Archives for category: muffins

One Thursday evening and Friday afternoon this month two different neighbors dropped by with gifts of pears from their trees. I said thank you and put them on the sideboard. Pears do not keep long unless they are picked green, so Sunday morning after breakfast I started peeling them and cutting them open, cutting out bad spots. Some of them had rotted from the inside out and went directly into the compost can.

On Friday I had pulled a few recipes from the pear section of the huge recipe binder on my bookshelf. Depending on the state of the pears, I could make clafouti or pear tart tatin, but I had my eye on some pear pecan muffins, which would also use the last of the pecans in the shell I had sitting around. I have been eating said pecans at the rate of two a day, cracked and broken and stirred into my favorite summer breakfast of polenta with fresh peaches, mostly because of the time it takes to crack them and pick the meats from the shell and cartilage. Making the muffins gave me the excuse I needed to cover the breakfast room table with newspaper and crack all of the remaining pecans.

I had researched methods of shelling pecans on the internet. Some people boil them. Some people take the to other people who shell them. Some people use side cutters and pliers or build machines to crack the shells. What I learned was that I had been using a nut cracker incorrectly my entire life: I always put the nut in and squeezed as hard as possible —  generally, hard enough to break nuts in half. Instead, a couple of online sources suggested rotating the nut several times and applying just enough pressure to crack the outer shell without damaging the nut. Oh. I was intrigued.

I tried the new method, concentrating on cracking the ends of the nuts — one YouTube video presented removing the ends as the key to easy shelling. I had limited success with this maneuver, usually ending up with the ends of the nuts breaking in the shell. What did happen, though, is that I got absorbed in the task of shelling the pecans, forgetting about time as I turned the nuts, cracked off pieces of shell, pried nutmeat from shell with a curved pick. I forgot my coffee. I forgot my thoughts.

When I finished shelling the nuts and had moved on to another kitchen task — measuring flour, perhaps — I had the thought that if I would take the care in dealing with people that I took in shelling pecans, my relationships would go better — if I retained an open, curious attitude about what would work best and tried to do things gently so as not to hurt anyone. I heard my teacher’s voice, or her teacher’s voice, reminding me that anything you do can take you deep.

Naturally, this insight was fleeting. As I looked for the millet that I wanted to add to the muffins I came upon difficulties: I had to look in a cardboard box that was balanced precariously on some glass jars. The box itself contained other glass jars. Trying to keep it balanced while sorting through its contents, while standing on a step ladder, proved impossible. My mother informed me that the glass jars in the box only contained beans and suggested another location in the cabinet. I looked there with no success and then moved the ladder across the kitchen to look in a bin in another high cupboard. Because I could not see into the bin I had written a list of the contents on a post-it and stuck it on the side, but, when I climbed up, the post-it was gone and I had no alternative but to reach over my head to lift the heavy bin down to see what was in it. I found this irritating in extreme, that my contents label was gone. And, of course, the millet was not there. I said a few words about how I had tried to find a solution and someone else had undone my efforts.

This happens everyday, of course. Someone undoes my efforts and I undo someone’s efforts, each of us not knowing what we are doing that is messing with someone’s solution or desires or plans.

Eventually, I found the millet and put a half cup of it into the muffins. I have never cooked with millet before and it provides a satisfying crunch.

A few days ago, after two months of searching, I found some guitar lessons on YouTube that will help me improve my guitar playing. After nearly two years of busking I am bored by the sameness of my arrangements: because I play many of the same songs everyday I have started to hear what I am doing and to long for other options. Anyway, I finally found lessons and exercises from three different teachers that feature Travis picking, a style that I never studied formally or extensively. When I first found them and played through the exercises as best I could I was ecstatic: the exercises were challenging for me, I had to take them slowly and work to get them right. In my initial enthusiasm I researched tips for successful music practicing and learned that it was more effective to practice twice or three times a day for a shorter amount of time than to use the long sessions I had been using. I also learned that it was good to practice every single day, even for only ten minutes.

Following this advice, I divided my practice sessions. The first time I tried this I was late getting home from work and had to jam one practice session in shortly after arriving home so as to get it in before dinner and have a break before session number two. That evening I worked rigorously on the exercises in session one. What I noticed when I began session two is that I wanted to play, but I did not want to practice the exercises, that, in fact, I wanted to play anything at all as long as I did not have to play by any rules. Hmm.

