So, my best friend Michael sends me a text yesterday, asking me how costly/difficult it would be to whip up a largish batch of my Aztec Hot Chocolate for a party he's attending this evening. It appears to have a Mexican theme. They're a few days late, but I'm told they're also bringing things like "taco dip" so, there you are.
For the record, I like taco dip, but I would not take it to a party to which everyone was asked to bring a Mexican dish. I'd probably take a lot of chiles rellenos.
Nonetheless, this is the fun part of being me: "Hey, can you make me a half gallon or so of that Aztec hot chocolate?" All this for, as he pointed out when he picked up the brimming air-pot full of spiced-cocoa goodness, a party to which I was not invited. Now I want to have a party. Not for Mexican food, but for taco dip. As many sorts of taco dip as I could conceive...
Chocolate, as you may know, is a new world product and was most originally a drink, xocolatl, loosely translated as "sour water" What we usually call "Mexican" hot chocolate in this country is basically champurrado without the masa harina. Thus, cocoa, water/milk, cinnamon, and sometimes other spices or vanilla. A few years back I spotted a Hershey's brand hot cocoa mix labeled Aztec... something... It did not contain the flesh of a sacrificed enemy stewed with salt, but it did contain ground chili peppers, an adjunct to chocolate that is becoming more and more popular.
Frankly, the Hershey's stuf f was lousy. So, I set out to make my own. I'm trying not to ramble so much when I post to LJ, so I'm going right to a vague recipe. My method is a bit odd, but I've found I get the best flavor by simmering milk with aromatics while making an intensely spiced simple syrup (sweetened with honey) that I stir into the milk before adding the chocolate. This seems to lend the drink a smoother body as well.
Otter's Aztec Hot Chocolate (for a crowd, makes a little more than 1/2 gallon)
1/2 gallon milk
8-10oz high quality bittersweet chocolate (no less than 70% cocoa)
2 cups water
3/4 cup honey
3 cinnamon sticks
2 dried New Mexico chile peppers
Zest of 1 orange
2 tsp vanilla (preferably Mexican vanilla)
2-3 whole cloves
1/8th tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
pinch salt (don't leave out a pinch of salt, nor the vanilla, they help to activate the flavors)
In a small sauce pan, bring the two cups water to a boil with one of the dried peppers, two of the cinnamon sticks, and the cloves. Reduce the heat to low, add the orange zest (it can be in long strips or chopped, it doesn't matter) and simmer until reduced by about one third, at least 10 minutes or so. Strain, reserving the cinnamon sticks and pepper, stir in the honey to make a flavorful simple syrup.
Meanwhile, bring the milk to a simmer in a large saucepan or dutch-oven over medium heat with the remaining pepper and cinnamon stick. Add the vanilla and cayenne, is using, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently 10-15 minutes. When the above syrup is done reducing, add the pepper and cinnamon sticks to the milk.
Finely chop, grind, or grate the chocolate. 8oz. of chocolate will produce a drink that is not too rich, not too sweet, but possible a touch thin for some. 10oz of chocolate will produce a dangerously decadent beverage.
Stir the honey-syrup into the milk mixture and taste. You should be able to pick out spice flavors, including the cinnamon, hints of orange, and a bit of heat from the chili peppers. If not, simmer a bit more, and consider a touch of ground cinnamon (do not add ground chili powder unless you are certain it is nothing but ground chilis and doesn't contain things like garlic and oregano as such things often do, also avoid adding any ground spices that contain emulsifiers or anti-caking agents). When you are satisfied with the spice flavor, strain the milk through a fine mesh sieve and whisk in the chocolate. It should melt almost instantly if you've got it chopped or ground finely.
Serve hot, garnished with whipped cream and/or a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Last weekend was dinner #2 of the eight nice meals I pledged to my parentals as a Giftmas present. For this one I wanted to build in some sweet zip of springtime, even though I admit not every ingredient was strictly seasonal.
