The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

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, and sauté 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, and 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. They are so delicious, rich and creamy and spicy! I do think my Nana would be proud!

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This book, Little Women, has an incredibly special place in my heart, for many reasons. The first is that my edition, shown here, was bought for me by my father David, for my 12th birthday many years ago, in which he wrote me a deeply loving message, which I still read when I am feeling down, as I have been lately.

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The other reason I love this book is because it reminded me so much of me and my sisters growing up. My oldest sister was so much like Meg in the sense of being motherly/bossy and always directing what we should do. I was Jo, the bookworm who preferred solitude and writing and the company of animals. My younger sister always reminded me of Amy, pretty, outgoing, somewhat spoiled but with a heart of gold.

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The language is somewhat outdated, but I remember suspending my disbelief, so words I didn’t understand were transformed as part of the larger emotional narrative. My heart broke when – spoiler alert! – Beth died. In fact, I just watched that episode of “Friends” when Rachel has Joey reading Little Women, and when he comes to the part where Beth dies, he has to put the book in the freezer. Hilarious! That episode is hilarious, to be clear, not Beth dying.

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Though there are numerous food segments to choose from, the one with Jo putting salt on the strawberries being a personal favorite – and not just because I made that very mistake myself once upon a time when trying to impress a man….hahahaha! – I love the chapter when Jo and Laurie become friends after she comes to cheer him up with a visit, complete with Beth’s kittens in one hand and a delicious sweet treat in the other.

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“Here I am, bag and baggage,” she said briskly. “Mother sent her love and was glad if I could do something for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”

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Blancmange is a white custard dessert flavored with vanilla, similar to Italian panna cotta. I love almond, so I tweaked to give a more almond taste.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole-fat milk
2 tablespoons vanilla (clear if possible)
1 tablespoon almond extract

METHOD
Mix together the cornstarch, sugar, and salt with 1/2 cup of the milk. Set aside.

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In a small, heavy-bottomed pan or double boiler, heat the rest of the milk over low heat. Don’t let boil, but when you see tiny bubbles forming at the edges, you’re ready.

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Whisk in the cornstarch, sugar and milk mixture, stirring constantly. The whisking and stirring will get rid of the cornstarch flavor and also keep the sugar from burning, and will assist in thickening.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about an hour. Add in the vanilla, stir together, then cover and chill in the refrigerator.

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I served mine in individual ramekins, and decorated with red edible glitter because I live to bling. It is delicious, light and smooth and comforting, but with those flavors of vanilla and almond complementing each other so well.

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The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Being a sucker for fairy tales, The Snow Queen is a particular favorite. I remember reading it as a little girl and being fascinated by the oh-so-foreign Northern European world of Gerda and Kay, the two children in this tale, though I’d forgotten there are several small backstories that lead up to the actual tale in which Gerda rescues Kay from the icy heart and clutches of the Snow Queen.

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What’s cool about the Snow Queen is that she’s not actually evil, in the way of similar archetypal figures in The Brothers Grimm. She is simply ice-cold, and has a coldly calm and logical outlook on life. I appreciated that she wasn’t a cardboard evil queen and there was actually some psychology in Andersen’s description of her.

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I was quite interested to find out that this classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale inspired both the irritating Disney movie Frozen, and the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which are among my most favorite children’s books. I can definitely recognize The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe here.

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This story starts with a naughty hobgoblin who creates a looking-glass that reflects purely negative things, either things that exist in the world or in the perceptions of human beings. The glass breaks, and is scattered all over the world, into the hearts and eyes of humans across the world, making them unable to see or feel anything good or happy or positive in the world. Kay, the young boy who gets splinters in both his eye and heart, and is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen. Gerda, Kay’s best friend who loves him dearly, sets off on a quest to bring him back, and along the way, has some unusual adventures. My favorite was when she meets the Little Robber Girl, a wild child in the company of a band of thieves who kidnap Gerda. The Little Robber Girl is a rather brutal creature, though she does save Gerda’s life and offer her freedom to continue on her quest. When the thieves capture Gerda and bring her to their camp in the care of the Little Robber Girl, Gerda, who is starving, notices “there was no chimney; so the smoke went up to the ceiling, and found a way out for itself. Soup was boiling in a large cauldron, and hares and rabbits were roasting on the spit.”

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I started thinking about how to combine these two food references, and pondered making rabbit stew. But because I can’t bring myself to eat cute, furry bunnies, I reconsidered. The soup could be any type of soup, and being in a caramelizing mood, I decided French onion soup with Welsh rarebit croutons on top, in place of the traditional baguette and melted Gruyere, would be fun and tasty. Welsh rarebit is actually called Welsh rabbit in some areas, which was partly my inspiration.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on Tyler Florence’s French Onion Soup recipe, and the hilariously funny and smart Alton Brown’s recipe for Welsh rarebit. The requisite flavor tweaks by me were, of course included.

For the French onion soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 red onions, sliced
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4 garlic cloves, chopped
5-6 fresh thyme sprigs
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2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine, about 1/2 bottle
2 quarts beef broth
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tomato bouillon cube
For the Welsh rarebit sauce:
1 large slice of sourdough bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

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2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 large tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
1/2 cup Gruyere

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, and some salt and pepper to taste. Stir together on low heat.

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Add about a half-cup of good red wine to the caramelizing onions, and continue to stir. This is leisure cooking, so be prepared to cook low and slow. I personally find caramelizing onions to be incredibly therapeutic, like making risotto. You just stir and stir and stir, adding a bit of this or a bit of that to enhance the flavors.

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This is what you want your onions to look like. Depending on how low or high your heat, this may take 30 minutes or 2 hours.2016-12-11-17-26-25_resized

Add in your homemade beef broth to the onions, and toss in the bay leaves. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who loves to make stock, ask her to provide you some. Otherwise, use boxed beef broth but get a good, organic brand. The taste is just better.

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Simmer the broth and onions low and slow again for about an hour. Add the rest of the red wine, and the two bouillon cubes, and continue to cook very low, covered. The longer you cook this soup, the more the flavors will mingle so this is a perfect Sunday afternoon dish.

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While the soup is slowly simmering and filling your kitchen with the warm scent of beef and onions, make the rarebit sauce. Melt the butter in a smaller saucepan, and whisk in the flour gradually but thoroughly so as not to have that floury taste.

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Add the Worchestershire sauce, and the Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and whisk together. Taste for seasoning at this point.

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Add the heavy cream and the milk here, and stir together. You’ll see it thickening and browning slightly as you continue to whisk. This is good. You want it to brown somewhat, as that will add to the flavor.

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Now it’s time to add the grated cheddar and Gruyere. Whisk in these two cheeses until they melt thoroughly. Don’t let them form a lump, as that will not be attractive.

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Turn down the heat, add a bit more milk, and then toast the bread.

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Ladle the soup into a bowl, add a bread slice on top, and then add a dollop of the rich, creamy rarebit sauce. The Dijon adds such a note of savory that it goes perfectly with the sweetness of the onions and beef.

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Eat with happiness in your heart, instead of the ice splinter that pierced Kay and caused him to drag Gerda all over the ice-covered world. However, like all good fairy tales, they lived happily ever after. As will you once you eat this soul-warming soup. Yum!

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