Friday, November 19, 2021

Zora Kolači and images of the back yard

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Originally posted in 2011

Thank goodness David was the only one to witness my embarrassing moment in the back yard the other day.  I was enjoying the cooler temperatures and the crystal clear skies, and I was taking pictures with our brand new Cannon zoom lens. 

Here’s Esperanza (Yellow Bells)…

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and a White-winged Dove - one of three species who come to visit the bird bath and feeders:

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My 17-year-mistake, aka Cowgirl Joycie, was sniffing for coyotes and snakes…ok, no coyotes but snakes – it’s always a possibility when you live near a bayou.

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Favorite dog Chula, also known as Shederella, was chillin’ quietly in the bushes.

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Rocky LuLu’s head was buried in the Katy Ruelliano doubt also looking for small, unsuspecting creatures.


Even the garden art was minding its own business!

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The monarchs are migrating south and our yard is a reliable stop-over:  favorite Husbie plants native bushes that naturally attract butterflies…a gardening wizard is my man!  

I was lying in the hammock and I had just photographed this slim beauty feasting on the nectar of a Mexican milkweed plant when suddenly…

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Snap! snap!…quickly followed by a few more snaps and lo and behold within a couple of seconds, I was very rudely deposited on the metal support beam on the ground.  OUCH!  My back, my buttocks, my elbow…the camera…

was safe!   And sweet, considerate David had turned his head! 

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Just so that we are on the same page:  I AM NOT AS BIG AS THAT ENORMOUS HOLE!  

Favorite daughter’s hammock was left out all summer during the heat and drought, followed by several weeks of downpours, and then back with the stifling heat.  Those ravaging most destructive forces must have aged and weakened the ropes substantially… or was it bad construction - made in China, no doubt…?


Do you think it’s because I’ve been eating too many of these sweet, delicious and addicting Zora Kolači? 

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Zora Kolači have always been a favorite treat in my family.  In my native Serbia, Kolač (pronounced Kolach) is a pastry or cake, and Kolači are cookies or small cakes.  With no similarities to the filled yeast dough known in Texas as Kolaches, these bars have three layers: a sweet short crust base, jam in the middle and a moist and crispy meringue on the top.  These are easy to make and very popular with locals alike.

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Grind them as finely as you can.  I used my awesome Serbian grinder, but a food processor will do.006 v1

Pat the short crust pastry in the baking pan and spread it with a thick layer of raspberry (or apricot) jamYu-um!007 v1

Whip up the egg whites and sugar, then gentlyoh so gentlyblend them with the ground walnuts to make a meringue for the top.009 v1

With a crispy, cracked top and a gooey middle, chocolate brownies will have stiff competition!013-crop v1

Zora Kolači

Translated from Veliki Narodni Kuvar (People’s ‘Big’ Cookbook)


For the short crust base and filling:

1¾ cups (210 grams) flour

1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) salt

1/3 cup (70 grams) sugar

10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 egg yolk

½ cup (130 grams) raspberry, apricot or jam of your choice


For the meringue topping:

4 egg whites (about 150 grams)

¼ teaspoon (1 gram) cream of tartar

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (210 grams) granulated sugar

1 1/2  cups (140 grams) walnuts – measure and then grind as finely as possible, without becoming pasty

about 1 heaping teaspoon confectioner’s sugar, for dusting the top

Prepare a 8 x 8 inch (20cm x 20cm), 9 x 9 inch, or a 7 x 11inch (18cm x 26cm) baking pan by lining it with parchment paper or buttering the bottom and sides and dusting with a little flour.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC)

Make the base:

Place flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a mixer (or you can use a regular bowl and hand-held mixer or a wooden spoon). Blend together. Add butter and egg yolk and combine until starting to form a ball. Don’t overbeat. Gently pat dough into the prepared baking pan. Dough does not have to be smooth. Spread jam over dough to about ½ inch (12cm) from the sides of the pan. Refrigerate while you make the meringue topping.

