It happens to all of us. Every cook tries new recipes, and they don’t always go right on the first try. Or the second. Today, I attempted to make ceviche, a unique Latin American appetizer in which fish is “cooked” using acid rather than heat, the preferred acid being lime juice. It’s a very tricky dish to do well, as I found out.
I had a different recipe all ready to go – Ukrainian borshch – but we hit a record 93 degF in Cambridge today. In the midst of a heat wave, root vegetable soup seemed completely out of season.
I wandered the Arlington farmers’ market, looking for inspiration, and I found it at a stall selling fresh fish. Not heating up my kitchen on a day of record heat sounded like the ideal solution. Half a pound of haddock and several fresh vegetables and herbs later, I was ready to make ceviche.
Saying that this is New Mexican ceviche is something of a contradiction in terms. New Mexican cuisine is largely dictated by local food: chiles, tomatoes, beans, corn. Rice and avocados are imports from Mexico, but even that’s not so far away. One thing that’s almost impossible to get in landlocked, high desert New Mexico is fresh fish. I have caught trout in mountain streams and have fond memories of one amazing morning on the Chama River when the browns were so hungry they were striking bare hooks. Fresh, pan-fried trout remains one of my favorite breakfasts. Still, I can’t imagine trout would work in ceviche. (Know otherwise? Tell me in the comments!)
I have never seen ceviche offered in New Mexican restaurants, which makes sense, since fresh whitefish must be flown in daily at tremendous expense (I’m betting that some insane place offers it anyway). It’s not surprising, then, that my first experience of ceviche was in Burlington, MA, and that was shrimp ceviche, tasty but not outstanding. Then we went to Cape Cod this summer, and my husband and I dined at Tumi, a Peruvian-Italian fusion restaurant, where I tried the mixed seafood ceviche.
It was a revelation. The acidity balanced with the delicate fish captivated me. I couldn’t get enough and ate more than my fair share of the appetizer, which was fine because my husband was having a similar experience with his rocoto relleno appetizer. By the time I had finished the last bit of grilled octopus, I knew that I had to try making ceviche myself as soon as possible.
My first attempt was a dismal failure. Ceviche requires careful timing. I didn’t really understand how long it took to “cook” the fish in the lime juice, and we had to go out that evening, which meant that it was disastrously overdone mush by the time we got home. Today marks my second attempt, using this recipe from Laylita’s Recipes.
It was AWFUL: too acidic, not salty enough, terribly bitter. I made several mistakes.
- I was preparing the ceviche at the same time as some pork carnitas, so I missed the part where the onion and tomato are marinated separately at the end of the cooking process, and I threw in the onion and part of the tomato to cook with the haddock. I suspect the onion may have contributed to the bitterness.
- I also forgot to add salt to the fish before cooking it in the lime juice.
- When I drained the fish, I noticed – too late! – that some of the fish was not fully cooked, and I was out of limes. So I pulled out a bottle of lemon juice, covered the fish again, and cooked it for another 45 minutes. This was a terrible mistake. The lemon juice clashed with the lime juice and was much more acidic without any balancing sweetness. I suspect that this was the main source of the bitterness.
- I tried to salt the fish after adding the remaining tomato, bell pepper, avocado, and cilantro. This just made it salty and acidic and bitter. And mostly inedible. Bleh.
My one success: Hatch green chile. I don’t have Ecuadorian peppers, nor is New England well known for any of its hot peppers, but I did happen to have some Hatch green chile in the fridge that I’d been meaning to use. Even with the nasty bitterness, I could taste the mellow burn of the chile, and I think it would be really excellent in a ceviche done properly.
So, the moral of today’s cooking adventure: do not attempt to cook something totally new while also making something else complicated. Ironically, the pork carnitas was probably the best I ever made, with a wonderful, rich umami flavor to it. I would post that recipe, except that I don’t actually know exactly what I did. I was paying too much attention to the ceviche to really notice. I browned the pork, took it out of the Instant Pot, sauteed the onions and garlic, then added a splash of apple cider vinegar, a dollop of tomato paste, some low sodium chicken broth, mexican oregano, cumin, mustard powder, and Worcestershire sauce, with a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. Fantastic!
But the fact that I can pull off things like that makes me cocky. I forgot that I’ve made carnitas a million times before, and that ceviche is in a class of cooking I am wholly ignorant of. Next time I try ceviche, it’ll be on a lazy afternoon when I have absolutely nothing else to do, and I can really focus on getting everything right. And I’ll be sure to have extra limes.
Tomatoes, bell pepper, avocado, and cilantro, all headed to their DOOM.
It looks soooooo good, but it tastes soooooo bad.
Here in New England, the leaves are just starting to turn from green to gold and orange and flaming red. The remnants of Hurricane Jose have been drifting in as fog and wind and rain. It’s chilly and clammy outside, the kind of weather that makes you want to wrap up in a warm blanket, sip a mug of tea with honey, or maybe indulge in a bowl of soup.
This is also the time of year when squash starts appearing at farmers’ markets, when zucchini and crooknecks and pattypans are supplanted by spaghetti, delicata, acorn, and butternut, their sweet golden flesh ready to be put to a vast array of uses. My favorite thing to do with winter squash is to balance its sweetness with something savory, and curry works beautifully.
This recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Gardeners’ Community Cookbook compiled by Victoria Wise and given to me by my friend and fellow meals adventurer, Megan.
CURRIED BUTTERNUT SQUASH BISQUE
1 medium butternut squash (about 1-3/4 lb.)
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large cooking apple, such as Cortland or McIntosh, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
Salt and pepper to taste
Whole sage leaves for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degF. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray or coat with butter and place the halves cut side down on the sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until a fork pushes easily into the thickest part of the squash. When mostly cooled, scoop out the flesh.
Melt the butter in a large soup pot. Add the onion, garlic, and apple and cook over low heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the curry, nutmeg, and flour and stir until the flour disappears.
With a food processor or blender, puree the onion-and-apple mixture along with the squash and 1 cup of the broth. Return the puree to the pot and stir in the tomato paste, half-and-half, minced sage, remaining broth, and salt and pepper. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it just begins to boil. Serve immediately, garnished with whole sage leaves.
Variations: for a richer flavor, use light cream in place of half-and-half. For a little more kick, increase the amount of curry, or add 1/2 teaspoon red chile or chipotle powder. If you don’t have butternut squash available, you can substitute 2-3 acorn squash or even a similar-sized pumpkin. If you use pumpkin, save the seeds, roast them, and use them as garnish along with the sage.
If you’re looking for a vegan version of this, I recommend this recipe in the New York Times.
My publisher has just made A Witch’s Kitchen available on Kindle Unlimited. So if you’ve been putting off buying the book, or if you have friends you’ve been telling to read it, this is your chance!
It’s no surprise that food brings people together. But it’s a rare gift when you come across a food that brings people together across an ocean and several hundred years.
Molletes are a sweet anise bread, a favorite in my family, similar in some ways to Portuguese sweet bread. My abuela is famous for her molletes, which come out soft and fluffy and golden brown, delicious with butter or jam. But it’s not a well-known bread, even in New Mexico. You won’t find it in typical bakeries or restaurants, the way you do biscochitos. They’re a secret delight, a recipe passed down through generations.
So you can imagine my surprise when I mentioned to a fellow parent that I was making molletes that evening, and he did a double take. “Did you say molletes?” he asked, pronouncing it properly (moh-yeh-tehs). It turns out that his wife grew up in a small town called Zamora in Spain, which is home to one of the few remaining enclaves of Spanish Jews. It is also the only town in Spain where you can find molletes.
