Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mission: NOT Impossible

Of all the cuisines, Mexican is one of my all-time favorites.  I love queso and chips as much as the next guy, but for me the ultimate Mexican dish is tamales.  And they are hard to come by. Not many restaurants serve them and it’s even harder to find a person who makes them.  I know. For years, I’ve wanted to learn to make them. I’ve always been told that they are soooooo hard to make.  They are soooooo complicated. They are such a project that someone’s grandmother might make them for a very special occasion. So, I’ve merely dreamed and aspired to become a tamale cook for a very long time.  

I came across an old 1980’s Mexican cookbook that a friend was throwing out.  I scooped it up and there it was.  A tamale recipe.  I read it over and over again because I just couldn’t grasp what was so difficult about what I was reading.  And then it happened.  I bought a Boston butt and I made tamales.

I don’t know what I’ve been waiting on. I let others convince me that this was some insurmountable task. But here’s the news flash…it is not difficult to make tamales.  At all.  It takes some time, but it’s not hard. And, they were fabulous!

I started with a Boston butt; trim excess fat and cut into pieces
Stewing on the stovetop for about an hour

Guajillo chiles are the base for the sauce
Gorgeous color!  Homemade enchilada sauce
I love that happy little corn man
You spread the masa on the corn husk with your fingers
Add a little filling
Fold sides over filling and pointed end under
Steam bath for about an hour
My finished product

OMG!  My tamales were fantastic, if I do say so myself!  The sauce has out-of-this-world flavor.  It’s so simple to make. You soak the chiles in hot water to soften them up, then remove seeds and puree them with the soaking liquid. Then you cook the puree with some garlic, flour, vinegar, cumin and oregano. Nothing difficult about that. The pork is stewed with some garlic, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns. After it’s cooked, you shred it, mix with sauce and refrigerate overnight.  Nothing hard about that. 

You also save the pork broth for the masa. Refrigerate that overnight so you can skim the fat off before mixing up the masa.  The next day, you simply mix the masa with warm broth, shortening, and baking powder until it becomes a soft, wet dough.  You soak your corn husks in hot water for about an hour to make them pliable. Then, it’s just a matter of spreading out some masa, add some filling and fold.  They steam for about an hour and then you are ready to dig in. The masa was so soft and tender and flavorful. This is key because even in restaurants I’ve had tamales with dried out masa and it ruined the whole dish. The pork was tender and that sauce, oh the sauce!   

And none of this was hard to do!  It takes some time, but anything worth doing is worth the time. My parents came to dinner and we all fell in love with the tamales.  So much so that later that  week, I made another batch.  A double batch!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Astronaut Crazy

You may be aware that my sister lives in Houston. Specifically, the Clear Lake area of Houston.  Know what's in Clear Lake?  NASA.  The Johnson Space Center. I mean, it's like 10 minutes from her house.  I think that's really cool. Every time I'm there, I find myself picturing the astronauts of "the day" (Armstrong, Lovell, Aldrin) cruising the palm lined NASA Road 1 in their spiffy little 'vettes and Spitfires. Livin' the celebrity life in a big huge way.

The first week of August, the little one and I flew to Houston for her to attend engineering camp at NASA. She and my niece had the ultimate summer day camp experience and I got a week of quiet reading time, days at the pool, lunch breaks with my sister.  It was really awesome. I asked Katherine one day, "surely there is a neighborhood around here that was built for the astronauts back in the 50's or so, right?"  Yes. Yes, there is.  It's called El Lago and I had to see it.

We rode over one day to "stalk" the old astro's houses.  I'm sure the people who currently live in El Lago are totally used to it.  Here are some photos:

Neil Armstrong lived here

Jim Lovell & Buzz Aldrin lived here; not at the same time however!
Ed White (1st American to walk in space) lived here; right next to Armstrong's old house
Fred Haise (Apollo 13) lived in this little cutie
This one is pretty special. Ron McNair, Lake City, SC native who perished in the Challenger explosion in 1986. I was home sick from school that day & saw the whole thing on TV.

So, after my extraterrestrial real estate tour, it was only fitting for us to have lunch at a little joint known as "Frenchie's."  

