Monday, November 29, 2010

Mexican Hominy Lime Soup, Olé

(I didn’t get many pictures of the cooking process, but I couldn’t deny readers this recipe because it is SO YUMMY.) 

Exactly one year ago from yesterday, I was in Cozumel, Mexico cheering on my BFF Travis in his first Ironman triathlon (congrats to all of the 2010 finishers!). Spectating at an Ironman is no small feat. It involves anywhere from 10-17 hours (in this case, 12) of running around in the heat trying to catch a 5 second glimpse of your racer. But believe me, your racer needs those 5 seconds, so you just do it. As spectating locations go, however, I certainly can’t complain about Cozumel. I was lucky enough to get a tropical vacation out of the deal (other popular Ironman locales include Kentucky and Idaho). 

As part of this vacation, we rented a condo with our parents and hired a local cook to come in and prepare our meals. Sounds so lavish, right?! It was actually much cheaper than eating out every night and so much more delicious than making our own food. Our cook, Sylvia, was amazing (e-mail me if you're ever in the Yucatán neighborhood and looking for a cook). My dad ate so much, I thought we might have to get his stomach pumped - which would not have been my first time in a Mexican hospital (story for another day). 

One of my family's favorite dishes was a super-spicy chicken soup. Unfortunately, between our zero knowledge of Spanish and Sylvia’s minimal English, we never really found out what else was in the soup. I recently came across a Martha Stewart recipe for Green-Chile Pozole, which kind of resembled Sylvia's homemade spicy soup and as I was home visiting my parents, I thought I would treat them to a little reminder of Mexico. And since it was two days after Thanksgiving, it was the perfect opportunity to use our leftover turkey bits.

"Pozole" or "posole" describes a traditional kind of Mexican soup made with corn and meat. The Martha Stewart recipe called for a number of ingredients that were not readily accessible, so I concocted a simplified version that used the same key ingredient: hominy. Hominy is dried kernels of corn that have been boiled in water and soaked in lime until they swell, so that the hulls and germs can be removed. You might find ground hominy, especially in the south, but for this pozole, you want whole hominy or "big" hominy (the soaked kernels resemble chickpeas in size and texture). If your grocery store has an international aisle, check there first. Otherwise, look near the canned beans and veggies.

My pozole ended up tasting different from Sylvia's beloved soup, but I daresay . . . it was equally good. It lacked the extreme spiciness (because I didn't use habaneros, only jalapeños), but the flavor was incredible. When I took the lid off the pot after a couple hours on the stove, it had that smell that you can only find in a really good Mexican restaurant (sweet and spicy and limaliscious). If you like real Mexican food, you have GOT to make this dish. Garnish with diced jalapenos, fresh avocado, feta or cotija cheese, and extra lime slices for squeezing.

If you want to do a vegetarian version, just swap out the chicken stock for vegetable stock, skip the meat, and use 2 onions and 2 cans of hominy.

Mexican Hominy Lime Soup

Serves 5-6 as a main course

olive oil
1 medium white or Spanish onion
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
64 oz. (2 qts.) chicken stock
1 15 oz. can of hominy, drained but not rinsed
1 tbs. oregano (use Mexican oregano if you happen to have it)
juice from 3 limes
1 bunch of cilantro
1 small can of diced green chilies
a few shakes of salt
12-16 oz. cooked, shredded chicken or turkey

Suggested garnishes
extra diced jalapeños
sliced avocado
crumbled feta cheese or cotija cheese
extra lime wedges for squeezing
tortilla chips

Prepare cilantro by rinsing the leaves thoroughly and chopping off the top 3 to 4 inches of the bunch (discard the bottom or save for other use). Roughly chop the leaves and stems and set aside (should be around a cup of chopped cilantro). 

Heat 3-4 tbs. of olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Slice onion and add to pot. Cook onions for 5-6 minutes, adding oil as needed to keep the onions from burning. Add jalapeños and garlic and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Add chicken stock, hominy, oregano, lime juice, cilantro, chilies, salt and meat. Reduce heat to low. Cook for at least one hour on low heat, stirring occasionally. Most delicious if cooked for 3-4 hours.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tea: A Love Affair

I love tea. Love, love, love it. I love the idea that tea can be infused with any flavor under the sun. I love the way the leaves are dried out like shrinky dinks and then totally come back to life with a little hot water. And I love how tea compliments baked goods, an obvious other fave of mine. 

