Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon - Soft Boiled Eggs

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon - Pilate Makes Perfect Soft Boiled Eggs
Photo by Leticia Alaniz @2015
Cold winter chilly nights are an invitation to take advantage of the seasonal effects of nature.  The woods are dark and deep, the days are shorter, the sun crawls streaking thru the long horizon, and contrast shadows bring in the violet blue nights.  For this winter, I decided to give myself the gift of sitting down in the evenings, uninterrupted, for some quiet long awaited time to re-read the richly textured novel, Song of Solomon, written by beloved American Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison.  

The pages weave spiritual freedom from mental bondage thru the principal character, a twelve year old boy who goes by the nickname Milkman, whose real name is Macon Dead III.  He earned his nickname because his mother Ruth, breast fed him far too long and in a literal sense, he feeds off of what others produce long into his 30’s.  It is the narrative of an American black family spanning four generations.  The beautifully worded family album describes a picture of the circumstances of escaping death, seeking freedom from bondage, or pursuing a better life which oftentimes meant abandoning the family and leaving the raising of the children to the mothers exclusively.

In Song of Solomon, the characters tell their own stories in which Morrison intermixes the present, the past, and the future in a unique narrative structure.  The second chapter of the book is when Milkman is twelve years old.  Its 1943, and he meets seventeen-year-old Guitar, who introduces him for the first time to his aunt Pilate, whom had a fallout with her own brother, Milkman’s father.  They have not spoken to each other in many years.  Pilate makes wine and has a wine house that many people in that society consider of ill repute and questionable.  Prohibition of alchohol ended in 1933, but even if the ban had been lifted, in deep rural communities there were strict protestants and christian social progressives whom considered wine- making nothing more than the sinful, cheaply made, moonshine.  It is here that Pilate invites the boys inside her humble wine house and for the first time, unveils Milkman’s eyes to the mysteries and secrets of the family. 

Pilate offers the boys a soft boiled egg which carries a lot of symbolism as she tells them stories about growing up in Pennsylvania, and about her relationship with her brother, Macon, and how they both ran away after their father was murdered.  The boys are enchanted by her stories, but more so, Milkman who desperately wants to discover the truths that have been enshrouded in darkness and kept secret inside the musty, and fermenting fruit-smelling wine house.  She gives them a lesson on how to cook the perfect velvety eggs:

“You all want a soft boiled egg?”  she asked.
The boys looked at each other.  She’d changed rhythm on them.  They didn’t want an egg, but they did want to be with her, to go inside the wine house of this lady who had one earring, no navel, and looked like a tall black tree.
     “No thanks, but we’d like a drink of water.”  Guitar smiled back at her.
“Well.  Step right in.”  She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered.  A moss green sack hung from the ceiling.  Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere, newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls.  But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and a stove, there was no furniture.  Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit.  
     “You ought to try one.  I know how to do them just right.  I don’t like my whites to move, you know.  The yolk I want soft, but not runny.  Want it like wet velvet.  How come you don’t just try one?”
     She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose.  Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue and white wash basin which she used for a saucepan.
     “Now the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing.  One can’t get the upper hand over the other.  So the temperature has to be the same for both.  I knock the chill off the water first.  Just the chill.  I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see.  Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling.  When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles.  Well, right then you take the pot off the fire.  You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off.  Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation.  Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch.  I generally go to the toilet.  Not for a long stay, mind you.  Just a short one.  If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft boiled egg.” - Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Pilate gives the eggs a lengthy treatment of importance and they’re the beginning of the portrayal of stories of real life, the stories that Pilate will slowly uncover for Milkman.  They’re the allusions of the traditional african past which play an integral part in the stories.  Throughout the ages, the egg has symbolized new beginnings and birth.  Eggs are associated with mythical and supernatural beliefs and in philosophical thought they signify resurrection.  

Ironically, Milkman’s last name is Dead, and he begins a quest for meaning in his formative, coming of age years thru Pilate, whom he considers his “living” relative.  To Milkman, his father was as stiff and stern just as his name says, Dead.  He lived in a home of disintegrating, rotting relationships, beginning with his own parents, Macon senior and his mother Ruth.  The estranged relationship between his father Macon and his sister Pilot.  The distant relationship with his own sister and later, the ill-fitted amorous relationship he had with his own cousin and daughter of Pilot, Hagar.  


When Milkman eats the soft boiled egg, it sets him on a journey where he ends up learning of the circumstances of his own birth, his own ancestors and where he came from.  Song of Solomon is full of allegories, myth and prophetic evaluations of the past.  All cultures have woven their legends of the mystery of creation and perhaps one of the most powerful mysteries is the egg.

American Novelist Toni Morrison
When Pilate cooks the eggs and reveals their soft velvety insides, only until then does the magical journey begin.  She gets right to the heart of the matter.  The egg image resurfaces several times throughout the novel and the heart is likened to an egg yolk.  Morrison writes with passion and voice, it is the song of songs, the very thing that unfolds the magic.  


Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon was published in 1977.  It was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and was cited by the Swedish Academy as the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.  It has been celebrated by the Radcliffe Publishing Course as 25th best English language novel of the 20th century.

