Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cocktail - Picante de la Casa

Picante de la Casa
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
A famous Spanish saying goes like this: Eat, drink, dance and enjoy that the world is going to end.  (A comer, beber, bailar y gozar que el mundo se va a acabar.)

As old as the mountains, people soon discovered the art of fermentation.  With that came the accidental discovery of making spirits and liquors which eventually were distilled.  To sweeten the spirits people added fruits, spices, and herbs for flavoring, and many apothecaries insisted it was good practice for medicinal purposes.  Some recipes included minerals, ground up animal bones, dried meats, fats, skins, and even hallucinogenic mushrooms!  

The origin of the modern word “cocktail” is highly disputed.  The Oxford Dictionary of the English language cites that the origin of the word “appears to be lost”.  I will explain a few that amuse me and simply are good stories to hear:

Evidently the word cocktail is formed by two words: cock, the male chicken or rooster, and tail, the cock’s tail.  The first recorded use of the word ”cocktail" was in 1806 in the United States, but keep in mind that the famous drinks, as creative and inventive in the thousands, have been prepared and drank since ancient times.  

One legendary story claims that a doctor in ancient Rome made a wine-based drink which he called “cockwine”, for which the emperor Lucius Aurelius (180-192 A.D.) went crazy for and possibly celebrated many happy occasions with the drink.

Another delirious story comes from New Orleans, the city made famous for its cocktails and legendary mixologists.  According to legend, a famous french apothecary named Peychaud served his guests a beverage that contained a secret recipe which he wrote in his recipe book.  It consists of a good amount of brandy, a little more than less, sugar, water and bitters which was to be served in an egg cup.  The apothecary prescribed it for “relief” of the head.  The drink was called the “egg-cup cocquetier” in french, which eventually was shortened to “cocktay” and then cocktail.  I assume the french word “coquette” may have been invented this way.  It has a good sound and it sounds fancy as all french words do.  In any case the word had been in use for a very long time in Bordeaux, France where the beverages were served in pitchers called “coquetel”.  

During the Mexican war, there came a legend that a very handsome american soldier paid a visit to the aztec emperor.  The emperor had a very beautiful princess daughter named Xochitl.  The emperor had his daughter offer an alcoholic drink with fruit to the soldier.  She was dressed in her finest and was adorned with the most beautiful feathers of the most beautiful birds of the region.  Upon giving the drink to the soldier, a feather fell from her hair into the drink for which the soldier was highly amused.  He liked the drink very much but could not say the princess’ name.  The soldier pronounced her name, Xochitl as “Coktil” which then became “coctel”.  It’s an amusing and romantic story but pretty far fetched.  

But what is true and without dispute is the ingenuity of the Mexican mixologists for making an amazing array of recipes for cocktails that include some of the most exotic fruits, flowers, flavorings indigenous to Mexico like chocolate and vanilla, chile peppers, and even ground up dried insects.  

Here is a cocktail guaranteed to tickle your throat and open your senses.  It’s quite spicy because it contains jalapeños! 

Picante de la Casa

2 oz tequila (buy a good one)
1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
¾ oz agave nectar (simple syrup if agave nectar is not available)
12-15 cilantro leaves
¼ inch piece of a Jalapeño chile pepper


The preparation first has to be fun! The first ingredient is to dance a little as you prepare it.  That’s what I do in my kitchen (it’s inevitable).  A little latin music may help you make the cocktail even better.  I like to use a “molcajete”, the Mexican grinding stone, but you can muddle directly in your cocktail mixer.  Slice the chile and muddle it in the mixing tin.  Hand squeeze the cilantro and the lime juice.  Add the agave nectar.  Add lots of ice.  Shake, shake, dance, dance… serve it strained in a cocktail glass with ice, or without if you want to taste more of the hot chile.  Garnish with chile slices and cilantro.  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Classic Literature - The Importance of Reading To Your Children

Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2014
One first needs a good desire to eat, drink and read… Thus, in the morning before the books piled high on my table, to the god of reading, I say my prayer of the devouring reader: ‘Give us this day our daily hunger…’ Gaston Bachelard (French philosopher).

Reading provides our brains with nourishment and best of all it fulfills our desire to transport ourselves thru the pages to far away lands, or perhaps to a different culture, learn and hear another language, to witness magic, miracles, life, rebirth, feel love or sadness, quench our thirst, eat a marvelous and exotic dish, sense passion, travel in time, witness a fantasy where animals can talk, take pleasure in satisfying our curiosity and amuse and thrill our senses.  By reading, we enrich our lives and learn about the world while making us wiser and helping us grow our intellect. 

As soon as a baby is born, his brain is at work growing.  Therefore, it’s very important to start the ritual of reading right away.  At first a baby won’t understand your words, but it  stimulates and soothes a baby to hear his mother’s voice while she reads.  There are many stages of reading for all ages since infancy thru early childhood on to adolescence.  A lot of information is available on the subject, but for now I will ponder on the importance of introducing your child to classic literature.  

When I was a child, the summers were long and hot.  After making a trip to the candy store, buying a piece of gum or if the budget allowed, an ice cream, there was a lot of time to do nothing else but read.  There were days of climbing tress, building forts with white, powdery freshly washed sheets borrowed from my mother’s clothes line, or playing school or theater and eating bananas with cinnamon, or home made plum bread, for which the plums had been picked the night before just for the occasion of making the event a lot more “real”.  It was pretend play like in the Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, eating plum cake and drinking tea or even making a big pitcher of limeade with brown sugar which we drank in mismatched glasses.  

On other days, other re-enactments would rise to the occasion depending on the literature that was read aloud by my eldest sister, whom meticulously was always the one in charge of our home library.  We pretended she was the librarian and we “checked-out” books that she would have us read.  Many nights we stayed up late reading out loud works by Edgar Allan Poe.  

After a shower with cold water, we would all lay on a large blanket on the floor with a big square fan blowing in from the outside.  That was the only way to cool down on the hot summer nights.  The fan was placed in the window, which was left open without the screen, and it made a very loud buzzing sound which my sister dismissed as the loud thundering sound of the crashing waves of the poem Annabel Lee: 

It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, 
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me..

Every child should be lucky enough to be introduced to great literature early in their lives.  It is never too early!  There might have been some literature that scared me to death, like the night I stayed up reading the book of Revelation.  There were obscure, dark and extravagant imagery, and according to my imagination it was too ugly to even consider.  Nobody likes the devil!  Of course, it has a whole other meaning now, but try to explain that to a little girl of seven or eight.  I can’t imagine silence in heaven and nothing but loud trumpets sounding…

Then there were novels that I treasured so much that I craftily made by hand cloth or paper dust covers and wrote in big letters the title and the author.  Sometimes I wrote my name under the name of the author for good measure, just to make sure no one would take my treasured book.  I only remember one girl whom I loaned a book to and she never returned it.  That was a novel by Natalie Babbit called Tuck Everlasting.  It is a story about a family that was immortal and it had an illustration of a little red cabin in the woods right by a lake.  I must have read the novel at least three times in a row just to hear the song of the loons as the sun set every night and the reflection of the cabin brightened the dark woods.  Years later, in our adulthood my friend whom never returned the book and I laugh at how the book was lost.  It doesn’t matter, a new crisp copy is living out it’s immortality in my library.

When I graduated from preparatory school, an amazing teacher whom loved literature gave me a very special gift wrapped in an already used foil craft paper that looked like it might have been folded for a christmas present the year before.  Saving and refolding the used wrapping papers was a custom we practiced in our household too, so I didn’t mind, and it reinforced what I thought might be a custom only of the poor.  I always thought this teacher to be very Parisian yet casual in her manner of speech and most of all her vocabulary was rich and she came across as very cultured, which meant rich to me.  It was a copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  It was one of the most memorable days of my life.  Years later I read more novels by John Steinbeck but this one has a very special meaning,.  That summer I understood how literature can shape our lives and help us have better judgment.  The book occupies a space on the top shelf of my bookcase and every so often I like to read the dedication to remind me of the special teacher and the influence she had on my love for literature and words.

New generations of children may have new literature to read, but it is important to also expose them to the classics, especially the literature that promotes values and self reflection.  Classic books endure because they have compelling stories written in compelling language, no matter what language they may be translated to.  Examples are Kenneth Grahame’s, The Wind in the Willows, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, or for the younger readers, The Tales of Petter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and children’s books by Cuban-American author Alma Flor Ada. 

