Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Adventures in Traveling: Easy Enchilada Casserole and Mexican Rice

Since I'm getting ready to jump on a plane for a food related adventure (story to come), I thought this a good time to republish one of my favorite posts from a couple of years ago that hardly anyone read, but that I really like.  For the handful of you that have seen this before, I hope you'll bear with me.  For those of you who didn't see it the first time, please enjoy.

Now, I make it no secret that I love being a mother; so far it has been the best part of my life.  I am just one of those people that loves being needed but, slowly I am being nudged out of my children’s lives.  My son is a big fellow now who can cut his own meat and pick out his own clothes.  My daughter now lives at university and actually requests vegetables for supper on her visits home.  If that’s not a sign of maturity I don’t know what is.

My previously mentioned, beautiful, all grown-up daughter is in New York this weekend to attend a ball with her new boyfriend in honor of third year West Point cadets.  I’m sure I drove her crazy helping her pack and giving her endless instructions on what to do in the unlikely event that the worst case scenario came to fruition.

I was worrying because, for the past eighteen years, during all of her pretty extensive travels, she has had her own personal concierge traveling with her.  Not this time though, my personal assistance expertise was not needed or invited.  She was going it alone.

Bless her, she rolled her eyes only slightly and smiled sweetly at me as she headed toward the security queue.  You see, I was that silly woman that you sometimes see on the sidelines blowing kisses, ringing her hands and pretty much hovering as usual.  I was comforted a bit because she was armed with two well packed carry-on bags that had my personal stamp of approval, and orders to text me as soon as she reached her gate so I could give her, her next set of instructions.

She did as she was told and was finally given permission to board her plane and head off to New York City and the handsome young cadet waiting there for her.  She sent me a message as soon as she met her date and they boarded their train enroute to their final destination and a blissful, motherless weekend of socializing.  I was now finally able to relax, figuring that West Point doesn’t maintain its sterling reputation by losing pretty young coeds who had come to visit for the weekend.  Ahhh, chardonnay time. But wait! Not so fast!

The next phone call I received wasn’t one that I had requested or would have even wanted if I had known what trouble awaited me.  The shaky little voice on the other end was my daughter informing me that she had left her bag with all of her clothing for the weekend in the overhead compartment of the train that was now on its way to parts unknown.  Ugh! Now, as bad as this was, there was an upside.  Since the missing bag was stuffed with necessities for the weekend, we thankfully had packed the expensive, borrowed ball gown in the bag that she had with her.  We can work with this, I thought.

To make a very long story short, instead of dining with friends at the Westchester Country Club, the two of them spent their first evening together driving through Connecticut, chasing a commuter train to it’s termination point, only to find out that the bag was either taken (and now being enjoyed by a very petite, smartly dressed thief) or rescued by the rail line personnel and safely locked up in lost and found until Monday between the hours of 16.00 – 18.00 (how generous). 

In any case, she not only faced wearing the same clothing for the remainder of the weekend but also sporting furry black boots with her ball gown.  Like the millions before her who have faced this problem, she made the pilgrimage to the nearest Target and purchased a skeleton crew of inexpensive necessities.  Oh, by the way, she was able to find a pair of brown satin shoes that “worked” with her dress for the ball.  If she ever questioned her faith, this is certainly proof that there is a God and she must be female.

During one of my heartsick calls to her, my sister assured me that my daughter’s well trained soldier date could certainly help her survive a weekend in the wilderness much less one without matching shoes or clean panties.  Poor fellow, in my opinion, even the army couldn’t possibly prepare him for this catastrophe.  My heart really bled for this innocent young man who was raised with only brothers and trained by the military, trying to comfort her.  If their relationship survives this weekend, it is meant to be.

My little road warrior arrives home tonight, a bit battered but hopefully no worse for the wear.  Even if she doesn’t get her bag back, she will soon forget the adorable clothes that she lost and remember the valuable lessons she learned.  Keep a pair of clean underwear in your handbag and now that you have made your personal concierge redundant, it is all up to you to have a successful and drama free trip. 

Maybe she will now appreciate how effortless I made it all look.  By the way, I learned my own lesson in Amsterdam, when I set my purse down in the wrong place only to have it snatched up by a sorry low down dirty thief, who will most certainly burn in hell for all eternity, and who benefited greatly by my carelessness.  As you can see, I wasn’t born knowing it all either.