Written by Leticia Alaniz © 2015                    

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The History of Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken

Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Southern India’s wealth of culinary tradition has a vast history that is intricately woven with the spice and rice growing business.  In the middle ages, or late in the tenth century, in the deep south where curtains of sweet fragrant rain move across the damp green landscapes, a vast empire untouched by events in the West and Central Asia had begun to lay down their roots.  They were the people called Cholas, and their heartland was the valley and delta of the Kavery, the life giving, sacred river of southern India.  The Kavery river rises in the southwestern region of Karnataka and its mighty waters flow in a southeastern direction towards Tamil Nadu, where it finally descends the Eastern Ghats in rumbles of clashing thunder.  Coconut palm trees sway as far as the eyes can see over the emerald landscape along with rolling soft fields of rice.      

The Cholas were one of the greatest civilizations of the times and during their golden age, their province was one the richest.  They dominated the southern landscape and they remained in power until the late thirteenth century.  It was an age of artistic and cultural achievement in some of the most impressive ways which led to the flourishing of music, dance, poetry, sculpture, painting, architecture, literacy, and culinary delicacies.  The Cholas may have seen their glory fade as their capital Tanjore has been built over by new empires, but their legacy still stands in Tamil Nadu.  At the heartbeat of the city, stands the monument of the Chola people, the jeweled Brihadeeswara Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.  At the time when it was built, the Cholas had reshaped the medieval world in the south and their king Rajaraja Chola, was considered the king of kings. 

During the Chola period several castes and dominant guild communities emerged.  Traders and merchants organized themselves into guilds.  The farmers occupied one of the highest positions in society, they were the nobility or the landed aristocracy whom grew rice and the highly valued peppercorns known as “black gold”.  Kochi, in Kerala is the center of India’s spice trade, and the aromas of cardamom, coriander, cumin and cinnamon, lingering out of warehouses scent the air in the old town with its winding narrow streets and chatter in the ancient Tamil language.  

A prominent caste that became important in subsequent dynasties are the Chettinad social caste whom specialized in the preparation of food for the aristocracy and nobility.  They were mostly established in Tamil Nadu until late in the 19th and early 20th centuries when emigration began further south to Ceylon and Burma where the Cholas also ruled.  The Chettinad became the group of people from the region of the same name, famous as skillful master cooks and were sought after as hired help.   Their well kept secrets of delectable and delicate dishes involved aromatic spices, sweet and sour flavors, as well as celebrated ingredients of the region.  One of the most popular ingredients due to the vast availability of coconut palms are coconuts and coconut oil which form a base for almost all preparations.

It is widely agreed that Chettinad cuisine is one of the spiciest and aromatic yet delicate in its use of chilies, setting up the stage for the spices to bloom.  One particular dish that has made its mark is the Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken.  As the name implies, it consists of  chicken pieces that are cooked in a robust sauce in which its main ingredient is freshly ground peppercorns and fennel seeds.  The dish is well balanced with chopped onions and coconut milk that give it a tender sweetness.  

Following is a traditional recipe for Peppercorn Chettinad Chicken in it’s simplest and dry form.  Be prepared to crush black peppercorns at the very moment so that your dish can have the essence of ancient traditions.  For this recipe I modified it with a touch of tomato paste, an ingredient imported by the Portuguese from Mexico during the early days of colonization in the beginning of the 1500's.
Chettinad Spices for Peppercorn Chicken
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015


Molcajete for Grinding Spices
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Chettinad Peppercorn Chicken

Ingredients

500 grams of Chicken Pieces (with bones for maximum flavor)
1 Onion Chopped
1 Inch piece of Chopped Ginger
2 -3 Cloves of Crushed Garlic
1 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds
1 Tablespoon of Coriander Seeds
1 Tablespoon of Fennel Seeds
1 Tablespoon of Black Peppercorns
5-6 Dry red Chiles (or to taste)
1/2 Cup of Coconut Milk
1/4 Cup of Shredded Dry Coconut (Unsweet)
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
10 to 12 Curry Leaves
Salt to Taste
Oil for Frying

Preparation

Rinse and dry the chicken pieces with a paper towel.  Sprinkle a little salt on the pieces.  Heat enough oil in a pan for frying.  Fry the chicken until golden crispy.  Set aside.  Next finely chop the onion, garlic and ginger.  Grind the cumin, coriander, fennel and dry red chiles.  Set aside.  Next crush the black peppercorns so that they release their aroma but do not make into powder form.  I use a Mexican stone grinder called a molcajete, which works great for crushing and grinding spices.  Heat the pan again with a small amount of oil.  Begin by sautéing the chopped garlic and ginger.  Add the curry leaves until they begin to pop.  Next, add all the spices so that they roast and release their aroma.  Add the chopped onion and sauté until it reaches a golden translucent color.  Add the dry coconut and continue to cook for a couple of minutes.  Add the coconut milk and tomato paste.  Keep stirring at low heat.  Season with salt to taste.  Finally add the chicken pieces and toss until completely covered for about another five minutes.  Serve right off the stove with rice or an indian bread such as a paratha.        


By Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Last Meal Of Edgar Allan Poe

Portrait of American Writer Edgar Allan Poe 
Since the dawn of American gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe’s life, he was surrounded by  poverty, isolation, coldness, loneliness and death.  His stormy life was drawn from good and evil which provided the groundwork for his famous dark literary masterpieces.   

Poe was born in 1809 and 40 years later in 1849, his short life ended abruptly, causing a stir of mystery to his enigmatic persona that continues to fascinate us until today.  His death was reported in a newspaper as having been stricken on a cold night in a tavern in Baltimore, where he was found delirious, in great distress, laying in a gutter and later carried to a hospital where he died a lonely death four days later.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.  
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? - Edgar Allan Poe  

Scholars conclude that Poe’s life of misery could have psychologically been self inflicted.  He published masterpieces that today are recited, performed in theaters, reenacted and made into films in many languages around the world.  Yet there are accounts of him living in dire poverty, barely making enough money to pay the rent.  Many nights, he was found wandering the streets in Baltimore begging for a meager 50 cents to buy a meal.  It was the amount that in those days, a simple plate of food in a tavern would have cost, which would include a pint of ale.           

