True Confessions of a Mid-Life Cook

There's a definite correlation between my profound love of music and how and what I've taught myself to cook. My favorite music to listen to and to perform is soulful, sensual, sometimes funky and always bluesy in nature . . . and that's exactly how I cook. I like to get my hands in the food. I chop, I knead, I stir with my hands. Sometimes I wear my big rimmed cowboy hat, nightie and Old Gringo boots in kitchen, sometimes a coonskin cap when the mood strikes and sometimes just an apron and a smile. Using the freshest of ingredients, I love to bringing a new spirit to old favorites. I am so to drawn dishes seeping in both Texas and Southern tradition,with a special affinity for those authentic old jewels found in South Louisiana.
Because they, too, are so powerfully soulful?

I've discovered being a good cook is a journey and not a destination. (Yes, I stole an over-used corporate slogan and made it my own--but it's still the truth) Every time we screw up, we learn. And in part, that's what this blog is about. Cooking fearlessly. With heart, with soul -- and with some damn good music to inspire. (If your three layer chocolate cake ends up looking like a Jerry Springer rerun or you cut the tip of your thumb off while making New Year's Day gumbo, WHO CARES?Proclaim Francine Reed's "I'm a Handful" your theme song. She would like that.)
We cook because we find ourselves kinda empty if we don't.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Banana Nut Bread is All Sauced Up

This morning I noticed I had three bananas that were quickly reaching their ripening peak and I knew I would either have to make banana bread or throw them out. Well, I opted to make banana bread because I hate  throwing out black bananas. (They're PERFECT for baking.) And it's quick. And it's easy. And I had walnuts on hand (although I prefer pecans) which is most unusual. I won't make banana bread if I don't have pecans or walnuts so I decided that this was a sign from God to move forward.

Today, I'm also using Frangelico. I always use some type of liquor or liquer with this quickbread -- whether it be Frangelico, Amaretto, brandy, coconut rum or bourbon (I've even used Southern Comfort) -- because it adds depth to the flavor and ensures that it's ultra-moist without anyone knowing it's in there.

And when I have it, I'll throw in some coconut.  But today I don't so I won't.

I read somewhere that banana bread originated in the depression era at the time baking soda became a staple in America's kitchens.  It was economical, required little skill and was insanely good.  Some 80 years later, it's just as popular for the same reasons. 

10 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup or a little more of mashed ripe banana (about 3 med) with 2 tablespoons of Frangelico liqueur (or most any hard spirit you have on hand -- see above for ideas) stirred in
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs (room temp) whisked
2 cups cake flour
3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
A little cinnamon, nutmeg and/or cloves (optional)
1 cup TOASTED pecans or walnuts (yes, toast them, it makes the world of difference - 400 degree oven on greased cookie sheet - 5 to 7 minutes, stirring once. Watch carefully - don't burn. I've burned them sooo many times!)

Preheat oven to 350
Lightly grease 9 1/4 by 5 1/4 by 2 1/2-inch loaf pan with a little butter, set aside

Combine whisked eggs, mashed banana, sour cream and vanilla in a med bowl and mix well. (Some recipes suggest putting these ingredients into a food processor and process until smooth, and you certainly can do just that.  But I don't.   I like the occasional small chunk of banana in the bread.)

Sift dry ingredients into large bowl, stirring to mix.  Add butter and mix with electric mixer (med speed) until well blended, about 30 seconds.  Add banana mixture in three batches, scraping the sides of the bowl and mixing thoroughly each time.  Fold in pecans, or in my case today, walnuts.

Pour into loaf pan and bake until lightly browned, about an hour and 10 minutes.

Let cool 10 minutes before turning onto wire rack to cool completely.

Today's suggested listening is inspired by flies being in my kitchen (can't you hear 'em they're buzzin') this morning (it's SPRING!!) - and the fact that banana bread reminds me of both my mom and my Nana -- both being 'another child that's grown old.'  And I'm well on my way. :)

Bonnie Raitt's take on the John Prine classic, 'Angel from Montgomery'

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Buttermilk Cornmeal Pie with a key lime kick

I decided to bake a buttermilk pie today  because, well,  I had some buttermilk. And then I decided to add cornmeal to it to 'chess' it up a bit because I like the top 'crust' that the cornmeal naturally creates. 

I prefer a little tartness that lemons usually bring to this pie, but my Dillon isn't much for lemons and besides, I didn't have any.  But I did have a lime, so I thought 'why not.'  It dawned on me that we had some KeKe Beach Key Lime Creme Liqueur in the refrigerator that might make an interesting addition so I worked that in as well.  

The end result was no less than wonderful.  My husband, who is now beginning to understand just what a blog is, and has actually read parts of this one, said, "Take a picture of that damn pie."  In other words, it was blog worthy in his opinion.  So I did.  And here you go.

First make your favorite single 8" pie crust and bake it for about 8 minutes in a 425 oven. Set aside to let cool.

Set oven temp to 350

2 cups sugar
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
4 eggs, well beaten until light in color
1/2 stick butter melted and cooled
Juice and zest of one lime
1/2 cup buttermilk well shaken
1/2 cup KeKe Beach Key Lime Creme Liqueur


Mix dry ingredients in large bowl
Stir in melted butter
Stir in beaten eggs and add buttermilk slowly 
and then liqueur 
and stir until thoroughly mixed. 
Then stir in the fresh lime juice and zest and mix.
Pour over pie crust and  place in 350 degree oven for about 40 to 45 minutes until nicely browned

Let cool at least half an hour before serving. 

Note:  I continue to be very pleased with my little Canon PowerShot A1100IS.  The KeKe Beach bottle looks like it's suspended in air kind of, doesn't it?

Coconut by Harry Nilsson 

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Macaroni and cheese with crunchy panko topping

This rainy and cold day (so rudely interrupting a glorious spring break in West Texas,) demands a little taste of comfort to help my crew forgive and even possibly forget Mama Nature's latest little joke.  And when I turn to comfort food, its usually in the form of macaroni and cheese because it's a crowd-pleaser. It can hold it's own as a main course when paired with a green salad.  And it makes my eyes roll back in my head, warming my soul.

This is a such versatile dish with so many interesting selections of cheeses and spices from which to choose.  Today I'm using white Cheddar, Romano and Asiago cheeses because they are just the best when combined with the wonderfully crunchy panko topping (Japanese bread crumbs - don't worry, your larger grocery chain will have it.)

1 tablespoon seasalt
Chicken stock
1 lb elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons butter (3/4 stick)
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound white cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz Romano cheese, shredded
4 oz Asiago cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups panko

Preheat oven to 325
Bring large pot of chicken stock to boil over high heat, add the mac and cook stirring some, until al dente, 7 to 8 minutes. Drain.

Melt butter in large saucepan over med heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and cook whisking continuously about 3-4  minutes (you're making a blond roux.) Add milk and whisk away until the sauce is thick and bubbly.  Add heavy cream, all three cheeses and the salt & pepper. Cook, stirring until cheeses are melted completely.

Add the macaroni to the cheese mixture and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a buttered 9x13-in baking dish and top with the panko crumbs.  Bake until hot and golden, about 15 to 20 minutes.I always broil for about 2 minutes to get the panko crumbs nice and brown.

Thoughts on variations:  My kids are somewhat mac-n-cheese purists and have only recently accepted the panko so if I'm cooking with them in mind, I keep it simple.  However, you can see where the sky is the limit on variations.  A few ideas:
  • Top with bacon crumbs and chopped sweet onion after baking
  • Stir in carmelized onion before baking
  • Add Italian spices to your cheese mixture and maybe a little cooked Italian sausage
  • Top with pulverized cheddar Gold Fish crackers before baking
  • Top with buttered bread crumbs, fresh Parmesan before baking
  • Add Albacore tuna and tarragon to the cheese mixture
  • Stir in a  touch of chorizo sausage and chopped cilantro
  • Add cooked CRAWFISH TAILS and a little cayenne or Zatarains seasoning or both!
Once you've made your own mac and cheese from scratch, it's doubtful that you'll go back to those Kraft boxes. I'm sitting here typing this watching one of my fourteen year olds in the kitchen sneaking more bites, after devouring a plateful just minutes ago.  His eyes are rolling back in his head, too . . .although he'd never admit it.

Note on reheating:  This recipe makes a bunch of macaroni and cheese.  Tonight I reheated a little of the leftovers  in a small Pyrex dish  when I was oven frying some fish in a hot oven (about 425) for 20 minutes.
This temp browned the bottom adding yet even more crunch to the panko that had settled and didn't dry it out.  Even BETTER the second time around.

Suggested listening:  ". . .like a school girl waiting for the spring."  That's me today.  Norah Jone's "Turn Me On."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chicken flautas with citrus slaw and spicy avocado creme

I remember eating flautas as a small child at the El Chicos in Longview, Texas on Hwy. 80 about every other weekend. (Flautas and those to-die-for hot pickled onions from the relish dish.)    I loved everything about flautas.  I especially loved to order them just to hear myself say 'flautas' out loud. Quite melodic, don't you think? -- (which is appropriate because flautas translated into English means 'flute.')
Fast forward thirty-five years and my love affair with flautas hasn't changed much.  Although they are referred to as tapatios at times and some are made with *gasp* flour tortillas instead of corn, MY definition of flautas is corn tortillas stuffed with a seasoned, shredded meat - beef, chicken or pork- rolled tightly and fried to a brown, crispy heavenly flute.

In San Angelo, Texas, flautas/tapitios are served with cabbage piled on top and at my favorite neighborhood little Mexican hole-in-the-wall, they add this incredible tomatillo/avocado/jalapeno/cilantro creme over the flautas and lemon slices on the side.  OMG, OMG, OMG - I can't get enough of it.

Last night, I attempted this dish at home for the first time, tweaked it a little to make it my own, and had exceptional results.  Heads up:  This isn't something that you can just 'throw' together - it takes a little time and can be somewhat messy.  But the end result is very impressive. (I would have taken a picture of the completed plate but my camera's batteries ran out of juice.Yes, I said damnit. At least three times.)

Also, when I cook, I seldom go by a recipe, unless I'm baking, so I'm not good at recording exact measurements, especially with this dish.  But I'll give you what I can and trust that you can eyeball and taste your way through whatever you need to.

Chicken breasts - enough to make a couple of cups of shredded chicken
3 Ancho chilis,  (these are dried poblanos and although they are optional, they add such a flavor to the chicken)
Small package of white or yellow corn tortillas - I use white for no specific reason
Oil for softening  tortillas and oil for frying

First cook the chicken slowly in liquid for about 2 hours so that it shreds easily. I cooked them in a large, deep skillet last night on the stovetop. I quartered my breasts, poured a stout beer over them with  some water, added those delightful ancho chilis, covered and let them slowly cook, adding a little water as needed.

While your chicken is cooking, prepare your spicy avocado creme.
Take one ripe avocado, cilantro to taste, jalapeno to taste, (I used 3 UNseeded) a dollop of fresh sour cream, 4 tomatillos, and blend in food processor or blender until smooth. Add buttermilk and keep blending until the consistency is that of a relatively thick salad dressing.  Add a little garlic powder and  sea salt to taste and blend again.

At this time you can also get your slaw ready to go.  This is SIMPLE but you don't want to add your dressing until the last second to keep cabbage super crisp.  In a large mixing bowl add a package of shredded slaw and one med sweet onion, chopped.  In a cup mix the juice of 2 lemons, 1 lime, a teaspoon of sugar, two teaspoons of black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt.  Set aside.

Take out your ancho chilis, seed and peel off clear coating.  Chop and return to cooking chicken.

When chicken is tender, remove and shred with fork or chop up with knife and place in medium bowl.
Add garlic, cumin powder, chili powder, sea salt and black pepper to taste. Also add the cooked chilis and a little of the DELICIOUS pan juices to moisten the chicken.

Now here comes the messy part.  I have found NO other method of softening corn tortillas as effective as heating them quickly in hot oil. So, in one skillet, heat about a 1/4 inch oil on medium heat for softening tortillas. In another skillet, begin heating 1/2 oil over medium/high heat for frying the flautas.

Quickly add tortillas, one at a time, to med hot oil leaving only a second, GENTLY turn over with tongs for another second and GENTLY remove and let drain on paper towels in a tortilla warmer if you have one. If not, a large deep bowl will do to keep warm.  12 tortillas should be plenty for two people.

Using an oven mitt or  some paper towels, (the tortillas will be HOT), take each tortilla, add a heaping tablespoon of the chicken mixture to the side and roll tightly, securing with a tooth pick.  Add to hot oil, no more than three at a time. Fry until light golden brown on the bottom, then turn until the other side is lightly browned.  Watch carefully because they will brown quickly if your oil is hot enough.   Drain on paper towels.And yes, at some point you will need to remove the toothpicks.

Pour citrus dressing over cabbage and quickly mix.  Put four to six flautas on a plate, drizzle generously with spicy avocado creme, top with cabbage and garnish with a cilantro sprig.

I finally got this on the table at about 8:30 last night -- but it was well worth the wait.  The warm flautas with the cool, crisp sweet-tart slaw and the spicy avocado creme -- the BEST of this East/West Texas' girl's Tex-Mex cuisine.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Essence of Orange and Grapefruit Biscuits

What a girl can do with a basic biscuit recipe!   I've taken the beautiful Southern biscuit, have added a bit of fresh orange and grapefruit and a dollop of sweet citrus butter and ta-daaaa --- the newest breakfast favorite at the Halfmann's.

It takes about 10 minutes to make the biscuits, so it's one of those recipes that you can whip out there on a frenzied morning.  And homemade tastes SO MUCH BETTER than canned.

First, lightly grate the peel of one large orange and 1/2 a grapefruit. (When making zest, you don't want to grate more than just the top colorful part of the peel, the deeper 'white stuff' is bitter.) Note: I used the grapefruit only because I had it on hand. Although I found it to be an interesting addition, it is by no means necessary.

My favorite biscuit recipe:

Preheat oven to 425

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 stick COLD unsalted butter, diced into 1/4 inch cubes
2/3 cup buttermilk

Add first four ingredients and zest of orange and grapefruit (reserving a teaspoon of each to make citrus butter) into large mixing bowl and blend quickly with hands so it's well mixed. Add cubes of butter and work into flour mixture with hands and fingers quickly, so it resembles coarse meal.  Make a well with the mixture and pour in buttermilk. Again, working quickly and lightly with hands just until the dough comes together somewhat and you can form a ball with the dough.  Turn out on a lightly floured surface and press ball down and fold dough just two or three  times until smooth.  At this time roll out (make sure your rolling pin is floured) or press out to where dough is about 1/2" and cut with round biscuit/cookie cutter or small glass. Use all dough -- makes nine or 10 biscuits.

Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.  You want the bottom of the biscuits light golden brown and the tops lightly browned.  Don't overcook.

While the biscuits are baking, soften 3 tablespoons of butter in the microwave  and add a squeeze of orange and a little squeeze of grapefruit and blend into butter along with the remaining two teaspoons of zest.
You can melt the butter, add the juice and the zest and then enough powdered sugar with a spash of milk to make a sweet glaze icing (see bottom picture.)  That's the way my kids like them, of course.

Spread a little or a lot of either spread in the middle of each warm biscuit and eat 'em up!

Suggested listening:  "Roly Poly" by Bob Wills and most recently The Dixie Chicks w/Asleep at the Wheel

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Savory Scone aka "My Uppity Texas Biscuit"

Scones are to the English what biscuits are to Southerners. Originating in Scotland in the 1500's, this quickbread has evolved from being made of oats and griddle baked, to a more delicate flour based bread, baked in the oven.  In England, they're served with afternoon tea.  At my house, this particular savory scone is served with a cup of coffee in the morning, or even a beer in the afternoon.

You will love my uppity Texian biscuits with apple bacon, sharp cheddar cheese and jalapenos.  Especially during this particular week, remembering the Alamo and all.  EASY to make. If I can, you can.

Should  you be baking these for breakfast, you can prep the night before.  (ie: frying the bacon and chopping stuff) If your mornings are like my mornings, time is of the essence.

3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
At least 2 teaspoons black pepper, I add more
1 stick chilled unsalted butter cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 1/2 grated sharp cheddar cheese
4 green onions, thinly sliced (note: sometimes I brown a little chopped 1015 or other sweet onion with my apple bacon in addition to the green onion - just drain well on paper towels and pat the grease out of both the bacon and onion)
7- 10 slices apple smoked bacon
4 oz ham finely chopped (optional)
2 jalapenos, finely chopped (you can seed them if you want, I seed one but not both)
1 cup to 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 410
I use my hands for most everything but if you have a mixer and would rather do it that way, have at it.
Mix first four ingredients in large bowl.
Add butter and work with hands/fingers (or pastry blender or mixer) until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Add all other ingredients EXCEPT for milk and mix just until evenly distributed
Make a well with the mixture and add one cup buttermilk, quickly and lightly mixing JUST until it sticks together. If the dough is too dry and won't hold together, add the remaining buttermilk one tablespoon at a time until dough can be formed into a ball.  DO NOT OVER WORK THE DOUGH, handle it as little as possible to ensure a light, not heavy, scone.

Flatten dough on floured surface to an 1/2" thick circle, using your hands or a rolling pin.
Cut into 8 pieces as you would a pizza. At this point, you can use an egg wash by whisking an egg and 2 tablespoons of water and lightly brush each wedge.  It makes a prettier scone, but it's not necessary.
Place on an ungreased cookie sheet  and bake for 20 minutes until bottom of scones are light brown and tops have browned slightly.

These may be just a tiny bit resistant to come off of the cookie sheet because the melted cheese likes to stick.  But with any spatula, you'll be able to remove completely.

Oh my, I just took a batch out of the oven and have taken that first, unbelievable bite. Mmmmm.
You just HAVE to try these!  And honestly, you want to eat scones the day you make 'em.  The next day, well, you might find them not so . . . uppity.

Suggested listening: "Breakfast Time" by Lightnin' Hopkins

(This is the first time I've used my Canon Power Shot to take original photos. I'm learning more about photographing food each day. I'm sooo excited but have a LOT to learn.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Davy Crockett

 Today is the day I raise my glass to Texas Independence and pay homage to my favorite Alamo guy and the other brave souls who served this great state at Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1836.

I created this drink using Texas' premium vodka from Austin, juice of a fat pink grapefruit and lime from the Rio Grande Valley, sea salt from the Gulf of Mexico, and a jalapeno from Abbott's grocery store around the corner.

I call it The Davy Crockett.  Although Texas was declared a Republic today, the actual attack on the Alamo didn't begin until the evening of March 5 after a two week siege.  On March 6, 1836  . . .well, we all know that my Davy met a tragic fate. Rumored to be one of the only survivors of the Battle, I hear that the dastardly Santa A ordered him to be slain.

Remembering calamities such as this, ladies and gentlemen, is just one of the many reasons why we drink, is it not?

1 1/2 oz. Tito's Premium Vodka, ice cold
1/2 oz. fresh pink grapefruit juice, cold
Dash of green Tabasco (optional)
Good squeeze of fresh lime
Dash of sea salt
Rub the rim of the glass with a slice of jalapeno and use for garnish

After a few of these, it is doubtful that you will 'Remember the Alamo!' or much of anything else.

Suggested listening: The Ballad of Davy Crockett by the Kentucky Headhunters