This made sense to me. I’d learned about two decades ago about the Conversos of New Mexico, Spanish Jews who had converted, sometimes forcibly, to Christianity but still faced suspicion and outright persecution in Spain. They emigrated to the Spanish territories in the New World, and a large contingent settled in what is now known as New Mexico. Those were my ancestors. There’s nothing left of Jewish tradition in my family now, except molletes, which I often introduce as Spanish challah.
That’s because there are serious similarities between molletes and challah. Both are enriched with eggs and basted to attain a beautiful sheen and soft crust. Both are sweetened, almost a dessert. They’re rich and decadent and wonderful. Molletes, however, are a slightly drier bread than challah, and they contain anise seed, giving them their characteristic but subtle licorice flavor. I like to eat them with apricot jam, my husband prefers butter, my children Nutella.
Note that molletes are one of my inspirations for the elf cakes in A Witch’s Kitchen, along with banana cookies. I imagine elf cakes as tasting like molletes but as thin and springy as banana cookies. One of these days, I’ll try to find that magical hybrid. In the meantime, I’m starting to teach my thirteen-year-old, who can inhale an entire loaf of bread every day, how to make her own bread, and we are slowly working our way up to her favorite bread: molletes.
This recipe was handed down to me by my abuela, but I found an identical recipe in Great Southwest Cooking Classics, a compilation of recipes published in the Albuquerque Tribune, and the name of the author, Josephine Telles, seems vaguely familiar to me. Was she a cousin with the same recipe? It’s more likely that my abuela, when writing the recipe down for me, couldn’t quantify it easily – she has long baked by tossing ingredients in a bowl until they look right – and so she borrowed it from a ready source. How do I know she had a different recipe? Well, I remember her using lard in this, instead of shortening, and she never, ever used raisins.
I have modified the recipe to use the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day method of using a kitchen mixer to do the dirty work.
1-1/2 tablespoons (2 packets) yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
1 cup scalded milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3 large or 4 small eggs, well beaten
4 tablespoons melted shortening or butter
7 cups sifted flour
3 teaspoons anise seed
1/2 cup floured raisins (optional)
Soften yeast in lukewarm water with one teaspoon of the sugar. Stir remaining sugar and salt into scalded milk and cool to lukewarm. When cooled, combine with yeast mixture and all other ingredients. Knead by hand or using a kitchen mixer (prefered) until you have a smooth, elastic dough that does not stick to the bowl or your hands. If it’s still sticky (as often happens in the humid Northeast), add a little flour until you reach the desired consistency, without making the dough stiff. Cover (not airtight – in New Mexico, we use a moistened towel) and let rise until doubled in bulk, about one hour.
Turn onto floured board and shape into four loaves. Place on greased pans or pans lined with parchment paper and brush lightly with melted butter on top. Cover with wax paper. Let rise again until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degF or until golden brown. To test for doneness, tap sharply; loaves should make a hollow sound. Turn out onto a rack to cool. Brush again with butter for a softer crust. Store in plastic bags in refrigerator or freezer.
Which recipe would you like me to post next week? Tell me in the comments!
Prospective cover for A Pixie’s Promise
Hi, all! First, I hope everyone from Texas to Georgia and throughout the Caribbean is safe and dry today.
Second, I’m happy to report that I completed the first draft of A Pixie’s Promise on Saturday. Woo hoo!
I was surprised to discover that writing a sequel was significantly different from writing a standalone novel or the first in a series. It
was… easier. Much easier. I had done the worldbuilding. I knew the characters and their motivations. The sequel was a logical continuation of the first novel, so the plot flowed smoothly. Once I had a plot outline done, I could just sit down and churn out page after page.
Wait, you say. Maybe you’ve just gotten better at writing novels, now that you’ve written three of them. I’d love to believe that’s the case, but I have a counterexample. The standalone novel I wrote between A Witch’s Kitchen and A Pixie’s Promise… well, it kinda stinks. It’s deeply problematic, its theme is muddy, it has characters it doesn’t really need, and, in my husband’s words, it’s really only half a novel. Why? I think it’s because I haven’t had the time to think it through, the way I have with the universe and characters I created in A Witch’s Kitchen. They’ve been fermenting in my head for nearly four years, and they are now well developed and thus much easier to work with.
Which is not to say that there weren’t surprises. Lots of surprises. Unexpected new characters, a wholly unplanned aerial battle scene, and an entire new Realm I hadn’t known existed until I started writing it. I was delighted by this. I had been a little worried that plotting in advance would make the writing wooden and formulaic. On the contrary, it gave me just enough structure to plow through at high speed without restricting the flow of new ideas.
I loved this process. Having written and published the first novel, I could write this one with the confidence that it would also appeal to my readers. I could delve more deeply into individual characters and motivations. I could expand upon the worldbuilding without getting too technical. I could introduce social concepts relevant to our current surreal lives in the United States in fun and interesting ways. Seriously, I had a ball.
So did my readers. The comments I’ve gotten back have been, “This is such a pageturner, I can’t put it down,” and “Mom, stop bothering me, I’m reading your book.” Okay, my first readers were my family and they have to like it, but even so, they really liked it, and I’m so happy about the whole thing. I’d read blogs and articles saying that sequels are often harder to write, but I’m happy to say that this wasn’t the case for me.
Now, I’m not saying it’s perfect. I changed things halfway through and have to go back and correct for them, and I need to do overall consistency checking and adjust chapter lengths. That’s just to get it ready for non-family beta readers. I also want to go back and really reinforce the character development and thematic elements. My current chapter titles are terrible. I need more bad jokes. On the whole, though, I’m pleased and think the novel is close to done.
But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?), something unexpected happened. When I got to the end of my two other novels, (the prequel and the standalone), I got this marvelous sense of done-ness, and large swaths of my mind, previously busy keeping track of all the plot threads and character development, emptied out and relaxed. It’s just a marvelous feeling, like finally hiking to the top of a mountain and being able to take off your backpack and put it down.
I finished A Pixie’s Promise, and I sat back and waited for that to happen. I waited all day, and part of the next. My brain did not empty out. In fact, if anything, it got MORE full. I discovered that I was forgetting things: events, appointments, grocery items even though they were on the list in my hand. Ack! What’s happening! My brain is too full!
I had to sort of drop everything and figure out what was going on in my head, and to my dismay, I discovered that I was still hanging on to several plot threads that needed tweaking in A Pixie’s Promise, and I was also busy plotting out two more sequels, and a bit of a third, all from small details I’d seeded in A Pixie’s Promise.
And it was too much. My series had exceeded my mind’s processing capacity and was crowding out the small details of daily life that I so often take for granted. Ow, my brain.
So I did what any self-respecting writer does in the age of the Internet: I got on Facebook and complained. How do I deal with this? I wailed. And other writers came to my rescue. Keep notes, they said. Make timelines and character worksheets. One author of a five-book series has offered to meet me for coffee and show me her wiki, which she
uses to keep track of everything.
I’m now in the process of retraining myself to write everything down: all appointments and commitments go in to my calendar, I’m setting up a TBD list on my phone so I always have it with me, and I’m starting to document my universe, something I’d never imagined needing to do for myself. When your brain isn’t big enough to hold everything, it’s time
to invest in external storage.
For those of you considering embarking upon writing a series, I recommend you set up your infrastructure first. Yes, do your plot outlines and your character worksheets, but realize that you may need to keep track of changes to your character in those worksheets. You might need maps, a timeline, a glossary of terms unique to your series. I need a searchable list of magic words and incantations so that I don’t have to keep flipping back through my first novel and the early pages of the sequel to find them. I also need a bestiary as I keep adding magical races. And I need to start tracking the interaction between mythology and the history/magic system of my universe.
Because, if it’s good, it gets weird, FAST.
Those of you who’ve actually written sequels or series: how do you track everything? What works for you? How do you keep your head from exploding? Please share!
Thanks, all, and happy writing.