Wednesday, November 28

Mexican Winter Chili with Chocolate

As I stand by the stove stirring the dark, luscious chocolate into this warm chili I can't help but feel a little like Vianne Rocher, concocting her alluring, exotic birthday feast.  Outside the wind has picked up and blown the first icy fingers of winter into town and, as the rich chocolate melts smoothly into this opulent chili, I watch as misty waves of fine crystalline snowflakes blow past my window.

It may sound unusual to add chocolate to a savoury chili, but in fact, it's a very common ingredient in sauces and stews from Mexico, where chocolate has long been used as a seasoning. In ancient times, when the "New World" was still new, cacao was the treasured "food of the gods."  It was revered for it's energizing, stimulating, and aphrodisiac qualities, and was so precious it was used as currency.   It wasn't until the 16th century when Spanish explorers, seduced by this enigmatic bean, brought it home to Spain, sweetened it and turned it over to the Swiss who transformed it into the opulent confection it is today. 

On a side note: Peanuts are also very common in authentic mole sauces, and sometimes enchilada sauce, which is why I always make my Mexican sauces at home. And peanut butter is often used in chili, as well.  We are very careful about the Mexican food we eat out.  Always ask for an allergen menu if you are allergic. 

The primary spices in this chili are allspice, coriander, and a basic red chili powder  - all common to central Mexico.  The chocolate fits seamlessly into the blend and adds a luscious, slightly bitter mouth feel.  (I use unsweetened Baker's Chocolate from Canada which is safe for those with peanut allergies.)  To balance the bitterness I add a handful of raisins, chopped very fine.  The combination is perfect.  This dish is all about layers upon layers of complex flavours simmered together slowly. I made this batch in the slow cooker, but it can just as easily be made in a heavy pot on the stove top. Serve with warm skillet corn bread, traditional Mexican-style tortilla chips, or a rolled flour tortilla.  Top with crumbled queso fresco.

Monday, November 12

Butternut Squash Bisque

When I entertain I love to start the meal with a small bowl of soup.  It's something to wet the appetite, and it always complements the flavours of the meal to come.  It may be a creamy vichyssoise in the summer, or roasted red pepper soup, topped with cool sour cream.  In the winter it's most likely a hearty vegetable beef soup made with roasted beef bones which I always keep in the freezer, or a flavorful and fun fish stew.  Whatever the season, soup is the perfect first course. 

As I was planning my Thanksgiving menu this year I wanted to include a warm, fall soup that was a little different than our normal Thanksgiving fare.  I finally decided on this simple Butternut Squash Bisque.  To make it festive it's topped with an exquisite crème fraîche from a local dairy, and garnished with a sprinkling of chopped, dried and sweetened cranberries for a burst of unexpected sweetness.

This bisque combines some of the most iconic flavours of fall: apples, cinnamon, and cranberries.  It is an easy autumn lunch or dinner with a ham and gruyère panino.  And the beautiful thing about it is that it's better the next day.  Make it the day before Thanksgiving and store it in the refrigerator.  Simply reheat it on the back burner (or in the slow cooker if you need more space) and you'll have a fabulous Thanksgiving starter.  And one less thing on you Thanksgiving day to-do list is always something to be thankful for!

Butternut Squash Bisque with Crème Fraîche and Cranberries

1 large butternut squash (3 - 4 lbs), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1 inch cubes
2 honeycrisp (or other sweet-tart) apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 leek, cleaned and chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 to 1 tsp salt (to taste)
1/4 ground cinnamon
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Crème Fraîche (1 Tbsp per serving)
1/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries

Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat.  Sauté the leeks for 1 - 2 minutes.  Add the squash and apples and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes.  Add the salt and cinnamon and stir to coat.  Add the broth and bring to a simmer.  Cover and simmer on medium-low heat for 40 - 45 minutes, until the squash is very soft.  Run the soup through the fine blade of a food mill, or purée it in the blender until smooth. (If using the blender please don't forget to remove the centre portion of the lid and cover the lid loosely with a clean kitchen towel leaving room for the steam to escape.)  Taste for seasoning.  At this point the soup can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two and reheated on the stove top (or in the slow cooker on high).  Serve hot with a tablespoon-sized dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of the chopped cranberries.  Serves 8 - 10 as a first course.

Shared with: Cybele Pascal's Allergy Friendly Thanksgiving

Friday, November 9

A Savory Beef Stew in Cast Iron

Cast iron is so superior for cooking utensils to our modern aluminum that I not only cannot grieve for the pioneer hardship of cooking in iron over the hearth, but shall retire if necessary to the back yard with my two Dutch ovens, turning over all my aluminum cookers for airplanes with a secret delight.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, "Cross Creek" (1942)

Whenever I cook in my cast iron dutch oven, it's as if the pan exudes a life all its own.  As if, deep within its soul lies a remnant, a recollection, of every meal I've ever prepared.  Its warm heart beats life into every stew, soup, or casserole held within its iron walls, and it adds that 'certain something,' which you can't explain, but which only seems to come from an age-old, well seasoned iron pot.
I know this all sounds mystical and, perhaps, a little psychedelic - in fact you're probably wondering, What did this girl smoke before she began writing.  (Was it Ernest Hemingway who suggested we Write drunk; edit sober?)  The truth is, I've thought this way about pots and pans since I was a little girl helping my grandmother wash and dry her ancient vessels.  As I ran my dish towel along the inside of each pot I would ask myself, if this pan could talk what marvelous recipes would it share?  That one with the wooden handle, precariously loose so that it twists every time you pick it up - what amazing bisques and broths have stewed within your walls!  This one, dented here on one side and charred on the bottom from a small kitchen fire decades ago - if only I could again taste that hearty, bolognase sauce that simmered within you for hours upon hours one cold Sunday afternoon.
Ancient beyond description, I'm sure some of my grandmother's pots were from the mid-ninetheeth century.  They were used daily to feed my ancestors and passed down through the generations.  Oh, if only I could hear their stories!
Cast iron is truly the best material in which to cook. Sure it's heavy and cumbersome, but nothing heats as evenly nor retains its heat quite like cast iron.  If you don't own a cast iron pan, I highly recommend that you buy one. They're inexpensive and nearly indestructable. I promise you'll never go back.  If you wash it carefully with very little (if any) soap, and season it after every use on the stove top with a little oil over very high heat, it will last forever.

I have several cast iron skillets and pots in my kitchen without which I could not cook:
  • My large Le Creuset oval skillet in which I make the perfect roasted chicken.
  • A small enamel coated cast iron sauce pan with a cast iron lid (that can be used as a small skillet) that makes the most fluffy, moist rice you've ever had.  I won't cook rice in anything else.
  • An 8 inch Lodge® Cast Iron skillet which creates the absolute best crust on steak au poivre.
  • And my dutch oven, which I use not only for stews and roasts, but also for roasting stuffed peppers. The heat of the pan caramelizes the flesh of the peppers while the tight lid seals in all the moisture.

Food is so much more than fuel for our bodies. Food is about love, about intimacy, about self-sacrifice, about creating something out of raw, unrefined ingredients that will ultimately nourish another's body both physically and emotionally.  This is why I love cooking the way I do, this is that 'certain something' that's absorbed into the rich patina of my worn and well-loved cast iron pans, and it's this abstract notion food (and my cast iron collection, of course) that I hope to pass down to my kids someday.

I always wait to start cooking with root vegetables until after the first frost. It's said that the first frost of the season makes root vegetables sweeter. Well, here in Colorado I wake every morning to a world glazed in ice, and I know it's the perfect time to share this recipe.