Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sliding into 2010

As the year draws to a close, I find myself musing about what I learned — or didn't for that matter. One item that continues to go unanswered is why do sliders taste so good? 

I've had a wide variety of sliders, which seemed to be one of the darlings of the gastropub fare this year, and I found them all delightful. Am I enamored with their diminutive size, the food equivalent of dollhouse furniture? Is it the easy to manage physical footprint? Is it the comfort food quality it usually possesses? Whatever the reason, I find myself drawn to them when I see them on a menu, and 9 out of 10 times I'll order them, regardless of time of day. Which got me thinking about a breakfast slider. I made some last year after a holiday party I hosted. It was more of an act of desperation than an earnest culinary creation as I'd been over-served the night before and in dire need of some food. The leftover rolls and honey-baked ham were the base inspiration, which were joined by some cheese, roasted red pepper and a drizzle of basil-infused olive oil. It was a fantastic substitute for a greasy cheeseburger and fries, which is my normal Rx after a night of over-indulgence. 

I woke up famished this morning (no, I was not hungover) and found myself rooting through my refrigerator to see what I might be able to call breakfast. Low and behold, I had a few mini rolls, eggs and bacon — and my breakfast slider took shape. This time I used goat cheese and some spicy marinara sauce I'd made a few days before. It was a delicious start to the last day of the year. So if you're a slider fan like me, give it a try some time. The combination of ingredients is almost endless and I'm pretty sure it's impossible to mess up. You may thank me tomorrow. 

Wishing you a safe and happy New Year's Eve!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Product of My Environment

They say you're a product of your environment. But what if you have two environments? Over the years, I've come to feel as if I have a split personality. 

Have you ever taken one of those tests that measures what part of the brain you tend to use more? Usually it's measuring right-brain versus left-brain or the analytical versus the creative sides. While most people lean definitely to one side or the other, I'm pretty much right down the middle, showing that I can be both. Although I'm left-handed, I wanted to copy whatever my right-handed brother did, so I ended up kind of ambidextrous. When I'm in California, I tend to crave tofu in green curry sauce and recycle, but as soon as I set foot back in the South, my accent kicks in, I wave to every person I drive by, and go in search of Krystal burgers and biscuits. 

So, I guess it should be no surprise that my Christmas in South Carolina with my parents (see opening photo) was spent embracing and consuming the wondrous fried foods of the Low Country. When in "Rome," do enjoy:

Fried Grits

Fried Oysters

Fried Green Tomato Sandwich

But now that I'm back in my Santa Barbara environment, I'll be happily heading down to the nearest liquor store to pick up a tasty carne asada taco (for some reason, that is where the best Mexican food is made fresh to order and sold), and then fill my car up with gas that is $1.50 more expensive per gallon. 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Closer to Home

Sunday is the day of the week I miss my family the most. 

I long to be cooking and eating a home-made meal together, leisurely sitting around the table telling stories and talking about how my brother will never be able to work his way back into the family will. [OK that last part is true but a long-standing joke.] It seems like a fitting way to recenter myself before getting back to the grindstone on Monday. Unfortunately, since my family is 3000 miles away, our Sunday suppers don't happen very often. As a very poor substitute, I find myself turning to more Southern dishes to make on Sundays. It's not the same of course but I do feel closer to home. 

Yesterday I had a hankering for collard greens and concocted a "beans and greens" soup, finished off with some rosemary studded cornbread. I guess the former dish is kind of my version of chicken soup for the soul. I don't know if it's for everyone. Maybe collard greens are something you have to grow up with to appreciate fully. I have a feeling not many people routinely eat collard greens in Santa Barbara, as I had to go to three different grocery stores before I could find them. The corn bread would never get my grandmother's approval. For one, it's too sweet for her. She calls this yellow cake mix and scoffs at the attempted association with proper corn bread. And the addition of the rosemary may send her over the edge. But if you love cornbread and yellow cake mix (like me), then this is heavenly. The challenge is not to eat half the pan before dinner (like me). I had the best intentions of taking a photo of it but must confess there is none left to photograph. 

Happy Winter Solstice!  

