February 28, 2009

Poblano Lasagna

Image from here.

If someone would have told me 10 years ago that my kitchen would now be stocked with the likes of jalapenos, serranos, Anaheims, Poblanos, and (sometimes) habaneros, I would have thought she was crazy. I also would have asked her why she decided to travel back in time to tell me what my fridge would contain in the year 2009. Shouldn't she, instead, have been inventing Wikipedia? Or warning us to not purchase a 4-million dollar home if we had $26 in the bank? Thanks, hypothetical future-chick.

The truth is, I used to be scared to death of chiles. Having grown up in a Midwestern town where the only option for Mexican food prior to 1996 was Taco Bell, my palette wasn't assimilated to the pop and spice and fizzle that only real chiles can administer. If I wanted spice back then, I would have resorted to a few extra dashes of black pepper in my mashed potatoes. In the '90s, black pepper was as far as I would go in terms of spice.

I only began to learn about the true power and glory of chiles while living in Cordoba, Argentina back in 2001. The cuisine of the Argentine pampas is about as picante-less as the Midwest: It's mostly beef. And potatoes. And more beef. The food of Cordoba is delicious as hell, don't get me wrong--I never had a real steak until I sunk my teeth into the tough-but-flavorful beef of Cordoba. The pampas are, after all, still gaucho territory. (Thank God!) However, if one craves a spicy plate in Cordoba, chances are she'll be disappointed.

As were my Mexican friends to whom I grew very close while living in Argentina: Mayra, Erika, Yazmin, and Mariluz. They taught me many necessary cultural tricks of the trade, and I sometimes felt like I was learning more about Mexico than Argentina! Erika taught me how to flirt with boys in Mexican-Spanish. Mariluz taught me how to hike in high heels. Yazmin taught me how to add -ito and -ita to my nouns to make them sound cuter. And they all taught me, through laughter-turn-tears, why it was dangerous to confuse the verb tomar (to get) with coger (to get with...yep, in the Peaches way).

They also taught me--Mayra, especially--much about their undying & almost-romantic love for chile peppers. (Sidenote: there are many phrases in Mexican Spanish where a certain male body part is referred to as el chile. I was most definitely taught those phrases as well. After all, one's education should be well-rounded, right?)

Despite all of the vegetable stands and markets and grocery stores in the booming Argentine city of Cordoba, my bitchitas mexicanas just could not find a single chile. This pained them, and at the time I could not understand why. Why, after all, would someone want to voluntarily burn their mouths? Why, if given the choice, would someone choose pain? Even the verb picar, from which the adjective picante derives, sounds painful when translated literally: picar means to sting. When a dish provides sufficient spice, one would say me pica ("it stings me"). If stung by a bee, the same phrase--me pica--would apply.

Huh? At the ripe age of 20, I did not equate bee stings with deliciousness, and nor did I understand why my amigas mexicanas were so frustrated with Cordoba's lack of culinary sting.

When talking about what we missed about home, our discussions almost always veered in the direction of food. I missed turkey and mashed potatoes and Chinese food. Gotz, our German friend, missed streudel--and he missed it even more so after failing miserably at baking his first streudel in my apartment. Mayra, my friend from Puebla, Mexico, missed chiles. She missed them with all her corazon. At one point I even remember Mayra, the most saddened of the group, printing off a "Chile Chart" from the Internet so that she could at least share with me in photo-form what seemed now to be extinct in real-form.

After much chile-estranged suffering, however, mis bitchitas finally found their long-lost love. While strolling through a produce market, they found the object of their affection. They found el chile. I don't remember now what type of chile they discovered. What I do remember, though, is that this chile was cause for much celebration. That night would be fajita night. The pictures I have of that feast say much about our love for the foods we grew up with. In one picture, Mayra, Erika and Yazmin are huddled together around their bowl of uncooked chicken marinating in sliced chiles, onions and oil (and probably a little beer). All three of them are holding on tight to the bowl, their sleeves rolled up past the elbows. The smiles on their faces stretch wider than any Anaheim chile.

