A mother-daughter conversation on food and cooking (mostly)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Southwestern food

I wish I could eat some Patagonia tamales! Last Christmas I made green chile and pork tamales and froze a bunch; if I have time at New Year's, I may do the same thing.

It's been a Southwestern cooking frenzy here for the past 24 hours. We had huevos rancheros for Christmas brunch. I made a surprisingly good recipeless salsa using broiled tomatillos, a few soaked New Mexican red chiles, a can of diced tomatoes, half an onion, cilantro, garlic, and lemon juice from Lawson's very bitter Meyer lemon tree. My egg-frying skills mysteriously abandoned me, but salsa is good for covering up messes like that. We had some excellent pineapple on the side.

Then, because the border foods cookbook you gave me is so inspiring and because Lawson gave me a tortilla press for Christmas, I made red chile sauce and homemade corn tortillas and assembled some stacked New Mexican sour cream enchiladas for dinner. We ate them with Anasazi beans (my last bag). The tortillas were not quite thin enough, but that was fine for stacked enchiladas. They had wonderful corn flavor.

For lunch today I made some flour tortillas, and we ate them with melted cheese and the rest of the salsa.

I love a lot of things about that Peyton cookbook, but I especially like that he confirms many of my own cooking methods. I never presoak beans, and he says most cooks he interviewed don't either. I always use the blender to puree soaked red chiles for enchilada sauce, so there are tiny flecks of chile skin in my sauces; I tried a food mill once, and it was messy and inconvenient. The book says my way is standard home technique. I use olive oil to make the roux for red chile sauce, something you taught me, and that's what he recommends as a substitute for lard in that particular instance (not all -- he says tamales require lard, and I agree). I never realized how New Mexican my cooking is -- I always figured I'd just adapted and bastardized things, but actually my red chile sauce recipe is completely identical to his.

I also like how well he describes the profound craving for Mexican food that he experienced when he moved overseas -- some need for the combination of chiles, corn, and cheese that no other cuisine can match. I felt much the same thing when I moved out to South Carolina, and it's only in my own kitchen that I can satisfy it. In no restaurant outside of New Mexico can you get proper New Mexican enchiladas.

Tonight I'm going to use my beautiful new Le Creuset casserole. The Peyton book has a recipe for rabbit stewed in red chile sauce; I think I'll use chicken parts.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Annual Tamale Hunt

I was bored with the turkey idea after Thanksgiving this year. Often we have had turkey at both holidays, but this time I couldn’t get excited about it.

So tonight we’re having a variation of the traditional Scandinavian Christmas Eve supper of lutefisk and Swedish meatballs. I’m making a dish called Capilotade--salt cod stewed with red vermouth and onions--which is traditional on Christmas Eve in Nice and Provence. We are keeping the meatballs (otherwise I think Dad might revolt), and Grandma Oty’s plum pudding.

Tomorrow it’s tamales! We had our usual struggle to extract the tamales from the Catholic church in Patagonia. After many confirming phone calls we drove down there last Tuesday, and the office and church were locked up tight. The waitress at Santos Restaurant made several calls on our behalf, but couldn’t rouse a soul. We found a message from the priest when we got home empty-handed, saying the secretary had been sick. Dad drove down again on Thursday and mostly succeeded: that is, he paid for three dozen but only got 30 tamales.

Now, I know we could buy tamales right here in Tucson, or even make them, but this is sport, like hunting or fishing. By the way, it snowed hard on us returning from Patagonia, reminding me of the time we took Lawson and you there last year.

I’m concluding the Mexican Christmas Day feast with mince pie. I bought jars of mincemeat from England this year, and doctored them in my customary way with chopped apple, raisins, and rum. I continued Dad’s family tradition of making a pie vent in the shape of “M” for Moore.

Friday, December 22, 2006


This week I've eaten all my meals at work, and aside from the general camaraderie of proposal writing, it hasn't been fun. Usually around noon and again around 7 someone will offer to make a run to somewhere like Cracker Barrel or Schlotzsky's, and I will stop working long enough to pull up an online meanu and give them my order (chicken and dumplings with greens and green beans; an Asian wrap; etc.) When the food arrives, we all gather briefly in the conference room and eat quickly, then return to work. I drive home around 9:30 or so, drink a few beers and talk to Lawson, and then go to bed.

I got home at 7 tonight, and I wasn't hungry for dinner, so I sat down and ate the most labor-intensive food there is: a pomegranate. It was slow and messy and there is red juice on my jeans and keyboard, and I feel a thousand times more relaxed and grounded now. Cooking and eating are like meditation when done right.

I imagine you're pretty busy with Christmas preparations. On Christmas Eve I'll be baking gingerbread and a lemon meringue pie for the meal with Lawson's family's. On Christmas I'd like to have huevos rancheros like you always make. It's supposed to rain all day, so that should make it seem a little cheerier and more festive.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Tilapia File

Grandma cooked some tilapia last week and raved about it. She had first bought it in Mazatlan, and Dad had tried it in Saipan where it was fished in lagoons.