Make the meringue topping:

Combine egg whites and cream of tartar in a clean and dry bowl of a mixer (or you can use a regular bowl and hand-held mixer). With the whisk attachment, beat the whites until foamy and white. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly pour in the sugar. Beat until the mixture is stiff and shiny. Remove the bowl from the mixer and add the ground walnuts. Using a spatula, slowly and very gently mix in the walnuts by lifting the meringue from the bottom upward. You don’t want to deflate the meringue by stirring or using a mixer at this point. Spread meringue on top of jam without smoothing it too much.

Bake in a preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes (depending on the size of the pan). The meringue should be light brown. Place on a wire rack to cool for about 30 minutes. When the pan is still warm, cut longwise with a sharp, thin knife, into about ¾ inch sections and crosswise into about 1½ inch sections. The meringue may crack as you go, but that’s ok -  rinsing and drying the knife after every cut will help achieve cleaner edges. To serve, dust tops with confectioner’s sugar. 


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Col. Teague Gray Harris, Jr.

It was the end of an era last Thursday when we said goodbye to my father-in-law, Colonel Teague Gray Harris, Jr., who died thirteen days short of his 100th birthday. It was a beautiful day in San Antonio. The ceremony was led by the Rev. Stanford Adams of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin. The Colonel's grandchildren read from his bible, and sharp, young members of the honor guard detail at Fort Sam Houston performed the military rites. 

I was honored to deliver the eulogy:

Good Morning,

I am Dragana Arežina Harris, and I have been fortunate to know my father-in-law, Teague Gray Harris, Jr, fondly known as “Bucky” to many of his peers, for most of my adult life. We called him Colonel out of deep respect for his history, sacrifice, patriotism, and principles by which he led his life.

 The Colonel was born on a farm in South Carolina on August 17, 1919, one hundred years ago, during the post WWI recession. The middle child of a school teacher and a cotton farmer, he learned good old Southern principles of hard work, frugality, and honesty at an early age.

 Although the Colonel’s entrance into military service was somewhat serendipitous, once hooked, he embraced it completely. He was appointed to West Point by a US senator. It was an honor that he didn’t take seriously at first, until he went on a blind date who was quite impressed, and she urged him to go. He graduated from the United States Military Academy West Point in June 1943, after which he served as a B-24 pilot with the 458th Bomber Group, Eighth Air Force in Horsham St. Faith Air Base in East Anglia, England. 

 The Colonel became an accomplished pilot during World War II, and during the return from his eleventh mission, his plane, named Bomb Totin’ Mama, was shot down over England. Half of his crew was killed in the crash and he was assumed dead at first and placed in the morgue. He was found alive the following morning, and over the next year he recovered from a broken back and third-degree burns. He continued to serve the Air Force and retired after 30 years, but not before earning several military honors: Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Air Force Commendation Medal. His heroism exemplifies America’s Greatest Generation.

 He married the love of his life, Mary Virginia Grant, and together for 64 years, they raised two admirable sons, traveled the world in a military capacity, represented the United States Air Force in exemplary fashion, and always honored their humble roots and family.

 Colonel Harris lived a life of great discipline and made sure that his sons, Teague and John, did so too. The young boys were always buzz cut. When he became commander of the base near Athens in the early 70’s, he rigorously enforced the rules, much to the younger generation’s dismay. Letters of reprimand crossed the Atlantic from Greece to Houston, when my husband, Teague, then a freshman at Rice University, let his hair grow below his shirt collar. Many years later, now a resident of Austin, the Colonel finally embraced his younger son John’s ponytail, but not before many heated debates.

 As an immigrant to the US, the Colonel and Mrs. Harris taught me about their Southern culture and traditions. These included elaborate Thanksgiving dinners in South Carolina and San Antonio, when the Colonel always carved the turkey with great pride. He loved biscuits, experimenting with sourdough, and grits. He ate bacon for breakfast almost every day, and fried chicken for Sunday dinner. Pralines and boiled peanuts were also high on his list. His BLT’s with homegrown tomatoes, “pimmena” cheese sandwiches, and pickled peaches became my favorites, partly because we both love to eat, and the Colonel taught me to love it all.

 The Colonel underwent a ‘softening’ in character when Susan and I joined the family, and even more when he became a grandfather to Alex, Emilia and Haley. They loved listening to his personal accounts of WWII and spending time with him on the Harris ranch near Lometa. During one trip when they were still very young, the Colonel lined them and their cousins up and taught them to click their heels and salute him whenever he passed by.

 The ranch is where he taught Haley how to whittle, and later, it became a place of gathering during opening weekend for deer hunting, where he provided the steaks and managed to wrangle the younger generation during heated political discussions. It was the Col’s way or the highway, and no one dared sit in his recliner as the repercussions would be dire. My son, Alex, who attended these manly weekends when he was old enough, remembers that “grandpa always had my back”, especially during poker games against his wily opponents.

 The Colonel loved woodworking. He crafted many cherished pieces of furniture for our homes, and he didn’t forget his grandchildren - a rocking horse that Haley named Bucky Buckaroo, Santa’s reindeer, beds and other furniture for Emilia and Haley’s American Girl dolls, and a solid wooden car and train set for Alex. He loved the challenge of do-it-yourself repairs and excelled at it. He loved restoring old furniture and making clocks.  

 There’s another side to the Colonel though: when I asked my daughter, Emilia, to describe her grandfather, the first words that came to her mind were “trouble-maker”. She recalls her grandpa telling them a story about an incident during his childhood in Greystone. He was put in a closet as punishment whereupon he preceded to wreak havoc by climbing to the top shelf and throwing things to the floor. He recalls, “They thought they were teaching me a lesson, meanwhile, it was I who was teaching them a lesson!”

 The Colonel recently revealed that during his flight training near Smyrna, Tennessee, he and a fellow pilot secretly commanded a plane and took a couple of young ladies for an illegal spin over the town. He said, “I wouldn’t qualify as an angel. I haven’t done anything bad, but I like to stir things up!” More recently, I found him chasing unsuspecting staff in his scooter down the hallway in the retirement home. He claimed many times that he was living among old folks, one of which he was not.

 The Colonel was always dedicated to his family and upon retirement, he and Mrs. Harris moved back to Greenville, South Carolina, where they lovingly took care of their parents until their deaths. In Austin, this devotion was once again evident when he cared for Mrs. Harris with much passion and intensity. I saw that same incredible devotion in the way that John and Susan, whom I have called Saint Susan many times, cared for the Colonel in his last years. My husband, Teague, and the Colonel spent many times on the road in search of the best barbecue, at the same time admiring county courthouses in the Hill Country along the way.

 The Colonel had a voice of authority, and we remember many strongly worded letters to AT&T and the homeowner’s association. Many years ago, during a friendly argument when I disagreed with him, he told me to “get back on the boat”. I was taken aback at first, but soon realized he said it in jest. He created a t-shirt especially for me to emphasize his point – a boat on the front with “get back on the boat”, and on the back it reads “Just kidding, you’re a keeper!” I will treasure that t-shirt always.

 The Colonel’s goal in the last few years was to make it to 100. His will to live was so strong that he underwent two surgeries to repair broken legs – always with a positive attitude and little complaint. In the end, his physical being was greatly diminished, but his mind and his presence were considerable. Where I come from, one turns the age of your birthday on January 1st, so Colonel, in keeping with Serbian reason, you made it!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shubhra Ramineni’s “Palak” Paneer

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I first met the genteel and beautiful Shubhra Ramineni at a pasta class hosted by fellow Chowhound Jay Francis.  With her handsome husband and the cutest baby in tow, she graciously allowed us a first look at her cookbook, Entice with Spice, Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People which was in the process of publication. 

imageUpon opening the book, I was greeted by a collage of family photos, travel images of India and of course, Indian food and markets.   Particularly catchy to me was a colorful map of Shubhra’s motherland citing family members’ birthplaces, notable monuments and regional food products.  What followed was a listing of over 90 recipes and a veritable account of how a successful engineer became a cook and author:  it came from a need to drop the unhealthy eating habits she had developed as an overworked corporate individual and go back to the nutritious diet on which she was raised.  

