Tag Archives: Spring

STOP COOKING AND SMELL THE FLOWERS

Spring has finally come. Or is it summer already? The last big snow storm on the Sangre de Cristos melted a few days ago, and now there is only a tiny sliver of white on the highest peak. Today, the temperature is in the 80s, and tomorrow it is supposed to be over 90.

The western bluebirds and Say’s phoebes have built their nests while the purple house finches are looking for their space. Piñon jays have appeared in great flocks, the first time that has happened in years, perhaps because of the years-long drought and the early spring rains we have had. The spotted towhees are back with their distinctive cheerful sound, and the ravens are brooding in a huge nest built of sticks (too big to be called twigs) in a juniper on the bank of the arroyo. Black-chinned hummingbirds have arrived at the feeders, but it is too early for the more aggressive broad-tails.  It has been a joy to watch the migrants traveling through our yard on their trip up north. Lizards are sunning themselves on the patio wall.

Apricots and peaches put on an early show and then promptly froze, so again there won’t be fruit from the trees in our yard. Lilacs and daffodils have finished their performance, and now the irises and columbines are at their peak with the peonies bowing down as their huge flowers overwhelm the slender stems. The native plants have also begun to color the landscape: evening primroses (both yellow and white varieties), yuccas and their accompanying hawk moths, paintbrush, buckwheat, and Artemisia. The color should start to come in waves now until the winter frost with chollas, fern bushes, desert willows, sacred daturas, desert four-o’clocks, sunflowers, cow pen daisies, and asters joining in at just the appropriate time.

With all of this gong on, it has become harder to cook and to make images in the kitchen, so I decided to take a break and wander around my wife’s beautiful garden. I hope you will forgive this lapse, and I also hope that you enjoy this little break from cooking.

Enjoy your summer ahead.

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CAJETA

It’s May! And I think that Spring may be here. Lots of flowers are in bloom, but we have experienced freezing weather for the last week. As well, it is a month of birthdays: three of our circle of friends are having birthdays within a week of one another, so we are planning a mass celebration. I am making the dessert. My plan is to make takeoffs from Sarah’s Rich Table desserts – salted chocolate sablés and buttermilk panna cotta. Neither of these is an authentic recipe from Sarah (Do you think Dad could talk her out of trade secrets?) but they should be close. I also plan to gild the lily – it is Spring, remember? – with Mexican cajeta to pour over the panna cotta.

The recipe for cajeta comes from the superb cook book, Authentic Mexican, by Rick Bayless and Deann Groen Bayless (William Morrow and Co., New York, 1987, p 293). Even though the recipe calls for regular white sugar, in the past I have used piloncillo, the small cones of unrefined sugar that you can find in Mexican and Central American markets. This time, though, I decided to go with turbinado. The other decision was whether to use goat’s milk or cow’s milk. The authentic version calls for goat’s milk, and it is easy to buy from the stalls selling goat cheese at the farmers market or in cartons at health food groceries, so I went with that.

The only tricky things about the recipe are: (1) don’t let the mixture boil over when you add the baking soda, (2) stir occasionally so that it doesn’t burn on the bottom, and (3) watch for the change in the size of the bubbles as it boils, because that is the sign to let you know it’s almost done.

Cajeta is akin to caramel or butterscotch sauces, and it can be used in exactly the same way. It is delicious over ice cream, fruit, cake, etc. I guess you could just eat it straight out of the bowl, and some folks probably do.

RECIPE

Cajeta

Ingredients

  • 1 quart goat’s milk
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • 1½ inch stick of cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon light rum

Method

  1. In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the goat’s milk, sugar, and corn syrup, stirring until completely dissolved. Add the cinnamon
  2. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to the boil and then  remove from the heat and stir in the dissolved baking soda. It will foam up, so stir it vigorously to prevent boiling over.
  3. Return to the heat and adjust the temperature so that it simmers gently with a low boil. Stir frequently from the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching.
  4. Check frequently and stir. After about 30 – 45 minutes, the mixture will have reduced to about half or less, and the bubbles on the surface will change in size and become more glistening.
  5. Turn down the heat to medium-low, allowing the mixture to reduce still further, but stirring very frequently to prevent burning.
  6. When it has thickened sufficiently  – it should coat the spoon but still be fluid – remove from the heat. Cool for a few minutes, and then stir in the rum.
  7. Allow to cool completely and then transfer to a serving dish or to a wide-mouthed jar. It can be refrigerated for later use, but reheat gently before serving.

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CORNBREAD AND SPRINGTIME IN EAST TEXAS

This is the best season to be in East Texas. The winter rains have filled up the ponds and encouraged the emerging leaves into a hundred different shades of green.  The days have warmed without the blazing heat that will begin in only a few weeks. The nights are still cool and perfect for sleeping.

Unlike most of the rest of Texas, the “Piney Woods” are set on rolling hills which are filled with Southern pines, hickories, sweet gums, maples, and oaks of several varieties. This time of year, though, the redbud trees announce themselves as well as Spring. Beautiful shades of pink and red light up the woods.

More hidden in the depths of the forests, dogwoods hang like clouds in the shadows. The branches spread, and the white sepals seem to drift suspended. Close up, the markings remind us of the legend of the dogwood serving as the wood of the cross. It seems appropriate that the beautiful show occurs in the Spring.

East Texas has not lost the commercial opportunities of the redbuds and dogwoods. The Palestine Dogwood Festival (that’s Pal’-a-steen, Texas) provides visitors an opportunity to eat street food, watch the crowning of the festival queen, and tour the beautiful woods.

There are lots of foods that typify East Texas, including fried catfish, hush puppies, greens of all sorts (collards, kale, pokeweed), and at other times of year, black-eyed peas.  For me, though, the quintessential food is cornbread.

Cornbread is almost universally popular, especially in the South. Craig Claiborne, the famous New York Times editor and food critic from Mississippi declared that there are more recipes for cornbread than magnolia trees in the South! Yet finding good recipes for plain cornbread in cookbooks is a difficult task.  Moreover, the popularity of packaged cornbread kits has made it even harder to find a real home-made chunk of cornbread.

If you decide to bake your own cornbread,  there are  decisions that need to be made.  Cornbread made from white cornmeal tends to be more popular in the east with yellow cornmeal gaining increasing popularity the further west you travel.  Northern cornbread, or “Yankee cornbread” as it is commonly called in East Texas, usually contains some sort of sweetening – molasses, maple syrup, sugar, or honey;  Southern cornbread  usually does not contain sweetening, but these distinctions between north and south are not absolute.

This is a version of Southern cornbread, baked in a cast iron skillet as, in my opinion,  all authentic cornbread must be. Some time ago, we had an informal family competition for the best cornbread recipe. This was my entry. One of my daughters used a recipe from one of her friends. It contains sugar (heresy!) and is more like cake. But it is so good that you could wind up eating the whole thing by yourself. I plan to post that recipe in the near future.

RECIPE

 

Southern Cornbread

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons bacon fat for greasing the baking pan
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 jumbo eggs, room temperature
  • 1½ cups buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

 Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (218°C) . Grease a 9 inch cast iron skillet with bacon drippings and place in the oven 10 minutes before you are ready to pour in the batter.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients: flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the wet ingredients: buttermilk, beaten egg, and melted butter. When they are well combined, stir them into the dry ingredients.
  4. Mix the batter for only a few beats until the mixtures are combined and the large lumps have been smoothed. Do not overbeat.
  5. Remove the heated skillet from the oven, pour in the batter, and immediately return to the oven. Bake for 15 minutes in the top half of the oven. Turn  the skillet 180 degrees and continue to bake for another 15 minutes or  until the top is lightly browned. Remove from the oven, cool for about 5 minutes, then cut into eight wedges, and serve immediately while still warm.

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