A tango of tastes with Pepe Sandoval

Date Published: 
December 13, 2013

As I complete this column, it is Dec. 7. I just returned from visiting Pepe Sandoval, to take a photo as he baked dozens of Eggnog Muffins for holiday gift-giving. He generously gave me six muffins to bring home. And then there were five! Then Jim arrived home, and then there were four! Yum-yum!

Special to the Coastal Point • Marie Cook: Pepe Sandoval shares some of his recipes with Marie Cook for this weeks column. Sandoval was born in Cuba and came to the United States to continue his education.Special to the Coastal Point • Marie Cook: Pepe Sandoval shares some of his recipes with Marie Cook for this weeks column. Sandoval was born in Cuba and came to the United States to continue his education.If your calendar is anything like mine, events are piling on top of one another, so I encourage you to take time for yourself and remember the reason for the season. Last week, I had a long list of errands and rushed in to Good Earth Market to pick up a special order. My tummy was growling, but taking the time for lunch meant I’d run even further behind. That’s when it hit me! It was time to practice what I preach about not getting swept up in the holiday hustle and bustle.

Birch Tree Café, the lovely gluten-free restaurant owned and operated by Cathy Berzins, is housed within Good Earth Market. I wandered in and, after a big hug from Cathy, I ordered one of her delicious BLT sandwiches on toasted gluten-free bread with a small side of homemade applesauce.

I planned to wolf it all down and head back out to finish my chores. But I was enjoying the peace of the moment, so I ordered a mug of cappuccino and sat and sipped and sipped and sat, enjoying the oasis. I also purchased a few to-go items — a delicious gluten-free muffin to treat my husband, Cathy’s tasty chickpea salad and a small container of her shrimp salad. I left the Birch Tree Café much happier than when I entered.

If you haven’t been to the Birch Tree Café, I hope you’ll take the time to check it out. And, if I didn’t tell you that Cathy’s breads, pies and muffins were gluten-free, you’d never know it; all are scrumptious! Perhaps you should order some for your own holiday table.

If you’re still shopping for Christmas gifts, I have a super suggestion. This past summer, the South Coastal Library published a terrific cookbook titled “Food & Art.” Library volunteers and staff joined forces to share their recipes with us, and local artists donated their talent for the cover and for the breaks between sections.

I have already made so many of the recipes and can’t wait to try even more. In fact, that’s how I found today’s highlighted guest, Pepe Sandoval. He has six recipes in the book, and three of them are in today’s column, along with several others. So, for just $15, you can purchase one of these wonderful cookbooks for yourself and/or for those on your gift list. Plus, you’ll also be supporting the South Coastal Library — win-win! I plan to highlight other recipes and contributors in 2014.

Pepe Sandoval was born and raised in Cuba. He came to the United States in 1960 to continue his education. He completed his undergraduate and graduate work in chemistry (with physics and math as minors) and eventually became a high school chemistry teacher.

He met his wife, Doris, while working at the University of Maryland, and they settled in Columbia, Md. Doris taught biology and chemistry in Montgomery County, while Pepe worked for the Howard County school system. Doris is originally from Cambridge, Md., but when the couple was introduced by friends to slower-lower Delaware, “We fell in love with this little corner of paradise and decided to retire here,” Pepe said. “We’ve been here permanently since 2000.”

Pepe’s mother was a very good cook and taught him a few basic things when he was young, but more importantly, he said, she taught him how to feel comfortable in the kitchen.

“After we got married,” he said, “Doris and I split kitchen duties, partly because of our schedules.” They both still cook, but Pepe thinks he does a bit more than she does. (If this isn’t true, Doris, I want you to know that I do not take sides.)

Occasionally, Pepe prepares a Cuban dish, but his preference is for all things Mediterranean. The Sandovals have a large circle of friends and enjoy entertaining at their home, as well as rotating to enjoy the cooking of others. Pepe doesn’t use the words “signature dishes,” but he does admit to gravitating toward certain dishes when company is coming — some of those recipes are found in the library’s cookbook.

