Smokin’ !

It’s been two weeks since my wife and I returned from our 4-day trip to New Orleans and I still haven’t managed to submit a post about the adventure.  I think I’m still reeling from the experience and, even though the trip is still fresh in my mind, I’m finding it difficult to write about.   We had a wonderful time in New Orleans.  It’s a fantastic city with so much to offer.  I’m sure I will find time to share the details…someday!

Today was devoted to the joy of barbecue and smoking a brisket.  I try to make smoked brisket at least once a year and it’s always worth the effort.

Smoking a brisket is no easy feat, at least for me.  It takes between 12 to 16 hours to cook, which makes for a very long day.  I started this morning at 3:30 with a cup of chicory coffee, warmed up from yesterday’s cold pot.   Outdoor temperature was about 80° but the humidity was near 100°!  It was so humid that the newspaper I used for the charcoal chimney starter was limp and soggy by the time I was putting a match to it.  It took 3 attempts and about 30 minutes just to light the coals!

I bought a new offset smoker yesterday and I decided to break it in with a brisket.  I didn’t know if I was being foolish or confident.  Fortunately, the brisket came out just fine. 

By 4:00 p.m. I was pulling off the cooked brisket and life was good. 

We served the brisket with homemade Texas-style barbecue sauce, potato salad and a refreshing cucumber salad.  And for desert, homemade cheesecake, compliments of my wife.

This was the sort of Sunday meal that will keep me inspired throughout the upcoming work week!

Paella

There we were, running like silly tourists, attempting to use our Barcelona tour map to cover our heads, as we searched for a hidden gem of a restaurant.

We ducked into a nearby alley, just as the unexpected rain shower passed by and the blazing sun returned.  Steam rose slowly from the hot, rain slicked cobblestone street as we stepped under the nearest balcony and, by our good fortune, found a fantastic little café that served the most delicious paella! 

Alright, here’s the real story.  One of my wife’s co-workers gave her a few threads of saffron and when my wife presented them to me, my thoughts, not surprisingly, went straight to paella.  I’ve eaten dishes that contain saffron before, like grilled lamb and couscous but I have yet to understand what makes the spice so special.  A tiny amount of saffron can really brighten a dish and make it very colorful but the spice is so subtle, in flavor, that it goes virtually unnoticed by my palette.  There’s a good chance that my palette lacks sophistication and there’s an even better chance that I am too heavy-handed with other spices that I don’t showcase saffron properly.

Saffron is ridiculously expensive, due to the amount of work and resources required to grow and harvest it, which means that you won’t see me at the bazaar, haggling over the price with a merchant.   

For me, the real joy of paella comes from the harmony achieved by the combination of the various vegetables, meats and rice.  And, it’s a one-pan wonder!  If you don’t have saffron, you can substitute with other spices that add brilliant color.  A tiny amount of turmeric, achiote, or a combination of both can be used to produce yellow, orange and red color just as easily, and they won’t break the bank! 

Ingredients:

1 onion, diced

½ green bell pepper, diced

½ red bell pepper, diced

4 or 5 garlic cloves, smashed and rough chopped

4 or 5 Roma tomatoes, diced

¼ cup olive oil

2 large bay leaves

1 tsp Hungarian paprika

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp saffron threads

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup white wine

1 lb chicken breast or chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch pieces

2 cups uncooked rice

5 cups chicken stock or chicken broth

½ cup frozen green peas

8 jumbo raw shrimp, peeled, with tails on

6 to 8 green mussels

2 fresh squid, cleaned and cut into rings

1 lime, sliced

Directions:

Prepare the vegetables.  Chop the onions, bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes.  Set aside.

In a large stainless steel skillet, add oil and heat at medium/low heat.

Add all of the chopped vegetables, except the tomatoes.

Simmer and stir the vegetables for five minutes. 

Add the chopped tomatoes, spices and bay leaves.  Simmer for another five minutes. 

Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add white wine.

Simmer and stir occasionally for ten minutes.

Add chicken and rice.  Stir for one minute.

Slowly add the chicken stock (or broth).  Shake the skillet to level the rice, but do not stir.

Bring the mixture to a boil and then set the heat to low.