The picture of all of us sitting around the table feasting on their labor tells a similar story. The Anaheim smile was contagious, as all of us--even I, a Midwestern chile-phobe--taste our friends' love for home in this spicy dish. I experienced my first Anaheim smile that night. There was surely some sting behind that smile, but strangely the sting has evolved into something I now cherish--no, it's more than that: I now desire and obsess over that sting! Chiles are more than just a dish, they're a worldview: to know the good in life, we must also taste a little of the hurt as well. We're always in between pleasure and sting--of loving and missing--and chiles remind us of that.

My kitchen will be forever-stocked with the shiniest, spiciest of chiles I can find. This just goes to show that you CAN--with a little patience--teach an old Midwesterner new tastes!

Mayra/Maiz/Minimonkey: Te extrano, bitchita! Espero que nos deja con mucho tiempo en el futuro para experimentar juntas con los chiles! (Los chiles de dos tipos, no?! jeje)

Here's a recipe I came up with last weekend when yet another chile craving stung my tongue! This recipe is sure to picar the hell out of you...in the most loving way possible!

Here's the dish in the pre-bake stage surrounded by discarded Poblano stems.

Poblano Lasagna
(for a 9x9 casserole dish)

Ingredients

3 Poblano chiles
1 Anaheim chile
1 jalapeno chile
3 cups sliced mushrooms (go cheap, y'all!)
1 19 oz. can enchilada sauce
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1.5-2 cups cooked and drained black beans
1 sweet onion
4 cloves garlic, diced
10-15 corn tortillas
1 cup cooked rice or other grain (I used bulgar wheat)
1/2 cup vegan cheese
1/4 cup oats
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil
cilantro (optional)

3-Step Preparation

Roast the Poblanos

1. Rinse your chiles and place them whole on the broiling rack of your oven. Broil for 6-10 minutes, or until chiles begin looking charred on all sides. You might have to flip your chiles halfway through the process to get an even roast on all sides.

2. Once chiles are fully roasted (and they smell like Mexican heaven), quickly transfer them to a large baggie or plastice bag. Seal the bag, and allow them to sweat for about 10 minutes. This allows them to loosen their skin, which you will then scrape off before cutting.

3. After 10 minutes, scrape off the loose skin, and cut open the chiles. Some water may have accumulated during the sweat, so make sure to pour it out. Remove the seeds and the white membrane, and cut each chile lengthwise into strips. Set aside.

Create a Spicy Sauce

1. Over medium heat, oil a large skillet and add your chopped onion, Anaheim pepper, jalapeno, mushrooms and garlic. Saute over medium heat until onion begins turning translucent.

2. Add the beans and tomatoes, and stir. Allow to simmer for 1 minute. Add the can of enchilada sauce, and allow sauce to bubble and thicken for about 5 minutes. Add a little salt and pepper to taste.

3. Finally, add the cooked bulgar wheat (or other grain of choice). If mixture appears rather watery after grain is incorporated, you might want to add some oats to thicken it just a bit. It should not look like soup, but should instead have the consistency of a marinara sauce. Finally, add a handful of chopped cilantro, stir, and remove from heat.

Arrange Your Layers

1. Before layering your lasagna, add a tablespoon of olive oil to your 9x9 casserole dish and spread evenly on all sides. Begin adding your roasted Poblano strips as the first layer. I added a dash of salt to this layer to bring out more of the chile's flavor.

2. Next, add some spoonfuls of the sauce. I added about an inch. Finally, create a corn tortilla layer. I used about 4 or 5 of the small taco tortillas for this layer. On top of this layer, add a generous amount of your shredded vegan cheese. My grocery store only had a Parmesan-Mozzarella blend, which tasted fantastic in this lasagna!

3. Repeat the layering of Poblano strips, sauce, tortillas and cheese until you reach the top of the dish. I tried to finish the layering with the corn tortillas and cheese. Drizzle some olive oil and add a bit of your chopped cilantro on top of the last layer.

