Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rainy Days and Tamale Pie

It was raining, cold, damp and miserable, with no let up in sight. I was content to remain indoors enjoying the rain as it pelted away outside; perhaps a bit of puttering, catch up on a stack of reading, take a deep breath and contemplate life. I built my first fire of the season and snuggled in for an easy, relaxed day.

By mid afternoon anticipatory thoughts of dinner begin to surface: something warm and satisfying, easy comfort food... a survey of the fridge offers no such solutions. In the freezer, however, I spot a small container of lentil chili, leftover from a previous feast.

My thoughts drift to cornmeal… ever since South Carolina I have been a big cornmeal and grits fan. I can’t get enough of it. I love grits for breakfast, polenta in the evening topped with almost anything, I love cornmeal in cakes, biscotti; you name it.

Not long ago, a friend shared a delicious handmade tamale purchased at a small downtown Mexican mercado. It reminded me of Costa Rica and the fabulous banana leaf wrapped tamales I enjoyed there for breakfast: a simple vegetable filling encased in creamy masa. Superb.

I flash on the tamale pie I labored over years ago for special company. According to others, it was a disaster. Perhaps it was a bit heavy on the cornmeal mush border… but what’s wrong with that? Nevertheless, it has been the brunt of endless family jokes and I haven’t made tamale pie since.

Well, why not? A quick search on line and I get a few good ideas and proceed with my simple, satisfying and highly enjoyable Tamale Pie. Note to self: continue saving those yummy lentils! I’ll be making this one again!

Since I adore anything with chilies in it, I tend to have a cabbage on hand for such occasions. This version of cabbage salsa, a salad or slaw of sorts, is the perfect accompaniment, and is equally as good with fish tacos to posole.

Rainy Day Tamale Pie
Easy comfort food

2 cups Chilified Lentils (see index)
1 cup cooked chicken, shredded (optional)
10 whole black olives
1 tomato, sliced, then halved
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded, divided
4 1/2 cups water, divided
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup yogurt

Spray 7x11" casserole and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cornmeal Layer: In medium pot, bring 3 1/2 cups water and salt to a boil. Combine remaining 1 cup water and cornmeal together and gradually whisk mixture into boiling water. Reduce to medium low, cover loosely and simmer til thick and very tender, about 14 minutes; stir regularly to keep from sticking on bottom. Remove from heat and stir in yogurt.

To assemble Tamale Pie: Spread about 2/3 of cornmeal evenly over bottom of casserole dish. Combine chili and chicken and spread evenly over the cornmeal layer. Press the olives evenly into the mixture. Top with sliced tomato
and sprinkle with half of the shredded cheese. Spread remaining cornmeal in an even layer on top and sprinkle with remaining cheese. (Can be done ahead and refrigerated to this point)

Bake 30-40 minutes until golden. Let stand about 15 minutes before cutting. Serves 4

Cabbage Salsa

Excellent accompaniment with pork, chicken, or fish
1/2 head cabbage (8 cups) core, very thin slice and cut in half again
2 teaspoons salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 green onion, chopped
3 jalapenos, seed, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 teaspoon pepper or red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar, or lime juice or to taste

Place cabbage in large bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let stand about 20 minutes then drain off any liquid.

Add remaining items and toss to combine. Chill until needed. Makes about 3 cups. This lasts very well. ~~

Sunday, October 19, 2008

172' Peel Revealed: World Heralds Apple Record

All the current political rancor and financial upheaval has me starved for any shred of enlightened, positive news. OK, the fact that our headline here stems clear back to 1976 may seem a bit dated or desperate to some. In truth, the prized peel was actually 172 feet, and 4 inches long - an understated bit of whimsical levity for these depressing times. (Hurrah!)

Another pleasant, non-controversial tidbit: October is National Apple Month. How reassuring to know that America's revered apple is suitably honored with more than a sensational and fleeting 15 minutes of fame!