The writing desk and bed of American writer Edgar Allan Poe
Poe would stay most nights in his rented room writing until dawn.  In the winter months, when the cold was waiting in the shadows, he often kept himself sheltered from the bone chilling wind and had only a candle or an oil lamp for light and the warmth of ragged old blankets.  By the end of his life, he had suffered much loss including the death of his beloved wife Virginia, which he immortalized in his poem: Annabel Lee.  His ruined finances provided very little money to feed himself and there were accounts of him not having much to eat except bread, wine and occasionally cheese.  He was a man of refined taste and he enjoyed a good brandy or a Spanish Amontillado sherry, but he could rarely afford it.  Most days, a piece of bread was all he ate during the day, saving the wine and cheese, and maybe a crusty crumb for the evening supper. 

It was October 7th, a dark, icy night when he uttered his last words: “Lord help my soul.”  At his last breath, strange rumors began to circulate across many towns and his macabre stories were not very well appreciated among the society, whom considered them too eerie and horrific.  There was never an autopsy report, and the cause of his death was disputed.  Bone deep hunger, emotional emptiness, depression and loneliness could have been the reasons of his untimely death, with hunger being the principal cause which provoked all the other symptoms to follow him like a dark plague.     

In those days, it was the Victorian era when good food and refined tastes were in fashion.  Meal times were an opportunity for the rich to display their wealth and elaborate feasts were the norm.  Employed people and farm laborers ate reasonably well and could afford heartier food such as sausage, bacon, cheese, eggs, fish, beef, game, fruits and vegetables.  The tables of that era were splendid and much cheer, sweets and good wine were customary.  Luxury was high on the menu and the quality of food greatly improved as agricultural methods continued to evolve in abundance.  But the diet of the very poor marked a stark and terrible contrast.   Those with very little money survived on potatoes, bread and gruel of little nutritional value.  Poe, lived way below poverty level, which for him meant no food at all for long stretches of time.  It was very hard to earn a living being a man of letters.  He was at the mercy of greedy publishers yet he was determined to pursue his literary ideals.
The Last Meal Of Edgar Allan Poe
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In the last days of the young poet’s life, dessertion, darkness, mystery, unbearable pain, beauty and his genius mind were all that were left.  On the menu, his las meal most undoubtedly consisted of bread and wine, and if a few coins came his way, he was able to afford cheese.  His writing desk, his pen, an ink well and a wax candle were his only companions.

Only Edgar Allan Poe, who knew the secrets of madness could concentrate his brilliant mind away from the thoughts of biting hunger and steer his pen to create intense suspense, terror, sensation, simple truth, stories and poems of grim realities that mirrored his own life.   

He was caught between a fine line of rationality and irrationality.  For what is considered one of the greatest poems published to his name, The Raven, he earned only $14 dollars.  Just about what a bottle of wine would cost these days.  

In a strange macabre way, The Raven is a narrative poem of a kind of rehearsal for his own death.  A poem which, can be interpreted as Edgar Allan Poe speaking thru The Raven as he recounted the words: Nevermore, Nevermore, Nevermore...    

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seaming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor,
And my soul from out that shadow that lies of floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore!  
Quoth The Raven Nevermore! - Edgar Allan Poe

By Leticia Alaniz © 2015  

Monday, October 12, 2015

Crema de Naranja - Orange Cream

Crema de Naranja - Orange Cream Recipe by Susana Gertrudis Jimenez Moya
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015 
Hosting an elegant dinner party makes special occasions more festive, especially when you celebrate with good food and good friends.  Fine food, does not always mean complicated dishes.  Sometimes, it can be several small courses that can be as simple as starting with a plate of fromage or cheese course with nuts, herbs and honey; followed by a course of grilled or baked vegetables and a salad with a light vinagerette or even a soup served warm with bread.  For the main course, a dish than can be grilled  or roasted ahead of time and kept warm before serving, is always a very nice way to present an elegant plate.  Best of all, it keeps the host free to enjoy as much time as possible with the guests, rather than spending too much time in the kitchen.  

The last course is one of my favorites as the evening warms up with lively conversation.  It’s the dessert course that can be made ahead of time and served with a glass of sparkling wine, cordial, a velvety Spanish jerez (sherry), or a fine brandy.  Many desserts taste even better if they’re made the night before so that if they’re served cold, they can have plenty of time to set.  

Why do we love desserts?  Medieval and renaissance phisicians used to promote the value of a little bit of sweets in our diets for good health and mental wellbeing.  Most cultures of the world did not need to be told twice about the benefits of having dessert after a meal or in between meals.  It was just a natural instinct that has evolved with us.  Who wants to take a chance and not do something good for our health?  It’s a good thought and at least it’s good for our souls!   

When I asked my very special friend from Spain, Susana Jimenez Moya, what is one of her favorite desserts to serve after dinner, she mentioned Crema de Naranja or Orange Cream.  Spain is a major contributor to gastronomy when it comes to desserts.  Many have a rich heritage in dairy so it's no surprise Susana has suggested a sweet cream.  In Spain,  every region has their own culinary traditions and each region has their own signature dulces or desserts that have travelled the world over and have endured for centuries.  The Spaniards have followed the recommendations of physicians of yesteryear to the letter, and desserts and sweets are a very proud part of their varied and elegant cuisine.  