Beans and Greens Soup
Adapted from Southern Living

1 lb smoked sausage
1 large onion, diced
2 16-oz cans cannellini beans, undrained
2 16-oz bags frozen chopped collard greens
1 1/2 tsp dried crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
32 oz carton of chicken broth
1 1/2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
Drizzle of honey

Cut sausage into 1/4-inch thick slices; saute in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat 5 minutes or until brown. Add onion and saute 3 minutes. Stir in beans and remaining ingredients through pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occassionally, 20 minutes or until greens are tender. Before serving stir in vinegar and honey. Yields: 6-8 servings. 

Note: You could definitely substitute frozen turnip greens with diced turnips for the collard greens. Also, almost any kind of sausage and bean could be used. I used white beans and kielbasa but I think black-eyed pea and andouille, for example, would be delicious. 

Rosemary Corn Bread
From Real Simple

2 8 1/2-oz boxes corn bread mix
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 8-oz container of plain yogurt
1 7-oz cans whole-kernel corn, drained
1 Tbsp dried rosemary

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat a 13x9 inch baking pan with cooking spray and set aside. Stir all the ingredients together in a large bowl and spoon batter into the prepared pan. Bake 25 minutes or just until golden. Remove to a wire rack to cool. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Evolution of the Salad

When I was young, a salad carried a pretty narrow description. You had a few sad, pale leaves of iceberg lettuce along with a smattering of diced onions, sliced carrots and maybe a wedge of tomato. And there were three dressing options: French, Italian and Thousand Island. It's no wonder I couldn't get excited about eating that each night (no offense, Mom!). But thankfully at some point, the salad evolved. Like the high school wallflower who shows up at the reunion a complete stunner. The salad is stealing the show these days, giving the main course a run for its money and redefining the notion of what a salad is. 

Wolfgang Puck gets credit for reintroducing us to pizza back in the 80s when he opened Spago. It became white tablecloth-worthy when he began topping his pies with gourmet and exotic ingredients. I don't know who deserves the distinction of transforming salads but there is no denying the metamorphosis. You've now got a myriad of greens as the base (watercress, endive, mache . . . ), a dizzying list of cheeses to choose from (cambazola, halloumi, manchego . . .), and truly endless options of accoutrements (seared ahi, pistachios, roasted beets . . . ). It's the ultimate chinese menu of alternatives. 

This salad rendition is great for the holidays because the pomegranate seeds make it swanky, the roasted butternut squash makes it hearty, and the fried prosciutto makes it a little indulgent. And it's rather show-stopping sitting on the table. Quite the anti-wallflower as salads come. 

Autumn Farmer's Market Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit

4 1/2 - 5 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled seeded butternut squash (from about a 2-lb squash)
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of dried crushed red pepper
Coarse kosher salt
2 Tbsp fresh orange juice
1 1/2 Tbsp walnut oil (or other nut oil)
1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
4 oz arugula (about 8 cups lightly packed)
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
3 oz prosciutto thinly sliced
2 tsp pomegranate molasses

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss squash, olive oil, and crushed red pepper on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Roast 15 minutes. Using a spatula, turn squash over. Roast another 15 minutes or until edges are browned and squash is tender. Sprinkle with coarse salt. This can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. 
Lay the prosciutto slices on top of each other and slice them thinly in a chiffonade. In a hot skillet, add a bit of olive oil until almost smoking. Add sliced prosciutto and saute for 30 seconds or until it starts to crisp. Remove and set on a paper towel.
Whisk orange juice, walnut oil, and lemon juice in large shallow bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add arugula, toasted hazelnuts, prosciutto, and pomegranate seeds; toss to coat. Season to taste with coarse salt and pepper. Spoon warm or room temperature squash over salad. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses and serve. Yields: 6 servings. 

Note: Pomegranate molasses is a thick, tart syrup found at some supermarkets and Middle Eastern markets. You can omit it if you can't find it. It finishes the salad with a nice zing. If you're feeling really motivated, you could try to create your own by reducing down pomegranate juice or you can soak pitted dates overnight in pomegranate juice and then puree. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thanksgiving Tailgate

To many people, Thanksgiving is all about the turkey. And who could blame them for getting excited about 20 pounds of succulent meat perfectly roasted and nicely carved on a platter? But then there are those — you know who you are — who could forego turkey all together and consume happily only the ridiculous amounts of side dishes: stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc.  I personally would be hard pressed to join any one camp, but I definitely have my opinion about what is required to complete my Thanksgiving meal. I like white meat better than dark, prefer dressing over stuffing, could pass up the sweet potatoes for the mashed, and can skip the cranberry all together. My dad wants all dark meat, rice not potatoes of any kind, and anything with onions in it. My mom on the other hand really just wants a turkey sandwich with all the fixings. As you're reading this perhaps you're making a mental inventory of which foods make it on your "necessity list." 