Today, I was back at rigorous practice in session one. And during session one I noticed the comments of voices in my head. The loudest one wants to tell everyone I know how hard this practice is for me. She wants someone to listen to her. Another one calmly reminds me that I chose this set of exercises and this practice routine to improve my playing and relieve my boredom and give me more choices of how to play. The third voice gently suggests that I take breaks. The last one cautions me to be patient and to pay attention to what I am doing so that I do not practice mistakes.

All during this period from June to now as I transition into a new life back in my old location I have been nursing a few tomato plants and three pepper plants that I started from seed back in March, April and May. I have transplanted seedlings to buckets, staked them, watered them, watched them. They have grown taller, but the tomato plants have a tendency to wilt here in the fog. As of this afternoon I have small green tomatoes, both Principe Borghese and Amish Paste varieties and, miraculously, at least one flower on each of the pepper plants. Let us hope that September will provide enough heat and clear days to ripen them all. I’ll let you know at the end of the month — perhaps I’ll even find my camera by then and add a photo or two.


Friday morning I was invited to a Hobbits’ second breakfast in Piedmont. I saw no reason not to go. Second breakfasts work for me because I get up before dawn most days and can eat my first breakfast before 6:00 AM — by 11:00 I might be a little hungry, by noon I have to eat again. Plus, I love breakfast food: eggs, waffles, pancakes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, leftover pie, home fries, fresh fruit.

Original ink and watercolor painting shows people around breakfast table.

Second Breakfast at Vicki’s. 12″ x 12″ ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Unlike most of the events I go to this breakfast was not billed as a potluck, but I asked Vicki if she wanted me to bring something and she said I could if I wanted to. I had been eying a recipe for Brown Sugar Pecan Pear Muffins and had actually printed it out. This morning I took it into the kitchen with me. I peeled and chopped six small pears and then I started messing around: I saw the two large peaches on the counter that needed to be eaten and thought, “Why not put them in with the pears?”

The original recipe calls for a cup of canola oil. I do not like canola oil and I do not like recipes that call for a cup of oil either (a cup of butter is different, somehow, and I use a cup of vegetable shortening in my pie crust, which is probably worse for you, but a cup of oil produces an oily texture in quick breads). I substituted a cup of plain yogurt, raising the protein content of the muffins.

Then I looked at the 3 cups of all-purpose flour. Um. Too gummy and too white for me. I am out of whole wheat pastry flour, but I need to healthy this up a bit, especially since I am going to indulge in the entire cup of brown sugar it the recipe calls for. So, I used a cup and a half of unbleached flour, a half cup of regular whole wheat flour and a cup of rolled oats.

After that I followed the recipe as written, except I don’t use non-stick cooking spray, so I slathered the muffin tins with Crisco, and I didn’t have any pecans so I substituted pistachios.

Here is the modified recipe:
Peach-Pear-Pistachio Muffins with Brown Sugar
Preheat oven to 350.

Grease 2 12-cup muffin tins.

Peel and dice 6 small pears or four large ones.

Dice two large peaches and combine with pears

Shell 1 cup pistachios and add to fruit.

Beat 2 large eggs with 1 cup of plain yogurt, 1 cup packed brown sugar and 1 cup of oats (quick or rolled oats are fine, instant not), plus 1 tsp vanilla.

Measure 1 and 1/2 cups unbleached flour, plus 1/2 cup whole wheat flour.

Add 2 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp baking powder to flour mixture, along with a touch of salt. Add 1 and 1/4 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp cardamom.

Fold liquid ingredients into dry ingredients. Fold in fruit and nuts.

Spoon muffin batter into greased muffin cups

Bake for 25-30 minutes, depending on how dark you like your muffins to be.

Makes 2 dozen muffins.

Food Notes: These muffins are sweeter than my standard multi-grain muffins, but they are not so sweet that they make your teeth hurt. They make a nice treat on cooler mornings and evenings. When the cardamom hits the liquids it sends up a glorious aroma — it’s worth making them once for that alone. If pears and peaches are long gone in your neck of the woods, try using apples and fresh figs, or use dried fruit that has been soaked in a little rum or juice to re-hydrate.