Leave the pan uncovered and let the paella do its thing.  Do not stir. 

I get anxious, every time I add uncooked rice to a pan full of stuff that is already cooking but I have learned to walk away.  I find something else to do for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, nestle the squid, shrimp into the rice. 

Top with peas and mussels. Cook for another 5 minutes.

Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Serve the paella in pan.  Garnish with slices of lime.

Fresh Pizza

I drew inspiration for this pizza from the well of memories I have of the summer I spent in Tuscany, chatting with the local farmers and artisan bakers.  Oh, how I miss the sun dappled hazelnut trees that surrounded our villa!…

Well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.

I saw a sprig of rosemary on my kitchen counter today, left over from last night’s meal, and my thoughts led me to pizza.  I wanted to make a pizza with some fresh ingredients.  So, here we go…

Ingredients for the sauce:

3 medium sized tomatoes, cored and chopped

1 Tbs white sugar

1 tsp olive oil

½ tsp garlic powder

½ tsp white vinegar

Directions:

Add chopped tomatoes to a sauce pan and simmer at low heat.  Add all of the other ingredients and stir.

Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, at first and then  increasing the frequency, as the sauce cooks down.

Ingredients for the spices:

2 cloves fresh garlic

1 Tbs dried basil

1 Tbs dried onion flakes

1 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp dried thyme leaves

1 tsp red chili flakes

½ tsp dried oregano leaves

¼ cup olive oil

Directions:

Add all ingredients, except olive oil, to a mortar and pestle.  Pound and grind the ingredients until everything forms a thick paste. 

In a microwave safe bowl, heat the olive oil in a microwave oven for about 30 seconds.  Remove the olive oil and the mashed seasonings.  Allow the mixture to sit for an hour before using.

Prepare the pizza dough.  I use a simple recipe which only takes about one hour to rise.  It’s warm enough now that I can cover the dough and let it rise in the cab of my pickup truck. 

Roll out the dough and form the pies.  I prebake my crust is a conventional oven, since I don’t have a Tuscan wood-burning brick oven. 

Combine the spices with the sauce.

Spread the sauce on the pizza crust.

Add sliced onions and mushrooms. 

Top with grated Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 400° for 10 minutes.

Top with arugula, or “scratchy endive”, as my dad likes to call it. Serve on the balcony, overlooking the lush rolling hills.

Prolonged Paella…and a trip

No, I haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth. I’ve been busy jumping over life’s hurdles. Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. That’s been the name of the game for many, many months and it doesn’t look like there’s any relief any time soon. But, as any good hurdler will tell you, the key to success is to stay limber and be ready for the next hurdle.

And, so it goes.

I’ve got several posts waiting in the wings, waiting for final tune-ups, but I have left them idle for so long now that I’ve nearly forgotten the spirit that lives within each of them. No worries though. I’ll find a way to breathe life into them and bring them into the light, someday.

For now, I’ll tease you with a picture of the paella that I made several months ago and then it’s off to New Orleans. Yes, the culinary Mecca of the U.S. A few decades ago, I might have made a trip to New Orleans just to stagger around Bourbon Street with a drink in my hand, but now I’m going to enjoy the sights, the history, and the awesome food.

I hope to come back rejuvenated and inspired.

But, for now, as promised, here’s a glimpse of a lovely paella!

Bye for now. Enjoy every meal!

Étouffée with Roasted Chicken

It’s springtime in the mid-south and, if there’s one thing that can compete with the joy of seeing new buds on the trees and seeing the weeds in full bloom , it’s the return of our fresh Gulf seafood vendors!  I get  giddy just seeing the colorful trailers, parked at local gas stations.  For me, it’s a sacred rite of spring to haphazardly park, get out of the car and stand in line, amidst the  throng of excited seafood devotees. 

I try to find ways to make each visit to the seafood vendor special.  This time, the customers weren’t standing in an orderly line.  A crowd of people clustered around the trailer, jockeying for position.  I stayed back for a moment and enjoyed the tempting aroma of steaming crawfish and shrimp, billowing from large pots at the end of the trailer.  I struck up a conversation with a man who was waiting for his order and learned that he was a Marine veteran who served during the late 1950’s and 1960’s.  After a brief conversation, his order was bagged and ready and he was on his way home.

