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Thursday, October 22, 2020

The trouble with enchiladas

Growing up in Chicago, I didn’t know an enchilada from a tostada. We simply didn’t eat Mexican food—perhaps because there was little of it, perhaps because my father’s taste in food was strictly British. I didn’t have Mexican food until I moved to Fort Worth in the mid-sixties, and I distinctly remember being very wary the first time I ate at Joe T.’s. Today I often crave Tex-Mex, though I am not a fan of anything in the pepper family, and I shy away from anything very spicy. The thing about Tex-Mex, to me, is that at its best, it’s not spicy.

Which brings us to enchiladas. My very favorite kind is spinach, but they’re rare and not often on restaurant menus. I used to love Tres Joses where the spinach enchiladas were the best but, alas, apparently not good enough to sustain the restaurant. So if I can’t have spinach, I’ll take chicken with sour cream, thank you. But I don’t like to make them.

Jordan makes wonderful cheese enchiladas and chicken. She goes through the whole process of softening the tortillas and making the filling and rolling the tortillas into enchiladas? Me? I’m discovering with age and my tiny kitchen I really like shortcuts. And I particularly don’t want to fry tortillas on my hotplate. I love to make King Ranch chicken instead of enchiladas because you tear the corn tortillas into big pieces—no frying, no prep, just layer them in the casserole.

Then I happened on a chicken enchilada pie recipe—don’t remember where I found it. But I tried it one evening, with some reservation because I thought it would be too close to King Ranch. Not at all! Quick, easy, delicious—and addictive! I didn’t mess with the recipe at all, except that I had an unmeasured amount of homemade taco seasoning in the freezer and used all of it in place of the package called for. With the first bite, I thought the taco seasoning was too prominent, but it softened and in leftovers I was not at all aware of it. Just for fun, I’m including my taco seasoning recipe with the pie directions.

Chicken enchilada pie

One rotisserie chicken, skinned, boned and diced—about three cups

1 pkg. taco seasoning (or make your own)

1 can Rotel (I prefer lime and cilantro flavor)

3 cans green chilies (recipe calls for four, but I cut it down)

1 can cream of mushroom soup

16 oz sour cream

Fresh corn tortillas

Grated cheese

Green onion (optional)

Jalapeños, chopped (optional)

Toss the chicken pieces with taco seasoning until all are thoroughly covered. Separately, mix Rotel, 2 cans chillies, mushroom soup, and 8 oz. sour cream. Add chicken.

The recipe called for frying tortillas, but I didn’t do it. I did cut them in half, so I could line the pan with sort of moon-shaped tortilla pieces (I could just as easily have torn them into large pieces.) Make layers of tortillas and chicken mixture—you should have three layers of tortillas and two of chicken.

Mix remaining sour cream and one can of chilies. Spread evenly over top layer of tortillas. Top with plenty of grated cheese—I prefer cheddar, but you could mix in some Monterey Jack.

Bake at 375o for twenty minutes or so until heated through and the cheese is bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped green onions for serving. You can if you wish sprinkle some jalapeños over it also, either before or after baking. But I’m not going to do that.

Ever read the ingredients list on your favorite brand of taco seasoning? I bet there are some artificial flavors and colors, some preservatives, a lot of stuff you don’t necessarily want to put in your body. Making your own is simple and cheaper. And you probably have most of the ingredients on hand

Homemade taco seasoning

1 Tbsp. chili powder

¼ tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. onion power

¼ tsp. oregano

½ tsp. paprika

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. finely ground black pepper

Crushed red pepper to taste, optional

           Store unused portion if any in the freezer


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Cincinnati chili


This is National Chili week—what better time ot talk about Cincinnati chili. We Texans know northerners can’t make a decent bowl of chili, but the thing about Cincinnati chili is that it doesn’t even try to approach the Terlingua model. It is its own dish, and in 2013 the Smithsonian named it one of “20 Most Iconic Foods in America.” Detractors call it that “weird cinnamon chili.” Chili purists best not read on.

Apparently Macedonian immigrants first made this dish in the 1920s but it really came to fame in 1949 when an immigrant named Nicholas Lambrinides opened a restaurant that happened to have a breathtaking view of Cincinnati’s skyline. He called his creation Skyline Chili, and today it’s served in a chain of restaurants or you can buy it canned. A dinner kit is also available. I think a friend who lives in the Cincinnati area told me she buys a mix.

The distinguishing things about Cincinnati chili are, yes, the cinnamon and the fact that it is served over spaghetti and topped with grated cheddar. I first heard of it when I researched my book, Texas is Chili Country. At the time I dismissed it as a regional oddity, but recently I came across a recipe and decided to try it. My version, which cobbled together two recipes, was a successful experiment—a critical father-and-son audience approved—but I learned a couple of things I’d do differently.

