Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nachos 101

My dad asked me a very serious question the other day. He was concerned, since I’d lived away from Texas for so long, where I fell on the nacho spectrum. Did I prefer a pile of chips with some toppings slopped on willy-nilly or did I prefer each nacho to be one chip toasted with a tasteful spread of Longhorn cheddar cheese and a sliced jalapeno. I was shocked he even had to ask. For me, and for every Texan, there is only one kind of nacho: the latter. Nachos are simple and elegant. Each nacho is its own entity (and that is key), with just enough toppings to give it flavor and a bit of heft but not enough to make it saggy or soggy. Anything else is an imposter!

Nachos are reputed to have been invented in 1943 by a maitre d’ named Ignacio Anaya who was working at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which is just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. As the story goes, some ladies from Eagle Pass came into the restaurant one evening, ordered some drinks and wanted some snacks. The kitchen was already closed, so Anaya melted some Longhorn cheddar on some tortilla chips and garnished each chip with a jalapeno slice. He presented them to the ladies calling his improvised appetizer “Nacho’s Especiales” as Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio. And the name, without the “especiales,” stuck.

Nachos were made only this way until 1977 when a San Antonio businessman named Frank Liberto started selling melted processed-cheese food to Arlington Stadium. You know, the gross stuff that comes out of a pump. (Not to be confused with queso, which is far, far superior!) He called it “nacho cheese” and it was served with tortilla chips. As the story goes, sportscaster Howard Cosell tried some, loved it and extolled the virtues of these "nachos" on national TV. And a taste sensation took off, but sadly it was misinterpreted. Instead of the exquisite traditional nacho of one chip with a topping, people thought nachos were a mountain of chips with melted processed cheese. It was a very dark day in the history of this beloved Tex-Mex treat.

I’ve heard some people call the wrong nachos “Yankee nachos,” though that's clearly a misnomer since a misguided Texan was the first one to market the so-called nacho cheese. Instead, I prefer to think of them as lazy nachos, as it’s much easier to just throw a bunch of ingredients on a mountain of chips instead of taking the care and time to dress each individual chip one by one.

I have many issues with lazy nachos, but my biggest problem is that they just aren’t satisfying. You know how it goes with these—the chips on top of the pile have too much cheese, meat, beans, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole and whatever else has been hurled on them while the rest of the chips are sans any topping. Where’s the balance? Where’s the equality? Where's the grace? And to make matters worse, if you make or order these for a group of people, there’s always a big fight to grab the chips with toppings because you know how awful the naked stragglers will taste. So what should be a friendly and pleasant eating experience becomes an all-out struggle for nacho supremacy. Please tell me, where’s the fun in that?

If you’ve never made nachos the proper way, people will be surprised and find them exotic. That’s OK. But what they’ll really discover is that a true nacho is a joy to eat, a sophisticated snack that can stand on its own. So if you’re making nachos this weekend for the Super Bowl, and have never made them the way they were invented, why not give it a try? It's not hard to make them right. Heck, I grew up with a mom who made them the correct way almost every day when I was a kid—it was her favorite snack. I have fond memories of her spooning refried beans onto chips, adding a bit of cheese and a slice of jalapeno, baking them, and then whipping up a batch of guacamole to spread on top for added nutritional value.

If you want more than just Longhorn cheddar and refried beans, yes, topping it with a bit of meat or a vegetable is fine. Just don’t go nuts, as with nachos you’ll find that less is more. And sure, it’s quite all right to serve guacamole, sour cream or salsa on the side, but you may discover that it’s not even necessary as each nacho, when properly made, really needs no embellishment. And after each creamy, crunchy and spicy bite—I bet you'll agree that nachos are just about the most perfect Tex-Mex food.

Nachos
Ingredients:
6 corn tortillas
1 1/2 cups of grated Longhorn cheddar cheese
24 pickled jalapeno slices
1/2 cup of refried beans (optional)
Peanut oil
Salt

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Cut the tortillas into quarters.
3. Pour enough oil in an iron skillet to come up 1/2 inch up the sides and heat to 375 degrees.
4. In batches, fry the quartered tortillas for 1 to 2 minutes on each side (until golden brown) and then remove. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle lightly with salt.
5. Once chips have been made, spread each with 1 teaspoon of refried beans (if you so desire), 1 tablespoon of cheddar cheese and 1 pickled jalapeno.
6. Bake in oven for five minutes or until cheese is melted.
Serve with guacamole, sour cream and/or salsa. Makes 24 nachos.
Notes: You can also top these with beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, huitlacoche, shrimp, fish or anything else you can imagine. But use restraint and taste—nachos should be elegant and refined, not an exercise in excess. Also, if you don't feel like making your own chips (though you should as they taste better) tortilla chips from a bag work, too.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oatmeal bread and a case of the Januaries

I called my Grandma recently and asked how she was doing. With a sigh, she said she was suffering a case of the Januaries. “What’s that?” I asked. She replied that it meant she didn’t have much energy to cook or do much of anything. That’s certainly not a good way to feel.

Do you ever suffer a case of the Januaries? After December, which is a lively month filled with festivities, gifts and fellowship, I can see how some would think that January is something of a letdown with its cold, short days. I, however, view January as a time to recharge my batteries—it’s a fresh start! And since, fortunately, I am not suffering a case of the Januaries (though check back with me in February when I usually start shaking my fist at a mocking sun that gives off more light but still refuses to emit any heat ), I decided it would be nice to bake my grandmother some bread. But not just any bread—I decide to bake her a loaf of her mother’s oatmeal bread.

When I spent time with my grandparents last summer, we had a blast going through all of the family recipes. Every dish came with a story, but Grandma especially lit up when we came across the card for Great-Grandma Gibson’s oatmeal bread. “That’s my favorite,” said Grandma. Great-Grandma Gibson’s oatmeal bread wasn’t an everyday thing—she only baked it about once a week. But when Grandma would wake up and see a loaf cooling in the kitchen, she knew it was going to be a great day. She recalled one time when she came home from college and Great-Grandma had just pulled a loaf out the oven. “I was so hungry and it smelled so good, I probably ate most of the loaf with some butter (or maybe it was peanut butter),” she said.

I’d never made Great-Grandma Gibson’s oatmeal bread, but had eaten it on a few occasions as both my grandma and my mom have been known to bake it when a craving hits. And since it’s such a beloved treat, I decided that this cold winter evening would be perfect for firing up the oven and baking some history.

I found my copy of Great-Grandma Gibson’s recipe card and the directions were brief. My grandmother at some point had penciled in a couple of modifications, but I had to squint to read the light marks on the too-dark copy I’d made. Fortunately, I had all the ingredients on hand, and as her recipe makes two loaves I was pleased that I would get to save one for myself.

The dough takes some time as I used non-instant oats that Great-Grandma recommended let steep in hot milk for a couple of hours. And her original ingredient list called for yeast, yet there was no mention of letting the dough rise. I finally made out a faint handwritten word that said "rise," so after mixing all the ingredients I kneaded the dough until it was smooth (though Mom later told me that kneading is not necessary, which is part of the recipe's charm and ease). I then formed two round loaves and let them rise for an hour or so. After they had doubled in size, I brushed them with a milk wash, sprinkled some oats on top and slid them into the oven. There was no indication on how long to bake the bread, so after forty-five minutes I checked on them and when I thumped the bottoms they sounded hollow. The bread was done!

Pulling the fragrant loaves out of the oven, I couldn’t wait for them to cool—I sliced off a thick piece, slathered it in butter and took a bite. And I then understood how my grandma ate almost a whole loaf in one sitting as each bite was slightly sweet and nutty with a moist, soft crumb. It was heavenly.

So Grandma, your loaf of oatmeal bread is in the mail. And may it help your case of the Januaries go away!

