Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Year's Day queso compuesto


A year or so ago, I was visiting Texas in August and stopped by my grandma’s farm to say howdy. She asked if I was hungry, as she’d just cooked up a pot of black-eyed peas. How could I refuse? We sat down at the table and ate big bowls of the freshly picked peas along with Swiss chard cooked with bacon and warm cornbread slathered in butter. It was a fine late-summer feast using up the bounty of her garden.

Now, this time of year people start thinking more about black-eyed peas, greens and pork as they’re required eating for good fortune in the New Year. A meal such as the one I shared with my grandma would not be out of place on New Year’s Day. But these foods for us are an essential part of life and we eat them all year long, not just on January 1.

This isn’t to say, however, that I won’t be having black-eyed peas, greens and pork on Sunday. But I like to take a little license with these ingredients and take them on a journey to a new place.

new-year-queso_compuesto black-eyed peas, jalapeno

And that’s how I arrived at my New Year’s Day queso compuesto.

The last time I was dipping into a queso compuesto, I asked myself, “What would this taste like with Mexican chorizo, black-eyed peas and collard greens?” Was it kind of crazy or kind of good? I decided to find out.

For those of you wondering what the heck is queso compuesto, let me explain. Queso the dish is melted cheese mixed with chiles—hence it’s official name, chile con queso. (The word "queso in Spanish means cheese.) In Texas, this melted cheese is usually of the yellow processed variety, though sometimes we make queso with non-processed cheese instead. Queso compuesto then takes this bowl of queso and makes it better by adding stuff such as taco meat, refried beans, guacamole and pico de gallo. It’s one outrageous dip.

Now, melted cheese goes with just about anything savory. And earthy black-eyed peas, smoky collard greens and spicy Mexican chorizo are good friends, too. But for some reason I worried that combining these three with melted cheese would be a bit much. I shouldn’t have—this dip lasted about a minute and even people who think they don’t like black-eyed peas couldn’t get enough.

Of course, if you’re not a fan of black-eyed peas, chorizo or collards, you can make endless substitutions—though I have to say that it is fun combining Southern comfort with Tex-Mex, plus I guarantee that your guests will be very impressed with this twist on a classic.


This queso compuesto might just be my new favorite way to begin a new year, especially if you’re gathering with friends and family and want something to keep them occupied while you work on the main meal. And sure, it may be a little decadent and go against those resolutions, but don’t worry—salads and soups will still be around on January 2.

Happy New Year! May your 2012 be filled with lots of love and joy.

New Year’s Day queso compuesto
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound Mexican chorizo, removed from any casing
1/4 medium onion, diced
6 roasted jalapeños, seeds and stems removed, diced
2 cups cooked collard greens, drained and finely chopped
2 cups cooked black-eyed peas, drained or one 15-ounce can of black-eyed peas, drained
8 ounces cream cheese, cubed
4 cups shredded Muenster (16 ounces)
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon lime juice (optional)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
Tortilla chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large oven-proof skillet, such as a cast iron skillet, heat the oil on medium low and add the Mexican chorizo and onion. While stirring occasionally to break up any large chunks of chorizo, cook until the chorizo and onions are cooked through, about 5-8 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and if you like, drain off any excess grease.

Stir into the skillet the diced jalapeños, black-eyed peas and collard greens. Evenly distribute on top the cubed cream cheese and shredded Muenster then pour in the half-and-half. Bake uncovered until the cheese is bubbling, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently stir to combine everything. If you’d like a little tang, you can squeeze in some lime juice. Garnish with chopped cilantro and add salt to taste. Serve with tortilla chips

Yield: 8 servings

Note: To roast the jalapeños, place under the broiler for 10 minutes until blackened, turning once. To keep the dip warm, you can place on a chafing dish, in a slow cooker or in a fondue pot.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Complexion candy, a date, fig and pecan confection

complexion candy, date and fig candy

The other day I found myself in a cookie coma. After eating nothing but cookies and homemade candy for several hours straight, my belly hurt and I could barely keep my eyes open. It was a sugar, butter and white flour overload.