Children whom are exposed to literature have a higher aptitude for learning in general.  Studies have shown that students who are exposed to reading before preschool are more likely to do well in all facets of formal education.  Children gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and best of all, they form a very strong loving bond with their loved ones as they read together. 

Reading aloud is special, especially if its to a child whom likes animals that talk like in the books of Little Bear by Elsa Holmelund Minarik and illustrated beautifully by Maurice Sendak.  Which takes me to the books by Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen.  

There truly is magic in the phrase ‘Once upon a time’…           

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Chicken with Garlic & Ginger

Chicken with Garlic & Ginger
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
On a quick trip to an Indopak tiny market, or better said an Indian & Pakistani market, I bought among a few spices and middle eastern bread, a halal cut, skinless, whole little chicken.  It was perfectly packaged without a single piece of skin or fat, for which I thought the butcher seemed to cater to my delight, for the gourmet or discriminating cooks.  I did not have time to cook it that evening but overnight I thought about how to cook it the next day.  I wanted to try something new.  I flipped thru a few recipes in my cookbook collection and nothing really popped out for the moment.  

A french country cedar shed
built and designed by Larry Ivy
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015 
Recently, on a visit to a friend’s house over easter dinner, we talked a lot about the beauty and most amazing food of Southern France and in conversation, the very famous dish, Coq au vin was delectably and anecdotally talked about while sipping on rich, red wine and having the most fragrant, heritage-filled Spanish paella.  It was lovingly cooked in a very large cast iron skillet by my lovely friend (whom is a filmmaker and writer) of many years, Lauren.  The entire garden setting was a custom, hand built, french style shed built by Lauren’s parents.  I was transported to France which reminded me of some of my favorite films that were filmed in the region like, To Catch a Thief, Jean de Florette, and Manon of the Spring.  It’s one of the best paella’s I’ve ever had!    
Lauren Ivy Chiong's traditional Paella Valenciana

Coq au vin is one of my favorite dishes, especially since it includes wine in the sauce and so I was determined to prepare the halal chicken the french way.  In the kitchen while laying out ingredients, somehow, one thing led to another and I ended up getting exited by seeing and smelling fresh ingredients that led me to create a dish in another form.  I had a very large piece of fresh ginger, I let my nose guide me and that is how I came up with this savory version of chicken with garlic and ginger.  The recipe is so simple to make and I think it works well to make ahead if you want to prepare it for a dinner party the night before.  Oh, and did I mention the perfume of this dish?  You won't be able to resist.

I’ll save the coq au vin for another day with guests that will enjoy it with me.  Hopefully in the company of Lauren and family! 

Chicken with Garlic & Ginger 


1 whole skinless chicken, about three pounds, cut into 8 pieces
1/4 of plain yoghurt (I used greek strained yoghurt)
2 small limes - juice
1 tablespoon - honey
4 garlic cloves - crushed
2 tablespoons or 2 inch piece - grated ginger 
1 tablespoon - whole coriander seeds
1 tablespoon - crushed fenugreek seeds
1/4 - teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon - ground black pepper
1 teaspoon - ground red chile 
salt - to taste
1 jalapeño - seeded and diced small for garnishing
1 to 2 tablespoons of cooking oil
2 to 3 - tablespoons of water

Method of Preparation:
  1. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.  
  2. Heat the oil in a pan and braise all the chicken pieces until browned.  Once     browned, remove pieces and let rest on a plate.
  3. In remaining oil, roast coriander and crushed fenugreek seeds.
  4. Add ground turmeric
  5. Lower heat, add crushed garlic and ginger, continue to roast.
  6. Add honey
  7. Add lime juice
  8. Slowly add yoghurt and heat until it looks smooth
  9. Add ground chile and continue cooking sauce
  10. Add water
  11. Add the chicken pieces and coat with the sauce.  Continue cooking covered another 15 to 20 minutes until fully cooked.
  12. Serve and garnish with the diced jalapeño 

Enjoy with a serving of rice or a flat bread such as a thin pita, wheat tortilla, or naan perfect for mopping all the sauce off the plate.

A perfect paring would be a glass of pinot noir or a malbec.