Shubhra naturally turned to her family for recipes and developed them with a busy lifestyle in mind.  The novice cook will find an invaluable 25-page mini-encyclopedia within the book which includes sections headed Indian Cooking Made Easy; Cookware and Tools; Tips and Techniques; Freezing, Refrigerating and Reheating Methods; and Essential Indian Ingredients.  Did you know that in India “curry” is a plant and also means ‘gravy’ or ‘sauce’ and not the blend of spices developed by English colonists; that the bright red color of tandoori chicken comes from the addition of coloring (!); and that carom seeds (a new one for me) aid in settling upset gassy tummies?   The book has helpful tips accompanying many recipes; some including instructional photos showing the important steps.

I have had limited success with cooking Indian food because I was usually following recipes with a mind-boggling array of spices and complicated and long-winded cooking methods.  After less than stellar results, my family would drop hints about “going out for Indian” more often!  That’s not the case with Shubhra’s Saag Paneer.  It’s my favorite Indian dish and the first recipe I made from her book.   Hubs and I finished it off quickly and I made more a few days later.  It is easy to make and it’s full of spicy flavor!  For part of the spinach, I substituted chard and kale that I harvested in the beautiful garden of Ralph Smith Photography.   The garden is an organic wonder that provides herbs, fruits and vegetables year round, some of which are used in Ralph’s photo shoots.

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A colorful feast for the eyes

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Creamy and spicy with home made paneer

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“Palak” Paneer slightly adapted from Shubhra Ramineni’s Saag Paneer

Serves 4

1 pound (500g) fresh chard, washed, de-ribbed and coarsely chopped

1 pound (500g) fresh spinach, washed, trimmed and coarsely chopped, or a 10-ounce (285g) package of frozen spinach

2 ripe tomatoes, quartered

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ to ½ heaping teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

1 small onion, diced

1 – 2 serrano peppers, diced

1 recipe Paneer (Indian cheese), cubed and pan-fried, see recipe below

½ cup (125ml) heavy cream, or more to taste

Place chard, spinach and tomato in a medium saucepan over medium heat. If you’re using frozen spinach add ½ cup water. Cook for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add turmeric, red pepper, salt and black pepper. Stir to combine and cover. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The greens will become soft and tender and the tomatoes will become mushy. Remove from heat and puree using an immersion blender or transfer contents to a blender and puree until smooth.

Pour the oil into a small skillet and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the ginger, onion and serrano pepper. Sauté until the onion is browned, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes. Pour into the saucepan with the greens. Add the paneer (cheese cubes) and heavy cream and stir to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Enjoy immediately or cool and refrigerate for later.

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Paneer (Indian cheese)

Makes ¼ pound (125g)

4 cups (1 liter) whole milk

juice of 1 lime

Pour milk into a heavy medium pot. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, stirring frequently as it comes to a boil. Don’t let it boil over. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low.

Add lime juice and stir for about 45 seconds or until the milk separates into curds (solids) and whey (liquid). If the milk does not separate add more lime juice - 2 teaspoons at a time – until it separates.

Fold a large piece of cheesecloth to create four layers. Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl to catch the whey. Pour the curds into the cheesecloth. Let the whey drain through the cheesecloth into the bowl.

Gather the sides of the cheesecloth to create a bundle and press it against the side of the pot to squeeze out the excess whey. Be careful as it will be hot.

