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