Great-Grandma Gibson’s Oatmeal Bread
Ingredients:
2 cups of boiling milk
1 cup of rolled oats (not instant)
2 teaspoons of salt
1 egg
1/2 cup of honey
4 tablespoons of shortening
5-5 1/2 cups of flour
2 packets of yeast
1/2 cup of warm water

Method:
1. Add oatmeal to hot milk and let stand for two hours.
2. Dissolve yeast in warm water.
3. Mix yeast and other ingredients with oatmeal (start with five cups of flour and add more a little bit at a time until dough is smooth).
4. Form into loaves, and either fill two loaf pans or place in balls on a parchment-paper lined sheet.
5. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about an hour).
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.
Notes: While I usually balk at shortening, I wanted to be true to the recipe so I used Spectrum Organic Shortening. I also kneaded the bread, but as I mentioned—that apparently isn't necessary. To make the bread pretty, you can brush the loaves with a milk wash (1 T of milk and 1 T of water) and then sprinkle oats over the top.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Uncle Austin's Granola

Every Christmas, my uncle Austin cooks up gallons of granola to give as gifts. The lucky recipients know that this isn’t just any granola—it’s an addictive treat that once you start, it’s difficult to stop eating.

He’s been making this granola for as long as I can remember. And being a humorous fellow, he always packages it with silly labels such as: “New! Jimmy Dean All Organic Granola;” “Chef Roscoe’s Famous Style Granola made by the Sanitary Food Co.;” “Name Brand ‘Fancy Style’ Granola;” “Jesus’ Favorite Granola (He says that about everyone’s granola and means it);” and my favorite, “Health Camp Hi-Carb Granola: Preferred by Nudists Everywhere.”

But no matter how the bag is branded, it’s what is inside that counts. And Uncle Austin’s amazing mixture of organic oats, nuts, coconut and dried fruits is a salty, sweet treat that is just as good with milk or yogurt as it is straight out of the bag.

One Christmas, the family gathered at my mother’s house in Houston. Everyone was able to make it, except for my grandparents who weren’t feeling up to making the trek from their farm six hours away. My uncle Richard, who lives in Dallas near the farm, was given a bag of granola to take back to my grandparents. But the bag should have been kept under lock and key because by the time the granola arrived at the farm, half the bag was gone! “Why did you eat their granola?” asked Austin. Richard replied, “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself, it’s so good!”

I like to share food with my friends—it’s a friendly thing to do. But when it comes to Austin’s granola, I have to be careful. A few years ago, I let my boyfriend at the time have some of Austin’s granola. He loved it, as everyone does. I told him this was powerful, precious stuff that was only received once a year, so we needed to be judicious in eating it. He agreed. Then, the next day I returned home from work only to find he’d eaten the whole bag! “Why did you do that?” I asked. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself, it’s so good!” he replied.

Without Austin’s recipe, I had tried to recreate his granola but I had met with little success. Then last month, Austin’s computer hard drive was wiped out and the technicians were unable to save anything. He was sad and thought he’d lost everything. But one thing was saved: his granola recipe. Fortunately, it was that time of year when he makes his annual batches and he had just printed his recipe to use as a shopping list. And while he doesn’t need a recipe to make his granola as it’s all in his head, he wanted me to share the recipe with the world so it would never be lost.

He wrote: “I’ve worked on that recipe for years. Some people seem to like it a lot. I finally wrote it down two years ago while adding ingredients and made notes while doing so. Richard said it was the best ever, maybe it was. Anyway, losing everything, as if in a fire or flood, though not nearly so bad, made me want to share my granola recipe, just so it's there for everyone to enjoy.”

So here is Uncle Austin’s granola recipe. Of course, it won’t taste just like his because recipes never do. But don’t worry, you’ll make it your own by adding your own passion and something special. And in the meantime, when my batch this year runs out, this will tide me over until next Christmas when Austin will bestow upon us his grand, grand granola.

Uncle Austin’s Granola
Ingredients:
10 cups rolled oats
1 cup dried milk
6 cups nuts
5 cups dried, unsweetened coconut flakes
3 tsp. salt
1 to 1.5 cups vegetable oil
1 cup honey
3 tsp. vanilla
2-3 cups currants (add after baking)
Heat oven to 300 degrees

Method:
1. Combine dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
2. Add wet ingredients. Hint: add the oil first then pour the honey in that cup. Mix thoroughly.
3. Put it in pans 1-3 inches thick and bake.
4. Use a spatula to turn it every five minutes or so. Like cookies, it’s best to take it out before it seems done. When it feels hot to the touch and is a light golden brown, it’s ready.
5. Add currants

Austin's notes: Use organically grown ingredients if possible. Think good thoughts at all times. Thank God for good friends and good food. Enjoy the adventure of life on this planet.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What do you know, it's papalo!