Place the bundle on a plate. Unfold the cheesecloth and with your hands, mold the cheese, now paneer, into a square block about ¾-inch thick. Fold the cheesecloth back over the paneer.

Pour the whey into the pot that the milk boiled in. Place the pot on top of the paneer and allow the rest of the whey to drain out, about 30 minutes.

Remove pot and discard the whey. Unfold the cheesecloth. Transfer the paneer to a plate and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a minimum of one hour and up to one day before using.

To fry Paneer:  Cut the paneer into ¾-inch cubes. You should get about 16 or so. Pour 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil into a non-stick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cubed paneer. Fry the cubes until they are lightly browned on all sides, turning very carefully to retain their shapes. Remove from skillet and drain on a plate that has been lined with a paper towel.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Root Vegetable Soup

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As I sit at my computer today, the sun has made a strong appearance and is cheekily playing on the lifeless leaves of our many dead plants and trees.  The view outside is not too encouraging.  After two hard freezes earlier this month and the promise of snow (alas, Mother Nature did not deliver) it’s time to uproot that which could not withstand the extreme temperatures and wind, and replant.

After the loss of a bumper producing Key (Mexican) lime tree – the one that was responsible for the most amazing ‘Lime-cello’ - we have decided that our new lime trees will grow in large pots from now on.  Even though it will be a pain to move them come winter, it will be easier than having to start anew.  Citrus trees take several years to establish themselves but once they are ready their harvests are truly enjoyable!  After finally amazing us with dozens of beautiful lemons hanging like golden ornaments a couple of years ago my Meyer lemon produced only 2 lemons this year.  I’m hoping it will recover in time for the next crop. 

I was fortunate not to have to leave home while temperatures in the twenties brought freezing rain and caused no less than 750 traffic accidents during a 15-hour period alone!  There was much whining down south and much teasing from our hardier countrymen up north!  Say what you will, but our cars and homes are equipped to handle extreme heat and not the ice and freeze, and the memory of Husbie watching TV with his ski cap on always produces a chuckle!

This Root Vegetable Soup first introduced on New Year’s Day made a heartwarming reprise.  Each root vegetable has a distinctive flavor that is not lost in the simple broth.  It’s not too late to make it this winter.

From left to right:  rutabaga, carrots, fennel, red jalapeno peppers, garlic and parsnips

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Root Vegetable Soup

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ onion, diced

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed at the bottom and sliced, including tops (save some leaves for decoration)

½ red bell pepper or 2 red jalapeno peppers, halved lengthwise and then sliced

1 clove garlic, smashed, peeled and sliced

1 small rutabaga, peeled and diced in ¾ inch pieces

1 carrot, peeled and sliced into ½ inch discs

1 parsnip, peeled and sliced into ½ inch discs

6 black whole peppercorns

5 - 6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade

salt, to taste

1 chicken bouillon cube, optional

1 scallion, sliced on the diagonal

sprinkle of red pepper flakes for some heat, optional

Heat olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add fennel, red peppers and garlic. Sauté for 1 minute, stirring constantly so that the garlic doesn’t burn.

Add rutabaga, carrot, parsnip and peppercorns to the pot. Cover with chicken broth and cook until vegetables are just tender. Season with salt and chicken bouillon, if desired.

Serve hot with sliced scallion, red pepper flakes and fennel fronds.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Roasted poblano and corn soup

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Every New Year’s Day our home calls for a gathering of family and friends.   After the detritus from fireworks has been swept away and our minds have cleared of the bubbly imbibed the night before, those closest to me trickle in for a low-key celebration to welcome the start of a new calendar year.  The stars of the meal are invariably Krofne - Serbian doughnuts.  Sweet and yeasty, they symbolize growth, abundance and everything good from the first day on.   While the yeast dough is rising and the kids wait patiently for the first batch of krofne to come out of the fryer, we indulge in a variety of soups.   In the old country soup is consumed almost every day and is an integral part of the main meal.   A clear thin broth at the start stimulates the appetite for heavier courses to follow.