Breadbowl Fondue - My father was skeptical. What's the point of a breadbowl? Well, if it's a pre-fab thing full of wilted iceberg lettuce and mealy winter tomatoes or some reheated processed cheese soup, I'd say the point is to just layer on the sadness. However, if it's a fresh-baked loaf, carefully hollowed out and filled with a creamy hot dip spiked with salty dried beef, sweet onions, and fresh green parsley, that's another story. Then, I would have to say, the point is that the only thing better than the toasted innards of said loaf dipped into that creamy goodness is that super-crispy, chewy hunks of the bowl itself, torn apart and devoured. Maybe that's just me. I doubt it, though. They barely had room for dinner.
Roast Chicken with Orange Honey Glaze - I used my new vertical roaster, a tallboy beer can a la drunken chicken would work just as well, and prepped the bird for a super-crisp skin by drying it thoroughly and applying a rub of salt, pepper, and baking powder. The increase in the ph of the skin promotes crisping. I also loosened the skin around the fattiest areas and poked holes for rendered fat to drain. I roasted it in the oven at 325 until nearly done, then pulled it out, applied a simple glaze of reduced OJ, honey, and a few adjuncts (some garlic, red pepper flakes, a bit of mustard), cranked the oven to 500, and tossed the bird back in to finish. A careful eye and a cup or so of water in the pan is necessary as any sweet glaze, both that on the bird and that dripping into the pan, will look to scorch swiftly. The finished product was beautifully lacquered and aromatic. While the bird rested I drained the fat from the roasting pan, deglazed with some broth, and mixed the resulting juices with the remaining glaze for a sauce to pass at the table.
Risotto with Spring Vegetables - I love making risotto. The constant, gentle stirring is almost meditative to me. Normally in a dish like this I would have wanted green peas and asparagus, but for the simpler palates at the table I went with some fresh organic carrots, leeks, and broccoli cut into minute florettes. Trying for a fresher vegetable flavor, I infused the broth that I would be stirring into the rice with parsely stems and used it to blanch the veggies. This was a mistake as the carrots and broccoli lent too much color to the broth and the whole dish took on a muddy hue that did nothing next to the chicken. It received rave reviews for flavor, however.
Lemon curd tart with raspberries - In a favorite cookbook of mine entitled Pie Every Day is a recipe for plum tart with lemon curd, a nice, easy dessert with good sweet/tart flavor contrasts. Once, when I couldn't find plums ripe enough in time, I discovered that the simple lemon curd in a sweet tart crust could be enhanced with almost any sort of soft fresh fruit and raspberries became my favorite. Once the curd was smoothed into the crust I placed whole, fresh berries one by one in a spiral pattern. The result leans toward the tart end of sweet-tart, but I find the buttery crust makes it work perfectly. I guess zippy tartness says Spring to me.
Once again I was really the only person there with an interest in wine and had I not wanted some for the risotto i would have skipped it. As it was I took the opportunity to grab a bottle of one of the few Vinho Verdes I've ever seen in PA. What could be more Spring than that? I love the crispness and the faint sparkle of these wines.
Next up I tackle a Baja favorite - fish tacos! No fried fish for me, though, I'll be firing up the grill for an early summer treat.
Sadly, I'm not a lover of yard work, so I'm working on the drive to get grey_twolf and myself out there and through the springtime clean-up that needs doing. We are, the two of us, all too easily distracted. If I can restore the ring of crocuses around my lamp-post for next year and get some herbs going, I'll be happy.
With warmer weather also comes grilling season! So far I've only made use of my mid-sized Aussie charcoal grill which I had originally purchased for camping purposes as an upgrade on my table-top gas grill (the Clam, so named due to its clamshell design). As I become more adept with smaller charcaol manuevers I'm hoping to skip the Clam entirely. The big charcoal grill needs some TLC after the harsh winter destroyed its protective cover. In the meantime, Wegmans keeps putting pork butts, ribs, and various other large-scale grillable goodies on sale as if to taunt me... I hope to develop my skill with ribs this summer.
