Memories of Migas

May 4th, 2022

For Cinco de Mayo this week, I’m making one of my favorite (and one of the easiest ever) Tex-Mex dishes, Migas.

I first tasted Migas when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. I won’t say how long ago this happened; readers might begin to doubt my official age of 39. I will just say that it has been a number of years since I graduated.

I gather that Austin at present is not a cheap place in which to live. The New York Times ran a piece last November titled “How Austin Became One of the Least Affordable Cities in America.” I was saddened to learn that my former city now suffers from a housing crisis.

When I lived there, Austin was a paradise for impoverished students. I made a few hundred dollars a month. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay tuition; I usually had some form of scholarship. My income came either from fellowship money or teaching assistantships.

With this income, I managed to pay for basic groceries, textbooks when I absolutely had to purchase them (I found that a lot of the books I had to read were available in the local library), occasional gas and repairs for the Tinkymobile, and rent at the Casa del Rio.

The Casa was a small apartment complex from which I could walk to the University of Texas campus. A number of my friends lived there as well so communal meals out on the patio surrounding the pool were frequent.

Each small apartment had a sliding-glass door that led to the patio. If you were available to visit with friends, you left the curtain behind the door open. If you had to work that day or night, you closed the curtain.

It was an ideal living situation. One could have company whenever one wanted to, but nobody was offended when one was unavailable. I loved having my own stretch of patio where I did container gardening, raising flowers, herbs, and the occasional vegetable. Nurturing living things is the perfect antidote to the dissertation blues.

I recently looked for the Casa del Rio on the internet and was heartened to learn that it still exists. I was saddened to discover that it boasts of upgrades that include state-of-the-art appliances. I adored my vintage turquoise-blue kitchen appliances. True, the refrigerator needed to be defrosted frequently, but one must suffer for beauty.

Even after paying my rent, my cheap student health insurance, and my other expenses, I usually had leftover funds for dining out at least once a week. (I wish I could say the same of my budget today!)

Food, like rent, was inexpensive in Austin. I never warmed up to Texas barbecue; I much preferred the sweeter, more pork-centric barbecue in Tennessee.

On special occasions my friends and I dined at Threadgill’s, a restaurant that started as an art-deco service station and morphed into an Austin institution mingling country-style cooking and music. It was at Threadgill’s that I first tasted chicken-friend steak. I was an instant convert to this Texas favorite.

Threadgill’s managed to survive for decades only to be closed down during the recent pandemic. Its demise sparked headlines across the nation.

On non-special occasions, my group eschewed Threadgill’s and ate at any one of a number of Tex-Mex establishments. It was at one of these that I learned to love Migas.

The word Migas means “bread crumbs” in Spanish. This classic poor people’s dish originated in Spain as a way to use up stale bread by combining it with eggs and other handy foods.

In Austin, Migas were made not from leftover bread but from leftover tortillas, cut into strips and fried to give them new life. The dish is even easier if you do as my friend Jennifer does and use leftover tortilla chips.

I asked Jennifer for her recipe, and she gave it to me—although it’s one of those recipes that isn’t really a recipe. She just gave me a list of ingredients she might or might not put in her migas.

These included three types of cheese, jalapeño and bell pepper, onion, and cilantro or parsley.

I couldn’t find all three types of cheese at my general store so I used what I always call “store cheese,” a chunk of aged sharp cheddar cut off of a big wheel.

My migas were thus a New England variety. They didn’t taste quite like the ones we ate back in Texas. They were still absolutely delicious.

Feel free to play with the recipe. Jennifer always eats her migas with warmed corn tortillas to which she applies butter. You may also stuff the eggs inside warmed corn or flour tortillas to make an egg taco. If you love meat, fry up at little chorizo, and add it to the almost cooked eggs.

The garnishes may also be augmented. Migas are lovely with chopped red onion, refried beans, and/or black olives.

New England Migas

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons butter
1/2 small onion, diced
1/2 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, cut into small pieces
1/2 jalapeño pepper, diced (optional, depending on how spicy your salsa is)
2 large local eggs
1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano (optional: Jennifer says that Mediterranean oregano will not do. If you don’t have Mexican, just skip it)
1/4 teaspoon cumin seed (whole or ground, also optional)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 splash water, milk, or cream
1/2 cup grated store cheese (more if you like)
1/2 cup coarsely crumbled corn tortilla chips (more if you like)

Garnishes:

lots of salsa
a little more cheese because life is better with cheese
a little ripped fresh cilantro (or parsley if you don’t have cilantro)
sliced avocado (optional but good)

Instructions:

Melt the butter in a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Add the onion and the peppers and sauté over medium-low heat until the onion begins to turn golden.

Whisk together the eggs, spices (if you’re using them), salt, and liquid. Add them to the pan and fry, gently stirring. When the eggs just begin to set on the bottom, stir in the grated cheese and then the tortilla chips.

Serve with the garnishes of your choice. Serves 1 to 2, depending on appetite and on how much cheese, etc., you add to the eggs.

And now, the video I made for Mass Appeal:

A Passover Treat

April 20th, 2022

My Jewish grandmother didn’t serve, or eat, a lot of sweets. Nevertheless, in her home (as in many Jewish-American homes) a can of coconut macaroons always appeared during Passover to grace the table.

Macaroons fit into kosher dietary restrictions at Passover because they are leavened only with eggs and contain no flour. These restrictions help Jewish people evoke the story of Exodus.

When the Jews were finally allowed to leave Egypt, according to that story, they were in such a hurry that their bread didn’t have time to rise. Avoiding risen bread and flour during this season thus becomes a ritual of remembrance.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to make my own macaroons for Passover. I did a little research on the internet to explore the history of these cookies.

According to Slate, the origins of macaroons date back to the ninth century, when Arab troops from what is now Tunisia arrived in Sicily to establish an emirate. They brought with them a number of technologies as well as foods that were new to Europe. The latter included lemons, rice, and nut-and-fruit-based confections. These innovations quickly spread north from Sicily to Italy.

The Italians adapted the Arab sweets to create a nut-based candy or cookie that obtained additional consistency from beaten egg whites. Jews in Italy soon realized that they could enjoy these treats at Passover as there was no gluten involved in making them.

Putting coconut in macaroons was apparently an American innovation. In 1894, a miller in Philadelphia named Franklin Baker unexpectedly received a large shipment of coconuts in exchange for flour he had shipped to Cuba.

He couldn’t find a buyer for his boatload of coconuts, and he didn’t want the fruit to go bad. He invented a process for shredding and drying the coconut meat and began to market it.

I had always assumed that the brand name Baker’s Coconut signaled that the coconut was to be used for baking—but it was in fact named after its founder.

According Mira Fox in the Forward, the practice of eating coconut macaroons caught on among American Jews. They liked the idea of enjoying what they perceived as an “exotic” flavor at Passover.

Manishewitz, a company known for manufacturing kosher foods, was an innovator in introducing canned macaroons to the nation. Fox calls Manishewitz “one of the titans of the canned coconut macaroon scene.”

“When you think of American food, you often think of processed foods—Wonder Bread and McDonald’s and Fruit Loops,” she writes. “So it makes sense that the American Pesach table is dominated by a cookie that was popularized because it could be processed and sold in bulk.” Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover.

Manishewitz sells many, many varieties of macaroons. These include such flavors as red velvet cake, chocolate mint, honey nut, pistachio orange, carrot cake, and cold-brew Earl Grey tea.

The company even manufactures a special package of coconut macaroons in a hot 1960s pink tin named after Mrs. Maisel, the heroine of the popular Amazon Prime television series about a Jewish housewife who morphs into a stand-up comic.

Courtesy of Manischewitz

This is a limited-edition product so I was unable to purchase it. (Believe me, I tried. I’m a sucker for TV tie-ins, and for anything hot pink.)

My own macaroons are adapted from several different recipes, including one in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook that uses a little flour. I eschewed the flour.

The chocolate coating on the bottom of the macaroons is optional, but I like it … because my father liked it. Like many holiday foods, these cookies are as important for the memories they evoke as for the flavors they contain.

I shared my first batch with friends and neighbors. It was such a hit that I made an additional half recipe. The second time I used white chocolate on the bottoms instead of semi-sweet chocolate. As long as the white chocolate isn’t applied too lavishly, I found, it’s even better than semi-sweet. That batch is already gone … well before the end of Passover this Saturday evening.

Coconut Macaroons

Ingredients:

1 bag (14 ounces) sweetened shredded coconut
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1 pinch salt
optional: 1-1/3 cups chopped semi-sweet chocolate (you may use chips) or white chocolate

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silicone.

In a nonstick skillet, toast the coconut over medium heat, stirring constantly, until quite a bit (but not all) of it turns brown. This will take around 5 minutes; the exact time will depend on your stove. Remove the coconut from the pan, and let it cool.

In a bowl, thoroughly combine the cooled coconut, the condensed milk, and the vanilla.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and the salt until they form soft peaks that hold their shape.