In our new homeland, there are heartwarming and nourishing favorites that make an appearance every New Year’s Day – my sister’s Chicken Tortilla Soup from Stop and Smell the Rosemary;  Wild Mushroom Soup - a thick and creamy combination of wild and cultivated mushrooms always laced with sherry, port or Marsala and sometimes finished off with dried porcini powder; and Debbie’s Potato Soup that I learned to make during a ski trip to Utah several years ago. 

Since I love to change things up and can’t leave well alone (a common complaint of favorite husband!) I introduce a couple of new soups every year.  This year I made a Root Vegetable Soup including rutabagas and parsnips and a Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup.   Both were very well received!

My personal favorite this year was the Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup.   I come from a food culture that takes its peppers very seriously.  Every fall a haze blankets the old country and excites the senses with its sweet-smoky aroma.  Caused by the rising smoke of roasting sumptuous red peppers, families gather to make and can this distinctive relish known as ajvar.   It is a labor-intensive but much loved tradition.   Ajvar defines our cuisine and is eaten daily throughout the year. 

Living in Texas and in close proximity to Mexico has been a boon for me when it comes to food.   I think it’s safe to say that much of Mexican cuisine includes the use of an enormous variety of peppers.   Native to South and Central America, peppers were introduced to southeast Asia hundreds of years ago and spread throughout the world during the spice trade.   The poblano pepper has been my favorite pepper for many years now.   Far more complex in taste than your common green bell pepper, the poblano chile can range in heat from mild to hot.   My Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup will be as spicy as the heat intensity in the poblano peppers dictate.   In my mind, the higher on the poblano range of the Scoville scale the better!  

The poblano pepper’s firm walls and pseudo heart shape lends itself well to being roasted and stuffed as in Chiles en Nogada and Chiles Rellenos.   Poblano chiles are a bold contrast to avocados in my favorite omelette and add crunch to a flavorful chicken salad.    When dried, the poblano chile is called an ancho chile, a key ingredient of Mexican mole

Poblano peppers under the broiler.   Roasting the peppers imparts a smoky flavor and intensifies the heat:

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As you can see the skin has already separated from the flesh and is very easy to peel:

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Corn, another ‘new world’ wonder, adds sweetness and balance to the heat:

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The soup before it is blended:

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Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup  loosely adapted from a recipe by M.S. Milliken & S. Feniger

Serves 6

9 – 10 poblano chiles, about 2 pounds

2 ears or fresh corn, husks intact, silken ends trimmed

1 quart milk (I used 1% but any other milk will do)

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

½ -1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 cups chicken stock

chopped chives, cilantro, sour cream and lime segments for garnish, optional

To roast the poblano chiles and corn you may grill or broil them – the choice is yours. Preheat the broiler in your oven or fire up your grill. Grease the poblanos by dipping your fingers in a little oil and rubbing them all around. Place poblanos and corn about 5 inches below the broiler or on the grill. Roast until charred on all sides, turning every few minutes. Place roasted poblanos in a bowl or paper bag. Cover and allow them to steam for about 15 minutes. Now clean them but do not run them under water to rinse them. You will lose their flavorful juices if you do so. Carefully peel the skin off the poblanos. Pull the stem off but be careful not to burn your fingers as the steam escapes.  Split the poblanos in two lengthwise. Remove the seeds and discard. Chop coarsely and place in a bowl with any juices that they may have released. When the corn husks are charred on all sides, remove them from the broiler or grill and cool. Remove husks and silk and cut kernels off with a knife. Place in a bowl with the chopped poblano peppers. Set aside.

Infuse the milk by placing it in a medium saucepan with the cumin seeds and bay leaf. Place over medium heat and bring to a bare simmer but do not boil. Remove from heat and let sit for 20 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and sauté until starting to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and ground cumin and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the diced poblanos and corn kernels and continue to cook over low heat for 5 more minutes.

Using a sieve, strain the infused milk into the corn and chili mixture. Add the chicken stock and bring to a slow simmer over low heat. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.

To puree the soup you can use an immersion blender and puree to the consistency of your liking. You can also cool the soup for about 20 minutes (to prevent possible explosion of soup) and pour it into a food processor or blender to puree it. Pour it back into the soup pot to warm before serving.

Serve hot with sour cream, chives and cilantro as garnish and a squeeze of few drops of fresh lime juice.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Foraging with chef Randy Rucker

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We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day when fourteen eager food-centric men and women gathered at Bootsie’s Heritage Café in Tomball, Texas.  Inspired by local chef Randy Rucker, we met with a purpose - to bring out the gatherer in us.  Inherent in humans since the beginning of time, it’s an activity largely lost to us today due to industrialization and a small but very powerful number of corporations that control our food supplies and have in many cases sucked all semblance and nutritional value from our food…if you haven’t seen Food, Inc. yet, do so immediately!  

On a positive note, a shift to a local and sustainable culture is gaining momentum with Farmer’s Markets popping up everywhere in the nation.  Chef Monica Pope coined it best: eat where your food lives!   A sweet vine-ripened tomato grown in your own garden or by a local farmer will be far superior tasting to one that has travelled thousands of miles.  Oh yeah, and it’s better for the local economy and the environment.  Consider fruit from Chile - it travels some 4,000 to 5,000 miles to get to your grocery store.  In many cases it is harvested unripe, coated in wax and treated to retard its ripening…hello green bananas! 

A leader in promoting local produce and meat, Randy Rucker talks about the local terroir.   Terroir is the French work for “land” originally used by the wine industry to describe the flavors the soil imparts on grape vines and ultimately the wines produced from those grapes.   Animals raised for food that eat what the terroir produces taste better.  When cooked and accompanied by local vegetables in season, Mother Nature’s ultimate gift for nourishment and healing is gained. 

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So it is with foraging.   Wild, edible plants offer a range of flavors and benefits.   It was at one of Randy’s Tenacity dinners last year that I discovered peppery - sour wood sorrel and purslane, which imparted a distinct lemon flavor.   Enthusiastic about his vocation, Randy’s vision for his restaurant is that it is “consistently inconsistent”.   With an emphasis on the freshest food, Randy and his young crew forage several times a week.  He is also training his chefs to not only update the restaurant menu daily, but hourly.  He shuns fixed menus, claiming that there is only a short window of time that vegetables, once harvested, are at their peek.

A heartwarming breakfast of house-made venison sausage, soft-boiled eggs, biscuits and gravy prepared us for the brisk but sunny weather outdoors.  After a short introduction to the area and perusal of a website by local forager Merriwether, we were confident that we would find many edible native treasures.  Our first stop was Burroughs Park, a gorgeous 320-acre enclave offering many amenities, including a beautiful wooded area with winding trails. 

David, Kelsey, chef Randy and Chuck examine the terroir.

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This Beautyberry cluster lives up to its name.  Eaten raw, pickled or made into jelly, beautyberries can also be made into wine.  

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Edible Lichen must be boiled to neutralize its high acid content.

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We also found Bittercress, Chickweed and Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot).  Below, Wood Sorrel…found in my front yard the next morning!

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Tiny dollarweed can be hard to find but is very pretty on a plate.

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Chuck was determined to find sassafras – and he did at the very end of our expedition.  The leaves of the sassafras come in three distinct shapes.  When dried and ground to a powder, it is know as filé.  Added to gumbo at the end of cooking, it enhances the flavors of the stew with its earthiness.  The root is used to make tea and root beer. 

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Our next stop was “the farm”, a large plot with several organic beds and fruit and nut trees.  Crops are rotated annually to maintain the soil’s high nutrient levels. 