Above all, though, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays with lots of traditions behind the meal. In fact, many times dishes are named after the "chefs" who've made and contributed them year after year to the celebratory feast. We've got Monk's cranberry salad, Carla's banana cream pie, Patty's broccoli casserole . . . . I shutter to think what would happen if that person decided to bring something else one year. 

But every once in a while, someone throws a new wrench into the mix that is met with wild applause and is then destined to become yet another tradition. We had one of those this year. 

Thanksgiving happened to coincide with my grandmother's 90th birthday. As you can imagine, we had quite a crew in town for the family meal and to honor this remarkable woman. After the second helpings, touch football game, family portraits, and fawning over the new babies, a collective sigh of contentment could be heard as the sun started to set. About that time, my brother's father-in-law, Jimmy, walked over to his truck, put the gate down, and pulled out a large cooler filled to the brim with Apalachicola oysters

Apalachicola oysters are some of the finest — if not the finest — oysters in the world. And I can never find them in any California restaurant or outside of the Southeast for that matter. Meaty, mellow, plump, clean-tasting. Heaven on the half shell (no accoutrements needed). The uniqueness of Apalachicola oysters comes from the right mixture of water from the rivers that flow from Georgia and Alabama and the salty water from the Gulf of Mexico. Jimmy and my brother pulled on a rubber glove, grabbed an oyster knife and started shucking. Believe you me when I tell you they couldn't shuck fast enough. After the heavy, rich Thanksgiving meal, this cold, refreshing, buttery-seaweedy treat was the perfect palate foil. 

As much as I love the softness and slight saltiness of oysters, I'm very drawn to the Zen-like ritual of preparing and eating them: the shucking, the anointing of sauces, the tilting of the shell, the slurping of the liquor, the tossing of the empty shell into a pile. And eating oysters is very adult. I don't know how else to say it. I think most people remember the first time they sucked down a raw oyster. Usually it is in the company of adults. You're presented with a seemingly slimy blob. You want their acceptance but you're not sure which is worse: "failing" them or eating this creature. Their approval wins out and you close your eyes and throw back the oyster. Afterwards you feel a mixture of relief and pride — and then ask for another one as the adults are high-fiving you. My niece had her first oyster conversion experience this Thanksgiving. And I was proud of her.  

While the raw oysters were outstanding, Jimmy showed us a new way to grill them that literally had people lined up for them. You take a cooking pan and pour a layer of rock salt on the bottom creating a bed to place the oysters on. You then cover them up with a wet dish towel and let them steam for a few minutes (until the shells start to open). The end result is to die for. It's so easy and so ridiculously tasty. Please try it the next time you get your hands on some oysters. The pan will be trashed though so there will be no chance of sneaking that back into the kitchen unnoticed. Just christen it the grilled oyster pan. 

As we stood around, someone commented that we looked like a bunch of rednecks. There were about 20 cars in the front yard (the majority which were trucks), University of Alabama flags on the cars (ready for the Iron Bowl game the following day),  and we were drinking Cheap Red Wine out of plastic cups.  

You can say what you want about rednecks, but they always look like they're having a good time. And that's exactly what we were having. I hope the Thanksgiving Tailgate becomes an annual tradition. 

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Four B's

You may be familiar with the 4 P's of Marketing: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. But let me introduce you to the 4 B's of Traveling: Books, Bourbon, 'Boys (as in a po' boy sandwich), and Ball (as in Football). That was the finale of my Thanksgiving holiday — 8 hours of flight delays and cancelations at the New Orleans airport. But honestly, there are worst places to be stranded and, truthfully, I might be doing the 4 B's even if I was at home. 