Although those who know Pepe would disagree, he said, “I don’t think I am a great cook or chef, but having a chemistry background taught me to be very precise and careful about following directions. In fact, we used to talk about cookbook chemistry in connection with carrying out chemistry experiments from chem lab books. So, I think I am pretty good about following a recipe and preparing a decent dish as a result.”

Pepe and Doris read cooking magazines and cookbooks, but one of his favorite sources is the Wednesday Washington Post food section. “Many of my best recipes are variations of stuff I’ve found there.” (I’m sure, if pressed, he would say that “Marie’s Kitchen” is also one of his sources!)

In fact, one of the recipes in the cookbook and in today’s column is Mediterranean Tango. Pepe found two recipes in the Washington Post at different times and decided to combine them into one.

“While each of the components, separate, would make a fine main course or side dish,” he said, “the two of them together combine to produce a delicious gustatory tango. When I found the shrimp recipe and thought of fixing it, I remembered the other one and wondered if the two would go well together.

“It was like they were meant for each other — sort of like two lovers ‘across a crowded room on some enchanted evening’ — a pas de deux, a tango! And even though tangos are from Argentina — not exactly bordering the Mediterranean — what the heck: there’s enough Italian ancestry in Argentina to make it qualify.”

Other than volunteering at South Coastal Library, where he also teaches computer classes, Pepe enjoys good music — opera, classical, folk and country. He loves to read and watch the wildlife around their home next to White’s Creek.

He and Doris are very active — retired marathoners and cross-country coaches. Both still run, walk and/or bike for an hour each morning. He volunteers at the library on Wednesdays and told me, “If I were stupid enough to show up at the library one Wednesday morning without bringing freshly baked brownies, I am sure they would send me home!”

The Christmas season is a special time in the Sandoval household.

“For about the last 30 years, Doris and I have hosted a tree-trimming party around the first week in December — usually the first week of Advent — when we invite a bunch of friends and have them decorate our Christmas tree,” he said. “We lay out all the ornaments, lights, trimming, etc., and they put it all together. Of course, we open the bar and prepare food for them.”

For this party, Pepe always bakes at least a dozen of his Eggnog Muffins for each guest. (The recipe is found here and also on page 34 in the Breads section in the library’s cookbook.) These muffins freeze well. Pepe recommends microwaving frozen or thawed muffins for 15 to 20 seconds to reignite the flavor.

Please allow me to add a reminder here about cooking with alcohol. Many of us have family and/or friends or do not, cannot or must not drink alcohol or eat anything that contains alcohol. So, not just at holidays, but year-round, remember to alert your guests about drinks and dishes that contain alcohol.

Eggnog Muffins

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Ingredients:

? 2 cups all-purpose flour

? 2/3 cup light brown sugar

? 1 tablespoon baking powder

? 1/2 teaspoon salt

? 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

? 5 tablespoons butter, melted

? 1 egg, beaten

? 1/2 cup dark rum (spiced or other flavored rums optional)

? 3/4 cup prepared eggnog

Method for Eggnog Muffins:

Line a muffin pan with a dozen muffin paper cups. In a large bowl, sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Stir in the butter, egg, rum and eggnog and mix evenly. Spoon into muffin cups. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool muffins before serving. Yield: 12 muffins.

Pepe’s Gazpacho recipe is also in the cookbook, on page 84, in the Soup and Salad section. When his recipes call for olive oil, he prefers using Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Gazpacho

Ingredients:

? 2 large ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped

? 1/2 large green pepper, cored and finely chopped (save a few strips for garnish)

? 1 medium-size cucumber, peeled and chopped (save a few sticks for garnish)

? 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic

? 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

? 3/4 cup olive oil

? Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method for Gazpacho:

In a blender container, combine all ingredients and blend until it becomes a fine puree. Pour the mixture through a strainer and discard the fiber residue. Cool in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Serve and garnish with reserved cucumber and/or green pepper sticks and strips. Yield: 6 servings.

