How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Monday, February 25, 2013

No Vampires Were Harmed

... in the preparation of this dinner. 

We originally planned to make this dinner on Sunday evening. Our choice to delay until Monday was entirely based on its long cooking time; it is only a coincidence that our presentation at church Sunday morning had been about our real-life journey to Transylvania, where we encountered no vampires but developed an intense interest in them!

The coincidence came to mind as this slow-cooking meal cooked slowly this afternoon, and the house filled with garlic. We use a lot of garlic in our house, usually a clove or two at a time, either fresh or frozen from our organic summer harvest. I usually avoid recipes that are as garlic-forward as Slow-Roasted Garlic and Lemon Chicken turned out to be, but the recommendation of a fellow foodie convinced us to try. The ease of preparation was also an enticement.

Earlier today, we had been invited to speak to students in a nutrition course about several areas of our shared interest, including coffee, chocolate, and food in general. This very blog was among the topics we discussed, since those with an interest in eating better -- especially students without much time or money -- can use all the help they can get.

Prior to the presentation, I had spent about a half hour tidying the kitchen and getting this meal ready to cook later in the day. Instead of one bulb of garlic, I used about 3/4 of a bulb of elephant garlic. The individual cloves were so big that I chopped them into big chunks, so that they did not retain their paper husks. Otherwise, I followed the recipe as described.

After the presentation, I had just a few minutes at home before my next class, but it was enough time to transfer the covered roasting pan from the refrigerator to the convection oven. Since our oven lives in the United States (Burma and Liberia are the only other countries where this would be a problem), I had to convert the temperatures in the recipe to our pre-1799 Farenheit system. I put it in the oven at 325 (the real number is 320, but we are used to working in increments of 25) and send a note to Pam about the timing of the second phase. After two hours, she uncovered it and kicked it up to 400 (392 is the actual equivalent).

When I returned from my class, Pam was steaming some beans from our CSA. As we had told our students earlier, Colchester Neighborhood Farm is a very important part of how we approach healthy, sustainable eating in our house. These had been frozen in season, and today were ready to provide some fiber, crispness, simple flavor and complimentary nutrients to balance the succulence and rich flavor of the chicken.

Food photography is a special skill that I do not possess, so I will spare readers the shabby photograph, but will ask that doubt be set aside when I report that the huge chunks of garlic turned green in this slow-roasting process. As Pam exclaimed early in the meal, this is company dinner -- especially if we want to share a savory treat on a day when we have no time for cooking. We had this incredible meal -- and will have leftovers -- for less than the cost of a fast-food "meal" and for about as much effort as mac & cheese.

We paired it with one of the last bottles of our first batch of Chardonnay -- adding about $3 to the cost of the meal. That is, for the cost of two soft drinks, we had two glasses each of pretty decent wine.

Just as important as preparing a good meal is taking the time to enjoy it together, using real plates, real place mats, and real napkins to reduce waste and add elegance. Even more elegance was provided, courtesy of the class we had visited earlier in the day. At the end of our talk "Coffee, Cacao, Campus, and Comida," we were very surprised to receive a nice note and very thoughtful gift from the students who had invited us. The candlestick they presented certainly enhanced the meal. Moreover, the star, sun, and moon evoke one of the coffees we had discussed with them. The family of Byron, the "Poet of Coffee" we had mentioned, sells its coffee in Nicaragua under the name Sol & Luna (Sun & Moon). Many of my coffee students tell me it is the best coffee they have ever had, and this candlestick will always remind us of one of our very favorite coffee growers.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dinner Was Peachy Honey

Grammar Note: This title works with or without a comma after the word "peachy." Long ago having given up on Valentine's restaurant dinners (epic scenes of driving around and waiting around) and "traditional" gifts, we have made V-Day a cooking occasion!

We began with this recipe for double crunch honey garlic chicken breasts which a fellow foodie Facebook friend posted just before Valentine's Day. It was simple to make and scrumptious to eat.

We selected a rather ambitious dessert from Jacqui Malouf's Booty Food, a book that we had used just once previously, to make a special salad last fall. This time we made Ginger cake with Peaches and Maple Cream. It had three different components: the cake itself, maple cream, and peach sauce. We made the cake the night before, figuring we would have enough cooking to do on Valentine's Day. The cake was made by first mixing a egg with 1/4 c maple syrup, 1/4 c molasses, 1/2 c water and 1/2 of a stick of melted butter. In a separate bowl we mixed 1/2 c of minced, peeled ginger, 1/4 c brown sugar, 1 1/2 c flour , 1 t baking soda, and a pinch of salt. The two sets of ingredients were combined and then but into a bread loaf pan and baked at 350 for a lot longer than the 25 - 30 minutes indicated in the recipe, which made us especially glad we had started a day in advance.

