Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summer's Perfect Dessert: Vanilla Rice Custard with Raisins

Because our house and backyard are shaded by three large trees, we make it through summer's hottest days without air conditioning. It helps that a cooling ocean breeze comes our way in the afternoon.
Eating outside on the deck is a great way to beat the heat. Easy-to-make dishes, relying heavily on salads and grilled vegetables, fish and meat are the way to go. No need to suffer inside in front of the stove when there's a barbecue outside.

Shopping at our local farmers markets--Pacific Palisades on Sundays and Santa Monica on Wednesdays--keeps us happy, with freshly picked fruits and vegetables.
Carrots full of sweetness and crunch, cherry tomatoes that dive bomb your mouth with sweet-acidic juice, flat and spicy leaves of arugula tossed in salads dressed simply with a reduced balsamic vinaigrette dressing, split lobsters on the grill topped with caramelized onions, bread crumbs and butter, Italian sausages poked with a fork to release the steaming juices as they grill on the barbecue....
Sooner or later, the meal comes to an end but before that happens, a closer needs to make an appearance.


The simpler the better, in my mind. Summer is no time for heavy confections. Perfectly ripe grapes or peaches and nectarines bursting with flavor. Figs so sweet you imagine wasps can sense their sweetness from miles around. Grilled fruit. Ice cold melons. Simple sorbets.

For a dinner last week, I prepared an easy-to-make vanilla custard with raisins. For variety I used both regular and golden raisins with a few dried cranberries thrown in.
Serve the custard at room temperature or slightly warmed (250 degrees for 10 minutes).

For a festive addition, try serving the custard with a variety of toppings: bowls of heavy cream, ice cream, whipped cream (there's a theme here) and fresh berries--whichever ones are ripe and sweet--blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or blackberries.

Vanilla Rice Custard with Raisins

Yield: 6

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 45-60 minutes


2 eggs
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons raisins
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cooked rice
2 tablespoons raw whole almonds


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the almonds on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 15 minutes.  Remove, let cool and roughly chop. Set aside.

Beat together the eggs and sugar until well-blended. Add the raisins, cream and vanilla. Let the raisins soak in the custard for an hour or overnight.

Use any kind of rice you like. Add the rice and chopped almonds to the custard-raisin mixture. Pour into an oven proof bowl.

I like to use a shallow baking dish so there is more of the delicious crust that forms around the edge of the dish.  The shallower baking dish, the shorter the cooking time. And, conversely, the deeper the baking dish, the longer the cooking time.

Create a water bath by putting 1" of water into a baking dish 4" larger than the baking dish you are using the for the custard. Put the baking dish into the water bath and into the oven.

Cook until the custard sets or doesn't jiggle if the baking dish is shaken.

Rotate every 30 minutes for even cooking. If the top of the custard is getting too brown before setting, gently lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top.

Serve with ice cream, whipped cream or fresh fruit.


Instead of one kind of raisin, use golden as well as dark raisins.

Instead of all raisins, use dried cranberries or any other dried fruit, roughly chopped.

Instead of almonds, use whatever roasted nuts you prefer.

Add a touch of cayenne powder for a hint of heat.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Surprise in Nearby Palms: Latin American Cuisine at La Cocina del Gagaguey

Speeding down Venice Blvd. heading to the 405, it's easy to miss La Cocina del Cagaguey
Open for less than a year, La Cocina is tucked away in the back corner of El Camaguey Meat Market (10925 Venice Blvd, Palms, between College and Midvale; a mile east of the 405). Much more than a butcher shop, El Camaguey has a wide selection of packaged goods, beverages and produce that are Latin American favorites.
Strictly for take-out, La Cocina del Cagaguey has an extensive menu of Latin American dishes, some familiar like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), some like encendido (braised oxtail) sound exotic.
Call ahead (310/839-4037) and Ilonka Garcia, chef and owner, will have your order ready for you by the time you park in front. 
As she sauteed fresh green tomatillos in a giant cast iron skillet, she explained, "The market started out being mostly for Cubans and Spaniards, but over time expanded for a larger clientel. Now you can find food that appeals to Brazilians, Peruvians, Argentianians, Venuzalians, Mexicans."
She learned her craft cooking for Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican chefs.  When she was thinking about opening the cafe, she explained, “I was in between cooking Cuban or Puerto Rican dishes. I knew someone would get upset whichever way I went, so I decided to cook them all."
Coming from the Dominican Republic, the three islands have many cooking similarities. All use grilled onions and cook with beef, chicken and pork.
But she doesn't limit herself to island cooking. 
“A little bit of something for everybody. Columbian tamales and empanadas use cornmeal. Every country has their own version of empanadas. They’re all different. Dominican empanadas are fried, using a special dough that doesn’t absorb the oil so they are crisp without being soggy. The empanadas are filled with beef or cheese.”
Venuzalians like the ropa veja (shredded beef), which I tasted. The tender, moist meat had lots of succulent flavor, kicked up a notch by her fiery, vinegary jalapeno salsa--which has almost no tomatoes just finely minced red onions, jalapenos and cilantro leaves.
Asked about which dishes are her most popular, she looked at the photographs of the dishes on the wall above her head and went through the list. The shrimp salad, chuleta encebollada (pork chops with grilled onions), fried plantains, camarones al ajilo (shrimp in garlic sauce), camarones en salsa de coco (shrimp on coconut sauce), alcapurrias (stuffed fritters) and mofongo con chicharon y ajo(mashed plantains with crispy, fried pork rind and garlic) are all good.
The bacalao con papas (salt cod with potatoes) is also very popular. She makes fried chicken, but with "small pieces with batter so the flavor goes into each bite.”
The portions are large and priced affordably. The two dozen entrees are priced between $7 and $11. The appetizers and side orders cost from $1.50 each for the empanadas and bulgur meat pies to $7 for the fried chicken and fried green plantain dumplings.
The daily special, including a generous helping of rice and beans is an amazing bargain at $5.99 + tax.
Every day she makes a different kind of rice and beans. She likes making arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon beans). The pigeon beans are like lentils, she told me, but different. “Sometimes I make black eyed beans, white, black, garbanzo, and, another day, lentils. I change the beans daily. It’s an adventure to see what kind of bean I have.”
Even when a bean is popular, like the pigeon beans, she'll change to another bean the next day.  “I get to choose. I hate to get stuck with one item.”
Recently she was reviewed in the LA Times by Bill Esparza on April 7: The Find: La Cocina del Camaguery with the result that she's been even busier than usual.
During the short time I was at the cafe, a constant stream of customers came in to pick up their orders. While some cooks can hardly wait to get out of the kitchen, not Ilonka.
“There’s always something going on here. I like a lot of invention in my kitchen". She and her helper cook all day long because she says food tastes better if you make it in small batches.
All of her meat, poultry and sausages come from the meat market behind her. All of the meat is fresh, never frozen. Because the customers come from different Latin American countries, they want their meat  cut differently. That's no problem. The butcher will give you whatever cut you like.
Even difficult to find Brazilian picanha.
The sausages are made in the market with the exception of the morcilla Argentina. They have even started making chicken chorizo.
She takes a break from sauteing the green tomatillos to describe the recipe. “I almost burn them, then add them along with garlic and cilantro and puree them and then add to braised pork ribs which have been cooking for two hours. After I add the tomatillo puree, I only cook the ribs another twenty minutes. I like the smoky bitterness of the tomatillo.”
In addition to the fresh cooked rice, she cooks her beans, whichever kind, "so they are creamy, with onions and two peppers [red and green], garlic and a lot of love. We cook with a lot of love here.”
And it shows.