Saturday, April 28, 2012

New Mexico, land of enchantment and enchiladas

When I first saw the brown, barren expanse that was Albuquerque in the early 1990's from my airplane seat, I thought that I couldn't bear to live in a land that was so dry, parched and exposed.  There was little that was green and what trees there were appeared to be pathetic, scrubby little pinons that had obviously fought valiantly for their survival.  But after living my first month there, I began to appreciate the rugged beauty of the dessert, the spareness of the landscape, the clarity of the light, the massiveness of the Sandia mountain range.  And then I never wanted to leave.

Sandia Mountains
Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

I learned a different way of life in New Mexico, living with less water and greenery, more native plants and rock, coming to love the distinctive style of pueblo architecture, the inherent beauty of turquoise and silver (and also becoming a lifelong devotee of Christin Wolf Gallery and his brilliant designers).  I marveled at the incomparable sunsets and the way the Sandias turned a rosy watermelon pink as the sun made its way below the west mesa.  I loved the eager, early brightness of the morning light, and the clear and crisp feel of the morning air no matter what the season.  I loved the Christmas luminarias that decorated walkways and churches, the way most snowfall would melt by noon (although snow still clung to the Sandias), and the endless displays of chile ristras that hung everywhere, inside and out, in wealthy neighborhoods as well as in the barrio.


Having moved to New Mexico from the eastern shore of Maryland, a humid, watery area of the state situated on the Chesapeake Bay, I especially appreciated the dry heat of Albuquerque--I drove around in my car with the air conditioning off and the windows open that first summer, baking myself.  I also appreciated the relative lack of allergens (except for March, when the juniper pollen was blowing around in the high winds) and the way my gardens could subsist on very little water, once I got the hang of xeriscaping.

So when it came time to leave, I had to come to grips with the fact that the 3 1/2 years I had lived in Albuquerque had not been enough.  I was instantly homesick at the thought of leaving and sobbed as I made my way further westward, sobbed all the way until I could no longer see the beautiful Sandias in my rearview mirror.  Certainly, to this day, I respond with longing to the smell of pinon burning, or the sorrowful lilt of a Hopi flute, or a glimpse of a Kokopeli figure.  I also came to very much miss the cuisine of New Mexico, different from any other cuisine I had ever experienced, chiefly due to the use of red and green chile on or in almost anything edible. 

Dried red New Mexico chiles

Allegedly, the alkalinity of the soil is what gives New Mexico chile its distinctive taste, much like the Georgia soil makes a Vidalia onion sweet.  I've tried growing Sandia and Big Jim peppers in Texas; they're not the same.  I've heard the same stories from gardeners trying to grow Vidalia onions outside of Georgia.  The terroir is what makes distinctive foods and wines distinctive.

Now is a good time to mention that if you want to know anything about New Mexico chile peppers (or any other chile pepper for that matter), you can consult the website for New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute (CPI).  One of the CPI's claims to fame is that its director, Paul Bosland, is responsible for finding in 2007 what was then the world's hottest chile pepper, the Bhut Jolokia, or the Ghost pepper.  As you read this, I have some Ghost peppers locked away in a safe place in the nether regions of my pantry.  Locked away?  Yes.  Because the world is a safer place that way.  Since 2007, however, the Ghost Pepper's searing Scoville units (estimated between 320,000 to 1,000,000--401.5 times hotter than Tobasco peppers) have been surpassed by other peppers, most recently the Trinidad Muruga Scorpion.  Again, the CPI was there, doing what it does best: chile pepper research.

But before you run away, fearing that I am going to take you down the path to chile pepper hell (well-intentioned though I am), let me assure you that although New Mexico chiles can be quite hot, typically it's the mild and medium chiles are that served.  Safe enough for most palates, but hot enough to still make your nose run from time to time.

It's hard to describe the taste of New Mexico chile peppers accurately, but let me try.  Esoterics and mere prose are not enough.  You need form and substance.  And a dinner invitation to my house.

