16 February 2011

Ritmo y sabor: Valentine's Day 2011

Like many of you, I'm pretty ambivalent about Valentine's Day. I cringe at the commercialism of it while simultaneously loving the fact that there is an entire day devoted to...love! It doesn't hurt of course that my last couple of Valentine's Days have been incredibly special and romantic. Two years ago, my now-husband proposed to me at a gorgeous Indian restaurant in London. Last year, we were honeymooning in India and enjoying a lovely dinner on the beach in Goa. This year here in Paris, we decided to stay in for the occasion. I offered to do the cooking and concocted a spicy Pan-Latin menu consisting of small bites. Ceviche, mole, passion fruit mousse accompanied by some good bossa nova and Afro-Cuban jazz and a candlelit black, red and pink table made for a perfect evening filled with lots of ritmo and sabor!

A few days before the big night, I decided that some new tableware and decor goodies were in order. At a wonderful Dutch store called Hema that has recently opened up near Les Halles, I picked up some really cute red and white dinner and dessert plates, plastic pink cocktail forks, colorful napkins and a red and pink fabric, all for a bargain. For any of you who live in Paris, you must check out Hema! They've got all kinds of adorable kitchen and dining goodies as well as great home decor, bath stuff, nifty office organization tools and even a babies' and kids' section. All at incredibly low prices!

I spent a lot of time conceiving the menu for the dinner. The Pan-Latin theme ended up being a mix of dishes influenced by Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil and even Spain. For a special touch, I created some menus using red posterboard and pink ribbon. Aren't they cute?

For the pre-dinner drink and snack or apéritif as it is known here, I decided to do pomegranate cosmopolitans and amuse-bouches (nibbles) made of  puff pastry cut into little heart shapes and topped with cilantro pesto, roasted red pepper and jalapeno. The cosmos were a simple adaptation of the classic cosmo recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide, with pomegranate juice substituting for the usual cranberry juice. The pomegranate juice makes for a much lighter colored drink, but I think that there is something really regal and elegant about it. I apologize for the bad quality and use of flash in most of these photos...a romantic, candlelight ambiance doesn't make for the best shots!

Serves 2

4 ounces vodka
2 ounces Cointreau
2 ounces pomegranate juice
1 ounce lime juice

Mix everything in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake, shake and shake and then drain into 2 martini glasses.


Makes 18 pieces

1 packet of pâte feuilletée or puff pastry
Cilantro pesto, recipe follows
Chopped pieces of roasted red pepper
Pickled jalapeno slices

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F / 200 C.

2. Unroll the pâte feuilletée/puff pastry.

3. Cut into little heart shapes or whatever other shape you want using cookie cutters.

4. Bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes until golden brown.

5. Once cool to the touch, spread the pesto on top of each of the amuse-bouches.

6. Top each amuse-bouche with a piece of roasted red pepper or an jalapeno slice.

For cilantro pesto (recipe from June 2001 issue of Cooking Light)
2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese (I used emmental, it was all we had)
1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons water
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Agave syrup or sugar, to taste

Combine all of these ingredients in a food processor and process until a rough paste forms. With these amuse-bouches, you will have a good bit of pesto left over, which can be frozen for future use.


Moving to our entrée/first course, I simply couldn't decide between a vegetarian ceviche, which I have always wanted to attempt, or a corn soup...so I decided on both...the ceviche first, followed by the soup! Ceviche, for those who may not know, is a seafood dish which is popular in coastal Central and South America. It's basically fresh fish or seafood marinated in some mix of citrus juices, tomato juice, herbs, chillies and spices. I found the wonderful Nuevo Latino guru Douglas Rodriguez's recipe for an Ecuadorean shrimp ceviche in a great Latin-themed cooking magazine magazine called Gusto that came out years ago (but then disappeared after just one issue...does anyone know what happened to it!?) and made it vegetarian by substituting grated green papaya for the shrimp. We both loved it, though it is definitely tangy...be prepared for that!

Adapted from Douglas Rodriguez for Gusto Magazine
Serves 4

1 large green papaya, peeled and grated fine
2 red bell peppers, halved and deseeded
1 green pasilla pepper, halved and deseeded
1 tomato, halved
1 red onion, halved
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt, to taste
1/2 red onion, cut into long slivers
2 tablespoons scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons coriander, chopped
Freshly popped popcorn

1. Heat oven to 225 C / 450 F.

2. Place the grated papaya into a large bowl.

3. Roast red bell pepper, pasilla pepper, red onion and tomato halves for about 30 minutes, until slightly blackened. Place the red bell pepper and pasilla pepper halves in a plastic bag, seal and set aside for 15 minutes. Open the bag and carefully remove the peels from the peppers.

3. Put all of the roasted vegetables into a blender along with the lime and orange juices, hot sauce, sugar and salt. Blend well.

4. Mix this sauce with the shredded green papaya in a large bowl, stirring well. Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours or even overnight.

5. Serve this ceviche in martini glasses topped with red onion slivers, scallions, fresh coriander and a bit of freshly popped popcorn on top. Provide little cocktail forks so that your guests can stir in their glasses and enjoy.

The spicy corn soup, swirled with a roasted red pepper cream on top (yum!), was from an episode of Food Network's Food Nation with Bobby Flay (love him!). I followed the recipe pretty much word for word save for the corn cobs (I used canned corn).