Now, I’m not one to pass up a sweet treat, especially this time of year. But sometimes it might be wise for me to cut back just a little so I won’t find myself shopping for a whole new wardrobe in the new year.

Enter complexion candy. “What kind of candy?” you may be asking. I said the same thing when I came across this old Texan recipe. Though upon closer inspection I realized that complexion candy is simply an old-fashioned dried fruit and nut confection under a more colorful name.

dates and figs

I love dates. They’re sticky, crunchy and sweet with such a rich caramelized flavor that it’s hard to believe that they’re a fruit. Yep, dates are nature’s candy. And that’s what’s at the heart of complexion candy, along with figs, raisins, orange zest and pecans.

It's a snap to make this, as you simply throw all the ingredients into a food processor and whirl away until a smooth paste forms. Then you can either roll it into balls and dip it in coconut or chopped pecans, or you can press it into a pan and cut it into squares after chilling.

The original recipe called for sprinkling the complexion candy with powdered sugar, but I didn't think it added much, so I skipped that step. You, however, may disagree. But one thing that we can agree on is that complexion candy is a guilt-free sweet. It’s also extremely versatile. For instance, you can sub in other dried fruits if you like, add a bit of ginger and cinnamon for a little spice, use walnuts if you prefer, or if you’re feeling really decadent throw in some chocolate chips or chopped bacon.

complexion candy, date and fig candy

If you’re a fan of fig bars or Lara Bars, then this is for you. Now, I would never advocate getting rid of the pralines, the brittlesfestive cookie tray and other holiday treats that always makes the season bright, but you might consider giving complexion candy a try. And you know what? You might just be surprised.

Complexion candy
2 cups dates
2 cups dried figs
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup roasted pecans
1 tablespoon orange zest
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup chopped nuts, such as pecans, walnuts or pistachios

Place the dates, dried figs, raisins, pecans and orange zest in a food processor and blend until a paste forms. Form into 1-tablespoon-sized balls and dip in shredded coconut and/or chopped nuts. Alternatively, you can press the paste into a pan, chill for an hour and then cut into squares.

Variations: You can replace the pecans with walnuts or almonds. You can also dip the balls into chopped nuts. For more flavor, try adding a pinch of ginger, cinnamon and clove. To make them even more decadent, you can add chocolate chips or chopped bacon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bacon-jalapeño cheese ball

bacon jalapeno cheese ball

While I was home for Thanksgiving, I found in my grandma’s cabinet a North Texas community cookbook from the 1970s. It was a fairly typical cookbook, with chapters on appetizers, soups, main courses and desserts in the traditional order that you’d eat them. But attached to the end was a final chapter that focused on only one thing: cheese.

The placement struck me as strange. Why was it the last chapter of the book? Sure, Europeans are known for having a cheese course at the end of a meal, but Texans not so much. Then I turned the page. It wasn’t just any old cheese chapter—it was a chapter on nothing but cheese balls.

Now, I’ve written before about my love of this decadent and delicious appetizer fashioned from cheese, nuts and herbs. When I was growing up, it was the mark of a very grown-up party if there was a pecan-covered cheese ball on the table. While the kids would get their cheese fix by dipping chips into the pot of chile con queso, the adults would nibble on wheat crackers topped with the nutty, creamy spread.

Then, cheese balls went out of style. Whenever you’d mention them there would inevitably be giggling and eye rolling. Heck, even the term “cheese ball” began to connote an over-the-top, slightly out-of-touch buffoon. For example, take that friend who serenaded all the girls with Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello,” when he first met them. “Oh, he’s such a cheese ball,” people would say. It wasn’t exactly an insult, but you could all agree that your friend was more goofy than cool.

But all things retro eventually come back in style. And in the past few years, cheese balls have been making their way back into polite company. This is very happy news for me, as I never stopped liking them—even when presenting them at a party meant you might not be considered the most sophisticated hostess. Though what’s not to love about a cheese ball as it looks festive and tastes terrific.