Green chiles, which are usually fire-roasted, peeled and seeded, are pleasantly acidic and at the same time, have a mineral quality to them, that when combined with the smokiness acquired during the roasting process (as the skin is charred and blistered), makes them addictively delicious and a versatile ingredient in foods from enchiladas to green chile stew.  And if you've ever had a green chile cheeseburger, then you'll know what a great thing green chile is!  Green chiles are the unripe version of dried red chiles and are sold in cans (look for genuine Hatch brand) but are also sold raw and need to be roasted before they are used.  You can also find roasted, chopped green chile in the freezer section of your local HEB.  Look for the Bueno label.  Of course, if you can get fresh Hatch chiles, which are in our area in early September and for several weeks afterward, by all means by them fresh and have them roasted, or roast them yourself.  You can find out how to roast green chile here.

Red chiles, on the other hand, are not usually smoked, but have a more deep and earthy flavor that green chiles.  Red chiles are usually dried and then reconstituted with water in soups, stews, or most commonly, chile rojo sauce.  The flavor has a more concentrated minerality and slightly (but pleasantly) bitter back note.  Red chiles are sold whole but are also flaked and powdered.  They are stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces to make red chile sauce, rehydrated with warm water, then put in the blender until smooth (the old school method is to put them through a food mill, leaving the skins behind), along with some fresh garlic, salt and oregano.  You can also buy red chile paste in the freezer section of your local HEB.  Again, look for the Bueno label.  Red chile sauce adorns enchiladas, it elevates huevos rancheros (scroll down to the fifth picture in this link), it bathes carne adovada, which I'm absolutely addicted to.  And red chile will stain!  So don't wear white when cooking with it or eating it.

Recently, I served a dinner composed entirely of New Mexican foods.  The cuisine of New Mexico focuses on the clean, pure flavor of ingredients, which are usually only lightly enhanced.  Foods are earthy, simple and absolutely delicious.  Typically, New Mexicans will eat their enchiladas, which are served stack, or flat, with a fried egg on top.  If you don't like that idea, then you can certainly omit it.  But try some of these recipes and let me know what you think.

New Mexico Flat Enchiladas with Chile Rojo

My adopted abuelito taught me how to make this sauce:

24 to 30 dried red chile pods (preferably New Mexico chiles)
4 to 5 cups water
1 tsp. salt
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. oregano

1.)  Wearing latex gloves, stem and seed chiles, then rinse well.
2.)  Combine chiles and water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
3.)  Lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.
4.)  Cool, then in 2 or 3 smaller batches, put chiles and their liquid into a blender with the salt, garlic cloves and oregano.
5.)  Blend each batch well for about 5 minutes, then strain through a sieve to remove any remaining larger pieces of chile skin, which can be quite unpleasant.  You can store this sauce for up to a week in the refrigerator or freeze it for later use.  Makes about 2 cups.

Now, make the enchiladas:

24 corn tortillas
4 to 6 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
8 eggs

1.)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  Warm chile rojo in a sauce pan or skillet large enough to enable you to dip the corn tortillas into it as you assemble the enchiladas.  Keep extra sauce warm for serving enchiladas.
3.  Assemble the enchiladas in two large, greased baking dishes in the following way: One tortilla dipped in chile rojo sauce, a handful of cheese, a sprinkle of onion, another dipped tortilla, more cheese, more onion, another dipped tortilla, more cheese.  You should have enough enchiladas, cheese and onion for 8 enchiladas.
4.)  Bake the enchiladas for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until cheese is melted and gooey.
5.)  If you're eating the enchiladas with fried eggs, cook the eggs during the last few minutes that the enchiladas are in the oven.
6.  To serve, place one enchilada on each plate, top with a fried egg and ladle more chile rojo sauce over the top.  Serves eight people.

Frijoles de Olla  (adapted from Zarela Martinez' cookbook "Food From My Heart")

Who doesn't know how to make a pot of pinto beans?  These beans, simple and creamy, are the best I've ever eaten with New Mexico foods.  If you want more depth of flavor, add a bottle of beer to the cooking water.  Otherwise, they are delicious on their own.

