January. The name comes from a line in Ratatouille, a movie that charmed me and reminded us that anyone can cook. I write and take pictures for the blog, and we mostly cook together. This twice-monthly column, which we're calling In Our Kitchen, will work the same way.

We are not trained cooks. We are people who love to eat and love cooking at home. I'm a freelance writer, and Danny — his byline is Danny Valentine — is an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. What you'll read in the column is something you can make in your home.

Our inspiration for breakfast, lunch, and dinner comes from magazines, cookbooks, food blogs and restaurants. This column will feature an eclectic selection of food that is simple, fresh, and at times unconventional. Think pulled pork stacked in between pancakes. Some recipes will be quicker than others. We see cooking as an enjoyable, everyday activity focused on the pleasure of good food. Sometimes we pop open a bottle of champagne on a Tuesday.

We cook in a small apartment kitchen in north Tampa. We are two 20-somethings cooking on a retro-looking stove with a manual timer that may be older than us (he's 25; I am 24). I bought a rice cooker for $12 during my freshman year in college, and it is still with me six years later. We are gradually collecting the basics, including a cast iron skillet, a good set of knives and a Dutch oven. Danny is always excited about adding more equipment, and I am too, though I try to curb that enthusiasm before we fill up space we don't have.

Near the kitchen is a bookcase dedicated to a growing number of cookbooks, and we recently added a tall one to hold Danny's birthday gift to me, a collection of more than 100 Gourmet magazines. The oldest one is dated 1958. We plan trips around meals, and most of our gifts to each other involve food. I took him to Bern's Steak House. He took me to dinner at a vineyard in Oregon. This works out for the both of us. That cocktail shaker for Christmas wasn't just for him, of course. And when he got a KitchenAid stand mixer, it was in my favorite color.

I'm a former vegan who began eating meat again around the time Danny started coming with me to visit my hometown, Miami. Food is how the women in my Nicaraguan family show their love, and every meal tends to include meat.

My godmother will serve you two plates — one of her vaca frita and another of her carne con papa. My grandmother will win you over with her minty arroz aguado, better than any risotto I've ever tried. For guests, my mom will go to one place for the best tortillas, another for the best chimichurri sauce, and yet another for the best maduros.

As a cook, my mom sticks mostly to a few typical Nicaraguan dishes and never consults a recipe or stops to measure anything. As a teenager, she once made the mistake of washing rice with soap and water, but as far back as I can remember the kitchen was her domain. She makes gallopinto with tender and flavorful rice and beans, and an arroz con pollo that is pretty much the only thing my cousin eats when visiting. Sometimes we ate fish my father caught off his boat, and he tends to grill the churrasco steak.

Danny grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, a Midwestern college town. His mother took care of most meals. Popular dinners included frozen ravioli, meat loaf, and a dish his mom called hamburger pie. Food is fuel for her, and she scrambles her morning eggs in a few spritzes of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Danny's father uses real butter while showing off the proper technique for flipping an omelet. He bottled his own beer way before craft beer was popular. He tends a garden and fills an extra freezer with pesto every year, adding to a collection of several vintages; 2007 was a good year.

Our food lives were wildly different growing up, and now we're figuring out where they go together. Knowing how to cook for yourself is important and fun. We'll be here on the first and third Wednesdays of the month with food that inspired us and hopefully will lure you to your kitchen.

Ileana Morales is a freelance writer with bylines for the Associated Press, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times. She cooks in a small apartment kitchen in Tampa with boyfriend Danny Valentine, an education reporter in the Tampa Bay Times' Hernando bureau. For more of their kitchen adventures, visit Ileana's food blog,

About the

new column

In Our Kitchen follows the adventures of 20-something cooks Ileana Morales and Danny Valentine as they try out all kinds of recipes — everything from a basic roasted chicken to a sandwich that makes room for both tofu and bacon — in their first kitchen. It will appear twice a month in the Taste section. The next column will run on Oct. 3.