The main course was a mix of "Patin-Latin" tapas. We enjoyed patatas bravas (fried potatoes topped with a tomato sauce and mayonnaise) many times during our recent anniversary weekend in Barcelona. I gave them a Mexican spin by replacing the tomato sauce/mayo combo with some spicy mole sauce, courtesy of a recipe for easy red mole by fellow blogger Top Chef Amateurs. Mole is a wonderful, complex Mexican blend of chillies, nuts, chocolate and other ingredients. I was actually out of the chipotle chillies in adobo sauce that the Top Chef Amateurs recipe calls for, but improvised as best I could with some freshly ground guajillo chili powder. It wasn't quite the chipotle taste but it worked. I also added much more dark chocolate than indicated, but we loved the result ladled onto some simple fried potatoes. There was lots of leftover sauce as well, which I froze to use as a sauce for enchiladas in the future.

Ensalada de palmitos is basically a simple hearts of palm salad, apparently served as a common accompaniment to the beef dishes and steaks famous in Argentina, Brazil and other parts of South America. This recipe also came from that lone issue of Gusto magazine. I halved it, and Luis who normally doesn't like hearts of palm raved about it:

Serves 4 as a side dish
Adapted from Gusto Magazine

1 can (14 ounces or 400 grams) of hearts of palm, drained
1 cup chopped tomato
1/2 cup corn kernels
1/2 cup chopped avocado
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine the first five ingredients (hearts of palm through parsley). Blend the olive oil, orange and lime juies and salt and pepper into a vinaigrette and dress the salad with it.  



Chilaquiles are a great Mexican dish to use up leftover corn tortillas. The tortillas are basically fried and cooked in a sauce and then topped with sour cream, cheese and other garnishes. The version I made contained neither corn tortillas nor a proper green chili sauce or salsa verde as would be the norm. As is often the case here, I couldn't find any decent corn tortillas so substitued tortilla chips instead. The salsa verde was replaced by a bottle of Indian-style green chili paste (Rajah brand). Mixed with some lime juice, it did the trick. Call it improv fusion by your spice mistress!

Serves 2

1 jar (210 grams) tomatillo sauce or salsa verde or Indian-style green chili paste
Lime juice, to taste
2 cups crushed tortilla chips
Crème liquide or crema fresca, for drizzling on top
1/2 red onion, sliced into rings
Freshly chopped coriander (optional)

1. In a pan, warm the salsa verde / green chili paste. Add some lime juice to taste, if desired.

2. Add the tortilla chips. Stir and cook until the chips are soggy but not mushy.

3. Spoon into a serving dish and top with crème liquide / crema fresca, sliced red onion rings and coriander. Buen provecho!


After a lengthy pause to digest all this food, we turned to dessert which was one of our favorites but actually something that I had never made: passion fruit mousse or mousse de maracuja. Mousse de maracuja is commonly thought to be a Brazilian dessert, but I've actually had it as a local dish in Angola and Cape Verde as well. This makes me believe Luis, who insists that mousse de maracuja is actually Portuguese in origin (I was initially skeptical because he thinks everything is Portuguese in orgin hahaha!). Whatever the case, mousse de maracuja is delicious! I adapted a recipe from the great blog Flavors of Brazil. This recipe calls for frozen passion fruit concentrate, which not having access to I replaced with passion fruit juice. I also added gelatin to get a more solid mousse texture. The gelatin can be easily replaced with agar agar for a pure vegetarian version.

Adapted from Flavors of Brazil
Serves 8 (or 2 over a couple of days if you love it as much as us!)

1/2 cup warm water
1 envelope gelatin
1 cup (250 millileters) whipping cream or crème liquide
1 cup (250 millileters) condensed milk with sugar
3 cups passion fruit juice
Seeds and pulp from 1 passion fruit

1. Dissolve the gelatin in the warm water, stirring well to ensure that it dissolves.

2. In a blender, mix the whipping cream, condensed milk and passion fruit juice until frothy. Pour into a large bowl and add the dissolved gelatin. Mix well.

3. Pour into a serving dish. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours until set to your liking.

4. Top with passion fruit seeds and pulp and serve. Muito gostoso!

We enjoyed the entire meal with a wonderful millésime champagne from Mercier that we picked up on our recent trip to visit the champagne caves in Reims. Luis was wowed by the whole meal, much to my delight. Even though I was tired from all the preparation (having started the day before even), it was a Valentine's dinner to remember, filled with the ritmo and sabor of Latin America.

Check out these spicy beats from my Amazon store to accompany a meal such as this:


  1. It looks wonderful!!! you did a great job! thank you for trying my mole!

  2. Wow, you just put my Valentines meal to shame....Luis is a very lucky man! I really want to try everything, especially that spicy corn soup, yum!

  3. OMG! I love hearts of palm ... AND chilaquiles ... AND ... passion fruit mousse! This seems like a dream meal!

  4. Wow! What an amazing menu! It looks like you took tremendous care and love preparing all of the delicious food! :-p I loved the amuse bouche!

  5. Wow! Such an elaborate menu! Wonderful. I don't know how you find the time to do all these things - Mom

  6. Wow! Mon frere is such a lucky man! Miss you (and your cooking)