It seems that the ubiquitous apple is always around, so what's the big deal? Thanks to cold storage technology, come those dreary days of winter, the apple is a frequent and welcome addition in many households. Once October appears again, we are blithely reminded how little comparison there is between a crisp, juicy, sweet apple fresh picked from the tree and last year's mushy and flavorless counterpart.

And so with renewed gladness in our hearts and happiness abounding, it is time to embrace a new crop of apples - and this year they are excellent! But wait, there are so many varieties to select from, deciding on the right apple can be tricky. Fortunately, many markets now provide plenty of product information ranging from the state or country of origin to their flavor profile and suggested usage. Generally speaking, I tend to rely on the eye ball approach: apples for eating have wrinkles on their blossom end while apples that are good for cooking are smooth on the blossom end.

As stocks tumble and leaves fall, it's comforting to remember that everything has its season, and the simplest pleasures are often the most rewarding. How appropriate, and what better reason to celebrate everyone's pal, the humble and versatile apple. With apple cider, apple butter, apple pie…

Apple Oatmeal Cake
Moist and flavorful

3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup oats
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup light-brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large golden apples, core and chop
1/3 cup shredded coconut
Confectioners' sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line and spray 8x8" pan.

Combine dry ingredients and oatmeal and set aside. Chop the apples and set aside.

In mixing bowl, beat the butter, add the eggs one at a time. Add the sugar and beat til cream, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla.

Stir in the dry mixture and mix well. Add the apples and coconut and mix to combine.

Spread into prepared baking pan and bake for about 35 minutes, or until bars tests done. Remove to rack and cool thoroughly.

Cut and sift with confectioner’s sugar. Serves 9 or more.

Apple Ginger Chutney
A nice accompaniment to roast pork, venison, duck, turkey or curries
6 medium Granny Smith apples, peel, core, chop
1 large onion, chop
1 clove garlic, mince
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons ginger root, peel, grate
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, mince
3 medium red jalapeno chilies, or 1 red pepper, seed chop
1 tablespoon mustard seed
3/4 teaspoon each salt, allspice, cinnamon, celery seed, red pepper flakes or to taste

In a large saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally over moderate heat til thick, about 40 minutes.

Cool and store in refrigerator. Will last at least 2 weeks or longer. Makes 6 cups. ~~

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Running on Empty: Morning Fixes

I love breakfast, or more correctly, I love the idea of breakfast.
I visualize myself commencing my day stylishly savoring a favorite selection of morning foods: beautifully presented fresh fruit, wholesome breads enfolded in a lined basket, eggs one of a thousand ways, excellent coffee, all the trimmings.

For many years my schedule was so crazy erratic it was far easier to pass on breakfast altogether and deal with it later, perhaps on the weekend. I had the attitude if I couldn’t sit down and calmly enjoy my meal, I’d rather not; a bad habit and counter productive: running on adrenaline and coffee.

The breakthrough came when I finally made the correlation between my eating meals regularly and achieving optimum performance. I started recognizing that I didn’t fade unexpectedly, my mind was sharper, and my physical stamina improved. I began making an effort to eat something in the morning, and for a long time Raisin Bran was my uninspired, yet highly satisfying solution.

While living in Florida where fresh fruit is abundant year round, I got in the habit of cranking out a smoothie for a morning pick me up. Orange juice was usually part of the equation and whatever fruit happened to drop from the sky. I’d take a break with my smoothie, sit under my queen palm and watch the lizards chase each other.

Since I’ve been working from home much more this past year I’ve taken to preparing ahead a pot of a dried grain - such as oatmeal, along with some dried fruit for a quick warm up in the microwave when the urge hits.

Recently, I had one of those amazing ah ha! moments when I contemplated couscous as a breakfast option. Why not, indeed! The new crop of apples and pears coming into the markets make this the perfect time to include them as well.

Couscous with Honey and FruitFrom Herb and Honey Cookery
by Martha Rose Shulman

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 cups boiling water, pinch salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 apple, core and chop
1 pear, core and chop
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoons raisins
3 tablespoons apple or other juice
1 tablespoon honey

Topping: yogurt and honey

Place couscous in bowl, add salted boiling water, cover and let stand while preparing fruit, about 10 minutes.

Heat butter in sauté pan, add apple and pear, sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Sauté a few minutes, add juice and raisins. Cook stirring 3-5 minutes. Stir couscous with fork to separate grains and add to the pan; heat thoroughly, stirring occasionally. Serve topped with yogurt and more honey if desired. Serves 4-6.~~

Fruit Smoothie with Yogurt

1 cup orange juice
1 large banana, in pieces
2 tablespoons wheat germ, optional
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon honey, (opt.)

Place all in blender and process for @ 30 seconds.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lavender State of Mind

Ever since my stint on the French Riviera a few years back I have been smitten by lavender. The Mediterranean heat and soil create the perfect growing conditions for its cultivation, and I vividly recall romantic fields of lavender artfully brushed about the countryside. The markets were redolent with its fresh green scent, too. I’m still transported by anything even remotely related to lavender, from sachets and dried arrangements to colorful Provencal fabrics.

On my return home I tried growing lavender, but sadly South Florida was not the South of France. To my elation I discovered it grows very well here in Oregon and have wasted very little time in planting two varieties: a yellow and a blue-purple. I’m told lavender can be slow to bloom in its first year, so I’ve been happy to fuss over them like a doting parent, just happy they are there: growing chubby and sending up a few colorful blooms.

One day this summer on a visit to my local farm stand, I spotted huge bouquets of lavender; apparently a bumper crop shared by a local grower. I was beside myself with excitement: the idea of having such a huge amount at my disposal! I gathered up the biggest bunch possible and buried my nose in the center of this blissful purple haze! Heavenly! My own catnip!

Now, really. I needed more information; why was I so undone by lavender?
I learned that it has a long association with love and is considered an aphrodisiac. It has great healing qualities and is used in antiseptics. And how about some of the folklore claims: back in the Dark Ages it was considered an embalming aid for corpses; and mystics still recommend it for clearing rooms of evil spirits.
Well, there you have it, Nature's insurance policy. With lavender nearby, all my bases are surely covered!

Today lavender is as popular as ever and is practically a household word; it’s ultra-clean scent is in laundry detergents, household cleansers and body products. If that's not enough, it is used to induce sleep, ease stress and relieve depression. It is also used as a tea, to make compresses for dressing wounds and to apply to the forehead to relieve congestion on sinuses, headaches, hangovers, tiredness, tension and exhaustion. Personally, I can vouch for its calming and uplifting qualities!

Suffice to say, it’s been quite the relaxed lavender summer; with all my puttering I managed to whip through my entire supply except for one small dried bouquet. This past week with the change of seasons approaching, it was cooler and time to bake. Again, I had lavender on my mind.
Here is my favorite biscotti recipe which includes cornmeal and usually fennel seeds for flavoring. I’ve substituted lavender instead – its delicate perfume provides an exquisite complement. This cookie is especially delicious with Earl Grey tea for dipping.

Lavender Hazelnut Biscotti

3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon lavender buds, heaping
1 cup hazelnuts, coarse chop

In a mixing bowl, mix sugar, butter, orange juice and vanilla, beat in the eggs.

Separately combine dry items and stir into sugar mixture. Stir in lavender and nuts. Cover and chill until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees line a cookie sheet with parchment or silpat. Shape dough on sheets into long flat loaves, about 1 1/2" wide. Place them 2" apart, they will spread. Bake until light brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and lower heat to 350 degrees.

Let cool to touch, and with serrated knife, slice into 1/2" to 3/4" thick diagonal slices. Place cut sides down on pans. Bake again, til lightly toasted, 15-18 minutes. Transfer rack to cool. Store airtight up to 3 weeks. Makes about 3 dozen. ~~


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