Overall, I had a fabulous — and oh so filling — Thanksgiving holiday (more on that later) and hope you did too!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Eggo to Leggo of

It's a dark day for waffle lovers. Kellogg announced today it's experiencing a waffle shortage which should last until . . . mid-2010! Yikes! 

Heavy October rains in Atlanta forced one of the Eggo bakeries to take a production hiatus. And to add insult to injury, Kellogg's largest waffle facility (in Rossville, TN) needs extensive repairs.

A Kellogg spokesperson said, "We are working around the clock to restore Eggo store inventories to normal levels as quickly as possible. Remaining inventory will be rationed to stores across the country based on historical percentage of business."  

[Note: Seriously, people, I can't make this stuff up. When I first saw this story, I checked the link because I figured this had to be a joke from The Onion, but it is a top story on CNN!]  

My initial reaction upon hearing the story was to post an entry here. But then I came to my senses and first ran to the grocery store and bought up all the Eggo boxes I could get my hands on. I know there will soon be desperate moms with crying children and hungry, hungover college students all deep in the midst of Eggo withdrawal. So, the bidding on ebay will soon commence with the starting bid of [insert dramatic pause] one . . . million . . . dollars! Mwahahahaha!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Meanderings & Wonderments

I've always wanted to invent a word. I know, most people are more interested in inventing something really important, like a cure for cancer, or an easier way to do something, like velcro. But no, I really want to invent a word. Not just any word, but a word that is super cool and people want to integrate immediately into the modern lexicon. I make up words all the time but so far nothing has stuck. Most of the words I come up with are often the combination of two words. It's like I can't figure out which word I want to say and my brain gets confused and they both come out at once in a peculiar auditory meshing. Of course my friends totally mock me for this, but I'm happy to say that at least in our little circle some of my words have been adopted (i.e. insuperior).

This summer when I was living in Spain, my confusion/invention was at it's worst/best. I was speaking Spanish all day but then would get on my laptop at night and try to write in English. The result was (1) I could only recall a small percent of my English vocabulary, and (2) my spelling became horrendous. But I did invent a word that I find myself using all the time: meandering. I know: it doesn't look like a new word, but it sounds like a new word if you combine "meander" and "wander." The phonetic pronunciation is me-on-der-ing. In truth, it was a mistake. I couldn't figure out which word to say and then pulled "a Holley" and out they both came. But I really like the sentiment behind it: to take an indirect course without a definitive purpose. I kind of wish there was more of that in life. 

Whenever I do a bit of meandering, I'm always humbled by the wondrous things I see. It makes me want to participate in more wonderment — to discover it, appreciate it, and be a part of it. Look around: there is wonderment everywhere, both natural and man-made. And what I find wondrous may be different than what you do, but that's the point really. 

I thought I might start sharing some of the wonderments I've encountered in my everyday life in a (perhaps a bi-monthly?) post. Interesting? Not interesting? Please weigh in with your comments below. The goal is merely to remind us to look for the wonderments. I know they're all around us if we just take the time to meander a bit more. 

So here are some wonderments I saw on Saturday: 

Marigolds ablaze

Chidori kale, which I've never seen before

Breakfast treasures discovered inside a delightful pink pastry box

Sunny satsuma

Fall tree in Santa Barbara

I hope your week ahead is filled with many wondrous moments, wherever you may find them. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Quick and Dirty

As the weather turns cooler, I look forward to making soups. There is something so homey about the scent of a simmering pot of veggies and meat wafting through the house. It's high on the comfort food list in my book. As Auguste Escoffier, chef and one of the most important leaders in the development of modern French cuisine, said, "Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite." 

The one real drawback that often accompanies soups is how long it takes to make. Admittedly, it's often totally low maintenance. You usually just put some stuff in a big pot, bring it to a simmer and cook for three hours while you go about your business. You don't even have to be home for goodness sakes. But with that type of time commitment, making soup is often reserved for the weekend. 

I was paging through an issue of House Beautiful when a white bean soup recipe caught my eye because (A) I'm a little obsessed with white beans, and (B) it only takes 45 care-free minutes to make the soup. Bingo! We have a weeknight winner! Yes, it's also super healthy and a protein-rich vegetarian soup, but more importantly, it's delicious. You'll never miss the meat — and you certainly won't miss having to wait three hours before you eat it. But you're home will still smell delicious. 