Susana Gertrudis Jimenez Moya
Málaga, Spain
Susana is from the picturesque southern region of Andalusia, specifically from Málaga.  Pronounce out loud Andalusia several times and it sounds like you’re reciting a poem.  With the beautiful seaside and rural landscapes, fresh ingredients and a cool fragrant breeze, it’s a perfect environment for creating special meals in the kitchen or better yet outdoors, which is exactly what Susana does.  Susana is a very passionate cook and food is one of the subjects we love to talk about.  So, on we go to make the recipe that Susana has contributed for Crema de Naranja.  It’s so simple yet sophisticated, with a silky finesse texture, you’ll want to make it often.  Once your dessert is made, you can proudly exclaim as the Andalusian people do, “¡Olé!”, which is an expression to mean well done, or to say a task or play was triumphant.  

Crema de Naranja (Orange Cream)

Ingredients
3 to 4 Valencia or Málaga oranges
Juice of one small lime
10-12 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon of orange grated zest
fresh mint leaves for garnish

Directions

Grate enough zest from an orange to make at least 1 teaspoon.  Cut the oranges in half and squeeze the juice.  It’s important to obtain as much pulp as possible as that contributes to the concentrated flavor.  Don’t waste any.  In a bowl,  beat the orange juice with the lime. Add the condensed milk.  Next, add the orange zest and mix.  That’s it!  It’s so creamy and fragrant.  Pour into small containers or the halves of the juiced oranges and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.  Even better if it’s chilled overnight so that the flavors can intensify and set.  Garnish with fresh mint leaves and serve at your next dinner party.  


  • Susana is a passionate cook and reaches deep down into her roots to learn ancestral recipes that weave the very essence of Spanish culture.  She is a talented artisan with a successful boutique, named aptly Glamour Marie Antoniette that features her very own handmade artistic creations.  She is passionate about traveling and world cuisines form part of her cooking repertoire such as Italian, French and lately Indian.  She is an avid day dreamer and lover of literature and fine arts.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms Omelette

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms Omelette
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In the last hot days of summer, a cool evening breeze sweeps across the region and starts signaling the beginning of fall and the change of seasons.  The arid countryside dresses in a festival of flowers in bright reds, oranges, lilacs and whites.  All over Mexico, the american southwest, and down towards Guatemala and El Salvador, one particular plant performs a spectacular show pointing towards the sky as if to appeal to the stars with a grandiose plumage of white flowers shaped like bells.  They make their way high on a plant of long, evergreen, pointy daggers that could very well function like swords.  It's a stark contrast of delicate flowers and firm, strong spears that have tips like needles.  

Izote (Yucca) Plant in Bloom
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In México and all of Central America, it is called Flor de Izote or palma, but in the American Southwest it is called the yucca plant.  The general name yucca can apply to many species of trees and shrubs that are found mostly in the desert.  There are other common yuccas like the Mohave and the Joshua Tree, which can grow up to a majestic 60 feet high.  The izote or yucca plants will only bloom when there is pollination by the nocturnal moths which come out at night to feast on the nectar in the most perfect conditions.  

For hundreds of years, ancestral Mexican natives knew about the many uses for the flor de izote.  The green, dagger swords have been used for fiber in making mecate (rope), huaraches (sandals), mats, baskets and cloth.  The roots were cooked to make soap.  The fruits and blossoms were eaten raw or cooked as well as fermented to produce a beverage for sacred rituals. 

Rock Band U2 for The Joshua Tree Album Cover (1987)

When the famous rock band U2 (based out of Ireland), started to record their fifth studio album, which was released in 1987, they wanted to depict a theme  which would evoke a sense of location with spiritual imagery, ancestral open spaces, and the sacred land of the natives before any conquering.  Lead vocalist Bono’s travels to Mexico, Central and North America led him to eventually decide on the land bordering Mexico and California in the Mohave Desert.  For the band, the yucca plant or the joshua tree represented a plant that bloomed in the desert for a show of flowers once a year, yet at the same time it depicted freedoms and ideals, the rain, the dust and spiritual drought which they believed was in need of attention around the world.  They named their album The Joshua Tree in honor of the great ancestral desert plant which gave them the inspiration for many of the songs on their album.  It is a song that defines a restless spirit on the quest for sincerity and down home roots in lyrical ancestry.  It depicts a peaceful place in which there is nothing but sweet smelling earth and its not divided by races, governments, flags, streets or colors.  Its a place where everybody is one.    

These last summer days, if I came out at night I could see there were silvery moths flying around the yucca plants in my garden.  The plants had started to bloom and open their blossoms from the bottom up.  The breeze whispered softly and moved the petals and I could smell the perfume of the wet, soft earth.  Each morning, I came out to see even more blossoms had opened.  I left the plant to bloom for as long as possible. I wanted the moths to keep coming back for more nectar and do their work of pollination before I cut the blossoms to enjoy in a dish.    

The following is an old recipe for an egg dish that has been cooked traditionally during the last days of summer when the blossoms are available.  The blossoms are light and crunchy with an almost artichoke taste.  They’re very good raw in salads, cooked in soups, or sautéed in many dishes like guisos or moles.  They can even be lightly stir fried and served with a grilled dish like fish, chicken or steak.  

