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    Guest Post: A Tex-Mex Moonlight Chef

    My friend Rob and I like to e-mail each other about food. Professionally, he's a lawyer, but he also moonlights as a home cook, specializing in recreating (and eating) delicious Tex-Mex. Rob is an old friend from DC and I was so excited when we put this together. We've shared many food moments together growing up - from eating (bad) bar food at Rocky Mountain Brewery, (so-so) Tex-Mex in Bethesda, and grilling (terrific) burgers and hotdogs at my house. So let me introduce you to Rob and his enchiladas; the first guest post in a new series featured on other moonlight chefs.

    Rob Gillette lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife, Anna. His favorite things to cook are fettuccine alfredo, pad thai, salmon, deep dish pizza, breakfast scrambles, and apple pie. Also, he loves cinnamon. And guacamole. But not together. He grew up in the Washington, DC area, but was born in Austin, Texas, and went to college in Houston before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he attended law school. He practices law and shares cooking privileges with Anna. Together, they try to cook at least one new dish a week.

    "As a Texan, I'm manic about enchiladas and all Tex-Mex food. Unfortunately, Tex-Mex options in Seattle are very limited, particularly when you are striving to eat Tex-Mex at least 2 meals a day. I made enchiladas verdes recently and wanted to moonlight as a Moonlight Chef.

    Chicken enchiladas verdes is usually the benchmark by which I judge Tex-Mex restaurants. Some people use cheese enchiladas as a benchmark, which I support, but I try to eat a little healthier than cheese and tortillas. The first major decision is always corn or flour tortillas. Traditional Mexican places always use corn. Now I have had some amazing corn tortillas in enchiladas, but most of those occasions have involved San Antonio and four or five generations of handmade corn tortilla making excellence. Flour never disappoints. I like flour and I don't give a damn if the traditionalists don't approve. Also, I usually can’t find fresh tortillas up here, and I think the packaged flour are better than the packaged corn. So that’s what I use, but you can use either one. Try to use a good tortilla, preferably something fresh, because a good tortilla makes everything better.

    Next, the sauce. Making the sauce from scratch is the way to go, but definitely requires more time and a food processor. You need tomatillos and shucking them takes about 15 or 20 minutes. Apparently you can use canned tomatillos but I have not tried that. Put the shucked tomatillos under the broiler with some peppers, like jalapeños and some poblanos for about 10 mins, until softened. Remove from oven and remove the skins from the peppers after they cool off. This part is as annoying as it sounds. Put the peppers and tomatillos into the food processors. Add salt and chicken stock. Side note: If you cooked the chicken in liquid (instead of buying a roasted whole chicken), you can add some of that reserved liquid to the food processor. To save time, I like to buy a roasted chicken from the store. Yes, it is a shortcut, but this one, I think, is worth it.

    Back to the sauce. I also added some adobe sauce from some canned chipotle peppers. A little of the adobe sauce goes a long way, but a little give the sauce a great smoky flavor. Pulse about 10 (1 second) pulses until chunky. Then the best part, you get to taste the sauce and add whatever you think it needs. You can also use this basic recipe to make fresh salsa. The sauce and the tortillas are the key to the enchiladas. You can put whatever you want in the tortilla. I like chicken, chopped cilantro, and a little monterey jack cheese. 

    I love this recipe because enchiladas are God’s gift to mankind. But I also love it because it requires two cooking mentalities. My default mode for cooking is Follow Directions Strictly, and there is plenty of this mindset while you are shucking and roasting the tomatillos. My brain likes this structure for some reason, but I also love the creativity that is inherent in almost all cooking. When you season the sauce, this recipe allows you to think of a picture in your mind of what you want the sauce to taste like, and then paint that picture with your spices and favors right there on your food processor canvas. The best part is that you don’t have to wait for it to come out of the oven to see what you painted. You get that sauce the way you like it, and you are in business. It is also advisable to make guacamole and drink margaritas while the enchiladas bake."