Jewel's Favorite Soup

3 15-oz cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped 
2 ribs celery, chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, cut into small pieces
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Place beans, stock and garlic in a large pot on the stove. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and continue cooking for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the skillet is warm, add the olive oil and saute the onion and celery for 5 minutes or until soft and translucent. Next, add the tomatoes and salt and continue to cook another 3 to 4 minutes. 
Add the vegetable mixture and parsley to beans. Cook another 15 minutes to meld the flavors together. Serve with Parmesan cheese grated over each bowl. Yields: 6-8 servings. 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In Defense of Cauliflower

In the world of under-appreciated vegetables, cauliflower has to be near the top. It's one of the red-headed veggie stepchildren sandwiched in between brussels sprouts and cabbage. No doubt recollections of bland steamed vegetable medleys and cauliflower boiled past oblivion have made cauliflower the vegetable non grata in the most kitchens. 

And while I've eaten my share of dismal cauliflower dishes, at some point along my eating adventures I saw the light — and it was not eating it off a crudité platter dipped in Ranch dressing. I don't recall exactly where or when it was, but it was transformative. 

I was at one of those mega steak houses where the petit filet is 12 oz and all the sides are a la carte. To their credit, those places usually have delicious and rich side dishes. Garlic mashed potatoes or truffled mac 'n' cheese, anyone? . . .  Anyway, I went to pick a side dish and probably because the mashed potatoes and mac 'n' cheese had already been ordered, I got a wild hair and requested the roasted cauliflower. It was a client dinner so I was with a large group. Do you remember that scene in Animal House where Otter, Boone, Pinto and Flounder take their dates to see Otis Day at an all-black bar? There was total silence when they walked in, and the bar inhabitants gave the fraternity boys a look like, "Are you white boys crazy?!" It was pretty much like that when the people around the table heard I ordered cauliflower. I'm known to have a pretty discriminating palate so no one ridiculed me openly but I could tell they thought I'd lost my mind. The point of the story is that the cauliflower dish was the first thing devoured and seconds were ordered. In short, it was adored. 

There are so many ways to adore this funny-looking crucifer: whipped with mashed potatoes, layered in a decadent gratin, simmered in a spicy curry served over coconut rice, or simply slow roasted in the oven. But one of my favorites is a beautiful pureed soup that could inspire poetry. It's light yet rich, layered with luxurious textures and flavors. While I don't use this word often to describe food, this soup is opulent. There is just no other way to describe it.

But it's also like a woman who rolls out of bed and looks stunning with no make-up on. Effortless beauty. That's what this soup is. 

Cauliflower Soup with Pecorino and Truffle Oil
Adapted from Bon Appetit

2 oz applewood smoked bacon (about 2 1/2 slices), chopped
1 cup chopped onion
3/4 cup chopped celery
2 garlic cloves, chopped
6 cups 1-inch pieces cauliflower (roughly 1 large head)
3 1/2 cups (or more) low-salt chicken broth
1 3/4-inch cube Pecorino Romano cheese, plus additional cheese shavings for serving
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
White truffle oil (for drizzling)
6 sea scallops

Saute bacon in heavy saucepan over medium heat until golden brown and some fat renders. Add onion, celery and garlic. Cover and cook until vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Add cauliflower, 3 1/2 cups chicken broth and cheese cube. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes. 
Puree soup in batches in processor (or use an immersion blender and leave in the pan). Return to pan and add cream. Bring soup to a simmer. Thin with more broth as necessary or desired. Season with salt and pepper if necessary. 
Wash and dry scallops and lightly salt and pepper them. Sear them for 1 1/2 minutes in a hot skillet drizzled with olive oil. Flip them over and cook another minute until they are opaque. Don't overcook them. This is what makes scallops tough. And they'll continue cooking when you remove them from the pan. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and drop one scallop in the middle of the soup. Sprinkle with cheese shavings and drizzle with truffle oil. Yields: Six servings. 

