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.