Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy, Joyful, Deliriously Glee-filled Christmas!

Presenting Rom-olph.
Thrilled, as you can see, about his antlers.

Roman has been pretty good this year (or the 8 months of it that he's been alive!), so we'll see what Santa brings, but I know of another little kid who wasn't so sure he'd be getting anything but a piece of coal. I can't help but smile, because I'm pretty sure I've definitely been in that situation before, and have a feeling maybe Roman will be too one of these years very soon. :)

* * *

Merry, Happy, Joyful, Indulgent, Deliriously-Glee-filled
Christmas to everyone!

Even the bad kids. >:P
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jolly Good Cranberry-Almond Biscotti.

crispy, crumbly, jolly good.

'Tis the season to be jolly, and never am I jollier than when I am baking.

I have a Christmas party to attend today with a couple of girlfriends and their babies, and when I racked my brain last week for what I could bring that was delicious, appropriate, and relatively simple to make, I quickly decided upon an old tried and true favorite recipe adapted from my favorite baking book: Cranberry-Almond Biscotti.

These Italian "twice-baked" cookies or "bis-cotti" are from the same baking master that brought you my "Best Banana Nut Bread Ever. Period." - Francois Payard. And I would say that both recipes are of the same ilk: dead simple and shockingly delicious. His original recipe is for Pistachio-Almond Biscotti, but I like cranberries and almonds together much more, and I scale down the, IMO, over-the-top amount of anise seeds he uses.

Either way, the biscotti are always a hit because they are not-too-sweet and make wonderful small gifts or favors for any kind of holiday get-together.

If that's not enough reason to be jolly, what is?

* * *

Top 5 Reasons to be Jolly this Christmas
rosey cheeks, jelly-belly and all

5. Mulled Wine
Not only does this Christmas favorite taste good, it generally does the job of making you feel "jolly" pretty quickly. At least I know my version always includes copious amounts of rum in addition to red wine, and everytime I've ever served it at a party it's the first thing to go and the last thing people forget.

There's many-a-something old-fashioned, traditional and wonderful about mulled wine: the aromas, the sweet warmth, the delicate cupping of the mug. Perfect.

4. Baked Goodlies
The holidays are guaranteed to bring the inner baker out in everyone - even those of us that should maybe make a bigger effort to keep it hidden, even now. But, in general this jekyll-hyde transformation is a good thing because it brings us things like mince pies, cookies, brownies, muffins and all sorts of amazing cakes and pies.

I know I'm a professes savor-ite, but at Christmas even I can't keep my grubby little paws off the baked goodlies. :)

3. The Quintessential "Christmas Drink"
It seems to me that Christmas is the perfect excuse to catch up with or finally approach all the people you've neglected during the year. Long-lost friends, silent neighbors, even family members you haven't seen for too long.

And how better to rekindle interaction than over a quintessential "Christmas drink?" How many times do you hear that phrase thrown around in these two weeks of the home stretch?

The Christmas drink: It's not just a pint anymore.

2. Stocking Stuffers
I don't know about you, but I love hunting for fun stocking stuffers. Ironically, we never had stockings growing up (I think in Mexico kids use shoes instead, which we never did either but whatever), but we always got random little gifts that would have been considered "stocking-stuffers" had we had stockings: barbie underwear, bags of Hershey's nuggets, silly little toys, stickers, or trinkets of one sort or another.

This year as a joke, I've bought two bags of chocolate coins which I plan to present to the scrooges of the family (read: men) in little Dickensian-style money-bags. Hey, it's been a rough year for everyone. :) And as Dickens might have once said, it's all "jolly good fun!"

1. The Reason for the Season
I won't go "Papa Ratzi" on you here, but I will say that whether I say it or not, I do think it's a jolly good idea to reflect on the deeper meanings of Christmas. And if nothing else, it makes me happy to be able to once again give thanks for a year well-lived, well-enjoyed, well-eaten up. Amen!

* * *

Jolly Good Cranberry-Almond Biscotti
adapted from Payard's Pistachio-Almond Biscotti recipe

Makes about 20 Chunky Biscotti

pre-slicing and pre-second-baking

I'm not a big "biscuit" person in the American or British sense of the word. But I love biscotti. Maybe it's the Classicist in me, but there is something about the fact that these cookies were originally conceived as durable food for the Roman Army's many legions that I find hopelessly romantic and exciting. Plus, having lived in Italy a couple of times, there are issues of nostalgia to also be dealt with in my psyche, and these biscotti are a quick-fix.

As an added bonus, all Roman wants for Christmas this year is his two front teeth. These biscotti are great teething-biscuits for any little ones who love to or need to gnaw. :)

* * *

3 tbsps unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsps sugar
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tbsps all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs
2/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 tsp anise seeds


1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Combine all dry ingredients including lemon zest in a bowl and set aside.

3. In another bowl beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until combined. Then add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

4. Mix in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. You may want to use your hands to make the dough come together.

5. Add the nuts and cranberries and work into the dough until just incorporated; do not kneed the dough, just combine.

6. Put on a lightly floured surface and shape the dough into a 12-inch long log. Then place on the cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until the the top is firm to the touch. Don't worry, the log may look thin, but it widens up while baking to give the biscotti their long, traditional shape.

7. Remove from the oven, but leave the oven on. Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes, then slice into thin biscotti with a serrated knife and put back on the cookie sheet.

8. Bake for an additional 12-14 minutes or until biscotti are golden and baked-through-crispity.

Enjoy with a good Italian coffee or a glass of wine for dipping!

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Son the Creepy Crawler!

One of Roman's many pre-crawling fruitless attempts at
creeping, slinking, scooting and generally getting from here to there.

The past few days have been a game of intense anticipation. In addition to eagerly awaiting the day that Roman, Matt and I will all finally be rid of our respective cold / swine flu / infection thingies, we have all been on pins and needles waiting for Roman to finally crawl.

