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Heat In The Kitchen

The Saturday Early Show brings some heat to the kitchen with the help of Fernando Saralegui, the latest to take our Chef on a Shoestring challenge.

Saralegui introduced folks to "Gulf Rim" cuisine, a blend of flavors from Louisiana, Texas, Mexico and Cuba. He shares his spicy recipes and family stories in his new cookbook, "Our Latin Table." The book features 17 of Saralegui's favorite entertaining menus. He says you may switch things around if you wish - nothing is set in stone.

Food has always been central to the Saralegui family, and recipes in the book reflect their experiences. The author writes of his two grandfathers, both originally from Spain, who found themselves in Cuba in their 20s.

"Our grandfathers became fond of Latin food almost instantly. The tendency for immigrants to develop a love for different foods in their new country while maintaining a taste for the cuisine from their country of origin has been replayed in the United States many times.

"Our family escaped from Cuba in 1960 while Fidel Castro consolidated his power on the island. We settled in Bronxville, NY, a suburb of New York City. Feeding seven children and various relatives daily, required a methodical approach and an appreciation for shortcuts."

We asked Chef Saralegui to create a delicious three-course fall meal for four on our budget of $30. His menu: an appetizer of Watercress, Avocado, and Red Onion Salad; an entrée of Pork Chops with Mojo Sauce and Green Rice; and for dessert, Torticas De Moron.

The chef uses avocados in his salad. Here are his suggestions for handling avocados: "To peel, pit, and dice an avocado, take the avocado and slice vertically into it, rolling your knife around the fruit using the pit as a pivot. Grasp the fruit with both hands on each side of the slice and rotate each side in opposite directions, separating the halves. One side will retain the nut. Holding that half in your palm, carefully strike the nut with the blade of your knife; with the blade lodged in the nuts, twist and remove the nut. With half the fruit still in your palm, use the knife tip to score the flesh horizontally and vertically. Using a tablespoon, carefully work between the skin and flesh. Using the skin as a guide, follow the curve of the fruit. As the flesh separates from the skin, gently let the scored cubes come apart from into a medium bowl."

He prefers Haas avocados which are small and deep green in color. Saralegui says they posess a more refined taste and texture.
Saralegui marinates the pork in mojo (pronounced "mo-ho") sauce. Mojo literally means mixed or blended as in the popular Cuban cocktail the Mojito. The sauce is made from freshly squeezed orange and lime juices, olive oil, garlic, fresh oregano, and cumin. You can use mojo as a condiment for fish, chicken, and meat dishes. Saralegui says it's best to use a mortar and pestle to grind the garlic and cumin together, if you have one. He says grinding the garlic this way better releases the flavor, but you can use a food processor if you wish.

The chef uses poblano pepper for a little bit of spice in the mojo sauce. Poblano peppers are traditionally stuffed for chile rellenos. They are dark green with a medium heat.

According to Saralegui, in Cuba pork is not the other white meat it is THE white meat. He prefers chops because he considers them to be a more flavorful cut. He says the grilled marinated pork chops with mojo are the dish that Cubans are weaned on and live for. He adds, "It might possibly have all the ingredients that make up Cuban cookery, with the exception of rum, of course ."

The cookies are based on a recipe from Saralegui's childhood nanny. "This cookie is from the small town of Moron in Cuba. It is our nanny Tati's signature cookie; she brings some to every reunion."

All recipes from "Our Latin Table," published by Bulfinch Press, AOL Time Warner Book Group/Copyright 2003

Watercress, Avocado and Onion Salad

2/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
salt and pepper to taste
2 bunches watercress, washed and dried
1 avocados, peeled and sliced
1 small red onion, sliced

Combine olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, garlic, lime juice, salt and pepper in a small jar -- cover with lid -- and shake vigorously until the vinaigrette is emulsified (about 30 seconds). Taste and adjust seasoning.

Divide watercress evenly among four salad plates, top with avocado and onion slices and drizzle with vinaigrette. Serve immediately.

Grilled Marinated Pork Chops with Mojo

10 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons dried oregano
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
juice of 2 limes
1/8 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste
4 double-cut pork chops

Puree the garlic, oregano, olive oil, 1/4 cup of the orange juice, lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper in a blender or in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Reserve 1/3 cup of the mojo sauce and set aside. The remaining mojo sauce will be for the pork marinade.

To make the pork chop marinade, whisk the remaining 1/2 cup of orange juice with the remaining mojo sauce in a non-reactive bowl. Place the pork chops in a non-reactive dish or bowl. Add the marinade. Cover with plastic and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, turning the pork occasionally.

Discard the marinade and grill the pork chops on a hot grill for 5 to 7 minutes on each side until cooked to medium. Serve with the reserved mojo sauce and green rice on the side.

Green Rice

4 cups water
2 cups long-grain rice
2 cups parsley leaves
2 cups cilantro leaves
3 scallions, trimmed
1 roasted poblano pepper, seeded (see method below)
3 tablespoons butter (optional)
salt and pepper

In a heavy medium pot with lid, bring 3 cups of water to a boil, add rice, cover, and reduce heat to low. Allow the rice to simmer for 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed.

While rice is cooking, puree the parsley, cilantro, scallions, and poblano pepper in the remaining 1 cup of water in a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade. Check the rice to see if cooking water has been absorbed and stir in the herb puree, cover and allow the rice to absorb the herb water for another 5 to 8 minutes.

Transfer rice to a bowl, add the butter if desired, and gently toss to melt it, add salt and pepper to taste.

Method for roasting the poblano pepper:

To roast poblano pepper, place pepper on a small baking sheet, under the broiler and broil until the skin is slightly charred on all sides. Immediately place in a paper bag, seal, and let sit for 3 minutes. Then peel off the charred skin and discard. Slice the peeled pepper open and discard the membranes and seeds. Cool, remove the skin and seeds and cut into strips.

Chef's note: Roasting the poblano pepper is optional. Roasting the pepper adds a smoky flavor, but it is not necessary to roast the pepper if you don't have the time.

Torticas de Moron

6 cups flour
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 cups vegetable shortening
2 teaspoons lime zest

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, blend the flour, confectioners' sugar, shortening, and lime zest until it forms a smooth dough (about 3 minutes). Let the dough rest for 15 minutes wrapped in plastic.

To make the cookies, mold a small tablespoonful of dough into a football shape with your hands. Gently press the dough to flatten slightly and place on an un-greased cookie sheet.

Bake the cookies for 20 to 25 minutes. Cookies will be white and should not brown. Remove cookies and allow them to cool on a wire rack.

Just before serving, dust the cookies with confectioners' sugar and arrange on a serving plate.

Makes about 40 cookies.

Chef's note: You may use cookie cutters to give the cookies a more polished look if you like.

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