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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

Spanakopita



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.



Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Canned Soup Controversy



I don’t know about you, but I’ve cooked with canned soup all my life. It’s not quite that I wouldn’t know how to cook without it, but close. How do you make tuna casserole or King Ranch chicken without cream of mushroom soup?

Several years ago I wrote a memoir/cookbook and submitted the manuscript to a university press known for cookbooks. The critique was fairly damning. The reviewer called my recipes “faux gourmet.” The particular target of scorn was King Ranch casserole for which the anonymous critic claimed one should always make their own Bechamel sauce in place of the canned soup.  

Canned soup recipes have probably been around as long as canned soups, and probably been controversial just as long. The critic’s comment sounded like snobbery to me, but a lot of people simply prefer not to use canned ingredients. One person on a web forum about canned soups said she objected to tomato soup recipes, because they left an aftertaste. I don’t particularly like beef-based soups, like vegetable beef, and I dislike the smell when someone is heating one in the office microwave. What do I really mean by canned soups? Creamed soups, such as chicken, mushroom, and celery. But then there’s that good bacon/spinach dip recipe that calls for cheddar cheese soup (not always easy to find). There are also products like instant or condensed broth or dried onion soup mix, from which almost everyone makes that sour cream dip that disappears as soon as you put it out. But I’m talking those basic creamed soups.

Some people object that canned soups are high in sodium and fat. Yes, but you can buy low sodium and low fat. Others simply prefer not to use canned soups and make white sauce, as the lofty critic did, or use one of the recipes for substitutes on the web. Trouble with those recipes is by the time you’ve made them, you’ve avoided prepared soup but used at least four other prepared ingredients, gone to a lot of trouble, and probably (I don’t know this for sure) produced a pretty tasteless or artificial-tasting product.

All this is leading up to the Grandma’s Chicken Casserole which I fixed the other night. It was deceptively simple and so good! I have no idea where I got the recipe, but if you gave it to me and are reading this, please let me know. I’d like to give credit where credit is due.

Grandma’s Chicken Casserole

1 rotisserie chicken (I used the traditional seasoned one), meat diced

2 cans cream of mushroom soup, undiluted

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated

3 cups Ritz crackers, finely crushed

Arrange the diced chicken in a casserole dish. Spoon the soup evenly over the meat. Cover with shredded cheese, and top with Ritz crackers. Bake at 350o until thoroughly heated and crackers begin to brown. You could probably halve this easily.

Want that queso recipe? I served it at parties, but I also sometimes put tortilla chips in individual bowls, spooned the queso over them, and told my kids, “Here’s dinner.”

Colin’s Queso

1 lb. hamburger       

1 lb. pork sausage – mild, medium or hot, according to your taste; I use medium

1 16 oz. jar Pace picante sauce – no other brand will do, but again you have your choice of mild, medium or hot

1 can mushroom soup

1 lb. Velveeta, cubed

Yes, I know. I almost never use Velveeta, but it is the only thing that works for this recipe.

Brown the meat and then dump all ingredients into your crockpot. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until cheese melts. Serve hot.

For years I’ve thought there was only one way to make King Ranch chicken, but I’ve lately realized there are many versions. If you want mine, which is easy and really good, please let me know. Write me at j.alter@tcu.edu.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

 


A Potato Salad Mystery

Potato salad isn’t just for July 4th and Labor Day picnics. In some form or another, it’s with us year-round for family meals, restaurant meals, whatever. It’s a staple of the American diet—and yet, few people agree on the “best” potato salad. I once knew a man who ordered cheesecake everywhere it was on the menu because he was always looking for the “perfect” cheesecake. That’s sort of how I feel about potato salad.

I have my likes and dislikes: generally I don’t care for the heavy-on-the-mustard potato salad my daughter likes. Nor do I care for the mashed potato salad that is so common in barbecue joints. I like the version offered at Red, Hot, and Blue because it has large chunks of potato and hard-boiled egg. My son-in-law on the other hand would recoil from any dish that had had-boiled eggs in it. I think my favorite, make-it-at-home recipe is the County Line potato salad—from the Texas barbecue chain with that name. It has lots of dill relish in it. My daughter-in-law Lisa has a similar recipe that uses the relish and pickle juice and is delicious.