So—I bought some. It was firm and nice. I looked in my first fish cookbook: “I avoid this fish and you should, too.” The new white Joy of Cooking: “Poor quality fish.” Not very encouraging, so I did what any rational cook would do in the circumstances, and made a really hot green curry with it. We enjoyed it, although I had the sensation of looking over my shoulder at the likes of Elizabeth David and Irma Rombauer while I ate it. It was as firm as many Mexican snappers and groupers, and did not have the muddy taste I’d been warned of. I’ll experiment again. It’s only about $6 per pound while our beloved swordfish and halibut swim ever higher.

We had dinner at Grandma’s tonight. She made scalloped oysters and Italian scalloped potatoes with garlic, tomato, and onion. I made sweet and sour leeks and lemon curd bars. The lemon bars are somewhat like last week’s Classic Lemon Bars, but with a thicker pie-like lemon custard layer. You can find them in the new Joy of Cooking.

I was feeling sorry about your not being able to cook this week because of your hellish work schedule, and musing about why it’s so important. First, it’s a positive use of energy, the polar opposite of sitting in front of the television eating a doughnut or a frozen dinner, which is negative piled upon negative. We have to eat, so why not make it an adventure, healthy, intellectually satisfying? For me it’s such an important creative outlet. I absolutely get a buzz from making the best possible meal with what I have on hand. And don’t forget Grandma’s maxim: “Cooking is a way to show someone that you love them.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bad Cooking

I made dinner last night for the first time in almost a week, and it was pretty bad! I had a bunch of broccoli rabe that I needed to use up, and looking through cookbooks and online I found several mentions of a traditional recipe involving broccoli rabe, orecchiette, red chiles, garlic, anchovies, olive oil, and sometimes sausage. And lo, I had all those things, including a small amount of Italian sausage I also needed to use up.

The problem wasn't in the recipe; it was in the execution. I added way too many anchovies and red chiles-- I didn't know such a thing was possible, but the dish was far too salty, and the chiles blocked the other flavors. I think sweet Italian sausage would have been better, too -- broccoli rabe is so intense and bitter that it needed something else for balance. The broccoli rabe soaked up all the anchovy salt and was almost inedibly bitter and salty. I managed to finish off the dish at lunch today, but it was not very good.

Fortunately, I made your lemon bars to go with it, and they were phenomenal. That is a perfect recipe. I used up the last two Meyer lemons you sent, and tried to use one off our sad little indoor tree, but it was large and bitter, not at all sweet.

The proposal I'm helping write at work has gotten huge and scary, and today I found out I might not have any weekends off for the next month -- just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That means I won't be cooking much. That makes me sad.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cinnamon Beef Noodles

I've been working on a term paper, so I haven't been cooking for the last five days or so (or doing much of anything besides writing and thinking). But Lawson made his wonderful cinnamon-beef noodles. They are the perfect winter food -- lots of broth, slurpy noodles, thin slices of beef, spinach, and lots of spices. I keep meaning to give you his recipe...it's mostly from a Nina Simonds noodle book, but he makes it in the crock pot:

Saute very briefly (15-30 seconds):

6 green onions, coarsely chopped and smashed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
4 big slices fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons sambal
2 cinnamon sticks
a few star anise

Throw the sauteed spices in the crock pot along with:

8-9 cups water
1/2 cup shoyu
2 pounds beef (use fairly lean beef -- it should be a light broth, not greasy)

Cook for 5 to 12 hours in the crockpot or 1.5 hours on the stove. Just before serving, throw the spinach in for ten minutes, and make a batch of noodles -- any kind of Asian or egg noodles will do. Put noodles, meat, spinach, and broth in each bowl. It's best to only add as much spinach and make as many moodles as you plan to eat for that meal, as over time the spinach tends to get slimy and the noodles soak up all the broth.


Italian Cravings

We planned to take Grandma to our favorite Italian restaurant on Sunday night, but it wasn’t open! The yen for Italian food didn’t go away over the weekend, so I tried to make up for it a home. First we sat outside around the chiminea and had a margarita—okay, that’s all Southwestern so far—but when it got dark, we came in for our first course of prosciutto and melon. It’s rare to get a great honeydew melon, but we were lucky. “Monica’s Pride” from Mexico, the label said. There must be something wrong with me, because that label always makes me think of boobs. With it we had whole wheat focaccia with walnuts, sage, and parmesan.

Our main course was chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes; penne with pesto; and broccoli. Dessert was Meyer lemon bars. I have tried to make a lemon tart with this recipe, but the 9x9 Pyrex works better.