Of course, good looks and flavor aside, the best thing about a cheese ball is its infinite variety. Most cheese balls start with a base of cream cheese, but from there you can add just about anything you want—goat cheese, blue cheese, herbs, spices dried fruit and nuts. With a cheese ball, the only limit is your imagination.

As for me, I’ve been enjoying a healthy handful of jalapeño and bacon in my cheese balls of late, which makes for a smoky, savory cheese ball punched up with just a bit of tang and heat. I round it out with some roasted pecans because I like a little crunch, though I do admit it’s almost as good without. It’s been a big crowd pleaser this holiday season, though you certainly don’t need a gathering to make it as cheese balls take little effort to make.

bacon jalapeno cheese ball

I’m still not sure why the cheese ball chapter was at the end of that community cookbook, but I’m not going to ponder it too much. And who knows, maybe it was simply an editorial decision to save the best for last.

Bacon-jalapeño cheese ball

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (4 ounces)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 jalapeños, stems and seeds removed, diced, divided
6 pieces cooked bacon, crumbled, divided (about 6 ounces)
Salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped pecans, roasted
Crackers for serving

Mix together the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, cilantro, garlic, cumin, cayenne, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, half of the diced jalapeños and half of the crumbled cooked bacon. Taste and adjust seasonings and add salt.

Place the roasted pecans and remaining diced jalapeños and bacon on a plate. Stir together so well mixed. With your hands, roll the cheese mixture into a ball, then place on the plate and roll in the jalapeños, bacon and pecans until covered.

Chill covered for at least an hour before serving. Serve with crackers.

Yield: 12 servings

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Chilaquiles with ancho tomatillo salsa

chilaquiles rojos and verde ancho tomatillo salsa

When I first moved to New York, one of the dishes that was lacking was migas. That Texan breakfast staple of eggs scrambled with fried tortillas, along with a host of other good things such as cheese and chiles, was nowhere to be found.

Then one day a friend called and said, “I’ve found migas! This Mexican restaurant is calling them chilaquiles, but if you close your eyes you won’t tell the difference.”

Desperate for a migas fix, the next morning I hopped on the train and met him for breakfast at his local Mexican joint. We ordered the chilaquiles and were presented with scrambled eggs tossed with fried tortillas coated in a bright salsa verde. My friend was correct—they were very similar to our beloved migas and we ate them with gusto and joy.

fried tortilla wedges

Chilaquiles (pronounced chee-la-kee-lays), to those who’ve never had them, are fried tortilla strips or wedges that have been simmered in salsa. As the fried tortillas cook, they absorb the salsa and impart it with its toasted corn flavor until the two become meshed into one. You know when you get to the bottom of the cereal bowl and the cereal has absorbed some of the milk and the milk tastes like cereal? Yep, chilaquiles are kind of wonderful like that—though hopefully not as soggy.

Now, sometimes other things can join the party, such as sliced chicken, shredded beef or even scrambled eggs, the latter of which causes people to think that migas and chilaquiles are the same.

But they’re not.

tomatillos and ancho chile

Here’s the deal. In Texas, Migas are always fried tortilla pieces with scrambled eggs. (The term migas in Spanish means "little crumbs," which is why in Spain there is a dish called migas that is made with bread crumbs. But we're talking Tex-Mex here!) It’s the tortillas and eggs that define migas and without the two you just don’t have that dish.

On the other hand, chilaquiles are nothing without fried tortilla pieces and salsa—it’s the tortillas simmering and soaking in the salsa that defines this dish. The word itself derives from a Nahuatl term that means "in a sauce of chile peppers."

One of the salsas I like to use is an ancho-tomatillo salsa, which I love for its earthy and tangy tones. Of course, you can use any salsa for chilaquiles—red or green. And if you’re feeling especially festive this time of year, you can make two batches of chilaquiles—one with a red salsa and one with a salsa verde and put them on the same plate.