1 lb. pinto bean
1 large sprig epazote
1 Tbs. salt
1 12 oz. bottle of beer (optional)

1.)  If you prefer to soak your beans overnight, by all means do so.  I think it improves the flavor.  Otherwise, after you've carefully picked over the beans for any foreign particles, place them in a colander and rinse well under cold running water.
2.)  Place the beans in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 1 inch, about 8 cups.
3.)  Add the epazote and bring to a boil over high heat.
4.)  Reduce the heat to medium-low, partly cover the pot and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are about half-done.  They will still be somewhat chalky and dense inside.
5.)  Add the salt and check the water level, adding more hot water if the beans seem to be getting dry.  If you're using the beer, now is a good time to add it.  There should always be at least 1/2 inch of liquid covering the beans.
6.)  Continue to cook until the beans are tender, occasionally checking the liquid level and adding more water as necessary.
7.)  Beans will take longer to cook if they are older.  Plan on at least 45 minutes for fairly fresh beans and up to 1 1/2 hours for old, dried-out beans.  The liquid should never be completely absorbed and the beans should be a little soupy when fully cooked.
8.)  Serve the beans in some of their cooking liquid alongside your favorite dishes, or drain beans if using in another recipe.  Makes about 7 to 8 cups of beans.

Ensalada de Col

This coleslaw is wonderfully refreshing and delightfully crunchy with its creamy Greek yogurt dressing full of herbs and spiked with cayenne.  It makes a lot, so you might want to halve the recipe.  I've adapted the recipe from one posted in the December 2011 issue of Food and Wine.
3 cups plain Greek yogurt 
1/2 cup milk 
1 small garlic clove, minced 
1/2 cup finely chopped roasted green chile, drained well
1 tsp. cayenne pepper  
1/2 cup thinly sliced chives
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro  
1 Tbs. chopped mint 
1/4 cup fresh lime juice 
Salt and freshly ground pepper 
1 Hass avocado, thinly sliced 
8 cups finely shredded green cabbage (from a 2-pound head) 
8 radishes, halved and thinly sliced 
2 cups finely julienned peeled jicama (8 ounces)
3 scallions, thinly sliced 
1 cup thinly sliced celery (3 ribs) 
4 oz. crumbled Cotija cheese 
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

1.)  In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt, milk, garlic, green chile, cayenne, chives, cilantro, mint and 3 Tbs. of the lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
2.)  In a small bowl, toss the avocado and remaining 1 Tbs. of lime juice.
3.)  In a large baking dish or shallow casserole, spread the cabbage in a thin layer.
4.)  Top with the radishes, jicama, scallions, celery and avocado.
5.)  Spread the yogurt dressing on top, then sprinkle with the cheese.
6.)  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
7.)  Just before serving, sprinkle the pumpkin seeds on top.  Makes 10 servings.

What I like to drink with chile rojo...My wine guy turned me on to a silky, chocolatey pinot noir full of berries and ruby fruit.  Ramspeck Pinot Noir 2009 (Napa Valley, CA) is about $20 a bottle--a little tiny bit of a splurge, yes--but a delicious foil for the minerality of the chile rojo and the other accompaniments to this meal.  I really wanted the whole bottle to myself.  But I shared.  If you want alternative wine ideas, go with a fruit, juicy, but not too sweet red and of course, ask your wine guy at Spec's to help you!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Trust me on this--pick the Louboutins

I don't often turn up my nose at much in the way of food.  But I do have a way of not wanting to give certain recipes due attention because of preconceived notions that I have about the ingredients and whether or not they have any business sharing the same plate.  Such was the case for several years regarding the combination of salmon and lentils.

Strange bedfellows, I thought.  Sort of like dreadlocks and a business suit.  But somehow it works, doesn't it?

By themselves, I love both of those ingredients and have cooked with them numerous times.  But the combination to me was off-putting.  I'm not sure really why, it's just that the thought of salmon and lentils together on one plate didn't appeal to me.  Well, that's an understatement.  It sounded downright boring, pedestrian, monochromatic and flavorless.  There.  Have I maligned them enough?

So, until enlightenment took place--and that enlightenment was in the form of a lovely little glass of Cinsault rose (you can see my review below)--I was content to believe that ignorance was bliss and I was happy to allow salmon and lentils to exist together in the theoretical sense.  I like the idea of salmon and lentils in happy harmony: all those omega 3's, iron, vitamins and minerals pulling together to give me one whopping nutritious meal, with a dose of fiber to boot.  Which is why the CRON diet makes a lot of sense.  But following the CRON diet is an anathema to a foodie like me.  Pass the butter and the cream, please.  Eating the CRON way is like wanting to blow $1000 on a pair of Christian Louboutins and knowing that you can only afford the Skechers.

