Friday, March 29, 2013

Super Spicy Supper: Chilaquiles with Eggs

This dish turned out way spicier than I planned.  Way spicier than I expected.  Way spicier than most people are comfortable consuming.  Will and I found ourselves gasping for soothing sour cream and eggs and trying to cool our taste buds with ever more water and wine during dinner.  We usually pride ourselves, smugly, in thinking that nothing is too spicy for us—ok, there was that Lamb Vindaloo in Cambridge once—so we probably deserved this comeuppance.

I wondered about where I might have gone wrong.  Having grown up with my mother’s Korean cooking, western recipes are usually too bland for me, so sometimes I double up on the spices.  Alas, no, that didn’t happen this time.  I actually followed the recipe, expecting that I might need the hot sauce I brought to the table for supplemental flavor (which neither of us needed). 

This is what I finally decided: I think that when Food & Wine (Quick from Scratch One-Dish Meals) called for 2 ½ tablespoons “chili powder,” it was referring to that blended powder that some people use as a shortcut for chili, a spice that mixes salt and garlic and onion power along with chile spices.  I long ago gave up using such a mixture and our kitchen only had—only needed—a “pure” chile powder.  Ahhhh.  I see.  In fact, in retrospect, I recall being a bit surprised that the sauce called for so much chile powder in addition to a prodigious amount of paprika and cayenne.  Well, follow your instincts in cooking…

With scrambled eggs, sour cream, avocado slices, and lots of other accompaniments, the dish was ultimately quite tasty—though still very spicy.  So I’m altering the recipe for this post.  It’s also portioned as a dinner for two.  If you wish, you can make a double recipe of the sauce (like I did) and reserve half for another use as enchilada sauce for another meal.

Ingredients for 2 large brunches/dinners:

For the sauce:
2 T paprika
1 T pure chile powder
½ t ground cayenne (red pepper)
¼ t ground cumin
½ t sugar
¼ t salt
1 ½  T canola oil
1 ½ T flour
2 minced garlic cloves
1 ½ cup chicken broth

For the rest:
½ T canola oil
4 beaten eggs, with a little salt
4 oz. tortilla chips (thick cut, to withstand the sauce and heating)
1 sliced avocado
¼ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup chopped tomatoes
¼ cup sour cream


1.  Make sure to chop up any condiments/toppings you will be using and have them ready to go.

2.  Combine the spices, sugar, and salt in a bowl.

3.  Heat 1 ½ T oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour and whisk a few minutes until light golden in color.  Add the minced garlic and then the spices mixture and combine.  In a steady stream, add the chicken broth and whisk the mixture until smooth and bubbly.  Let cook about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally (and covered otherwise) until the sauce is thickened to the consistency you like.

4.  Add tortilla chips to the sauce and let them get coated with the sauce and cook for about 3 minutes.  You want to make them a bit soft, but you don’t want them to disintegrate.

5.  In a separate non-stick frying pan, add ½ T oil and heat over medium high heat.  Beat eggs once more before pouring into pan and then scramble quickly until mostly cooked but still lightly glistening. 

6.  Place sauced chips onto two dinner plates, place half the eggs on each plate, and pile on the toppings.

You might want to have hot sauce available if you would like.  Or, conversely, you might want a lot of beer or wine available in case this is too spicy still!

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Paean to . . . Onions?

We’ve recently gotten re-hooked on Foyle’s War (another one of those British mystery series that they seem to do so well) and have been steadily—almost too speedily!—making our way through mysterious happenings in Hastings and its environs during World War II.  Foyle is a top-notch detective: almost the skills of a “super-detective” along the lines of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot but with the compassion, empathy, and humility of Miss Marple.  Or an Inspector Alleyn without the titled background and his sense of noblesse oblige.  I don’t find him cuddly, but he’s certainly not off-puttingly arrogant.  I recommend the series.

But that’s enough of Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle for now.  I’m actually interested in something that his driver Samantha (Sam) Stewart did in a recent episode we watched.  In “The French Drop” (series 3, episode 1), the police station is raffling off an onion—which apparently was a rarity during this period of war-time rationing.  Sam wistfully eyes the onion and asks if she could hold and sniff it, and she sighs that she hasn’t seen one since Christmas (months earlier than the February 1941 setting of this episode).  To be sure, the onion did look lovely—as onions go—but most people today would not think twice about the beauty of an onion or wish that we could win one in a raffle.  Really?

