Friday, January 29, 2016

Una Pozoliza--A Pozole Birthday Party!

Una Pozoliza--A Pozole Birthday Party!
By Victoria Challancin

Whether spelled pozole or posole, the word refers to something utterly delicious.  Just like the word hummus simply means "chickpea" in Arabic, but denotes so much more, the word pozole means "hominy" in Spanish, yet it conjures up far more to those who know and love it.  Exactly what, you ask?  Well, let me wax poetical on a dish that I adore.  First of all, I need to start with the chemical process that renders dried field corn into a little piece of magic, as well as a more nutritional food item.

Nixtamalization--an Ancient Process

The word pozole simply denotes hominy, or dried field corn which has been treated by soaking it in a solution of lye, slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) or wood ash and then cooked.  Called "nixtamalization," this process of soaking hard field corn in an alkaline solution has multiple benefits:  it makes the corn easier to grind and transport, increases the flavor and smell, reduces mycotoxins, and releases niacin which helps prevent the often fatal pellagra disease.  And the ancient Mayans and Aztecs knew and utilized this important process thousands of years ago!  When Europeans eventually integrated New World corn into their diets and introduced it into Africa, they failed to understand the importance of nixtamalizing the corn, resulting in serious niacin deficiency and death to many who came to depend on corn as a staple.  Yet the ancients in the Americas fully understood its importance. Even my grandmother from Georgia slaked her corn in a large bucket with wood ash before making her hominy grits!

Have you ever smelled a really fresh corn tortilla or a tamal?  Well, it is the slaked corn that gives it its heady aroma. In fact, I smilingly recall a Mexican friend who was helping me cook for a fiesta sighing when I brought in a bucket of tortilla dough (masa) I had bought at a local tortilleria  and saying, "Ahhhhhh.....nixtamal!"  Indeed, it is a smell that warms the heart of all Mexicans and those who love its cuisine.

The difference in the end product of nixtamalized corn is the difference between a corn tortilla and Southern cornbread made from untreated ground corn:  both delicious, but one significantly more healthy than the other.


So if the word pozole simply means "hominy," why, you ask, am I so ecstatic about such a humble food?  Because although simple hominy is delicious on its own--and don't get me started on my love of grits-- the pozole that I am referring to is that incomparable Mexican soup of the same name which makes me weak in the knees.  So weak, in fact, that wherever I travel in Mexico, I seek out the pozolerias that serve it.  

Served at quinceañeras, weddings, birthdays, and New Year celebrations, pozole is a soup typically made with rich pork broth and hominy, although countless regional variations exist (my good friend Alfredo Castrejón, who is from the state of Guerrero, tells me that sardines are popular in one local version).  Traditionally, pozole comes in one of three colors:  red, white, or green.  And while red is the most typical type found here in the Bajio of Mexico, where I live, white (or green even) is my favorite.

Although the basic hominy/meat or chicken soup base is delicious on its own, it is the accompaniments that make the dish come to life.  These, too, vary a bit from region to region, but the most common are shredded lettuce or cabbage, avocado, radishes, Mexican limes, and dried oregano (a must!).  I have most commonly eaten (and made) it using chicharron, or fried pork skins, as one of the garnishes, but the version I will show you here was made by Alfredo, who serves his chicken version with corn tostadas, black beans, sour cream, and fresh farmer's cheese (queso fresco or queso ranchero)--delicious!

On my son's 26th birthday on January 19th, his girlfriend and her family hosted a pozoliza, or posole party for him--and my mouth is still watering.  As far as I am concerned, this is a perfect party dish. Or maybe just a perfect dish in general!

The Garnishes
Thinly sliced lettuce

Chopped white onion (the sharp-tasting variety--the only one to use in Mexican cooking!)

Chile, of course!


Limes...never lemons here!

Sliced radishes

The obligatory Mexican oregano

The Black Bean Tostadas
A tostada is simply a fried, crispy corn tortilla used as a base on which to pile other layers of deliciousness.  Notice that there is no grease!