Here is Pepe’s delightful Mediterranean Tango recipe, found on page 130 in the Seafood section of the cookbook. I suggest that you line up all your ingredients ahead of time for this two-part recipe so that you can waltz through preparation without missing a step.

Mediterranean Tango

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Ingredients for the Rice Dancer:

? 1 cup uncooked basmati rice

? 2 cups water

? 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

? 3/4 cup chopped onion

? 1 teaspoon ground cumin

? 1/4 teaspoon salt

? 1 can (16 ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed

? 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (1 medium lemon)

? 2 to 3 tablespoons water

? 12 ounces baby spinach leaves

Ingredients for the Shrimp Dancer:

? 1-1/2 pounds medium-size shrimp (20 to 24 count), peeled, deveined, tails removed

? 1/4 cup olive oil

? 1/2 cup finely chopped onion

? 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

? 1 tablespoon minced garlic

? 1 can (16 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained

? 3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

? 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Method for Mediterranean Tango:

In a medium-size saucepan, heat the water and one tablespoon olive oil. Bring to a boil and add the uncooked rice; cover tightly and reduce the heat to a bare simmer.

While the rice is cooking, heat 1/4 cup olive oil (from the Shrimp Dancer list of ingredients) in a large skillet and sauté 1/2 cup chopped onion over medium heat until softened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the pepper flakes and garlic and sauté for a few seconds. Add the shrimp and sauté for about 4 to 5 minutes until pink. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to an 8-by-8-inch baking dish and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.

While the shrimp are baking, wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel and heat one tablespoon olive oil (from the Rice Dancer list of ingredients). Add 3/4 cup chopped onion and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add cumin, salt and chickpeas to the skillet and stir for about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in lemon zest and 2 to 3 tablespoons water. Cover the mixture with the baby spinach leaves and cover skillet tightly. Allow the spinach to steam and wilt for 2 to 3 minutes.

While the spinach is wilting, remove the shrimp from the oven and sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese. Put back into the oven and bake for 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove shrimp from oven and garnish with chopped parsley. Fluff the rice and serve. Partly cover with the chickpea-spinach mixture and add the shrimp and sauce. Yield: 6 servings.

I asked Pepe if he ever asked a grocery-store butcher to butterfly the steak for his Stuffed Flank Steak recipe. He said he did not, because even if you don’t do it perfectly, when you roll it all up, no one will detect any mistakes. Pepe’s method for roasting bell peppers is one of the easiest I’ve seen. If you’ve never attempted this, I encourage you to add it to your foodie bucket list in 2014.

Stuffed Flank Steak

Ingredients:

? 1 flank steak (about 1-1/2 pounds), butterflied (instructions follow)

? 1/4 cup olive oil

? 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

? 2 teaspoons minced garlic

? 5 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided

? 2 tablespoons drained capers

? Black pepper, freshly and coarsely ground

? 2 red bell peppers (or 1 red, 1 yellow), roasted (instructions follow)

? 6 to 8 thin slices prosciutto

? Fresh basil leaves (enough to cover the butterflied flank steak)

? 3 tablespoons gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

? Kitchen string

Method for Stuffed Flank Steak:

In a bowl, prepare the marinade by mixing the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, capers and freshly ground black pepper.

Butterfly the flank steak by running a sharp, thin knife parallel to the cutting surface down its middle, starting at the thin edge up to about 1/2-inch from the end of the long, thick edge. This uncut edge will become the “hinge” about which the steak will be spread open to resemble a butterfly. Generously cover both the inside and outside of the butterfly with the marinade. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 to 4 hours (the longer the better). Save any leftover marinade.