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015 
Flor de Izote (yucca) Omelette 

Ingredients

10 to 20 Izote (yucca) blossoms)
1 jalapeño or serrano chile sliced
1/4 small onion or 1 spring onion sliced with the greens diced
2 eggs beaten
2 tbsp of water
1 green epazote leaf (optional), diced
1 tablespoon of Mexican crema
fresh cheese or Mexican queso fresco
Manchego cheese for grating on top
salt and pepper to taste
oil

Remove the stems from the blossoms and wash in cold water, drip dry.  Beat the eggs with the water in a small bowl.  Heat enough oil to coat a 7 to 10 inch nonstick omelette pan over medium high heat.  Sauté the onions, sliced jalapeños or serranos and diced epazote leaf until wilted.  Pour in egg mixture and sprinkle the salt and pepper.  Mixture should set immediately at edges.  Drizzle the Mexican crema.  Gently push cooked portions from edges towards the center so that uncooked eggs can reach the hot pan surface.  Add the fresh cheese or queso fresco.  Cook on low heat until the top surface of eggs is thickened and no visible liquid remains.  Serve open on a large plate.  Add additional raw blossom petals and grate aged Spanish manchego cheese on top.  


Manchego cheese adds a buttery texture to the omellete.  It is a Spanish cheese that comes from the La Mancha region of Spain.  It is made from the milk of sheep of the manchega breed.  It is generally aged from 60 days up to two years.  It's so delicious sprinkled on the omelette.  Enjoy the omelette with a good cup of coffee, café de olla or even a chilled glass of champagne outdoors where you can feel the cool morning breeze.



Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

From Cooking to Brewing - Dark Chocolate Milk Stout

Dark Chocolate Milk Stout Craft Brew
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Having a passion for cooking and an even greater passion for food almost always leads me to remember the healthy, hearty liquids that one might accompany with our meals and celebrations such as wine, champagne, spirits and beer, especially if they’re during memorable experiences.  There are others such as milk, tea, coffee, chocolate, fruit juices, etc.  But what lead me to another culinary adventure in the kitchen comes from old memories of an uncle that used to brew beer in México.  

My uncle had a big, bellowing belly that he proudly displayed unashamedly and wiggled like gelatin when he laughed or even coughed loudly, both were practiced religiously almost every other few minutes.  His snowy white hair and mustache were not always well kept, but he was an amusing raconteur.  He narrated the stories of his days working at a big brewery as well as other stories living on a big ranch.  

As a child, all I could imagine was him stirring a huge vat of mash (roasted grains) wearing a big dusty hat.  The vat is a huge container where crushed grain is mixed in with hot water and turned many times until it reaches a certain temperature.  Once the proper temperature is reached, it turns into wort that can be boiled, so that it can later ferment and become beer.  Then I would imagine him swimming in fermented beer and pouring beer into hundreds of little dark bottles that were perfumed with droplets of salty sweat mixing in with the beer as he capped the bottles.  He claims he put all the labels on the bottles by dipping the label in beer so that they would stick good to the bottle.  I guess beer is what beer does and I couldn’t help myself from shaping my imagination any better, as his way of telling the stories was always on the tall, tale side.

On one occasion we were invited to the annual beer festival which was held at the brewery.  We were warned by my mother that there might be some "unusual" odors due to the fermented beer.  Upon arrival, I was delighted by the smell of beer but I was shocked to find that there wasn’t a big swimming pool full of beer, nor was there a big slide to slide on that that made cottony foam in the pool.  All day prior to arriving, I was looking forward to sliding with my head first down.  There were hug vats containing mash and others that contained large amounts of beer ready for bottling.  My uncle tried to amend my disappointment of the absence of the pool full of beer, by letting me jump on the mountain of grain that was sitting there ready for roasting to start the next batch. 

Everyone present for the celebration sampled the beer and as the eating, and the dancing, and the accordeon music went on, so did the drinking.  In those days it was always a live ensemble band and especially in the northern part of the country, the accordion was a big feature.  The drinking did not exclude the little ones.  So, I guess I must have drank at least one full bottle of a dark, black beer that smelled like coffee and dirt.  I must have drank at least three drops of my uncles sweat in that bottle.  I don’t remember my age, but I remember I spilled beer on my white dress and socks.

Boiling the final extract for a Dark Chocolate Milk Stout
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In my own kitchen I began the process of brewing beer.  I guess it all began with those delightful memories of my childhood.  My father always believed that a good beer was like good bread.  It will never allow you to thirst or starve.  My mother being a good cook, believed in the process of fermentation and in good, hardy marination with beer which she called “ranch style”.  The grill was constantly loaded with all sorts of good cuts of meat having previously been marinated with herbs, spices and beer.  Corn that was grown right there was also grilled.  Life was good at the ranch, and the beer is still flowing.  

Now, in my own kitchen I ventured from cooking to brewing.  For this batch I made an artisanal recipe that I acquired from the Northern Brewer.  It’s a traditional chocolate milk stout that has been brewed with lactose sugar.  The lactose will not ferment by the yeast but it adds an incredible creamy, milky, rich velvety sweetness.  On it’s secondary fermentation, I added bold, dark, pure exotic cacao.  I did not use the cacao seeds from the pods directly, but it was in ground form.  The cacao smells wonderful when it is being mixed in with the beer.  Once bottled, the final conditioning takes quite a long time.  It will be many weeks but the outcome is delicate, chocolatey, dark, with a hint of earthy coffee.

When finally at it’s perfect ripeness, the beer is poured, it explodes an earthy aroma.  It laces the glass with a rich espresso color and soft creamy foam with a hint of caramel forms thick at the top.  I think I did just fine, and I have my uncle to thank for instilling in me the love of craft beer.  Sadly, he passed away on his ranch in Hacienda San Jose, in August of 2013.  His name was Eustolio Alanis, and we lovingly called him “Tio Toto”.       

Bottling the brew after several weeks of fermentation.
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mexican Impossible Cake with Purple Sweet Potato (Chocoflan)

Mexican Impossible Cake with Purple Sweet Potato (Chocoflan)
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
During colonial times, kitchens in México were glistening with amazing delicacies that mixed indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking methods with those brought over by the colonizers.  It was in 1518 that the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in the Yucatan peninsula and was awed at the rumors of flavors unique to the newly found land.  In every remote kitchen, there happened a culinary marriage of flavors that Mexicans of the times raised to high levels.  For native cooks, cooking was a daily ritual of ceremony.  Enigmatic dishes and fruits of the season were offered to the Gods on impressive altars decorated with fragrant flowers and burning copal incense.  Spanish cooks upon their arrival, were fascinated by the alchemy that occurred in the kitchens and by observing the techniques, they learned how to blend the flavors of the newly discovered ingredients with those that they brought from the old world such as milk from domesticated animals.   

One favorite Mexican delicacy is the pastel impossible or impossible cake.  It is one of the many captivating sweets that has a long tradition and a marked history.  The exquisite dessert consists of a fluffy layer of chocolate bread and a layer of velvety egg custard called flan, baked together in a steam ban marie.  They’re not baked separately but at the same time, one over the other.  What makes the dessert a culinary caveat is that the batter for the bread and the batter for the flan do not mix while baking.  The airy bread layer ends up on the bottom and the denser flan layer ends up on the top when turned over from it’s mold.  That’s what makes the cake almost imposible, hence the name.        

It is no coincidence that chocolate, indigenous to Mexico, was a favorite ingredient for savory dishes as well as for sweet.  Chocolate was obtained from the roasted cacao pods and for the Aztecs, it was a gift from the gods worthy of important and sacred ceremonies.  For the Spanish colonizers, the sweet steamed milk and eggs, cooled and served with a sugar caramel, turned over in native clay pots was a perfect and refreshing dessert.  This is when the marriage of this dessert really occurs.  Apart from the chocolate, the Aztecs had one other secret ingredient that the conquistadors favored: the vanilla bean.  It was the native fragrant essence, filled with intrigue and passion that the Aztecs used as medicine and for flavoring in foods especially the favorite drink: xicolatl or chocolate.  The ancient Totonaco Indians whom inhabited the Gulf coast near Veracruz, were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla.  The ruling Aztec kings required payment in taxes from the Totonaco tribes in the form of the dried vanilla pods which were extremely secretly guarded, but not for long after Hernán Cortez’s arrival!

Purple Sweet Potatoes
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
By the 1600’s chocolate and vanilla beans were a highly sought after commodity being traded all over the world.  Meanwhile, in the kitchens in México, dishes were being finessed and perfected making it one of the most important gastronomies in the world.  For the pastel impossible or impossible cake, also commonly called chocoflan, it clearly became a possibility appreciated all over latin america, Europe and even in the Philippines, another Spanish colony where many ingredients from Mexico were introduced.  In the Philippines, the Impossible cake or chocoflan is even made with purple sweet potatoes or yams called ube which were also introduced from the Americas as in the recipe that follows.

Ingredients:

For the bread batter:

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups of cooked and mashed purple sweet potatoes or yams
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup of milk (more or less)


For the flan batter: 

1 cup of sugar for caramel
3 eggs
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 (8 ounce) package of cream cheese



Mashed Purple Sweet Potato
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Directions:

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1 cup of sugar until liquified and caramelized.  Carefully pour hot syrup into a 12 inch tube mold or bundt pan, turning the dish to cover the bottom evenly.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

For the bread batter:  In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add mashed purple sweet potatoes and vanilla.  Beat until well blended.  Add eggs, one at a time (the batter will look curdled).  Add 3/4 cup of milk.  Add flour mixture to potato mixture.  Beat on low until combined.  If batter is too thick add a little more milk.  The batter will be thick and dense.  Pour batter into the tube pan.  

Next, make the flan batter:  In a blender add the 3 eggs, condensed milk, evaporated milk, vanilla and cream cheese.  Blend until smooth.  Pour batter on top of already poured bread batter in the tube pan.    The batters may appear to mix when that flan mixture is poured on top but they completely separate while baking.  Place pan in a large roasting pan and add about 1 inch of water.  Place in oven and bake for about 60 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Cool cake completely.  Chill overnight if desired.    

To serve, insert and run a knife along edges and carefully invert on a serving plate.  Serve with a drizzle of condensed milk if desired.   

Friday, September 4, 2015

Tyler Florence's Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas

Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas, Recipe by Tyler Florence
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
One of the most celebrated food events in the country is the Savor Dallas culinary festival.  Once a year, in a week long celebration, the most talented chefs, mixologists, craft breweries and expert sommeliers from around the country are invited to curate a kaleidoscope of flavors from all over the world for a celebration of the senses.  

Several years ago, I was invited to attend as event and food photographer for two culinary
exhibits featuring world famous chefs Tyler Florence, from the Food Network and one of Mexico’s most beloved food ambassadors, Zarela Martinez from Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.  In the culinary world, there's a festive atmosphere among chefs.  Food is the main course followed by plenty of cheer, love and friendship.  Food never fails to unite people in an intoxicating magnetism.  I was lucky to be a part of the event and sample delicacies from these beloved chefs.

Here is a recipe from Tyler Florence's book, Real Kitchen.  It’s a recipe that qualifies as easy and homey.  Or as Tyler Florence puts it, down-home practical and totally doable.  It requires great, simple ingredients and the natural flavors speak for themselves.  This is a great dish to serve on a Sunday night.  It’s classy and understated and even better with a good glass of wine. 


Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas

Ingredients

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound assorted mushrooms, such as 
  Portobello, crimini, and chanterelle, sliced, stems removed
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry, white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
8 cups Chicken Stock, heated
1 cup frozen and thawed sweet peas
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Fresh flat leaf parsley for garnish
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place a large, deep skillet over medium heat and drizzle with a 3-count of oil.  Add the onion and garlic, and cook stirring, for 5 minutes, until soft.  Toss in the mushrooms and herbs; cook down until the mushrooms lose their liquid and are lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the rice and stir for a minute or two, until the grains are well coated and opaque.  Season again; seasoning in stages makes the rice taste good from the inside out.  Stir in the wine and cook a minute to evaporate the alcohol.  Pour in 1 cup of the warm stock.  Stir with a wooden spoon until the rice has absorbed all the liquid; then add another cup.  Keep stirring while adding the stock a cup at a time, allowing the rice to drink it before adding more.  You may not need all the stock.  Taste the risotto.  It should be slightly firm but creamy— definitely not mushy, but not raw either.  Fold in the peas, butter, and Parmigiano cheese.  Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with parsley to finish the dish up.  Risotto doesn’t like to sit around, so serve immediately.  

Reference: 
Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen
Tyler Florence
Clarkson Potter/ Publishers New York, New York
©2003

By Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mexican Wedding Cookies (Polvorones)

Mexican Wedding Cookies (Polvorones)
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Making your family happy is not that difficult, especially if you make your home ambience a little more festive with special treats that summon everyone to always rush home after a full day of work or school.  Remember, food is happiness!  You don’t have to be a pastry chef or have an encyclopedic catalog of recipes and be master at them.  All it takes is a little ingenuity, sensibility to flavors, a few tools, good, natural ingredients and you’re on your way to transform your kitchen into a food paradise.  

I love cooking, but I don’t always have the time to bake and make pastries or desserts.  But I love to eat the sweets and fruits that I grew up with.  In Mexican culture, it’s very evident that there is a passion for desserts and tropical fruits that always end a savory meal.  Sweet empanadas, pan dulce or Mexican sweet bread, crystallized or dried fruits and an assortment of repostería or pastries are also a big custom for the meriendas, or light meal in the afternoon.  

Don’t be surprised to see huge markets all over the country with some dedicated only to sweet shops.   Thru the centuries, each region and pueblo (town) developed their own particular specialties, from the sweet almond-paste sweets from Saltillo, in Coahuila, to the borrachitos (tequila jellies) from Guadalajara and the almond pastries filled with coconut from Durango.  Crystallized strawberries are a specialty of Irapuato, in Guanajuato, and camotes (yam-sweets) are found in Puebla.  In the central plaza or square of Toluca, under the portales (stone arches lining the square), a huge array of sweets is displayed in little baskets.  In Linares, Nuevo Leon, you can find many shops making small little packages wrapped in red wrappers called glorias.  They’ re an exquisite dulce de leche with pecans (goat’s milk caramel).  They're heavenly little glories!  

With the growth of sugar cane plantations in many regions producing a raw byproduct of the refining process called piloncillo, and the cultivation of vanilla, many sweets were being made with these fine, glorious ingredients.  Piloncillo is a hard molasses that comes from sugar refining.  The liquid molasses that is spun out from the raw sugar is reheated and crystallized into small, conical molds the size and shape of pestles, like the ones that are used to grind in the molcajete grinding stones.  The deep, rich flavor of this dark sugar characterizes many of Mexico’s sweets.  

One particular sweet that is so simple to make and one of my favorites are the Mexican Wedding Cookies or Polvorones.  There are legendary convents where these sweets probably originated from.  They were very popular on wedding occasions since vanilla and pecans or almonds were an expensive luxury and therefore, reserved for those occasions.  I remember attending plenty of weddings and even quinceañeras (sweet fifteen parties for girls) where the host placed a small basket full of the little cookies in the center of the table as a centerpiece .  It’s such a marvelous aperitif, except don’t forget to wipe your mouth with a napkin or else risk walking around with powdery white sugar all over your mouth.  

They’re so simple to make and you don’t even have to wait for a wedding to enjoy them.  Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

1 cup butter (room temperature)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla
2 teaspoons of water

Directions

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar.  Add vanilla and water.  Add the flour and pecans, mix until blended.  Cover and chill for at least two hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Shape dough into balls.  I like to leave them not so rounded and smooth so that they look like rustic stones.  That way I’m reminded of a very traditional Mexican song by Cuco Sánchez, “Grítenme piedras del campo”, and I can sing along as I shape the cookies.  Place on an un-greased cookie sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes in the oven.  Remove from the pan and cool completely.  When cookies are cool, roll in confectioners’ sugar.  Enjoy with hot chocolate or even a light cocktail, dessert wine, or champagne.  