Photo from Fashion by He

Don't get me wrong--I'm all for nutrition.  But I want my nutrition to taste great and look beautiful on my plate.  And I'm usually not worried about calories--at least for a meal like a weekend dinner.  This is where CRONies and I part company, because I'm obviously a high-maintenance eater with a penchant for fine food and no personal regard for calorie restriction.  I want sexy food, and since I've witnessed and participated in the consumption of CRON meals, I can safely assure you that a plate of CRON food is not sexy.  It's prudent.  And when do sexy and prudent intersect?  Why, practically never.

When confronted with a choice between sensible, comfortable, affordable shoes and an awesome pair of red-soled 5" stilettos, I'll probably choose the stilettos.  There.  I've said it.  It's like going to a 12-step meeting for the first time to admit that I have a shoe problem.  Mind you, I didn't say I was actually going to try to walk in those shoes.

So, recently on a particular late April Saturday evening, I decided that I would make a searching and fearless moral inventory and finally confront my preconceived notions about salmon and lentils.  The weather was perfect for the dish, and I had a lovely French rose to bolster my intentions.  I also had a beautiful piece of sockeye salmon and a pound of French green lentils, which I love for their color, size and peppery flavor.  And I had the Barefoot Contessa as my guide, so I thought things might turn out rather nicely.  Almost the minute everything was in the pan with the lentils, simmering, the perfume of that gorgeous amalgamation made me weak in the knees.  Anticipating what those lentils would taste like almost vexed me, since I wanted to eat them before they were fully cooked.  Now you know what kind of problem I really have.

I was not disappointed.  The texture of the lentils, firm and tiny, steeped in leeks, onions, garlic, thyme, celery and carrots was a lovely counterpoint to the simply seasoned, crisped, pan-roasted salmon fillet.  The flavors were both familiar and impressively intense.  Together they were magical.   And I can't wait to make this dinner again--especially to serve as a casual dinner for friends, along with vegetable or salad and a simple dessert.

The Barefoot Contessa's Roasted Salmon with Green Lentils

The only modifications I made were due to necessity.  I had no chicken broth on hand, but I had low-sodium beef broth, which made a fine substitute.  I also had wild sockeye salmon with the skin on, but it crisped beautifully and kept the salmon moist, which is important, since wild salmon tends to be drier than farm-raised salmon.
What to sip while preparing this meal and with the meal...It's officially rose weather and I found this bottle at Central Market for about $10.  Les Jamelles Cinsault Rose 2010 (France) is dry, tart and full of fresh cherries and raspberries.  There's a bit of orange blossom on the nose, which makes it a delightful wine to sip by itself, but it's also a great accompaniment to the roasted salmon and lentils.  Prepared in the traditional saignee method, which "bleeds" more tannins and color from the grapeskins into the wine, this wine is a great value and artfully made.

May your tastebuds dance in whatever shoes you choose!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My hairdresser's pork chops

I love my hairdresser.  I've had the same one for about 12 years.  That's not because I fear change, it's because I fear mediocrity.  She's very good at what she does.  She makes me look like a million bucks and I get compliments on my hair all the time.  OK, so now you know I'm very vain.

The other reason I love my hairdresser is because she's been very supportive and excited about The Voluptuous Table and all its events.  I often take appetizers and cocktails by my hairdresser's shop on a Friday afternoon for her and the other staff there to taste-test.  That's been a lot of fun; it's also been really helpful.  I'll tell you this: those ladies like to Par-Tay!

My hairdresser and her husband also love to cook and she recently shared a recipe idea with me that I had to go home and try:  Garlic and Jalapeno Cream Cheese-Stuffed Pork Chops.  She told me how to make them and added that she usually buys Philly garlic cream cheese, then adds strips of jalapenos when she's ready to stuff the chops.  Easy enough.

Of course, I wanted to make my own garlic-jalapeno cream cheese filling.  It was pretty spicy, but by the time you had a bite of grilled pork chop with the cream cheese and the bacon that's wrapped around the chop, everything came together in a very nice way.  So this is how I did it:

Garlic and Jalapeno Cream Cheese-Stuffed Pork Chops

8 oz. Philadelphia cream cheese (or use neufchatel), softened
2 cloves garlic, minced (or use 1/2 to 1 tsp. garlic powder)
1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and minced
kosher salt to taste
4 extra-thick boneless pork chops 
8 extra-thick slices bacon
a small amount of cooking oil, optional
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1.  Mix together the cream cheese, garlic, jalapeno and salt.  Blend well and set aside.
2.  With a sharp knife, make a pocket in each pork chop to hold the cream cheese mixture.  You can also butterfly the chops if you have plenty of toothpicks to secure the edges before cooking.
3.  Stuff each pork chop generously with the cream cheese mixture.  If you don't use it all, never fear.  It's great stirred into warm pasta for another meal.
4.  Close up the pork chops and secure all open edges well with toothpicks.
5.  Wrap 2 slices of bacon around the edges of each chop, overlapping as necessary and securing with more toothpicks.
6.  If the chops are very lean, you may want to rub them with a little cooking oil.
7.  Season the chops with plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
8.  Grill or broil until chops reach desired doneness and they are nicely caramelized on the outside, about 5 minutes per side.  Serves four.

What should you drink with these porkchops?  I sipped an off-dry rose of Malbec, mostly because it's rose weather; ask your wine guy for a good one because there are several out there.  You could also choose a Rhone-style red.  You'll need something fruity and off-dry to balance the heat of the jalapeno and your choice could be a more-spare wine since the meat is not too rich.  Also consider a lighter, less oaky Zinfandel or even a dry Merlot.

May your tastebuds always encounter the beautiful!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chicken with capers, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives

Darn.  I keep forgetting to take pictures of my food before I eat it.

I'm sorry, truly, but I'm just not in the habit of photographing what I cook.  I'll try to do better, really I will.  But as a consolation prize, here's a picture of the first water lily that bloomed just yesterday.  I was a little nervous about hanging over the edge of the pond in a such a precarious fashion, knowing full well that I could drop my camera (actually, my cell phone) into the pond and severely traumatize the frogs, whom we've named Taco, Beauregard and Bigg Daddy.  And that would be that.  But balance and coordination prevailed!  The frogs continue to rule the pond undisturbed!

Not dinner, but close

I do want to let you know, however, that last night's dinner--an impromptu throw-down of the Vindaloo variety, e.g., using wine as the catalyst of inspiration--was something I wanted to share with you.  My husband enjoyed it immensely, and I did as well.  But we did miss you at our table.

So what happened first to start this creative process was the opening of a bottle of a very pleasant little pinot noir.  I thought this wine was especially apropos because it had been a rather coolish, sunless day.  And coolish days tend to call for reddish wines.  I enjoyed a lovely glass of Cru Vineyard Montage Pinot Noir 2008 (California), full of cherry, cherry, cherry with lots of nice, bright acid and more red fruit than I'm accustomed to having in my pinot noirs, but a lovely wine (about $13) nonetheless, and very lovely against the salty-sweet assertiveness of the chicken and garlicky pasta.

The chicken breasts were pounded, then seasoned liberally with salt and pepper and sauteed in EVOO until beautifully caramelized on both sides.  Then, into the pan went coarsely chopped garlic, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, chopped kalamata olives, raisins and capers.  Everyone got all happy together in the pan, and then a little sweet vermouth and some chicken broth joined the party.  Served with its own pan sauce, a side of spaghetti with toasted garlic and green onions and a mixed-greens salad, it was like having a feast.

And it was a feast of sorts because we had just finished filing (and paying for) our taxes for 2011!  Very much relieved, we were able to enjoy our dinner and relax for the rest of the evening.  Dessert was another glass of wine.  Never a bad idea.

Chicken with Capers, Raisins, Sun-dried Tomatoes and Kalamata Olives

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbs. EVOO
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbs. capers
1 Tbs. raisins
2 Tbs. chopped sun-dried tomatoes
2 Tbs. chopped kalamata olives
1/4 cup sweet vermouth
1/2 cup chicken broth

1.  Pound chicken breasts with a mallet between two pieces of plastic wrap until about 3/8" thick.
2.  Season chicken well on both sides with salt and pepper.
3.  Heat EVOO in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat until oil begins to ripple.
4.  Saute chicken breasts on both sides, browning well.
5.  Add garlic, capers, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, and kalamata olives.
6.  Stir a little to distribute ingredients evenly.
7.  Cover and continue to cook for about 2 minutes.
8.  Add sweet vermouth and reduce by half.
9.  Add chicken broth and reduce by half.
10.  Serve chicken with pan sauce over pasta or polenta.  Serves 2.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easy Sunday night dinner with friends

I enjoy entertaining on a Sunday night.  It's more relaxed, food is less formal and we generally begin to say our goodbyes before 10 p.m. because we all usually need to work the next day.  That means an early night in the kitchen for me with time to relax a little before bedtime.

Here's an easy menu to put together for an informal, small gathering.  You could easily double or triple these recipes for a larger group.  There's a variety of flavors and textures in this menu, from the salty-sweet and aromatic picadillo filling in crispy phyllo, to the satisfying hit of fresh lemon and freshly grated Parmesan in the gratifying chickpea, broccoli and rigatoni main, to the warm tomato salad with just the right balance of sweet and acid, tempered with the gentle heat of fresh green chile and smokey grilled tomatoes.  And dessert?  One bite of the moist, chocolate cake with a broiled pecan and coconut topping and you'll be convinced you did a wonderful thing.  Find theses recipe below.

Crispy Picadillo Bites

Make one recipe of Picadillo and add 1 small peeled potato cut into 1/4" dice when you saute the onion and green pepper (I diced my green pepper for uniformity with the other ingredients).  Make sure your green olives are sliced thinly or chopped.  I also increased the raisins to 1/2 cup and seasoned everything to taste with salt and pepper.   After the mixture cools a bit, you're ready to fill frozen mini phyllo shells (such as Athena brand) with the picadillo--you'll have some left over for another meal to eat on pasta or in lettuce cups, which is never a bad thing.  Bake filled shells on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees.  Serve hot.  Makes at least 24 appetizers.  People will inhale these.

Meyer's Lemony Broccoli and Chickpea Rigatoni

Find the recipe for this light and flavorful pasta here.  I always use extra garlic when marinating the chickpeas (and I often start them early in the day for best flavor).  Be sure to use plenty of cheese when you serve.  Everytime I make this dish, people want the recipe--and they want seconds, too.

Warm Grilled Tomato Salad
     From Eating Well Magazine, July/August 1997.  I've made this salad over and over again.  We never tire of it.  It's wonderful with all kinds of grilled meats and fish as well.

1 Tbs. EVOO
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 serrano or jalapeno chile, seeded and minced
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
4 large, vine-ripened tomatoes, quartered
1/2 loaf crusty bread, slice or torn into pieces

1.  Prepare a charcoal fire or heat a gas grill.
2.  In a medium bowl, whisk together EVOO, lemon juice, garlic, chile and Worcestershire sauce.  Stir in basil gently and set aside.
3.  Combine 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper and sprinkle over tomato quarters.
4.  When grill is hot, sear tomato quarters, turning frequently until blistered on all sides, about 3 to 4 minutes.
5.  Toss hot tomatoes with reserved basil vinaigrette; season with salt and pepper to taste.
6.  Serve warm or at room temperature with crusty bread.  Serves 4 as an appetizer or salad course.

What to drink with this menu:  Serve an easy-drinking juicy red wine with lots of fruit, such as a Rhone-style blend, a Spanish rioja, a fruity, soft Malbec (I recently tried The Show Malbec 2010, Argentina, which has plenty of fruit, some spice and a little oak, softer than many Malbecs I've had, and very yummy for about $11), or a fruity, not-too-sweet sangria.  Make something really good for dessert.  Brownies with good-quality chocolate would be great, but I suggest Easy Chocolate Cake with Crunchy Coconut-Pecan Topping.  Then sit back and enjoy your guests and the rest of your Sunday evening.

May your tastebuds dance!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Enchiladas, seafood and otherwise

In our house, we are die-hard fans of Hatch New Mexico green chilies.  Both of us migrated westward from New York State; one of us lived in New Mexico for 28 years, the other for about 5.  Now we live in Central Texas.  But New Mexico and New Mexico green chilies are in our blood.  We miss the mountains of Albuquerque, the soft, velvety hills of Santa Fe and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the intense sunlight, the lack of humidity (Lord, yes!).  But we especially miss the smell of roasting green chiles on a crisp fall evening.