When she arrives home, I’ll do what I do best and comfort her with her favorite food and an abundance of clean, smart clothing in her size.  Since she loves Mexican food, I’m planning on a full scale Tex-Mex fiesta with two of her favorites that will hopefully make her feel much better.  All of this has made me realize that while I may have lost my job as her personal concierge, I’ll always be her mom.

Easy Enchilada Casserole

 As you will see as you read this recipe it was written for a 9 x 9" pan but as you can also see by my photos, it can easily be increased by doubling the recipe or increasing the ingredients by 50% and using a 9 x 13" pan.  It is easy and versatile. 

3 tablespoons oil

½ small onion, finely diced (optional)

1 large clove garlic, crushed

2/3 pound ground beef, ground turkey or veggie crumbles

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 cups chicken broth

4 teaspoons mild chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon coriander

2/3 cup half and half

Salt and pepper to taste

8 yellow or white corn tortillas, cut into quarters

2 cups shredded cheddar or Mexican blend cheese

 Additional chopped onions, cilantro, pico de gallo and/or sour cream to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat oil in medium size non-stick frying pan over medium high heat; add diced onions to hot oil and sauté until onions start to soften, approximately 5 minutes.

Add crushed garlic and sauté for 1 minute longer.

Add ground meat and chop up with spoon or spatula; cook until browned, approximately 5 minutes.

Add the flour and stir to completely coat the cooked meat.

While stirring, add the chicken broth.  Stir until the mixture comes to a boil and starts to thicken. 

Add the chili powder, cumin and coriander, stir.  Add the half and half, stir to incorporate; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place a ½ cup or so of the sauce mixture in the bottom of an 8x8” baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

Cover the bottom with a layer of tortilla quarters then top with 1/3 of the remaining sauce then 1/3 of the cheese.  Repeat layers until all of the ingredients are used ending with the cheese.

Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake for 30 - 35 minutes covering with aluminum foil if top begins to brown too much.  Check the centre to make sure it is hot all the way through.

Remove from the oven and cool for approximately 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 4 – 6 people

Tex-Mex Rice

I was cooking for a picky crowd the night I photographed this rice and omitted the vegetables, cilantro and lime zest.  If you are serving a more adventurous crowd I encourage you to stir in everything for a really delicious side.

2 - 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon mild chili powder

1/2 cup frozen vegetable mix (peas, carrots and corn), optional

1 cup rice (white or brown)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro, optional

1/4 teaspoon lime zest, optional

In a small sauce pan, bring broth, garlic powder and chili powder to a boil; stir in rice and frozen vegetables if using, reduce heat to low.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until rice is tender and water is absorbed.

Serve or stir in cilantro and zest if using them,  serve while warm. 

Serves 6

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Very Dark Night

For the past couple of days I have been debating on whether or not I should write anything about the horrific theater shooting in Aurora or just leave my feelings unsaid.  Being a Denver area resident and a mother whose daughter was at a different midnight showing of Batman that night, this just hit a little too close to home to remain silent. 

Even though I try to keep this a light and cheerful site that is always politically neutral and mostly untouched by controversy and tragedy, sometimes the gravity of reality seeps in.   I also always pair every post with a recipe, but there is no way I can tie any food reference or recipe to this post today.  Unfortunately there is no cupcake or pot roast, no matter how good that will make this one any better.

As I watch the endless news coverage my heart breaks to see the faces of the young victims whose lives came to an early end just going to see a midnight movie.  Madness.  I am so thankful that I can only imagine the sorrow and grief that is being felt today by the parents and loved ones of the twelve precious souls that were lost in that theater.   My children are safe in their beds this morning and it is times like these that I am reminded of what a precious gift that is.

Thirteen years ago another senseless shooting took place here in Colorado at Columbine High School.  Time has helped everyone move on a bit, but that tragedy is always just under the surface.  Now this incident has opened that old wound back up and the inevitable question of “why” is being asked once again and once again, for now at least, there is no answer.

Maybe someday we will figure out what causes some people to feel the need to hurt others, but I’m afraid that I don’t have much faith in that happening anytime soon.  History has shown that there will always be people who are angry or ill and feel actions like this will make them feel better.  I really don’t know how you eradicate that, but I do take great comfort in the belief that most of us are basically good.