Please note: start this the day before you intend to eat it.

Cincinnati Chili

2 lbs. ground beef

1 6 oz. can tomato paste

4 cups water

1 8 oz. can tomato sauce

1 large onion, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ tsp. ground allspice

A pinch of ground cloves (the original recipe called for ¼ tsp but I found the clove taste too strong—when you ca clearly identify one spice out of all, you’ve used)

¼ tsp. cayenne or to taste (recipe called for ½ tsp)

2 tsp. kosher salt

2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate

Cooked spaghetti

Grated sharp cheddar cheese

This goes together like nothing you’ve ever made before. In your large chili kettle, sauté the tomato paste—no oil, no nothing, just the paste. It’s not as easy as it sounds. You have to continually stir and scrape to keep it from burning. You’re done when the tomato smell is rich and toasty—only takes a minute or two. Add the water and ground beef. No, you really haven’t browned the beef first. Just add the raw ground meat and stir until everything becomes a mush. Simmer until it looks like a meaty paste and the meat is cooked.

Take the pot off the burner and let it cool enough to refrigerate overnight. The next day, scrape the congealed fat off the top. Bring the mixture to a simmer and add the remaining ingredients, except the vinegar and chocolate—once again, you don’t sauté the onion or garlic. Just put it in raw.

Simmer for at least a couple of hours, letting the flavors blend. Now you can either serve or refrigerate and re-heat later to serve. Just before serving stir in the vinegar and chocolate. Serve over spaghetti and top with grated cheddar.

Thursday, October 8, 2020


That wonderful Greek spinach pie has been on my cooking bucket list for a long time. I printed out the NYTimes recipe for skillet spanakopita and kept it in my file. But every time I looked for a new recipe, I passed it by—the phyllo was scary and all those steps intimidating. Daughter Jordan forced my hand by bringing home all the ingredients from the grocery. I couldn’t ignore all that fresh spinach!

I can’t share the recipe with you because I really don’t want to tangle with the Times legal department, but I can tell you about some of the changes and shortcuts I took. I ended with what I call deviant spanakopita, and, my oh my, was it delicious. All those intimidating steps really aren’t that bad once you take it one step at a time.

Facebook has a page called “The New York Times Cooking Community,” and a thread on there convinced me I am not the only one hesitant about phyllo. But someone had a suggestion that started me on my experiment—use puff pastry instead of phyllo. Not being a purist, I thought that sounded good. We also substituted a handful of green onion for the leeks, because the store did not have leeks. As you can see, I deviated from the beginning.

As I sauteed spinach in butter, it dawned on me that with two large bags, I only had two-thirds of the amount of spinach the recipe called for. Dilemma: did I want to have thinner filling or add a can of spinach (I am one of the few I know who eats and enjoys canned spinach but I recognized it would drastically change the dish). I’ve tried commercially prepared spanakopita, and the thing I don’t like is there’s too much phyllo for the spinach. I want thick filling, like you get when the Greek Orthodox Church has a bake sale. I decided what I needed was a smaller pan than the ten-inch cast-iron skillet the recipe called for. I used a pie pan. The advantage of that change was that I can put a pie pan in my toaster oven but can’t fit a skillet. We would have had to run it into the main house to bake.

But I didn’t adjust the other ingredients—feta, lemon, eggs, Parmesan, nutmeg, dill, etc. Theoretically I should have reduced each by one-third, but I didn’t. The result was a filling more pungent than traditional spanakopita, quite lemony. Jordan assured me she was raised by a woman who thought there could never be too much lemon (gosh, I wonder who!), and she loved every bite. I did too.

When I put the bottom sheet of pastry in the pie plate, all four corners overlapped, so I pulled them up into what looked like a galette. The recipe called for putting the skillet on the stove for a few minutes to brown the bottom crust and then baking. I skipped that step, went straight to baking, and couldn’t tell that it mattered.

After about twenty minutes in a 350 oven, we had a lovely looking dish that would serve four amply. But it was only Jordan and me—son-in-law and grandson aren’t one bit interested in something with spinach. So we had a ladies’ supper one night and delicious lunch another day.

If you’re really into cooking, I recommend an annual subscription to Sam Sifton’s cooking column in the NYTimes. I think it’s something like $42/year. But if you just want to make spanakopita, recipes abound on the internet. I hope the shortcuts I’ve discussed will help you. Big thing: don’t be frightened away from trying it.