Black beans

Mexican sour cream or crema (much like crème fraîche) and queso fresco (also called queso ranchero--fresh farmer's cheese)

 More tostadas...beautiful tostadas

The Finished Soup with Tostada

I loved eating pozole with a black bean tostada--a nice change from using chicharron, or fried pork skin, which is often served with the pork version of this dish.  Here I have a corn tostada smeared with refried black beans, a dollop of Mexican sour cream, and a sprinkle of farmer's cheese and chile

The naked, unadorned soup (unfortunately the hominy has sunk to the bottom!)

My dish of pozole...ready to eat

The Birthday Boy with his Mum

The Birthday Boy with his Love, Isabel

Cake and wine?  Well, yes.

Parting Shot:  The Chocolate Tres Leches Cake

Purchased, but still delicious...

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, Mexíco

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Italian Food on my Table

Pizza Bites with Marinara Dipping Sauce--retro and fun

Italian Food on my Table
by Victoria Challancin

Because I've been storing up so many photos and ideas I want to write about now that the Holiday dust has started to settle, I didn't know where to begin.  With nothing particular in mind, I strolled down my photo collection and this Italian dinner just jumped out at me.  Italian on my table.  Italian in my Heart.  Italian in my blood.

Now that I look over this menu, I am astounded at how unbalanced the flavors are.  There are far too many tomato sauces to suit any northern Italian, which is where my family is from. was good.
The Menu:

Pizza Bites with Dipping Sauce

Rose-Shaped Eggplant Parmigiana and Puff Pastry

Pizza Quattro Stagioni or Four Seasons Pizza

Roman-Style Chicken from Giada De Laurentiis

Antipasto Salad with Bocconcini and John Besh's Green Olive Tapenade

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Green Herb Sauce

Mini Cannoli Bites (which I loved, loved, loved and wrote about here)

An Overview

  • Pizza Bites     These were oddly retro, but fun.  Full of flavor from the pepperoni and cheese, quick to make, and just the type of appetizer that is always welcome.  A hit.  (Recipe follows)
  • Rose-Shaped Eggplant Parm     With the internet so full of rose-shaped everything these days (I recently made in class the Rose-Shaped Apple Mini Pies and loved them), I thought this savory version of Eggplant Parm would be equally good.  Alas, I was a bit disappointed in the flavors, which oddly seemed lacking, hence no recipe.  
  • Pizza Quattro Stagioni     What's not to love about this pizza?  A perennial favorite.  The four segments of the pizza represent the four seasons of the year:  mushrooms/fall, prosciutto/winter, artichokes/spring, and tomatoes and basil/summer.  Because I had the ingredients and time, I also included a margherita pizza, with mushrooms.
  • Roman-Style Chicken     This tomato-braised chicken with prosciutto, bell peppers, white wine, chicken stock, capers, and lots of fresh herbs is apparently the number one most requested recipe of Food Network's chef/star Giada De Laurentiis, and with good reason:  it is absolutely packed with rich flavors and is easy to prepare.  Somehow I failed to snap a photo of it, but the recipe can be found here.
  • Antipasto Salad with Bocconcini and John Besh's Green Olive Tapenade     Another winner.  My only complaint is that this salad is really like marinated vegetables as it is swimming, and I do mean "swimming" in dressing.  Delicious dressing, but swimming nevertheless.  Oh, one other minor a rush I failed to stipulate the type of salami I wanted and simply told the clerk in the deli to give me her best salami.  Silly me.  The best turned out to be an icky pink meat reminiscent of bad bologna.  I'll know next time.  The tapenade, by Lousiana chef John Besh, is terrific, as is La Brea Bakery's Nancy Silverton's Antipasto Salad recipe. (Recipes follow)
  • Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Green Herb Sauce     Always a fan of herby sauces, I knew I would like this one, and I did.  Intense flavors.  Simple recipe.  Yes.  (Recipe follows)
  • Mini Cannoli Bites     As I said, I have already wept with joy over these  (the recipe is here).

 Pizza Bites with Marinara Dipping Sauce

Recipe:  Pizza Bites with Marinara Dipping Sauce
(Recipe from
15 min preparation and 25 minutes cooking time
Makes 24
Note:  I can't seem to find the original source, but my notes say I found this on hope I am not leaving someone out here.  Apologies)

3/4 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning (mixed herbs)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of red pepper flakes
3/4 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
\1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 cup pepperoni, finely chopped
1/2 cup jarred, all natural pizza sauce--or homemade

Preheat oven to 375F.  Grease a mini-muffin pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, Italian herbs, salt and red pepper flakes.

