Down the Hatch!

Chiles from Around Hatch, New Mexico

Today I had two meals that featured Hatch chiles. For breakfast, I scrambled three eggs with onion, garlic, and one green Hatch chile. At dinner time, I prepared a vegetarian chick pea curry with potatoes, spinach, sweet red pepper, and one Hatch chile turning from green to red. (You can get the recipe by clicking here.)

There was a time in the late 1980s when I had three consecutive vacations in New Mexico. Not only did I learn about Hatch chiles, but whenever I tent camped I would prepare a meal with rice, onions, and a Hatch chile. It was simple and always delicious.

What is so special about Hatch chiles? For one thing, they come from the area around Hatch, New Mexico, along the Rio Grande, roughly between Arrey to the north and Tonuco Mountain to the south. There’s something about the soil of this region which produces chile peppers that may or may not be spicy hot, but which always taste good.

In the late summer or early autumn, my local Ralphs Super Market carries the chiles either loose or bagged; and I always buy more than I end up using. (Martine does not tolerate spicy foods well.) The loose Hatch chiles are not always hot: I chopped one up with scrambled eggs last week that was no hotter than a regular green pepper, but even then was more flavorful.

I am always saddened when the fresh Hatch chiles are gone. If I were fanatical enough, I could order them frozen from a chile pepper supplier in New Mexico; but I will probably just go back to serranos, jalapeños, and California chiles. I actually like being surprised by the range of hotness in my fresh Hatch chiles. It is something worth looking forward to.

 

Plague Diary 29: Corona Cooking

The Mafia Cooking Hour

During my months-long quarantine, I have been sustained by five things:

  1. My relationship with Martine
  2. Playing chess with the computer
  3. Reading
  4. Watching movies on TV and my computer
  5. Cooking

That last item deserves some explanation. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I never was able to give it the attention it deserved. When I was working, I cooked good food, but I shied away from recipes that required some sophistication and a lot of time. Now that I am retired and quarantined, I am able to take the time to make some really good meals.

Mostly for Martine’s benefit, I got my hands on a cookbook by a convicted mafioso, Henry Hill, featuring the Italian cooking of the New York/New Jersey area: The Wiseguy Cookbook. Although Martine was born in France, she was mostly raised in Northern New Jersey (in Oceanport). As a child, it was New Jersey Italian food that she loved most. That was before she came out to Los Angeles and fell for Hungarian food.

For myself, I have become more interested in the vegetarian cuisine of India. Fortunately, Youtube has some excellent and very authentic recipes by Indians, Pakistanis, and others featuring Indian cuisine. This week, I made the following:

Manjula presents us here with a recipe for Chick Pea Pulav (aka Chole Biryani). The followed the recipe exactly, except that I added half a chopped onion and some extra hot Indian red chile powder. The only change I would suggest is to use one cup of water rather than a cup and a half. The dish is superb.

Fortunately, there is a nearby Indian foods store in Culver City called Indian Sweets and Spices. In better times, there is a little café on the premises with vegetarian-only curries; but there is also an excellent selection of teas and such hard-to-find items as mango powder, foenugreek leaves, garlic/ginger paste, and asafoetida.

A Traitor at the Dinner Table

My Taste in Foods Is Positively Un-American

It all started with Hungarian food. That’s what I was raised on, good Magyar chow cooked by my mother and my great-grandmother Lidia Toth. Along the way, I also started to like American food, particularly hamburgers and hot dogs.

But then something happened when I came out to Southern California. It started with Mexican food. When I lived in Santa Monica, there was a Mexican buffet around Wilshire and 12th Street called Castillo’s. One of the girls behind the steam table was quite cute, and I remember eating there and ogling her.

That was only the beginning. Then I moved to Mississippi Avenue between Sawtelle and Corinth, which was in the middle of a small Japanese neighborhood. I dined regularly at the Osho Restaurant and the Futaba Cafe. When my miso soup has tofu in it, I naively thought they were cut-up shark fins. Before long, I was eating sushi—despite the fact that, while I lived in Cleveland, I saw fish only as dead things that floated on the surface of polluted Lake Erie.

When I worked at Urban Decision Systems at Santa Monica Blvd and Barrington Avenue, we frequently ate Chinese food at the Sun Kwong Restaurant, which was a very high quality Cantonese place. But then Szechuan cuisine invaded, plus I became a chili-head whereas before I went for bland foods. My tastes kept developing to such an extent that my parents—God rest their souls!—thought that I had betrayed my Hungarian heritage.

Well, it’s still with me, along with a whole lot of other cuisines. I drive poor Martine crazy with the weird spices and condiments I introduce into my cooking. At the same time, I try to make sure she gets plenty of the foods she particularly favors. These can usually be described as bland American food.

So it goes.

