Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mexican Lasagna (that has never seen Mexico)

Greetings my dears from a place where they don't have any pudding, vegan or otherwise.  I miss you, it's the hardest part of being dead.

The other day your Uncle forced me to make Mexican Lasagne for eleven people. I know you are thinking that this could not possibly be true. You're telling yourselves, "He is/was too nice a guy to force Tante Li to do anything at all like that. Probably she volunteered and forgot."
Oh my dears, how wrong you are!
My side of the story: I'd just come back late that Friday night after a long, bumpy transatlantic flight. Not those rattling, jolting bumps that make you feel alive because, perversely, you are positive you are about to die. But five hours of slow, lolling bumps and sways. Not at all alarming, unless you are the type of person who gets airsick, which it turns out I am.
I hadn't ever thought about getting airsick before. Certainly I'd heard of it, but somehow relegated it to the very young, the very old, or the overly dramatic. What a trap! My thinking had been like that of a person with boundless energy who cannot understand the profound tiredness of someone so ill, taking medicine so strong, that sleep offers no refreshment.
The comparison is apt, because when you feel sick at 35,000 ft, there is no refreshment. Particularly when the flight attendants are operating under the misguided notion that you are a vegan and insist on feeding you snacks of strange pudding. You, desperate for relief, actually eat the pudding and do yourself no favors whatsoever.
So anyway, I was tired. Your uncle had invited eleven students over for a Monday night party. I knew about it before my trip and had devised a one word plan: Costco. I'd just go there, raid the freezer section and buy a couple of somethings or other to feed the students. They are students after all, a life category largely defined by a willingness to eat anything. On saturday, still bleary eyed, I mentioned this quite casually to your uncle. "I have a feeling this is going to be a Costco party," I said.
He said, "No it isn't."
Seems he'd been telling the students that they would get a home cooked meal, or some such nonsense. Actually, not just any meal. A Tex-Mex themed meal. (We'll get to that in a moment.) I was still a bit green around the gills, woozy from airsickness and lack of sleep. Percolating in the back of my mind was the notion that airline vegan mystery pudding sucks the minerals from your blood and bones, making you weak willed and crazy. Probably I was just dehydrated.
His timing was good, I'll give him that. I just blinked a couple of slow blinks and said, "Oh darn," and starting thinking about what kind of Tex-Mex food to make.
Confession time: I've only ever made two batches of chilli. The only other vaguely Mexican "food" I make, is tacos from a kit. You know where you buy the shells, months old, but still miraculously (and mysteriously) crunchy in the box? Then you "brown" a pound of ground beef, sprinkle it with a packet of low salt taco seasoning, add 3/4 of a cup of water, and, if you are feeling very creative, a glop or two of store bought jarred salsa? Open a bag of pre-shredded cheese, slice a tomato or two, tear up some iceberg lettuce and before you can say "Hee-Haw!" you've got yourself a kitschy, prefab dinner.
Your uncle loves a bad/good boxed taco, and in his defense, it's hard to argue with the ability of that much salt to make everything taste fabulous. It's probably what food tastes like when you are in a coma imagining what food tastes like. A box taco can be so persuasively magical that I fed them to our wonderful neighbor boy as a make-up for the dinner of home-made chicken pot pie and rice pudding cake that forced him to confess his meat allergy. He ate 'em like there was no tomorrow. Then I fed him chocolate cake.
There's a lesson here: salt and chocolate, those two pillars of the American culinary canon, are indispensable for mending faux pas'd fences. If I didn't adore him so much I would have risked stunting his growth and given him orange, processed American cheese food to top his tacos. But it was only rice pudding cake after all, not sweetened calf's liver mousse. Besides, now I've got a big gun in reserve in the event of another allergy episode.
So anyhow, there I was, on the spot, feeling barfy and bleary with your uncle's gorgeous blue eyes staring at me, asking what I would make for his dear students from scratch. He'd put flowers on the stairs where I'd see them when I came home. He'd done all the laundry. OK there was a shocking amount of dog hair on the kitchen counters, but the house was in pretty darn good shape, considering he'd secretly trooped forty or so students through it while I was gone. There were no dead animals in the freezer (or in the refrigerator stashed in bags that promise doughnuts within but instead reveal the dark side of the environmental 'reduce, reuse, recycle' mantra).
I had a vague memory of a recipe for a lasagna that used polenta instead of noodles. The thought of polenta seemed soothing. I opened my mouth and said, "Well, I guess I'll just make a Mexican Lasagna." He nodded once and moved on with his day.
As far as I am concerned your Uncle Al's greatest blind spot is that he seems to think I know what I'm talking about. He assumed that because I was going to make a Mexican lasagna, "you know, with the polenta?" that a recipe actually existed. I think this is because his mother kept a worn wooden box filled with 3X5 cards greased with the loving fingerprints of repeated use. I'm sure she winged plenty of meals, but I never saw it. Even her very good, solidly mid-western, Italian-American Lasagna began with opening the recipe box and pulling the card, even though she must have made it a million times.
My recipe box is my brain. There are plenty of dark corners within, but not much organization. Things move pretty fast in here actually, and there isn't time to take notes. It's only creating this for you, my darlings, that has made me start to write stuff down.
I know I pinched the idea and the process of making the polenta layers from the goddess Nigella Lawson.(Who probably pinched it from elsewhere and gave credit.) If you think I use the word "goddess" to rip on her for her book How To Be a Domestic Goddess, you are wrong, wrong, wrong. An amusing book title doesn't convince one of goddessness, it's the fact that she takes so much trouble to show you she isn't a goddess that seals the deal. In essence, methinks she doth protest too much. To whit: I once saw an episode of one of her cooking shows where she opened her packed freezer and pulled out a frozen pig's ear, explaining how she loves to fry them up.
Uhm, I think I'm allergic to meat.
Aside from that, the rest of this seems to be mine, although there are other versions out there usually using corn tortillas instead of the polenta. Tortillas, I think, are an inferior, soggy option. Stick with the polenta. This feeds 8-9 female students very well. If you've got more, or if there are equal numbers of men in the group, you'll need to double it and make two. No worries. You can always send the leftovers home whispering the magic word, "roommates."
You may look at this and think that it is complicated and difficult. It isn't. You just need to be a bit organized, which, I'll admit can be annoying at times.