Whisk in milk and egg.  Stir in mozzarella, Parmesan and pepperoni.  Let stand for 10 minutes.

Stir the batter and divide among the muffin cups.  Bake until puffed and golden, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat pizza sauce until warmed through. Serve the puffs hot with the warm pizza sauce for dipping.

 Rose-Shaped Eggplant Parmesan in Puff Pastry

 The Puff Pastry Eggplant Parm over a tomato sauce

 Pizza Quattro Stagione:  the four sections represent the four seasons with the prosciutto representing winter, artichokes for spring, tomatoes and basil for summer, and mushrooms bring in the fall

 A close up of the Four Seasons Pizza

 Because I had the ingredients, I also made a Margherita Pizza, another favorite of mine.  With mushrooms, which doesn't really come with a traditional margherita pizza.

 Margharita pizza with mushrooms

The antipasto salad before it went swimming, complete with the pink salami

 Antipasto Salad--a bit messy, a bit wet, but yum.

Recipe:  Antipasto Salad with Bocconcini and John Besh's Green Olive Tapenade
(REcipe by Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles--and Osteria Mozzza and Pizzeria Mozza)
Total time:  25 minutes
Serves 8
Cook's Note:  You can easily make this salad in advance, but don't add the lettuce until just before serving.

3 Tablespoons green-olive tapenade from a jar (or see the following recipe)
1/4 cup peperoncini--stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped (( left some whole for texture)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups bocconcini (about 9 ounces) or other fresh mozzarella
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small head iceberg lettuce, halved, cored and finely shredded (4 cups)
6 ounces thinly sliced Genoa salami, cut into thin strips (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup green olives, such as Picholine

In a medium bowl, mix the green olive tapenade with the peperoncini and 1/4 cup of the oil.  Add the bocconcini and toss.

In a small bowl, whisk the lemon juice with the vinegar, garlic and oregano.  Whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and season the dressing with salt and pepper.

In a bowl, combine the shredded lettuce and salami.  Add the marinated bocconcini and half of the dressing and toss well.  Transfer the antipasto salad to a large platter.  Top with the basil and olives.  Drizzle the remaining dressing around the salad and serve.

John Besh's Green Olive Tapenade
(Recipe by Chef John Besh)

2 cups pitted olives, black or green
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 filets salt-cured anchovies
1 tablespoon capers, drained
Leaves from 2 (or 2) sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional, but so good)

Combine the olives, garlic, anchovies, capers and thyme in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the olives are coarsely chopped.  With machine running, slowly add the olive oil until it is all absorbed.

 Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Green Herb Sauce

Recipe:  Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Green Herb Sauce
(Recipe from Martha Stewart, November 2015)
Prep:  15 minutes     Total time:  1 hour 15 minutes
Serves 10
1 large head cauliflower
3/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup packed chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup packed chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Preheat oven to 450F.  Place cauliflower on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet.  Brush with 1/4 cup oil; season with salt and pepper.  Pull short sides of parchment over cauliflower and fold one end over the other a few times to seal.  Fold long ends of parchment under cauliflower to create a packet.  Roast until knife-tender, about 40 minutes.  Tear open parchment at top; roast until golden brown, 15 or 20 minutes more.

Stir together parsley, cilantro, garlic, mustard, vinegar, and remaining 1/2 cup oil in a small bowl to combine.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve cauliflower warm, with sauce alongside.  (Or pour it over as I did).

 Roasted Cauliflower with Green Herb Sauce

 Cannoli Bites  (recipe from an earlier post, found here)

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

Sunday, December 13, 2015

An Easy Holiday Appetizer and the Spices of Morocco

Cheese ball, crackers, candles, and shells

An Easy Holiday Appetizer and the Spices of Morocco
by Victoria Challancin

For a small dinner party for a group of girlfriends last week I was asked to bring an appetizer.  I didn't want anything that had to be served (or carried hot), nor anything too fussy, yet I needed something festive and tasty...What could be easier than a cheese ball?  A bit retro, of course, but always good. After searching the web for a slightly different take on the traditional cheese ball, I came up with this lovely version from the always reliable The Kitchn.  Of course I couldn't just leave it alone, so throwing it together in my own way, I came up with a slightly modified version.  It couldn't have been easier.  Delicious and easy--who doesn't need a recipe like this during the holidays

Christmas Gorgonzola Cheese Ball with Dried Figs and Honey

Cook's Notes:  I used only 190g of cream cheese as that is how Philadelphia brand packages it for Mexico, instead of 227g or a cup.  I also used a lovely hunk of Gorgonzola from Costco instead of a regular blue cheese.  The food processor made this incredibly fast to prepare.  The original recipe called for 1 cup cream cheese, 1 cup blue cheese, 1/3 cup dried figs, 2 tablespoons honey, and 1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds

Recipe:  Gorgonzola Cheese Ball with Dried Figs and Honey
(My version, based on one from The Kitchn)

2/3 cup dried figs
190g cream cheese (a 227g block would also work)
1 1/2 cups gorgonzola cheese, in chunks
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, depending on how sweet you want it
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

Lightly toast almond slices in a small dry skillet until golden.  Set aside to cool.

Place dried figs in food processor and pulse to finely chop.
Add cream cheese, gorgonzola and honey.  Process until smooth, leaving it a bit chunky, if desired.

Spread almonds on a large plate.  Form a ball with the cheese mixture.  Roll the ball on the plate with the almonds, making sure it is completely covered with almonds.  Wrap the cheese ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.  Serve with baguette toasts or crackers.

Christmas Gorgonzola Cheese Ball with Dried Figs and Honey

The Spices of Morocco

Other posts you might enjoy on spices (with lots of photos to inspire!):

Ras el Hanout:  A Magical Blend of Moroccan Spices

The Spices of Morocco--the Blends  (I love these photos of various blends)

When writing about spices, sometimes I think letting the photos speak for themselves is enough.  I only wish I could capture the smells...

Having said that, though, I read back over some old posts and thought I would repeat this little bit from a post I did a couple of years ago:

In my very private musings, I secretly think of myself as The Spice Queen.  I know, I is a bit pretentious and over-blown, but truly I gravitate to cuisines that use ample amounts of spices and I, myself love to toast and grind all manner of blends, from Ras el Hanout, curry blends (see my Garam Masala here), Middle Eastern baharat (or Dukkah, or Za'atar), Cajun blends, Quatre Epices, Jerk Seasoningand so many more.  Whether this love comes from deep in my DNA or simply is an offshoot from the countless spices markets I have loved all over the world, spices do permeate my kitchen and my life.  I hunger for them; I seek them out; I read about them; I lecture on them; but most importantly, I use them...

Once when my son was a teenager returning from a year of study in France, he commented off-handedly on the way our house smelled.

Aghast, I said, "Our house smells?????"

"Of spices, Mum.  I always smell spices when I come in the door.  I think I missed that smell."

Whew!  The smell of spices.  A good thing.  A good thing indeed.

Below are some photos from the October trip I led to Morocco.  Just a sample.  I think my "spice album" had almost 100 shots of spices just from this trip!  Here are a few:

In Marrakech:  spices, incense, clay pumice stones, and more

The green in the background is henna

An example of a specific blend of spices from the Rissani souk--this one for fish, I think

The whole spices of one shop's ras el hanout blend.  Of course I had to buy some.  Of course

The reddest (unedited) paprika ever and dried roses, which figure into some Moroccan spice blends

A spice grinder, chile powder, and a variety of whole spices ready for grinding

Those lovely baby roses again...and handmade spoons, often made of either olive or lemon wood

If only I could capture the scents for you...if only

An extended view of an earlier photo.  More than just spices:  clay pumice stones, cowrie shells, kohl bottles and kohl itself in tiny vials...The barely visible bins in the upper righthand corner are pastas

The spices provided by La Maison Arabe for their cooking classes:  saffron, cinnamon, white pepper, ginger, turmeric, cumin, chile, ground coriander, paprika, and salt.  These are the main spices used in Moroccan cuisine.

Cinnamon in a jar

A box of spices at La Maison Arabe's cooking school in the country outside of Marrakech

Sometimes you see some sadly motley spices that no one would possibly buy.  These are mounded around an aluminum mold and are stale and unappealing, except for the presentation, which I find oddly fascinating.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico