Simple Green Chile Enchilada Sauce

Fresh from the oven.

Fresh from the oven.

I’m one of those people at the grocery store that is always reading the labels on food jars, standing there squinting under the fluorescent lights at the purposefully small print and clogging up the aisle traffic.  Sorry about that!  In my defense, once you start this habit, you just cannot stop; I have to know what is in those bags and boxes and cans.  The list of ingredients that freak me out are primarily added sugars of any kind to things that don’t need sugar (i.e. spaghetti sauce) and strange unpronounceable additives.  To this end, I wind up buying a lot of basics and making my own when I cannot can my own.  This strategy offers peace of mind and a smidge of savings in my bank account.

I used to rely heavily on mass produced enchilada sauces until my label reading habit turned me off with the high fructose corn syrups.  Since I declared my sauce independence, I have experimented to find a sauce that is delicious, quick and cheap to make on a regular basis.  I prefer green enchilada sauce to red, but you could easily swap out ingredients to make a red sauce if you prefer.

Simple Green Chile Enchilada Sauce

  • 1 -4 medium sized roasted green chiles (depending on spice level), stems removed and chopped
  • 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatillos, chopped
  • tsp – Tbsp of ground cumin
  • sprinkling of salt
  • sprinkling of pepper
  • fresh lime juice (if available)
  • fresh cilantro (if available)

Slightly chop the chiles, garlic and tomatoes and place in blender.  Add the remaining spices and blend until a smooth and thick consistency sauce-like consistency.   This recipe is a simple platform for sauce and can be adapted to your own liking.  If tomatillos are too tart, try a can of regular tomatoes.  If roasted green chiles are unavailable, try canned chiles.  I guarantee you that whatever way you choose to make your enchilada sauce, it will be so much better than the canned stuff.  The above recipe makes one 9 x 11 inch pan worth of enchiladas with sauce on the bottom and top.

Let’s talk about enchilada structure now.  I used to be one of those people who meticulously rolled up my ingredients into the tortilla and hoped that it wouldn’t crack and break apart in the pan.  This method is why people do not make enchiladas on a work night.  Now, I simply layer the tortillas lasagna-style: 1 layer of tortillas (slightly overlapping), then the filling, a top layer of tortillas and sauce which is so much simpler!  Aesthetically, yes it is more of a casserole but the flavors are the same and the frustration level during prep is minimal.  Try it sometime, it is a better way to construct.

I love to make enchiladas.  My favorite combination is spinach, black beans, sauteed red onions, corn and queso fresco (soft crumbly Mexican cheese).  I often make the enchiladas vegetarian because I just love vegetables, but enchiladas are a bit like pizza and you can experiment to your hearts content.

It is a great feeling to realize that you can make the same thing that comes in a can healthier and better.

Handmade Sushi — Just Roll With It

Sushi at Home!

Sushi at Home!

When you make a lot of stuff from scratch, you always accept that what is handmade is not going to look exactly like that which is mass produced.  There are lumps and bumps and, very often, some cursing involved in trying to learn a new skill.  But for those of us who love to make, you always have to challenge yourself to new levels of craft.

Recently I made sushi all by myself from scratch.  The inspiration came while high-altitude lake kayaking, as I suddenly had a hankering for both sushi and baklava.  Sushi is a much more achievable a task than dozens of layers of phyllo dough, so I decided to strive for that craving.  Sushi has an aura of complexity, yet it is a very simple food that requires simple techniques and good ingredients.  As a devoted non-perfectionist, I wasn’t very intimidated for I knew that even if my rolls looked a little askew, they would at least taste good.  Or, I could just pretend that I was going for a whole deconstructed roll sort of aesthetic when they fell apart.  I started with cooking the sushi rice (adding a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar to the cooking liquid to make it sticky).  The center of my rolls was a super combination of smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber and avocado.  Once the rice cooled, it was spread one grain thick onto the nori, topped with a thin smear of cream cheese, slices of smoked salmon, and thin pieces of cucumber and avocado.   I think the toughest part of all the construction was the meticulous little slices of fillings.  I rolled without a bamboo mat and cut the rolls with a simple chef’s knife.  (Important note:  when cutting rolls, clean the knife with a wet rag after each slice.)   While slicing the rolls, my end pieces were not awesome, yet they offered up tasty samples for the sushi chef and her sweetheart.  The taste was quite splendid: the combination of the smoked salmon and cream cheese very New York,  the cucumber and avocado very simple and fresh.  In my humble opinion, pretty darn good taste for a non-traditionalist like myself.

As always, my rendition of the real thing came out costing a lot less than even the packaged sushi at our grocery and included leftover ingredients for future meals — smoked salmon, cream cheese and caper sandwiches on homemade bread for dinner, perhaps.  My rolls were far from perfect and, during the creation of said rolls, I wasn’t quite as zen as your (obviously stereotypical) image of a sushi chef.    All told, it was a fun dinner and not too much work.  Paired with a mug of miso soup, our house was transformed into a more cozy sushi bar for an evening.

Camp Stove Scalloped Potatoes

Casserole Style on the Campstove!

Casserole Style on the Campstove!

I have a soft spot for casseroles.  Perhaps this is a result of growing up in the culinary wonder that was the 1980s, or it is a latent expression of my family’s Midwestern roots, but I unequivocally enjoy a good casserole.  The foundation for a good ‘role is a starch — often potatoes  and topped off with lots of melted cheese.  Good things happen tend to happen when potatoes and cheese meet.

So, how does one create a casserole-like dish over a camp stove while backpacking?  Well, we’ve discovered a way purely by accident.  Awhile back, we had some potatoes lying around and decided to try thinly slicing them and putting them in the dehydrator for lightweight camping meals.  To prepare, we simply boiled them for a while — well, a long while by camping breakfast standards — then added melted cheese and hotsauce.   Incredibly the result of this haphazard meal was akin to a scalloped potato casserole!  The only ingredient that would have made it more tasty was some bacon, and perhaps a dash of garlic or onion powder.  The potatoes were still slightly firm with the texture of a potato casserole, impressive for a good roiling boil at high altitude.  In all, a good breakfast for a hike out of the woods.

When camping, meals are often created that would never satisfy under other circumstances.  (There is also the hunger factor with camp food, too; everything just tastes better eaten outdoors.)  Take ramen noodles and hardboiled eggs, I would never conceive of this concoction in regular home life, but before a day of kayaking, this becomes the breakfast of champions.  There are a lot of packaged meals that garner high esteem while camping — instant rice mixes, instant potatoes and mac and cheese.  They work well for camping, but they are so highly processed and full of ingredients I never learned about in chemistry class that I am turned off.  And, there is a high price for convenience.  Now, we have an alternative.  There is a hearty homey recipe that costs little, has no preservatives and takes only a little extra prep.  For the price of one boxed meal, I can dehydrate a whole bag of potatoes for a season’s worth of camp meals.  Of course there is additional time and energy (including fuel) involved, but the result is pretty satisfying and is all worth it when away from the bounty of home.

You can replicate the home kitchen outside with just a little preparation and an openness to creativity.  This time we lucked out and got scalloped potatoes.  Who knows what can be created next?

I Love Brussels Sprouts!

Like a tree hugger, a stalk hugger.

Like a tree hugger, a stalk hugger.

Before we get started, let’s get one thing straight:  this post is NOT an April Fool’s day prank; I can — and will — declare my love for Brassica Oleracea any day.  Per Wikipedia, the name derives from the original cultivation in Belgium, beginning as early as the 13th century.  (Proving their timelessness!)  They are part of the same family as cabbage, thus their mini-cabbage appearance, which admittedly makes them pretty damn cute.  Brussels are super healthy for you, chock full of vitamins A, C and folic acid plus a plethora of other healthful compounds.

I didn’t eat sprouts as a child, so I’ve never had some memory of a mushy mess holding me back from an appreciation.  I started eating sprouts about 7 or 8 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.  Primarily, I roast these in the oven, dressed simply in olive oil, salt, pepper and a little lemon juice.  I’ve also made other dressings and toppings, always keeping the sprouts as the main star, but my preparation hasn’t strayed far from roasting . . . until now.  Courtesy of  the amazing cookbook (no hyperbole, truly amazing) Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, I have a new means to enjoy them:  Brussels Sprouts and Tofu.  This recipe is quick and simple, and involves searing the sprouts until crisp and browned.  Using my well-seasoned cast-iron pans, these became almost carmelized with a sweetness and crunch I’ve never achieved from roasting.  I was stuck in a preparation rut and now I’ve seen what I’ve been missing.

A lot of my cooking involves just that, cooking.  I improvise often and my measuring cups are mostly saved for baking.  What I appreciate about actually following a recipe is that it gives you an example of how things can work, knowledge which you can then add to your existing repertoire.  The tofu/sprouts recipe was excellent, but what stood out to me was all of the options expanding upon this concept.  And that is what cooking is all about: experimentation.  I’m taking my sprouts recipes to the next level!

Sometimes You Just Need To Stir. Or, Demysitifying Risotto.

Yum!  All that stirring pays off.

Yum! All that stirring pays off.

Ah, risotto.  Just the name conjures up creaminess, decadence and gobs of time stirring a pot to a perfect consistency.  What if I told you that risotto is actually not that hard?  Or time-consuming?  Or that all that stirring is actually therapeutic?

Years ago I discovered the miraculous properties of this dish.  It is one of those dishes that requires very few ingredients, can be made in infinite varieties, never fails to impress friends, and is a true pleasure to make.  Two of my personal favorites are mushroom or corn.

Having the fixings on hand for a batch of risotto is important for you never know when you’re going to have a hankering for some stirring.  As for ingredients, all you need are:  stock or broth, onions/shallots, arborio rice, a vegetable of choice (mushrooms, butternut squash, asparagus, tomatoes, carrots, etc.), splash of wine/sherry/vermouth, and cheese (parmesan, romano, asiago, jack, provolone, even cheddar). As you can see, I’ve discovered the dish to be an infinitely versatile dish with few rules.

Some days I just return home from the job, mind a-racing, heart a-thumping and I know that I need to do something that requires mindless movements with a stomach warming reward.  These are the days I turn to risotto, not just for a tasty meal but for the aforementioned unconventional rewards.

Is risotto time-consuming?  Not particularly, especially when you consider that even a frozen pizza takes about a half hour to bake.  Does it need constant attention?  Sort of, but that extra attention is what makes this dish so meditative to make, and delicious to taste.  Personally, risotto is one of the most comforting meals to eat and to make.  It is very inexpensive and you can incorporate various ingredients to your liking.  In life where there is so much that you cannot control, isn’t it good to know there is a meal out that benefits from your attention and also tastes amazing?

Below is my adaptation of a corn risotto recipe.  (We received a bounty of corn this summer from a neighbor and froze it for preservation.)  I am not a stickler for exact measurements, so once you get the hang of this dish, you can adapt as necessary.

For the love of stirring — basic corn risotto recipe

  • 4 cups broth or stock (or, use stock concentrate and water)
  • 1/2  cup chopped onions or shallots — how ever much onion you prefer
  • 1 – 1 1/2 cup corn (frozen is what I use)
  • 1 cup arborio rice (gluten free, often found in bulk sections of your grocery)
  • splash of wine, sherry, vermouth (not necessary, but tasty)
  • 1/2 cup of grated cheese  (provolone, jack or even cheddar work well here)
  • Optional:  bacon, chipoltles (chopped with some adobo sauce to taste)

In a separate saucepan, heat the stock or broth to a low boil.  Keep warm to utilize during cooking.

In a medium pot, saute the onions in about 2 Tbsp. of olive oil, or do a combo of 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. olive oil. (I have chopped up one piece of bacon, cooked that and then sauteed the onions in bacon drippings, too.)  Saute the onions until translucent and fragrant — about 5 minutes.  Add the corn, and cook until slightly warm, a few minutes.  If using chipotles, add them at this point.  Chipotles are strong, so use caution here!  Add rice and coat the rice with the corn mixture.  Add a splash of wine if available, and again stir to coat.

Now begin adding the stock 1/2 cup at a time.  Stir to incorporate and make sure that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  The rice should not boil, but remain at a medium temperature throughout the pot.   Stir fairly consistently until nearly all broth is absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup.  Continue until the rice is cooked and creamy and there is little to no broth left in your second saucepan.  This should take about a half hour or so.  The rice will be slightly al dente, and the dish will be creamy.  Remove from heat and stir in your cheese and any herbs you’d like to add.

Voila!  A calmer mind, an exercised wrist and a warm meal to enjoy!