Mexican Lasagna (that has never seen Mexico)


2 C polenta
6 C water (1.42l)
2-3 T olive oil
1/2 C (60g) shredded Monterrey Jack or Cheddar cheese.

You will need three 9x13 pans. You could also try spreading out the polenta on something else, like a sheet pan, and cutting it to size, but I've never tried it as removing it and setting it into place seems a bulky, troublesome option.


1 Lb (453g) ground chicken
My supermarket chicken comes with 'natural chicken flavors added.' Whatever that is it's tasted better than airline vegan mystery pudding. In any case no one died.
2 T olive oil
1/2C (75g or so) finely sliced onion
3 cloves of garlic, chopped or pressed, dealer's choice.
1 15oz (430g) can of low sodium (hah!) black beans, drained and rinsed. Don't rinse the can, you'll need the residue later.
1/4 C (37g) frozen corn. You think you'll need more but you don't.
1 Can Rotel with the juices This is the diced tomato chili combo often used in chili recipes. Twenty million Texans can't be wrong. I used the mild version. Know your crowd here.
1 chipotle chili from a can, sliced. More if you like it hot.
1 t of the adobo sauce from the chipotle chili can.
1 packet of low sodium (double hah!) taco seasoning. I'm not proud, but there it is. I actually opted for the organic version, which further highlights the jet lag theme. You will need 2T powder for the polenta water and 1t powder for the chicken.You can get two batches of Lasagna out of one packet.
1T chili powder
1T cumin
(1t of the taco seasoning packet)
1 1/2 t of corn starch to thicken.
1/2C(113ml) water, twice (1 C total)
1 lime
3 C (362g) shredded Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese.
1 C (230g) good salsa. Try to buy it from the refrigerated section rather than the jarred variety. It is fresher and the rest will make good snacking while you cook. Not that you would do such a thing.


Start with the polenta

Follow the package directions to cook the polenta. I've given you a guide above in that I think to get the right thickness of polenta layers you're going to need about two cups dry to start. To the polenta water, add 2T of the taco seasoning from the packet. You could also throw in some of the leftover salsa, but the polenta is the pure, corny counterpart to the spicy, seasoned layers so you don't want to compromise that too much. Pour the polenta into the boiling water slowly, not in one big whoosh or you will get lumps. When the polenta is almost done, stir in the olive oil and cheese.
A word here. If you use "instant polenta" it cooks mighty fast. Set up your pans first and drink a cup of coffee to wake yourself up before you begin. I say this as a non coffee drinker.

While the polenta is cooking, get out your three pans. Nige, as I call her, recommends buying disposable tin 9x13 pans and it isn't a bad idea. You can always use them later for potting up plants or starting seeds.

You'll need your 9x13 inch baking pan and two others of the same size. Sprinkle some water in the bottoms so the polenta doesn't stick. (Is this a 23cm X 33cm pan? My best guess.)
When the polenta is done and the consistency is not too thick, divide the polenta between the three pans.Using a wet spatula, smear it into a smoothish layer that covers the entire bottom. It's best to scoop into one pan, smear it, and then move on to the next pan so you don't get a congealed blob in the last pan instead of a flat layer.

Put the layers aside to set while you make the filling.

Prepare the filling

Heat a large sauce pan (mine is 4 qts. (3.8 liters) I hope you've inherited it!) over medium heat. Add the olive oil and the onion, cook gently to soften the onion, not brown it. When the onion is soft, add the garlic. Stir and cook until fragrant. Add the chipotle chili and blend it in.
Add the spices and the cornstarch, stir to coat the onion.
Add the chicken and cook until done, about 8 minutes.
Add the beans, and the teaspoon of adobo sauce. Stir to distribute.
Add the frozen corn, stir it up.
Add the can of Rotel with the juices and a 1/2C water. Cook this all down until it is fairly thick, but not dry. When you are almost there, put about 1/2 C water in the unrinsed bean can and swirl it to lift the black bean goop from the bottom. Add this to the chicken mixture.
When it is cohesive, but still juicy it is done. Remove it from the heat and douse it with the juice from half the lime, or the whole lime if it's a dry old bird.
Let it cool before you assemble the Lasagna.


In the baking pan on top of the polenta layer, spread one half of the chicken mixture. Top with 1 Cup of the shredded cheese.
Tip the next polenta layer out of the pan and place it on top of the chicken cheese layer. It will be weird and wobbly. It might even break. Relax chiquita. It's Mexican Lasagna. Italian-Mexicans are notoriously even tempered. No harm no foul. Just put it on as best you can.
Top the layer of polenta with the rest of the chicken mixture. Top this with another cup of shredded cheese.
Place the last layer of polenta on the chicken mixture and cover it with the cup of salsa. Put the last cup of cheese on this.
Bake at uncovered at 375F(190C) for 30 minutes or so. The cheese should be melted and there will be some bubbling around the edges. The internal temp should be at least 130 F (55C). After all darlings, you do want the cheese to melt.


You can assemble the lasagna a day ahead and bake it the night of. Obviously you are going to wrap it and put it in the fridge in between. Cover it with plastic wrap or a wax paper and tin foil combo with the wax paper next to the top layer of salsa. No tomato/tin corrosion for you! Take it out of the fridge an hour or so before you want to bake it so that it comes to room temperature and takes less cooking time. Nothing is worse than eleven hungry students milling around waiting for dinner while you're fiddling at the stove praying for melted cheese miracles.

Serve this with a look of confidence and a green salad. If you've overcooked the chicken taco/chili filling and the lasagna looks dry, no worries. Soften up the crowd with the story of the refrigerated dead bird in the doughnut bag. Works like a charm. You might also try a gravy boat full of salsa on the side.

Don't wait for students to show up. This is a great offering to bring to a potluck dinner.

As always darlings, kisses from the great beyond..

Tante Li

Monday, December 17, 2012

Crisp Coffee Walnut Cookies, part 1

Darlings! How I miss you. I've been wanting to talk to you about this since 2013. No that's a lie. Twenty twelve at least. You can't imagine how wonderful it is to see from the Mists of Beyond that you're finally old enough to get to this page.

If you've learned anything from this book/blog, reading the above filled you with a sinking feeling that it's going to be a long time until you get to the part where I tell you how to cook something. I sympathize. Dead people have the most annoying habits. But I promise there will be a cookie in it for you at the end. A pretty good cookie at that.

Here's what you need to know: When I wrote that sentence, I mostly had no idea what cookie you were going to get. This is because it hasn't been made up yet. I thought it might be fun (for me) to walk you through my process of creating food for you poor uncle Al and, in some circumstances, neighbors who aren't quick enough to talk their way out of it. I am not thinking here of our darling Canadian fellow, who seemed to actually like the Apple Rice Pudding Cake, but of his poor son who, horrified at the thought he'd have to eat that strange, beige monstrosity, feigned stomach cramps. Such a polite, endearing boy. He should have just asked me for something else. I always have something else. He knows that. Instead, he decided to play the "I think I'm allergic to meat" card. He will make a fine man someday. If I don't kill him first with my experiments. Which I probably won't. As long as I don't feed him any more meat.

So anyhow. Just having had The Birthday and having shared the Mocha Hazelnut Cookie recipe, I decided to make myself a coffee walnut cake with mocha hazelnut frosting for my post birthday dinner with the neighbors. A good tasting bit of business it was too.

I know. "Wait," you're telling yourself, "You HATE walnuts Tante Li. I clearly remember the Brownies That Can Stop Time anti-walnut diatribe where you dismissed walnuts as bitter and weird and dry, and dissed the entire American Southwest, even though they don't grow walnuts."

Bless you for paying attention. News flash: I don't like coffee either.

I've come to the realization that just because I dislike something doesn't mean I shouldn't play with it. In fact, disliking something often makes me more curious about it. Don't roll your eyes. This quirk is perfectly within the normal limits of the human mind. If you disagree, allow me to point out that decades after destroying Europe, murdering millions of innocent people and causing unimaginable misery, people are still curious about that asshat Hitler. Who, I might add, only had one nut which also was not associated with the American Southwest. See where I'm going?

You might not. Think about it in your spare time. We have business to attend to here.

About the coffee walnut cake with the mocha hazelnut frosting: after eating the cake, I decided I wanted to add it to my Christmas Cookie gift package. Clearly I couldn't go baking everyone cakes. I live in the suburbs. People would start to think they have to bake cakes for Christmas giving. We'd all be buried beneath an onslaught of cake, survived only by those with forethought to build cake proof bunkers. And if some of us stock them with meat, a bunker isn't even a guarantee.

So rather than incite an all out Neighborhood Christmas Baking War, I'm going to make my coffee walnut cake with mocha hazelnut frosting into a cookie. See? You thought it was going to be complicated.

Here's how I'm going to do it.

1. Decide the flavor profile I'm after. Coffee walnut with a dash of mocha hazelnut.
2. Find a recipe for the sort of final product I want. Crisp sugar cookie
3. Decide the best way to get the flavors I want into the thing I'm going to (hopefully) wind up with.
This involves strategic thinking and the ability to be flexible. If you aren't willing to be flexible you risk the danger of always getting the thing you're trying for and missing out on some really good stuff, like the beef stew that became a souffle a few nights ago. It was delicious, but had not a scrap of anything that tasted like beef or stew.
4. Tinker around and make it. Usually about three times.
5. Since I began this project for you, I now write everything down so when I make it again, it tastes "just like last time." This is not remotely important to me, but your Uncle Al seems to like repeating things.

To do this you're going to have to have made the recipe in #2 at least once, mostly following the important directions. It's helpful. Especially when you are working with a cookie where texture is important. When tinkering it's best to start with something you know gives you what you want, so you don't waste your efforts basing your masterpiece on someone else's crap recipe. Lord knows there are plenty of those on the internet. Here I'm going for a crisp, festive holiday cut out cookie. I could also make this as a drop type cookie using a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe sans chips. The drop cookie would be an easier way to go about it, but 'easy' is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Base recipe in hand I'm going to work in some ground walnuts and some instant coffee (or brewed espresso). I am going to save the mocha hazelnut part for the decoration/glazing TBD.

Now about that original recipe. It's got a lot of butter in it and I know the cookies can burn in a snap, so I'm going to slow down the browning by swapping out some of the butter for cream cheese. Maybe. How much? Well butter and cream cheese have the same fat content, so we'll try a 1 to 1 swap for the first batch. Right now, I'm guessing I'll try 3T.

How much coffee? Well, I'll look at the cake recipe, where hopefully I've noted how much I actually added when I made the cake. I'll look at the total cups of flour in that, make a good guess as to the ratio I'm dealing with, and add that of amount of coffee to the cookie. Or I could actually figure it out with math. If I do you'll know I'm being held captive by aliens and this isn't the real me typing. Guessing is more fun. It's also more alarming to your Uncle. I like him alarmed. Keeps the marriage healthy.

I'll add the smallest amount of coffee first and taste the dough to see if I think it needs more. For you, my dears, I will actually take notes on the final amount.

I'll apply this same notion to decide the amount of walnuts.

I'll rest the dough in the refrigerator, because the books tell you to and because the dog will need walking.

Then I'll roll 'em out, bake 'em off and see what I've got. Maybe I'll try it again with a tweak here or there.

Then I'll make the chocolate hazelnut glaze two or three times until I get it as I like it.

I'll put it all together, and your Uncle will have cookies for dinner. Again. But they'll be damn good cookies.

Ready to play?

After consulting various sources and making guesses I've come up with:

Working recipe for Crisp Coffee Walnut Cookies

1/2 C walnut bits
1C sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temp, cut into pieces.
2 egg yolks
1T instant coffee, blended to a syrup with
1T milk
1 2/3 C All purpose flour
(I've decided to forgo the cream cheese for this first batch)

Since I'm grinding the nuts into fine particles with the sugar, I'll make the whole recipe in the food processor, being careful to mix in the flour just to the point of incorporation. I want the cookies to be crisp, not tough.

Rolling and cutting circles seems like a good idea until you have to do it over and over to use all the dough. So, with experience as my guide, I'm going to roll these out to a thickness of 1/4" (6mm) and cut them into rhombi with a pizza wheel and a ruler. This is because I have a completely unsubstantiated theory that people find oblique angles more attractive than a right angles.
I won't take it as far as rhomboids though. The cookies will just look messed up. Unfair, but true.

I'll bake them at 350 degrees F (177C) for about 9-12 minutes. I won't grease the cookie sheet.

Now I'll make and test them.

End of part one.


Tante Li