I ordered two pounds of fresh whole shrimp and one pound of boiled crawfish.  I’m still debating on what to do with the shrimp but I know exactly what to do with the crawfish. 

Crawfish isn’t for everyone.  It’s an acquired taste.  I have discovered that there are ways to prepare crawfish that even non-crawfish people can enjoy.  For this meal, I am roasting a whole hen.  Anyone that balks at the crawfish will still have something to eat!  And, for those who want to try the étouffée, I am asking the crawfish to play second fiddle to another Cajun classic – andouille sausage.  I am using Cajun seasonings sparingly, despite my usual craving for extreme spiciness, and I am adding  a gentle tomato sauce, to make the dish smooth and creamy.

Ingredients for the roast chicken:

1 whole roasting hen

1 Tbs dried thyme leaves

2 Tbs Cajun seasoning

3 Tbs salted butter

2 celery stalks

¼ cup chicken broth

Directions:

Wash chicken, inside and out, under cool running water.  Trim excess fat and allow the chicken to dry, on a clean surface, at room temperature.

Mix thyme and 1 tablespoon of Cajun seasoning with softened butter

Cut two large celery stalks in half and arrange them at the bottom of a large cast iron skillet.  This will support the chicken while it roasts and will keep it from sticking to the pan. 

Examine the neck cavity of the bird and slide fingers under the skin.  Carefully slide your fingers beneath the surface of the skin and slide the palm of your hand along the breast meat.  Angle your fingers down to the leg joint and begin separating the skin from the leg and thigh.  Do this for each breast and leg.

Cup some of the butter mixture in your fingertips and slide them along the breasts, legs and thighs.  Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of Cajun seasoning on the outside of the bird, across the breast, legs and thighs.

Pour ¼ cup chicken broth in the cast iron skillet.

Lay the chicken in the pan, top side up.  Roast uncovered for 45 minutes at 400°.  Turn the oven down to 350° and continue roasting for another 30 minutes. 

Remove the chicken and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

While the chicken roasts, prepare garlic bread and the étouffée.

For the garlic bread:

12” loaf of fresh French bread

4 Tbs melted butter

2 tsp garlic salt

A few dashes of finely ground black pepper

2 tsp dried Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Slice the fresh French bread, lengthwise.

Lay the opened loaf on a cutting board and brush each side with melted butter.

Shake garlic salt across each half, dust lightly with black pepper and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Close the two halves of bread together and wrap tightly in aluminum foil.  Bake in a 350° for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Étouffée ingredients:

1 lb boiled crawfish (boiled with Cajun seasonings)

½ lb andouille sausage, sliced into bite sized pieces

3 Tbs cooking oil

1 yellow onion

1 green bell pepper

3 celery stalks

1 small bulb, fresh garlic (with stems)

1 tomato

3 green onions

8 oz tomato sauce

3 Tbs softened butter

3 Tbs flour

2 cups chicken stock

1 Tbs lemon juice

Cooked white rice

Directions:

Remove the tail meat from the crawfish and place the pieces in a bowl.  Squeeze the heads of crawfish over the tail meat, to extract the crawfish juices.  Set the crawfish meat aside and discard the crawfish shells, or use later for stock.

Peel and chop the yellow onion, bell pepper and celery.  Dice the garlic and add to the vegetables.  Set the vegetables aside. 

Chop the tomato and green onions and set them aside.

Add 3 tablespoons of oil to a large skillet and set heat to medium.  Add the yellow onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the skillet. 

Sautee for 10 minutes while stirring frequently. 

When the onion turns translucent, add tomato sauce

Simmer at low heat for about 5 minutes.

Mix the melted butter and flour in a small dish.  Add some of the warm, cooked sauce to the flour and butter mixture and mix well.  Add the mixture to the sauce and mix well.  Simmer at low heat for 5 minutes, to thicken the sauce. 

Add two cups of chicken broth while stirring the sauce.  Add lemon juice and chopped tomatoes.  Simmer for a few minutes.

Add the and andouille sausage and mix well. 

Add the crawfish meat and simmer at low heat for a few minutes.

Arrange the cooked rice in the center of a large serving platter.  Pile the étouffée on top of the rice.  Carve the chicken and arrange the pieces around the outer edges of the platter.  Top with chopped green onion.

Serve with the warm garlic bread.

Now…what to do with the shrimp?!  Maybe a fresh shrimp cocktail, or a shrimp po’ boy, or shrimp remoulade, or coconut shrimp, or… 

Winter Soup

Valentine’s Day week, 2021, remember that?!  The Big Freeze!  Snowmageddon! The Snowpocalypse!  The events seem blurry to me now but it was big deal, at the time.  Here, in the deep South, we were crippled by the massive arctic blast. 

My wife and I somehow found a way to commute to work, when others couldn’t, or were too scared to try.  We’re just rugged, that way, I suppose.  We came home, tired and hungry each day and our dinners were slapped together quickly with whatever food we had in the house and we went to bed early, only to face another day of bitter cold and icy roads.

It wasn’t until the end of the cold snap that I decided to make this suitable “cold day” meal. 

Ingredients:

1 large yam

2 medium yellow squash

3 green onions

1 cup broccoli

2 Tbs butter

¼ cup milk

2 Tbs heavy cream

1 cup turkey or chicken broth

Directions:

Wash and rinse vegetables.  Chop the vegetables into 1 to 2 inch pieces. 

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat.  Add the vegetables to the pan and sauté for about  15 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften.

Add the turkey or chicken broth.  Simmer for 30 minutes.

Pour the vegetables and broth into a mixer and puree.

Return the pureed mix to the sauce pan and simmer at low heat.  Add a the milk and cream and simmer for a few more minutes, while stirring gently.

Remove to a serving bowl. 

Serve with warm bread and butter.

Roast Chicken in a Bag

I hesitate to say that this is a no-fail recipe but I can say that it’s never failed me.  I first heard of roasting chicken in a paper bag many years ago when I didn’t have much money and I only had rudimentary cooking utensils, but that didn’t stop me from making an fantastic dinner.  This is a perfect recipe for the young bachelor who wants to impress but can’t afford a dozen long stemmed roses!

I roasted a whole, small hen in a paper grocery bag with dried herbs, potatoes and carrots.  The hen came out tender and juicy and perfectly cooked and the vegetables were full of flavor. 

It’s important to note that you will need a large paper bag.  Grocery store paper bags are perfectly suitable and they don’t add to the cost of the meal. Don’t forget to request paper bags when you go to the store to buy the chicken!

Use an ordinary grocery store bag

For this recipe, I used two boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead of a whole hen

Ingredients:

¼ cup Herbe de Provence (or an Italian herb mix)

½ tsp red chile flakes

½ tsp salt

1 tsp dried onion

½ tsp cracked black pepper

2 Tbs olive oil

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 head of broccoli (about ½ lb)

1 lb small potatoes

2 large carrots

2 ears of fresh corn on the cob

A few small fresh chiles

4 oz fresh mushrooms

½ onion peeled but not chopped or sliced

3 Tbs butter, melted

¼ cup fresh basil

½ tsp sea salt, crushed

¼ tsp cracked black pepper

For the roasting bag:  One large paper grocery bag and a few tablespoons of cooking oil.

Directions:

Add olive oil, herbs, chile flakes, dried onion, salt and pepper to a mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine.  Add the chicken to the bowl and toss to coat.  Marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Prepare the bag for roasting.  Lay a large casserole dish on a work surface.  A glass or metal pan can be used, as long as it is deep enough to collect juices that might run out of the bag when it is comes out of the oven.

Stand the paper bag in the dish and smear the entire bag with cooking oil.  I like to pour a little oil onto a paper towel and scrub the bag with soaked paper towel.  This doesn’t require much oil…just enough to wet the bag a little.  Set aside.

Wash the vegetables and allow them to air dry for several minutes.  Cut the corn into 3 to 4 inch pieces.  Leave the rest of the vegetables whole. 

In a large mixing bowl, add 3 tablespoons melted butter, ¼ cup fresh, chopped basil, ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp black pepper.  Mix together, briefly.  Add the potatoes, carrots and corn to the bowl and toss.

Add all of the vegetables to the paper bag, in no particular order.  Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables.  Clasp the top of the paper bag and roll together tightly to seal.

Place in a 350° oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how tender you like your vegetables.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow to cool on a table for a few minutes.  Carefully cut a whole near the top of the bag to allow the steam to escape.  Cut the remaining top portion of the bag away. 

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the bag and move to a cutting board.  Cut the broccoli and carrots into bite sized portions.  Arrange the vegetables on a serving platter.  Slice the chicken into serving slices and nestle the chicken in the vegetables.

Enjoy the aroma and celebrate with good friends and loved ones!

The Frugal Burrito

Odds and ends.  Bits and pieces.  Those little leftovers from previous meals that were too good to throw away but too small to make a meal, on their own.

Go ahead, take them out of the fridge and set them on the table.  Imagine how they can be used to make a brand new meal. 

The ingredients are like colors on a painter’s palette, or notes and chords, waiting to be arranged to make music.  These are the elements of creation!

Some of my favorite meals have started this way. 

Reinventing leftovers can be rewarding in many ways.  There is satisfaction in knowing that good food won’t be wasted and there is the feeling of exuberance that comes from self-expression and creative thinking.

I made this dish way back in April, 2020, during a time when I was sheltering at home, in an attempt to stem the tide of the pandemic.  If there was ever a time to think frugally, it was then.  People were hoarding toilet paper, disinfectants and many store shelves were empty.  What a time! 

Burritos with Cheese Sauce

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups leftover enchiladas (ground beef, corn tortillas, cheddar cheese, salsa)

½ cup cooked ground beef

1 cup sautéed vegetables (onions, tomatoes and mushrooms)

3 10” flour tortillas

1 Tbs olive oil

16 oz grated cheddar cheese

2 Tbs butter

2 Tbs flour,

1/3 cup milk

1 tsp hot sauce

¼ cup sliced, pickled jalapeños

¼ cup diced green onions

¼ cup chili-garlic sauce

½ cup sour cream

½ cup chopped iceberg lettuce

2 Roma tomatoes

Directions:

Chop the enchiladas into tiny pieces with a kitchen knife. 

Add the chopped enchiladas to a large mix bowl and add the cooked ground beef.

Chop the sautéed onions, tomatoes and mushrooms.

Add the chopped vegetables to the mixing bowl.

Mix everything together thoroughly.

Divide the mixture into thirds and assemble the burritos.

Add olive oil to a large skillet and set heat to low/medium.

Carefully lay the burritos in the pan, seam side down.

Sear the burritos on all sides until they are light, golden brown.

Remove the burritos to serving plates and keep in a warm place.

Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the skillet and set the heat to low.

Once the butter melts, add the flour and whisk, to form a paste.

Simmer the butter and flour, while whisking, for about one minute.

Add the milk and whisk to combine. 

Gently fold in the grated cheese and turn the heat off.  Mix until the cheese sauce is smooth.  Avoid over-mixing the sauce, to prevent the sauce from breaking.

Once the cheese sauce is warm and blended, cover each burrito with the sauce.

For a mild burrito, top with green onions. 

For a spicier burrito, top with chili-garlic sauce and jalapeños.

Serve with sliced tomato, chopped lettuce and sour cream.

Year End Tamales

2020 has been one heck of a ride and I can’t think of a more suitable way to wrap up the year than by wrapping it up in tamales.  Tamales might just be the perfect metaphor for 2020.  I was fully prepared to offer a long lament about the year 2020, now that the year has finally come to an end, but I feel a greater need to close the door to the past year and move on.

Anyone who has made tamales knows that it requires time, dedication and stamina, beyond the scope of preparing a typical meal.

There comes a point in the tamale making process where it seems like it will never end and I wonder why I chose to make them, in the first place.  The only thing that carries me beyond that moment of futility is a steadfast determination and a belief that I will find satisfaction, when the job is done.

I could go on and on about the agony and ecstasy of making tamales but, I don’t want to discourage anyone from making tamales.  Making tamales is a rite of passage.

My method for making tamales takes two days.  On the first day, I roast the meat and make the sauce.  On the second day, I prepare the masa dough, assemble the tamales and then steam them.

Day one:  Roast the meat and make the sauce.