The cream and peach sauce we prepared together after our chicken dinner. The Maple Cream required a 4 inch piece of ginger, mashed, 1 c. water, 1/4 c. sugar 3 t. rum, 4 t. maple syrup and 1 pt. heavy cream. Everything except the cream was cooked together in a saucepan for about 20 minutes, then strained. This we let cool while we prepared the peach sauce. Then the cream was whipped, and the syrup added to it. It was amazing that so much syrup could be whipped into the cream -- that is going to be useful in future dessert experimentation!

The peach sauce called for 1/8 c. Triple Sec, 1/8 c. brandy, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/2 t. lemon juice, a pinch each of nutmeg and cinnamon, and fresh peaches (we actually used nectarines). Once again, everything was mixed together and heated in a saucepan for 10-15 minutes.

Readers may notice that this recipe calls for three different types of liquor. Fortunately for us we not only have a well stocked pantry, we have a well-stocked liquor cabinet. We had to do shopping for some of the ingredients for this recipe (heavy cream, fresh ginger, and nectarines) but we had all the necessary libations on hand.

Readers may also notice that this recipe called for quite a bit of ginger. We bought a piece that would usually serve us for a few weeks, but used it all. Fortunately, there is no such thing as too much ginger!

Once we had all the components ready we cut the cake into slices, and topped with whipped cream, and peach sauce. Decadent.

Oh, yes, the dinner.

It was not all about the cake, of course, though that was the greatest novelty in this meal. The chicken we prepared was similar in approach to other fried-chicken recipes we have prepared, but with a few interesting improvements and a notably sweet outcome -- perfect for Valentine's Day!

The main innovation is the sweet garlicky sauce. I usually like garlic as a secondary ingredient, rather than center-stage, but this turned out to be scrumptious! The addition of quite a few spices in the dredge created a medley of flavors and was perfect for date-night cooking -- Pam kept bringing the spices to the counter and I would measure them. A nice twist that I will start doing with all of my similar fish and chicken recipes is to use the flour, the wash, and then the flour again. I had never tried that before, and it made things much better this time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tamale Tradition

NOTE: This is an all-day recipe! (Also, see vegetarian option below.)

As we mentioned in the Texas entry on our Celebrating the States blog a couple of years ago, tamales were an integral part of the South Texas experience that we somehow missed when we lived there. We did enjoy much of the culinary bounty there, but somehow missed this New Year's tradition until we had moved far, far away.

Once we realized the error of our ways, we made tamales a New Year's Eve tradition with friends, so that it is now a vieja receta (old recipe) for our household. This year we had our feast about a month late, and also realized that we had not yet posted it on this blog, those we have posted several other items related to tamales. These include sensual tamale tortillas (last Valentine's dinner), a radio report on the Tuscon Tamale Company (which we have not visited yet), and Central American nacatamales. This week, however, the focus is on our version of the classic tamale

The recipe we use won a contest in Texas Co-op Power magazine a number of years ago. The recipe itself is not on the magazine web site, though a special tamale-based cornbread dressing is, and these tamales could be an ingredient in that ambitious dish.


Not exactly an ingredient, but essential to this process is some kind of vessel in which the tamales can be suspended above boiling water for steam. We are fortunate to have a very serious pasta pot. The insert is designed to work as a colander, but works beautifully as a steamer. 

The most critical ingredient is a few dozen corn husks, which might be the most difficult item to find. Identify a source before you invite people over. In Brockton, Price Rite is a reliable source; other markets sometimes have them as well. Soak them overnight in warm water, to start the tamales the next morning. Because they float, I put them in a big bowl with a small bowl on top.

For the filling
2-3 pounds chicken thighs (or 2 pounds ground pork or beef)
3 tablespoons cooking oil (I used Lebherz chipotle olive oil this time)
1/4 cup flour
2 beef bullion cubes (I have done this in the past, but since I used chicken and had no beef bullion on hand, I improvised with broth from boiling the thighs)
1/2 cup canned green chilies, chopped (this year I chopped one fresh Anaheim pepper; a poblano would also be good)
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons salt (I skip this, as I do salt in most recipes)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2-3 tablespoons ground chili pepper (never quite sure what to do with this, I just use a bit of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon chili powder (I use more)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 cup tomato sauce (I use a bit more)
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne pepper

For the masa dough
1.5 cups Crisco (Recipe calls for lard, which is authentic but not necessary. Do not melt the lard or Crisco, but if it is very cold, it will be difficult to mix.)
4-1/2 cups masa harina (corn meal)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt (I do use this, since it is dough and salt is often a critical ingredient)
2-2/3 cups warm water

To prepare filling, boil the chicken until very tender. I keep the skin on to help form the broth. Then drain and use two forks to shred, discarding the bones and skin. (For ground pork or beef, just proceed to the next step.)

Brown in oil in a large, indispensable cast-iron skillet and add minced garlic. Sprinkle flour over the meat and  then add 2 cups water with bullion or 2 cups of broth. Heat mixture while stirring in remaining ingredients in listed order; cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover and continue simmering if necessary to ensure it is not too soupy. During that time, prepare the masa.

Vegetarian option: Because our daughter is a vegetarian, I always modify the recipe above to make some soy-crumble tamales for her. In a separate, smaller skillet, I brown some Morningstar soy crumble while I'm browning the chicken. I then divide all of the other ingredients (except for the chicken broth -- I use veggie broth) proportionally, adding about 1/4 of each ingredient to the vegetarian pan. I then assemble them and position them in the top of the steamer. Of course, the whole recipe could be made vegetarian in this way.

To prepare masa, beat the Crisco (or lard) with salt until fluffy. Mix in the masa harina and warm water, beating until very thoroughly mixed. It will be a somewhat crumbly dough.

To assemble, (next year I'll take some photos and a video at this stage) move the dishes around to create a logical lineup, like you are Henry Ford. I start by moving the skillet to the counter, putting the steamer (with water in the bottom) on the stove top, and putting the bowl of masa nearby. Closest to the stove, I put a plate I have stacked the softened, drained corn husks.

Then, I spread out each husk and coat it with a thin (maybe 1/8-inch) layer of masa, using a spoon and or my thoroughly-washed hands. I then spoon a thin strip of filling down the center of the husk. I roll one side of the husk over this carefully, so that the masa mostly covers the filling, then I fold up the narrow end of the husk, then I keep rolling to make a little package that is closed at one end. Some of the filling may be visible, but it should mostly be inside the masa and definitely inside the husk.

I then arrange the assembled tamales in the steamer. The recipe says I should be able to make 6 dozen, but I am always closer to 25 or 30, about 5 layers of 5-6 each.

Once assembled, I heat the pot until the water in the bottom boils. I used my water-proof camera to document the steaming process, which should last at least 1-1/2 hours. Perhaps because my tamales are a bit thick, I recommend 2-1/2 hours.

I had not softened enough corn husks for all of the filling and masa I had prepared, so I made tamale pies with the remainder. I simply put all the "extra" filling in the bottom of loaf pans and covered with masa. I baked these at 350 for about an hour. They were splendid leftovers!

This year I started a new tradition, which was to prepare manioc, also known as in the Caribbean as yucca and elsewhere as cassava or mandioca or tapioca -- as one of the side dishes. (Black beans were another, and home-brewed ale was another). Manioc is a root vegetable similar to potatoes, but grown in lowland tropics. It is among the most common foods in the world, but not well known in the United States. In our area, it is increasingly available in some of the larger supermarkets, even in West Bridgewater!

To prepare this, I cut the root into 3-4 inch lengths, and cut a slit in the bark-like skin along one side. This allowed me to peel the root; I then then quartered each piece. We are very fortunate that our large pasta pot includes a small steaming basket in addition to the main basket, so I was able to cook these at the same time. The result is the bland, stringy food that is a staple worldwide; it benefits from hot sauce, and from its pairing with the spicier tamales.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Blizzard warning

We lost power here for three days, thanks to winter storm Nemo. The house got terribly cold, but we were able to prepare hot meals whenever we wanted thanks to our gas stove, which we can light with a match. We cannot however, use the oven in a power outage, so knowing that we would likely experience an interruption in service we found a recipe to bake on Friday evening, just as the first flakes began to fall. Our freezer is still stocked with frozen veggies from our summer CSA deliveries so I used some puréed squash to make squash flans, based on a recipe from good ol' Deborah Madison. The recipe also called for mixed greens, which I also had in my freezer. I started by mixing the thawed squash with1/4 t cumin and 1/4 t cinnamon, two eggs and 1/3 c milk. This mixture was divided into custard cups, which were then placed in a baking pan, filled halfway with boiling water. The pan was then put into a preheated 375 degree oven for 45 minutes. Meanwhile I prepared the sauce on the stovetop. I melted 2 T butter into a saucepan, and added a small chopped onion (Madison calls for a shallot, but I had none and was not prepared to fight the panicked storm shoppers at the grocery store). When the onions were browned I added red cooking wine, fresh ground peppers, and 2 t. Gin (a substitute for juniper berries according to This was cooked down by about half, then 2 more T butter were whisked in along with a few dashes of balsamic vinegar. The greens were defrosted in the microwave, then quickly heated on in a cast iron skillet with some olive oil. When the flan was cooked through I removed them from the oven and let them sit for a few minutes, then they were turned onto plates and topped with the sauce, with greens on the side. These were savory treat for a winter's eve. Next time I will use a bit more spice.