So, our views on the relative merits of onions aside, one wonders about the strikingly different period this show depicts, one that offers modern viewers a contrast that perhaps should make us somewhat more introspective about our current wasteful consumerist society.  Not to glamorize war—none of that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori bit here—but I do wonder about the different meanings of sacrifice, of giving up something, of having to make do with less.

Early in our acquaintance, I asked my mother-in-law if she took sugar with her coffee.  She replied that she gave it up for the war effort (yes, World War II) more than half a century ago and never again picked up the habit of putting sugar in her coffee.  My father who lived through occupation and war (Korean War) one day poeticized about an egg.  He held it up and waxed nostalgically about how rare eggs used to be and how significant a source of protein it was—no ribeyes or tenderloin roasts for them—that he and his orphaned siblings would attempt to divide up one egg amongst nine hungry eaters.  I can tell you that I never ever again scoffed at an egg after that story!

All this makes me wonder if food is too plentiful these days for too many people.  Under such circumstances we don’t appreciate it enough, and its lack in other areas don’t get the proper attention needed.  Certainly, I’m aware that there are “food deserts” where it’s difficult to get affordable and healthy produce.  But I wonder if most middle-class urban dwellers have become desensitized to the cheapness and availability of many products, and thus we are not mindful when we purchase something knowing that we might not consume it and really enjoy it. 

In a way, I’m hoping that two personal experiences might help me deal with this issue with greater thoughtfulness. 

Recently, Will and I spent one year living in England.  When we started our year in May 2006, the British pound was equivalent to about U.S. $1.70.  That figure dramatically shifted such that, by the time we finished our stay, the pound was often worth well over $2.  My figures could be somewhat off, but I certainly cannot forget the weakening dollar!  As it was, products in England were more expensive than in the U.S. anyway (that VAT tax), but they became almost prohibitively so once we started translating pounds into dollars.  I might have bought a half-gallon of milk in the U.S. with the idea that we’d certainly get through more than half before it was no longer drinkable, which, for us, extended well past the expiration date anyway.  After all, if we discount the sin of wastefulness, bulk buying is more “economical” in the long run in the U.S.  But, towards the end of that year in the U.K., we were wondering if we should get the quart of milk instead and be a bit short on our calcium intake.

In addition, our recent experiment with going vegetarian is proving to be so much more useful than we’d ever imagined.  We’ve been enjoying our vegetarian meals and would like to continue the trend past Easter.  But, it’s also true that we still crave meat.  The major difference though is that we are mindful about the fact that we are enjoying our meat consumption on those rare days we resume our carnivore status.  This past Sunday—for our non-vegetarian dinner—we prepared a Cinnamon-Cumin rubbed grilled whole chicken.  Because it was such a rarity for us to eat meat these days, we enjoyed every single morsel that we tasted.  Then we packed up the cooled leftovers and put them in the freezer for another Sunday.

A little scarcity might not be a terrible thing…

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dreaming of Kauai: Macadamia Nut Granola

When Will and I were on our honeymoon in Kauai many years ago, we stayed at a Bed-and-Breakfast on the north side of the island.  Though we suspected that it would be a bit kitschy (and it was), we booked their famous “Pineapple Room”—which featured an oval-shaped bed with pineapple-themed bed-covers and window drapery.  The uniqueness of the decoration aside, what we enjoyed most about staying at this place was access to their homemade macadamia nut granola.  It was better—and certainly fresher—than any other granola we had tasted up to that point.

That was 13 years ago, and fancy and expensive granola are—if possible—even more prevalent now than they used to be.  I’ve seen some great-looking granola at Whole Foods and Fresh Market, and I’ve brunched at places (like Chicago’s own Milk and Honey Café) which specialize in making their own.  Unfortunately, good granola is surprisingly expensive and fussy—geared almost too much to the Whole Foods crowd.

One day, I came across a Jamie Oliver recipe (in Jamie’s Food Revolution) for a simple granola.  With only minor modifications—mostly including the use of macadamia nuts—I was able to replicate my recollection of that Kauai bed-and-breakfast granola.  It’s quite simply fabulous.  Of course, it turned out that it’s not cheaper than purchasing some of the niche small-batch-produced granola for sale, but this is one of those instances where the homemade was actually BETTER than restaurant-made.  Try it!


