Saturday, February 17, 2007


My husband's grandparents consolidated houses not long ago, giving up their Houston house and moving certain items to Florida. Other things, they just wanted to get rid of completely. We visited at around this time to help out, and got a bunch of things they didn't want to take with them. This included a few paintings and some pantry goods, but also a bunch of small paperback cookbooks and, get this, his grandmother's stash of recipes, for probably the last 20 years.

The little books were interesting. There were a couple of unremarkable low-fat or low-sugar books, and a meatless cookbook. Coming from the grandparents' generation and New York City, of course, that doesn't mean no meat, it means no "meat" as in beef or pork. It has interesting ideas, though, like "pate" made of beans and stuff. I haven't taken too close a look at this yet, though.

The recipe stash, though, is full of interesting things. Being from the South, from north TX, all the recipes in the newspapers my whole life have included things like candied ham, or Coca Cola cake, icebox pies, fried chicken, and chicken fried steak. There are often key lime pie recipes, or special Thanksgiving sweet potatoes with brown sugar and little white marshmallows. Recipes that get passed around between friends inevitably include chicken breasts, cream of mushroom soup and instant rice. Maybe some broccoli if we're lucky, but it's frozen broccoli or none at all.

This is why it was refreshing to see a collection of recipes from an 80-year-old Jewish woman from NYC. There were probably 10 recipes for cookies I'd never heard of - hamantaschen and mandelbrots. There were chicken and salad recipes that were fairly unremarkable, and various matzoh recipes for passover. I think matzoh recipes are interesting and somewhat inspired; whenever I was given a restriction in college that required me to do, or not do, a specific obvious and standard thing, I had much more successful results in the finished product, and I believe that was not in spite of, but because of, the restrictions. Matzoh recipes remind me of this, and I hope I'm right, if I someday try them.

I've never seen so many cheesecake recipes, though! So many, including cream cheese, sour cream, cream or cottage cheese; sugar, brown sugar, splenda or nutrasweet; graham cracker crust, regular crumb crust, no crust or chocolate crust. Too many to even try! I don't want to make cheesecake, I told myself when sorting through these various recipes.

Until this week, when I decided I wanted to make cheesecake. Based on what I had at home and had purchased from the store to do this, I made the following from a combination of two recipes (one of which was in mimeograph-purple print!). It turned out nicely, though before it was chilled we (the husband and I) weren't quite sold on the texture, and the crust was far too crumbly. Once chilled overnight, though, it resolved into pretty much proper cheesecake. Next time I might add 8 oz more cream cheese, though.

2 8-oz packages neufchatel cream cheese
1 c sugar
1 c sour cream (the recipe called for 1 pint, so more might be nice)
2 T flour
1 T vanilla
juice from half a lemon
pinch salt
4 eggs


1 1/2 c graham cracker crumbs
5 T melted butter
2-3 t sugar

Preheat oven to 350F.
Combine crust materials and press into bottom of 9" spring-form pan.
Combine cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, salt, lemon juice and vanilla in stand mixer until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, until smooth. Pour into crust, and bake for an hour at 350. Turn off oven and open slightly, allowing cheesecake to cool slowly over the next hour to try to prevent cracking (I was unsuccesful and it cracked, but c'est la vie. I think slicing between the pan and the cake so it didn't stick to the pan might have prevented the cracking).

Yay cheesecake! Probably serves 8-10, small-to-medium pieces. The cheesecake was only about an inch tall after it cooled (it was probably 2-3 inches tall in the hot oven), so adding more cream cheese and sour cream might make it a better (bigger) size and still not make it burst over the top of the pan while cooking.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Corn tortillas

In the past I've been a (wheat) flour tortilla kind of girl. At a Mexican restaurant, I would never order corn tortillas (except in fried form, of course). Flour tortillas were also better at home, too. Corn tortillas were dry and coarse, while flour tortillas were light and fluffy and delicious. This was perhaps influenced by my dad's house's preference for white bread and the like, but even as recently as last year, I still preferred wheat to corn tortillas, though I would now go for a whole wheat tortilla and scoff at a white one.

The only use I had for corn tortillas was enchiladas, where they performed much
better than wheat tortillas. Corn tortillas don't absorb water like wheat tortillas and thus don't turn into a sticky wet-bread mess in the middle of your tasty enchiladas. This, in fact, was the inspiration for my new-found change of heart. I was making enchiladas for the husband's birthday (a week before the party, partly as a test run and partly because I like to indulge any specific food requests he makes), and wanted to try making my own tortillas for it, at least one time. It was then that I found out - Corn tortillas can be awesome!

I bought a bag of corn tortilla mix at the store, which contains corn meal and lime. You add salt and water (don't forget the salt, or else blech!), according to the bag instructions. You divide the resulting dough into an appropriate number of pieces (2 c flour = 16 tortillas), and roll the pieces into little balls. Then you take each ball and shape it into a tortilla.

The easy way is to use a tortilla press. Lacking this, as I did, you can use a rolling pin, but it's a little tricky to figure out how to roll it into something approximately round and not full of cracks. My first roll-outs looked like Gondwanaland. The next phase resembled Australia, which seemed like an improvement at the time. Eventually, 32 tortillas later, they got a little more uniform. An important factor in the whole process - the pre-tortilla sticks to EVERYTHING except heavy plastic. Like ziploc bag thickness plastic. Finally, a use for all those ziploc bags we save! Also, do not make more tortillas than you can lay out onto pieces of plastic, because they stick to things or to each other, and will not let go without some disintegration, and then it's back to the pin for reshaping!

Regardless of the shape, though, the cooking process is simple. Use whatever pan you use for pancakes, and cook the tortilla about a minute on each side, or until it browns a bit. They don't take long to cook, and as the first side cooks, the whole thing will curl up a little bit. It might be necessary to use a spatula to mash them down in the middle once you flip them, so they get a bit flatter.

Serve with butter, or make into your favorite dish. You could probably even fry them into chips or tostada shells, if you were so inclined and didn't have a hatred of frying like I do.

Once cooked, they supposedly can keep for a week if wrapped up in the refrigerator.

Preserved Lemon Chicken

I made preserved lemons a while back, and didn't know what to do with them. I asked an internet buddy and she provided the inspiration for this dish. The lemons themselves are prepared by basically cutting lemons into almost-wedges, stuffing them with salt and letting them sit for a month in the refrigerator. However, the end result is a little creepy - slimy and strange, and the fact that they sat in the refrigerator for so long was a little fear-inspiring together with the slime, so I felt that they had to be cooked. This dish worked really well for that, because if the lemons acquired a bacterial population, I'm sure I burned it up in the oven!

Take the preserved lemons and chop them up in the food processor. I skipped a critical step here, I realized, after eating the finished dish. First RINSE the lemons to get some small amount of their dense salt saturation out of them. THEN chop in the processor and use as a marinade.

So, taking the chopped lemons, add them to some bone-in chicken thighs in a shallow pan that you can cover and bake for an hour or so. Smear the lemon bits on the chicken, leave some chunks on the side of the meat, and add garlic and olives. The garlic could be in whole clove form, but in this case, I used olives that were combined with garlic from the store (Central Market). Add some seasoning - coriander, cumin, chipotle powder. Not too much of any of these - the flavor is supposed to come from the chicken and the lemons and garlic, not from the spices so much. They're supposed to make the flavor more complex and deep, not drive the whole thing into Spiceville. Cover and bake at 300-350F until the thighs have reached an appropriate internal temperature - 180F? - then remove the cover and broil to make the skin a little crunchy.

Serve with couscous or rice or pasta, by pulling the meat off the bones and chopping up a little bit with your fork or serving spoon. You could go even the extra mile and use a cutting board so the whole thing ends up a little more even and chopped, and in that case I'd chop the olives as well. I actually enjoyed the variety of piece sizes, though, from the simpler option. Except - watch out for cartilage! Don't eat it, or serve it if you can help it!

On the same day I marinated some shrimp with the preserved-lemon spread, with garlic, pepper and salt, but again, this suffered terribly from the oversalty lemons. I sauteed the shrimps and marinade after they sat for an hour or so in the refrigerator. When I ate the first one, I was shocked at the saltiness. Blech! I rinsed one shrimp off in the sink and ate it, and yep, Still Salty.

One more jar of the lemons to go, and I'll know better this time - new culinary heights will be reached....


I've made what the husband calls "Dirty Span" many times. It's been fairly good before, but not great. Too much egg and cheese, not enough egg and cheese, problems with the phyllo making it tough to cut and eat, or not enough salt. This time I think I got it down. The filling is moist and full of fresh spinach and salty feta. The phyllo is light and crunchy, and cutting everything to pieces before baking made a big difference. Next time I want to make the dirty span', this is it.

  • A ton of spinach, chopped into small pieces, and cooked in the microwave until wilted (don't overcook!)
  • One bunch of green onions, sliced, and cooked with the spinach
  • Feta - 4 cubic inches - crumbled
  • 8 oz cream cheese (neufchatel)
  • Phyllo dough - thawed
  • Salt (1/4-1/2 t), pepper (freshly ground, 1/4 t?), oregano (1/2 t), dill (1/4-1/2 t) (alter as you like. Don't put too much dill or it will probably taste weird.
  • 1 t minced garlic
  • 3 eggs
  • olive oil
Thaw the phyllo dough. Allow time for this, and don't try to rush it too much!

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Mix the cheeses, eggs and spices in stand mixer. Add this to the cooked spinach and green onions once they've cooled a bit. Brush oil on the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan (or thereabouts - a tall-sided large cookie sheet would work as well). Layer in some phyllo dough, with oil brushed on between every few layers. Spread the spinach mixture onto the phyllo, and spread til even. Add more layers of phyllo, brushing with oil as before. Cut into serving pieces (squares, triangles) before baking, making sure to get all the way to the bottom.

Bake about 45-60 minutes. Done when the crust is browned lightly, and the filling is not too wet (basically, make sure the eggs are done). Slightly easier to serve once it has cooled a bit.

Preparation time - about 30 minutes? Baking time around 60 minutes. Altogether, not a weeknight meal, but good when there's time to wait for things to bake. Also, the filling could probably be prepared in advance a day or two, and baked early on the day of an event, just warmed in the oven.