No, we weren't sitting there in front of him willing him with intense stares to do it (not all the time anyway :)), but it's just that in the past week he has gone from being able to only get on all-fours and rock a little, to being able to do all sorts of other things, including crawling backwards, almost standing up from a sitting position, and sitting up from a complete laying position (If you don't have kids, these things may sound mundane, but to me and most parents it's tantamount to watching a spiritual revelation.).

Yesterday I thought I saw him crawl twice, but only maybe two movements in a row. This morning I was woken up by Matt running up the stairs (he had been down breakfasting with the little beast) and yelling "I saw him crawl! I saw him crawl!" And this time he'd taken 3 or 4 little crawls, making it indisputably real: we now officially have a little creepy crawler!

"Creepy?!" you say, "why creepy?"

Poor Roman. I've taken to calling him all sorts of silly names to describe his pre-crawling attempts at mobility: slug, frog, slithery slink, and today my friend Stacey called her son Hunter a "limpet," which I have also, in a last-ditch effort to call my child one more awkward thing, adopted for Roman. Creepy enough, right? Well now he also crawls.

But you don't have to take MY word for it.

The only way I could get Roman to crawl was by baiting him with the "forbidden fruit" that he LOVES to slobber on: the remote control. :) I have a feeling he'll be "selectively" showing off his skills for quite a convenient while.
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Austere but Eye-catching Beauty: Sea Buckthorn

Sea Buckthorn: an eye-catching beauty.
image credit

There is a cute little flower and plant stand at our local mall that I pass every time I go shopping. In the leadup to our Thanksgiving feast-orama I kept my eyes peeled for something simple, sturdy and colorful that would make a striking yet understated centerpiece to the Thanksgiving table. If chosen correctly, this piece of foliage could also serve as an enduring autumnal-transitioning-into-invernal
centerpiece for the house.

Low-maintenance but beautiful was my game. With those prerequisites in mind, I knew flowers, unless potted, were out of the question. And besides, I did not want to go
the Poinsettia route although my family has established luck with those Christmas flowers.**

The flower stand offered a variety of evergreen wreaths, garlands, bunches of leaves and branches of many sorts - real or fake, bare or full of white fluffy poofs. But one thing caught my eye on day one and continued to do so until almost two weeks later when I finally bought it: a bucket full of tree branches with nothing but bright, brilliantly orange berries on them. I didn't ask the name then, though I should have. I just knew those two big branches of berries were my perfect centerpiece.

It turns out they are from a species of Central Asian / Eastern European shrub called Sea Buckthorn, and though deceptively austere in appearance - no leaves, no flowers, just berries and wood - the species is surprisingly versatile, delicate and above all, beautiful.

* * *
Top 3 Interesting Things About Sea Buckthorn
the bold and the beautiful

3. Resilient Little Bugger
Though the berries fall off easily and they are an awkward and ostensibly delicate thing to carry home from the florist, these shrubs in their full and natural form are about as resilient as plants come. They can survive temperatures up to -40C (that's -40F for you Americans), and are drought AND salt tolerant. They can grown in sand, soil, you name it. Sadly, their resilience means they tend to spread and create ugly large thickets if not kept in check - and they have gigantic thorns when fully mature. Oh well.

2. Berry Good Indeed.

In the Cold War the Russians and East Germans developed a new and improved Sea Buckthorn plant that was tougher, more resilient, yielded more berries, and spiked only westerners with its thorns. Ok kidding about the last part but I guess you could kind of call it the "communist sea buckthorn." :)

The reason they did this is because of the possible precious nature of Sea Buckthorn berries. While nothing has been proven as to their possible benefits with regards to things like cancer or other diseases, we do know that they contain almost 12 TIMES the Vitamin C of oranges, and can
be combined with other sweeter, less astringent juices to make a delicious breakfast smoothy!

1. "She's a Beaut, that One."
There are male and female Sea Buckthorns, which makes sense since the name sounds like some kind of mythical creature out of Harry Potter.

The female, of course, is the only one that bears the much-sought berries. And I say much-sought with no socio-political agenda in mind. I say sought-after for one very simple rea
son of great importance to an aesthetist such as I: their eye-catching beauty.

Or in technical terms:
"The combination of fruit shape and size, together with the contrast between the colour of the fruit and leaves, contributes to the ornamental value of this plant."
* * *

Here is one of my favorite shots of my lovely Sea Buckthorn branches:

* * *

**My grandmother once received a poinsettia as a Christmas gift from a house guest. This was back in the 70s. She took it and planted it in her front garden. It thrived and is currently still alive and well, in tree form, in her front yard in Mexico City.
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Manitas Calientitas: Homemade Felt Mittens

Hand-made mittens = straight shot of Christmas Spirit

Happy December!

Month of my birth and all-things much-anticipated :) It's officially the holidays now! Thanksgiving is over, and it's time to pull out the Christmas tree and get to real-deal Christmas present hunting.

I spent the better half of my weekend browing and cursing strangers who out-bid me for an embossing gun on ebay (I am already in elf-mode when it comes to our Christmas cards, as you can see). I can hardly contain the excitement! And even the inevitable last-minute stuff that will stress me out in a couple of weeks sounds funny right now. :)

I always have ambitious plans to create all sorts of personalized Christmas gifts and favors, and
while I usually only get 3/4 of what I want to do done, it's a pursuit I usually love, but this year I saw it as daunting for the first time with the prospect of crafting while having Roman to watch as well.

That's right, I think everyone, including myself, thought (and Matt hoped) I'd given up on my random crafty pursuits of the knitting / haberdashery persuasion once Roman appeared. Happily for most, including me, and sadly for Matt and his fervent desire that I get rid of my piles of yarn and fabric, everyone was wrong.