Here are Classic Lemon Bars:

1 cup flour
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt

1/2 cup butter, cut in cubes

Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Process first four ingredients to mix. Add butter and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, then begins to come together into a dough.

Press into baking pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until light golden brown. Set aside to cool slightly while making filling.

1 ½ cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon baking powder

3 eggs

3 ½ ounces lemon juice
(7 tablespoons, about 2 large lemons)

Mix dry ingredients and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs at high speed for about 2 minutes. Add dry ingredients, mixing just until combined, and then stir in lemon juice.

Pour over crust and return to oven for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is just set in the center.

You may sprinkle with more powdered sugar before cutting into squares to serve.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Bad Cookbooks

There are some bad cookbooks out there. Grilling cookbooks are probably the worst overall, but tonight I finally made dinner from a Filipino cookbook (whose author shall remain nameless) that I got for Christmas a few years ago. Now, I’ve had excellent Filipino food in Hawaii--especially lumpia, those wonderful little fried taco things served with vinegar and chile sauce—but these recipes were surely written by a non-cook. I suspected it, and I should have trusted my instincts. The pictures were beautiful.

First, there was Fish Adobo, basically poached in garlic, vinegar, and bay leaf. This combination managed to make a mild Mexican snapper taste really fishy. Then a noodle dish very similar to Pad Thai, but inexpertly explained: the snow peas went in the skillet long before the carrots, so they were pretty slimy by the time everything else was done. The only seasonings were salt, pepper, and soy sauce.

Dad liked the meal well enough (that’s the kind of audience a cook needs—ultra-appreciative but not ultra-critical), but I was mad at myself for trusting the cookbook.

On a much happier note, I made Sonoran Enchiladas last night. We had tried them at two Mexican restaurants, and it made me curious. Instead of a corn tortilla, you make a plump masa cake and bake it on a griddle, and then cover with good red chile sauce, cheese, and green onion, and put it in the oven just long enough to melt the cheese. Mmmm.

It dropped below seventy degrees by the cocktail hour tonight, so we fired up our new chiminea.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The 100% Cauliflower Solution

Slice it and roast it! I read this recipe in the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit magazine and, of course, modified it.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut a small head of cauliflower in half and then slice it thinly—less than ½ inch. Place it in a rimmed baking sheet which has been brushed with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon coarse salt.

Roast for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together:

2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon mustard (Dijon or brown)
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

Drizzle butter mixture over cauliflower and roast about 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.

I confess that I ate about a third of this as soon as it emerged from the oven. I liked it later at room temperature, but Dad said he would have preferred it warm. It was dynamite, though, with the brown edges and lemony flavor. Maybe we could set up a Roasted Cauliflower booth at the state fair, and compete with corn dogs.

Instead of a beautiful picture of my cauliflower dish, I offer a picture of our kitchen after dinner.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Caribbean Pork Chops and Acorn Squash

Sunday night we made grilled porkchops with a mango, basil, and bean salsa. It was good, but the whole meal was kind of ill-planned and untrustworthy. The beans were supposed to be black beans, but we realized too late we were out, so we used blackeyed peas instead, the Southern US being closer geographically to the West Indies than is either the Middle East (garbanzos) or the Mediterranean (cannellini).

The recipe was from a grilling cookbook Lawson gave me for my birthday, and we had to correct several ingredients and amounts. For example, the salsa part of the recipe called for 1/8 teaspoon of chile powder. Why even bother? We added quite a bit more, plus some minced habanero. The recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of salt, which I more than quadrupled. 1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin was not nearly enough, either. The rub recipe called for granulated garlic, which had to be replaced with fresh...and so on.

Last night Lawson made pantry clam pasta. We have been joking about starting a band called the Pantry Clams.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

The Recipe Proselytizer

Writing this blog has helped me with a personal problem: I’m a hopeless recipe-pusher, insisting that people try things and blabbing about the wonderfulness of various foods and recipes. Right now it’s collard love, a condition I caught from you, sort of like cooties. I’m bringing the side dishes to dinner at Grandma’s tonight, and I am pressing collards upon her. The menu will be beef stew and homemade bread by Grandma, and collard greens and lemon meringue pie by me.

We had turkey broth-based minestrone for dinner last night. We had a late Italian lunch, so that’s all we needed. At lunch I split two dishes with Juliana—stuffed eggplant (grilled, not fried) and a shrimp scampi salad, and Dad had mixed grilled things over polenta. Red wine. Delicious, and we didn’t get much else done that day.

I made one of our favorite breakfasts this morning, Tomato Cheese Toasts, which I think I invented. First, toast a slice of bread; spread with mustard; add a slice of mild cheese, then a tomato slice or two with salt and pepper; and top with sharp cheese, like bleu or parmesan. Broil for five minutes or so, until browned and bubbly. I have a picture here, but it’s not as beautiful as it tastes.