Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stale Tortillas

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         It is warming up a little now, but it has been cold, cold, cold, and I have been eating things like spaghetti and meatballs (my go-to snow-day dish), baked pastas, and soups. In the winter, I particularly love to eat spicy food—and a spicy soup like hot and sour soup, or tortilla soup, hits the spot. The quality of both are dependent on a good stock—one with good body and flavor but not quite as rich as I like it for, say, pasta e fagioli or even a good ol’ chicken noodle soup. This is one of the many reasons why stock has to be homemade; there is really no such thing as just “chicken stock”; it is light or not, rich or not, flavored (e.g., with ginger and other Asian seasonings) or not. Although you can of course add flavors, reduce your stock to change its concentration, and generally play around with it, I find I usually have something in mind when I make stock, and make it accordingly. Right after the holidays, I bought an old hen, and knew I was in the mood for some Mexican food to warm me over the ensuing winter months. Hence, a versatile medium broth seasoned with garlic, onions, salt, and cilantro stems. I’ve been using it in sauces, rice dishes, and other Mexican fare.
Last week I made tortilla soup. It was time: when you get to those last few corn tortillas at the bottom of the bag and find they are rather dry and tough, and there are not enough to fry up a big batch of chips, their last best use is for garnish. Tortilla soup is their perfect home. And perfectly homey in itself.

Tortilla Soup
Tortilla soup is sort of a broth stirred into a tomato puree, garnished with chicken, chile, fried tortilla strips, and a dry queso. I like to poach the chicken and then smash it with a cleaver into shreds. Serves 4.
3 or 4 small (6”) semi-dry best-quality corn tortillas
2 or 3 dried chiles pasillas, or 1 large chile ancho, seeds and veins removed and torn into small pieces
Lard for frying
½ chicken breast, about 6 oz

1 small onion, sliced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
¼ tea allspice or cloves
1 medium-large tomato, roasted and core removed, or about 1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, drained
1 ½ qt homemade chicken stock, preferably seasoned with onion, garlic, salt, and cilantro stems only
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup cotija or other dry, salty cheese such as dry feta or parmesan
With your kitchen scissors, cut the tortillas in half and then cut the halves crosswise into narrow strips, about ¼” wide. Heat about ¼ cup of lard in an iron frying pan to medium-hot, and quickly fry the tortilla strips until they are golden; remove, drain, and salt. Lower the heat somewhat and in the remaining oil, fry the chile pieces until they are just softened, about 5 or 10 seconds. Remove and drain. I generally mix them up with the tortilla pieces once both are dry. Set aside.
Poach the chicken breast in a little stock or water to just cover. Bring it to a boil, reduce and cook for about 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and cover, allowing the chicken to cool in the broth or water. When mostly cool, remove to a plastic bag and, with the side of your cleaver or a mallet, smash the chicken breast, which will immediately and beautifully shred. Set aside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Heat about a tablespoon of lard in a frying pan over medium heat; fry the onion, garlic, and allspice til golden, about 10 minutes. Place it in the food processor with the tomato(es) and puree; it will not be completely smooth. Put it back in the pan into another tablespoon of heated lard, and fry for about 5 minutes.
Ladle a little stock into the tomato mixture, now a kind of thick sauce, stirring until it is pourable—about ½ cup or more. Pour this back into the remaining stock and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Taste for salt and add a little pepper.
Serve the soup in rimmed soup plates garnished with the shredded chicken, tortilla chips, chiles, and about 2 T cotija per serving.
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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Drawing Down Inventory III: One-off Cakes



It’s that time of year again: time to make room in the freezer.

Every year I have odd quantities of dried and glazed fruits, nuts, breads, cakes, cookies, etc., leftover from holiday baking. Which they are, and how much of each, depends on what the focus of holiday baking has been that year. Or what I had planned to make but didn’t get around to. Or, what I haven’t eaten or given away.

Usually, I am polishing off the last of the cookies right around now. It is a great pleasure to, ever-so-slowly over the course of the months between New Year’s and March, nibble away at the cookie inventory. Cookies age very nicely; in fact, I think the freezer greatly improves many of them, as the flavors meld and intensify in storage. And of course, it is wonderful to reach into the freezer and pull a cookie out for dessert after dinner.

So, having eaten the last cookie a few days ago, a fair amount of space has been freed up. But still, there remained all those bags of fruits and nuts, and a little more than half an orange olive-oil cake. I ate a small piece of the cake—excellent, still—essentially evening it off to a neat half. Then I used everything to make the cake below, and took it to the office. I probably won’t have everything on hand to make this cake in exactly the same way again, but as you can see, the recipe could easily be adjusted according to what you do happen to have, producing a different cake each year.

One-off Post-holiday Cake

This is rich, moist, dense, and spicy. Serves off mistela

3 cups medium cake crumbs—about ½ of a 10” tube cake (see Note) 
1 cup candied citron
¾ c fresh crystallized ginger
½ cup raisins (I used mixed, mostly large flames)
2 T marsala or sherry (I used Spanish mistela)

¼ c light turbinado or pure cane sugar
½ c Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa
2 large brown eggs
Juice and grated rind of ½ medium navel orange
¾ whole milk
5 oz unsalted butter, softened
2 tea baking powder
3 tea mixed best-quality fresh ground spices, to taste (I used: 1 tea cinnamon, ½ tea cardamom, 1/3 tea cloves, ¾ tea nutmeg, 1/8 tea white pepper, big pinch salt)

1/3 cup blanched slivered almonds (chopped hazelnuts would do)

Pear or other fruit syrup for glazing (optional)


Use a deep 8” cake or springform pan. Butter it, line it with parchment, and butter and flour the interior.  

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Divide the crumbs in half. Put ½ half into a medium bowl, the other into a food processor.

Soak the raisins in the alcohol.

To the crumbs in the processor, add the citron and crystallized ginger and pulse until the fruits are ground and crumb mixture looks medium-fine.

To the crumbs in the bowl, add the sugar, eggs, cocoa, milk, juice and rind, baking powder, and spices, and stir until smooth. Add the fruit/crumb mixture and the raisins and their liquid (if the raisins are very large, cut them in half using a wet knife), stirring well to blend. Beat in the soft butter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and scatter the slivered almonds across the surface (I sliced whole blanched almonds in half).

Bake at 325 for about 1 hour, until the surface is puffed and lightly cracked, the nuts are turning golden, and a cake skewer inserted midway between the center and the edge comes out clean. Let cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes, then turn carefully out. The cake will pull away from the sides as it cools. While still warm, you can brush the top and sides with a syrup if you wish; I had some leftover pear syrup from poaching pears for a pear tart for my students before Christmas, so was able to use some of it. But not necessary.

Note: I used a cake made with olive oil because that is what I had, but any plain, rich cake would do, such as pound cake. The cake does not have to be at its peak, but it should not be dried out—i.e., should not be stale.



Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day!


It takes my loyal reader and fellow blogger about food and life, racheld, to remind me of my duty. It has been a long, hard winter for us all. Not as bad as in Little Compton, but even here in the South it has been pretty bitter. Cold, ice, snow. I have hunkered down, and though I have been cooking for myself, and sometimes for my students, I have neglected the blog, which means I’ve been neglecting you. I will be back soon—hopefully with, as racheld suggests, a pie. Meanwhile, treat yourself to something nice for Valentine’s Day. Per my custom, I will be buying myself a new cookbook. Or two.  xxoo