Gently fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture. Use a cookie scoop, a spoon, and/or your hands to form the dough into rough balls that are about 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Place them on the cookie sheets at least 1 inch apart.

Bake the macaroons until they turn a light golden brown (about 18 to 20 minutes). Let them cool for a couple of minutes on the cookie sheet; then remove them to a rack to finish cooling.

If you wish to add the chocolate, melt it over hot water using a double boiler. With clean hands, dip the bottoms of the cooled macaroons in the chocolate. (You may use a spoon to help.) Place the chocolate-bottomed macaroons on wax paper to cool.

Store the macaroons in an air-tight container. Makes 24 macaroons, more or less, depending on how big you make them.

Watch me make the macaroons in this video.

An Oscar-Inspired Dessert

March 23rd, 2022

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, one of the highlights of each spring here in Hawley, Massachusetts, was my annual Academy-Award soiree. I would invite a crowd to join me here in Hawleywood to watch Tinseltown’s big night and try to guess the winners.

The winner, the runner-up, and the last-place guesser at the party all received prizes: a book about the movies, perhaps, or a film poster donated by our local video-rental store. (Yes, a video-rental store. I repeat: it was a long time ago.)

I had studied film in graduate school, and I prided myself on my cinematic expertise. Sadly, although I tried to view as many nominated films as I could, I was never very good at guessing whom the Academy would end up honoring.

Ironically, the most frequent winner at my parties was the late Charlotte Thwing of East Hawley. Charlotte had seldom viewed many—or indeed any—of the year’s nominated pictures.

She was, however, a faithful reader of People magazine. Apparently, its writers had knowledge that I lacked despite my Ph.D.

In advance of the party, I tried to dream up dishes that honored one or more of the nominated films. I won’t have a huge crowd for this year’s ceremonies; my television is less mobile than it was in the old days, and I can fit only a few people into the room in which we will watch.

Still, I will be joined by a few friends. And I plan to make something appropriate to at least one of the best-picture nominees.

As always, it took me a little while to figure out what to make. Did I want to make something with fish in honor of the family in Coda, who have a family fishing business? Did I want to create the meal at the end of Don’t Look Up? It looked delicious—but dessert was the demise of Planet Earth, which rendered the feast less appetizing. And so forth.

I finally settled on inspiration and a doable recipe when I watched West Side Story.

I’m a sucker for a musical. Stephen Spielberg’s camerawork, Tony Kushner’s script, and Leonard Bernstein’s score lured me into the Romeo-and-Juliet story of Tony and Maria. I was particularly touched by the casting of Rita Moreno as Valentina.

The role was written specifically for the veteran actress, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film of this musical and who served as an executive producer for the new film at the age of 89.

20th-Century Studios/ Courtesy Everett

The young people in West Side Story don’t spend a lot of time eating or drinking. Perhaps the story would have a less tragic ending if the Jets and the Sharks could break bread together.

Valentina doesn’t eat on camera. She does drink, however. In a sad moment, as she ponders the troubles of her young friend Tony and her neighborhood, she pours herself a tumbler of rum. And she sings one of the film’s most moving numbers.

In honor of Valentina and West Side Story, then, I am making a Bacardi Rum Cake. The original recipe for this cake was published by Bacardi in the 1970s so it’s a vintage recipe. The rum makes the cake delectably moist so if it isn’t entirely consumed at my party, leftovers can be kept for days.

I’m following Bacardi’s recipe here (more or less; there are pecans instead of coconut in the original). Warning: it uses two processed ingredients, cake mix and pudding mix. I could make up a cake mix, but I’m not sure how to fake pudding mix. And I’m busy getting ready for the soiree. I gave in to the lure of packaged food. Happy viewing!

Bacardi Rum Cake

 Ingredients:

 for the cake:

1/4 cup dark rum
1 box (about 15 ounces) yellow cake mix
1 box (about 3.4 ounces) vanilla pudding mix
4 eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 cup water
1 cup coconut flakes

 for the glaze:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark rum

 for assembly:
5 rings of pineapple, fresh or canned

 Instructions:

 Begin by baking the cake. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan. Mix all the cake ingredients except the coconut together until you have a smooth batter. Stir in the coconut; then pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake passes the toothpick test. Let the cake cool for 20 minutes in its pan. Invert it onto a serving plate, and prick lots of holes in the top and sides with a fork or a toothpick.

To make the glaze, melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the water and the sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the rum. Bring the mixture to a boil once more, and remove it from the heat again.