Chilaquiles are intended to get rid of your day-old tortillas, so you’ll want to use stale tortillas, as they’ll absorb more of the salsa. Though if you don’t want to mess with frying tortillas, in a pinch I’ve known people to throw in some stale tortilla chips instead. I also find chilaquiles are a perfect vehicle for leftover chicken, which I often add to make a heartier dish.

chilaquiles rojos and verde ancho tomatillo salsa

People tell me they are starting to see migas on New York breakfast menus, which is a good thing. Though this would never stop me from eating chilaquiles, as the two are completely different and equally wonderful. And if you're a fan of migas and have never tried chilaquiles, I know you'll love them, too.

Chilaquiles with ancho-tomatillo salsa

For the ancho-tomatillo salsa:
1 ancho chile, stem and seeds removed
1/2 pound tomatillos, husks removed or one 11-ounce can, drained
2 cloves garlic
1 cup water
Salt to taste

For the chilaquiles:
2 cups ancho-tomatillo salsa or the salsa of your choice
Vegetable oil or lard for frying
8 stale corn tortillas, cut into quarters or 32 tortilla chips
2 cups diced cooked chicken (optional)
Salt to taste

For serving:
Cotija cheese
Sour cream
Lime wedges

To make the ancho-tomatillo salsa, in a dry skillet heated on high, toast the ancho chile on each side for about 10 seconds or until it starts to puff. Fill the skillet with enough water to cover the chile. Leave the heat on until water begins to boil and then turn off the heat and let the chile soak until soft, about 30 minutes. Once hydrated, discard the soaking water and rinse the chile.

Meanwhile, place the tomatillos under the broiler and turning once, cook for 10-12 minutes or until blackened. (If using canned tomatillos, skip this step.)

Place the ancho chile, blackened tomatillos, garlic and 1 cup of water in a blender and blend until smooth, about a minute. Add salt to taste. You should have about 2 cups of salsa. If you have less, add a bit more water.

To make the chilaquiles, in a large skillet heat about 3/4 inch of oil on medium high until it’s 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. In batches, place the quartered tortillas into the hot oil and fry about one minute per side or until light brown and crisp. Remove fried tortillas with a slotted spatula and place on the paper-towel-lined sheet. Repeat until all the quartered tortillas have been fried.

Remove the skillet from the heat and pour out all but one tablespoon of oil, discarding the rest. Place the skillet back on the burner and heat to medium-low. Pour in the salsa, and cook the salsa for 2 minutes or until warm. Add the chicken (if using) and the chips and gently stir to coat the chips in the salsa. Cover the skillet, turn down the heat to low, and cook for 2 more minutes.

Serve with cilantro, Cotija cheese, sour cream and lime wedge.

To make chilaquiles rojos and verdes, use one cup of the ancho-tomatillo salsa (or any other red salsa of choice) and one cup of salsa verde. Divide the fried tortillas and chicken in half, and cook them separately in each salsa. To serve, place on each plate some of the chilaquiles rojos and the chilaquiles verdes.

Note: If you prefer, you can use any salsa that you like to make chilaquiles. Likewise, I add chicken to mine for a heartier meal, but you can serve them without the chicken, or with beef, beans, sautéed vegetables or scrambled eggs instead.

Yield: 4 servings

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Homesick Texan gift guide 2011

Doing things for others is said to be a path to happiness and that may be why this time of year is filled with so much joy. While I’ve been searching for gifts for my family and friends, I’ve come across a few items that would be perfect for that Texan in your life. So without further ado, here is my 2011 Homesick Texan gift guide.

Texas gift towels, glasses, plates and more
My mom does this great thing where she wraps gifts in dishtowels, which means that I haven’t had to buy one in years due to a ready supply. That said, when I came across some mighty fine Texas dishtowels made by Catstudio, I knew I had to add one or two to my collection. Catstudio has also applied its design prowess to creating themed dishtowels for the cities Austin, Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth, along with fabulous glasses, plates and throw pillows. Cute, fun and practical!

Texas pecans
Last week when I was home for Thanksgiving, I probably ate over a pound of local pecans. Sure, pecans grow in other places, but those from Texas are definitely the sweetest, most flavorful pecans around. In New York City, it’s difficult to find Texas pecans but I’ve found a few places that do mail order, such as these organic pecans grown by Caddo Valley Pecans , which come from a grove near the North Texas town of Bonham. And if you’re looking for some pecan candy to go along with your nuts, there’s Oliver Pecan Co., which is based in San Saba, the pecan capital of the world.

Dublin Dr Pepper
Dublin Dr Pepper, everyone’s favorite Dr Pepper made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, has been accused by Dr Pepper parent company Cadbury Schwepps of not sticking to its agreement to sell only within a 44-miles radius from its Central Texas bottling plant. While the two are in litigation you can't order it online but if you call, I hear you can place an order for the highly prized beverage. Likewise, if you want to show your support for Dublin Dr Pepper, you can contribute to their legal defense fund and get a T-Shirt that proclaims, “Save Dublin.” But even though Dublin Dr Pepper is no longer offered online, they do offer other soft drinks in bulk syrup form (if you want to mix your own soda), such as a five-gallon bag of Big Red syrup made with cane sugar.

Friday Night Lights, The Complete Series
It’s Texas high school football playoff season, an occasion on proud display in many of the small towns I drove through while I was home for Thanksgiving. Seeing the numerous signs showing support for all the hometown teams made me nostalgic, not only for my own high school days but for the show “Friday Night Lights,” which ended this year. While I’ll never be 17 again, thanks to thiss DVD collection of all five season I can at least revisit this quintessential show about Texas small-town life.

Texas Waffle Maker
When I mentioned Texas-shaped baking pans last year, many of you told me about your Texas waffle makers. “Waffles shaped like Texas are the best,” you insisted. And indeed, I had the opportunity to try many Texas-shaped waffles myself this year as I traveled around the state staying at various motels that had them on offer at their breakfast buffets. And if you're wondering, yes it’s true—waffles shaped like Texas do taste better!

Signed copies of The Homesick Texan Cookbook
Okay, I realize I'm a bit biased in listing my book but I’ve been told by my mom that The Homesick Texan Cookbook makes a superb gift. (Though apparently others such as The New York Times, Epicurious and Amazon agree.) You can buy it wherever books are sold but if you’d like a signed copy, just call my local bookshop Posman Books (212-627-0304), tell them the inscription you'd like, I'll sign it and they'll ship it.

While you're book shopping, you should also check out two other Texas cookbooks that came out this year: Lou Lambert's and June Naylor’s Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook, a beautiful survey of Lou’s delicious West Texas-inspired cooking, and a reissue of Cheryl and Bill Jamison’s Texas Home Cooking, a classic that has recipes for just about everything.

Texas relief
This year has been a tough one for Texas. The ongoing drought has brought on a series of disasters, such as the loss of crops and livestock, not to mention the horrible wildfires that devastated parts of the state. In light of all this, a charitable donation to a disaster relief organization working to help Texas is an excellent way to give back to the place you love. There are many, but here are a few to get you started: Central Texas Red Cross or one of the other Red Cross chapters across Texas; Texas Episcopal Disaster Relief and Development, and the state government’s own fund, The Texas Disaster Fund.

Of course, there are many other terrific gifts for homesick Texans. For instance, if you're looking for grapefruits, barbecue, tamales or more, then check out this gift guide, this gift guide and this gift guide from previous years.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tamale cornbread dressing

tamale cornbread dressing

The first time I heard of tamales used as a stuffing was in Mary Faulk Koock’s The Texas Cookbook, where she tells a story about a friend of hers in Amarillo who packs his turkey with dozens of tamales before throwing it on a grill and slathering it with barbecue sauce.

“Brilliant!” I said to myself. “I must try that!”

Of course, with no outdoor space I knew that my opportunities to grill a turkey were limited. But using tamales as a stuffing (or dressing, as we say down South), was very intriguing.

In my family, my uncle is on dressing duty every year so it’s not a dish I’ve spent much time making or refining. But I couldn’t stop thinking about incorporating tamales into the dressing, especially since tamales embrace some of the finer qualities of a dressing with their soft, steamed dough wrapped around a piquant, flavorful filling. And when you throw in some crumbled cornbread and roasted jalapeños, you’ve taken something traditional and elevated it to something unique.

tamale cornbread dressing

Even though I'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with my family at my grandma’s farm, I’m a firm believer that feasting well and showing gratitude shouldn’t just be limited to one day. It’s for this reason my friends and I often get together and throw an early Thanksgiving dinner before we travel for the holiday. And when I learned I was on side-dish duty, I knew just what I would make.

A little poking around led me to a few recipes for tamale cornbread dressing. Interestingly, most of them hailed from Austin though I did find one from the Rio Grande Valley. After much thought, I decided to adapt an Austin Chronicle recipe that appealed to me because it had lots of cheese and corn. I also threw in some cilantro, cumin and garlic for more flavor, and in a nod to my uncle’s dressing I swapped out the poblano chiles for jalapeños, which added more fire and pop to each bite.

While I made mine with beef tamales, it would be just as good with pork, chicken, turkey or any other type of tamale that you prefer. This recipe makes enough to serve eight hungry people, though it can easily be doubled if you have a larger crowd.

If you love cornbread and tamales, this dressing is for you. Sure, it’s special enough for the big feast, but I have a feeling it will be making more appearances in my kitchen during the colder months, especially if I have leftover cornbread I want to use. After all, as my uncle says, dressing is one of the ultimate comfort foods.


Looking for additional Thanksgiving recipes? Here you go: pecan pie, giblet gravy, sweet potato biscuits and more Thanksgiving menu ideas.


Tamale cornbread dressing (adapted from the Austin Chronicle)

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups crumbled cornbread, (1/2 of a baked 10-inch skillet)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3 jalapeños, seeds and stems removed, diced
1 cup frozen corn kernels
4 ounces pepper Jack, shredded (1 cup)
6 beef, pork or chicken tamales, chopped
2 cups turkey or chicken broth
Salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large cast-iron skillet, melt the butter on medium-low heat. Add the onions to the skillet and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 more seconds.

Once cooked, remove the skillet from the heat and transfer the cooked onions and garlic to a large bowl. Add to the large bowl the crumbled cornbread, cumin, sage, cilantro, corn kernels, diced jalapeños and pepper Jack cheese. Stir until well combined. Gently stir in the chopped tamales, and return the dressing to the skillet. (Alternatively, you can place the dressing in a greased 9x9 baking dish.)

Pour over the dressing the chicken broth and gently stir to combine. Adjust seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover the skillet with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 15 more minutes or until top is lightly browned and the edges are crisp.

Yield: 8 servings

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sweet potato salad with cranberries and pecans

sweet potato salad cranberries pecans

“What are you cooking this week?” asked my grandma. I told her I was making sweet potatoes. “They’re good for your eyes!” she said.

My grandma loves her sweet potatoes, as does most of my family. I, however, only eat them when they’re mashed or pureed as in soups or pies. Other preparations—such as sweet potatoes with marshmallows or sweet potato fries—are just a bit too much for me. I can’t explain it.

But at my cousin’s wedding in August I had a revelation. My cousin Lisa, like everyone in my family, loves to cook. And when her daughter Sarah announced her wedding, Lisa said, “I’m catering it.” It was a huge party and preparing a dinner for so many folks was a herculean task, but Lisa gathered up her friends and with their help she pulled it off with grace and elegance.

sweet potatoes

It was a fine feast made all the better because it was prepared with love. Everything was delicious, but there was one salad that stood out on a table overflowing with goodness. The salad was nutty, creamy, earthy yet sweet and was the sort of dish that made you pause because you weren’t quite sure what you’d eaten, but you quickly took another bite because you knew you wanted more. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was, but I loved it anyway.

Then it hit me.

“Wait. Are these sweet potatoes?” I asked the people sitting at my table. My mom said that they were. “But it tastes so good and I don’t like sweet potatoes!” I said. She agreed that it was one incredible dish. In fact the whole table was chatting about this simple salad comprised of sweet potatoes, crunchy pecans and tart dried cranberries tossed in a curry-laced dressing. It was quite the surprise.

The next day, I insisted that Lisa give me the recipe. It turned out to be one of her friend’s recipes and she promised to send it to me. “This would be perfect for Thanksgiving!” I said.

Now, while this is a cold salad, sweet potatoes, pecans and cranberries are in season and this dish still says autumn to me. Even if you’re the kind of person that often finds sweet potatoes a bit cloying I know you’ll enjoy this.

sweet potato salad cranberries pecans

Plus, as my grandma says, sweet potatoes are good for your eyes!

Sweet potato salad with cranberries and pecans

4 pounds sweet potatoes (about 2 or 3 large), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon coarse-ground mustard
2 green onions, sliced
1 cup dried cranberries
½ cup roughly chopped pecans, lightly toasted
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking sheet. Place the cubed sweet potatoes on the sheet and bake until cooked but firm, about 35-40 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, curry powder and mustard. Stir in the green onions, cranberries, pecans and cooked sweet potatoes. Adjust seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste. Chill for at least three hours before serving.

Yield: 4 servings

Note: My cousin adds 1 tablespoon of brown sugar when she makes this, but I find it’s plenty sweet with the sweet potatoes and cranberries. If you want it to be sweeter, you might try it that way.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Stuffed pumpkin with cheese, bacon and chipotle chiles

The day before I left for my Texas tour, I made an incredible dish. It was a baked pumpkin stuffed with bread, Gruyere, sharp white cheddar, bacon, chipotle chiles, cream and garlic. After spending some time in the oven, it emerged filled with a rich, savory and spicy filling that was perfect for spooning onto a plate as an autumnal side dish. I was smitten.

After taking photos and writing down my changes to the two recipes I adapted (one from Dorie Greenspan and another from Ian Knauer), I packed my suitcases and focused on signing books instead of blogging. My goal had been to share this with you from the road, but between events I was simply too busy to write. Any mention of it would have to wait.

In my mind, pumpkins are most associated with Halloween and when October ended, I thought I’d missed my opportunity. But when I told my mom about the stuffed pumpkin she said, “We should serve that at Thanksgiving!” And she’s right—it’s not too late and indeed we do!

Before we continue talking about this pumpkin, however, please allow me to say a few words about my time in Texas. I can’t tell you how incredible it was meeting so many of you! When you write for a living, you spend much of your time alone in front of a computer, so being able to go out and hear your stories and match faces to familiar names was extremely edifying. What a friendly, smart and generous bunch y’all are!

A big thank you to all who made it out to the events—seeing you definitely made my day! (If you weren’t able to attend and you’d like a signed copy of my book, head on over to my book page for information on how to order one.)

Now back to that pumpkin. They are still in season and if you’re looking for something dramatic to share at the table, then this cheese-stuffed pumpkin with bacon and chipotle chiles will definitely bring both smiles and sighs. Mom had suggested we serve it at Thanksgiving as an appetizer, which will work. But I think it could make for an unusual take on dressing, too.

If you’re a fan of nutty melted cheese, crisp bacon and smoky chipotle chiles, then there’s no need to wait until Thanksgiving to enjoy this pumpkin. Sure, it takes some time to bake, but the preparation is a snap. And with just a little planning you can have a festive dish that will bring light and warmth to the table as the days grow shorter and darker.

Stuffed pumpkin with cheese, bacon and chipotle chiles (adapted from recipes by Dorie Greenspan and Ian Knauer)

One 3-to-4 pound pumpkin
Salt and black pepper to taste
4 ounces French bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 pound Gruyere, shredded (1 cup)
1/4 pound white cheddar, shredded (1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 or 2 chipotle chiles en adobo, diced (depending on how fiery you want it)
1/4 pound cooked bacon, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Small pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13 casserole pan or baking pan with foil or parchment paper.