1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Place in a large bowl and stir together:
2 cups quick cook oatmeal,
¾ cup whole or halved macadamia nuts,
1/3 cup other nuts (like chopped walnuts, almonds, etc.),
¼ cup sunflower seeds,
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds,
¾ cup unsweetened shredded or grated coconut,
¾ teaspoon cinnamon.

3.  Combine in a measuring cup:
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup canola (or other light oil)

4.  Pour the liquid into the bowl with the oatmeal and combine thoroughly.  Spread onto a jellyroll pan, and put in the preheated oven.

5.  Every 6-7 minutes, take the pan out and stir the mixture and spread again.  Do this about 4 times for a total cooking time of 25-30 minutes until the granola is just a light golden brown and smells toasted and fragrant.

6.  In the meantime, prepare:
½ cup dried strawberries, chopped up
½ cup large golden raisins, halved
½ cup other dried fruits (blueberries, apricots, cranberries, mango, etc.)

7.  Once the granola is ready, remove pan from oven, stir in the dried fruits, and let the mixture cool.

 Heavenly.  It’s actually a shame to add milk to this granola…

Friday, March 8, 2013

Going Sort-Of Vegetarian for Lent

No, I’m not Catholic.  Will was raised Catholic, but he never did like “giving up” something for Lent.  I was able to overcome his resistance though, and we are “sort of” giving up meat for Lent.  The chain of events goes something like this:

We’d been eating less meat anyway because we wanted to make sure that the meat we did eat was of unassailable quality.  We wanted our beef to be grass-fed, perhaps even dry-aged.  We wanted our chicken to be free-range organic, perhaps even kosher.  Well, these are extraordinarily expensive cuts of meat!  When grocery stores would advertise or news stories would report about the cost of meat ($2 for pound of ground beef, less than a $1 per pound for a roasting chicken, etc.), I would wonder where this meat was coming from.  What would consuming meat that cheap do to our health, to the quality of life of these animals, to the maintenance of our planet?

We started observing Meatless Mondays on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and many other days of the week.  We started ordering organic local fruits and vegetables at our CSA with more regularity.  We bypassed meat when we went out to dinner in favor of fish that we would have a harder time preparing at home anyway.

At the same time, we started reading books and watching a series of documentaries—or semi-documentaries—that cemented the deal.  When Omnivore’s Dilemma became the talk of NPR stations everywhere, I read that voraciously.  I avoided corn syrup in everything and pondered about the feasibility of only eating meat that I hunted down and slaughtered myself.  (Then I quickly abandoned that idea.)

Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation followed.  Then our friend Laura recommended Forks Over Knives.  Admittedly, Will was a bit wary of yet another documentary book or movie that would cast a censorious eye over his pork-loving diet.  He desperately suggested other options for our Sunday evening viewing.  Isn’t there another episode of Poirot that we haven’t seen yet?  Should we join the throng and actually watch Downtown Abbey?  But he gave in eventually.  He was even a bit heartened by the fact that the vegans featured in the movie were not the monkish ascetics that he’d always imagined—and, honestly, witnessed—but rather very buff fire-fighting, Mixed Martial Arts competing, aspirational models for would-be macho men everywhere.  Those vehicles made it so much easier to swallow the pill: Give up meat.

Ok, in actuality, Forks Over Knives advocates giving up a lot more than just meat.  A Chicago city administrator was vehemently arguing that we need to give up anything that had a “mommy or daddy,” that had “eyes or ears,” that moved in any way—walking, creeping, slithering, swimming.  Yikes.  Will, clutching his new favorite toy, Bouchon Bakery cookbook, was looking very nervous as the movie suggested that flour and sugar had to leave our kitchen.  I thought I was digesting most of this information with only a few serious qualms, but the dairy part made me aghast.  Me?  Give up cheese and butter?  I had to draw the line somewhere.

So this is what we decided.  We would eat mostly vegetarian in a loose, degraded sense of that word.  That is, we would still consume eggs, dairy, and—yes—seafood.  Since we are not very decisive people either, we decided that we would do this slowly.  That is, in fact, we would sometimes eat meat.  I have over-developed guest instincts which make it hard for me to refuse food someone offers me—it’s cultural, I think—so I would eat meat if invited to dinner at someone’s home.  Weekends might be sort of tough, we figured, since we might be eating with others.

