Monday, April 25, 2016

DIY Chili Powder

This is a no-brainer about which I am somewhat embarrassed that it took so long for me to make.  In my defense, I have never been a big fan of chili powder.  Although I grew up in Texas, I was not exposed to much Mexican food (what we called Mexican food anyway; it was actually Tex-Mex) until after we had moved to Dallas from Houston when I was in the sixth grade.  I do have one memory of going to a small fast food-type restaurant in Houston when I was in elementary school where my father ordered tacos for everyone and I did not care for them at all.  The tacos consisted of dry pieces of beef folded inside of circles of something soft that looked almost like a pancake but tasted nothing like one.  This was long before the ubiquitous presence of Taco Bell (I am not sure there even were any in Texas at that time) so I did not even know what a taco was supposed to be.  Needless to say it was a long time before I had the slightest desire to sample any more Mexican Food.

A few years later in Dallas, my older sister and I want to Austin with my father and spent a week on his business partner's houseboat on Lake Travis.  It was not my first trip to Austin but it was the first trip I was old enough to remember.  We spent the whole time on the houseboat with his partner's wife and sons while my dad and his partner sold artificial trees at a truck sale in a furniture store parking lot (yep, that is what my father did for a living at that time).  The only time we went out that I can remember was for lunch at a Mexican restaurant, which was absolutely delicious.  I do not remember what we ate but I suspect it was enchiladas, rice and beans.  All that I remember is that it was spicy and fresh and delicious and I loved it.  Although I had not paid much attention to the scenery on the drive to the restaurant, on the way back I noticed that there seemed to be a Mexican restaurant on every corner.  "Gee," I thought to myself, "there must be a lot of Mexicans who live in Austin."  (Although we had covered Texas history in fourth grade and I knew that we had taken the land from Mexico, not having had much contact with anyone from the Latin American community I think I assumed they had all gone back to Mexico when that happened.  It was not until I took a Chicano politics course in college that I realized how truly ignorant I had been.)

Back in Dallas we would occasionally go to El Fenix or El Chico and order the enchilada plate.  This was about the same time that my mother discovered crispy tacos and Lowry's taco seasoning mix and taco night was brought into our monthly meal rotations and my brother, coming home from college in Austin, introduced us to his version of nachos - plain doritos with cheddar cheese melted on them topped with jalapenos and brioled.  Not long after that we discovered avocados, and guacamole replaced Lipton's Onion Soup dip as the party dish of choice.  Back in Austin for college I explored as many Mexican restaurants as I could, where I discovered such wonders as migas, huevos rancheros, chiles relennos, mole, breakfast tacos, and chorizo.  A friend of one of my housemates from the valley cooked up my first ever taste of fajitas in the fireplace of the huge house we were renting west of campus and another housemate introduced us to cilantro and life was complete.

What does this trip down memory lane have to do with chili powder? you may ask.  Very little, as a matter of fact.  There were only two dishes I made where I used chili powder.  The first was the chili that I had grown up eating that my mother made with a recipe she brought with her from Chicago that had tomatoes and beans in it and was basically just ground beef, onions, a can of tomatoes and a can of kidney beans with a tablespoon of chili powder added to it.  And when I finally got brave enough to make enchiladas I used chili powder in the sauce.   Chili powder has such a specific flavor profile that I associate so closely with chili that I do not find that I have much use for it outside of those two dishes.

So a bottle of chili powder could easily last me a few years.  In fact, I only recently used up the last of the bottle I bought somewhere around 2013.  And by recently, I mean sometime within the last year and long enough ago for me to have forgotten that I did not have any when I went looking for it to use in a new recipe I wanted to try and that is when I remembered that I did not have any.

So I decided that it was time to just make my own instead of buying it pre-blended.  As usual, I looked at several recipes online until I found a combination that made the most sense to me.  What I ended up with was the perfect blend of garlic, cumin, paprika and oregano.

You might notice that there is something missing from this recipe, and that would be the chili.  That was an intentional oversight.  Ever since I discovered that ever pepper has a unique flavor profile and a different kind of heat I have been collecting them.  It is no longer enough to have cayenne and red pepper flakes only in my spice cabinet.  In addition to the whole dried guajillo, pasilla, ancho and chilies de arbol (not to mention my latest discover of Korean chili threads) currently in my whole dried pepper drawer, I have ground aleppo, urfa, aji amarillo, and pasilla peppers as well.  I was trying to decide which one to add to my chili powder when I realized that if I didn't add any of them to the basic mixture, I could add whichever one I wanted when I was ready to use it, which effectively gives me five (at the moment) kinds of chili powder I can have at my disposal that would best suit the flavor profile of the dish I am making.  I actually even left out the cayenne on this mixture for the same reason.  So what was at one time something I would only use once or twice year has become something I find myself reaching for all the time.  And it takes literally minutes to make.
2 Tbsp paprika
2 tsp oregano
1-1/2 tsp cumin
2 1-1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, if desired

Monday, April 18, 2016

Sweet Potato Harissa Sourdough Bread

The one thing I knew when I was making the harissa for my spice group's potluck was that I wanted to make bread, but I wasn't sure how I wanted to do that.   I thought about just adding a couple of tablespoons of it to the dough as I was mixing it, but it is such a vibrantly colorful sauce that I did not want to dilute its visual appeal so I decided the better way to go was to roll it into a rectangle and spread a layer over the top, then roll it up into a log and shape that into the loaf.  The process is similar to making cinnamon rolls, but instead of cutting the rolled up log into pieces, you fold and layer it into a loaf pan.

The next thing I had to decide was what kind of bread I wanted to make.  I wanted something that had a little extra flavor, but not so much that it would compete with the harissa.  I had made a sweet-potato sourdough yeasted bread with cinnamon and mace for our mace potluck, and I kept going back to that.  Sweet potato and harissa go well together so I knew was on the right track with that.  And while cinnamon and harissa and sweet potato seem like a no-brainer, I was afraid that might give the bread a sweeter profile than I wanted, so I decided to repeat the themes of the harissa and added cumin and coriander.

I made the bread the same day I made the harissa so I had quite a bit of the liquid from the soaked chilies, and in one of those brainstormingly brilliant moments that we can usually only hope for I decided to use the soaking liquid instead of water to add a little more heat to the dough.

I was under a time crunch when I made it and the dough resisted being rolled out to the proper thickness.  If I had had more time I would have let it rest longer and that would have solved the problem, but I did not so I had to wrestle it into shape; therefore the harissa did not spread over as wide of a surface as I would have liked and it did not roll up as tightly as I would have liked either.  The end result was not as spectacular as I would have liked because of that, but the flavor was spot on and it disappeared quickly.

This recipe requires a little work, but the end result is well worth it.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

Note:  I adapted this recipe for use with starter.  If you want to use yeast, you can use these ingredients in place of the first 3 ingredients:
2 packages dry yeast
1-1/2 cups warm water
5 to 6 (600g to 720g) bread flour

160 g (app 3/4 cup) sourdough starter
265 g (app 1-1/8 cups) water (from soaked dried chilies if you have it)
520 - 640g (app 4-1/3 to 5-1/3 cups) flour
1 Tbsp salt
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp coriander
2 Tbsp softened butter
1 cup cooked sweet potato puree*
2 Tbsp harissa, or to taste
1 egg
2 Tbsp milk or water

*To make the sweet potato puree: Peel a large sweet potato and cut it into 1-inch pieces. Steam until tender, 15 to 20 minutes, then smash with a potato masher or puree in a food processor.

Add the water to the starter and mix well. Combine the salt, cumin and coriander with 240g of the flour and whisk together until well mixed, then add to the starter mixture and stir it together. Add the sweet potato puree, stirring well, and then add the rest of the flour, about a half cup at a time, until a loose dough forms.

Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and knead in the butter a half tablespoon at a time, adding more flour as necessary to form a smooth elastic dough. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl, turning to make sure the entire ball of dough has been greased. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and then cover the bowl with a towel. Let rise until doubled in size, about one and a half hours. Punch down the dough and let it rise for another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425° F and grease two loaf pans. Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a rectangle about a half-inch thick. Spread the harissa as thinly as possible onto the surface, leaving about a quarter inch around the edges. Roll tightly lengthwise and then coil into the greased pans. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Mix the egg with 1 tablespoon of milk or water and brush over the surface of the loaves.  Place the pans in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the loaves sounds hollow when the sides are tapped. Remove the loaves from the oven and turn them out of the pan. Let cool for an hour before serving.

Adapted from a recipe found at, which was reprinted with permission from I Hear America Cooking by Betty Fussell (Viking Penguin 1997).

Exported from Home Cookin v.8.66 (

Monday, April 11, 2016

DIY Tahini

Here's one more testament to the concept of necessity being the mother of invention. I had an eggplant, a lemon, and parsley so I decided it was time to make baba ghanouj. I roasted the eggplant, juiced the lemon, grated the garlic, chopped the parsley and sliced the scallions. But when it was time to add the tahini, I realized that it had been over a year (maybe even over two years) since I had used it. I opened the jar and took a sniff. It smelled ok, but it had an odd texture. I was afraid to use it.

That happens often to me with tahini. I will use it frequently for a while, and then I will forget about it. And it is expensive - too expensive to waste the way I had to waste this batch.  Not to mention that I was stuck with all of the other ingredients ready to go.

What to do? I always have sesame seeds in the freezer, so the thought occurred to me that I could try to make my own tahini.  I wasn't sure it would work, so I pulled out the small food processing attachment to my stick blender (and let me just say again how much I LOVE my stick blender) and started with 2 tablespoons of seeds. I had to keep opening it up and pushing the seeds down, but it did start to look a little like tahini.  I added a little olive oil to help smooth it out and ended up with a thick paste that looked more chunky than creamy, but it did the trick and saved my baba ghanouj.

Happy with my success, I went online to see if I could improve the process. I did find a few suggestions that made sense. The first was to toast the seeds before grinding them. That not only made a difference in the flavor, but seemed to help break down the seeds into a paste.

I now make my own tahini.  It does not taste better than store-bought, and actually has more ingredients than most (the ones I checked all just have sesame seeds listed under ingredients).  But it tastes the same to me as store bought and I can make it in the quantities that I need, as I need it.  That makes it well worth the effort.

You don't really need a recipe for this, since the ratio of olive oil to sesame seeds is dependent on how thick you want your tahini to be.  Just put the sesame seeds and olive oil into the food processor and let it rip until you have the consistency you desire.

I did find this post by Kimberly over at The Daring Gourmet to be helpful, and so might you.
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