The last trip we made to New Mexico, I was able to bring back a 25 lb. sack of Hatch chiles.  Once we were home, I rinsed them well, then roasted them and put them in small quantities into freezer bags, leaving skins and seeds intact.  I've found they're easier to peel after the chiles have been frozen; the skins slip off with little resistance and you can easily remove the stem and seed core.

You can roast Hatch chiles (and most chiles) in a variety of ways.  If you shop at Central Market in September, then you can see chiles being roasted the way I first saw them being done in Albuquerque: in a big mesh barrel roaster that is turned slowly over a gas flame.  The smell of roasting chiles is almost indescribable, but let me try.  Smoky, sweet, deeply intense.  And totally seductive.  The best part is that they taste like they smell, but there's heat and that great capsicum flavor too.

At home, I roast chiles either on my gas grill or in a very hot oven, straight on the baking racks.  When the skins are brown and blistered, you know they're ready to freeze or peel and use right away.    If you want to know how to roast your own chiles and peppers, find out here.  It's easy and fun--especially if you have helpers.  But wear latex gloves!  Even mild chiles burn hands and eyes--something I found out the hard way during my first chile-processing experience in Albuquerque.

Of course, you can use canned green chile.  But there is no substitute for hand-roasted green chile.  We use it in so many ways: green chile stew with pork (and sometimes posole), green chile cheeseburgers (my husband's favorite), green chile "gravy" with lots of garlic and onion for huevos rancheros on a weekend morning, or mixed with cream cheese and other goodies as a spread for bagels or tortilla roll-ups.  And one of my favorites: green chile cream sauce for ladling over lots of good things.

Here's what I used my green chile cream sauce for this time:

Seafood Enchiladas with Hatch New Mexico Green Chile Cream Sauce

You can substitute cooked, chopped chicken breast for the crab and shrimp and get fabulous results.

First, make the cream sauce:

2 Tbs. EVOO or butter
3 Tbs. flour
1/2 cup half and half or milk
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped roasted New Mexico chiles, skins, stems and seeds removed

1.  Heat the oil in a small saucepan until rippling; add flour and whisk until a paste is formed.
2.  Reduce heat and add milk, whisking until smooth.
3.  Add chicken broth and whisk until smooth; bring to slow boil.
4.  Cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes to allow sauce to thicken slightly.
5.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
6.  Stir in green chile, blend well and keep warm until ready to use, or chill for later use.  Makes about 2 cups.

Now make the enchiladas:

2 Tbs. butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups chopped cooked shrimp or imitation crabmeat (or a combination)
salt and pepper to taste
6 to 8 white corn tortillas, warmed slightly
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese (you can substitute mild cheddar)
Cream Sauce

1.  Spray a small flat casserole dish or pan with non-stick spray and ladle some cream sauce into the dish, making sure there is enough to cover the bottom.  Set aside.
2.  Melt butter in a small skillet over medium heat.
3.  Cook onion in butter for about 3 minutes or until translucent.
4.  Add garlic and cook for another minute.
5.  Stir in seafood, salt and pepper and blend well.  Cook for about 1 minute until ingredients meld.  Remove from heat.
6.  Place a tortilla in the palm of one hand; sprinkle about 2 Tbs. cheese along the diameter.
7.  Spoon seafood filling along diameter.
8.  Gently roll tortilla around filling and place seam-side down in prepared pan.
9.  Continue until all the filling is used.
10.  Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until bubbling.
11.  Remove foil and cover with remaining cheese.
12.  Return to oven and bake until cheese is melted and browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. 
13.  Remove from oven and let stand for about 10 minutes to set up.  Serves 2 very hungry people and 4 as part of a larger meal.