The other night I grill-roasted a large chicken--about seven pounds--basted with an orange-honey glaze and perfumed with some sweet mesquite smoke. Possibly the best single chicken I've made to date; we were in heaven. Tonight I will sherry-up the leftovers for some tetrazinni as the temperature has dropped and the rains are coming down again. I think the hint of smokiness will jazz up a classic comfort food to new heights.
Holy shit! I think I just became a Canadian citizen!
So I planned a series of eight meals, two per season, that I promised to prepare for them, including first course and dessert. On Friday the first of these took place:
Fresh Country Bread with herbed Dipping Oil - there are two keys to good dipping oil for bread: the first is good oil, the second is using a noteworthy amount of good grated cheese or at least a healthy pinch of salt to help bring out the flavors. As a first course, it went over almost too well, as the folks had to drag themselves away to avoid filling up.
Roadmap for dipping oil: Start with a good, flavorful extra-virgin olive oil, about a cup or so. Separate two tablespoons and warm these over low heat in a small skillet. Add two cloves crushed garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the warmed oil, let sizzle for a few seconds, then remove from the heat. Let cool and stir this back into the rest of the oil. If you really love garlic, add another small, crushed, raw clove. Add a generous amount of grated hard cheese (Romano, that kind of thing). Stir in up to two tbsp dried (twice as much fresh) mixed herbs. Almost anything will do (beware of rosemary and sage, they are more potent than you think), but check dried herbs for flavor before using. Crush a bit in your fingers and sniff, if they smell nice and herbal, go for it, if they lack aroma, toss 'em. Stir in up to one tsp salt, adding a little, tasting, adding a little. The salt is very, very helpful in bringing out the other flavors, but be cautious as a lot of saltiness can accompany some Italian hard cheeses. Add several grinds of cracked black pepper. Whisk, stir, or cover and shake well. Allow to sit overnight before serving if possible.
Otter's Caser Salad - Nothing more than a romaine salad with a traditional caesar dressing (coddled egg, olive oil, lemon juice, anchovies, grated cheese, garlic, salt & pepper, Worcestershire) with some extra zip from some dijon mustard. I also use the dark green leaves of the romaine and not just the hearts and add tomato, cucumber, shaved Romano cheese, and Kalmatta olives. grey_twolf made fresh garlic croutons for me. Yum.
Chicken Saltimbocca and Angel Hair pasta with Oil, Lemon, and Garlic - I have been wanting to make this ever since a certain surprise party. Remarkably easy, although I still don't find prosciutto to be the sublime experience that many do. I made my chicken cutlets more than a little too thick, resulting in longer cooking time and a smokey kitchen, but it was very worth it in the end. Lonnie enjoyed the smoke detectors.
It really is a lucious combination: salty pork, tender chicken, sage, and lemon all enhanced with a simple white-wine pan sauce. I'm not posting a recipe, there are lots of good one's out there. I followed the Cook's Illustrated recipe myself (well, mostly). For one pound of pasta I mixed up about one cup of extra virgin olive oil, a lot of grated Romano, a healthy dose of chopped flat leaf parsley, about two or three tables spoons of minced fresh oregano, four big cloves of crushed garlic, and the grated zest of one lemon. I passed extra lemon wedges and a cheese hunk for grating at the table.
Cinnamon Tiramisu - *sigh* heaven. The cinnamon stood in for the more traditional cocoa powder, but I was hoping to make it more palatable for my wolf. Alas, the taint of coffee was too much for even his favorite spice to cure. Nonetheless, it was delectable, and it was good to rediscover how easy this excellent dessert is to make.
I was the only one interested in any wine, but for the record the pan sauce and I split a bottle of a basic California Sauvingnon Blanc. I know, I know, most of you are thinking, "What about Pinot Grigio" but I just plain don't like PG. My first choice would have been a Soave or an Orvieto or another lesser known Italian White, but I only had time to stop at one of the smaller state stores, so this was the best I could do.
Next up: Roast Chicken Dinner. I don't remember what else I planned, but that's the lynchpin. I'm thinking pan-roasted asparagus...
So far I've had good success with...
Roast Chicken with Apple-stuffing, the leftovers of which will soon be the makings of a fine soup
Beef Stroganoff, although I was moving too fast and had too little roux so the sauce did not thicken properly
Mac & Cheese with smoked sausage and whole grain mustard, a no-holds-barred standby of mine which also produced many yummy leftovers
Pasta Primavera, a shortcut form, neither too much cream nor too little, we needed more cheese to pass at the table, to my mind
Chicken & Broccoli stir-fry, Wegman's offers an excellent broccoli stir-fry bag in their frozen vegetables section: broccoli, red peppers, water chestnuts, onions, yum
Maple Mustard Glazed pork chops, upon which I would normally have piled on mass quantities of mushrooms and onions, but I forewent that in deference to the tastes of my wolf
Stuffed chicken breasts, which met with limited success, only because I was heavily improvising on stuffing ingredients as I didn't have a lot around at the time
Teriyaki Beef Stir-fry, I do love my big ol' wok. My father bought it in New York city for my mother long before I was born. grey_twolf loves teriyaki, it makes a nice match.
Megaburgers, sometimes I like to buy a pair of good-sized, fresh baked wheat rolls, pat together some gently seasoned ground beef, top with cheese, hot sauce, pickles... mmmmm.... This was especially fun as I called up the stairs: "Mon amour, do you want fries with your burger?" "We have fries?" he called back, sounding surprised. "No," I responded, "but I could make some." After a pause he called back, almost reverently, "You can make fries?" I can also make yogurt, tomato sauce, and homemade pasta, but I cannot, as yet, transmute base metals into gold. Can't eat gold, so I wouldn't care anyway.
Lasagna Bolognese or at least my slightly hybridized version thereof. I count lasagna among my personal specialties. I made a giant one in my roasting pan; yum.
I'm missing several things I'm sure, although the above left us plenty of evenings to just enjoy leftovers and time together.
Best of all, mon amour made some tasty tacos one night and just last night a luscious meatloaf with some excellent garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli.
What should I make next?
When it comes to chili, it’s about chiles, not about powder in a jar. It’s about dark red glories of the desert sunshine, fresh ground and fragrant, brought just within reach of the earth by toasty cumin and heady garlic. It’s about sweet heat and tingling aromas, tender beef and roasted tomatoes enveloped in warm red silk. It’s about the baking, basking heat of summertime brought to you in a brimming bowl on a winter’s night, like a memory that warms you all on its own. It’s about taste like fire light, flickering, but filling; it’s about satisfaction. It’s about the chiles.
If you don’t want some now, I don’t understand you at all.
That's the text of my sign for the chili cook off tomorrow. Believe it or not, it's toned down from the ferocious "It's the chiles, stupid!"
I went with a "gourmet" sort of traditional chili, using ancho peppers and New Mexico peppers, used chuck cut into very small cubes, added some very smokey bacon (if I erred, it was there), fresh toasted and ground cumin seeds, lots of garlic, two limes and a stiff dose of honey (some plain honey, some honey liqueur, I'm loving cooking with that stuff). The spices (the ground chiles, cumin, oregano, cinnamon, cocoa) totalled up in volume to nearly a full cup for the whole, just-under-two-gallon batch.
The last thing I want to do is share it with dozens of co-workers, though I will.
I might want to share it with some of you.
If you're good.
Plans are moving forward fast for the move of my beloved grey_twolf to Erie. Just a quick update with a few specifics. On the 23rd of this month I fly out to Illinois to help finish packing up the truck and move both it and Grey's car across the country. So, by the end of that Sunday we should be back in Erie--for good!
Much loved and treasured local friends, we will be soliciting helping hands for Sunday's unloading (some at the house, some into storage) and I am soliciting a ride to the Cleveland airport on Friday the 23rd, my flight leaves at 9:05pm. Gratitude, gas money, and goodies are a sure thing!