And then there’s potato salad without mayonnaise, usually with a vinegar and oil dressing. I make a hot German potato salad that Christian loves. It has a sauce thickened with flour and based on, gulp! bacon grease. Which reminds me that Jordan found a recipe for potato salad with bacon in it. She was intrigued; me, not so much. But you see the wide variety of things that fall under that oh-so-general label of potato salad.

My friend Elaine has no problem deciding which is the “best” potato salad. Elaine grew up in Sweetwater and pretty much longs to live there still. She makes frequent weekend trips to her hometown and when there, always eats at a place she refers to as Mrs. Allen’s. Actually it’s Allen’s Family Meals, a small building on one of the main roads through Sweetwater. Inside, diners sit at a common table and strangers soon become friends. Food is served family style.

It’s the potato salad that draws Elaine. In fact, I’m not sure but that it’s what draws her back to Sweetwater. The trouble is Mrs. Allen apparently doesn’t give out her recipe, and Elaine can’t duplicate the dish. So she brought me some potato salad and a list of ingredients without any quantities or proportion. I can’t duplicate it either. It’s a mashed potato salad and one look identifies the pimiento, but the other ingredients are more elusive. Elaine’s note says “a capful of vinegar and sugar to taste” but there’s no indication of how many potatoes take a capful of vinegar. Here’s Elaine’s list:

Mayonnaise

Sugar

Vinegar

Pimientos

Onions

Eggs

Potatoes


I can definitely taste the vinegar and sugar—a tiny bit too sweet for me—and there is the occasional crunch of minced onion. But the mayo is pretty well masked, and if there are eggs, they must be pulverized. The salad is creamy smooth.

If it were up to me, I’d cut back just a bit on the sugar and add more crunch—green onions and finely diced celery probably. But I haven’t a clue how much vinegar, sugar, and mayo are really in it. And as Elaine’s note says, the vinegar and sugar are what distinguish this version of the staple.

Elaine and I would appreciate any help, so if you come up with an approximation of Mrs. Allen’s potato salad, please write me at j.alter@tcu.edu. I’ll ask Elaine to be the official taster.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Pork chops and corn pudding

 



If, as my mom always told me, food is half eaten with the eye, last night’s dinner was no great shakes. It was colorless. If I’d been serving company, I’d have used some garnishes or a dark vegetable to spark it up. But it was just family (an attitude my dad always fought against, insisting you saved your best manners for your family—I have a hard time getting the grown kids and grandkids to accept that!) On the other hand, the part of the meal that was eaten with the taste buds and not the eye was a great success.

I had to give up some preconceived notions to fix this. Unlike a lot of true gourmets, I have never been opposed to cooking with canned soup. There are some great recipes out there, particularly for cream of mushroom and cream of chicken. But I draw the line, most of the time, at packaged dry mixes. Last night’s recipe used Hidden Valley Ranch dressing—too late  I remembered that there are directions online for making your own, though I’m not sure that’s a big improvement. Most recipes call for buttermilk powder, something few of us have on hand. I did find that you can buy it at Central Market for $7.99 a pound. Wonder how long it would take to use up a pound.

Anyway, back to the pork chops. Central Market had big lovely Berkshire chops on sale last week. Even on sale, they were not cheap, so we settled for three chops for the four of us—a good decision since we had leftovers. For years I’ve avoided pork chops because, like chicken, they can be dry if not accompanied by a sauce. But then I found this recipe, and we tried it.

Slow Cooker pork chops

3 or 4 meaty pork chops (not those skinny little ones)

Cream of mushroom soup

Cream of chicken soup

1 packet ranch dressing mix

Put chops in cooker, cover with combined soups, and sprinkle dressing mix over it. Cook on low 6-8 hours. The meat literally falls off the bone and is moist and delicious.

Corn pudding sounded to me like a perfect side for pork chops. I have a standby recipe that feeds two, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. I found a version of that same recipe online that feeds 8-10, so I halved it. It was a great success. I know that because the resident teenager ate three helpings and licked the bowl clean.

Quick and easy corn pudding

2 cups corn kernels (cut fresh off the cob would be best, but I used frozen – be sure to defrost first)

1-1/2 Tbsp. flour

½ Tbsp. sugar

¼ tsp. salt

1 c. milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

If you want, you can chop half the defrosted corn in a process. I skipped this step, but I think it would be a good idea. Mix everything together except milk and eggs. Mix those separately and then pour over corn mixture. Stir to make sure it’s evenly distributed.

Bake at 350o about 40 minutes or until the center is firmly set (it may take a little longer).

Honest, this meal took less prep than anything I’ve cooked in a long time, especially since Christian oversaw the pork in the crock pot in the main house. Took me five minutes max to prepare the pudding, and Jordan cooked it in the house. My toaster oven is not deep enough, and I don’t trust the temperature. I’m lucky to be able to send things into the house when my tiny kitchen isn’t equipped to handle them.

 

 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Boiling eggs, poaching chicken, and simplifying enchiladas



If you look for advice on hard-boiling eggs online, you’ll find at least two dozen methods. A confusing mix. I’ve done it various way, the latest being to bring them to a boil, immediately remove from the heat, and let them cool until I can handle them. Sometimes they peel easily, sometimes not; sometimes they burst in boiling, and I have to make egg salad instead of deviled eggs. I think now I’ve found the solution, but it takes careful attention.
Start the eggs in cold water. Add a splash of vinegar so that the whites won’t spread if they do crack. The minute the water reaches a slow boil (you just begin to see bubbles on the surface), turn down the heat. I’ve finally learned to do that on my hot plate (thank you, daughter Megan) and can now keep it just above boiling. Leave the eggs at this slow boil for ten minutes (time it carefully); at the end of the ten minutes, immediately drain the hot water and run cold water over the eggs. Since cold water in a Texas summer is not really cold, I put a couple cups of ice cubes in the water and let the eggs sit until they are cool enough to handle. Refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. Peel under cold running water (I was astounded that son Jamie didn’t know to do this.) Perfect eggs for devilling, neither over- nor under-cooked.
If I’ve been unhappy with my hard-boiled eggs, I’ve been really frustrated trying to poach chicken. I dutifully put in celery tops, onion, peppercorns, etc. but a friend and I agreed the chicken is always tough. I coped by buying rotisserie chicken but that’s more expensive, and I hated the boning chore. (Daughter Jordan recently taught me that if you bone them while still warm from the store, the meat slides off the bone; I’d been sticking them in the fridge and boning when I needed them.)
The other day I decided to try poaching again. The Bon Appetit method calls for putting 2 lbs. chicken in 4 cups of water and adding 3-1/2 tsp. salt. Yes, that’s a lot of salt but it will make the meat moist but not salty. Then bring the water to the same slow boil you use for eggs but flip breasts immediately and remove from heat when the surface begins to roll and bubble. Let sit ten minutes. I did that and had chicken that was raw in the middle. So I put it back on that low boil. I think I kept three chicken half-breasts at a low boil for another ten minutes and then removed them to a cutting board to rest, cool, and collect themselves. Not only was it moist and flavorful, it shredded easily for my chicken enchilada recipe.

Chicken enchiladas made easy
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 pkg. taco seasoning (or make your own—recipe in Gourmet on a Hot Plate)
2 4 oz. cans green chilies (divided use)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can Rotel (I prefer the mild with lime)
2 cups sour cream (divided use)
Corn tortillas
Cheddar cheese
Poach chicken and cool. Shred and place in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with taco seasoning and stir well. Separately mix 1 can chilies, mushroom soup, Rotel, and 1 cup sour cream. Add to chicken mix and stir well.
Grease a flat, rectangular casserole dish—preferably the standard glass one. Cover bottom with flat tortillas (no, I didn’t fry them first). Add half the chicken mixture. Cover with more tortillas. Add remaining chicken mixture. One more layer of tortillas.
Mix remaining green chilies and sour cream. Cover top of casserole. Then cover it with grated sharp cheddar. Bake at 350o until heated through. Serve immediately.