 

 

Plague Diary 18: The COVID Cooking Series

My Brother Dan with Grandson Oliver

Spending time with my brother Dan and sister-in-law Lori is my niece Jennifer, who has wisely chosen to quarantine with her family. Fortunately for me, and for everyone who loves good food, Jen has filmed Dan giving cooking instructions for some of his favorite dishes. Now I have mentioned before that I admire Dan’s cooking and am somewhat jealous that I am nowhere near so proficient as he is in the kitchen.

So, straight from Dan’s kitchen in Palm Desert, here are some wonderful dishes you can prepare at home:

  1. Hungarian Chicken Paprikás: Part 1 and Part 2. You can see the completed meal in Part 3.
  2. Vietnamese Lettuce Wrap with Skirt Steak.
  3. Quiche with Potato Crust.
  4. Da Bomb Eggplant Parmigiana. This is my favorite. If I can get Martine to try it, I’ll make this within a week or two.

My Niece Jennifer, Who Shot the Videos

Having enjoyed Dan’s cooking numerous times, I think you will find these a real treat. Let me know if you have tried any of the recipes.

 

Plague Diary 13: Rainy Day Quarantine

Death’s Head Overlooking Venice Beach

Once again, I have taken a Los Angeles Times photograph from their evocative series on the effects of the quarantine on L.A.’s public spaces.

Today has been a day of steady rain, which started late morning and will probably continue through the night. We did get out around 11 am: Martine needed repairs to her eyeglass frames that only an optician could make, and I picked up a couple of Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwiches for her. Martine was none too happy with the yellow split pea rice pilau I had cooked the previous evening, preferring meat dishes even as I drift slowly into a vegetarian diet.

Returning around noon, we have stayed in the apartment. I sat in the library finishing Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. As I compare the current coronavirus disease with the bubonic plague, I would have to say that COVID-19 is by far less horrible. Whereas the mortality rate of the current outbreak is 2% of those afflicted, some 69,000 Londoners out of a total of 500,000 died of the 1665 outbreak.

The way that London enforced quarantine was to lock up any household where there was an instance of plague, enforced by two shifts of watchmen who would assist the tenants of the house get food and other necessities. But if one person in a household got the plague, it was fairly certain that all would die horribly.

On most days, I see at least one film, either from Spectrum Cable, Netflix’s DVD.COM service, or my personal DVD collection, consisting mostly of American and foreign classics. Today, since Martine did not go out for a walk, I decided not to induce her to retire to the bedroom to avoid listening to samurai sword fights, Western gunfights, or other irritatingly loud sound tracks.

Tomorrow, the rain will gradually taper off, and I will be able to play one of my films.

 

 

Another Xmas Under the Belt

Wishing You a Glorious Etcetera Etcetera

I have seen a lot of Christmases. Like birthdays, they don’t seem to as magical when one is older. I celebrated Christmas Eve by spending five hours putting together a tasty beef stew, served with a crusty artisanal baguette and a bottle of Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood of Eger”) Hungarian red wine. It was the best stew I ever made. I remember sometimes cooking myself a stew (accompanied with red wine) back when I was in my twenties and alone for the holidays. So it is a tradition of sorts for me.

Like my brother—though nowhere as good as him at it—I find cooking to be one of my favorite creative outlets. So I will translate this into a Christmas wish for those of you who come across this post:

May you and your loved ones find joy in what you do and with whom you share it, in the coming year and always.

What may or may not have happened in Bethlehem some two thousand plus years ago has cast a long shadow. I take from it some useful lessons, but not the whole package. I am content with that.

 

 

Meat-a-Palooza

Dan Carefully Measures the Internal Temperature of the Meat

One of the highlights of my weekend trip to visit my brother and family in Palm Desert is a growing family tradition known as Meat-a-Palooza. Dan is an incredible chef, and he loves to prepare a feast featuring a variety of meat dishes. Incredibly, he is able to single-handedly prepare a multi-course feast that is all ready to be served at the same time. I can’t even do that with two dishes, let alone a dozen.

I don’t think I’m a bad cook, but I simply can’t compare with Dan. Everybody always asks him why he doesn’t open a restaurant. In answer, he merely smiles and begs to differ. He knows that running a restaurant is more than anything a form of slavery, involving long hours seven days a week. Visiting Dan’s place is always a special treat for me.

The Same Beef Dish on Serving Plate

The curious thing is that I am gradually turning into a vegetarian, but that all is put on hold when it is Meat-a-Palooza time. Dan’s dishes are always top drawer and worth eating irrespective of one’s foodie beliefs.

The Groaning Table Gradually Fills Up

 

Black Beans and Rice

(Mostly) Vegetarian and Muy Picante

As time goes by, I become more vegetarian. Although I do all the cooking in our household, I can’t altogether dispense with meat. This is mostly because Martine seems to think that meat is the only good source of protein. So I alternate meat dishes with vegetarian dishes. At times, I can cook something that Martine is not interested in sampling, such as my black beans and rice.

Now black beans and rice is not normally a spicy dish—but the way I make it, it is. Here is a list of ingredients:

1 cup Basmati rice
1 chopped onion
2 minced Serrano chiles
Several dried chile pods
Several cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1 15 oz can of black beans with liquid
2½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish with parsley or cilantro

As a certified chile-head, I occasionally have to indulge my love of capsicum. (Don’t worry, I got something else for Martine, who hates chiles so much that she can’t be in the apartment when I cook with them.)

Years ago, I read a book by Frances Moore Lappé entitled Diet for a Small Planet. Her belief was that one could get all the protein one needs by using ingredients whose amino acids, when cooked together, form a complete protein. Beans and rice are two such complementary foods.

Although I tend to use chicken stock to cook the rice, I do not add pieces of meat. So, in fact, my way of preparing it with chicken stock is not technically vegetarian. If you want, you can use vegetable stock or even water.

 

Meatapalooza

A Carnivore’s Delight

Last week at this time, I was in Palm Desert with my brother, my sister-in-law Lori, my niece Hilary and her family, and my niece Jennifer. We were looking in amazement at what Dan had prepared for us: a feast featuring various cuts of meat that would make any carnivore drool. There were also several varieties of roasted vegetables, such as the artichokes pictured below. To make it a truly gourmet experience, Dan had prepared a batch of homemade Béarnaise sauce which was so good that it seemed to go with everything.

Since the onset of my Type II diabetes about ten years ago, I have been more of a part-time vegetarian. But there is something about my brother’s cooking that cannot be denied. The last time I overindulged in meat was in Buenos Aires, when I went to a parrilada, ate a huge steak, and got picturesquely ill from several of orifices, missing my bus the next afternoon to Puerto Iguazu. This time, I merely sampled the cuts on display and suffered no untoward effects.

Roasted Artichokes

It was a delicious meal. I consider myself a passable cook, but not fit the touch the hem of Dan’s garment when it comes to a comparison. If I am overweight, it is fo a good reason. My great-grandmother Lidia Toth was an excellent cook. My mother was also good, but most notable for her soups and baked goods. (I am wearing those baked goods to this day.) I take after my mother in making good soups—the one area I might be able to give Dan a run for his money.

People have always told Dan he should open a restaurant. He is much too canny for that form of slavery. He has at times prepared dishes for restaurants and made friends of restaurateurs, but he was never tempted to go into that profession. Why should he? He is a superb home builder and has just finished building a log home in Idyllwild that he completed the sale of just this last week. Too bad: I would give much to live in a house that he built.

 

The Cook

I Do All the Cooking at Home

I Do All the Cooking at Home

At some point during the 1960s, I discovered that eating out at restaurants all the time was going to:

  1. Eat into my finances
  2. Deprive me of the fruits and vegetables I needed to survive and
  3. Make me tired of eating out all the time

I knew what good food was because I was raised on my Mom’s Hungarian home cooking, supplemented by my great grandmother Lidia’s special dishes. But I made the mistake of never learning from them, though I did help my Mom from time to time, mostly stirring the pot so the food would not burn.

My first experiments were pretty bad: They usually had too many spices (more or less randomly chosen) and relied excessively on rice and pasta as the carbohydrate base. Also I used way too much ground beef, for which I now substitute lean ground turkey.

When Martine came to live with me in the early 1990s, I also had to learn to cook to please her. This is not easy. Martine cannot eat spicy food, and there are too many ingredients that she flat-out doesn’t like. Also, as she suffers from recurring bouts of irritable bowel syndrome, I have to be able to turn on a dime and cook something especially bland at a moment’s notice. This week, for example, despite the heat and humidity, I made a pot of vegetable soup.

Tonight, I plan to cook Ree Drummond’s spaghetti with artichoke hearts and tomatoes. I like her recipes because they are well conceived, simple, and lavishly illustrated. Her cooking column is called “The Pioneer Woman.” I haven’t found a clinker yet in the lot.

Why do I do all the cooking? Well, for one thing, Martine is notably maladroit at cooking; and her mother prepared the most vile dishes I have ever eaten. (Her vegetables were greasy!) Secondly, I like to cook. It makes me feel good about myself. Every once in a while I experiment with a new recipe that I have to throw out, but essentially I have a fairly decent repertoire of healthy dishes that I can rely on to see us through.

I’ve cooked the spaghetti with artichoke hearts and tomatoes two or three times before with good results. I just have to make sure the tomatoes are chopped up fine because big pieces of tomato are one of Martine’s bête noires.