Spoon the glaze evenly over the top and sides of the cake. Getting the cake to absorb the glaze can be a little tricky. If you try to pour on the glaze too quickly, it will spill off the sides. Be patient, and spoon it on in stages.

When you have used about three quarters of the glaze, place the pineapple slices around the top if the cake, and brush them and the cake with the remaining glaze. Serves 12.

Love and Chocolate

February 11th, 2022

Chocolates at Erving Station (Courtesy of Erving Station)

Cartoonist Charles M. Schultz is often quoted as saying, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” At this time of year, most of us selfishly want to receive both love and chocolate. And we unselfishly want to give both to others.

Laura DiLuzio runs Erving Station on Main Street in Erving, Massachusetts, with her mother, Donna Christenson. The colorful shop (my sister-in-law refers to it as “the pink place”) is a candy store so things are getting busy there right now.

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. I have 100,00 things to do,” DiLuzio told me last week in a telephone interview. “Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter are the three biggest chocolate times.”

She noted that February 14 is an appropriate time of year for celebrating chocolate. “January is slow in Chocolate Land because people are going on diets, but by February people are ready to come in and get some chocolate,” she said.

Asked about the origins of the perceived link between chocolate and romance, DiLuzio explained that the link, like chocolate itself, is native to the Americas. “The Aztecs believed that the substances in chocolate would make you more open to romance,” she observed.

Romance and chocolate continued to be associated over the centuries, and that association bloomed in the Victorian age. “The Victorians were all about romance and love,” stated DiLuzio.

I wondered aloud whether she herself craved chocolate for Valentine’s Day, or whether being in the chocolate business had jaded her.

“Everyone loves to get chocolate on Valentine’s Day, even candy-store people,” she informed me firmly. “It’s luxurious. And the sweetness just pulls everyone in.”

She and her mother have had fun designing special Valentine gifts for their customers, including sleeves of candies that combine peanut butter and jelly flavors, Valentine’s Day “platters,” and Valentine pretzel rods with festive sprinkles.

Despite having all of these goodies at hand, DiLuzio’s daughter Vivienne, the official “manager of taste testing” at Erving Station, makes her own chocolate Valentine gifts, the proud mother told me.

“She’ll make everyone an individual chocolate bark with all the inclusions that she’ll know that they like. She puts [the gift] in a plain white box, and she draws a picture on each person’s creation,” said DiLuzio.

If you’re looking for a special Valentine’s Day gift, visit Erving Station soon. Or stop in at one of our other local chocolate emporia, Richardson’s Candy Kitchen in Deerfield or Mo’s Fudge Factor in Shelburne Falls.

To be sure that you’ll get the chocolate gift you want, it’s a good idea to call ahead and reserve what you’re looking for. Mo’s Fudge Factor even offers online ordering for convenience.

In case you get to Valentine’s Day with no chocolate gifts on hand, I am sharing one of my own favorite chocolate recipes below, for “Just Peachy” Chocolate Brownies. These super fudgy concoctions topped with swirls of peach jam make a welcome gift.

You may actually use any jam you like. I developed the recipe for my rhubarb cookbook so obviously I started with rhubarb jam. I don’t have any rhubarb jam in the house right now, but I found some peach jam left from last summer in my refrigerator so I adapted my formula.

The adaptation was a winner. The peach flavor isn’t pronounced, but it’s there. And the jam adds to the overall moisture and decadence of the brownies.

Don’t forget to bake with love. Happy Valentine’s Day.

“Just Peachy” Brownies

 Ingredients:

10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) sweet butter
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa (I used Hershey’s special dark cocoa)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup flour
6 ounces (1 cup) chocolate chips
1/4 cup (more or less) peach jam, preferably homemade

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom of an 8-inch-square pan. For extra security, you may want to line the pan with non-stick aluminum foil and grease the bottom of that. (The foil will make it easy to remove the brownies from the pan.)

In a 2-quart saucepan over low heat melt the butter. Add the sugar, and stir to combine. Return the mixture to the heat briefly—until hot but not bubbling—and stir it to help melt the sugar. (The mixture will become shiny looking as you stir it.)

Remove the pan from the heat, and let it cool briefly while you assemble the other ingredients.

Stir in the cocoa, the salt, the baking powder, and the vanilla. Add the eggs, beating until smooth; then stir in the flour and the chocolate chips. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Drop little bits of jam around the top of the batter so that each brownie square will get a little jam; then swirl the jam bits around the surface of the batter just a bit with a knife.

Bake the brownies until they solidify (30 to 35 minutes). Remove them from the oven. Cool the brownies completely before cutting and serving them. Makes about 16 brownies, depending on how large you cut them.