    Chicken Enchiladas Verde

    Adapted from Cooks Illustrated


    2 teaspoons vegetable oil

    1 medium onion, chopped medium (about 1 cup)

    3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)

    ½ teaspoon ground cumin

    1 roasted chicken from the store pulled apart into shredded pieces

    1 ½ pounds tomatillos (16 to 20 medium), husks and stems removed, rinsed well and dried (see note)

    3 medium poblano chiles, halved lengthwise, stemmed, and seeded (see note)

    1 - 2 ½ teaspoons sugar

    Table salt

    Ground black pepper

    ½ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

    8 ounces Pepper Jack cheese or Monterey Jack cheese, grated (2 cups)

    Can of chipotle peppers in adobe sauce



    2 medium scallions, sliced thin

    Finely chopped lettuce

    Sour cream


    1. Toss tomatillos and poblanos with 2 teaspoons oil; arrange on rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, with poblanos skin-side up. Broil until vegetables blacken and start to soften, 5 to 10 minutes, rotating pan halfway through cooking. Cool 10 minutes, then remove skin from poblanos (leave tomatillo skins intact). Transfer tomatillos and chiles to food processor. Decrease oven temperature to 350 degrees. Discard foil from baking sheet and set baking sheet aside for warming tortillas.

    2. Add 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, remaining teaspoon garlic, and reserved cooking liquid to food processor; process until sauce is somewhat chunky, about eight 1-second pulses. Taste sauce; season with salt and pepper, adobe sauce, anything else you think it needs, and adjust tartness by stirring in remaining sugar, 1/2 teaspoon at a time. Set sauce aside (you should have about 3 cups).

    3. Pull the chicken into shreds using hands or 2 forks, then chop into small bite-sized pieces. Combine chicken with cilantro and 1½ cups cheese; season with salt.

    4. Smear bottom of 13- by 9-inch baking dish with 3/4 cup tomatillo sauce.

    5. For corn tortillas only: Place tortillas on 2 baking sheets. Spray both sides of tortillas lightly with cooking spray. Bake until tortillas are soft and pliable, 2 to 4 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees.

    6. Place tortillas on countertop and spread 1/3 cup filling down center of each tortilla. Roll each tortilla tightly and place in baking dish, seam-side down. Pour remaining tomatillo sauce over top of enchiladas. Use back of spoon to spread sauce so that it coats top of each tortilla. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese and cover baking dish with foil.

    7. Bake enchiladas on middle rack until heated through and cheese is melted, 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with scallions, and serve immediately, passing lettuce and sour cream separately.


    New Resolutions and a New Pesto 

    One of my resolutions for 2012 was to think big. Really more of a goal than a resolution. A resolution would have been to exercise more, or take time to smell the roses. However, I did make one resolution and that was to cook more.

    With my private chef work, I'm usually cooking for other people. In the past two days, I've made: cornmeal crusted tilapia, chicken pot pie, Mediterranean chicken orzo, pureed pea soup w/ cheesy croutons, cut-out sugar cookies, red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and homemade pizza (plain cheese and BBQ chicken). Whew! No matter how much I love cooking for others, I've realized that sometimes my home cooking suffers as a result.

    So this past weekend, I went into total overdrive. We ate up luxurious (um, sort of healthy, I swear!) bowls of clam chowder and Ina Garten's Ham and Cheese in Puff Pastry (really like a grown-up version of a Hot Pocket). We ate banana and granola yogurt parfaits for breakfast along with hot (freshly baked) blueberry scones. And of course lots of hot coffee. For dinner on Sunday, my sister came over and we had turkey and veggie chilli along with cornbread.

    Yesterday, I met a friend at Whole Foods. I was really taken with two large purple eggplants and decided I would make my favorite babaghanoush dip to serve with toasted pita chips. When I looked in the fridge, I realized I had a mish mash of ingredients. Some leftover dill; two roasted red peppers; chopped walnuts; some lime wedges. So instead, I made a Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Pesto to go with pasta (always a pantry staple for us). We usually have Parmesan cheese tucked away in the fridge, so this made perfect sense.

    I roasted my eggplant halves on high heat and then scooped them into my food processor, along with a dollop of Dijon mustard as well as tomato paste and some other ingredients. The sauce works. It tastes of Middle Eastern flavors and comes together very quickly. It's savory and the eggplant gives the pesto a smoky taste. Smooth and creamy as a result of the buttery walnuts, it tastes rich without containing any dairy.

    Feel free to play around with the flavors - if you have lemons, substitute that for the lime. Or almonds for walnuts. Parsley for dill.

    We love pesto - and probably have the basil variety at least once a month, maybe twice. But it's nice to switch things up every once awhile. This recipe is so simple that you really can make it on a weeknight, sticking to that resolution of cooking at home more.

    Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Pesto

    2 large eggplants

    2 whole roasted peppers (jarred)

    1 clove of garlic

    1/4 cup walnuts, chopped

    1 tablespoon fresh dill

    1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

    1 teaspoon tomato paste

    Juice of 1/2 a lime

    2 tablespoons olive oil

    Salt and freshly-cracked pepper

    1 lb pasta, for serving

    Shredded Parmesan cheese, for garnish

    1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut two eggplants in half vertically and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for 45 minutes or until the eggplant is soft and tender. Spoon the eggplant flesh out of the skin into a food processor. Discard the skin.

    2. Rinse the jarred red peppers under water and blot dry with paper towels. Add to the processor along with the remaining ingredients into the food processor and blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. Taste for seasoning and add salt and/or pepper. If you want the sauce smoother, add one more tablespoon of olive oil, if needed.

    3. Cook the pasta according to the directions. Toss with the pesto until the pasta is evenly coated. Top with shredded Parmesan cheese and serve hot.


    The Ins and Outs of Popcorn 

    Yesterday was a milestone for me. I taught two kids cooking classes back-to-back (actually three, because I taught one early in the day). Now, that may not seem that difficult. But those of you who have tried to teach twelve 5 - 10 years olds at once may know what I'm talking about!

    I decided to focus this particular lesson on popcorn. While not a big popcorn eater myself, I knew it would be fun to make homemade popcorn on the stove with the kids, versus simply microwaving a bag. Making popcorn engages four of our senses: sight, hearing, smell (one kid came into the room and told me it smelled like a movie theater - high praise!) and taste - so I anticipated that it would be interactive.

    Homemade popcorn is delicious for two reasons: 1) there's no sodium or chemicals on the actual kernels (you control the amount of salt!) and 2) you can add so many varieties of toppings to plain old popcorn, which is always fun.

    The kids must have sensed the danger of cooking hot oil on a tiny burner with a long electrical cord... chaos was in the air, which made for an interesting class! But they all seemed to love it, as did I. In addition to making popcorn, we melted butter; learned how to use pinches of salt to season; measured out cinnamon and sugar to whisk together; and sprinkled on copious amounts of Parmesan cheese.

    We also read Tommie de Paola's The Popcorn Book, of Strega Nona fame. So many interesting facts about popcorn! While this is probably VERY old-fashioned, the unpopped kernels used to be referred to as 'old maids.' Who knew!? There's actually such a thing as black popcorn. AND large popcorn pieces are called snowflakes!

    It was a fun day and after making 9 batches of popcorn on a tiny (but very, very hot burner), I can now consider myself something of an expert. Below is my recipe for homemade popcorn. Perfect for a movie night or (somewhat) healthy snack. I really recommend coming up with some creative toppings and have a lot of ideas on this. Maybe some more recipes to come. What about a Malaysian-style with lime zest, chile and salt-roasted peanuts? Or salted caramel with pretzels. Or maybe peanut butter with chocolate chips?

    We melted butter and found that 1 stick for this recipe amount was perfect, sprinkled with some kosher salt or grated Parmesan cheese. OR you whisk together 1/4 cup of granulated sugar with 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon for a topping of cinnamon sugar. Whatever you please.

    A couple of things to note. Make sure you immediately store the kernels in the fridge after purchasing so they don't dry out (thank you Tommie de Paola!). If they dry out, they won't pop. Don't use olive oil, as it doesn't have a high enough smoke point and it won't get hot enough to pop the kernels. Also, please salt the popcorn AFTER popping, as the salt will make the popcorn mushy and may inhibit quick popping. I used a glass lid, which made the experience more exciting so the kids could see everything.

    Homemade Popcorn

    Makes 1 large bowl

    2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil 

    1/2 - 3/4 cup kernels

    Toppings: kosher salt, melted butter, cinnamon sugar, grated Parmesan cheese

    1. Place a 4 1/2 qt stainless steel or copper-bottomed pot on the stove (use AT LEAST a 4 1/2 qt pan but not a stock or large pasta pot). Do not use a cast iron (example: le Creuset) for this, which will take too long.

    2. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pot and turn the heat to medium-high. Add more oil if you need to cover the bottom, but swirl it first.

    3. When the oil is shimmering and thin, add 4 - 5 kernels to the bottom and cover (this is where a glass lid comes in handy). Once the kernels pop (about 1 min), it's time to add the remaining kernels. Add 1/2 - 3/4 cup or until the kernels evenly cover the bottom of the pan. Don't add too many or the pot may overflow or the bottom kernels may burn.

    4. Top with the lid and remove the pan from the stove. Shake the pan for 30 seconds. This ensures that all of the kernels come to the same temperature and will pop around the same time.

    5. Place the pot back on the stove and continue to shake every 20 seconds or so. The kernels will begin to pop in about 1 - 2 mins. Allow the popcorn to pop until it noticeably begins to slow down. Remove the pan for the last 10 - 15 seconds or so and pour carefully into a big bowl. Do this carefully so that you can make sure no burnt popcorn from the bottom or unpopped kernels (old maids!) go into the bowl.

    6. Top with desired toppings!


    7 Links Project 

    A couple of my blogger friends have published posts according to the 7 links project. I was intrigued and decided to do so myself. Happy new year!

    1. Most Beautiful Post: Crazy for Hummus

    I know it seems crazy that I would consider a post on hummus to be one of my beautiful, but it just is. I received so many e-mails after I posted this recipe saying how delicious the above photo looked. Frankly I was surprised to hear that so many others share the hummus love.

    Hummus is so incredibly versatile - it goes on sandwiches, with pitas, on tortillas, with crudite. Or even just eaten plain out of the tub with a spoon. It's protein-packed and if you make it yourself, you can creatively experiment with dozens of varieties.

    Not only does the meal above (hummus spread on tortillas with grilled shrimp and topped with cubed feta and tomatillo salsa) look light, refreshing and scrumptious; but this was also the only food I could consistently stomach for a period of time. You would think that the dark days of subsisting pretty much only on blended chickpeas would turn me off of this foodstuff forever, but that's not the case. In fact, I think I love it even more as a result. Once, I even dreamed about it! During that time, it made me feel stronger and if it's possible to be indebted to a dish, this is a clear example. 

    In my opinion, Taim makes the best hummus I've tasted to date. 

    I also had to include La Belle France.  Every time I revisit or catch a glimpse of this post, I'm nostalgic for Paris and my time there with my friends. Never to be forgotten, it was one of those fabulous travel experiences - full of culture, amazing food and great shopping! A good friend visited the new Laduree outpost on Madison Ave and bought me a beautiful array of Technicolor macaroons for the holidays. What a treat! 

    2. Most Popular Post: Chipotle-Rubbed Salmon Tacos

    I only, only wish this was my own recipe! What a coup that would be. Two friends even e-mailed me their dinner photographs after they made this dish.

    If you haven't made it yet, I strongly urge you to do so. The play of the smoky and sweet grilled salmon against the tangy cucumber and red pepper relish - all topped with a spicy cream and crunchy cabbage is unparalleled. The soft corn tortilla is the perfect soft bed to hold all the juicy and flavorful ingredients.

    I go through phases where I make this a couple times in a short period of time and then decide to try some new meals. But I always go back for more.

    3. Most Controversial Post: Bean and Chicken Enchiladas

    I really loved reading Nina Planck's Real Food: What to Eat and Why. This book came out a couple of years ago and I remember bending my husband's ear about the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef over lunch, probably much to his chagrin. But most of the philosophy holds true. Eat well by eating real, authentic and natural food. Also - everything in moderation.

    For awhile, I was trying to lose weight by dieting. This never works. I'm sorry, but it doesn't. At least not for me. When I want to shed a couple of pounds, I kick up my exercise regime and substitute nourishing liquids for meals. For breakfast I'll have yogurt and a banana. For lunch, a protein smoothie. And for dinner, soup or stew. I'm always satisfied and it just works for me. Again - I want to reiterate - everyone is different. 

    When I posted what I'd made myself this burrito for dinner (no-fat tortilla, low-fat cheese, non-fat baked beans) a friend pinged me, cringing at that thought that I was eating low-fat and non-fat food, all of which are artificially altered and probably even more unhealthy than the real thing. I totally agreed.

    We all have our methods and routines. I won't ever judge someone else. But for me, real food will always be the answer.

    4. Most Helpful Post(s): Table for One - Truffled Scrambled Eggs and Asparagus; Tuna Nicoise Crostini; Zucchini Quinoa Salad; Miso Chicken Soup


    I'm thrilled at how well these posts have been received, despite the fact that someone once asked me if my marriage was in trouble. No, it's not! Sometimes I end up eating alone as a result of busy schedules. And most of the time, I do cook for myself.

    I want to try and focus on more Table for One recipes this coming year. Stay tuned! And of course - if you have any suggestions for recipes, please leave a note in the comments section.

    5. Most Surprisingly Successful Post: Forgiving Pork Tenderloin

    It's always nice to know that other people mess up in the kitchen. We all do, some of us more than others, and we're in good company.

    Despite the lackluster photography, this post has received the most hits and reads. A juicy and savory pork tenderloin never disappoints. Pair thick slices of tenderloin with mashed potatoes or a creamy combo of potatoes and celeriac root. Homemade caramelized apple sauce is always welcome. And the bonus is that you can use the leftovers to make cubano sandwiches the next day!

    6. Most Neglected Post: Easter Menu for BGSK

    Click-thru posts aren't always successful and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle. I was really pleased with this holiday menu I created for Big Girls Small Kitchen, and in particular, this Parisian Fruit Tart.

    Instead of making pastry cream, sometimes time-consuming and always a little tricky the first time, my recipe calls for whipping together mascarpone, apricot jam, orange zest and sugar. The puff pastry "crust" is bronzed as a result of lots of egg wash and creative scoring. And the fruit glistens with some of the leftover jam. It's easy (I promise!) but looks as if you spent hours on this dessert. Or like you at least have a pastry degree.  

    7. The Post That Makes Me The Most Proud: Hot Chocolate Video

    I made this video with my uncle. In it, I feature my Irish Hot Chocolate recipe, fitting for this time of year. I'm a huge fan of Irish cream whiskey and the combination of creamy hot chocolate, creamy booze and creamy chopped chocolate is not to be forgotten any time soon (at least not for me!) Notice a favorite theme? I do love creamy food...

    I hope to do some more cooking videos in 2012 as well. Maybe one of my Vodka Sauce, amongst others.


    A Recent Holiday Party

    The other evening I catered a holiday party. I had a great time. The hostess had some creative ideas, one of which was the above tarts. I picked up 4 dozen egg custard tarts in Chinatown, very popular as a dim sum dessert. She asked for a coconut whipped cream, so I whipped up 4 cups of heavy whipped cream with 4 tablespoons of confectioner's sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and (the cherry on top) 1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons natural coconut extract. I topped each tart with sparkly sprinkles - a blend of silver and cream pearls and jimmies.

    I originally tried to make dairy-free whipped cream with just full-fat coconut milk. But the liquid and the fat barely separated in the can, even when I stored it in the fridge overnight (you need to pour out the liquid before whipping the solid milk). I've never tried coconut extract before, but it was a dream. These cupcakes were fragrant and looked beautiful, each with a piped mound of delicious whipped cream. Like a coconut custard tart, but petite and more elegrant.

    In addition to the coconut custard tarts, I also made herbed goat cheese with basil and mint, which I then spread on peppered crackers. I candied 3 pints of kumquats by making a sugar syrup and halving and seeding each kumquat. The kumquats simmered in the syrup and continued to soften and sweeten before being strained. Each container of kumquats was filled with more of the citrusy syrup and left in the fridge overnight. The halves looked beautiful perched on top of the goat cheese. And with a sprinkle of sea salt, this appetizer was the perfect combination of sweet, salty, sour and creamy.

    Everyone got an icy white cosmo upon arrival, a fun and festive drink. Although next time, I might use less cointreau (very sweet) and more tart white cranberry juice. I also made truffled grilled cheeses, which then were quarted into manageable bites. The smell of them coming out of the oven was intoxicating. I used white bread, shredded fontina cheese, truffle oil and lots of butter to make them crispy. Some sage would also go well with these sandwiches.

    Overall, a fun night! Happy holidays to everyone - I hope to begin 2012 with some new recipes and creative ideas for entertaining.