Notes: I think the bacon can be overwhelming if you're not careful, which is why the applewood smoked bacon is suggested. I would start with 1 1/2 slices first and see how you like it. If you think you want a smokier flavor, I would go with the full 2 1/2 slices but it will definitely have a more pronounced bacon flavor, which I personally wasn't going for. A little of the truffle oil goes a long way, so be judicious with this. You can always add more. If the scallops are particularly large, I usually score them so they'll cook more evenly. This could be converted into a vegetarian dish by omitting the bacon and scallop and using a good vegetable broth. It would still very rich in flavor. The soup can be made a day ahead. Cool slightly; cover and chill. Rewarm slowly and then add the cheese shavings, truffle oil and scallop. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On the Border

Friends are the family you choose. My mom used to tell me that when I was young. Growing up as a military brat, I often found myself far from my relatives but blessed with a network of surrogate aunts, uncles, and cousins. This was most pronounced when we lived in Panama where we met a group of families that affectionately became known as the Panama Connection (a.k.a. the PC). For three years, it seemed like all of our holidays, trips, weekends, and even afternoons were spent together. 

It was an amazing place to be a kid. The jungle was our sandbox with monkeys, sloths, iguanas and agoutis around us. We would buzz by the Panama Canal in our little ski boat on the way to our island bohio (thatched hut) to catch rainbow bass on the weekends, watching the QE2 scraping through the locks. We would get in these huge mango throwing fights. The green ones hurt worse than the ripe ones, but you'd be sure to get a poison ivy-like reaction from the sap so it was a trade-off. But more than anything, it really was the people I shared this with, my "chosen family," that made these experiences so special. 

It's been about 30 years since we left Panama. The PC is now spread all over the U.S. but still gets together regularly. It's rare, though, for the entire group to make it to a gathering. But when a PC wedding rolls around, well, that's something not to miss. A few weeks ago, we all convened in El Paso, TX to celebrate the marriage of Mike and Shelly, but it also felt like a family reunion. 

It was my first visit to El Paso, which is a wonderful city. However, I didn't realize how close it is to the border of Mexico. It's literally a stone's throw. 

The Mexican influence is pervasive, resulting (happily!) in lots of really good Mexican food. Real tortillas, salsa that makes your tongue burn, tender chili rellenos. . . . And for whatever reason, the margaritas tasted better too. 

With any large group in tow, you need to keep them busy. So the groom's parents suggested the PC hit the Indian and Mexican market festival. I must admit I'm usually most interested in casing the food stands at events like this. I'm not a "fair food junkie" but, seriously, who can resist a funnel cake?! Unfortunately, nary a funnel cake did I see. Actually not even a hot dog or cotton candy could be found. No, it was way better! 

There was Apache fry bread (the Southwest's version of a funnel cake) and grilled corn on the cob with a dusting of delicious spices. But what stole the show for me was the asadero cheese and green chili quesadilla. I know what you're thinking: How can a cheese quesadilla be anything to get excited about? For one, the tortillas do not have a shelf life of six month. Secondly, the green chilies have an amazing depth of flavor even though they look totally unassuming. And lastly, I'm wondering how I've made it through three decades of my life without asadero cheese. The end product is this heavenly toasted pocket filled with gooey cheese and fiery green polka dots. The photos do this no justice sadly. 

The genius is in the simplicity. It's not trying to be high falutin'. It's just comfort food at its best. I'm quite certain if I'd gone to college in El Paso, I'd be eating this on my way home from every party I ever went to.  

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

I kind of feel like a teenager who's missed curfew and is trying to sneak back into the house without their parent's detection. You know you're late, but you're hoping there's some way to get into bed and then act all nonchalant like you've been there for hours doing your nails when your mom pops her head into your room and finds you there. Personally, I could never pull it off. At a certain point you just had to suck it up and face the music. So without further ado . . .  I realize I haven't blogged in 22 days. I wish I had a good excuse (i.e. alien abduction), but I don't really have one (although I was recently in New Mexico). At least when I was younger, I could usually blame my older brother ("Mom, I swear I wanted to come home on time. I couldn't get Rob to leave the party!"), but I can't play that card here. How about just "I'm sorry and I won't let it happen again. And here is a nice recipe I think you'll enjoy!" 

I do feel as if this time of year is the calm before the storm. Once Halloween hits, it seems like the holiday tornado is unleashed. I admit I considered momentarily ordering holiday cards last night as I booked my airline ticket for Thanksgiving, but couldn't bring myself to do it. For one, the 87 degree weather we're having is tricking my brain into thinking that Labor Day is around the corner. And two, I want to relish the peaceful pre-holiday window just a tad longer. Plus, it's a great time to make some tasty treats you can pop in the freezer now to enjoy in the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle — which really is just around the corner.  

I think it's nice to have a few tricks up your sleeve for the holidays, which means you have to plan ahead. OK, that sounds a bit soap-boxy. What I really mean to say is it's much easier to do this now than when you're trying to juggle the end-of-year push at work, family commitments, holiday shopping, insane people who are also out holiday shopping, bad weather, travel, etc. I discovered this great recipe, which I think makes for the perfect holiday "secret weapon." These empanadas would make an awesome Thanksgiving amuse-bouche, a delicious (and easy) addition to a holiday cocktail party or buffet (thumbs up for anything you can make ahead), or even a thoughtful gift (as long as there is a freezer nearby) for any hardworking, food-loving hostess. 

They'll be the perfect foil to the holiday madness. And you'll look like a rock star.  

Chicken and Chorizo Empanadas with Raisins, Olives and Spinach
Adapted from Gourmet (R.I.P.)

1 breast and 2 thighs of rotisserie chicken, shredded and chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 California bay leaf (or 2 Turkish)
3/4 cup finely diced Spanish chorizo, casing removed
1/2 tsp Spanish smoked paprika (not hot)
1 tsp coriander 
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 cup pitted green olives, chopped
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
8 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
Empanada dough (recipe following) or 1 lb pizza dough
1 egg 

Saute onions, garlic and bay leaves in olive oil until onions are softened, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add chicken and chorizo, along with paprika, coriander, salt and pepper. Add olives, raisins, spinach, wine and broth, then reduce heat to moderately low and simmer until liquid has evaporated but mix is still moist. The goal is to avoid a soupy empanada filling. 
Divide your empanada dough into two sections. Roll out first section on a floured surface until the dough is very thin, probably 1/8" in thickness. You need the dough to be thick enough to hold the filling but not so thick to overwhelm eat bite so all you get is a mouthful of dough. Keep the other half of the dough wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. 
Cut out 3" circles as your empanada base. Place a dollop of filling in the middle of each circle. You don't need much — about 1 Tbsp per circle. Wet the edges of the circle and fold in half to seal. Press the edges with a fork to create a decorative border. I think it goes faster if you do this in an assembly line fashion: cut out all the circles, then add the filling to all, then fold and seal, etc. Brush the top of each empanada with an egg wash of 1 yoke and 1 Tbsp water. 
If you are going to eat them immediately, place them on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 25-40 minutes, until golden brown. 
If you are going to freeze these, simply put the finished empanadas on a cookie sheet and stick in the freezer until firm. You can then remove them and store in a Ziploc bag for a month or two in the freezer. To reheat, place them on a cookie sheet and thaw for about 15 minutes. Bake them at 350 degrees for 25-40 minutes, until golden brown. Yields: Approximately forty 3-in empanadas. 

Empanada Dough
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice water
1 Tbsp distilled white vinegar

Sift flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-sized butter lumps. 
Beat together egg, water, and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork. Add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until just incorporated. The mixture will look "shaggy."
Turn out mixture on a lightly floured surface and gather together, then knead gently with the heel of your hand once or twice, just enough to bring dough together. Form dough into a flat rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Yields: Approximately twenty 3-in empanadas. 

Note: The filling can be made 2 days ahead and cooled, uncovered, then chilled, covered. It also can be frozen until you're ready to make these. Just bring the filling to room temperature before assembling. This recipe actually makes a lot of filling (enough for 40+ or double the dough recipe), so you may want to make one batch and then freeze the rest until you're ready for your next batch. Just make sure there's not a lot of excess water from the spinach. 
I have not made these with pizza dough but that is what the original recipe called for. To me, it was not difficult to make the dough from scratch — and that is coming from a non-baker! I'm sure they'd still be a hit if you used the shortcut, which may be all the time you have during the holidays so don't let that stop you. As an alternative, you might even consider making this into a calzone, which would also be sure to please on a cold winter's night.