A pea plant

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I’m holding the largest and most beautiful bunch of lettuce I have ever seen!  In the absence of a grocery bag, I made a pouch of my sweater.  I stuffed it with bok choy, borage, kale and green beans!  It was a highly fruitful and edifying day!



Friday, November 5, 2010

Szechuan eggplant with pork and hot bean sauce

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My friend Chantal and I were feeling pretty relaxed and rejuvenated after our acupuncture sessions recently.   We left with instructions to refrain from touching our right ears for a couple of hours.   Do you know that your ears alone have dozens of reflex points that address a myriad of ailments including hypertension, nervous disorders and inflammation?   The bursa in my shoulder felt great after being stimulated by a dozen or so tiny needles and we decided on a casual lunch in nearby Chinatown.  

Le Lai Restaurant is situated in the old Dynasty Plaza shopping mall on Bellaire.   One of the original Chinese malls built long before the massive expansion of Chinatown in west Houston, Dynasty Plaza is now in desperate need of a facelift inside and out.   For now, it seems to be holding its own against umpteen spiffy malls nearby, thanks to an old and loyal clientele.

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In Le Lai Restaurant, we noticed that were were the only Caucasians present – not an unusual sight considering the size of Houston’s Chinese community.   It is also a great indicator that were about to enjoy an authentic Chinese meal!   A large menu foreign to us both was posted at the counter but our table menus provided us with translations.   Service was terse and brisk and our order of whole fried fish and Szechwan eggplant was delicious.   At $4.50 per lunch plate, our bill came to $9.89 including tax.  To our surprise Chantal’s iced tea, my jasmine tea and two bowls of soup were included for free - quite a bargain!   We were quite satisfied until… 

An Oriental woman walked towards the exit, paused beside our table and smiled at us.  We were somewhat surprised to be acknowledged by this little old lady.   Before she disappeared through the door she gibed sarcastically,  “Cheaper than McDonald’s, eh?” 

Her question took several stunned seconds to digest.   We looked at each other in dismay and sheer disbelief.    We were obviously the result of a common stereotype that all Americans eat at McDonald’s.    We have never taken to fast food since we both grew up in foreign lands and are accomplished cooks.   Much of our friendship revolves around dining on gourmet food and wine, cooking and experimenting in the kitchen.   Heck, our meals and desserts are all made from scratch; my husband and I tend a vegetable garden every year; and for the Chinese lady’s information I make pasta, filo dough for strudel and even her native homeland’s dumplings from scratch!

Stereotypes about the eating habits of groups of people are unfortunate but very prevalent.   We all have them in varying degrees.   Had the old Chinese lady kept hers to herself she would not have shown herself to be ignorant and rude and we would have ended our meal on a more positive note. 

Bad vibes aside, here’s a recipe Chantal shared with me that she learned from Dorothy Huang, a local cooking instructor and author.   It’s important to have all of the ingredients ready before you start to cook as tender Japanese eggplant cooks quickly.   Here it is coated in a rich sweet and spicy brown sauce.

Szechwan Eggplant with pork and hot bean sauce

adapted from Dorothy Huang’s Chinese Cooking

Serves 2

Seasoning sauce:

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons chicken stock

2 tablespoons hot bean sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon dry sherry

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Mix all of the ingredients listed for the seasoning sauce in a small bowl.  


Have all of the following ingredients ready before cooking:

1½ pounds Japanese eggplant (the long, slender kind with thin skins)

3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

2 teaspoons minced garlic

¼ pound lean ground pork

salt, to taste

½ cup chicken broth

2 green onions, chopped

Rinse the eggplant.  If they are small, the peel will be tender and you do not have to peel them; if they are large with a tough skin, peel them first.  Cut eggplant into 1/2 inch chunks.

Heat oil in a wok over high heat.  Add ginger root, garlic and ground pork; stir for 1 minute.

Add eggplant and salt, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add chicken broth, turn heat to medium, cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or more.

Add seasoning sauce and chopped green onions; stir until thickened and serve with steamed rice.

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