I took half of these muffins to the Hobbits’ Second Breakfast, a delightful affair where we ate bacon, sauteed mushrooms, shirred eggs made in muffin tins, toast, butter, lemon curd, artisan jams, pumpkin bread and pots of black tea, with chamomile for those that don’t indulge. The table was all set with matching place settings, flowers from someone’s garden, thick, white woven napkins. We spent the meal largely discussing singing and cooking — what’s not to like?

Painting shows pear-ginger muffins and ingredients

Pear Ginger Muffins aka “Brown Study” 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

The Daring Bakers’ February 2012 host was – Lis! Lisa stepped in last minute and challenged us to create a quick bread we could call our own. She supplied us with a base recipe and shared some recipes she loves from various websites and encouraged us to build upon them and create new flavor profiles

Neither Lisa nor I had any idea just how challenging the Daring Bakers’ Challenge would be for me on my maiden voyage. The parameters were simple enough: make a quick bread, either in muffin or loaf shape. Post paragraph one above to begin the blog post.

I have cerebral palsy, which may or may not give me altered bone density. I have had all month to think about the baking challenge and to fantasize about what I would make. Should I make a coconut bread with fresh coconut and coconut milk? Should I concoct some kind of Nutella swirl thing in honor of Margit’s birthday month? Should I make something with limes, having scored a bag from the rotting rack at Canned Foods?

I mulled these choices over while I walked along Franciscan Way, going to Margit’s to feed her cats on Thursday morning. My left foot began to hurt insistently. I sat down on the verge to take off my shoe, thinking that my two-day old shoes were not fitting well. I ran my hand inside my shoe and straightened my sock, found nothing and resumed walking in some pain. Franciscan is a lonely stretch of roadway, abutting the Sunset Cemetery where my grandparents are buried. I fed the cats, cleaned their box, walked uphill to the Kensington Library, returned books, looked for job listings and went home for lunch.

My mother and I often have tea together in the afternoon in the upstairs library. She sits on the love seat and I sit on the matching dark red leather armchair with my feet on a black leather ottoman. When I removed my shoes, owing to the warm day, I saw that my little toe was blue and there was a bruise on the heavily calloused outside section of my left foot where the pain was. Uh-oh. The last time I had bruising like that I had broken my hand in two places.

By Friday I had called my foot doctor and requested an appointment and started to minimize any weight-bearing and to sit with my left foot elevated whenever possible. I brought a cutting board into the breakfast room and did all the chopping, slicing and peeling for soup that I could do sitting. By Sunday morning, I felt ready to tackle the muffin challenge. I pushed a light chair into the kitchen to encourage me to stay off my feet, maneuvered myself around as much as possible using the edges of counters and hopping carefully on my shod right foot. When I had to put my left foot down, I did my best to put my weight on the heel and avoid the front part of the foot.

I decided to make a variation on Mollie Katzen’s Spicy Gingerbread from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, incorporating some finely diced pears with the sauteed butter and grated fresh ginger, and making the resulting batter in a standard 12-muffin tin. I began by whisking my dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl:

1 cup unbleached flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 and 1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp dry mustard

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp kosher salt

generous grating of fresh nutmeg

Then I microwaved about 1 Tbsp of butter in a glass liquid measuring cup, swirling it in the cup to coat the sides to the 1/2 cup mark, before pouring it off into the muffin tin, a few drops in each cup. I then measured

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup molasses into the pre-buttered measuring cup and poured them into a small bowl, to which I added

1/2 cup plain yogurt and

1 large egg.

I preheated my oven to 375 and put the butter-smeared tin into it to heat.

I whisked that together as I began melting 1/4 cup butter on very low heat in a small skillet. While the butter melted I peeled and chopped

2 small Bosc pears into a small dice

I then took a hand of fresh ginger from the freezer where we store it and grated three small knobs into the melted butter (about 3 Tbsp), added the diced pears and cooked it for awhile and turned off the heat while I rescued the tin from the hot oven.

I was all set to combine the ginger-butter-pear mixture with the honey, molasses, yogurt and butter and moved toward it, managing to knock both the bowl of wet ingredients, the whisk, the measuring cup and a rubber scraper onto the flour. I let out a cry, though not a swear-word, and righted the bowl to save what I could. The cry brought Mom from the upstairs to tackle the floor while I measured out another half cup of yogurt and a half cup of honey to replace what had been lost,  and added them to what remained in the bowl. I then moved my chair out of the mess, combined the pears, butter and ginger with the remaining molasses, honey, egg and yogurt, stirred the wet ingredients into the dry, swiped the now-cooled muffin tin with some Crisco that Mom got down from the cupboard for me and hoped for the best as I filled the tin and set it in the oven. I then stalked off  on my heels to make some coffee and set down morosely to let the muffins bake and the coffee water boil.

I needn’t have worried. The muffins came out gingery and delicious with small, soft chunks of pear glistening like jewels. They rose well. They browned well. I can now say that Mollie Katzen’s spicy gingerbread recipe is well-nigh indestructible, even if you drop the wet ingredients on the floor and spill half of them before incorporating your butter and ginger. Thank goodness. Now I will wait to see what the good doctor has to say this afternoon* while I consider the wisdom of taking on any further challenges than the ones I am already equipped with naturally.

* Sad to say my doctor’s visit was aborted by a sudden attack of norovirus. Today I switched to a walker until such time as I am allowed to darken his doorway. Projected visit: Friday morning.

photo shows Mosaic blood orange oil, cookbook, oranges and muffins

Oops — no painting. Had to substitute a photograph

It is now February and the tangerines have stopped arriving, but the oranges are still in full swing. This morning was cold and we needed a hot breakfast. Because I am preparing for a trip to New Mexico I picked up my copy of Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home on my way down to the kitchen. This book falls open on its own to Multigrain Muffins on page 56, the recipe I use most often (For a zucchini season variation, those of you in the southern hemisphere might want to check out zucchini gingerbread muffins, adapted from the same basic recipe). The muffin is a good, plain, not-too-sweet muffin containing oats, whole wheat pastry flour, buttermilk and vegetable oil.

Because there were fourteen oranges sitting on the counter we were going to have orange muffins. Grab a large one and begin zesting it with the microplane into a small mixing bowl. All of your liquid ingredients, plus some brown sugar and quick-cooking oats are going to go in with the zest. Got all the zest? Now juice the orange into a one-cup measuring cup. I got somewhere between 1/4 cup and 1/3 cup. Since the Moosewood recipe calls for one cup of buttermilk, I pour buttermilk into the orange juice until I reach the 1-cup mark. See? I have just made my first substitution: 1/4 plus cup fresh orange juice plus zest for 1/4 cup plus of buttermilk. Both buttermilk and fresh orange juice are acid and will be reacting with the baking soda in the recipe to rise. Now I turn on my oven to 400.

Having substituted orange juice for part of the buttermilk I followed the recipe as written for awhile, adding to my orange-buttermilk mixture, one egg, 1/3 cup packed brown sugar and 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats.  I whisk all that together. Quick cooking oats feature smaller pieces than rolled oats. Soaking in liquids helps them break down and blend with the other ingredients — you won’t know they are in the finished product, which is useful if you have suspicious children or significant others who are dismissive of “health foods.”

The recipe calls for 1/4 cup vegetable oil. I usually use corn oil, but I have a secret ingredient for citrus recipes, a wonderful product by Mosaic, a blood orange olive oil. In case you don’t know yet that I am not a high-income gourmand who goes out and buys everything under the sun, let me tell you that this oil showed up at my local Canned Foods Grocery Outlet. My friend Elaine gave me some as a gift and I went down and snapped up another bottle of my own. If money is no object, order yourself some. If you find it on sale, stock up. This morning I was wondering if I could buy some blood oranges and whomp up some of my own for less than the cost of a new bottle (my supply is getting low), so I read the label. They make this stuff by pressing olives and blood oranges together. Oh. Too bad — I don’t have access to olives.

Anyway, back to the recipe. In the same measuring cup I used before I poured about 1 Tbsp blood orange oil. Then I filled it with corn oil to reach 1/4 cup. This was my second substitution and there is a theme here: with each substitution I am building orange flavor. I’ve added zest, juice and now oil made from olives and oranges. Just for the heck of it, I added 1 tsp of vanilla and a grating of nutmeg because I like them.

Okay. Now I’m almost done substituting. I docilely mix the 1 cup unbleached flour, 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp baking powder called for in the book, whisking them together in a large mixing bowl. Before I stir them into the liquid ingredients I get out my standard 12-muffin muffin tin. I am too old to eat jumbo muffins — if I want more, I’ll just have two.