Just about a year ago, I met a Certified Tea Master (who knew?). It was at one of those dinners where everyone is a friend of someone else, so I was several degrees of separation from the Tea Master and I never saw her again. But she was very cool and I thought it was so neat that such a title exists and that she took such ownership of it. She even had a card to convey her mastery. In another life, maybe the title can be mine. Jeni Dodd, I salute you:

While tea mastery is not in my immediate future, I do enjoy trying as many new teas as I can get my hands on. And this week, I discovered a gem that I must share with fellow tea lovers - The Spice and Tea Exchange of Georgetown. Can you say, Green Chili Sugar? Applewood Smoked Sea Salt? Almond Cookie Tea?! I know I sound like an advertisement, but I am just so smitten with this joint. It's very small and each wall is lined with infused salts, sugars, teas, spices and blended rubs. Plus an array of kitschy tea accoutrements and free tea samples. The clerk encouraged everyone who came in to open the jars and smell the ingredients (and above each jar of loose spice or tea were pre-bagged portions ready for purchase).

Apparently, the Spice and Tea Exchange is popular in Florida and exists in a few other states, but it just arrived in Georgetown about a month ago. I bought three flavors: Coconut Oolong, Almond Cookie Tea (black tea), and Mango Green Tea, all of which smell like heaven. Plus I couldn't resist some Tangerine Sugar to sweeten it up. The Almond Cookie Tea is pictured immediately below.

Today's menu: Mango Green Tea with Tangerine Sugar. Green tea and black tea leaves come from the same plant, but green tea is not fermented the way black tea is (white and oolong tea leaves come from different plants). When steeped, green tea is lighter in color, but is not actually "weaker" than black tea (although it does have less caffeine naturally). Green tea just has a milder, earthier flavor. 

When steeping your tea, avoid using boiling water and instead shoot for very hot, but not bubbling. If your water comes to a boil, just let it rest for a minute or two before pouring over the tea leaves. For green tea, 1 heaping tsp. of tea leaves should be enough for a large mug of tea (12 oz.). I like to steep green tea for 3-4 minutes, but some people prefer only 1-2 minutes. You'll have to experiment with your own palate.

Tea-related sidebar: for the past few years, my law firm has sponsored an absolutely delightful women's tea at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in DC. It is held during the summer so that female summer associates (who are like interns) have a chance to chat with other female attorneys in a relaxed (and tasty) setting. It is my only opportunity to date to attend a fancy tea party and I think it's the bees knees (did I mention that everyone gets their very own tower of finger sandwiches and pastries?!). 

Apparently, some people that I work with have recently voiced opposition to the women's tea. I'm not sure if it's because of the stereotypical female flavor of the event or simply the fact that a segregated women's event is happening at all. Either way, I cannot wrap my mind around the tea hang-up, and I'm already mourning the loss of this event. If you can articulate a valid reason to discontinue the tea, I would be interested to hear it. Signed, bitter on K Street. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vanilla Biscuits with Cranberry Sauce & Fresh Whipped Cream


For a long time, the only cranberry sauce I knew looked like this. And as long as that was my reference point, I resisted it. Hard. I was never really a fan of cranberry juice either, save for when I found out it promoted good, ahem, health, at which point I desperately tried to persuade my taste buds otherwise (to no avail). In any event, it took a long time for cranberries to worm their way into my heart, but they did. And I'm pretty sure they're here to stay.

So when the rows and rows of very shiny cranberries showed up in my grocery store, I knew they needed a vehicle into my stomach, stat. A leisurely perusal through Martha Stewart's Cooking School unearthed the most perfect companion: vanilla biscuits. I've got to hand it to her, Martha has nailed the vanilla biscuit. When these little cylinders of joy come out of the oven, the smell of vanilla and buttery sweetness are like a silent dinner bell (just watch . . . people will show up in the kitchen). 

I prepared the biscuits and cranberry sauce as a dessert, with whipped cream. But if you really want to step up your Thanksgiving game, serve these biscuits and cranberry sauce with your turkey and stuffing. Your guests, with tears in their eyes, will say "Bless you, [your name here]. This is what Thanksgiving has been missing all my life." Verbatim. I promise.

A few notes: Vanilla bean is expensive. You'll probably pay close to $10 for two beans. But seriously, it's Thanksgiving and it's worth it (do you see those flecks of vanilla in the dough?). Pony up.  

Also, if you (like me) are not practiced at biscuit making, you're in for a surprise. The dough doesn't form a ball in the mixing process. When you combine the wet and dry ingredients, stop mixing once you have clumps that look like the below picture. They will come together just barely enough to cut out the biscuits.

Because not everyone owns a biscuit cutter.

Vanilla Biscuits with Cranberry Sauce & Fresh Whipped Cream
adapted very slightly from Martha Stewart's Cooking School cookbook

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 tbs. cornstarch
3 tbs. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 vanilla bean
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cups cold buttermilk
2 tbs. heavy cream (for brushing)
sugar for sprinkling

Cranberry Sauce
4-5 oz. fresh or frozen (and thawed) cranberries
2 tbs. sugar (or more to taste)

Whipped Cream 
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbs. confectioners' sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract 

Whisk together flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate the butter into the dry mix until you have a crumbly mixture (pieces should be the size of small peas). 

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the beans out using a knife. Mix vanilla bean and vanilla extract into buttermilk and whisk. Add buttermilk to the flour mixture, stirring with a fork until the ingredients are incorporated. As pictured above, the resulting "dough" will remain in separate lumps. Turn dough onto a clean work surface and work the pieces together with your hands, folding the dough onto itself a few times. Work the dough into a rectangle 1 to 1-1/4 inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter (or round measuring cup or cleaned-out soup can), cut out 6 biscuits (for the sixth biscuit, you'll need to gather the scraps together and form the biscuit). Place biscuits onto a parchment lined baking sheet.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Chill biscuits in the fridge for 20 minutes before baking. Brush tops with heavy cream and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 10 minutes and rotate cookie sheet. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and cook for 10 more minutes. Transfer biscuits to a cooling rack. 

Cranberry sauce: While biscuits are baking, put cranberries and sugar in a food processor or mini-chopper and blend until mixture is chunky. Obviously you can add water or extra sugar and blend longer to get a saucier consistency. Do whatever you like. I served the cranberry sauce cold, but this mix can certainly be warmed in a saucepan or the microwave.

Whipped cream: Place a glass or metal mixing bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes. Mix heavy cream in the cold bowl using a hand mixer at high speed. Once soft peaks form, add sugar and vanilla, and mix until cream is thick.

Makes 6 biscuits and toppings

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sweet Potato Bread with Apricots and Scrabble

A friend of mine has two of the cutest little tots on the planet. The kids are quite hip, but as they are both under the age of two, Saturday nights are still pretty low key. So she recently hosted an evening of Scrabble. I LOVE Scrabble. And until this get together, I fancied myself as good at Scrabble (me = sorely mistaken). Two of the ladies who joined us were like super Scrabble geniuses with laser beams coming out of their eyes and zeroing in on the highest scoring squares (and one of them noted that she was "rusty"). I think I lost by a thousand points. Oh well, at least it was a good excuse for a new homemade treat.

Making something "homemade" or baking "from scratch" has different meanings to different people. I'm pretty lenient with those terms - as long as the dish didn't come straight from the store shelf or out of a box, it counts as homemade in my book. As I've mentioned before, I didn't make a pie crust until this blog, but I would still say that I've made many a homemade pie. So when I read this recipe and discovered that it called for me to actually roast sweet potatoes rather than buy them in a can, I almost skipped it (in retrospect, the roasting was so easy, I feel embarrassed even sharing this bout of laziness). 

But I didn't skip it. Instead I said to myself, "Get it together, woman. You are a flipping food blogger now and food bloggers roast their own root vegetables." And now you all can enjoy the fruits of my labor. And by "enjoy," I mean look at photos. Although if you invite me over for Scrabble, I'll bring you some.

For our wedding, we received a really awesome and unique gift of Penzey's Spices, including a whole nutmeg (thanks Greg & Marlene!). According to European lore, our marriage will remain happy and sound as long as the nutmeg remains whole.

It looks like we may have some rocky times in the immediate future. At least we'll go down with good eats.

Disclaimer: these are actually yams. At the grocery store, I was scoping out the potatoes and could only find a bin marked yams. So I politely asked the grocery store man where I could find sweet potatoes. He walks around to where I'm standing (in front of the yams), gives me a dirty look and says, "Yer lookin' at em." Still politely, I say, "Oh, sorry sir, I'm actually looking for sweet potatoes and not yams." To which he responds, "Same thing." Now I'm annoyed. You work at a grocery store, dude. They're not the same. Upon further questioning, he says something to effect of sweet potatoes only being available around Thanksgiving. Um, hello, grocery store man - that's NOW. Maybe he should reevaluate his line of employment.

Sweet Potato Bread with Apricots
adapted from the awesome cookbook, Good to the Grain

Dry Mix
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tbs. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg (freshly ground if you have it)
1/4 tsp. allspice (or pumpkin pie spice)

Wet Mix
2 tbs. cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1 medium sweet potato (3/4 lbs.) (photo shows two potatoes because I baked two loaves)
3 oz. dried apricots, cut into chunks

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and roast the sweet potato for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until it is tender all the way through when tested with a knife (all of the insides should be squishy). Juices will start to seep out and caramelize around the potato. Set aside to cool, then peel and cut in half. Cut each half into large chunks, but keep halves divided.

Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees. Grease or line a loaf pan with parchment paper. Mix all dry ingredients together. Separately, whisk together the buttermilk and yogurt in a small bowl. 

Using a stand mixer (with paddle attachment) or hand mixer, cream the butter and sugars together in a large bowl. Scrape down the sides with a spatula; add the egg and half the sweet potato. Mix on medium speed for about 1 minute, or until thoroughly combined. On low speed, slowly add the dry mix and blend until mostly combined. Add buttermilk mixture and mix until combined. Add remaining sweet potato and continue to blend until barely combined; visible chunks of sweet potato should remain. Spread apricots across the batter (to avoid clumping) and fold into batter using a spoon or spatula. (If using a stand mixer with paddle, you can add the apricots at the same time as the remaining sweet potato.)  

Pour batter into a greased or parchment-lined loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 65-75 minutes. Remove loaf from the pan upon removal from oven and place on a cooling rack. Slice and spread with your fave preserves. Use all 7 letters for a ridiculous bonus. 

Makes one loaf

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pre-race Strawberry Cornmeal Pancakes

Every October for the past four years, my dad and I have run the Army Ten-Miler together. All 40 miles, side by side. It's the biggest ten-mile race in the United States, with 30,000 registered racers in 2010. 2008 was marked by a surprise finish by my little sis, Mary W., who amazingly managed to come in strong, despite having maxed out her training at a three-miler (Mary has put her racing career on hiatus, while currently serving in the Peace Corps). In 2009, we had a guest entry by my Aunt Joanne, who, ten years my dad's junior, dropped us at mile 8 and sprinted to the finish! But alas, Aunt Joanne had some hip problems and so in 2010, it was back to just me and D. We were going to crush it.

And nothing says "I'm gonna crush this race!" like a get-psyched breakfast of fresh strawberry cornmeal pancakes with pure maple syrup. Warning: I'm not advocating eating a breakfast like this on the day of a race (for that, I stick to oatmeal or toast and PB), but for the day prior to race day, pancakes are super. Or better yet, serve them as awesome celebratory brunch. So please don't send me cranky emails about why you should never stuff your stomach with pancakes and syrup immediately before competing in an athletic event. Thx.

The addition of cornmeal to these pancakes doesn't make them taste like corn (I know, I was surprised too). When I first tried this recipe, I was looking for a cornbread style of pancake. Although that's not what I got, I did find a new go-to recipe for pancakes. I think the cornmeal helps get that crispy crust on the outside and the high yogurt content keeps them moist in the middle. And don't even get me started on the strawberries. They are so perfect in pancakes, that I don't understand how blueberries ever became so popular. The inn where Travis and I got married (John Joseph Inn) served up the best breakfast I've ever had (bacon thicker than my arm!), including my first-ever strawberry pancakes.

We topped the pancakes with Shepherd Sugar Bush pure maple syrup made by our friend Laurie's family in Michigan! This syrup put the pancakes over. the. top.

Sidebar: For the second weekend in a row, we had houseguests of the four-legged kind (my parents' dogs, Luna and Spike). They're very small and potentially smooshable. They like to sit on you and snuggle up in your armpits, so you have to be careful not to roll over on them or squish them when you reach for a drink. Travis and I are large-dog people (and sadly lost the best dog ever to doggy cancer in February), but I can't help but miss these little guys (ok, I don't miss the yapping, but I DO miss the snuggling).

Admit it, you kind of want to play with them. Or feed them to your pet snake. (My mom thinks I have a subconscious aggression towards the dogs because they've taken first chair in her heart. I don't know what she's talking about.)

This is Travis, Dad and me, before the race. I wish I had a post-race photo, but our usual photography team (the moms) decided to sleep in this year. You can take my word for it, though - the pancakes served us well. Crushing abounded.

Strawberry Cornmeal Pancakes
adapted from this recipe

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
3 tbs. skim milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 pint strawberries, diced
vegetable oil

Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and baking soda in large bowl. Combine yogurt, milk and egg; mix with dry ingredients, stirring until smooth. Gently stir in strawberries (I sprinkled the strawberries onto the pancakes while they were cooking, but wished I had mixed them in earlier).

Heat a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil on a nonstick griddle or skillet (you have to know your own stovetop, but I used medium heat on our electric range). You want the batter to sizzle, but not smoke (I suggest a little test dollop). Spoon about 1/3 cup batter onto the hot surface. Turn pancakes when tops are covered with bubbles and edges look cooked. Add vegetable oil as needed.

Serve with pure maple syrup and fresh strawberries.

Makes 9 pancakes
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