There’s a certain scent I associate with Mexico that I’ve always assumed was laundry detergent. It’s overly pungent and heavy, with hints of citrus and mint. It’s the kind of smell that wafts into your nose and lingers there for hours, overpowering anything else with which your olfactory senses come into contact. I’ve smelled it in grocery stores in Guanajuato and outside of domestic kitchens in Mexico City not to mention in some of the Mexican neighborhoods here in NYC. I don’t know why I assumed the smell came from soap, I just did.

Last week, I found myself in Jackson Heights and I stopped into the charming El Sol de Azteca to grab a bite to eat. They had cemitas on the menu—a Pueblan sandwich stuffed with spicy pork, red onions, chipotles, lettuce, avocados and that Mexican string cheese called quesillo all piled high on a sesame seed bun. I’d never had one and was curious how it compared to a torta, another Mexican sandwich. I took a bite and was pleased by the crisp, buttery bun and the spice and juice from the meat and vegetables, but there was a hint of that smell, that funky flavor that I always assumed was detergent. I took the sandwich apart and found an herb. After tasting it, I realized that it was the source of that flavor. That smell wasn’t detergent, it was a plant!

I asked the waitress in my rusty Spanish what was the name of the herb. She smiled and said, “Papalo!” Papalo. Who knew? I finished my sandwich trying to savor this new flavor, but couldn’t quite work my head around the fact that what I always thought was soap was actually an herb. I now understood how those who can’t stand cilantro feel.

After doing some research, I learned that papalo is an ancient plant, found all over Mexico, the American Southwest and parts of South America. The Bolivians swear by it, eating it almost daily as it’s said to possess medicinal qualities such as the ability to lower blood pressure. In Mexico, it’s most prominently used in the state of Puebla, primarily in cemitas. But many restaurants keep vases with bunches of papalo on tables, so patrons can snip and add it to any dish they like. It’s also found in tacos, salads, salsas and guacamole. Yet, as beloved as it may be it’s not for nothing that it’s also known as mampuitu, or skunk.

Papalo is something of an acquired taste and as I hope to spend time in Puebla this spring, I decided I’d better learn to like it. I thought finding it in stores would be easy, but after searching countless places, it wasn’t until I walked into a Bravo Supermarket that I met with success. (These supermarkets are all over NYC and they cater to the Hispanic community. Therefore, if you’re looking for cow hooves, chicken feet, all parts of the pig, cecina, chiles, tortilla presses, etc.—this is the store for you.)

When I walked through the doors, I was blasted by that familiar smell. I followed my nose to the produce section and picked up a bag—one of many on display. I was disappointed, however, as all the papalo for sell appeared to be covered in brown spots. I spoke to a man working in the produce section and asked him if they had fresher papalo in the back. He shook his head and said, “No, but this is very fresh.”

“Are you sure,” I said. “It’s covered in brown spots.”

“Those are the glands that make the smell,” he said.

Who knew that plants had glands? I took my bag of papalo home and tried making different things. I first made a small salad with the leaves, but this was a bit much—a little goes a long way. I then decided to make a salsa verde with tomatillos and avocado. While I’d normally use cilantro, I decided to use papalo instead. It was almost the same as I’m used to, but still a bit strange. So while I’m not quite convinced that I’m a fan of this herb, I did enjoy the salsa. And perhaps, over time, I’ll grow to love papalo as much as I love cilantro. I certainly hope I can learn to at least live with it, as a cemita is one heck of a sandwich and I’d hate to not enjoy eating those as they were meant to be.

Do you have any experience with papalo? What are your thoughts? And have you ever cooked with it?

Salsa Verde with Papalo
Ingredients:
2 cups of chopped tomatillos
1 avocado, peeled and chopped
3 serrano peppers, stems removed and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Juice from 1/2 lime
2 tablespoons of papao leaves, chopped
Salt to taste

Method:
Throw all ingredients in the blender and mix well.
Makes about 2 cups
Serve over pork, chicken, tacos, beans or with chips.
You can replace papalo with cilantro though I’d use about 1/2 a cup or more of that less-pungent herb instead.

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