Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Platter of Figs: Lots of braising ahead

"The dinner table is the cornerstone of my family's mental health," Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle* a book with which I am currently so obsessed that I have put "learn to make cheese" on my to-do list.

Mine is a reasonably happy family but the dinner table is not the cornerstone of our mental health. If anything, it is the cornerstone of our misery. Isabel and Owen do not delight in the "song of the stir fry," as Kingsolver puts it. They poke at the stir fry with barely concealed distaste. 

So, when home cooking romantics like Kingsolver start preaching to me about the glories of the family dinner, I'm deeply conflicted. On the one hand, yes! I agree! Tell me again how wonderful it is in that promised land of homemade frittata and family happiness! 

On the other hand, do you take me for a chump? I've been cooking for a family for more than a decade and when you present my particular children with virtually any non-white, non-starchy foods they will whine and bargain and protest and finally wail and you can either turn it all into a raging fight complete with slamming doors and maybe even (shhh!) a little spanking or you can shrug and pour another shot of Old Crow.

In either case, the experience is no cornerstone of mental health. **

For the first "harmoniously simple" David Tanis meal, I did his New Mexican menu. The centerpiece is a green chile stew (pork, carrots, chiles, chicken stock) which you supplement with avocado quesadillas (good enough, but I've made better) and pickled vegetables (good enough). Everyone who tried the stew (Owen opted out) liked it, though as an aficionado of braised pork shoulder, I have to say that I prefer a more substantial sauce. This one was thin and brothy and didn't quite balance out the rich meat. 

Dessert: bizcochitos, an anise-flavored cookie that Tanis insists must be made with lard or vegetable shortening, never butter.

I'm not wimpy about lard, but it's hard to find.  I'm definitely snobby about vegetable shortening, but it's easy to find. I took him at his word and used shortening. The cookies, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar were, as he warned, addicting.

*That is close to what she said. We're listening to this book on CD and I was driving when I heard it and couldn't pull over to copy it down.

**Having said all this, Isabel has recently become a great sport and will try anything, if only in lentil-sized tidbits.


  1. The licorice-y cookies were fantastic and I stated that I liked black jelly beans and those big, square, gumdroppy things that come in licorice flavor, among others (I have since recalled that they are called "Chuckles.")

    Stew is good too. Almost always good, I'd say.

  2. You must must must learn to make cheese. It's terribly liberating, and you will never again be tempted to spend 8 dollars on a tiny glob of mozzarella.

  3. Did you know that New Mexico is the only state in the Union to have a State Cookie? And, yes, it is the vaunted bizcochito!

    In local papers, there is much discussion of this vaunted cookie, especially around holidays, and it really must be made with lard. That is key. Saving the fat from bacon is a delicious way to accomplish this.

  4. Here's the most traditional version of these New Mexican cookies. I wonder how it differs from Tanis..

    (Makes about 96 bizcochitos)

    For the cookies:
    1 pound lard
    1 heaping cup sugar
    2-3 eggs
    1 teaspoon salt
    6 teaspoons anise seed
    6 cups flour
    3 teaspoons baking powder
    1/8 cup red wine
    1/8 cup orange-juice concentrate, partially thawed
    For the topping:
    4 teaspoons cinnamon
    3/4 cup sugar

    And here's a link to a local article on the subject: