Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Inventing Hogmanay Traditions

I've been reading up on Hogmanay. It's about time, given that I'm mainly Scottish and Hogmanay is a uniquely Scottish celebration. Hogmanay is, is fact, the Scots word designating the last day of the year and the celebration extends into Ne'erday, a contraction for New Year Day. In other words, the Scots have their own take on doing the turn of the year celebrations, involving fireworks and music and lots of adult beverages and food and merriment. There is "first-footing" and gift giving and swinging fire balls and all kinds of wonderful stuff. Makes dropping the ball in Times Square look kind of tame.

I won't be swinging any fire balls but I decided, in honor of the occasion, I would institute a new food tradition in my household. After careful thought and particular attention to the muted growling from my tummy, I decided the perfect Hogmany dish would be -- tah dah! -- chicken enchiladas!

Okay. Enchiladas are not ordinarily associated with things Scottish, I'll admit that. If I used some Scotch Bonnet chili peppers in them, I might be stretching the connection hard enough to fit. Or if I could find my tape of bagpipe music, I could play that while eating the enchiladas. It only takes a little imagination to Scotchify this south-of-the-border dish. Not too much imagination, though. I did have a brief vision of haggis-stuffed enchiladas but decided that was a bit too advanced for my brand new tradition.

Anyway, the recipe I want to share with you is not for the enchiladas, per se, but for the enchilada sauce. This is tweaked from a recipe I found at Recipezaar. If you go there and type 109685 in the Search box at the top of the page, you'll be taken to the original recipe, which we're told comes from a woman who was born and raised in Mexico City. I figure that gives it the chops for authenticity, don't you?

My version netted me around 5 cups of sauce, which was 2 cups more than I needed. Not a problem -- I just poured the remainder in a quart canning jar and popped it in the freezer for later use. And this am da way it goes ...


In medium-sized sauce pan, combine:
3 tablespoons chili powder
3-4 tablespoons flour (I used 4)
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin

Measure out 3 cups water. Pour in enough to make a sloppy paste. Set pan on medium heat, slowly add the rest of the water, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until mixture thickens. ("Thicken" is a relative term. It would coat the spoon but wasn't as thick as, say, gravy.) Add 8 ounce can of tomato sauce, stir in and remove from heat. Cover with lid until ready to use.

A note about the tomato sauce ... I only had a 6 ounce can of tomato paste. What I did was, I scooped the paste into a 2-cup measuring cup, added 2 cans-worth of water and a half-teaspoon of sugar to cut the acid and stirred it well. That gave me almost 2 cups of sauce, twice as much as needed for the recipe. However, we're told measurements for this recipe can be very flexible so I just used the whole 2 cups. Worked just fine.

No matter how creative you get with this sauce, don't leave out the cocoa! That's the secret ingredient. Very important.

As for the enchiladas, you can pretty much stuff them with whatever you happen to fancy. I poached a chicken breast in chicken broth and then shredded it with a fork. It's amazing how far a single chicken breast will go when it's been soundly forked. Then I tossed the chicken with about half a finely minced sweet onion, a couple of tablespoons of finely minced canned jalapeno peppers and about a cup of cottage cheese. This made enough stuffing for 8 enchiladas, with enough left over for me to eat like a salad as a reward once I got the goodies in the oven.

Ladle some of your sauce in a baking dish, soften your corn tortillas, 2 at a time, for 30 seconds in the microwave. Drag each tortilla through the sauce and plop some stuffing in the middle. Roll it up and place it in the baking dish. (You can use a dinner plate for the stuffing and rolling but I find it easier to just work right in the baking dish. You'll build the last enchiladas right on top of the ones you've already placed.)

Once they're all tucked in, pour sauce all over everything, sprinkle shredded cheese over the top and put in a 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

I'll tell you what ... as far as brand new traditions go, I think this one is a keeper. And who knows? Maybe one of these fine Hogmanays, I'll be brave enough -- or senile enough -- to actually do the haggis-stuffed enchilada.

Oh! Dear Coffee Mates -- have a fantastic Hogmanay and an even better Ne'erday!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Trifling With Truffles

If you don't give me the recipe, I shall have to hurt you.

That's what I told Albert (my grandson-the-chef). He and Holly made up some marvelous goodie baskets for Christmas giving and the item that had me quivering with total bliss was a bag of the most fantastic choccy cookies I have EVER eaten. That's the truth.

I don't think he really believed I'd harm a single hair on his head but, just in case, he dropped by earlier this evening so I could copy off the recipe. Lo and behold, it turns out to be one from a favorite recipe site of mine, RecipeZaar. If you haven't checked it out, believe me, it's worth many enjoyable hours of browsing.

Anyway, rather than typing up the recipe here, I'll link you to the appropriate page so you can easily print off a copy for your files. Go to: Ultimate Chocolate Truffle Cookies and prepare to be tempted beyond endurance.

The cookies are aptly named because biting into one is almost identical to biting into a chocolate truffle. Moist and silky-tender. And decadent. We can't forget decadent.

I really don't think I'm going to tinker with this recipe, which is very unusual for me. That decision falls under the heading of "Don't fix what ain't broke." Okay, one thing I'll do different. I won't dust them with powdered sugar because they really don't need any dusting. Uhmmm. Well. I guess I could dust them with cocoa. That sounds reasonable. I'm just not a big fan of powdered sugar.

I don't have any pictures of the cookies to show you. Can't take pictures of something you've already eaten and, since I just got the recipe, I haven't made any new ones to immortalize digitally. Not to worry -- there are four photos of the cookies on the page at the other end of the above link. Both sugar-dusted and plain, now that I think of it.

One note of caution: it might be wise to run off several copies of the recipe if you plan on sharing these cookies with family and friends. Otherwise, one of those folks might hurt you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Echoes of Ralph

Almost all the Christmas goodies are done. Just a few things left to whip out before the big day tomorrow. I'm walking a sort of tightrope here, in terms of flavor, freshness and shelf life. The cheese spreads improve with a couple of days of "ripening" and the spiced nuts will hold just fine but the lemon curd needs to be fresh. That sort of thing.

So I'm sitting here with my morning mug of sacred brew and it occurs to me I haven't yet played my favorite Christmas video. The one that's a cartoon of Santa and the reindeer singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." So I fired up Google and tapped in "Christmas video" and got the usual plethora of choices. As I started skimming down the list of links, the fourth one from the top caught my eye. The Jingle Cats singing "White Christmas." Hmmm. Wonder what that's all about.

Didn't take me long to realize Ralph must have pointed me to this one. Really. I mean, I got a sort of mind meld thought projection of the kind Ralph was fond of implanting. Usually his telepathic messages had to do with food but this time, very clearly, I got "heavenly choir." And I'm chuckling, thinking, "Yeah, Ralph. I guess you'd think this feline chorus sounds heavenly." And just about then, lo! An angel cat appeared onscreen, complete with wings and halo.

It's a fun video with some cute cats and there's even a cameo appearance by a big dog. Something for everyone, I reckon. And I even noticed, over in the sidebar, is a link to the very video I started out to find. Ralph is nothing if not considerate.

So here it is, Coffee Mates ... a Christmas video for your viewing pleasure, from me and Ralph. With that, please feel utterly surrounded and blissed out with hearty "Ho, ho ho's" and wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

The Jingle Cats - White Christmas - Funny videos are here

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Begin With a Pile of Cheese ...

Seems to me some of the most magical things can happen whenever you find yourself in possession of a big pile of shredded cheese. Take the above splendiferous mound of cheddar, freshly grated on the smallest of the three shred choices on my grater. That was my beginning salvo in the quest for one or more tasty cheese spreads fit for Christmas giving. What I was looking for was something that could be slathered on toast or French bread and broiled until hot and bubbly -- and then devoured with moans of delight. I'm big on moans of delight.

After an awful lot of time spent in the company of trusty Google, I narrowed the search down to two candidates -- a zesty beer cheddar and a more subtle rum cheddar. Both recipes meet my F.E.D. requirements (fast, easy, delicious) and both are so good I can't pick a clear winner. So be it. You know what they say -- two cheese spreads are better than one. Or something like that.

Before I lay out the actual recipes, a couple of tips may be helpful. You can run these through the blender if you wish but it really isn't necessary. Vigorous beating with a spoon does the job quite nicely and a bowl is easier to clean than a blender. It also helps if everything is room temperature and it's even better if you fine-grate the cheese. Also -- very important -- these recipes are highly flexible. Amounts are subject to personal taste and substitutions or additions are limited only by your creativity or current supplies. For example, instead of beer, I used ale -- because that's what I had on hand. I'm sure that garnered me a more robust flavor than beer would have done. For that matter, you can even use a different kind of cheese -- or a mixture of cheeses. It's your call. Isn't that fun?

3 cups finely shredded cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon hot sauce of choice
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
2 ounces beer or ale

Beat vigorously with spoon until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate for several hours for flavors to blend. Keeps several weeks in refrigerator.

1 cup finely shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup (2 ounces) softened butter
1 green onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dry mustard
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon rum

Beat vigorously with spoon until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate for several hours for flavors to blend. Keeps several weeks in refrigerator.

Okey-dokey, that's the basic stuff. You can fiddle with amounts to suit yourself or you can fling all kinds of other stuff into the pot. I didn't have any green onions on hand for the rum cheddar but a tablespoon of dried onion flakes worked just fine. I also seasoned the batch with some Mrs. Dash chipotle seasoning. Loves me that hot stuff. Oh ... and the rum was Captain Morgan Spiced Rum. Worked just fine.

So I whupped up a batch of each, put them in small covered containers, popped 'em in the fridge -- and tried to make myself forget about them long enough for the magic of flavor fusion to occur. When I finally allowed myself to haul out the two spreads for their debut on a couple of slices of bread, one thing became clear immediately -- the rum cheddar, with it's butter content, needs to come to room temperature to be easily spreadable. The beer cheddar is a looser mix and spreads without a problem even when cold. The second thing that became clear was that the flavors of both definitely improved with "ripening" time -- especially the one with the ale. If that trend continues, they'll be so good tomorrow, I'll probably pass out with ecstasy.

And there you have it, fresh out from under the broiler. The sample on the left is the rum cheddar and on the right, the ale version. Besides using the spreads this way, I can imagine plopping a heaping spoonful in the middle of a baked potato or into a bowl of steamed veggies. Or you could mix in some sour cream and salad shrimp for a totally cool chip dip.

See what comes of a simple pile of cheese?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rainbow Bridge Traffic

Sometimes the camera gives us some interesting effects when capturing the eyes. Ralph didn't really have eyes that look like big opals but I wouldn't doctor up this photo for anything. Somehow the jeweled look is just appropriately regal. Ralph could be a royal pain in the patoosh but, by God, he was always royal.

Yes. Past tense there. Without any real warning, something inside of Ralph broke down or wore out last night. He collapsed on the rug and wasn't able to get up. I held vigil with him, stroking and talking, until he seemed to relax enough to doze. Sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m., he stretched out and groaned. As I pet him and talked to him, he relaxed again. And then he just left. Slipped away.

Oh, I'll still sense him around for awhile. That always happens when loved furkids decide to cross the Rainbow Bridge. You catch tantalizing glimpses of them out of the corner of your eye, like after-images.

Needless to say, I slept little last night. But I thought a lot about the years I got to spend with a feline character who was both sweet-natured and sassy. In one way, it seems unkind to lose him during the holiday season but in another, perhaps it's fitting. After all, he came to live with me when my friend Jack joined us for Christmas dinner and gifted me with young Master Ralph the Toddler. Thank you, Jack. He was a gift that kept on giving.

Aside from his professional role as a Mighty Hunter, Ralph occasionally deigned to lend some of his charismatic presence to my book shop. He slept peacefully in a basket or empty box until a customer came in. Then he greeted them in his own dignified fashion -- "You may worship me while you browse." -- and followed them around to make it easier for them to grovel at his feet. One of my favorite pictures of him is the one above, where he is sitting in all his fluffy glory, surveying the kingdom.

Empty boxes were always one of Ralph's favorite things. Not just any empty box, you understand. He had to check them over, each and every one. Those he deemed worthy of his patronage had to be left laying out for whatever period of time he chose to use them. A week, two weeks -- or until the corners split and spoiled the cozy fit.

I expect Ralph will have an interesting time of it over there past the Rainbow Bridge. Investigating all the interesting boxes and hunting meece and getting acquainted with the other furkids. I wonder if he will have an attitude adjustment before long. See, Ralph was never properly socialized with canine furkids and emphatically disapproved of them. Just wait until he runs across Midgie. He won't be able to resist her affection. Well, not for long anyway. He's got to hold out for just a bit to save face. Royalty, you know.