Oops. Substitution number three coming up: Moosewood says to oil the muffin tins: if I do, they will stick — I need something greasier than oil. I dig out the greasy margarine from the butter compartment (this is the kind of thing we use margarine for — if I didn’t use margarine I’d lube the tin up with good old Crisco or another vegetable shortening. Or if I had a butter wrapper handy I’d swipe it through the muffin cups). For insurance I melt the tiny half pat of butter on the butter plate and swab that in with my fingers. It will add flavor.

Time to mix the liquid with the dry ingredients. I made a well in the dry, poured the liquids in and mixed with a rubber scraper just until I saw no flour clumps, hauled the batter into the tin quickly with the same scraper and popped the muffins into the oven. While they baked for twenty minutes I had time to do all of the dishes and put stray ingredients away, plus get out a cooling rack.

The muffins were good. That’s why I’m telling you about them. I made myself a cup of decaf coffee with half and half and ate two of them slowly. They have a subtle sweetness, best noticed if you chew them thoughtfully rather than wolf them down. I know from experience that Moosewood’s Multigrain Muffins taste sweeter and stronger after they have cooled, but it is lovely to eat them hot on a cold morning and know that the ones you don’t eat will taste better later.

Food Notes: The Mosaic blood orange oil is a lovely thing. I said that already. I would try any oil of theirs that I came across. No, they do not pay me, and I have no affiliation with the company. Could you make lemon muffins instead? You certainly could. Tassajara Bakery used to make a killer lemon-ginger muffin. You could do that, too. Could you use all white flour? Sigh. Yes, you could, although it pains me to admit it. In the privacy of your kitchen you can pile on the white flour and white sugar, too. I do that in desserts sometimes, but I don’t like gummy, white muffins. Could you use a different oil? Sure. If you keep to the amounts given in the recipe you can make any reasonable substitution. Out of buttermilk? Use yogurt or sour milk. Have only regular milk in the house? Sour it with a little vinegar or lemon juice OR eliminate the baking soda and add an additional teaspoon of baking powder. Enjoy

Painting Note: There is no painting this week. I thought there would be — let’s just say time management is not my forte. I did take a few photos to prove that I actually made these muffins and didn’t make them up, so, just this once, I substituted a photograph for a painting.

By the time you read this I will be en route to Taos, New Mexico sans mobile devices for eight days. I will not be able to read and respond to comments until my return on February 12, but I love it when you comment. If I can, I will bring you back something good from the land of green chile and pine nuts.

painting of zucchini-gingerbread muffin ingredients.

Zucchini-Gingerbread Muffins. 8″ x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Sarah O. mentioned overgrown garden zucchini in her comment on Zucchini-Feta Pancakes and I thought, “It’s time to get out the other zucchini recipe,” useful for times when you are drowning in zucchini or your zucchini is not of the best or you have zucchini-haters in the household. The solution? Zucchini-Gingerbread Muffins, another example of camouflage cooking.

You’ve heard of zucchini bread, I’m sure. But what if we made it healthier? And what if we took occasion to use up the sour milk, buttermilk, blinky half and half, or old canned milk hanging out in the fridge? If you are shuddering, just stick with buttermilk or plain yogurt when you get to the recipe, but otherwise, stay with me and, as my friend Bob says, you may never pour sour milk down the sink again.

In the old days, when milk used to sour, when ice houses were common and farm wives could not afford to throw things away, they made use of what they had: if the milk went sour, you cooked with it. Good cooks knew that you could “sweeten” milk with soda and sour it with lemon juice or vinegar to adapt it to your recipe.

I developed this recipe to use sour(ed) dairy products and zucchini. The soda takes care of any off-flavors — I am not advocating that you drink soured milk, just that you cook with it — and the oven heat kills any organisms you might otherwise worry about. Gingerbread contains multiple assets in camouflage cooking: cloves, mustard, ginger, cinnamon, molasses and brown sugar. Chocolate is the other great camouflage flavor in desserts but we won’t go there today (unless you want to).

My jumping-off point was the Multigrain Muffins recipe in “Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home.” I have used Moosewood’s muffin recipe so many times that the spine of the paperback book is broken at that page and the page itself is spotted. Need I say more?

The first thing I do is check the end of the  recipe for suggested additions to see how much zucchini I can get away with using. Since it says 1 and 1/2 cups of apples or blueberries, I know I can use 1 and 1/2 cups of zucchini, plus a little more. I go to work with a grater.

