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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
Ingredients:
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

Method:
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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tex-Mex fried pies

tex-mex fried pies

“I have four words for you,” said a friend. “Tex-Mex fried pie!”

“Isn’t that three words?” I said.

“Whatever,” he said. “But have you had one?” I replied that I had not. “You should,” he said. He then went on to explain that a Tex-Mex fried pie was like a regular fried pie, but was filled with meat and beans instead of fruit. I asked if the crust was made with masa and he said, nope—it was a regular piecrust. “If you love bean and cheese tacos, you’ll love this,” he said.

And that was that—I was intrigued.

Now, I’m no stranger to making fried pies but I was still curious to see what sort of recipes existed for this savory delicacy. So imagine my surprise when the first one I found appeared in Yankee Magazine. Yes, I said Yankee. And it was strange.

The filling was a mix of ground beef, bell peppers and crushed potato chips. Now, I could understand, maybe, crushed tortilla chips. But potato chips just seemed odd in a recipe described as “Tex-Mex.”

tex-mex fried pies crust

What was even more odd was that further research revealed that the genesis of that recipe was actually Texan, as it had come from someone at the State Fair—the center of the universe for all things fried. That said, despite its provenance, without much spice or any jalapeños it still seemed bland so I decided to just make up my own.

One thing I did like about the recipe was there was some cheese added to the crust. I kept that idea, but I completely changed the filling. For mine, I went with spicy Mexican chorizo instead of ground beef, and of course I added refried beans. And for heat, I threw in some diced jalapeños and then finished it with cheddar cheese.

The filling was rich and addictive, the sort of thing that goes well with a handful of tortilla chips, a fluffy flour tortilla or yes, a fried piecrust. And once I fried up a batch and took my first bite, I knew just what my friend had been talking about—these Tex-Mex fried pies were indeed very good. (Some of you may be asking, what’s the difference between these and an empanada? Not much, I admit, as both are pastries stuffed with a filling. Though for my empanadas, I use a different crust and I always bake them.)

tex-mex fried pies

You can eat them on their own, but they’re also terrific dipped into salsa and sour cream. They make for a fine appetizer, a light lunch or an afternoon snack. And because they’re portable, when I head to Texas next week for my book tour, I’ll pack some with me for the plane trip, too.

Tex-Mex fried pies
For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese (4 ounces)
1/2 cup lard, chilled
1/4 cup cold water

For the filling:
1 tablespoon bacon grease or vegetable oil
1/4 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 pound Mexican chorizo sausage
2 cups refried beans or 1 15-ounce can
2 jalapeños, seeds and stems removed, diced
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese (6 ounces)

For the pies:
Vegetable oil for frying
Salsa and sour cream for serving

Method:
To make the crust, mix together the flour, salt and cheddar cheese. Add the lard, either with a fork, your hands or a pastry cutter. When the flour is clumped together, slowly add the cold water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough is moist enough to come together. Form the dough into a ball, then wrap and place the dough in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.

To make the filling, heat up the oil in a large skillet on medium-low. Add the onions and cook until soft, about five minutes. Remove the Mexican chorizo from the casing (if homemade and already loose, you can skip this step) and add to the skillet along with the diced jalapeños. Cook until chorizo is lightly browned, about five minutes. Stir in the refried beans and cook until heated. Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese.

To make the fried pies, roll out the chilled curst until it’s no more than 1/8 of an inch thick. Cut out 4-inch diameter circles. Roll out any leftover scraps and continue to cut out 3-inch circles until all the dough has been used. You should have about 12.

Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center of each crust. Moisten the edges and fold the edge over, sealing the edges with your fingers and then press down on the edges with a fork. (If there's any filling left over, save it for tacos or use as a dip.)

In a cast-iron skillet, heat 1 inch of oil to 350 degrees. With a spatula, gently place 2 or 3 pies into the hot oil, cooking for about a minute on each side or until lightly browned. Drain cooked pies on a rack or a paper-towel-lined plate. Repeat for the remaining pies.

Serve warm with salsa, sour cream or just by themselves.

Yield: 12 pies

Monday, October 3, 2011

Entomatadas recipe

entomatadas

It’s that time of year when tomatoes are about to say farewell, and I’ve been eating them as often as I can. One of my favorite meals with said tomatoes is a batch of entomatadas.

If you’re not familiar with entomatadas, they’re like enchiladas—rolled tortillas filled with cheese, chicken or beef, and covered in a savory sauce. But as the term enchiladas refers to the chile sauce that covers the tortillas in that dish, the term entomatada refers to the tomato-based sauce that covers the tortillas in this dish.

The last time I had entomatadas in Texas was at a Mexican cafe in downtown Victoria called Mi Familia. There was a chalkboard outside that listed the specials, and in big letters was the announcement they were on offer that day. While I’d never eaten at that restaurant, when I walked inside it was bright, cheerful and smelled heavenly. I knew it would be good.

tomatoes

When the waitress came to my table, I asked her about the entomatadas. She said they were an old family recipe and that if I ate them it would be like eating in their home. How appropriate, I said, considering the restaurant’s name. She agreed and said I should definitely order them. I’m glad that I did. They were made with love and soul, and definitely made this stranger feel warm and welcome.

Now, entomatadas aren’t the most common dish in Texas and you’ll usually see them only in the southern part o the state. But that’s okay because the mild yet flavorful entomatadas are perfect for home cooking. They’re the Tex-Mex equivalent of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Making the sauce doesn’t take much, as it’s one of those recipes where you just throw everything into the blender. I add a step by roasting my tomatoes and aromatics under the broiler before pureeing, but this extra effort is worth it as it adds flavor. Then you just fill the warmed corn tortillas with cheese, smother them in sauce, and bake until the cheese melts. To serve, I top them with slices of avocado and like all things Tex-Mex, they’re best nestled between Mexican rice and refried beans.

entomatadas

Sure, entomatadas may not boast the most heat or sizzle. But if you're craving something simple and flavorful, it's hard to go wrong with this simple yet soulful dish.

Now then, in a couple of weeks I’ll get my fix of Texan home cooking as I travel across the state for book events. Here’s a list of where I’ll be and I look forward to meeting you!

Entomatadas with cheese

For the sauce:
2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cut in half, lengthwise or 2 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes, preferably fire roasted
1 jalapeño, seeds and stem removed, cut in half lengthwise
3 garlic cloves
1/3 medium yellow onion
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon vegetable oil or lard
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Salt to taste

For the entomatadas:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or lard
12 corn tortillas
4 cups grated Monterrey Jack or Muenster cheese (16 ounces)
Avocado slices for serving

Method:
Heat up the broiler and line a baking sheet with foil. Place the tomatoes seed side down on the sheet, along with the jalapeño, garlic, and onion. Place under the broiler and after 4 minutes, take out the jalapeño, onion and garlic and place in a blender.

Continue to cook the tomatoes for 5 more minutes or until the skin blackens. Take out the tomatoes, and when you’re able to handle them, remove the skin and seeds. Place the tomatoes in the blender. (If using canned tomatoes, skip the broiling step and just add them to the blender.) Add the cumin, allspice and puree until smooth. Heat the oil in a pot on medium low, pour the sauce into the pot, add the chicken broth and turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the cilantro, adjust seasonings and add salt to taste. (Note, if your tomatoes are especially juicy, you may forgo adding the chicken broth if you prefer, or add less than one cup.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a large baking dish. In a skillet, heat up the oil or lard on medium-low heat. One at a time, heat up the tortillas in the hot oil until soft. Keep them wrapped in a cloth or tortilla warmer until all the tortillas are heated.

Take each tortilla and place 1/4 cup of the cheese in the center. Roll the tortilla and place in the baking dish seam side down. Repeat for all the tortillas. Cover the tortillas with the sauce and the remaining cheese. Bake for 10 minutes or until the cheese on top is brown and bubbling.

Yield: 4 servings