What to drink:  Well, of course, beer comes to mind.  But since I am not a beer-drinking person, I reached for something else with bubbles.  Cresta Azul Vino de Aguja (Spain) is a naturally carbonated blend of grapes in a delightful, fizzy, slightly sweet context.  It's not at all champagne, it doesn't have to be.  It is what it is: light, white, summery, tropical and best of all, inexpensive.  You should find this wine for well under $10.  Another suggestion is to try a vinho verde, available most everywhere.  My particular favorite: Santola Vinho Verde (Portugal).  You can find this effervescent, light and entirely gulpable wine for about $6 a bottle.  It's the one with the beautiful red crab on the label.  Ask your wine guy for "the crab wine."  He'll know what you're talkin' about.

May your tastebuds dance!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Running with the big, er, cats

There is another entity in our home that can sometimes be a formidable opponent.  The entity displays indifference, disapproval, demandingness, and an inflated sense of importance.  The entity cares not whether I have worked 7 hours on a coulibiac, or 7 minutes on a chicken hash, it wants my attention NOW.  The entity does not seem to know that the kitchen is my domain and that lying in front of the sink can only mean that one of us is going to get hurt.  It does not seem to be bothered by the fact that my husband would like to sit where the entity is now sprawled, lounging, napping, opening one eye ever so slightly to deliver an indifferent, one-eyed stare.

This is what we have to contend with:

The entity is my husband's cat, Kiwi.  My husband (yes, the same husband from our mutual recent kitchen capers) has many pet names for his feline entity: Kitters, Kitty, Fatso (I don't like this name particularly, but the entity is, after all in excess of 18 lbs.).  My husband dotes on her, scoops her up like a baby, cuddles her, tickles her under her chin, tickles her belly, touches noses with her.  So you can see where the problem of her grandiose sense of entitlement has originated.  Of course, she is a cat, and cats are predisposed to act in an entitled manner.  But this cat seems have an extraordinary sense of her own importance.  In fact, it is ever-expanding, rather like our universe.  And somewhere along the way, this cat got the impression that she was Ruler of the Universe.

I decided to call her "Her Largeness" as a sardonic nod to her, well, largeness, and to her assumption that she is royalty.  I try to display the same sense of indifference to her as she does to me.  I certainly have become very adept at displaying my annoyance with her.  But it is hard to be indifferent and annoyed with a cat who has claimed your basket of silk scarves as her new daybed, and lazily bathes herself there in the morning sun, then sprawls out for a nap belly up, legs akimbo.  So I try to be bothered by her presumptuousness and sense of entitlement instead.

It's hard to maintain.  Because she has a personality that can be quite engaging when she's making an effort.  And she's a talker.  She will plant herself in front of you and begin chirping at you until you have made eye contact.  And when she has your attention, she will jump up onto the sofa next to you and will begin purring.  But that's not all.  Along with the purring comes drooling and the look of a sick sort of devotion.  And if you are scratching her behind her ears, she will eventually shake her head, which transforms cat drool into a projectile of amazing accuracy.  And when you express your dismay and disgust, she will look at you as if to say, "Huh?  You mean you didn't see that coming?"

We've had other problems with Her Largeness.  She has not been kind to the other animals in the house.  She's a bit of a bully and tends to do a lot of hissing and growling at the other cat who lives here.  This cat, Birdie, has been uber-tolerant of all kinds of things, including raccoons, possoms and other big, burly cats in the neighborhood eating from her food bowl in the garage.  But Her Largeness will not concede to petite little Birdie.  Her Largeness remains a bully, even though Her Largeness has complete domain of the inside of the house and Birdie is a streetwise outdoor kitty who sleeps in a comfy spot in the garage.

Occasionally Her Largeness and Birdie spy each other through a crack in the door leading to the garage and Her Largeness makes her displeasure known.  Her Largeness seems to believe that she should rule over all domains, inside and out.  Birdie, meanwhile, remains watchful, having had plenty of former experiences with other bullies.  Her Largeness even seems to be annoyed by my sweet, elderly dog Jezzie, who gets along with everybody.   I'm beginning to see that Her Largeness is mostly in a state of annoyance with everybody and everything that challenges her sense of entitlement and her notion of territorial rights.  Which appears to cover just about the whole universe.

So we try to maintain a tentative and servile existence with Her Largeness.  We heed her many feline demands, attempting, feebly, to set limits at times.  And we provide guidance and remonstrance when appropriate.  Her Largeness constantly reminds us, most demandingly, that our efforts are futile.

And so it goes.