Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Black-eyed pea dip for a new year

It’s that time of year when we our thoughts are simultaneously in the past via reflection and the future via resolution. It’s also that time of year when we must eat black-eyed peas.

I’ve written plenty about black-eyed peas and why we Texans (and other Southerners) eat them on New Year’s Day. I’ve also given you some recipes.

This year, I had the honor of picking black-eyed peas at my grandma’s farm. And let me tell you, if you ever have the opportunity to eat fresh black-eye peas straight right out of ground, you’re in for a treat. When preparing the still-green black-eyed peas, she kept it simple by only seasoning them with a bit of salt, pepper and ham. And for the duration of my visit, it was all I wanted to eat. (Well, almost, as she had also made a chocolate pie.)

I can’t get fresh ones here in the city. I can’t even find dried ones. So my recipes always have a canned option. You can hardly go wrong with classics such as Texas caviar or a delicious soup I made last year called Good Fortune Soup. But those are for the converted, those who already love black-eyed peas. What about something for those who don’t love black-eyed peas?

I recently made a black-eyed pea dip. I seasoned it with garlic, bacon, cilantro and jalapenos, I made it creamy with a bit of cheese and I served it warm with tortilla chips. If you don’t like black-eyed peas, this might be the one for you—it already converted one nonbeliever and I’d be thrilled if it could convert more.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Grasping at cheese straws

cheesestraws cookies cheese straws

Cookie season is in full swing and will be for at least another week (there are, after all, 12 days of Christmas). I enjoy sampling from tins filled with raspberry bars, dolly bars, pecan sandies or ginger snaps, but after a while I’m ready for something savory. And that’s why I love cheese straws—a buttery, spicy shortbread cookie made with cheese.

Cheese straws are one of those classic Southern treats, something that no self-respecting hostess would be without in her culinary repertoire. They are usually served before a meal, though they are also delicious with soups, salads, wine, cheese and I have even been known to dip cheese straws into a bowl of queso.

The basic template for a cheese straw is butter, flour and grated cheese. But what makes them fun is that from there you can do just about anything you like. You can spice them up with cayenne and chili powder. You can make them sharp with a dash of Worcestershire or mustard powder. You can even deviate from the standard cheddar and make them with pepper Jack, Parmesan or Gruyere.

cheesestraws cookies cheese straws

Cheese straws can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some people pipe their straws out using a star tip and a pastry bag. Others stick the dough into a cookie press and form them that way. You’ll find cheese straws that are round and scored with a fork, you’ll find cheese straws that are as thick as logs and you’ll find cheese straws like mine—skinny rectangles dotted with holes.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My oven-baked brisket

Brisket is one of those things that every Texan eats and every Texan has a definitive recipe on how to cook it.

We smoke it, we braise it, we roast it and we bake it. But no matter how we prepare it, the toughness of the cut insures that the procedure will be low and slow, which means that it will cook at a low temperature for a very, very long time.

For me, brisket was always a Sunday treat. When I still lived in Dallas, after church we’d go over to my grandparents’ house in Oak Cliff and we’d have a Sunday dinner of brisket that had been slow cooked with carrots, potatoes and onions. Or sometimes, to jazz it up, it would have been slow baked in a tangy barbecue sauce. It was always good.

As I grew older, I learned that the choice cut at a Texas barbecue is the brisketsilky and moist, seasoned with ample salt, pepper and smoke. I love both types of briskets, but have been successful in only recreating one type here in my tiny New York City apartment. And even though Mark Bittman wrote in last Sunday’s Times that when it comes to your kitchen, size doesn’t matter, I do think that my stovetop smoker is limited to smaller, quicker cuts of meat rather than a brisket.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas and a cup of champurrado

Recently, I stopped at one of my favorite Mexican carts to grab some tamales. As I waited in line, I noticed that most people were being served a steamy light-brown liquid out of a large cooler. As the temperature was biting and bitter, I wanted something warm, so when I ordered my tamales I pointed towards the cooler and asked for a cup of what the vendor was selling. I took a sip and it was like an extra-thick cocoa—somewhere between chocolate milk and porridge—spiced with cinnamon, vanilla and the burnt sweetness of piloncillo, a unrefined Mexican brown sugar. I asked what it was called and the man told me in Spanish, “Champurrado.”

Has this ever happened to you—you learn about something new and suddenly it seems to be everywhere? I had never heard of champurrado before, but when I went into Queens last weekend almost every taco stand had large signs saying that they had champurrado. And everywhere I went, people were all ordering cups of champurrado.

How had I missed this? I’ve been a longtime fan of Mexican hot chocolate and my molinillo—the traditional tool used to mix Mexican hot chocolate—is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets as it’s both useful and beautiful. I also love atole, which is a thick, warm drink made with masa. Champurrado is the marriage of these two—an atole flavored with Mexican chocolate. Imagine a sweet chocolate tamale made liquid and you have yourself a cup of champurrado.

It’s traditional for Mexicans to make tamales at Christmastime and often these tamales are served with a cup of champurrado. It’s also popular in the morning with churros or as part of the early-evening refreshment known as a merienda. I also learned that cups are offered to carolers as they make their rounds.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Cheese balls and Aunt Betty

cheese log roquefort cheese log
Every family has its fair share of characters and mine is no different. It being the holiday season and all, I’ve wanted to make cheese logs and cheese balls for parties. I had a lovely memory of my grandma and I making these when I was little and so I asked her for her recipe. Along with the instructions came the story of Aunt Betty.

As you probably know by now, I come from a long line of farmers. Every once in a while, however, someone would leave the family business and move away to the big city. Such was the case with my great-great-great aunt Betty, my great-grandmother’s sister.

Twice divorced (quite a scandal, I’m sure, back in those days but at least she married well with one husband a lawyer, the other a doctor) she left rural Texas to be an Oklahoma City socialite. Whenever she’d come home to the tiny north Texas town of Melissa to visit, she’d both fascinate and annoy her family with her fancy cars, her fancy clothes, her fancy travels and her fancy food.

In her later years she had to leave the city and ended up back in Melissa. Even though she had returned to her roots, she arrived with the experience of her many years of so-called sophisticated city living. And one of the spoils of this experience was her contribution to the holiday table—her cheese ball. It was unlike anything my rural relatives had seen before, and some sniffed that it was definitely not proper country food. But no matter, it was still a hit and my grandmother, fortunately, got the recipe from her aunt Betty.

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