A Yankee Takes On The Homesick Texan Cookbook (& only cries a little bit when she tastes the peppers)

Ingredients for recipes from 'The Homesick Texan Cookbook' by Lisa Fain, who will be here at BookPeople next Monday, Oct 24, 7p to speak & sign the book.

~Post by Julie

Being a born and bred Yankee, I have to admit that it did feel a little like I was stomping on sacred ground when I decided to make a few recipes from Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan Cookbook. A certain parallel between our experiences intrigued me, however: Fain’s inspiration for starting the incredibly popular blog that has turned into this cookbook came when she was living in New York and could find none of her favorite Texas culinary standards, while here I am, happily living in Austin with nary a satisfying pizza nor bagel in sight (Home Slice is good, yes, but it’s just not the same.)  After some hemming and hawing, I decided that there was really no better way for me to dive into the heart of my new homeland than with this cookbook, and for the sake of all that is held sacrosanct in this great state, made sure that I at least had a Texan in the apartment with me while I cooked.

The Menu:

Austin-Style Black Beans
Red Rice
Guacamole
Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas with Tomatillo Salsa

One of the things I discovered right away while writing out my grocery list for this feast was that virtually all of the ingredients were of my favorite variety – cheap.  Onions, garlic, peppers, rice, beans, corn tortillas; none of these items broke the bank.  It’s possible the most expensive item in my shopping cart was the wine I bought to keep me company while I cooked.

Of course, being a Yankee, it was inevitable there would be a few Yankee mishaps as I proceeded. Yankee Mishap #1: Spending half an hour roaming the aisles of HEB because I did not know what a tomatilla was and did not understand I would find the fresh version in the produce section.  (For the record, the Texan shopping with me didn’t know where to find it, either.) Once I found them, I was delighted to have an excuse to take home what to my eyes was a highly exotic little green fruit in a papery husk.

The recipes all seemed straightforward enough.  I decided I would make all four at once, overlapping steps and chopping up onion in rounds (I chopped A LOT of onion.)  The good news about the recipes in this cookbook was that the majority of ingredients were items with which I was already familiar and with which I cook on a regular basis (it was, in fact, a Texan who years ago taught me how to cook; little did I know I’d based my entire culinary repertoire on Texas techniques and ingredients – clearly I was destined to live here.)  The only ingredients which were foreign to me, besides the tomatillos, were the peppers. Poblanos, serranos, habaneros; it was a quick lesson in the finer points of pepper shopping.

I started with the beans, because they would required a minimum of 2 hours to cook.  While the dry black beans softened and expanded in boiling water, I got to chopping mountains of onion, carrot and garlic.  Because the Red Rice also required onion and garlic, I was able to double up and start that recipe, getting ingredients in the blender to make the red sauce in which the rice would boil (along with plenty of vegetable broth, which I substituted for chicken broth.)

Both the beans and the rice also called for canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, an ingredient I had never before purchased and was unaware existed (but found easily enough in the canned vegetable section at HEB.)  Here’s where we get to Yankee Mishap #2:  the red adobo sauce looked good, and the smell was so delicious, I thought it might be fun to have just a little taste.  A little taste.  I didn’t cry, buy oy, I learned my lesson and put that can far, far from my work station.  If I only knew what burns were yet to come, I might have savored that minor encounter with the power of a pepper just a bit more, or at least not have whined so loud.

Next up was the Tomatillo Sauce for the enchiladas.

This recipe required that I broil a poblano pepper and then remove its skin before chopping it up and sending it to the blender. This wasn’t necessarily a Yankee mishap, per se, but I did leave that sucker to steam in the instructed plastic bag for way too long after it came out of the broiler. The result? It was nearly impossible to separate the skin from the pepper. They were almost perfectly fused. But I made it work. Into the blender it all went!

Then came Yankee Mishap #3:  You’ll notice in the picture above, right at the bottom of the image there, a piece of serrano chile.  Now, the recipe called for “1 or 2 serrano chiles, cut in half.”  So, I diligently chopped two serrano chiles in half and dropped them in the blender.  As my finger hovered above liquefy, I thought to myself, Hmm, isn’t there something about the seeds in a chile I’m supposed to….do something about?  Oh well, whatever, BLEND!  Later on, when the Texan in the apartment swung by to taste what I had bubbling, he put a spoonful of the tomatillo sauce in his mouth and said, “Oh God. Okay. Okay. Well. It’s edible.”  In fact, I should have removed the seeds. Instead, I created what I now call my Eye Poppin’ Tomatillo Salsa.  “Let’s just go easy with it on the enchiladas,” the Texan said. I deferred to his native advice.

Meanwhile, I had sauteed the onions, carrot and garlic for the beans, added the softened beans to those veggies along with the chipotle chiles (which I did not taste again, though they continued to smell absolutely delicious) and things were looking good in that pot. I also added the required spices and tomato paste, ultimately adding a lot more tomato paste than the recipe called for to accommodate my weak Yankee tongue (the beans were spicy; everything I made was spicy and at that point I was in damage control mode knowing what I’d done to the tomatillo salsa.)

It was time to start the enchiladas!  I chose the recipe for Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas because I love both of these wonderful veggies, and because both I and the Texan for whom I was cooking are vegetarian.  This was another boon for the cookbook – while there are plenty of recipes for the meat-lovers, there are also many options for those of us who prefer beans and veggies to chicken and steak.  The recipe called for a pound of spinach. This made me happy (I REALLY love spinach,) and it made the pan look like this:

The filling for the enchiladas was easy and delicious – spinach, mushrooms, another serrano chile, cayenne, more garlic and onion, ricotta cheese. The next step was actually filling the corn tortillas. First they were to be warmed in a pan, which I think I got the hang of pretty quickly once I realized it was easier to just use a light touch with my fingers rather than a fork. Oh, and I also sort of half-skipped the step of dipping each tortilla in the Tomatillo Salsa before filling and rolling, for obvious reasons. I just sort of kissed each tortilla to the sauce, the result being a complex flavor without the overwhelming heat I’d mistakenly created.

Look!  I’m so happy I managed to make something that actually looked like enchiladas!  Yankee success!

In a slight variation on the recipe, I covered half of the enchiladas with the ricotta filling (I had extra because, in a recent and devastating turn of events, I am lactose intolerant, so had to fill my own enchiladas with a ricotta-free spinach and mushroom mixture) and then topped that half of the baking dish with Monterey Jack cheese, popped the whole thing in the oven and, voila! I made a native Texan happy with his dinner, indeed.

Here’s a close-up of our beautiful Homesick Texan dinner:

A note about the guacamole: In the introduction to Lisa Fain’s recipe for guacamole, she nods to the fact that there are a variety of ways to make guacamole, and that everyone has their recipe. It has been my experience that this is absolutely true. In fact, even this Yankee has her own recipe for guacamole (thanks to that Texan who taught her how to cook – onion, garlic, tomato, salt and lemon juice to taste.) So I made my own recipe instead. Aside from my guacamole loyalty, this decision might also have had something to do with the fact that the guacamole recipe in the cookbook called for yet another serrano chile, which not only did I not have in my kitchen, but which at that point my already scorched Yankee tongue simply could not face.

In the end, I was really satisfied with the meal that I made. Yes, it was spicy, but every dish was also rich with complex flavors. A cookbook has to meet three criteria for me to whole-heartedly endorse it:  1. The ingredients must be affordable; 2. The food I make must be GOOD; 3. I’d better have some leftovers when all is said and done.  The native Texan and I got at least six meals out of these recipes, none of which I doubled up.  Which means that at least once a day for four days after their creation, the native Texan got to smirk when I said, “Oh man, those beans are SPICY!”

Now I just have to be sure to play it cool and not reveal any of my Yankee mishaps when Lisa Fain is here at the store next week. Serrano chiles?  Oh yeah, you just scoop out those little seeds, no problem. Tomatillos?  Produce section. Hey, I may talk funny for the folks in these parts, but with this cookbook in hand, I’m well on my way to believing Lyle Lovett when he tells me Texas wants me anyway.

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