* * *
The Incredible Shrinking Sweater

After I shrank one of my favorite (and only) wool sweaters last year by putting it in a warm washer cycle, I decided I should do something crafty and wonderful with the resulting midget-felt-sweater. (So yes, apparently wool turns to felt when it is heated and washed.) I only wish I had known sooner all the fun crafty things there are out there to do with these spoils of bad washing! I would have kept the many pieces of wool apparel I've ruined over the years. I mean, yes, you can probably use them as doll clothing, but I like to think there are things that involve a lot more buying of cool gadgets or crafting items, experimenting, procrastinating, and off-the-cuff embroidering, which is basically what almost every single craft project I undertake involves. :D

* * *

Manitas Calientitas: The Gift of Warmth

**SPOILER ALERT: Ava-luna, my newly 1-year-old neice, if you're reading this, you'd better stop before you ruin one of your birthday presents.**

In a vain attempt to distract me in the last 3 weeks of my extended pregnancy my mother brought a fun article she clipped from a magazine on the subject of felt sewing projects. And it included a section on how to make your own felt mittens (along with other interesting items such as a hot water bag cover, an iPod case, and a remove control cosy).

In my world, that is the perfect reason to take those magazine pages, keep them laying around in a pile for approximately 7 months until I had almost driven Matt insane and, coincidentally, the time was exactly right for making some felt mittens for my two favorite midgets: Roman and Ava.

What better to give at the holidays than a gift of warmth? Living in a cold-ish place, I am always reminded how wonderful warm gifts are: warm cookies, hand warmers, muffs, turtleneck neck muffs, scarves, hot sauce, you name it. These mittens will hopefully keep those pretty miniature hands and fingers of my niece and offspring warm all winter long. :)

the magazine cut-outs that started it all

* * *

Handmade Felt Oven Mi--err, Mittens

It took me a while to draw the pattern exactly as I wanted it, and the result looks a little more like an oven-mit than I realized at first. Maybe it's because I made the mittens longer, but since they have no elastic around the wrist, I didn't want to risk unpleasant drafts getting in when worn outside.

personalized warmth....oooh....aaaahhh.....

To personalize the matching mitten sets for Roman and Ava I also embroidered their names and some whimsical girl / boy symbols. Ava got a pretty flower. Roman got a shooting star, and, the one I'm most proud of but probably doesn't show up well on these pictures: a puppy!

I have never really embroidered much by hand, so the names and symbols have a silly, awkward, hand-made quality to them. Here's to hoping Roman and Ava grow to one day see that as infinitely charming.

the adorable finished products
, sure to keep all mini-hands extra warm

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Day of Much Stuffing.

Turkish perfection - stuffed with mushroom delectability.

For two years running now Matt and I have held an early-autumnal feast here in the land of the Pilgrims a weekend or two before THE holy Thursday. It is a chance for us ex-pats to come together with a lot of other ex-pat friends and be thankful and gluttonous. But besides that, it is also a rare opportunity to introduce friends of different nationalities to one of the few, truly identifiably, and uniquely (how many adverbs can I throw in here?) American traditions: Thanksgiving.

It's funny, but this year it seems like almost everyone I spoke to about Thanksgiving in the weeks
running up to it seemed to say how much they love stuffing - even to the exclusion of the otherwise obvious main attraction and slang-namesake of "Turkey Day" - that unfortunate and delicious wattle-d animal, the Turkey. Weirdly, I found myself in many an unorthodox Thanksgiving conversation over the past couple of weeks that went something like this:

"Hey, if I don't see you have a great Thanksgiving - and enjoy the Turkey!"

"Oh yeah, the turkey - I will. But actually for me it's all about the stuffing."


"So, have you picked up your bird yet?"

"Yeah, we got a big one this year. But what I look forward to every year is the stuffing."

or even

"MAN! That is a big turkey you've got there. You better make sure to leave some room for dessert!"

"Oh don't worry - I never eat much turkey. I am a stuffing kinda girl."

Fine, I made a couple of those up - but really!? Who knew that people were so stu
ck on the quieter, shyer, uglier cousin of the Thanksgiving star-of-the-show?

I mean, stuffing (or dressing, or whatever you call it!) is not that pretty to look at most of the time, especially if you cook it inside the cavity of the bird. It's brown and crumbly, or even gooey and steamed - so much so that you can slice it! But the secret that most people never talk about is that it has all the stuff in it that delicious Thanksgivings are made of. An understated, unflashy conglomeration of the bits-and-bobs of true Thanksgivingness that is the perfect accompaniment to
what should be, in my mind, a simple roast bird.

Yes, yes, yes, Thanksgiving IS all about the sides. I do agree. But no side, in my mind, can come close - if done right (and you can bet your bottom dollar it was done right this year!) - to matching the appeal of stuffing. Onto the list.

* * *

Top Four Reasons To Stuff Yourself This Thanksgiving
with stuffing or whatever else is cooked and within your grasp.
Screw the diet - it's the holidays (again).

4. Corn Pudding
Is it wrong to say that maybe in some bastardized crazy way this time-tested Thanksgiving staple is a shout-out to the Native Americans that so kindly showed the pilgrims how to farm and therefore also metaphorically kindled the embers that one day became the roaring fire of America? Is that so wrong?

Well even if it is, I think you and I know that whatever and whenever and whoever the hell this dish came from, there's a reason it shows up every year and gets eaten to the last Americana-encrusted-crumb every year. We all have our secret recipe - sugar or not, jiffy or not, kernels or not - and we all horde it (for absolutely no good reason) and all these things make corn pudding more than worthy to be on this list of reasons to stuff and be stuffed by the ones you love this Thanksgiving.

3. Cranberry Sauciness - Annual Permission to be Irreverent.
When else can you, in all seriousness, buy cranberries in a can, pop said can open and pour it - IN CAN FORM - onto a small platter and serve straight to guests with applause and glee all around?!
My little sister gets upset if I ever try to mash down the can shape and insists it's part of the Thanksgiving aesthetic. I cannot say I disagree.

And for the record, I like both with cranberry chunks and smooth. Availability of both is ideal for prime-stuffing situations.

2. Turkish (but not really) Perfection
In the painfully adulterated words of Michael Jackson...

"If you'll be my [Turkey] it don't matter if you're [dark] or white."

*awkward drum / cymbal slap*

For those of you who would otherwise avoid dark meat during the year because of its rich, fatty nature, now's the time to indulge. I like chicken legs as much as the next, but there is something perfectly thrilling (and positively medieval) about the size and deliciousness of Turkey legs that deserves a little respect and indulgence, and Turkey day is the night, day, and morning after for said indulgence.

Go on, have a second, or even third helping. Yes, the requisite delicate slices of breast meat should not be neglected (but let's be honest, you drench those in gravy anyway), but neither should the moist, fatty chunks of wing and thigh that we all know we're eyeing anyway. :)

1. Stuffing: The Ultimate Farce

Farce: a comedy which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verba humor of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases, culminating in an ending which often involves an elaborate chase scene.

Sounds like Thanksgiving at my house pretty much every year around the time that I am trying to take the Turkey out of the oven.

But seriously, I bet you didn't know how sophisticated stuffing really is. According to this article, stuffing was actually called "farce" in the middle ages, which came from the Latin farcire or "to stuff." It is apparently also still called "forcemeat" by some people and only started to be referred to as "dressing" because of the (predictable) snootish propriety of the Victorian upper crust who found it offensive to use the term "stuffing" with reference to their nourishment.

Well now, I think the fact that we can use the word stuffing without fearing that our sensibilities and/or honor have somehow been slighted is as good a reason as any to get on into the kitchen and stuff stuff stuff!

* * *

Truly Delectable Mushroom Stuffing

Serves 10

Roman's First Thanksgiving

This year at our Thanksgiving party I got more compliments on my stuffing than I ever have in my life. Granted, I haven't made stuffing THAT many times, but I've tried as many recipes as I have times I've made it and this was a clear winner. It involves lots and lots of mushrooms, giblets galore (go on, be adventurous!), and a couple of predictable Brenda twists (red pepper flakes, for one) to give it my secret touch.

You've got to cook it in the bird or it just doesn't get that extra buttery, Turkey moistness oh-so-necessary for it to have a truly addictive quality. But if that's not how you roll (and I take great
issue with you if it isn't) then go ahead and bake it in a casserole dish, but add a whole lot more liquid in the form of Turkey drippings, stock, shiitake broth, wine or a generous mixture of all. Either way it's guaranteed to have you and your guests "wattling" poetic by the end of the meal.


3/4 loaf stale white bread, chopped into small squares
4 tbsps butter
4 cups chopped chestnut mushrooms
2 cups soaked and sliced shiitakes, broth reserved
2 medium onions, chopped into small pieces (not fine, not coarse)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)
1 cup dry white wine
2-3 tbsps chopped fresh tarragon
2-3 tbsps chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsps red chili pepper flakes
1 set turkey giblets (heart, liver, kidney, gizzard, neck meat) chopped / shredded finely
1/4 cup shiitake broth
1/4 cup chicken or turkey broth
salt, pepper to taste

our buffet table, waiting to be stuffed

1. Leave your loaf of bread (and I mean normal, sliced bread - not a baguette or the like) out and open for one night so it is nice and stale. Chop into thin slices and then small squares (pretty small actually). Put into a large metal bowl and set aside.

2. Soak the shiitakes in extremely hot water to rehydrate for 20-30 minutes. Slice once cool and reserve liquid.

3. Melt butter in a medium pan over medium heat, then sautee the onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes until translucent. Add mushrooms and thyme; sautee until well-cooked.

4. Increase heat to high and add white wine and leave to reduce until almost all liquid is gone. Season with salt and pepper generously. Remove pan from heat and pour onion-mushroom mixture over bread squares.

5. Add chopped giblets and shredded neck meat to bread mixture as well as tarragon and parsley. Mix well and then season again generously with salt and pepper.

6. At this point the mixture should look like fluffly stuffing. Pour shiitake and turkey broth over it and mix well. The mixture should not be soggy or wet looking.
MAKE AHEAD: Make stuffing night before Thanksgiving; put into ziplock bags and refrigerate until needed the next day.

7. When you're ready to make the turkey, stuff both the main and the neck cavities with the stuffing, and be sure to baste it generously with turkey drippings as the turkey bakes.

PLEASE NOTE: It is safe to bake stuffing in a turkey as long as the turkey and stuffing are both at room temperature before they go into the oven - do not bake stuffing in a bird that is partially or wholly frozen or the heat will not penetrate the stuffing fast enough!
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Summer in a Pot: Guajillo Shrimp Chowder

PS: Don't eat the peppers.

When you're already as sick as I am of the cold and rainy London weather and it's only early November, you need something to flood you with warm, memories of summertime, both literally and figuratively, and I mean pronto.

I set upon making this autumnal deed happen for Matt and me a couple of weeks ago when I embarked upon a tireless search for a recipe to make something that sounded intuitively delicious but I'd never seen on a menu or actually even heard of: shrimp chowder.

Matt being a Northeastern man, and me being a total raw-bar pig / obsessed with shrimp, any excuse to eat shellfish or crustaceans in any shape or form is worth seizing on. But, it's too cold and un-summery to make my beloved Shrimp Boils - and yet, I wondered what I could do to bring that aestival favorite to my Autumnal table in an acceptably cozy form. Luckily, I am a bonafidelover of all chowders - New England, Manhattan, Rhode Island -- you name it, I'll eat it. A few hours, lots of researching, chopping, stewing and brewing later, this recipe was born. And yes, of course, it has a Mexican kick. (Really? Would you honestly expect anything less?)

Enjoy on a cold wish-it-was-still-summer-but-it-ain't-and-that-kinda-sucks kinda day. :)

* * *

Ode to the Guajillo Pepper
*with classical double-flute accompaniment*

My Chilitos, my Guajillos, loved and lauded in my heart,
loved and lauded by my taste buds, by my mind - ah, where to start?
a dried and smokey toasted chile, you're a meaty little heat-y,
I keep you stocked in my bodega for you taste good and you're pretty

Cooking you may seem too foreign to some gringos and their folk,
but I just remove your seeds and stem and leave your pretty self to soak.
When you're soft, hydrated, ready, I can take you to the knife.
Listo? Smell and taste but keep it steady! There's some heat, but nothing rife.
I can use you in a salsa for guizitos (that's a stew),
I can toast you for my chili, as good Texan folks would do.
I can chop you up and fry you with garlic, prawns and olive oil,
you work great for dinner, tapas, when I bake, fry, dip or boil.

Oh Guajillo, Oh chilito - you're a deep, rich red, I love.
How I crave your subtle flavors, I hold you in esteem above--
all other chiles (kinda). :D

* * *

Guajillo Shrimp Chowder
or Autumn's Shrimp Boil

Serves 6

how scrumdidliumptious is this picture? :)

This chowder can be as spicy or tame as you want it to be. Guajillo chiles give it flavor more than heat - that's where the chiles de arbol come in, so adjust those to your preference. Remove the peppers and bay leaves at serving time.

I find that putting the shrimp in at the very last minute and letting them cook with the heat of the soup is the best way to ensure succulent texture and avoid that nasty overcooked, dried out shrimp we have all had and lamented. Enjoy - I think this is a recipe I'll be making for years to come. :)

1 lb shrimp, raw, peeled (shells reserved) and deveined
1/4 lb bacon-chop or pancetta, chopped into squares
olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 small fennel bulb, sliced (fronds & tough exterior reserved)
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
3 guajillo chiles, seeds & stem removed
2 chiles arbol (or 1 or none if you're a wuss)
3 large potatoes, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
2 cups corn kernels (from frozen or canned)
3 cups fish stock OR 3 cups shrimp stock (see below**)
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp corn starch or flour
salt & freshly ground pepper
chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)

1. Chop all your vegetables and heat 1 tbsp olive oil in large soup pot.

2. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat until browned and crispy (5 minutes or so), then remove from the pan and reserve on a plate.

3. Keep the same pot with bacon fat and bits on the stove. Add 1 tbsp olive oil and allow to heat. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaves, fennel and chiles and sautee until the onions and fennel are cooked but not browned.

4. Add the potatoes, corn, tomato paste, wine, cream and stock. The liquid should just cover the potatoes; if it doesn't, add a little bit more water. Cook on high heat for 8-10 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

5. Meanwhile, mix the corn starch or flour in a ramekin with some water until completely dissolved. Once potatoes are done cooking, pour a small amount of the hot chowder broth into the ramekin so that the flour dissolves completely, then empty the ramenkin's contents into the chowder. Mix well and allow to simmer for a further 2-3 minutes or until soup has thickened.

6. If you are serving the chowder immediately, turn the heat off, add the shrimp and mix well. Cover and allow the shrimp to cook with the residual heat of the chowder for a good 10 minutes.

Serve garnished with chopped cilantro and some crusty bread.

**Quick Shrimp Stock:
Sautee 2 cloves of crushed garlic, the shrimp shells, and the fronds and exterior layer of the fennel in two tablespoons of olive oil until the shells are pink and aromatic. Add the wine and water (4 cups in this case) from the recipe above and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or until reduced. Strain until only the broth is left and use for the chowder.
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Holy Umami: Crazy Mushrooms & Unauthentic Beef Stroganoff

oh to forage in the fall!

Mushrooms make you do crazy things.

And I'm not talking about the low-grade hallucinogenics you buy when you're desperately trying to be cool in high school (and for the record, I was never that desperate to be cool). I'm talking about the enchanting children of the autumn - real mushrooms - button-white-chanterelley-morelish-portabellos that leave you with a natural high thanks to their deliciously unique flavors and texture making you more likely to exclaim crazy things like "I love these freaking mushrooms!" in mixed company, or run around the dinner table stealing peoples' share of the mushroom loot, or steal one or two raw mushrooms to eat while you walk around the supermarket. Crazy, I tell ya. (Not that I've ever done any of those things.) But I digress.

Also for the record, I'm not the only one who thinks mushrooms drive you to insanity. There are a whole bunch of Russians out there who would wholeheartedly agree with me. And while I firmly believe they are not even close to being the only mushroom-obsessed nationality (I'd bet good truffles the Italians and French would give them a run for their porcini), I do have proof in the form of semi-reputable-writing (read: NY Times) that they are pretty nutty when it comes to that age-old autumnal pastime: mushroom foraging season.

But you don't have to take my word for it: Crazy Russians.

* * *

Top 4 Mushrooms that Drive Me Crazy
In a good way.

holy shiitake.

4. The Canned Mushroom
I admit it - I am a blasphemer in the eyes of many a foodie. I do, on occasion, indulge (is that the right word?) in eating those soggy, rubbery little canned mushrooms. I find them particularly satisfying in pasta sauce, actually, though I get really angry if someone dares to put them on a pizza, so don't go there. I probably like them because my mom used to buy them a lot when we were kids to make her bolognese. Hey, we're Mexican, not Italian, ok? :)

The texture of cooked mushrooms is one of my favorites aspects of eating them and canned mushrooms are nothing if not texture-filled (let's be honest, the flavor isn't exactly there). Apparently when I was a little kid (4 or 5) my mom found me in the kitchen chewing and chewing on one side of my mouth. When she asked me what I was eating I told her I was eating "my mushroom." When she tried to search my mouth for it she realized there was nothing in there, and that's when I explained that when I got hungry I chewed on my "imaginary mushroom."

Some kids had imaginary friends, I had an imaginary mushroom. Crazy or not crazy? You do the math.

3. The Chiodini Mushroom
Here's the deal: I do not like vegetarian pizza. Vegetarian pizza in most places amounts to some nasty bell peppers with some nasty mushrooms with some nasty onions and nasty cheese. Give me ham, bacon or sausage or give me death! That's just how I roll. But one day, long ago and in Rome, I did the unthinkable and ordered a vegetarian pizza because it had nothing but these mushrooms on it:

"Chiodini" means "little nails" in Italian, which makes sense given what they look like when the stems are cut short. The ones on my Sicilian-style pizza by the meter were the size of more proportionate thumb-tacks. They were perfectly cooked and offered in copious amounts.

Crazy. Of the "delicious" persuasion.

2. The Oyster Mushroom
I think I've mentioned these and how I love them made "a la Gramma", but they really cannot be praised enough. Oyster mushrooms are particularly aesthetically appealing. They come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and to me don't look so much like oysters as they do lobster tail fans or deformed ears. Or something. :) I once saw some purple oyster mushrooms selling for GBP89.99 per kilo at Harrods (crazy eff-ers). In a twisted way, I almost thought it would be worth paying that much if the mushrooms were as good as they looked.

And on that note, they are just beautiful. And they have the best texture of all (save number 1, maybe). Plus, they are generally so substantial in size that they can be eaten as a dish unto themselves. I think they are best prepared simply sauteed in butter and olive oil with some garlic and pepperoncino thrown in, but it was these little fungi that inspired me to dream the unthinkable dream and cook my crazy green lasagna.

How do you like THEM apples mushrooms? *dramatic raise of the eyebrow*

1. The Shii Mushroom (or Shiitake, in Japanese)
I save these Asian delicacies for last because they are for me the gold standard of mushrooms. They are eye-pleasing, meaty, substantial, and hold up very well in whatever dish you choose to use them for. They can be dried and rehydrated without losing umph, and are so strong in flavor that you can actually make a delicious vegetarian stock just from their woody little stems.

Another cool thing about them (apart from being able to use their name as a euphemism for the word that shizzle is also a euphemism for) is that they are known for having a heavy concentration of that elusive UMAMI flavor all we meat-and-savory-lovers want to get our taste buds on. Apparently the umami is even more concentrated in the dried variety of the shiitake, which is why I keep a package of dried ones in my bodega at all times. If you want to get your hands on this crazy dry and portable party-of-the-mouth, go to your nearest Asian food store. :)

* * *

Damn Good But Relatively Unauthentic
Beef Stroganoff

Serves 2

shiitakes: so meaty. so umami.

When it comes to mushrooms I eat them all. I love the ones I've listed above, but I also adore:
- chanterelles (oh, Julia!)
- morels (oh, Ina!)
- white mushrooms (my grandmother's caldo de champinones comes to mind)
- crimini (or baby bellas)
- portobellos (who doesn't love sinking their teeth into these?)
- porcini (in the words of Joel McHale, "so meaty!")
- enoki (great in Asian soups!)
- or even the common white or chestnut variety (really great for chicken Marsala)!

As should be apparent from the list above, Shiitakes have a special place in the culinary chamber of my heart, which is why I decided to use them for my version of Beef Stroganoff. Thought I'd go ahead and keep with the Russian - Mushroom theme for the day, as this dish is actually originally Russian (who knew?).

There is much debate about whether you use good steak or cheap meat, dill or no dill, rice, pasta, kasha or mashed potatoes?!, cognac, white wine or no alcohol at all. Finding an "authentic" beef stroganoff recipe is like foraging for rare white truffles: you're more likely to get lost in the woods or stuck in a tree for five days fending off jackals in this lifetime.

I even consulted with my Russian friends only to get mixed opinions within a married couple ("It goes with mashed potatoes!" "No, it goes with rice!")! So I just kind of took what I liked from several recipes and ran with it. Call me crazy.

* * *

1 lb stewing beef, sliced into thin strips
4 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
4 shallots (or onion), chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp dried dillweed
4 tbsps butter
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups beef stock
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 tbsp flour
2 tbsps freshly and coarsely cracked pepper
Salt to taste

- 1/2 lb cooked and buttered egg noodles or fusilloni (giant fusilli pasta), as in my case.

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan (I used my cast iron pan) and brown the pieces of meat in 2 or 3 batches over medium-high heat. Remove meat to a plate.

2. Add the butter to the pan and allow to melt. Then add the shallots and garlic and cook until translucent. Then add the mushrooms, dill, and pepper and sautee until the liquid is almost entirely evaporated.

3. Add the wine and beef stock and turn heat up to high. Re-add the meat and simmer on low covered for 30 minutes or until the meat is falling-apart-tender.

4. Take off the lid, add the cream, dijon mustard and correct the seasoning with salt. Stir in the flour until completely combined and simmer for another 10 or 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens and reduces by 1/3 or so. The dish should NOT be watery!

5. Serve over noodles (or rice, or kasha, or mashed potatoes). :)

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wild Thing.

Max, like Roman and me, is always up for a good bit of 'rumpus-ing."

We are far overdue for a cuteness interlude. Halloween this year also conveniently coincides with Roman turning 6 months old and is therefore the perfect opportunity for his proud and puffy mama-beast to fluff up her feathers and show him off a little more. :)

* * *

One of our all-time favorite children's books (and no, not just because the totally awesome movie is coming out soon!) is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It's one of the only books that I made absolutely sure to buy a hardback in, and since Roman was born we've probably read it more times than any other.