Ingredients for the meat filling:

5 lb Pork butt (shoulder roast) (substitute with chicken or beef)

¼ cup cooking oil

1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

1 Tbs coarse salt

2 tsp cumin powder

2 tsp cracked black pepper

3 or 4 bay leaves

2 Tbs dried onion flakes

2 tsp red chile powder

2 tsp dried Mexican oregano

2 cups chicken stock (or beef stock)

2 Tbs rendered bacon fat or rendered beef fat

Directions:

Wash the roast in cool water and pat dry.  Add the oil to a large Dutch oven and set the heat to high.  Sear the roast on each side and then set it aside to cool.  Discard remaining oil from the Dutch oven.

Combine all of the spices (cinnamon stick, salt, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, dried onion, chile powder and oregano) and grind them in a mortar and pestle.

Coat the roast with the blended spices and return the roast to the Dutch oven.  Add 2 cups of stock.  Cover the Dutch oven and place in a 225° oven for six hours.

Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and let the roast rest for about 20 minutes. 

Shred the roast with forks and add some of the shredded meat to a large skillet.  Add a few teaspoons of rendered fat to the skillet and set the heat to medium/high.  Stir the meat for several minutes and remove to a large bowl. Repeat the process until all of the shredded meat has been fried quickly in the skillet. 

Ingredients for the sauce:

20 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded

3 chile de arbol, stemmed and seeded

3 allspice berries

1 tsp fennel seed

1 tsp sesame seed

2 tsp dried onion flakes

1 tsp garlic powder

1 ½ tsp salt

8 oz tomato sauce

Directions:

Stem and seed the chiles. 

Steep the chiles in hot water for at least 30 minutes. 

Remove the chiles and place them in a blender.  Add some of the water, used during the steeping process, to the blender. 

Puree the chiles and strain over a large mixing bowl to remove the pulp. 

Move the sauce from the bowl to a large skillet.  Set the heat to low and simmer. 

While the sauce simmers, toast the allspice berries, fennel seeds, sesame seeds and dried onion in a pan, at low heat.  Keep the different items apart in the skillet because the onion flake will toast quickly and will need to be removed first.  Continue toasting the other spices until they become fragrant.

Grind the toasted spices in a mortar and pestle and add the garlic powder and salt. Add the spices to the sauce.

Add 8 ounces of tomato sauce to the sauce.

Whisk and stir the sauce at low heat for about 15 minutes.  Remove the sauce to a large bowl.

Return the shredded meat to the pan and set heat to medium.  Add some of the sauce and mix.  Once the sauce is thoroughly mixed with the meat, remove the meat and allow to cool to room temperature.  Once the meat has cooled, place it in an airtight container or sealable storage bag and refrigerate.

Day two:  Prepare the masa and assemble the tamales.

For the masa:

1 package of corn masa (4 lbs)

Baking powder

Lard or vegetable shortening

Water or broth

Follow the directions on the bag of masa.  Most masa mixes call for the addition of baking powder, lard and water.  The general idea is to add baking powder, lard and water to the masa and then mix to produce a fluffy, wet dough.  I used water and added some chicken bouillon and dried Mexican safflower leaves, (azafran en flor), to give a warm color to the masa. I soaked the bullion and safflower in warm water before adding it to the masa mix.

Soften corn husks by soaking them in warm water for 45 minutes to an hour.  A clean sink full of hot tap water will do the trick.

Add some water to a tamale steamer and place the steamer on the stove top.  Set the heat to medium and cover the steamer with a lid.

Prepare a large area to assemble the tamales.  Arrange the work space so that others can help assemble tamales.  Each person will need to be able to easily access the corn husks, masa and filling, and a tray for the wrapped tamales.

Lay a corn husk down on the work surface. 

Apply about 2 tablespoons of masa to the center of the husk and smear the masa out toward the wide end of the husk.  Don’t spread the masa across the entire husk.  You will want to leave the edges of the husk clean.

Place about 2 tablespoons of the filling on top of the masa.

Roll the corn husk and finish by folding the pointed end over and placing the tamale on a staging tray or dish.

Once you have prepared a few dozen tamales, place them vertically in the steamer, with the folded ends pointed down.