Next, I look at the volume of liquids, Because I want to introduce molasses for a gingerbread flavor, I reduce the buttermilk  (or soured milk or soured cream or sour cream or yogurt) to 3/4 cup to allow for 1/4 cup molasses. Now I will follow the recipe pretty much, except for adding gingerbread spices: ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and dry mustard.

Zucchini-Gingerbread Muffins

Preheat oven to 400.

Grease a twelve cup (standard sized) muffin tin with corn oil, vegetable shortening or butter. Use plenty so the muffins won’t stick and your tin cleans easily.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together:

1 cup unbleached flour

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp each baking soda and baking powder (You must use both).

2 tsp ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp dry mustard, 1 tsp nutmeg and 1/4 tsp ground cloves.

In a small mixing bowl, beat with the same whisk

1 egg


1/4 cup vegetable oil (I use corn oil)

3/4 cup buttermilk or sour milk

1/4 cup molasses (or honey, if you like things lighter in flavor)

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup quick cooking oats

grated zucchini (you can get away with up to two cups — say two small or one large zucchini)

Whisk together and set aside.

Make a well in dry ingredients. Pour in wet ingredients and fold or stir just until blended. Transfer batter to muffin cups.

Bake at 400 for twenty minutes. Test centers with a toothpick or knife if you want — it should come out clean. Let cool on rack for a few minutes.

Food notes:

I like baked goods and desserts less sweet than many Americans. If you like things very sweet, you might want to increase the sugar, or eat the muffins slathered with honey or sweetened cream cheese: you’ll figure it out.

As long as you watch the liquid to dry ingredient ratio you can add other things you like: nuts, coconut, grated apple or carrot, chocolate chips, a teaspoon of espresso powder, lemon zest. If you invent a wonderful variation, frost the muffins with something unique or have a great serving suggestion, by all means write in and share it.

Cornmeal variation: One recent day I ran out of whole wheat pastry flour. I replaced it with another half cup unbleached flour and half a cup of yellow cornmeal. The result was delicious, maybe even better than the original recipe above — if you like cornmeal and molasses, be sure to try it.

Painting Note: For more information about “Zucchini-Gingerbread Muffins” or any other original painting, please contact me here.

 Painting shows New Mexican green chiles with eggs, peppers and corn muffins

California-New Mexico Lunch Date 8″x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

I have just returned from Taos, New Mexico. I have been going there for eleven years to study with Natalie Goldberg of “Writing Down the Bones” fame, to meditate in silence, to hang out with my writer pals and to eat. I stay at Mabel Dodge Luhan House, a house built by a renegade New York heiress who married Tony Luhan from Taos Pueblo. Mabel’s house became a gathering place for writers and painters: D.H. Lawrence stayed there, and Georgia O’Keefe.

Most of us like Mabel’s for its retreat-style accommodations: no T.V.s or phones in the rooms. If we didn’t come there for Natalie, we might come there for the food — once you have tasted New Mexican green chilies there is no going back: it is said that eating green chilies produces an endorphin rush like a runner’s high without the exertion. Because of the climate and soil conditions in the high desert, New Mexican chilies taste different than the ones we grow here in California. The classic New Mexican chile pepper is a long, green pepper, similar in shape to an Anaheim chile, but more piquant. You see people roasting them in metal roasters with a rotating drum but you can roast them in your oven or char them over a gas burner. Roasted and peeled, they can be frozen for use outside of chile season.

The best thing I had to eat this trip did not come from Mabel’s kitchen though: my first night in town some of us went to dinner at The Love Apple, a restaurant that serves food made with local, seasonal ingredients, their sources listed on a blackboard on the patio.  I ate some complex and intriguing tacos of chicken cooked in a dark mole with a slightly cooked red cabbage slaw and green chile crema — they were so good I told my friend Saundra “I could skip the retreat and just come here every night and eat tacos”– but the most wonderful dish was a plate of gluten-free  blue and yellow corn muffins served with chokecherry butter and lime-basil butter. I rarely make composed butters, but I may re-think that decision.