4. Before transferring your dish to the oven, you might want to add a little water around the sides of your dish to prevent the lasagna from drying out. I was able to add about 1/8-1/4 of a cup of water around the sides.

5. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35-40 minutes.

6. Allow lasagna to cool for about 10-15 minutes before serving.

February 21, 2009

Clutter Cookies

Nothing is more comforting than a little old fashioned clutter. I'm talking stacks of books on the coffee table, jars and vials of spices in the kitchen cabinet, clusters of Virgin Mary images on the living room wall, and mantlepieces adorned with innumerable crystals and shells. This cozy clutter, to me, is what makes a house a home. Add a long-haired cat to that formula, and chances are I'll love that place 'til the death of me.
(Recent spotting of earring/coin/baby leg clutter in my bedroom)

It's no wonder, then, that this preferred aesthetic would find its way into some of my recipes. In fact, just last week I applied the clutter-approach to a batch of cookies. These treats were a jumble-lover's dream! The recipe did not call for merely 5 ingredients (save those recipes for the minimalists), let alone 10--or even 15 ingredients! These cookies were as clutter-happy as a museum basement! Or a baroque Catholic Church! I've donned these 17-ingredient cookies with this very unoriginal but fitting name: Clutter Cookies.

This cookie recipe is extremely versatile because you can add any random, soon-to-be-thrown-away ingredient to the mix. Do you have 3 apricots left in your pantry and you don't know what to do with them? Add them to the mix! Do you have a few tablespoons of wheat flour left that would soon turn to pantry dust? Add them to the mix! Not sure how to recycle your pencil eraser shavings? Add them--wait! As clutter conscious as I tend to be, I would hesitate incorporating items such as rubber, roach legs or leftover break fluid into the recipe. While this cookie recipe might be flexible, please exercise caution before tossing in potentially hazardous ingredients.

There is a sad ending to the Clutter Cookies, however. Sure, these treats might be totally unruly and multi-textured and collaged with both the subtle and strong--everything a clutter connoisseur could want in a cookie! However, they will most definitely leave your kitchen pantry in a state of nightmarish...order. (Breathe, breathe.) Remember that for every spice and nut and flour you throw into this dough, you could be creating vast, clutter-free spaces in your cabinet and fridge...and hence, in your heart.

Therefore, if you're like me, you must re-equip your cabinets with haste once these cookies are out of the oven. Rush to the bulk section of your nearest grocery store and start filling new baggies like mad--even if you have no idea how you'll eventually use the stuff. You never know--those wheat berries and wasabi-flavored hemp clusters might be called upon to serve in your next clutter-crazed recipe!
(Clutter-friendly ingredients used in my own cookies!)

The amazing Bridget over at Perpetually Creating (just one of THREE blogs this creative woman produces, which is why she dons the adjective "amazing") called these cookies Granola Bites after I gave her a few to munch on this past week. I like that description. A lot of the ingredients I used in this version of the Clutter Cookie do seem granola-ey in nature: oats, nuts, dried fruit, etc. Now that I think about it, granola is a very clutter-inspired snack; it fuses together a wide variety of tastes, textures, and colors into one, whole snack.

Make these cookies part of your spring cleaning ritual. Instead of throwing perfectly edible items away, see if you can give them new life in your own clutter-inspired cookie recipe!

What combinations of flavors would you select for your own Clutter Cookie recipe?

Clutter Cookies
(makes about 2 dozen)


Ingredients:

1 dark chocolate bar (3-4 oz.), chopped finely
1 cup whole wheat flour (or whatever you have on-hand)
1 cup oats
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup almonds, chopped (or other nut)
1/4 cup cried cranberries (or any dried fruit you might have on-hand)
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup margarine
1 tsp. vanilla extract (almond would taste great, too!)
1/8 cup of milk (I used rice milk)
1 Tbs. molasses (I used blackstrap)
1 Tbs. agave
1/8 cup peanut butter
1 egg (I didn't include any eggs, but it might work to gel these cookies together. They were a little on the crumbly side.)