This books is near and dear to our hearts not only because it's been
around since we were kids, but because Matt has jokingly called me one of Max's "Wild Things" since the first time he visited my house while we were dating and my mom showed him some of my baby pictures (see below). He even sent my mom a "Where the Wild Things Are" thank you note after that. :)

In the words of Max: "I'll Eat You Up!"

Where the Wild Things Are is a celebration of fiendishly childish imagination, wildly innocent caprice, and simple, unconditional love. It always makes me laugh and by the end it always makes
me want to cry. It involves dressing up, wild jungles and voyages, wild rumpus-ing, much gnashing of teeth and mischief galore. All that in what amounts to about four sentences of text and simple, yet ingeniously evocative illustrations.

It is a great book because it does what all great literature should
do: it makes you imagine. Right now Roman just tries to eat the pages when I read it to him, but I can't wait for the day that he starts to wonder about Max, tells me which Wild Thing is his favorite of all, and maybe even runs around the house in his very own wolf suit making mischief of one kind...or another. :)

* * *

Naturally, my first impulse was to dress Roman as something of a Wild Thing for his first Halloween. The closest thing I could find was a little red devil outfit complete with black cape and pointy tail. I then took it upon myself to further humiliate my child by hand-drawing a curly mustache and goatee on him. (I figure I have to get the harassment in now while he still can't talk.
) To virtually commemorate this occasion, here are some pictures of Roman's first Halloween as well as other favorites from my Wild Thing's first six months of life.

"And now," cried Max, "let the wild rumpus start!"

* * *

Mi Diablito

First Halloween - 6 Months

Sitting up so well - 5 months

The Roman Doll hits Texas Stores - 4 months

Going to a part-ay! - 3 months

Really smiling (and charming us to bits)! - 2 months

Already an enfant terrible at less than 1 month.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Spicy Pumpkin Seeds: A Halloween Treat

homemade pumpkin seeds -
the delicious byproduct of a carved pumpkin

Among my fondest Halloween memories (aside from the embarassing disaster that was dressing up like uncle fester) I cherish moments of gorging myself on delicious treats that only come at that time of year: copious amounts of orange, yellow, brown and black candy in a plastic jack-o-lantern with a handle on it, bottomless bowls of candy corn, impossibly sticky caramel apples with peanuts all over, and freshly baked pumpkin seeds, fresh from the pumpkin.

The latter are probably my favorite (despite having a professed weakness for almond joy and three musketeer bars) because they are something that not only conjure spooky Halloween memories, but also the flavors of Mexico. (image credit)

Pumpkin seeds or "pepitas" are an unofficial national
snack in Mexico**. As a child I was known to constantly carry a bag of them in my backpack, snacking on them secretly during class, recess or after school. You can buy them in tiny home-made bags on any corner in Mexico City, perfectly toasted and heavily salted. Maybe it's the salt I crave more than the actual seeds, or maybe it's the special un-shelling technique I developed over time (look mom, no hands!) that I take so much joy in, but either way, there's something about "pepitas" that still inspires childish glee in me.

This year's pumpkin; inspired by Roman's big brown eyes :)

But back to Halloween. I am a devout pumpkin carver (partly because of the hidden snack inside) and this year was no exception. After I wooed Matt one year with my (not-so) secret "pepita" recipe, which converted him from a pumpkin-seed-ambivalent to a bonafide pepita-lover, he has harassed me to make it every year and last night as I carved the Roman-o-lantern, insisted I write a blog about it (flattering, yes).

Here is my recipe so you too can enjoy pumpkin seeds with a kick. It's not Mexican, but it sure is Halloween for

* * *

Las Pepitas de Brenda
(Brenda's Pumpkin Seeds)

Serves 4 mere mortals
but only 2 greedy-pepita-eating-monsters

I like this recipe because it involves a couple of my favorite flavors, is quick, easy and also aesthetically appealing. The Paprika gives the pumpkin seeds an orange Halloweeny look, and the lemon juice balances out the salt. And after they're baked, they leave a lovely orange-black Halloween residue on the foil. :D

You can eat them whole or peel the shell off (after you suck all the tastiness off of it, of course). Feel free to adjust spices to your liking. I love sour, spicy things -
you've been warned. Amazingly, these seeds are probably the healthiest thing you'll eat the whole 31st. :)

* * *

Pumpkin seeds from 1 large pumpkin
1 tbsp salt
2 tsps paprika (or cayenne pepper if you're brave :) ), plus extra for sprinkling
1 lemon (not lime, mom!), juiced
a sprinkle of pepper (optional)

1. Preheat your oven to 375F / 175C. Once you have removed the seeds from inside the pumpkin, put them in a bowl and rinse them thoroughly with cold water until all the pumpkin membranes come off.

2. Pat the seeds dry with paper towels and transfer to a small bowl. Add all the ingredients and mix until all seeds are thoroughly coated.

3. Transfer the seeds to a cookie sheet lined with foil. Make sure the seeds are in a single layer
and not overlapping each other. Sprinkle with extra paprika for more color.

4. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until dry and toasty. The seeds should be somewhat crunchy. Allow them to cool and transfer to an air-tight container for storage or eat immediately!

These make a great Halloween party snack. :)

Happy Halloween!

**Not to be confused with
Argentinian "pepitas" which are cookies,
Pepitas are also used in widely in Mexican cooking in dishes such as Pipian, or Papadzul, and they are used to make a variety of desserts as well as ground up to thicken or make sauces or garnish dishes.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

My Very Own Homesick Texan Chili

Chili, our Chili, God Bless the mighty stew!

We're back from Malta! And posts on the delightful Maltese culture and food (or lack thereof in the latter case) are forthcoming. But for now, a post I was inspired to write shortly before leaving for our little autumnal vacation on a subject near and dear to my little Texan heart: chili.

* * *

One of the first food blogs that inspired me to start writing my own is a wonderful site written by a fellow Texan who is also homesick. Having once been a "Homesick Texan living in NYC" myself, I
immediately identified with Lisa. Her recipes are authentic, interesting and generally pretty darn delicious.

The dreary fall weather in London has been getting me down, and so I figured it was high time I finally got around to trying one of the many recipes I'd bookmarked on Homesick Texan:
Seven-Chile Chili.

chiles de arbol - my stash

Rather a purists' Texan, the above recipe involves a huge variety of spices and chiles - stuff that probably most people would not have regularly in their pantries. A lot of it, despite being familiar to me through my own Mexican heritage, was not typical chili fair for me. I grew up with a fairly clear sense of what chili is and what it's not, and after perusing many recipes, I realized I had a rather boring and somewhat tame recipe.

So it was tough for me, at first, to alter that holy-chili-image in any way, but I made some tweaks and came up with my own recipe based on my own tastes and my own pantry or "bodega" as I like to call it. The moment I tasted my very own Homesick Texan chili recipe I realized that for once, and in the famous words of country-pop-whatever singer Sheryl Crow, some change had done me good.

* * *

What Chili is and is not.
In my humble opinion, as usual.

4. It is the Texas state food.
Among the many indoctrinating facts and songs I was taught as a young child living in the Lone S
tar State is this gem. I can also tell you that the Texas state tree is the Pecan tree, the bird is the mocking bird, the flower the bluebonnet (which is illegal to pick), that we have the right to fly our flag at the same height as that of the US, and I can sing entirely from memory the "Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Texas our Texas." (Yes, I am proud of all of this. :) )

Chili is in every Texan's veins. Everyone has their two cents on what should be in it or not and how hot or tomato-ey or not it should be. The variety and individual character of every family's chili is part of the charm of having it as the official state food. It reflects the diverse nature of a state so big and full of good food. :)

3. It is NOT Mexican.

But it is Mexican-inspired. Whether you make it with actual chiles or you just use good old Gebhardt's Chili Powder, the reason you're making chili at all has a lot more to do with authentic Mexican and Native American food than the cliched name might imply. This guy can tell you a whole lot more than that about Chili's Mexican (and otherwise) origins right here.

2. It is a labor of food love.

Chili is not something that can be whipped up in a few minutes. It is a stew, which by nature, takes time to, well, stew (no matter what Rachael Ray and her "stoups" have to say about it). A short-version chili will take you a good 45 minutes to an hour to make. Anything less zips right past the conditional and into the present affirmative case: it IS uncivilized. Chili is evocative of years of people on the range melding flavors, combining comforting, hearty ingredients to make a fulfilling meal for family and friends. It is worth choosing right and letting it simmer.

1. It is NOT one clear-cut thing.
Chili is as varied as the cowboys who first cooked it.
I bet you didn't know that there are actually "technical" definitions for chili out there - well, there are. How can you really define chili?

The Brits like to call it "chili con carne" (and yes, they do nauseatingly pronounce it "carn-EE" as if it had small hands and smelled like cabbage), but actually it's anything but "chile con carne" which is a Mexican dish and very different.

There's white chili, vegetarian chili, chili made with every kind of chili pepper, tomato and type of bean out there. People in Cincinatti eat their chili served over spaghetti (won't even get into the Italian-sacrilege that is), and the guys at Sonic (America's Drive-in!) serve their chili over a giant American hot dog, put cheese on it and call it a "coney dog."

Who is right? What is authentic and real? Tomatoes or no tomatoes? Kidney beans or pinto? The intricacies of the chili purity are many and complex, but in my book I think it's worth overlooking these differences in the name of chilian unity. After all, I did just take the liberty to make up a brand new (for me) chili recipe today after years of eating my mom's chili, and if that's not sacrilege and yet exciting in one way or another, then I don't know what is.

* * *

My Very Own "Homesick Texan" Chili
Serves 4

Chiles Mexicanos
left to right: guajillo, morita, ancho, arbol

I'd never made chili with real chiles before, but having just returned from our trip to Mexico with bags (literally) of delicious, smokey Mexican chiles fresh from the mercadito, I just couldn't resist the mouth-watering temptation.

Rehydrating chiles and making a simple salsa from them is a typically Mexican way to start a guizado (roughly translated: stew) which usually involves a tomato base. In this recipe, the deliciously unadulaterated salsa is combined with other Mexican flavors (coffee, cinnamon, chocolate) to create a Tex-Mex delish. The addition of crushed coriander seeds
evokes the Mexican predeliction for cilantro. The tomato paste gives the chili more substance and the flour thickens what would otherwise be a complex but runny beef soup.


- 2 anchos
- 4 chiles de arbol
- 2 chiles morita
- 2 guajillo
- 2 pasilla
- 2 chipotles en adobo

1 lb ground chuck (lean meat will not do!)
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped
1 can kidney beans, drained
3 or 4 tbsps tomato paste
1 cup brewed coffee
1 bottle or can of beer (preferably darker)
2 cups water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsps flour, mixed into 1/4 cup water

Spices (more or less to taste):
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp crushed coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp cayenne pepper / chili powder
- 2 tbsp ground Mexican chocolate
- salt & pepper to taste

1. Bring water to boil in a small pot (approx. 3-4 cups) then turn off the heat and add the dried chiles. Cover and allow to sit for 20 minutes. When chiles are rehydrated, put into the blender with approximately 1/2 to 1 cup of the chile-water and blend until smooth. Set salsa aside.

2. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Brown meat and then add the garlic and onion and sweat until translucent. Add the tomato paste and salsa and mix for 1 minute.

3. Add the coffee, beer, water, spices and beans then cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.

4. After one hour, correct seasoning and add the flour-water mixture. Mix thoroughly, cover and allow to simmer for another hour.

5. Serve sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese and tortilla chips.
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