Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Autumn is in the air. The mornings have that slight chill, and you need an extra blanket on the bed at night. The days are still sunny and warm, but in the evening, the sun dips below the horizon earlier and earlier, and the pervasive scent of leaves and smoke fills the air. It’s the time to curl up with a good book and enjoy the changing season. And speaking of good books, I’ve been rereading the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder again, something I do every year as the season turns to fall. Comfort reading at its best!

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It’s funny to read something as an adult that you loved as a child. These books were my escape as a little girl. I loved Laura and her intelligence and her naughtiness, and the fact that she, too, loved to read. I used to think the vagabond life lived by her, her two sisters and her Ma and Pa sounded so exciting and fun. But then reading as an adult, I found myself thinking how painful walking on a bare wooden floor would be if you stepped on a splinter, how hard it must be to sweep a dirt floor, and how horrible it would be to have to spin and dye wool and make your own clothes. And I found myself feeling sorry for Ma, what with Pa constantly running off on adventures and moving them from a log cabin in Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas to a mud house on a creek bank in Minnesota to – finally! – a nice home in South Dakota.

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In the seventh book of the series, “Little Town on the Prairie,” the family is (finally!) happily settled into their home in De Smet, SD, and all the girls are growing up. There are socials, parties, sleigh rides, in addition to the daily life chores of housework, caring for the farm animals,  and cooking. In fact, reading the food descriptions in this series are a great joy for me, as a home cook. On Thanksgiving, the entire town contributes to a communal Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. There is food galore, pumpkin pies and beans and casseroles and cornbread and pickles and all sorts of goodies, and each table has its own delicious chicken pie.

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“In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food. Those tables were loaded…….there were heaped dishes of mashed potatoes and of mashed turnips……there were plates piled high with golden squares of corn bread…….there were cucumber pickles and beet pickles and green tomato pickles………on each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.”

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I love chicken pot pie, and have always wanted to try making one from scratch, piecrust and all. But I’ve always wanted to make cornbread, too, so I decided to combine them into one yummy recipe, in homage of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the changing season.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my memories of chicken pot pie and all the goodies inside. The cornbread crust came from one of my Nana Jean’s recipe cards I found stuck inside her old cookery book from the 1950s……..a little bit of happy serendipity for me. And the beauty of a cornbread topping is that you don’t have to knead it into a dough. You just spread it on top of the pie filling and bake.

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INGREDIENTS

For the pie filling:
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached and shredded

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2 potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
12 baby carrots, cut into small circles

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1 and 1/2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cup frozen peas

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1 medium-sized onion, chopped
Olive oil and butter for sauteeing
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 and 1/2 cups flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup lowfat milk
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or more depending on your taste)

For the cornmeal crust:
1 and 1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg, beaten

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METHOD
In a saucepan filled with 1/2 cup of chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of butter, cook the potatoes, celery and carrots until soft, but not mushy, up to 30 minutes, but check them for texture. Add the onions and cook another 5 minutes. Add the frozen peas during the last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Put this mixture onto a plate and set aside.

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In the same pan, heat the olive oil and a bit more butter. Add the flour, a little at a time, to the the oil and butter, and stir to ensure all the flour is absorbed. This part is important, because you don’t want that floury taste. Gradually add the nutmeg as well, a bit at a time.

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Gradually incorporate the milk and the chicken stock, alternating between the two, slowly pouring into the flour and oil. Whisk vigorously with a metal whisk, creating a roux. The roux will create that thick sauce that characterizes the inside of a chicken pot pie, thickening as you keep adding liquid. Rouxs do take awhile, so be prepared to keep whisking for a good half-hour. Add in the bouillon paste as you’re whisking, and keep tasting to see if the flour taste has disappeared.

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Add the bouillon cube, the cooked potatoes, carrots, celery and peas to this mixture, and stir well to mix. Cook everything together for a couple of minutes. Add the shredded, cooked chicken, mix through and let heat through one last time. Cover and set aside.

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Heat the oven to 400F, and get on with making the cornbread crust.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. In yet another small bowl, mix together the milk, oil and egg yolk, then slowly add it to the dry ingredients. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s the idea.

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Spray the inside of 4-6 ramekins with olive oil spray, then fill about 3/4 of each with the chicken mixture.

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Top with the somewhat lumpy cornbread batter, as evenly as you can. Place the filled ramekins on a baking tray and pop into the oven to cook for about 15 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the formerly lumpy batter has puffed up and gotten golden-brown on top.

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Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then eat happily, and be thankful you didn’t have to go out and pick the potatoes or pluck the chicken, like you lived in a little house on a prairie or something.

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The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

Thanks to MC for the photography.

Though an interesting read, it was also occasionally difficult to continue The Sea, The Sea, so convoluted are the mental musings of Charles Arrowby, the main character. I never fully connected to him or any other character, though the setting – an isolated house on a cliff overlooking the ocean – sounds appropriately Gothic and Romantic and just where I would like to spend my summer vacation. Minus the sea dragons, of course.

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Charles is a pain in the ass, quite frankly. He’s arrogant as hell, he writes about the most mundane things in his daily life as though they were momentous occasions, and he suffers under grand delusions that he is adored and that everyone sees the world in the exact same way he does – with him at the center of everything. Although, as he starts having his “delusions,” I felt a bit sorry for him; and when he becomes convinced that his first love, Hartley, still carries a torch for him (even though she’s been married for years, has children and shows no desire to rekindle the flame), I felt like he was crossing the line into total madness.

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I think it’s safe to say that the sea is supposed to be something of a parallel for Charles’s moods. It’s calm, he has his moments of calmness. It rages and wreaks havoc………so does he in the lives of those he claims to care for. It’s a fascinating read, if you can work through all the daily detail and the inner workings of a rather twisted male mind (though I’ve yet to meet a male mind that wasn’t twisted). But the luscious descriptions of food and meals that he eats and details in his diary were his saving grace and provided me with a lot of cooking inspiration.

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Lentil soup with chipolata sausages and onions and apples! Scrambled eggs with frankfurters and grilled tomatoes with garlic! Corned beef with red cabbage and pickled walnuts! Baked potatoes with cream cheese and lemon! Macaroni and cheese with garlic, basil, olive oil, more cheese and courgettes (which are zucchini – I had to look that one up.) Anchovy paste on toast with baked beans, tomatoes, celery, lemon juice and olive oil!  He also drinks wine by the gallon, so he isn’t completely without good qualities. And the man loves his food. As do we all.

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“Of course reading and thinking are important, but my God, food is important, too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

I love lentil soup, and recently found a delicious one, and here’s the wonderful recipe, on Chocolate and Zucchini’s most excellent blog. I used it as a base, but as usual, with my own added taste tweaks. Having recently purchased my first stove-top grill pan, some grilled shrimp also seemed to be in order. And with that vacuum-sealed bag of fresh, peeled chestnuts waiting in my pantry……..It was meant to be.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, peeled

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4 cloves of garlic
1 rib of celery
1 and 1/2 cups lentils, any type

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3 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 and 1/2 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups shrimp, deveined and thawed, but still with their tails attached

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Wooden skewers soaked in water for an hour

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METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor, or with a mezzaluna. I love using my mezzaluna. It makes even a total klutz like me look like I know what I’m doing.

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In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and onion, sprinkle over some salt and pepper, and cook on low for about 10 minutes. The smell will rise up and hit your nose like savory heaven! Then, add the fresh herbs and stir for another five minutes.

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Add the bay leaves and the lentils and give them a good stir, so they get covered with the oil, butter and cooked veggies.

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Add the chicken broth and the bouillon paste. Stir gently, lower the heat, cover with a (preferably see-through) lid, and cook at a very low simmer for 30 minutes.

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After half an hour, add the chestnuts. Cook another 30 minutes.

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I know it’s hard, but try your hardest to resist taking the lid off and stirring the lentils while cooking. Try really hard. When they keep getting hit with air and being stirred during cooking, they get mushy. So just don’t. Have a glass of wine to distract yourself if you must.

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You can either use a stick blender or a regular blender to puree this soup into a thick, luscious, unctuous mix. I chose the stick blender simply because it’s easier to clean, and I enjoy watching the puree process. I’m weird like that.

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Cover the pureed soup to stay warm, and heat your grill pan. Sprinkle garlic powder, salt and pepper onto the shrimp for seasoning. Then, thread 5-6 shrimp on a waterlogged skewer, and grill in the heated grill pan. Watch the shrimp closely and when they get pink and striped like a tiger, immediately remove.

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Cook the bacon in the same pan, and when cool, crumble.

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Decant the soup into bowls and add a swirl of heavy cream to each one. Garnish with the beautiful grilled shrimp, and bacon, unless you’re a vegetarian……and if you are, my sincere condolences.

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Eat, in Charles Arrowby style, with great enjoyment and copious amounts of red wine.

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The soup is lovely, well seasoned, and the shrimp add a delicious, saline note that wonderfully offsets the richness of the chestnuts and the earthiness of the lentils. Soooooo good, and rewarms beautifully and deliciously the next day, too.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”

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I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.

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The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.

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I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.

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Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.

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“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”

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This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.

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INGREDIENTS
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum

METHOD

As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.

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In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.

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Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.

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Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.

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In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

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Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.

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Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.

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Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.

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Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.

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With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

roasted chileDedicated to my wonderful Nana Jean. I miss you more than words could ever express.

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

2016-09-04 17.53.34_resized.jpg It’s a true slice of New Mexican history, a beautiful small village tucked against mountain ranges, and for me, epitomizes what is so very special about my home state.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F.

Saute the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas.

Mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat.

I think my Nana would be proud!

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