Archive for Cooking


A Mexican Restaurant at Home

Tomorrow is release day for Case of the Curious Crystals. If you pre-ordered the e-book, it should hit your devices tonight. I don’t know how the time zone things work for when they decide it’s release day.

I have to say that writing a series in which most of the socializing takes place in a Mexican restaurant has been challenging during a time when eating in restaurants isn’t a great idea. I’ve ended up finding ways to improvise at home, though it still lacks that communal experience of gathering with friends and family. I think my last time in a Mexican restaurant may have been just before Thanksgiving last year with my parents. Then I was sick for most of December, busy working on books in January and February, and then the lockdown hit.

But in the meantime, I looked up recipes to make some of my favorites. When I didn’t want to go grocery shopping to buy ready-made chili con queso or the ingredients for the Velveeta and Ro-Tel dip that’s a standard at parties around here, I found a good recipe from the family that runs one of my neighborhood places. I’ve tinkered with it a bit and cut it down so that I don’t end up with a vat of cheese, and now it’s become a staple for me. It uses ingredients I usually have handy, and because it doesn’t use a can of anything, I can make it in smaller quantities. So, here’s my chili con queso for one recipe:

Start by heating half a tablespoon of oil in a heavy small pan over medium heat. Then saute 1/4 cup minced sweet onion and 1/4 cup finely minced jalapeño pepper (about one average pepper).

I should note here that I’m not a fan of really hot, spicy things (I buy mild salsa), and in spite of using a whole pepper, this isn’t all that spicy. Just make sure to remove the ribs and seeds, and I have to use gloves to cut up a pepper. If you want it hotter, use a hotter kind of pepper. If you want it milder, you can use diced canned green chilis, but you’ll put those in later.

When the onion is translucent, add 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon of corn starch. Cook, stirring, for about two minutes, until you can really smell the cumin. Then stir in 1/2 cup of chicken broth (if you want to make it vegetarian, you can probably use vegetable broth. I haven’t tried it that way, but you don’t really taste the broth, so it should work). I use the refrigerated bouillon concentrate so I don’t have to open a can just to get half a cup. Cook, stirring, about three minutes until it’s thick and bubbly. You may need to lower the heat a little.

Then add 4 slices of American cheese, chopped up. Yes, it needs to be American, those individually wrapped slices used in grilled cheese. You have to get over your cheese snobbery here. Anything else will give you a different texture. It will get stringy and oily. I once threw in just a little bit of chipotle cheddar, and it didn’t work. Also add 1/2 cup chopped tomato (I use 1 small Roma tomato). If you’re using the canned chilis, add them here (drain them first). Stir it all together until the cheese is melted into a smooth sauce. If it’s too thick, add a little more broth. If it’s too thin, add a little more cheese, but note that it will thicken up more as soon as you take it off the stove.

I try to keep it warm to eat by warming the ceramic bowl I serve it in by rinsing it out with hot water. If you’ve got a fondue pot, this would be a good time to use it to keep things warm, or maybe one of those tiny crock pots.

You can customize this by using different kinds of peppers, adding cooked ground meat, topping with sour cream or guacamole, etc.

I seldom get queso in restaurants because once I eat it, I’m not hungry for the meal. At home, I eat it as a meal. I’ll have a salad to go with it and mix in some carrot sticks in addition to the chips for dipping.

This recipe makes about two servings. I make sure to put a serving in a bowl so I don’t scarf down the whole thing at once (and then feel sick later). It reheats pretty well in the microwave if there’s any left over. I heat it with medium power instead of on high.

In my next newsletter, planned for Friday, I’ll share my recipe for cheese enchiladas.


Recipe Hoarding

While I’m stuck at home, I’ve been working on a massive organizing/optimizing project, going space-by-space in my house to sort through things and arrange them in a logical way to make it easier to find things. I’ve already sorted through my media racks to arrange my DVDs and CDs. Now I’m tackling my recipe collection.

I’ve come to the realization that I have a serious recipe problem. I collect so many recipes, and I end up using so few of them because I tend to repeat the usual favorites. I could make a new recipe a day every day and still never get through all the recipes I’ve saved from the Internet, and then there’s my clipping habit. I had whole folders, two recipe boxes, and a photo album full of recipes I’ve cut out of newspaper and magazines over the years. I have made a number of them. I have a fat file of recipes I’ve made and liked. But still, there’s a huge pile I’ve never even looked at after clipping them.

Over the past few days, I’ve been sorting through all the clippings. There are way too many recipes that fall into the “why did I ever think this would be good?” category. There are also cases of me collecting dozens of recipes for the same thing, and never making any of them. I seem to find the idea of tomato-basil soup, apple cake, and chocolate cake appealing. I’ve made some of the soup recipes, but I don’t think I’ve tried any of the apple or chocolate cake recipes. When I’ve made those things, I’ve used recipes from cookbooks.

Some of this has been an exercise in nostalgia, since there are whole newspaper food sections and magazine pages going back to the early 90s in this collection. I think of the 90s as being recent, but the graphic design and ad pictures now look really dated. Even the papers from the late 90s and early 2000s look old-fashioned.

After all this work, I have a trash bag full of newspaper and magazine clippings and newspaper food sections. All the recipes that I think I really might want to make are sorted by category in an accordion folder. I’ve also sorted the recipes I’ve made and actually use into another accordion folder, and the ones I use most often are in the photo album so the pages are protected by plastic. I’ve emptied one recipe box that I can now use for other things, and I’m in the process of putting the smaller clippings on notecards to go in my recipe box. This should save me a lot of time because a big part of my cooking process was digging through my recipe folders to find the recipe I needed.

Will I make any of all the recipes in my remaining stash? Looking through them has given me ideas. When the stores are a little more back to normal and I’m able to more easily get ingredients, I may start a routine of trying a new recipe every week. There is a summer (no-bake) cheesecake recipe I want to try that I may get ingredients for next time I go shopping, and there are a few salad recipes I’ll have to try. This fall, maybe I’ll actually bake one of those apple cakes.


Weekend Cooking

We had a cold, rainy weekend, and it was glorious. I did some cooking and read, did a little book brainstorming, and was delightfully lazy. It was just the kind of time to spend snuggled up under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book. Lately, it’s seemed like every time we have a cold, rainy weekend, it’s a weekend when I have to go somewhere or do something, and for once I didn’t have to.

I was even so lazy that I decided not to do any baking, as I’d planned, aside from the biscuits I made for breakfast. Not that I needed to bake, given that I have a freezer full of stuff from past baking binges. I have a couple of bags of blueberry mini muffins and a bag of pumpkin mini muffins, plus some shortbread cookies, and I found some chocolate mini cakes in the back of the freezer when I was looking for something else.

I’ve discovered that the whey I get from draining my homemade yogurt can be substituted for buttermilk in baking, and I think the results are even better. It makes for fluffy, flaky biscuits and really fluffy waffles. I didn’t really need to know this. It’s dangerous knowledge.

But I did do some Instant Pot experimentation. I wasn’t totally crazy with my initial attempt at using it to make a pot roast — the meat wasn’t as tender as it is when I make stew, and the vegetables were mushy. I did some more research and tried pressure cooking it for less time (about half an hour less than most of the recipes, since I was using a smaller roast) but letting the pressure release naturally. I roasted the potatoes (white and sweet) in the oven. The meat was just right, fork tender and juicy. But then for Sunday lunch, I thought I’d try something else I’d seen for the vegetables. I scraped the fat off the liquid, put it in the pot and let it heat up on saute, then put in some potatoes, carrots, and green beans (not traditional with this, but I had them, and they were good cooked this way) and cooked for four minutes, then did a quick pressure release and put the roast in with it all to warm up. The vegetables were just right, soft but not mushy, and they tasted like they’d been cooking all day with the roast. So I will have to fine tune this recipe and cook it again. For science.

Oh, and I also made pizza this weekend. I won’t have to cook a meal until later this week, I did so much cooking this weekend.



It seems that my hobby this fall and winter has been baking bread. I’ve always loved baking, and I love making bread, but it’s a time and labor-intensive process. Not only is there the time involved in mixing the ingredients, there’s generally about ten minutes of kneading (which can be therapeutic, but it’s still ten minutes), and then multiple rising times.

Well, last fall I discovered the wonders of no-knead bread. You stir up the ingredients, let it rise, shape it, let it rise again, and bake. It still takes time, but most of that time is rising, so I can be doing something else. Now I don’t remember the last time I bought bread because I’ve been making my own.

It all started with this recipe for a Harvest Bread full of nuts and dried fruit. One of my local grocery stores used to make something like this, then it stopped. One day last fall, I was procrastinating, so I did an Internet search to find a recipe along those lines and found this one, which also introduced me to the idea of Dutch oven or bread crock baking. That makes things even easier. I’ve made the rustic/artisan breads before where you have to put a pan of water in the oven. This avoids that step and still gives you that crusty European bakery effect. You just put your dough in a Dutch oven or bread crock, bake it in that with the lid on for most of the time, then remove the lid for the last few minutes. The steam builds inside the pot for most of the baking, and then you finish browning at the end. So, the night before I want bread, I stir together the ingredients, let it rise overnight, shape it and put it in the pot in the morning to rise again, then throw it into the oven. With this recipe, you put the pot in a cold oven, and it finishes rising as the oven heats.

So, since that one was so successful, I tried a crusty white bread recipe that makes multiple loaves. You pull off the amount of dough you want to use and keep the rest in the refrigerator, up to a week. The longer it stays in the refrigerator, the closer it comes to a sourdough taste.

Yesterday, I tried a skillet wheat bread that I’m still iffy about. It has the shape and a similar density to corn bread, but it’s a whole-wheat yeast bread. I guess it would be similar to a heavy peasant bread, but it’s a little too dense for my taste. I might tinker with the recipe some, and we’ll see how well it reheats or works split and toasted.

There’s a French bread recipe I want to try that I may bake in the Dutch oven. And a skillet cinnamon bread that looks lovely.

One weird thing I discovered in researching all this baking stuff is that supposedly, you should let a loaf of bread cool completely before slicing it because it alters the texture if you break the crust before it’s cooled. Is it actually possible to resist eating fresh-baked bread right out of the oven? Who does that? I do let it rest about 10-15 minutes, but then it must be at least tasted while warm, maybe with some butter and honey.