As timing would have it, the day I resolved to start this vegetarian diet in earnest—with these many exceptions—I heard on the news that it was the start of Lent.  Being a person who likes “signs” when they already fit my agenda, I researched how this giving-up-something-for-Lent process worked.  Luckily, I found a Wikipedia site that told me that some Christians break their Lent-fast on Sundays to go along with the idea of God resting on the seventh day of creation.  Another sign!  We will break our meat-fast one day a week (either weekend day).  Unfortunately, breaking our meat-fast one day meant that the day became a meat-fest: bacon at breakfast, burgers at lunch, roast chicken at dinner.  We are, however, settling down to a weekend diet that is much less carnivorous.   Whew!

One of the perks of this new diet is to discover that there are some really excellent vegetarian recipes that we have not tried since we tended to skip right over cookbook sections that announced “Vegetable Entrees”—which we hitherto considered an oxymoron.  One of our favorite cookbooks is Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, and it offers some really yummy-sounding entrees.  By the time Lent is over, we will have tried all of them.  Look at that Couscous-Vegetable Lasagne at the top of this post.

You layer couscous and chopped sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil) mixed with shredded Fontina and grated Parmesan.  Then you place a layer of sautéed vegetables (mushroom, onion, garlic, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, basil, olive oil and wine).  Then you alternate layers again to create couscous-veggies-couscous-veggies lasagna.  Sprinkle some parmesan on top, and bake!  Really, the cheeses smell heavenly as they melt and hold the couscous together, and the vegetables are so fragrant!

We are talking about extending this new diet past Easter…   

Friday, March 1, 2013

Katie's Kloset: Clothing and Gear for the Canine Set

After a recent snowfall, we decided to take a long walk on the forest preserve trail.  Since it was only 15 degrees outside, Will promised it was going to be a fairly short one.  (It turned out to be 4 miles.  Did I mention it was 15 degrees?)  While absurdly confident that the humans would fare fine in the snow with our waterproof hiking boots, Will wasn’t sure that our dog Katie would be comfortable walking so long on fresh snowfall.  If you have ever tried to take a walk with a dog in the snow, you know that snow gets matted in the fur between the toes of their paws and forces the dog to stop periodically to chew off the matted snow.  So, out came her snow shoes!

We got these slip-on Velcro-closure booties one rainy spring season because we didn’t want Katie tracking in too much mud after our walks.  Once we put them on her, the comedy show began.  She lifted each paw, gingerly placing it down and wondering about the foreign feeling of plastic bootie not gripping the floor beneath.  Then she tried walking in these, suddenly bow-legged and moving in a hysterical loungy motion, slipping and righting herself, then repeating the process several times in the time it took her to cross our living room floor.  All the while, she saw her two human handlers just rolling around on the floor dying with uncontrollable laughter.  We three go through the same routine each time she has to wear these again.

But sometimes, footwear is for more than hilarity.  Quite soon after we picked her up from her shelter, Katie had an infection on her rear paw which had to be shaved, drained, and bandaged.  Out vet told us that we needed to make sure that she did not chew off her bandage or get to licking at the ointment (which would be harmful for her to ingest).  Yet, of course, she kept on trying to chew off the bandage.  I found a great solution at a Baby Gap store: A pair of baby socks (on sale!).  I put the sock on her over the bandage and secured it with a Velcro tie.  She tried but could not get the sock off.  And, of course, the bootie went over that sock when we went on walks.

Other clothing gear haven’t worked out quite so well.  She looked adorable in her yellow rain jacket—she hates rain and will take forever to go when it’s raining outside—but it messed up her sense of motion.  Less than two minutes into a walk, she would attempt to sit down on any surface, unsure of what was on her.

My brother and sister-in-law got Katie a warming jacket for Christmas one year.  They had never actually seen Katie—only knew that she was a “medium”-sized terrier mix—so the “medium” jacket they got for her seemed a bit tight.  She needs to lose some weight anyway, so maybe there is hope for this jacket still?

My sister and brother-in-law got us a hiking pack for her so that she could carry her own poop pouches, snacks, and water when we go hiking for long periods of time.  I like the idea, but Katie is a little finicky with that jacket as well.  Perhaps she just doesn’t do well with clothing.

For the first Christmas Eve brunch that we were hosting after we got Katie, we wanted her to look especially cute for our guests.  Will ran out to Petco hoping to get a reindeer headband, but apparently those sell out way in advance.  He came back with a Santa hat.  She had it on her for all of a few minutes, but you can tell what she is thinking: “Woe, woe is me.  Why do these people torture me so?”

Doesn’t matter though.  I suspect we will just keep putting more stuff on her…