Not much to look at, but don't let that fool you!
This is one of those old school Italian restaurants whose decor is original, I'd say circa 1950. You walk in and there are dudes sitting at small tables by the door just chatting in Italian. You order from a man at the counter who then calls out the order to the kitchen via microphone, and then you select a table in the dining room. And, here's the thing. This was/is the astronaut hang-out.  There are autographed photos, posters, memorabilia EVERYWHERE. The place is only about 2 minutes from the space center (the JSC, the locals call it) and it's the bom-diggity of old, not-changin'-our-ways restaurant. 

Katherine thinks to herself "oh, I'm not really that hungry. I'll just order something light, like a sandwich."  She opts for the muffaletta. Sandwich, yes.  Light, just what the not-so-hungry lady wants, not so much!  Check out this bad boy...

As my husband would say, if I threw this at you, I'd knock you off your bicycle!
 It was huge but delicious!  The bread was homemade and fresh. The meats were yummy and the olive salad was better than any other muffaletta I've ever had.

But what about me?  I was feeling pressured from the specials menu, to the regular menu, not knowing the procedures (it's like your first experience at the Beacon) so I just blurted out "I'll have the spaghetti marinara!"  Now, folks, I think the last time I ordered spaghetti in a restaurant I was probably 5 years old.  But what caught my eye was "capers and olives." I'd sell my soul to the devil for capers and olives.  Holy Moly, people!  This was by far, the best spaghetti I've ever eaten. The sauce was fresh, bright red with fresh tomatoes, loaded with capers and Italian olives.  But the real surprise that hit it all home was that the sauce had this spicy undertone that caught up on you.  It was magnificent.
I can hardly look at this. My mouth is watering.
 So, lesson here?   If you go to Houston, downtown is cool and all, but you must go to Clear Lake to see all the coolness surrounding the Space Center.  Plus, it's on the water; you can get great, fresh seafood anytime. Stalk the old astronaut's neighborhood and get some damn good grub too. And don't forget, Galveston is only about a half hour away, so you can get some beach time too!  No shark attacks there this summer. :-)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Heat-wave Antipasti

It's summertime. This is the South. It's hot. It's damn not.  It's always damn not.  But, the last few weeks, we've endured several days with 100+ temps.  These are the days that I remember one of my mom's famous anecdotes...The only thing that separates Columbia from hell is a screened door. 

We drove up to the Upstate the other day for a couple reasons: 1) it's cooler up there and 2) peaches. After scoring giant peaches from Inman, a gallon of blueberries and the most beautiful tomatoes I've seen in a long time, we returned home around dinnertime. I determined that it was just too late to start cooking, so I told my mom and dad to give me 30 minutes and then come on over.

This is what I came up with.  I think it turned out pretty darn beautiful, if I do say so myself. 

Seriously, look at these tomatoes!

My kind of antipasti platter
Olive oil and herbs for our bread
So, we dined on prosciutto & cantaloupe, pepperoncini, black olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, Castelvetrano olives, hearts of palm, Caprese salad, cheese, olive oil and French bread. Not one single BTU was used to create this spread, so we could enjoy our meal in nicely air-conditioned comfort!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Quick weeknight dessert

I have become almost obsessed with not wasting food, including leftovers.  Once upon a time, I couldn't have cared less about leftovers but Neil has gradually made me see the light. If I don't want to heat them up and have them again, I'll find a way to turn them into something else. Once a French baguette begins to harden, I throw it into the food processor and make bread crumbs. These keep really well in the freezer, BTW.  If making Neil's favorite key lime pie, I freeze the leftover egg whites for something else later. Leftover pork chops?  I make "house" fried rice out of them...and whatever else I can find in my fridge.

Recently, we had purchased some of those cute mini-croissants from the bakery.  These little guys are the perfect sandwich size for my daughter.  But, we had a few left in the container and they were just staring at me every time I walked into the kitchen.  A few days had gone by and I realized it was time to change them into something else.  After a bit of thought, I opted for a simple bread pudding.

I just tore the croissants into pieces. I placed them into an 8" baking dish and drizzled about 1 Tbs melted butter over.  Next, I mixed 2 beaten eggs, 1 cup milk, about 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp vanilla.  I sprinkled some raisins over the bread, then poured the egg mixture over.  You'll want to press down on the bread a bit so it soaks up the egg mixture. Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes until the top springs back when tapped.

