One of life’s simple pleasures

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Several reasons I haven’t posted in a month…I was in a play, Kevin and I were knee deep in a 14 day detox diet, and I went to visit grandma in Oklahoma. The last of which brings me to this very special food moment. As some of you know, my precious Grandma Betty’s health has been declining for some time now. She was put on hospice care back in December and they didn’t think she’d make it another three months. Well it’s 7 months later and she’s still kickin’. It’s a wonderful thing to still have her here but sometimes she looks like she’s in so much pain and so tired of dealing with her illness. One of the things that breaks my heart the most is her reliance on a permanent feeding tube. Grandma was so prone to aspirating when she ate that it was immediately leading to pneumonia. Not good for a woman so frail with COPD. So the doctors decided on inserting a feeding tube. She’s had it for nearly a year now. When you’re immobile, can’t use your hands, can’t lead a normal life, the one thing you hope to keep is your ability to eat. It really is one of life’s simple pleasures. We always told grandma when she felt like she didn’t want to fight anymore we would let her eat whatever she wanted. In the past few weeks she’s been periodically asking for small bites of this and that. So I decided that when I went to visit her next I would cook for her her most favorite meal I used to make. She LOVES this dish and I was so excited to make it for her.

It’s a recipe for Sour Cream Chicken that she had in her Beta Sigma Phi Millennium Cookbook. It’s simple, naughty, and totally delicious. No wonder she loves it so much! The chicken is basically a vehicle for the sauce. You hardly even notice the meat. Haha. The sauce is rich, tangy, creamy, and the French fried onions provide a mouth-watering salty crunch. She also goes crazy for mashed potatoes. Not the rustic smashed potatoes with the skin and chunky bits of potato throughout. No, she craves the smooth, whipped kind laced with lots of butter and cream. The kind of mashed potatoes that grace every Thanksgiving and Christmas table. The kind of mashed potatoes that melt in your mouth, the kind that sets your healthy diet back two whole weeks. Delicious! The peas I made more for show. Grandma could have cared less about the peas. But I feel guilty if I don’t serve greens with a meal.

After I had plated the food, I wheeled her up to the kitchen table, set both of our meals before us, and said a special blessing for this wonderful moment. I think I was more excited to see her reaction to the food then she was to actually eat it. The moment I put the first fork full of chicken in her mouth she closed her eyes and slowly worked the much- desired meal before carefully swallowing it. She was so happy and my heart was so full. We continued to enjoy our meal together and she ate nearly the entire thing! I was floored at how much she ate after not having had a real home cooked meal in so long. This will definitely be a food moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to ever cook for her again. You never know what life has in store. This was just a simple, no fuss meal that I made for my grandma. It sounds cheesy, but don’t take a single meal with family or friends for granted.

Sour Cream Chicken

4-6 thin boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 envelop ranch dressing mix
1 (10oz) can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup sour cream
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 (3oz) can French-fried onions
Place the chicken breasts in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with the dry ranch dressing mix. Combine the soup and sour cream in a bowl and mix well. Spread over the chicken. Layer the cheese and onions over the soup layer. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.
Recipe courtesy of Sharon C. Johnson of Grandbury, Texas
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Semi-acceptable stand-in

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I hail from the great Southwest Texas city of El Paso. That dear city might not be known for much but it is famous for it’s incredible food. Being situated right at the border of Mexico and New Mexico, the cuisine of El Paso is like no other. It’s the perfect combination of the best Tex Mex, chile-centric New Mexican, and classic Mexican food. I look forward to the trips home not just to see friends and family but to EAT! But when I can’t be out in the west Texas town of El Paso  I have my trusty Seasoned with Sun cookbook from the Junior League of El Paso. First published in 1974, Seasoned with Sun has found its way into almost every kitchen in El Paso…and at least one kitchen in Chicago! The introduction to the cookbook says the collected recipes “represent a rich heritage, indeed. Some have the spice of Indian life, often with a Spanish accent. Others have the flavor of the Old West. But all are American classics.” When I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the home cooked comfort food of El Paso I turn to the pages of this cookbook. I own a copy of the original 1974 print but there have been many reprints and recipe updates since then. Bringing a little bit of the Southwest into my Chicago home is always a special food moment for me.

The little gem I made here is so comforting and a semi-acceptable stand-in for the real chile rellenos I love so much. But who is going to turn down the opportunity to dig into a chile relleno casserole made with browned lean ground beef, sharp Cheddar cheese and juicy chunks of New Mexican green chile? Not this gal.

If you want to get your hands on this classic cookbook it can be purchased here.

 

Chile Relleno Casserole

Serves 8

1 lb lean ground beef

½ c chopped onion

½ t salt

¼ t pepper

2 4-oz cans diced green chiles

1 ½ c grated sharp Cheddar cheese

1 ½ c milk

¼ c flour

4 beaten eggs

Dash Tabasco

½ t salt

¼ t pepper

Preheat oven to 350. In skillet, brown beef and onion in a little oil; drain off excess fat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place half the chiles in a casserole dish, sprinkle with cheese. Add meat mixture and another layer of chiles. Combine remaining ingredients and beat until smooth. Pour over meat mixture and bake until knife comes out clean (45-50 min). Cool 5 minutes and cut into 6-8 squares.

What a taco should be

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I woke up the other morning absolutely craving my Grandma Deanna’s famous tacos. They may not be famous outside of our family and my group of close friends but I’m positive they would be world famous if everybody was lucky enough to try them. I can’t remember the first time I ate the tacos but I do know she’s been making them for many years. It was always exciting to have her call me and say she was having a taco night and that I needed to come over for dinner. In the past, I brought several friends to various taco nights and I had talked them up so much I was afraid my pals would be left in utter disappointment. But I needn’t have worried because they always found the tacos to be even better than I had claimed they were. Taco night was always a glutenous affair for me. My record for tacos consumed in one sitting is seven.

I would arrive at grandma’s house to find that she had prepped all of the toppings earlier in the day. Bowls of shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped plump tomatoes, a mound of golden cheddar cheese, pungent white onions and a jar of fiery local pico de gallo. With the arthritis in her hands getting worse and worse as the years went by I don’t know how she managed to shred all of that cheese. I once tried showing her how she could easily do it with her food processor but I think it was too high tech for her to do alone. I always offered to prep everything when I got there but I think she liked having it done before people arrived. She would then stand at the electric skillet frying everyone’s tacos almost as fast as we could eat them. I would always tell her to sit down and enjoy a few tacos before finishing them but more often than not she would insist on letting all of us have our fill before feeding herself. Her health isn’t too good these days and I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to make these for me again. Instead of letting the amazing grandma tacos disappear into the void I wanted to perfect them while she’s still with us so I can ask her all the necessary questions. And that’s exactly what I did. I called her up, got the low down on everything from browning the meat to skillet temperature. I like to think I did her proud.

What makes these so delicious? Perhaps a little bit of nostalgia is involved but it also might be the way the fragrant meat is fried inside of the tortilla which melds the two together in a crispy, oily goodness. Add in the cool crunch of the lettuce, the sweetness of the tomato, the buttery bite of the cheese and the eye popping spice from the pico and it’s a combination that transcends all preconceived notions of what a taco should be.

A quick note: If you set your oven to 250 and line a baking dish with paper towels you’ll allow the tacos to drain themselves of excess grease and remain warm while you finish frying the tacos. I prop the tacos up along the wall of the baking dish to allow for maximum drainage.

 

Grandma Deanna’s Famous Tacos

 
1 lb lean ground beef
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 t ground cumin
salt and pepper
9-10 good quality corn tortillas (I prefer white corn)
1/2 -1c vegetable oil
1-2 c shredded mild cheddar cheese
1/2 head shredded iceberg lettuce
1 tomato, chopped
1 onion, chopped
good quality salsa or pico de gallo
Place a medium skillet over medium/high heat. Add the ground beef, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper and cook until just browned. Taste for seasonings and adjust, if necessary.
Add enough vegetable oil to an electric skillet to measure 1/2 an inch. Heat the skillet to 350 or use a candy thermometer to measure the temperature of the oil if you’re using a regular skillet over the stove. You might need to adjust the heat during the course of the frying so as not to burn the tacos or let the oil get so cool that the tacos just soak up the oil without frying at all.
Place about 2 T of the beef into the center of a tortilla. Fold the tortilla in half and start by frying the bottom while holding the two sides up using a pair of tongs. Once the bottom has set lay the taco on one side while you fry the bottom of the next taco. I fry two at once. Lay the second taco on it’s side and flip the first one onto the other side. Fry them to your desired crunchiness. Grandma always made sure they were just crispy enough to provide adequate crunch but still pliable enough to stuff in the toppings without cracking the entire thing in half.

Place fried tacos in the baking dish and transfer to the oven while you fry the remaining tacos, adding more tacos to the oven as you go.
Stuff the tacos with your desired toppings and enjoy!
Serves 4