Today I think I'll turn off the news and take a walk on my favorite trail and remember what a beautiful place this is to live in.  I’ll do my best to be kind and tolerant to the people I come in contact with and relish it when they are kind to me.  I just can’t help but think that this is the best way to honor those that have been lost to senseless violence and support the people who mourn them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

National Ice Cream Month with Blue Bell, a Brandy Alexander and a Dreamsicle

We Texas natives are just a bunch of braggarts and we know it.  We have definitely come by that name honestly because we do brag a lot, but let’s face it we have a lot to brag about.  We brew great beer; have beautiful highways, rich history, good music and some delicious food. 

When we moved to Colorado almost 10 years ago we came to the conclusion that we were just going to have to adapt our tastes to the local color and bloom where we were planted.  I am so happy to say that along the way we have managed to find some pretty good Tex-Mex and some outstanding beer around here too. By the same token we figured that there were some things that we would just have to enjoy during our visits home like great barbeque and my beloved Blue Bell Ice Cream.  Then a miracle happened. 

A year ago March 14th my daughter breathlessly called me to tell me she had either had a hallucination in King Soopers or they were now carrying Blue Bell ice cream.  I remembered that my husband had said he had seen a Blue Bell truck one day, but we laughed it off thinking that the poor driver must have taken a wrong turn in Dallas and landed up here.

Wanting to see it for myself, I put on my shoes and headed down to our local store.  Sure enough, there it was in all its glory, rows upon rows of brightly colored round gold and brown rimmed containers teasing me with their country chic names like Peaches and Cream, Banana Split and Homemade Vanilla.  Be still my foolish heart.

With trembling hands I reached for one of my favorites, Pistachio Almond and placed it in my shopping cart.  I pulled away from the ice cream section carefully zigzagging my way through the other people (obviously Texans by looks of their glazed over eyes and gaping mouths) that had gathered around the foggy glass doors in front of the Blue Bell display.  Thinking better of leaving with just one flavor, I turned around  and picked up a half gallon of Natural Vanilla Bean just in case Blue Bell changed their minds and took their ice cream and headed back to Texas.  Well, it’s been over a year now and I am happy to say that you can find Blue Bell in most every grocery store in the Denver metro area. 

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Blue Bell, the company began in 1907 in the town of Brenham, Texas.  Originally, the company started out churning butter using cream that was collected from local farmers.  On occasion when there was leftover cream the butter maker would set about the task of making ice cream in a hand crank freezer which was then sold to a few lucky families close to the creamery.  This new product soon became popular and in 1911 the company began producing it regularly on a larger scale, and the rest as they say is history.

You can now find Blue Bell ice cream in 18 states.  They are the number three blended ice cream manufacturer in America.  They proudly make all of their own mixings that go into their ice cream.  They also source all of their fruits locally so they are used at their peak of freshness.  After all these years they are still family owned, employing 3,000 people nationwide and 70 of those are here in Colorado.

 A couple of weeks ago I went with Barb of Creative Culinary and Lea Ann from Cooking on the Ranch to the Blue Bell distribution center in our area for an ice cream tasting and a tour of their facility (to see their take on this day and their recipes, please click on their links above).  I know, I know, tough job but someone has to do it.   Branch Manager, Kevin McDevitt treated us to several of their ice cream and novelty flavors.  Some were old favorites of mine and some were new ones like Red Velvet Cake, Blackberry Cobbler and the most surprising of all their Sour Apple novelty bars that really had me wanting to take the whole box home.

My daughter's personal favorite flavor

The banana pops are a surprising 50 calories
Ice cream should be tempered before eating.  To achieve optimum flavor, leave your ice cream at room temperature for a few minutes to soften a bit before scooping it up.

I feel safe to say that Blue Bell's storage facility is the coldest place in Colorado in the summer.

Blue Bell ice cream is stored and transported upside down so that the ice cream inside can be clearly seen through the window on the lid.

Blue Bell's motto "We eat all we can and sell the rest" is obviously something that they aren't joking about by the looks of their breakroom.  I wonder if they have any job openings.

Since July is national ice cream month we thought that this would be the perfect time to experiment with some of the ice cream that Blue Bell was kind enough to send us home with.  It has been really hard deciding what ice cream to use.  I considered a Grasshopper Pie made from their creamy mint chocolate chip.  I also thought about making ice cream bon bons with their newest flavor,  Summer Strawberry Pie, but kept coming back to two of my favorite after dinner ice cream drinks, Brandy Alexander and the always tempting Dreamsicle.

Since both of these drinks are cold and rich they are the perfect super simple summer barbeque dessert.  With just a very few ingredients and five minutes with a blender you will have a new way to treat your diners to an after dinner sweet treat.


Many people use vodka and triple sec in their recipes but I find them a bit too alcoholic for my taste.  I think this concoction is just right.

3 large scoops Blue Bell Natural Vanilla Bean ice cream

4 ounces orange juice

1-1/2 ounces Amaretto

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a blender and blend for 10 seconds until smooth and creamy.  Serve in a wine glass with an orange twist and a straw.

Makes 2

Brandy Alexander

Bartenders and purists will notice that this is not the original recipe for the classic drink originally just known as an Alexander which consists of gin, cream de cacao and cream.  Personally I think this version is much better.

2 large scoops Blue Bell Natural Vanilla Bean ice cream

1 – 1/2 ounces brandy

1 ounce dark crème de cacao

1 tablespoon chocolate syrup

Grated chocolate or a sprinkling of nutmeg to garnish

Place the ice cream, brandy, crème de cacao and chocolate syrup in the bowl of a blender and blend for 10 seconds until smooth and creamy.  Pour into martini glasses, garnish and serve.

Makes 2   

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Simple French Dessert Everyone Will Love: Far Breton

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to do any more cherry recipes for a while, and here I am posting another, but I really do have a good excuse.  It started out that I was going to make a traditional recipe from France’s Brittany coast that I have only had a couple of times but it left quite an impression on my palate.  This dessert known as Far Breton is a simple little cake with a custardy texture dotted with plump prunes.  Now I say that I really like it, but I also pick out most of the prunes and eat cake that surrounds them, so that’s where the cherries come in.

I really wanted to make a truly authentic cake,  so I went out and purchased the plumpest and most moist prunes I could find.  I placed the package on the counter and for a couple of days I would pick it up and look it over promising myself that I was going to make this prune cake and love it.  Well, I just couldn’t do it.  I did taste one of the prunes thinking that maybe over the years my tastes have changed and I might like them, but nope, no luck.  
Seeing that I just don’t like prunes enough to invest 3 eggs, 2 cups of milk and 3 hours into them I fell back on my old favorite cherries.  Now I know that this makes this cake more of a clafoutis, but my cherries are just a substitution, so please feel free to go back to prunes if you like them.  I have also seen versions with apples, pears and peaches.

This cake is pleasantly sweet and has a dense texture that makes it quite portable and perfect for a picnic or potluck.  I’ve read that some people think it is best after it has cooled on the same day it is made instead of leftover from the fridge the day after.  I like it both ways but do enjoy it the most at room temperature.   In France they enjoy this with a glass of sparkling cider, so for an authentic experience you might want to give this a try, but personally I am partial to a cup of Lady Grey.

This is a very easy recipe to make and very rewarding to serve, so next time you are looking for something rustic yet elegant, Far Breton is what you are looking for.  And the best thing of all my high altitude friends?  I made no adjustment whatsoever and look how beautifully it turned out.

Far Breton

When searching for a Far Breton base recipe I read over several.  They all seemed to be very similar, but the one I chose as my frame of reference comes from Epicurious (for their full recipe click here) because it seemed to be the size I was looking for.  When I started mixing it up I found that not only was it the perfect size, but it was super easy and all the ingredients were something that can usually be found in a well-stocked kitchen.   I have taken a few minor liberties with the recipe to help it conform a bit better to my personal tastes and just to make it a bit easier to prepare.

I have also included both Epicurious’ method and my adjustments so you can choose how you want to make yours.  I think that either way you will find the results to be outstanding.  This one’s a real keeper.

3 ounces of dried cherries (or 4 ounces of plump and juicy prunes)

1 cup of weakly brewed tea (or 1/4 cup brandy or other liqueur)

1 cup whole milk, room temperature

1 cup half and half, room temperature

3 whole eggs, room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled, plus a bit more for greasing baking dish

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus a couple of tablespoons extra to dust the fruit and the baking dish

Powdered sugar to garnish

Place cherries or prunes in a medium size bowl.  Pour liquid over, stir and cover; set aside.

Combine milks, eggs, granulated sugar, butter, vanilla, salt and flour in the bowl of a blender and blend for 1 minute or beat like the dickens with a balloon whisk; cover and set aside in the refrigerator for at least one hour but up to overnight.

*The recipe from Epicurious called to it to sit for 3 hours, but I got great results letting mine sit for just one hour.

If you are using prunes follow these Epicurious directions:

Combine prunes, 1/2 cup water, and raisins in heavy small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until fruit is softened and water is almost evaporated, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat. Pour brandy over fruit. Using long match, ignite brandy. Let flames burn off, shaking pan occasionally. Transfer fruit to small bowl. Cool completely. This can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and let stand at room temperature.

*For my cherries I just poured the cherries in a medium size bowl and poured hot tea over the top and let them steep until the tea cooled completely.  I then drained them just a couple of minutes before dusting them in flour to keep them from sinking to the bottom of the batter when they were added. 

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. Butter 8-inch-diameter cake pan with 2-inch-high sides. Line bottom with parchment or waxed paper. Butter paper. Dust pan with flour, shaking out excess; place on baking sheet.  

 *When I made mine I was running low on butter so I used Baker’s Joy (an oil and flour aerosol), to spray the pan.  I then lined the bottom of the pan with parchment and sprayed it.  This worked great.

Re-blend batter until smooth, about 5 seconds. Pour into prepared cake pan. Drop cherries or prunes into batter, distributing evenly. Bake cake on baking sheet until sides are puffed and brown and knife inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool cake completely in pan on rack.  

*I found this step worked best when I removed it from the fridge for half an hour or so to let it warm just a bit before re-blending the batter.

Place piece of parchment or waxed paper on flat plate. Sift powdered sugar onto paper. Run knife around cake in pan to loosen. Invert pan onto paper, releasing cake. Remove pan; peel off paper. Place serving plate over cake and invert. Dust top of cake with additional powdered sugar.

*When my cake was cool I ran a knife around the edge before inverting it on a dinner plate.  I then peeled the parchment off of the bottom and inverted it once again on a second plate before dusting the top with a couple of tablespoons of powdered sugar.

This serves 6 - 8

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th of July with a Cherry Limeade "Skinny-tini"

I don’t do many cocktails on here, not because I don’t like ‘em, but because I just never think about doing them until I’m drinking them and then I forget what I put in them afterward.  Well, this time I knew that I had to pass this one on so I wrote down the ingredients before I had my second one.

I started out with my own homemade cherry vodka that I made in a panic one night when I noticed that the $4.99 a pound cherries that I had forgotten about in the fridge either needed to be used or thrown out.  I quickly pitted them and cut them in half.  I threw the halves in a quart jar and then filled it to the brim with some vodka, sealed it tightly and stuck it in a dark place.  I shook the jar around whenever I thought about it and six weeks later I strained it and voila!  Cherry vodka.

I thought that the 4th of July was the perfect day to celebrate with a cocktail for my blog.  Since it has been so hot an “ade” of some sort seemed perfect, and since Iimes were on sale, limeade won out.  I mixed it together using fresh lime juice and light agave nectar instead of making simple syrup with sugar and water. 

I used agave because it I look upon it as nature’s simple syrup.  Not only is it already in liquid form, but agave nectar has a low glycemic index which means your body processes it slower than sugar avoiding any sugar rush.  Even though it has just about the same amount of calories as sugar it is about 25% sweeter, so you can use less of it.  I guess you could say this is kind of my homemade version of a “SkinnyGirl” cocktail.

Cherry Limeade Skinny-tini

3 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice, strained of pulp if desired

3 ounces cherry vodka

1 - 3 tablespoons light agave nectar (I like the max amount, but this is really a matter of taste)

3 ounces club soda

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake.  Pour into 2 chilled martini glasses and garnish with a cherry or lime wedge.  Serve immediately. 

Makes 2 martinis or . . .

one large martini on the rocks by the pool.