Friday, May 21, 2010

Tortilla Soup in Dublin

Two weeks ago, we went to Ireland, again, this time for the wedding of our friends Stephen and Paul. As per my tradition, I cooked up a Mexican dinner for the happy couple and our most gracious host, Mannix. The core piece of this was Tortilla Soup.

Cooking Mexican food in Dublin has always been tricky. From the start, I've had to smuggle in ingredients (Hello, Irish Customs officials who will now actually stop and search my luggage...). Thanks to the wave of immigration from their economic boom, the Celtic Tiger, I've been able to cut back on the contraband.

With a little digging and improvisation, you can now find many of the raw materials in the city. Channing and I made a morning out of scouring the City Centre, hunting things down. If you don't have a time crunch, having a goal like that is a great way to explore an area.

This time, I came over completely empty handed, but was able to find everything I needed for the soup.

Epazote: Well, forget it. Never going to happen. But to be fair, that's the case in the States a lot, too. Fortunately, cilantro is a fine and explicitly approved substitute and somewhat more available. However, in Ireland (and I presume the UK), it’s called “Chinese Coriander.” You can find it in the Asian grocery on Georges St. I know for sure, probably at others.

Corn Tortillas: The folks at Acapulco, also on Georges St., claim that tortillas are too expensive to import as it is, so they won’t sell theirs. However, the fine people at Alamo (by Temple Bar) were much more accommodating. I got at least 4 dozen for 4.5 Euro.

Cumin: Though a staple of Indian cooking, I never saw it on the shelves of Tesco and the other mainstream grocery stores I looked in. But again, it's in the Asian store.

Pureed Tomatoes: Be warned on this one. Tomato Puree here is Tomato Paste in the States, i.e. way too condensed for this and there was nothing equivalent on the shelves to our puree here in the States. I had no interest in making my own from scratch with raw tomatoes. A perfectly good substitute is to take the canned chopped tomatoes you can find at Tesco and puree those. These came packed in tomato juice, which would make the result too runny (since you're supposed to be starting from tomatoes only without added liquid). I poured off about a cup of liquid from the large can and was fine.

One last thing - for some reason, the onions came up very dry in their puree this time. Don't know why this is, because there didn't seem to be any difference. But they usually are more of a slurry texture. I added some water to it, just to make myself more comfortable.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Treebeards' Red Beans and Rice

This core staple of Treebeards' menu has given me fits for years. From the early, early days when they would sell the spice packets and then the publication of the first cookbook, I’ve never had great luck with this recipe. The results have been consistently mushy, though the flavor was spot-on.

I’d been especially careful about the stirring instructions to avoid that, but no dice. I’ve given the recipe to others and it worked (or, rather, didn’t work) the same way.

So, I decided to give it another shot with the assumption that the recipe is somehow flawed (no offense, Dan). The obvious suspect was the cooking time of the beans. I reduced the cooking time for the initial simmer down to 1 hr, rather than 1.5. Right off the bat, this gave me the bean tenderness and flavor I was looking for. The “sauce” was a little bit thin, so I think that reducing the amount of water down at least a cup, from 2 qts down to 1.75 would do the trick.

I also used chicken and turkey smoked sausage to cut down on the fat and they taste just fine. So, success.

I've searched around the web to see if there was an update to the recipe (my version is from the 1st edition of their fantastic cookbook, but they're up to the 9th now), but they all seem to have the same times. Maybe it's just me. But I'm happy now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hopping John

On New Year's Day, you're supposed to have black eye peas and ham. So, Hopping John is a perfect delivery method.

Many years ago (like, 15), I'd tried the Treebeards recipe, but substituted turkey ham instead of regular pork ham, in an attempt to make it healthier. Blech. I had tried it at least twice that I remember and it was a dry mess.

I decided to give the Treebeards recipe another try, still with the turkey ham, this year. I'll be damned if it didn't turn out to be just about the best, least guilt-inducing comfort food ever.

A few things made the difference this time. First, saute the hell out of the veggies/aromatics, using olive oil instead of butter. Go for a deep rich brown carmelization on them, not just softened. Also, add an extra tablespoon or so of the oil to make up for the fat you're losing from the pork ham. Then, take absolutely seriously the "until tender" instruction regarding the beans. I ended up cooking them for a full hour longer, tasting them every 10 minutes. Totally worked. Score.

Smoked Gouda and Chipotle Grits

I've had a fondness for cheese grits since I was a kid, when my mom would make them by adding Velveeta (I think) to grits and add slices of hot dogs (it was the seventies). Even in the south, this was apparently a little bit weird - I remember taking them to school in sixth or seventh grade for a pot luck and getting weird-ass looks. But, damn, they were tasty.

This fine recipe was a new addition to Christmas dinner this year, replacing a Treebeards recipe for which I seemed to lose the touch. This past weekend was about relaxing, guilt-free, until the paper comes back with red marks for revisions. Comfort food was in order.

The first batch tasted mind-blowingly good. The second, merely excellent. The big difference was the taste of the gouda, which came through much better in the Christmas batch. Saturday's batch, not so much. I end up adding a little salt and about 8 oz of a mild cheddar to punch up the flavor. It's still really, really good.

The lesson here appears to be to get the strongest flavored gouda you can find, though I have no idea how you would know until you got the cheese home.

And we're back...

I finally kicked all the rust of my mental gears and finished the first full draft of my master's thesis paper. It should be relatively smooth sailing from here. In the two years I was "working" on it (mostly having anxiety about it, really), I did manage to crank out chapters for two books on pop culture and philosophy, so it wasn't a total waste.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be making updates to fix broken links to the recipes that occurred when I switched hosting providers. If you try to get at one and it isn't working, let me know and I'll bump it up to the top of the list for you.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Treebeard's Butter Cake - Revisited

This is too good not to share. even with being on haitus.

Janie Baur, one of the authors of the Treebeards' Cookbook (one of the all-around best books in my collection), came across my entry for their Buttercake and had this to add in the Comments. Rather than let it get buried, here is her wisdom. Thanks, Janie!:

"Hal, I was poking around the Internet this morning and came across this. When I wrote the Treebeards cookbook nine printings ago, we converted this recipe from a gigantic recipe that was used in the restaurant, hence the 3 ounces of cream cheese...and no, I don't believe they even make it any more. At least I haven't been able to find it for a few years. I put the leftover in my Food Saver bags and it stays good almost indefinitely.

Try experimenting with flavor variations like these:

Toffee — Fold a cup of almond toffee bits or chocolate-covered toffee bits into the filling before adding it on top of the crust

Chocolate — Use a chocolate cake mix in the base and add 3-4 tablespoons cocoa powder and fold in an optional 1 cup chopped nuts in the topping

Lemon — Use a lemon cake mix in the base and for the base, add a teaspoon of lemon extract plus 3 to 4 tablespoons of finely shopped lemon zest

The flavor combinations are endless once you start moving away from the traditional buttercake. I also make my buttercake the day before I'm going to serve it. It's always better the second day. I don't know why -- it just always is. At Treebeards, the day-old buttercake is always marked with a piece of tape on the bottom of each piece of individually wrapped piece and those are always the first pieces of cake to go first -- and there's a very specific reason for that -- they're clearly the best!

Have you ever used Penzeys double-strength vanilla? In my book, vanilla doesn't get any better than that."

Vanilla-wise, I am still working through a huge bottle of "La Vencedora." According to Cook's Illustrated, vanilla is incredibly shelf-stable, but I'll definitely give Penzey's a try for the next bottle.

A meta thing about Blogger: I know of no way to get the email addresses of commenters. Which means I can't respond directly to them and I would love to be able to thank Janie. If anyone can point me to the setting, it would be most appreciated!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another reason Central Market rocks...

I forgot to put this in the Christmas Dinner post, but it's a point I don't want to let go.

HEB's Central Market stores are perhaps the one thing other than family that I really regret about not living in Texas. I can't begin to tell you how awesome they are because it would really take way, way too long. It's just crammed to the gills with the best food you can find anywhere - from the produce and meats to the bakery and prepared food areas.

Sometimes, I've even carried an empty cooler down to Texas so I can load up with stuff and drive it back to Chicago.

So, why am I so impressed this time? We needed some chicken sausage for the Cornbread Stuffing with Fennel and Sausage. There wasn't any in the case that I could see. I asked the nice folks if there happened to be any in back. "No, but I'm just about to make some. What kind do you want?" I was able to get 2 lbs of chicken Italian Sausage (I usually have to go with the closest seasoning I can find) in 20 minutes.

That was awesome. Who do I have to bribe to get one up here?