Neil and Vivi went crazy over this.  It was ridiculously easy to put together and it baked while we had our chicken enchiladas for dinner.  And, no croissants went to waste!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Neil's New Favorite

Anyone who loves to cook needs to be married to someone like my husband Neil.  He will eat anything I put in front of him, not because he's one of those shovel-it-in-eating-machines, but because he's willing to try anything.  The best thing though is that he is always appreciative.  Don't get me wrong...I don't cook because I want praise and compliments.  But it does feel great to know that he appreciates my efforts. And I'll admit that cooking is MY hobby, but I love seeing Neil and our daughter enjoy what I prepare.

The other day I was flipping through my favorite cookbook of all time and my eyes came to rest on a chimichanga recipe.  I had all the ingredients on hand so I decided to give it a go.  And I really liked that they are baked rather than fried.  I love the concept of the chimi but I rarely order them in restaurants because that fried tortilla always seems so heavy and dense to me.  Baking them really appealed to me. 

I will never try to take credit for someone else's recipe or act like it's my own.  Credit where credit is due.  This is the work of a lady named Nicole.  Click here to get her recipe. The only thing I did differently was using cheddar simply because I didn't have Monterrey Jack. I presented this to Neil and he went crazy over it.  He even went so far as to say it's one of the best things I've made lately. 
What a gorgeous green!
Yummy filling simmering

Finished product. Y'all know I'm not a pro photographer!

Since there are only 3 of us, I prepared all of the chimichangas and wrapped the extras in foil and into the freezer they went. See that simple salad in the photo?  Well, that's another great recipe from this book. It's called "Casa dressing." Super simple but incredibly great tasting.  The lime and cumin give it a Mexican flair and it takes no time to whip up.  Try these recipes out and let me know your thoughts. 

 disfrute de su comida!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sweet and Sour Pork at Home

You know that feeling when you make a meal at home that you love so much you'd even be willing to buy it from yourself?  That's how I feel about the sweet and sour that I make myself. I'd put mine up against any Chinese restaurant in this town.  And, I'm pretty confident I'd win.

I've written about this one before, but it's so good,it bears repeating. Last time I don't think I really told you how to make it so I will this time.  The coolest thing about Asian cuisines is that you don't have to have a lot of meat to work with.  The protein is so nicely accompanied by vegetables and rice that a little goes a long way.  Needless to say, this brings us into the category of budget meals too.

You all may remember that I'm a meat snob. I don't like meat with bones in it or with a bunch of fat & other icky stuff hanging off it.  So, I start with really good, fresh, lean pork.  This could be boneless pork chops or tenderloin.  To me, this is key.  Another aspect of this dish that I love is the true sweet and sour nature of combining onions and bell peppers with pineapple and the sweet sauce.  Just delicious!

So here's what I want you to do.  Cut your pork (about 1/2 lb.) into small, bite-sized pieces.  Gather these things:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 Tbs cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 Tbs oil 
Sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt into a bowl.  Make a well in the center & add the oil and enough water to make a thick, smooth batter. Using a wooden spoon, stir the ingredients in the well & gradually incorporate flour from the outside. Beat until smooth.

Heat some oil in your wok, dip your pork in the batter and fry about 6 pieces at a time, to keep your oil from cooling off. Drain on paper towels.

 Pour off most of the oil from your wok.  Now add a sliced onion, sliced bell pepper and one can of pineapple chunks (drain them but save the juice for the sauce.)  Stir fry over high until veggies are tender.  Remove & set aside.

 Now, for the sauce: 
  • 2 Tbs cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed or minced
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 6 Tbs ketchup
  • 6 Tbs reserved pineapple juice
Mix all these ingredients together and pour into the wok. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring continuously until thickened. Allow to simmer for about 2 minutes until it becomes clear.  

Add the veggies and pork back to the wok and stir to coat completely.  Reheat for about 2 minutes then serve.  It's great over jasmine rice but rice isn't a must.

Of course, you could do this same thing with chicken or shrimp if you wish. The technique with the batter and the sauce is what I think are most important.  I paired ours with egg rolls that I picked up from Sun Ming in Irmo.  

Sun Ming is one of the best Chinese restaurants we have, IMO and their egg rolls remind me of the kind we always had as kids.  Big and fat with bits of pork and shrimp inside.  Not like the ones you get so often today that are nothing but cabbage and shredded celery.  And, don't forget to ask them to give you some of their homemade hot mustard to go with the egg rolls. That garbage in the packet isn't worth the name mustard! 

So, there you have it: homemade sweet and sour pork that will impress your family and your guests.  It's surprisingly easy to whip this up at home and so much better than take-out.  Give it a try; you'll thank yourself for putting forth the effort.


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