1. Beat the margarine together with the molasses and agave in a small bowl. If you are using an egg, now would be the time to incorporate it. Begin adding the remaining wet ingredients: peanut butter, milk, and vanilla extract. Mix until well-combined.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and salt. In yet another bowl (yes, your kitchen becomes a delightful, cluttery mess!) combine the coconut, chocolate, nuts, and cranberries.

3. Now comes the fun part: pour everything into the large bowl, and mix well until you have a solid, shining cookie dough.

4. Since so many odd-shaped things are incorporated into this dough, they are a little difficult to form into perfect balls. Grab about a tablespoon of the dough, and press it tightly in your hands while rolling it slightly. You're not going to get perfectly shaped cookies with this dough, but that's okay. What they lack in presentation, they make up for in taste!
5. Bake these delights in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Allow them to cool for at least 20 minutes before diving in--that chocolate can definitely burn your tongue even after 10 minutes of cooling! (Believe me: I know. It happened to me not once, but 4 times.)

Here's to some delicious clutter for your own mouths and hearts!

February 8, 2009

Spring Is For Real

For weeks I have been doubting the old Earth-orbits-around-the-sun "fact" we all memorized as kids. I wanted to scream, "Oh, come on!" to any scientist who dared to argue that seasons change--that winter inevitably turns to spring. Come February, winter feels like an eternal headlock in an endless wrestling match. However, I think my faith in science might have been restored today. Spring, that heavenly beer at the end of a long day, might be within reach after all.

Today the temperature shot up to 70 in Southeastern North Carolina! Yes, that's right: 70! I turned off the heat, opened my windows, and let the fresh air fill my stale apartment for the first time in months. Instantly, several small tornadoes swept through the musty quarters of this old house, clearing the dust and cat fur from seemingly every nook and cranny. Winter residue be damned! You are no match for the pure air of Spring!

If the warm air and clear sky were not enough proof of the coming of Spring, the expressions on people's faces as I walked downtown more than gave away the surprise. As Ingrid Toth says in her poem "Spring 1946," "People were finally smiling again." Not only were the people smiling, but their canine counterparts also seemed to be glowing with new light. Rottweilers, weiner dogs, yippy schnauzers, and even a few bipolar chihuahuas were out and about with their human pals enjoying the first hint of Spring...and I swear I saw a few grins on even the most crotchety of pups! Everyone in town thawed themselves out of hibernation today, anxious to wag their tails in the direction of the sun.

In celebration of a new season (sorry, Northerners...I imagine this post might be 4 months too early for your polar environments, right?), I created a Spring-inspired smoothie guaranteed to shake the last bit of frost from your limbs. Here's to a bright season filled with Vidalia onions, mangoes, and two new exciting memoirs by two of our favorite food bloggers (see here and here)!

"It's Almost Spring, Dude" Smoothie
(for 2)

2 dates
2 bananas
1/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/8 cup cashews (salted or not)
4 cups milk (I used rice milk)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg (gotta include a touch of lingering winter to this beverage, no?)
1 Tbs. agave or honey

1. Throw everything into the blender and blend until frothily combined! This nutty & slightly sweet smoothie offers up a beautiful taste of Spring that might just come into full-bloom if we're good & patient.

February 6, 2009

Origin of the Scone: Cate Blanchett or Bob Dylan?

Every time I say "scone," I feel grandiloquent. The word "scone" just sounds so hoity toity, like something an aristocrat's Persian cat nibbles on while it suns itself in the bay window. (I want to be that cat!)

"Scone" is such a bourgie word. In fact, it's difficult to say it without sounding British. Go ahead--say it to yourself: "Scone." Did you hear your inner Brit intone with glee? Scones bring the Cate Blanchett out in all of us.

This British connection makes sense. After all, scones are a traditional Scottish quickbread.

(However, it should be noted that 2/3 of all Brits (and 99% of Scots!) pronounce "scone" the same as "con" or "John." Most Americans, on the other hand, rhyme "scone" with "cone." Funny, then, that by warping the British pronunciation, I feel more British. Well, you know what they say: One American woman's ballroom is another country's crackhouse.)

You know what they also say: one country's scone is another country's biscuit.

But, let's not muddy my old money image of "scone" by calling her "biscuit." There have got to be some differences between British scones and North American biscuits, right?

Despite their similar texture and appearance, some would argue that these two quickbreads are not the same bird. For one, scones "rely on cold butter for their delicate, flaky texture, while biscuits are more often made with shortening and are crumbly rather than flaky" (Incredibly Credible Wikipedia). However, this definition alone does not work for me. I have referred to many butter-heavy biscuit recipes in my day. And the line between crumbly and flaky is, at times, hard to draw.

What about the tasty nibs we associate with scones? Visit almost any coffee shop in the States, and you'll find rows of scones dotted with innumerable tasty treats: berries, nuts, pears, M&Ms, white chocolate chips, candied ginger, peppermint chips, etc. Well then, you might be thinking, is a sweet nib the distinguishing marker between a scone and a biscuit? Well, maybe...but one could also argue that these nib-encrusted scones are just biscuits with a boob job.

Some would say that the overall dining context is what separates a scone from a biscuit. For example, Dorie Greenspan, fabulous blogger and author of Baking with Julia (as in Childs), says that scones "are made in a manner similar to biscuits and, in fact, share biscuits' buttery-layered texture, but their name, their shape, and the fact that they're served with tea rather than gravy, lift them to the level of fancier fare." For Greenspan, then, it isn't so much a difference in ingredients that distinguishes a scone from a biscuit, but a difference in presentation, culinary accompaniments, and overall setting.

In other words, slather some gravy onto that quickbread, and you've got yourself a biscuit; sip on some Earl Grey while contemplating your fanciness, and you've got yourself a scone. The difference between a scone and a biscuit, then, almost becomes a matter of performance--like acting. If we suspend our disbelief for the duration of the act, then scone exists. Allow me to use Cate Blanchett (once again...yay!) as an example. In the 2007 movie I'm Not There, Blanchett changes her accent, hair, mannerisms, posture, clothing, tone of voice, and overall Cateness to "become" Bob Dylan circa 1965. However, underneath it all, wasn't she still Cate Blanchett, a stunningly talented British actress? Wasn't she a biscuit underneath all those layers of Dylan? Is "scone," then, just an act we choose to believe in until the credits roll?

Hrmmm. The distinguishing line between scone and biscuit, for me at least, still remains a little blurry. (As is the line between sanity and insanity in my cerebral cortex.) There's got to be a real and solid way to draw the line between the North American biscuit and the British scone--one that doesn't involve postmodern theory. Or lame & awkward comparisons between quickbread and Cate Blanchett.

Ah ha! Here's some data you can sink your teeth into: Kitchen Saavy says that scones usually call for both cream and eggs, which sets them apart from their biscuity counterparts. Scone recipes often call for more liquid as well, which makes them "a bit more cake-like in their consistency." And while biscuits may or may not call for sugar, a touch of sweetness is the norm for most scone recipes.

So, there you have it: One woman's biscuit is not another woman's fancy scone. Or is it? I guess the decision is all yours! While you're busy figuring out which side of the quickbread pond you fancy most, here's a tasty scone/biscuit recipe you're sure to fall in love with. Enjoy this ballroom (or crackhouse) treat!

Vegan Ginger, Pear & Almond Fancy Scones (or Biscuits)
(makes 8-10)

1 3/4 cups spelt or whole wheat flour (spelt has a nutty flavor, and it's full of fiber!)
1 Tbs. baking powder
2-3 tsp. powdered ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
pinch of nutmeg
1/8 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup chopped almonds
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 c. rice milk (with 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar)
1/4 cup chopped pear (the softer, the better)
a drop of maple syrup or honey never hurts!
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Set oven to 400 and grease a cookie sheet with a drop of oil.

2. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients until combined. Pour wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir just until combined. The dough might look a bit lumpy, but that's okay. You don't want to over-stir, as the scones could turn out tough as a result.
3. Drop dough onto your cookie sheet with a big spoon. The size and shape of your scones is up to you! Before baking, sprinkle a little sugar on top. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until you see a little browning around the bottom edges. I have found that spelt dough doesn't rise as much as white or wheat flours do, but the nutty taste makes up for the lack of puff!

February 3, 2009

Avoid Being Februaried

Februaried [feb-yoo-er-eed]: To be screwed over deliberately and excessively by February's Gray Army.

This is the month of treading lightly, of watching our every icy step. Like hamsters, we burrow deep into coves of sawdust and meal nervously on our cheekfuls of seeds. We are fearful of the elements: the polar cold that transforms our breath into frozen clouds, the blades of grass that stiffen into temples before cracking to ruins. In the caves of our beds and living rooms, we wonder if anything outside is still alive. Have all of the hearts frozen at half-beat? Was any moth saved? For answers, we creep to the window; it shows us a layer of crystals, and that is all.

For those of us brave enough to exit our homes and enter February head-on, we feel as though we are looking at the world through three layers of wax paper. Instead of a woman, we see a ghost, a blur. Instead of the sun, we perhaps see a circle of gray in a blanket of onyx. A simple landscape that once had edges and right angles now, through the lens of winter, seems more like wind than photography, more like a smudge of paint than the crisp mark of a pencil.

In this unreal place, the world is a photocopied version of itself. And, as winter persists, it all becomes a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. Winter, the frosty bureaucrat! After a while the solid things--grass, spiders, etc.--get lost in the files. The files loom over us, becoming towers of summer's lost inventory, and who knows where the originals are. It takes a lot of faith to believe that grass and spiders still exist underneath all that fog and ice and snow and wet. Winter: the biggest bureacrat of all!

If we remain too long in this environment, the statistics fall in favor of hopelessness--even under the new Administration of Hope! When one is hit by the ravages this month administers against our souls, he/she becomes "februaried." Many summer-inclined individuals can reach a state of frostbitten despair if februaried for too long. What if I were to tell you, though, that hope IS possible in this frosty terrain?! What if I were to declare that the sun still exists? That love is still possible? That citrus is your savior? (Citrus? What the...)

To avoid being "februaried," try using some of these sunny ingredients in dishes where you'd least expect them: cranberries, ginger, citrus zest, agave syrup, and jalapeno peppers. A pinch of these ingredients can add a punch of spice or sweetness to your life, thus remedying your wintered-out condition. These ingredients are approved by the FRC (February Resistance Council).

What are your favorite sunny treats to serve in the depths of hell--er, winter?

For a great sunshine-inspired winter dessert, check out this colorful tart my friend Hadley created over at Hadley Gets Crafty! This tart is sure to make your heart pump 20,000 watts of solar energy! Also check out Mad About Martha's FRC-friendly treat: roasted pineapple with coconut sorbet!

Here's a tangy & nutritious winter dish sure to aid any februaried soul:

Brussels Sprouts of Passion
(Photos of these sprouts forthcoming. In my februaried state, I refused to brave the elements to develop my photos. There is hope in tomorrow, though...)
10-15 brussels sprouts, halved
3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup almonds, chopped and roasted
1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped
zest of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 an orange (eat the other half as an appetizer!)
1/2 cup water
dollop of agave syrup, maple syrup, or honey
2 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat a large skillet at medium heat. Toss in your chopped almonds, and roast for 5 minutes. Stir frequently. Set aside.

2. Heat your olive oil in the same skillet, and toss in your brussel sprouts. Stir until coated in oil, and then cook for 5-6 minutes, or until sprouts turn slightly brown and caramelized. Add minced garlic, stir, and cook for 1 minute longer.

3. Add your water, zest, orange juice, sweetener, and cranberries. Stir until evenly distributed. Cover and let cook for 6-7 minutes.

4. Before serving, add your chopped almonds, salt, and pepper. Fill yourself with passion!