I do not restrict gluten and usually make corn muffins with cornmeal and flour, but these muffins, without flour, were light in texture — I don’t know how they did it, but I plan to ask if I can ferret out who baked them (I’ll write a fan letter). Blue corn is more finely ground than yellow cornmeal, has a lighter texture and a higher protein content. You can buy blue corn from Arrowhead Mills if you want to try it — that’s what they have at the grocery store in Taos — but the yellow corn muffins had the same light texture.

My mother is gone, gallivanting with hikers up north, so I am cooking for myself again. My friend Carol scored a big bag of New Mexican chilies in Taos and kindly gave me eight of them. Last night I roasted three of them in the oven at 400 degrees, along with a large red bell pepper, seeded and cut in half. For lunch today I scrambled two eggs with the roasted peppers, quick-roasting a green-skinned tomato that had seen better days — I cut off the brown spots, removed the core and threw it in an oven in which I was baking experimental gluten-free corn muffins (I have been unable to reach anyone at The Love Apple and commence begging for their recipe).

I invented my own recipe for wheat-free corn muffins by poking around on the internet, searching for “gluten-free corn muffins.” When that turned up things I didn’t want, such as muffin mixes, I typed a question into Google about substitutes for wheat flour. I had to eliminate proposals about xanthan gum as a binder because I cook from what is in the house and we don’t have any xanthan gum. We have rice flour and masa harina and cornmeal and … cornstarch! When I saw cornstarch I started thinking about reuniting various parts of the corn plant — I could use corn oil as the main fat with a little butter for flavor. I could use cornstarch for wheat flour.

I brought out our old Betty Crocker picture cookbook, the most-used reference volume in our house, turned to quick breads and reviewed the cornbread recipes. Cornbread generates controversy here: Mom grew up on Southern cornbread — she likes sour cornbread made with buttermilk and bacon grease and just a teaspoon of sugar. I like what she calls “corn cake,” which is lighter, sweeter, often made with sweet milk and butter. Starting from the “Kentucky Corn Cake” recipe, I greased a muffin tin with vegetable shortening and then added a tiny dot of butter in each cup for flavor. I measured out a cup and a quarter of cornmeal and a quarter cup of cornstarch. I used one tablespoon of evaporated cane juice and one of white sugar. I used three tablespoons of corn oil instead of shortening and added about a tablespoon of soft butter for richness and flavor. Then I followed the recipe as written, except for reducing the oven temperature from a horrendous 450 degrees to 400.

While my corn muffins baked I roasted my tomato, beat two eggs and chopped my roasted bell pepper and chilies. I skinned them, but ate the removed skins while I was cooking (tough, but tasty). I put a little olive oil and a smidgen of butter into a hot skillet over medium heat, added the peppers, poured in the eggs and cooked the mixture until browned. I added my hot roasted tomato, breaking it up with a spatula and turned off the heat, put a couple of corn muffins on my plate and sat to eat. The first bite reminded me why I like seasonal food: the California red bell pepper and its spicy New Mexican cousins got along beautifully, mingling heat and sweetness with a little acid from the tomato. The corn muffins were slightly flatter than I wanted, but they were a beautiful yellow with browned tops, and I must have liked them because I ate three with lunch! I might experiment with adding another quarter cup of cornstarch and reducing the cornmeal to one cup. If I ever get the muffin recipe from The Love Apple, I’ll post it for you.

Gluten-Free Corn Muffins

Preheat oven to 400.

Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with vegetable shortening. Add a tiny dot of butter to each muffin cup.

Into a small mixing bowl, crack 1 egg.

Add 1 cup milk, plus 2 Tbsp additional milk and 3 Tbsp corn oil, plus 1 Tbsp butter (I melted it in the microwave).

In a larger bowl, combine 1 and 1/4 cups cornmeal, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 2 Tbsp sugar, 1 Tbsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt. Whisk together (I didn’t sift the cornstarch, but you might want to — less whisking that way).

Put muffin tin in hot oven to heat while you stir the wet ingredients into the dry just to combine.

Carefully remove hot muffin tin from oven and pour batter into muffin cups. This step gives you crusty brown outsides to the muffins as the batter hits the hot fat. Return muffin tin to oven and bake for 15 minutes.

Tangential story: on the plane home from Albuquerque, I slipped into a middle seat. After we were in the air the young woman in the window seat took out a glazed brown paper box. opened it up, and started to eat kale. No lie.

Painting Note: For more information on “California-New Mexico Lunch Date” or any other original painting, please contact me here.