While the steak is marinating, roast the peppers. Preheat broiler. Halve the peppers, lengthwise, and remove all seeds. Spread the halved peppers, skin-side up, on a broiler pan and broil 4 inches from heat until the skins are charred black (about 20 to 25 minutes). You truly must char the peppers to be able to easily remove the skins. Remove charred peppers and seal them in a plastic bag. Allow them to steam at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes. The charred skins should peel off easily. If you like a smoky flavor, you can even add some of the charred bits to your stuffing.

When you are ready to stuff the steak, scrape off excess marinade from the butterflied steak (reserve marinade) and spread open on a large cutting board or piece of aluminum foil. Spread a layer of roasted peppers to cover most of steak. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon chopped parsley and cover with prosciutto slices. Next, cover the prosciutto completely with basil leaves. Crumble the gorgonzola cheese over the basil and sprinkle the rest of the chopped parsley and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Cut 6 to 8 pieces of kitchen string, each about 8 inches long. With the long side of the butterflied steak facing you, grab the end near you and start rolling it away from you tightly and carefully to create a large loaf like a jelly roll. Slip the string pieces under the roll and tie them at about 2- to 3-inch intervals.

At this point, you can begin to bake the steak, or you can wrap it and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place steak in baking dish and pour the rest of the marinade over it. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, depending on the desired degree of doneness. Remove from oven and cover with an aluminum foil “tent” and allow to rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Collect juices from pan.

Slice stuffed steak into 1/2 to 3/4-inch slices. Remove strings and arranges slices on a serving platter and serve leftover juices on the side. Yield: 4 to 6 people.

Lamb chops are often found on my table, so I plan to give Pepe’s Citrusy Lamb Chops a whirl. (I can’t resist using dancing metaphors after all the tango talk.)

Citrusy Lamb Chops

Ingredients:

? 4 lamb chops (preferably center-cut)

? 1 large lime

? 2 tablespoons butter

? 2 tablespoons olive oil

? 1/4 teaspoon oregano

? 1/4 teaspoon marjoram

? 1/2 teaspoon salt

Method for Citrusy Lamb Chops:

Cut four horizontal slices of lime about 1/8-inch thick and set aside. Grate the rest of the lime to obtain at least 1 teaspoon grated zest. In a small saucepan, gently heat the butter and olive oil until the butter melts. Add the lime zest, oregano, marjoram and salt. Brush the chops generously with the mixture. Broil or grill to the desired degree of doneness. Garnish the chops with the lime slices and serve. Yield: 2 servings if using the smaller loin chops and 4 servings if using larger center-cut chops.

Zucchini-Squash Casserole is a dish that Doris prepares during the summer, when good squash and tomatoes are available, but it’s still very doable in colder months. Except for the Italian five-cheese combo, you will be layering all ingredients twice, so plan accordingly. Pepe told me that he could make a whole meal on this casserole alone.

Zucchini-Squash Casserole

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Ingredients:

? 2 to 3 zucchini, sliced

? 2 to 3 yellow squash, sliced

? 1 large onion, sliced (preferably Vidalia)

? 2 to 3 ripe tomatoes

? 1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese

? 1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

? 1/2 cup grated Italian five-cheese combo for topping

? Basil and Italian seasonings

Method for Zucchini-Squash Casserole:

Grease a 2.5-quart casserole. Set a layer of sliced zucchini and yellow squash at the bottom of the casserole. Next, add a layer of sliced onions. Follow with a layer of sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle with basil and Italian seasonings. Cover with one-half of the grated mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. Repeat the pattern. On top of the second set of layers, add enough Italian five-cheese combo to cover all. Cover the casserole and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Yield: 4 to 6 as a side dish.

(Editor’s note: If you have recipes to share, or recipes you want, contact Marie Cook, Coastal Point, P.O. Box 1324, Ocean View, DE 19970; or by email at ChefMarieCook@gmail.com. Please include your phone number. Recipes in this column are not tested by the Coastal Point.)