Oswald Rivera

Author, Warrior, and Teacher

Category: Cooking (page 2 of 2)

My Culinary Journey

Why do I write cookbooks? Easy enough — because I avidly enjoy good food and drink and I want to share that experience.
I consider myself a gourmand, not a gourmet, which means that I know my way around a kitchen but I am not professionally trained. Back in Spanish Harlem when I was growing up, I watched my mother as she prepared the evening dinner, and I discovered that mixing all those things together and spreading them around in a pan was fun. Sadly, in the 1950s and 1960s a male of any age in the kitchen was not culturally acceptable so I found myself fighting collective norms from an early age. Then came my bachelor years and the realization that I was not going to be able to survive on canned spaghetti and Coca Cola. Reality, however, took a decidedly positive turn when my beloved Uncle Phillip, himself a great cook, told me that cooking great meals was the best way to impress a date. “You want to impress some young lady? It’s as easy as pie…make her a great meal.” I ignored his pun and expanded my repertoire.
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Fish and Mustard—A Great Combo!

A couple of blogs ago I did something on Quick Meat Patties in a Mustard Sauce. That started me to thinking, Why can’t I do the same thing with fish? This all came about when I decided to roast a whole fish I had acquired in Chinatown. I had been looking forward to this meal. I hadn’t cooked a whole fish in quite a while. But, necessity being the mother of invention, I checked my fridge and noticed I had some mustard and cream. So, why not combine the two and make what the French would call a moutard sauce?

It was a simple process: score the fish with a few cut marks, season, pour the mustard-cream sauce over it, and bake. Easy, quick, and nutritious. For an accompaniment we had baked scallion potatoes. Also an easy process: cut the potatoes in 1-inch chunks, drizzle with butter and bake along with the fish. At the finish, sprinkle with chopped scallions or parsley.

When baking the fish, I suggest any white firm-fleshed fish. Blue Fish may be too oily, and a whole salmon may be too cost prohibitive. The recipe also works well with fish fillets and fish steaks; although cooking time may vary depending upon thickness of fillets or steaks.


1 whole fish (about 2-2 1/2 pounds), gutted, scaled, clean, with with head
and tail intact.
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup mustard ( Any good mustard will do—from Grey Poupon to
4 tablespoons heavy whipping cream (preferably organic)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Wash fish under cold running water and clean with paper towels. Then score fish on each side with three to four knife cuts across the body.
3. Season with salt and pepper.
4. In a small bowl, combine the mustard and heavy cream.
5. Place fish in a greased baking dish; and spread the mustard- cream
sauce over it.
6. Bake for 45 minutes or until skin flakes easily with a knife or fork.
Yield: 4 servings.

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The Plantain Wars

In my first posting I included a recipe for fried plantains, or tostones. Actually, it was my first recipe on this blog. Other recipes have followed. As noted, in my other avocation, I teach martial arts at the Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association (www.kingfu-wusu.com). Well, one of my fellows at the association, 2nd Degree Instructor Tyree Grant, and a rising star within the Association, commented to me yesterday on the recipe. He wasn’t too enthused about it. Not that it wasn’t a good recipe, only that he had expected a recipe on sweet plantains, to which he and his family are partial. And this brought up one of the age-old arguments that has befuddled Caribbean cuisine. Think of other controversies regarding food: like the argument over creamy peanut butter as opposed to chunky style (I prefer the chunky version); or white rice over brown rice which is supposedly more nutritious (I still prefer white rice simply because I was brought up with it); or home fries vs. french fries (I prefer home fries); or even whether red wine should always be served with meat. I have found delicious reds (gamay, bardolino, valpolicella, etc.) that go well with fish. So there.
It all depends on individual preference. No one is right, and no one is wrong. I, myself, prefer green plantains in the tostones mold. In my family, when I was growing up in Spanish Harlem, we only had sweet plantains for breakfast, with eggs, sausages and ham. Green plantains were served for lunch and dinner. In the Caribbean islands, from my experience, that is still the norm. I cannot speak for Central and Latin America, although I know plantains are also prepared in their cuisine.
See, this is the way it goes. A plantain is a tropical perennial herb (Musa paradisiaca) which renders an edible, bananalike fruit. But it is not a banana. The plantain (Platano in Spanish) comes out in its raw state as a bright green color. As it ripens it turns yellowish; and when it’s really ripe and on the verge of rotting, it becomes a dark, almost black in texture. Aficionados of ripe plantains like it because it’s sweet. Fried green plantains don’t have a sweet taste. I cannot explain the flavor; simply that it’s an acquired taste. But once you had a tostone, with a little salt and a drizzle of olive oil, you’ll come back for more. That’s guaranteed. On my last trip to Puerto Rico I noticed that some restaurants started serving tostones with french dressing. What’s that all about? It’s like in France where they serve french fries with mayonnaise. I guess the more adventurous culinary cultures, with time, modify almost any dish.
Let me state that plantains today can be found most anywhere. Most supermarkets do carry them. I have found plantains even in the north country of Vermont. Traditionally, any Hispanic or ethnic market carries them.
Anyway, for all you iconoclasts (I love them $20 words) below is a recipe for sweet ripe plantains (Platanos Amarillos). It’s simple, no-nonsense, and tasty (if you like sweet stuff). So, Tyree, my brother-in-training, here’s the recipe I promised to you and to all those who savor platanos. And just to show that I can be magnanimous (another $20 word) and hold no grudges, I’ve included two ways of making ripe plantains. One involves boiling for the more health conscious; and the other is the traditional fried method.

PLANTANOS AMARILLOS (Sweet Ripe Plantains)

Method I:
3 ripe plantains

1. Take 3 ripe plantains and cut in half crosswise at a slant.
2. Boil in water (combined with 1 tablespoon salt) until tender (about 4-5 minutes).
3. Drain and let cool. Cut a slit along the length of the halves and peel. Cut into diagonal slices 1 to 2 inches thick and serve.
Yield: 12 to 15 pieces.

Method II:
3 ripe plantains
Vegetable oil for frying (can use extra virgin olive oil, if desired)

1. Peel 3 ripe plantains. Cut into diagonal slices about 1/2-inch thick and 3 inches long.
2. Deep-fry in hot oil until slightly browned and tender (about 3-4 minutes). Drain on paper towels.
Yield: 12-18 pieces.

Friends, that’s it for now. So, until the next time, hang by your thumbs and write if you get work (with credits to Bob and Ray).

The Donna Hanover Interview on Food TV, 1994

In 1994, right after the publication of my first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America, I sat down with Donna Hanover of Food TV to discuss the book. That video is now available for your viewing. In it I try to explain, overall, what constitutes Puerto Rican cuisine here and in the island while also trying to explain the concept of Nuyorican, or a New York born and bred Puerto Rican. Nuyorican is a term used, not too complimentary, in the island of Puerto Rico, to define a native who comes from the mainland, predominantly the east coast. Here in America we have taken the term as a badge of honor and pride. Just because one is Nuyorican doesn’t mean one has any less pride in his heritage than one who comes from the island. We partake of a culture and enjoy a cuisine that combines elements of traditional Puerto Rican cooking with infusions of new ideas and new ways of doing things inspired by the urban ewnvironment of the mainland. It means that we grow, within ourselves, our culture, and our cuisine.
Below is a simple recipe from that cookbook: domplines, or dumplings. The dumplings go well with any meal, but they are especially good with ham and eggs.


4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons shortening
1 cup lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying

1. Combine flower, baking powder and shortening in a glass bowl.
2. Add salt to water and add to flour, a bit at a time, while mixing with a wooden spoon until it forms a doughy consistency.
3. Remove this dough to a lightly floured surface and knead continuously with hands until soft.
4. Form kneaded dough into a horseshoe shape and set aside.
5. Fill a cast iron or heavy bottomed skillet halfway with vegetable oil. Heat until oil is very hot. Break off a small piece of dough and shape into a round patty. Drop into skillet and stir-fry until golden (about 5 minutes). Repeat until dough is all gone. Remove and drain on absorbent paper towels.
Yield: about 20 dumplings.

For for the sake of full disclosure, I should add that I have been involved in the martial arts for 35+ years. I am an instructor at the Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association (www.kungfu-wusu.com). I know, you’re thinking, someone who likes to cook and enjoys listening to classical music is also a martial artist? Yup. It’s true. We are all the sum of different parts. Anyway, the reason I mention this is because I am on Facebook (no surprise there). And my Facebook page is currently displaying videos showing some of the techniques we practice at the Association. One is a high level technique known as the nail bed. I am not even going to try to explain it. Some may find it esoteric and other worldly. It’s not. It’s something that any determined healthy individual can do given the proper training and discipline.
The other video is knife fighting. We do teach knife techniques at the Association. In that one I take on our premier knife person, Dr. Norman Lanes, in a one-on-one situation, and try to hold my own (barely). So, for those of you interested in the martial arts or want to see some enjoyable videos (of real action—not cinematic) check out my Facebook page.
Until the next time (with credits to Bob and Ray), hang by your thumbs and write if you get work.

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The Pharaoh Feast

My second cookbook, The Pharaoh’s Feast (Avalon Books), had a simple premise: how cooking had evolved throughout recorded history. It featured 100 simple recipes, from the biblical mess of pottage (or lentil soup) noted in the first book of Moses, to the fusion cooking style of today. The book was also published in England under the title, Feasting with the Ancestors Sutton Publishing).

The book was a labor of love that combined two of my favorite topics, history and cooking. What I sought to do was recreate some of food history’s highlights detailing the cooking styles of their era. What was it like to have a meal in ancient Egypt, or Classical Greece or the Manchu Dynasty in China, or the caliphate in the Arab world? For that matter, what was it that people cooked and ate in the depressing times of the Middle Ages? You would be surprised to learn.

Food and meals have influenced our history in extraordinary ways. For instance, ever wondered what Cleopatra served Mark Antony on that barge on the Nile River that got him so overwhelmed that he immediately threw in his lot with her against his own native Rome? I’m sure there were some snails involved since, at the time, they were considered an aphrodisiac. And what did Jesus Christ and his disciples have on that famous last supper? Which was in reality a Passover Seder that he and his followers, being good devout Jews, were commemorating. And how did pizza get invented? That’s a story in itself. But some claim that it originated in Ancient Judea in the first century of the Common Era when the Roman 10th legion was stationed there. Figure that one out. That is tale for another time that I will explore comprehensively in a future posting.

To give you a taste of what I mean, below is recipe hailing from the time of Imperial Rome.

The Romans, as my fellows back on the block would say today, are a trip. They’re a contradiction. They ruled an empire stretching from the sands of Arabia to the moors of Scotland. They gave the world a system of laws, and an excellence in art, literature and architecture. But they were also bastards when they felt it was needed. The same society that gave us the works of Tacitus, Cicero and Virgil, also gave us spectacles of mass slaughter in the Coliseum where thousands were killed in gladiatorial contests or innocent victims ravaged by beasts, and all for the enjoyment of the populace (read that: mob). As the scholar-statesman Abba Eban once noted: The Romans believed in peace with a vengeance.

This contradiction is also reflected in their cooking. During the first centuries of the Roman Republic the diet was quite plain. This mainly consisted of wheat, olive, pork and fish; and, of course, wine, which was the main libation. Once Rome became an empire, all this changed. New tastes and new foodstuffs altered the social environment, at least for the upper crust. Some of the food became extremely exotic, and weird. Picture such things as dormice seasoned with honey, peacock’s brain boiled in its own feathers, sow’s womb stuffed with sea-unchins—you get the idea. Yes, you could say this was an example of profligacy and vice on the part of Roman society. But I’m sure not all Romans ate like this. You certainly wouldn’t if you belonged to what was termed, the “lower orders.”

The recipe given shows that even Romans could adhere to simplicity in their cooking. This recipe is credited to Apicius, and his work, On Cookery , or De Re Coquinaria. Apicius is a character. Although the recipe is simple, he was not. He was a patrician accustomed to a high standard of living, and is said to have poisoned himself when he discovered he had only a mere ten million sesterces left in the bank. Figure that ten million sesterces is equivalent to just under three-quarters of a ton of gold bullion. Apicius felt that such a paltry sum was not enough for a man of his infinite tastes.

By today’s standard’s, some his recipes are off the wall. I doubt many would enjoy cooking parrots, jellyfish, porpoises, and lark’s tongues But this one is just right. Easy, tasty, and good as a an appetizer.


16 artichoke hearts (canned are okay)

4 eggs, hard boiled and finely chopped

1/3 cup olive oil (preferably extra-virgin)

1/3 cup nuoc man fish sauce*

1. Wash the artichoke hearts under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Arrange the artichoke hearts on a serving platter.

2. Sprinkle chopped eggs atop the artichokes.

3. Drizzle with olive oil and fish sauce.

Yield: 4 servings.

note: nouc man fish sauce can be found in any store selling Thai, Korean, or Chinese products, or any Asian market.

Update: on my last posting, the recipe was for plantains. If you enjoy Caribbean cooking, check it out (I haven’t deleted that posting yet).

So, as they use to say on the Bob and Ray show (old timers will know what I’m talking about), “Until next time, hang by your thumbs and write if you get work.”

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