Steam for an hour and then turn the heat off.  Carefully remove the tamales and stack them on a tray.

Continue steaming tamales until they are all cooked.

At this point they are ready to eat or, you might want to wrap them in aluminum foil, in sets of 3 or 4, to save for later, or to send as gifts for friends and family.

I like to take packs of tamales to work and give them to co-workers. 

You can freeze foil-wrapped tamales for weeks or months.  To reheat, remove the foil and place in a microwave oven for about 30 seconds, or keep them in foil and warm them in a conventional oven for about 20 minutes at 350°.

Tamales can be topped with enchilada sauce, smothered in a warm cheese sauce or they can be eaten just as they are, hot or cold.

Best wishes to all of you during the upcoming year!  Keep your family and friends fed with delicious food.

Chicken Flautas with Ricotta Cheese and Mushrooms

I’m convinced that one of the secrets to imaginative cooking is learning how to resist going to the store when you realize you are out of an essential ingredient for a dish.  If necessity is the mother of invention, adversity might be the father.

Lasagna just isn’t lasagna without the lasagna pasta.  That’s a fact.  So, if your heart is truly set on having lasagna and you don’t have the pasta, go to the store and get some.  But, if you’ve just come home from a long day at work, you might dread the thought of getting back into the car to face the teeming masses at the grocery store just to pick up a box of pasta.  That is the conundrum I faced today. 

I reluctantly switched gears and started to think of alternatives for dinner.  I wanted to use the ricotta, because it had been in the refrigerator for a few weeks.  I rummaged through the refrigerator and found some chicken thighs that I had grilled, the previous weekend.  The needle of my culinary compass quickly swung from Italian to Tex-Mex, (who would have guessed?!)

I imagined how I could use cheese and mushrooms and chicken to make flautas (taquitos).  It’s during these kinds of moments of brilliance when I become convinced that I’m on the verge of making a brand new, never-seen-before creation.  I use the flash of inspiration and get to work.

This sort of inspiration is actually a façade, as any honest cook knows, but it is an excellent motivator!  Here is what the all-knowing internet has to say about the matter:  From hispanickitchen.com, “Requesón is a soft Mexican cheese similar in texture to ricotta cheese. It has a mild flavor that can be used for both sweet and savory dishes. Because this cheese doesn’t melt completely when in contact with heat, it is the perfect cheese for golden fried taquitos.”

Chicken Flautas with Ricotta Cheese and Mushrooms

Ingredients:

4 grilled chicken thighs (skin on)

1 cup of uncooked rice

1 Tbs olive oil

1 Tbs butter

3 Tbs cup diced onion

4 large white, button mushrooms, chopped

15 oz ricotta cheese (or queso requesón, if you’re lucky enough)

1 tsp Mexican oregano

¼ cup cooking oil

12 corn tortillas

For the garnish:

1 small white onion, sliced

1 large ripe tomato, sliced

1 orange, sliced

2 cups mixed greens (spinach, lettuce, etc.)

½ cup sour cream

½ cup salsa

Cilantro leaves (as much as you like)

Directions:

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and reserve one of the skins to flavor the rice.

Set the rice on the stove to boil.  Add one of the chicken skins and cook the rice according to the directions on the package. Remove the skin before serving.

Shred and chop the chicken. Set aside.

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet. 

Add the onions and sauté until the onions begin to brown.

Add the mushrooms and stir for one minute. 

Remove the onions and mushrooms to a bowl and set aside.

Add the ricotta cheese to the onions and mushrooms.  Mix to combine. 

Add the oregano and mix thoroughly.

Add the shredded chicken and mix.  Set aside.

Soften the tortillas by frying in hot cooking oil.  Set aside.

Prepare the flautas.  Lay a tortilla on a work surface and add about 3 tablespoons of the chicken mixture.  Form the chicken into a thick bead and roll the tortilla. 

Skewer the tortilla with a toothpick. *Yay for toothpicks*

Assemble the rest of the tortillas and skewer them in sets of three.

Fry the rolled flautas in hot oil, turning a few times, until they are crispy and golden.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.

Assemble the flautas on a large platter and adorn with the garnishes. 

Enjoy with a delicious red wine, which was intended to pair with the lasagna!