If you haven't cooked much meat before, this is a good recipe to start with. There's no bone or skin to fuss with, and you just need one big pot and a sharp knife. Half an orange helps tenderize the pork, which braises for a couple of hours before going into the oven to get browned and crispy. Serve with rice or try slightly smaller pieces tucked between homemade tortillas. Garnish tacos with salsa, queso fresco, and pickled onions. This is great for a dinner party, but any leftovers will keep in the fridge for up to three days and reheat wonderfully.

1 white onion, thinly sliced

½ orange, cut into

2 pieces

¼ cup vegetable oil

3 cups water

8 garlic cloves, peeled

3 bay leaves

1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk

2 teaspoons dried oregano

4 teaspoons kosher salt or 2 teaspoons table salt

4 pounds fatty pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces

Gather all ingredients, making sure to cut the meat last. Place the ingredients in a Dutch oven or wide 6- to 7-quart heavy pot, and bring the water to a boil. It's all right if the pork is not completely covered.

Lower heat to medium-high to bring everything to a strong simmer. Let the meat cook until almost all of the liquid has evaporated and the pork is fork tender, 1 ½ to 2 hours. Stir occasionally. About 30 minutes before it's done, heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Discard the orange pieces and bay leaves and put the uncovered pot in the oven. Roast the pork until it is crispy and browned, 15 to 20 minutes. The smaller, crispy bits are the best part. Stir once about halfway through the cooking time.

Serve with tortillas or rice, and store any leftovers in the fridge for up to three days. Serves 6 to 8 or makes about 24 tacos.

Source: Adapted from Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibañez via


Corn Tortillas (Without a Press!)

I knew we got those tortillas right even before tasting them. They looked and smelled just like the tortillas from the Nicaraguan fritangas back in Miami, which is where my mother always gets them. Turns out they are fairly simple to make at home. No tortilla press or other gadget needed. This recipe works especially well with the help of another cook. I kneaded and rolled out the dough and Danny pressed. For taco night with friends, let them press some of their own tortillas. It's part of the fun. At a heaping tablespoon of dough each, these tortillas are small, which simply means more tacos all around. Serve warm immediately after they are done. Reheat any leftovers in a 200-degree oven.

2 cups masa (corn tortilla mix, preferably Maseca brand)

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups water

Vegetable oil

Whisk masa and salt in a medium bowl. Add 1 ½ cups water to the masa, which will make it feel like wet sand. Knead with your fingers until a dough forms. Add a little more water if too crumbly or a little more masa if too wet.

Bring a large cast-iron skillet to medium-high heat and brush lightly with oil. Measure out a heaping tablespoon of dough and roll it into a ball. Repeat for a couple more balls of dough. Place one ball on a sheet of parchment paper and place another sheet on top. Press down on the dough with a wide skillet or frying pan to flatten into the shape of a tortilla. Carefully peel the dough off the parchment paper and lay it in the hot skillet. Cook tortilla until it begins to crisp up and begins to char on the bottom, 1 to 3 minutes. Flip tortilla over with a spatula and cook until it's charred in spots on the other side, up to another minute. Repeat with the other balls of dough to cook 2 or 3 tortillas at a time. Brush the skillet with oil before each batch. It's best to prepare just a few at a time, because flattened-out balls of dough will crumble if left waiting too long for their chance to cook.

Keep cooked tortillas warm by loosely wrapping them in a clean dish towel as you work with the rest of the dough. Serve warm.

Makes about 24 tortillas.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appétit and Kelsey Brown via


Quick Pickled Red Onions

Toppings are so much a part of tacos, and pickled onions should not be skipped. These are a vibrant shade of hot pink to add sharp flavor and color to a meal. Serve onions after they have soaked in the vinegar for at least an hour, or prepare the onions up to two weeks ahead and store in a jar in the fridge. Leftover onions will be softer after a day, and I kind of prefer them that way.

½ cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

1 cup water

1 red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons

Whisk vinegar, sugar, salt, and 1 cup water with a fork in a small bowl or simply shake it all up in a big jar until the sugar and salt dissolve. Put the onions in the jar with the vinegar mixture. Let them sit out on the counter for 1 hour. Serve over tacos.

Makes about ½ cup.

Source: Bon Appétit

In Our Kitchen: 20-somethings expand their repertoire, and so can you 09/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:01pm]
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