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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Year's Day queso compuesto

new-year-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.

new-year-queso_compuesto

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
Ingredients:
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

Method:
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
Ingredients:
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

Method:
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

Ingredients:
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

Method:
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

Ingredients:
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:
Cilantro
Cotija cheese
Sour cream
Lime wedges

Method:
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.

Variation:
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