The Mexican Gourmet 
Authentic Ingredients and traditional Recipes 
From The Kitchens Of Mexico 
by Maria Dolores Torres Yzábal   


By Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Red Balloon (1956) - A Film Where Magic Realism Exists

The Red Balloon (1956) Albert Lamorisse
The Red Balloon is a meditation on innocence and what it means to be a child.  It’s a visual poem in film, thirty-four minutes in length directed by master, french film director Albert Lamorisse.  In a poetic narrative, a little boy named Pascal finds a red balloon tangled up on a street lamp in the Parisian neighborhood of Ménilmontant.  

The classic buildings, the windows, the shops and the busy day embark on a gray melancholic tonality until Pascal, while walking along the sidewalks on his way to school discovers a big, bright, red balloon flailing in the wind while silently calling him to rescue it from the entanglement.  Color is a major protagonist as the red balloon breaks the monochrome ambience and it brings a wonderful warm smile to Pascal.

Pascal is delighted with his new found toy and continues his walk to reach school on time.  But when Pascal is rejected from riding the city trolley, he has no choice than to go by walk and face scoldings for being late.  Pascal continues on his way running even faster to school and the red balloon develops affection for the boy and sympathizes for having missed the trolley ride.  Slowly, Pascal understands that the inanimate balloon has a personality and life of it’s own and is filled with tender innocence just like a child.      

The story of the film is very simple.   Every child enjoys playing with balloons and when Pascal sees the balloon, he is thrilled to have found something that could now belong to him.  In return, the red balloon may have finally found a special friend full of life as the way innocent children are, and they both connect like magic making the inanimate object come to life.  Balloons are for children, and children are for balloons - they’re symbols of joy.    
The Red Balloon (1956) Albert Lamorisse

The aesthetic of the film is meticulously well composed with an important role played by the protagonist and the red balloon itself.  The camera is placed to tell the story from the child’s height with the red balloon following him along the streets.  Deep depth of field and soft grays compose most of the scenes with a burst of bright color coming from the balloon until almost the very end of the film, when a parade of balloons produce a rainbow explosion of colors. 

When Pascal arrives to school, he has to leave the balloon in the care of the groundskeeper.  But the balloon being very mischievous, will not stand for that, so he flies into Pascal’s classroom thru a window, causing havoc and excitement in all the children.  The schoolmaster, having a strong sense of order, dismisses Pascal from the classroom and takes him to the room for the punished to spend several hours in isolation.  The balloon, Pascal’s new friend, ventures out into the street in search for “help” to rescue Pascal out of the isolation room.  Even though the balloon can’t talk, we can affirm that it has a pure affinity towards Pascal. 

When the school day is finally over, Pascal is taken out of the isolation room and he is reunited with his red balloon.  The balloon follows Pascal thru the streets of Paris and they joyfully play games of hide and seek until they come across a gang of children whom are fascinated by the big, red balloon and decide to take the balloon from Pascal.  The red balloon makes us forget reality and we are reminded of our own childhoods.  We feel pain for what may happen to the balloon in the hands of the mischievous gang of children.  The solidarity and bond is evident between Pascal and the balloon in a world with hardly any dialogue.  The skillful use of orchestrated music captures the emotions and the spirit of the child, and the sentiment of the balloon in their attempt to get away from the gang of ill intended kids.  In a surprising moment, the gang manages to grab the balloon and “stone it to death” rendering the balloon lifeless on the ground.  Pascal, surrounded by the monstrous bullies is left to whimper over his lifeless, deflated balloon when suddenly a boy is seen stomping the rest of the air out of the balloon, as if the last stomp will take the last breath away.    

Magic realism exists in this beautiful story in a quiet yet big way.  In a transcendent moment, first one balloon appears, then another, and another, it’s a parade of colorful balloons splashing the screen with excitement in solidarity to Pascal, whom truly recognizes that balloons are joyful beings.  They come from everywhere in response to the terrible tragedy of the red balloon and to become the new friends of Pascal.  This is the scene of triumph, in which Pascal takes the strings of the balloons and is lifted up into the air by all the playful, colorful balloons of Paris.  
Boy With Red Balloon
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

In this classic inspirational film, I can’t help but become nostalgic of my own childhood, buying a balloon from a street vendor and running thru the streets with the wind.  I came across the film in my film studies as an adult, but it nonetheless stirred a feeling of warmth and appreciation for all days gone by.  Ever since I discovered this little gem film, I watch it every now and then and expose as many children to it as possible.  The glorious message, even though there is tragedy, comes out triumphant and it is eloquently expressed without words, they’re not needed, it’s an unspoken understanding.  

It’s heartwarming to travel the streets of Paris and become friends with Pascal as viewers.  It’s a children’s world, one that we’ve all lived.  A world where perhaps we may have also have had to face bullies, or were punished for doing something mischievous.  A world where we can all appreciate life's innocent pleasures and enjoy watching a sweet, innocent child play with a balloon.  The Red Balloon is filled with enchanting, nostalgic images and they very well translate into our hearts like a love letter.

Albert Lamorisse is celebrated for the Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge,1956), as well as for White Mane (Le Crin Blanc, 1953), another one of my favorite french, classic films.  The Red Balloon garnered the Palme d’Or Grand Prize at the Canne Film Festival and an Oscar for writing the Best Original Screenplay in 1956.  Sadly, while filming The Lover’s Wind, in Tehran in 1970, while being up in the clouds like in his film The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse's helicopter crashed claiming the talented auteur's life; he was 48.  


by Leticia Alaniz © 2015