With a sharp knife, cut a circle around the pumpkin stem about 1 inch away from the stem. Remove the top and clean out the seeds and stringy bits from inside the pumpkin. (You can save the seeds for roasting, if you like.) Lightly salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin.

Toss together the bread cubes, shredded Gruyere, shredded cheddar, garlic, diced chipotle chiles and cooked bacon, and stuff into the pumpkin. Stir the cumin and nutmeg into the cream, adding a bit of salt and black pepper to taste. Pour cream mixture into pumpkin over bread and cheese.

Place the top back on the pumpkin, and place the pumpkin into the baking pan. Bake for 1 1/2 hour to 2 hours or until filling is brown and bubbling. To serve, remove the top and spoon out portions of the filling along with bits of the cooked pumpkin. You can either leave it in the pan, or by using the foil or parchment paper, you can carefully lift it out of the pan and place it on a platter. Serve warm.

Yield: 4 servings

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Texas Ranger cookies

When I was eight, my dad drove us from Carrollton to Arlington to see the Texas Rangers. It was my first baseball game. While my previous sporting experience had only been football, I soon fell in love with a sport that allowed you to sit outside on a breezy summer evening, served hot dogs and peanuts at your seat, and played organ music every time a player approached the plate.

(I also developed a huge crush on Jim Sundberg, which completely dates me, I know!)

We moved to Houston soon after that, and the professional baseball games there were not quite the same. First, instead of being outside you sat inside the air-conditioned Astrodome, where you lost all sense of time. And while an organ still played, there was also an impressive light show that exploded across the board whenever a player did well. It was completely different from what I’d seen in Arlington, but I still had a ton of fun.

Because I spent most of my childhood in Houston, I’ll admit that I consider myself an Astros fan. But since the Rangers were my first baseball love I will always have warm feelings for them. And yes, I am over the moon to see a Texas team in the World Series, especially after the difficult time the state had this summer; it’s refreshing to hear happy things about Texas in the news.

This past week I’ve been in Texas signing books and meeting so many of you—it’s been a blast. But it's also been a thrill to see large groups cheering on the home team.

Before I left New York—when we were still watching to see if the Rangers would cinch the American League title—I made a few batches of ranger cookies, though in honor of the team I took to calling them Texas Ranger cookies instead.

Now, if you’re not familiar with ranger cookies, they are very similar to cowboy cookies in that they’re chock full of good things such as nuts, oats and chocolate chips. A little research, however, revealed that ranger cookies differ slightly from cowboy cookies in that they also have cereal such as corn flakes, wheat flakes or puffed rice added to the dough. There is also dried fruit, which you don’t see as often in cowboy cookies.

To mine, instead of the usual raisins I’ve added dried cherries and blueberries, as an homage to the Rangers' team colors, of course. I also baked them as a bar cookie instead of a drop cookie, which is not only faster but if you have a Texas-shaped pan it also makes for a fine presentation. (Though any baking pan will do.)

While they’re a delicious dessert, ranger cookies were originally created to provide non-perishable, portable energy to outdoorsy types such as hikers, campers and yes, rangers. And as we make our way through this nail-biter of a World Series, trust me, we’ll need all the energy we can get!

Texas Ranger cookies
1 cup butter (2 sticks), room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup corn flakes
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup dried blueberries
1/2 cup dried cherries
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees; grease a 9x13 baking pan or a baking sheet.

Cream together the butter, the granulated sugar and the brown sugar. Stir in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt, and mix until well combined. Stir in the corn flakes, the oats, the chocolate chips, the coconut, the blueberries, the cherries and the pecans.

If making bar cookies, spread evenly the cookie dough in the baking pan and bake for 25 minutes or until edges are set and dough is lightly browned. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before slicing.

If making drop cookies, roll dough into walnut-sized balls, place on baking sheet and bake one pan at a time for 15-17 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack for 15 minutes.

Yield: About 36 bars or cookies