 

Scalloped Oysters

January 13th, 2022

Matt Armstrong at Avery’s shows off his oysters.

 

I was thrilled recently to find shucked oysters in the meat case at A.L. Avery & Son, the general store in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

Avery’s sells oysters only from late November to mid-January, and even then they are’t always in stock. I try to make a point of buying these expensive treats at least once during the holiday season.

I’m always amazed to realize that oysters were plentiful and cheap as recently as the early 20th century.

When my grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, was a freshman at Mount Holyoke College, she used to walk into the center of South Hadley and bring back inexpensive oysters for secret feasts in her dorm. (Eating in one’s room was emphatically NOT allowed at the college in 1908.)

In her old age she chuckled as she recalled encountering a faculty member on the main street of town as she returned from an oyster-fetching errand.

The faculty member engaged her in conversation for several minutes. Both the teacher and young Clara studiously ignored the oyster liquor that was dripping onto my grandmother’s dainty white shoes from the paper bag she was holding.

Oyster suppers were common occurrences in my hometown of Hawley, where voters often enjoyed them after annual town meeting in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In a scrapbook saved from the Civil War era by my late neighbor Ethel White and her family, a newspaper clipping talks about an oyster-filled surprise party held for J.G. Longley, one of the town’s “old bachelor citizens.”

Longley returned home from shopping to find “to his surprise and consternation that forty or fifty of his neighbors, whom he had never suspected of any ill before, had taken possession of his house and were practically converting the old mansion into a saloon for cooking oysters, melting sugar, &c. At first he was somewhat disconcerted, being hardly able to decide whether he was himself or somebody else. He very soon recovered his sense, however, and satisfying himself that their motives were not of an incendiary nature, went in and rendered very efficient aid in disposing of the oysters and other delicacies with which the tables were spread, and joined quite freely in the ‘laugh and song that floated along’ as the wheel of time went round.”

Overfishing meant that by the mid-20th century an oyster feast for 40 to 50 people was unaffordable for most Americans. The practice of exhausting oyster beds also did damage to the environment as both oysters and their reefs fulfill important ecological functions.

To make matters worse, oysters are sensitive to pollutants. When they weren’t overfished, they were rendered sick (and unsafe to eat) by toxins human beings introduced into the water.

Today oysters are being reintroduced into many American waterways. They will probably never be plentiful enough to be inexpensive, but they will at least survive.

I applaud the efforts of state and national environmental groups to create new habitats for oysters—and I treasure the few oysters I eat each year.

The recipe below is one my aunt, Lura Hallett Smith, used to prepare at least once or twice each winter. She always served a crowd and therefore multiplied the recipe several times. She probably cooked it a little longer because of the multiplication.

When I made the recipe recently to share with my sister-in-law, I halved it and baked it in a very small casserole dish. The two of us didn’t need more. The dish is very rich.

I love it despite (or pehaps because of) that richness. It tastes of butter and of the slightly salty merior of the oysters.

“Merior” is a term used by fishermen and seafood aficionados to signal the ways in which a piece of seafood takes on characteristics of the water in which it was grown, just as “terroir” indicates the qualities of soil and climate in which plants are grown. “Mer” means ocean in French; “terre,” land.

I am not enough of an oyster connoisseur to be able to tell one oyster from another, but I know that some people can. According to the New England Historical Society, “Diamond Jim Brady once spat out an oyster served him at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. ‘That’s not a Wellfleet oyster!’ exclaimed the Gilded Age gourmand.”

The oysters I purchased at Avery’s didn’t come from Wellfleet but rather from Virginia. Still, they were the same species of oyster Brady prized, Crassostrea virginica. And they tasted pretty darn good.

The Oysters

 Ingredients:

1 pint shucked oysters with the liquid in which they were packed
1-1/2 cups saltine cracker crumbs
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted sweet butter
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cream

Instructions:

Drain the oysters, reserving the liquid, ak.a. the oyster liquor. Rinse the oysters to clean them. Pat them dry with a paper towel. If your oysters are very large, cut them into bite-size pieces.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a shallow baking dish. Blend the crumbs and the melted butter, and sprinkle about third of the mixture in the baking dish. Cover with half of the oysters. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, followed by 2 tablespoons of the oyster liquor and 1 tablespoon cream.

Put in another third of the crumb mixture, followed by the other half of the oysters plus more salt and pepper, another 2 tablespoons of oyster liquor, and the rest of the cream. Cover with the remaining buttered crumbs. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the top begins to turn golden. Serves 4.

And now watch me make them: