Tamales are a holiday tradition in Texas and elsewhere.  Traditional tamales begin with a dough called masa, made from nixtamalized corn (soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and then hulled) or a masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard (gasp!) or vegetable shortening, or even butter.  The masa is spread on corn husks or plantain leaves, with a few tablespoons of sweet or savory filling, folded up into a neat little packet, and then steamed until the masa is firm.

Tamales are eaten year-round, but during the holidays, they are extremely popular. Perhaps this is because making tamales is usually done in large batches — tens, if not hundreds, at a time — and is a nice way to bring generations together to assemble them.

There are several ways to get your tamale holiday fix.  Most Mexican restaurants sell them this time of year — some even set up tamale stands:

tamale stand

If you’re lucky, someone in your office has a grandmother or aunt that sells homemade tamales this time of year (if so, do yourself a favor and get a dozen or two).  You can also order them online — Texas Tamale Company has some nice sets that make welcome gifts, especially for out-of-state friends.  Or . . . you can make your own.

A while back I signed up for a Tamales 101 class with Sylvia Casares, owner of Sylvia’s Enchiladas and Houston’s unofficial Enchilada Queen.  The first part of the class was instructional, where we watched Sylvia prepare the several ingredients necessary to make the tamales.  Sylvia chatted while preparing chile sauce, pork filling, and masa, sharing bits about her life, Mexican food, and the antiques that decorate her attractive restaurant.

Once all the components were ready, Sylvia showed us how to spread the masa on the pre-soaked corn husk, and how much filling to add:


At this point, the class moved to the dining room, where each person had their own tamale-making station:

And away we rolled!  One of the staff admired my tamales and declared them perfect (not that I’m competitive or anything):


We packed up our tamales for steaming at home (which, I must say, were quite tasty, with a perfect masa-to-filling ratio).

Will I ever make tamales at home?  I’d like to think so, although on a smaller scale, and probably without lard.  I am also intrigued by the idea of sweet tamales, which Sylvia described to us, and which take significantly less preparation.  Perhaps this will become a new holiday tradition for my family.

In the event you might like to try your hand at tamales, or are interested in seeing what’s involved, I’m including the recipes from the class (there’s a separate recipe for each component). These recipes will make approximately 5 dozen tamales.  If making tamales seems involved, it’s because it is — that’s why it’s fun to do it with several people.  The fillings below (Pork Guisado and/or Pollo Guisado) can be prepared a day or two in advance.  Note that Sylvia’s masa is different than that used in most tamales (and also tastier), because it’s flavored with a chile sauce — most consist of only masa and lard or vegetable shortening.

Recipe type: Sauce
  • 5 guajillo chiles (stems and seeds removed)
  • 2-1/4 cups water
  1. Place water and chiles in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool for approximately 15 minutes,
  2. Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour through a strainer to remove any solids.
  3. Set aside to add to masa.

Recipe type: Sauce
  • 15 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • 5 chile de arbol, stems removed
  • ½ of a large onion, quartered
  • 5 cups water
  • 4 cloves garlic
  1. Place chiles, onion, and water in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Set aside to cool for approximately 15 minutes.
  2. Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour through a strainer to remove any solids.
  3. Blend garlic with ¼ cup water and add to pureed chiles.
  4. Set aside for use in Pork Guisado.

Recipe type: Poultry
  • 1 whole chicken, approximately 3 pounds, cut into 8 pieces, skin removed
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 large tomato, cored, seeded, and diced
  • ½ cup tomato sauce
  1. Place the chicken, water, and salt in a large stockpot and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the chicken from the pot and shred the chicken into small pieces. Reserve the broth.
  2. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic, peppercorns, and cumin seeds.
  3. Combine the shredded chicken with the ground garlic and spices and add to the reserved broth. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to simmer. Add onion, bay leaf, tomatoes, and tomato sauce, and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool
  4. When cool, drain most of the liquid and discard bay leaves. Cover and refrigerate chicken until ready to use.

Recipe type: Porl
  • 7-1/2 pounds pork butt (approximate yield after trimming fat is 4-1/2 pounds)
  • 5 cups water
  • ½ large onion, quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1/-12 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  1. Trim excess fat from pork. Dice pork into ½-inch pieces.
  2. Place pork, water, onion, garlic, and salt in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until very tender, approximately 1-1/2 hours.
  3. Remove pork from pot and set aside in a large saute pan. Reserve pork stock for use in preparing masa.
  4. Add vegetable oil to pan and saute pork over medium heat until edges begin to brown.
  5. Cover and set aside to cool.
  6. To prepare Pork Guisado:
  7. Add Sauce for Pork Guisado to browned pork pieces. Add cumin, oregano, pepper, and salt to the mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
  8. Optional: When cool enough to handle, shred pork by hand, which will make it easier to use for tamale filling.

  • 14 cups Maseca Instant Corn Masa Flour
  • 2-1/2 pounds lard (or vegetable shortening or softened butter)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 cups Chili Sauce for Masa
  • 3-1/2 cups water
  • 3-1/4 cups reserved pork stock
  1. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.
  2. Combine lard (or vegetable shortening or butter), pork stock, Chile Sauce for Masa, and water in a large sauce pan. Heat over medium-high heat to melt the lard, using a whisk to combine all ingredients.
  3. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients in 2-3 batches.
  4. Mix all ingredients and knead (with your hands or using an electric mixer) until dough is well-blended and light. This will take 15-20 minutes of kneading.
  5. Cover and set aside until ready to use.

Recipe type: Main Course, Pork, Chicken
  • 1 bag corn husks that have been soaked for at least one hour (soak in 1 gallon warm water, and weight them down so that they are submerged)
  • Prepared masa
  • Pork Guisado or Pollo Guisado (or other desired filling)
  1. Using a spackle tool or small spatula, place a lump of masa in the center of a corn husk (a little larger than a walnut, smaller than a golf ball).
  2. With the spackle tool, spread the masa evenly almost to the edges of the husk. The husk is triangular (i.e., wide on one end, narrow on the other) -- the masa should be spread on the wide end, approximately 4 inches toward the narrow end.
  3. Place a few tablespoons of filling down the center of the masa.
  4. Fold the sides of the husk, one at a time, toward the center. They will overlap. Fold the pointed end of the husk up over the filled part. Place tamale in a container with the tail side down (to help keep it from opening up).
  5. Repeat with remaining husks.
  6. To cook the tamales, place them in a pot with a steamer rack. Add enough water to cover the rack. Tamales need to be steamed standing up, with the open end facing up. (You can place a small bowl in the center of the rack and arrange the tamales around it.)
  7. Cover the pot and cook over low heat for about 1-1/2 hours. Then turn off the heat and leave pot on burner for another 30 minutes.
  8. When tamales are cooked completely, the husk will peel easily from the masa.





IMG_5289I found these figural linen cocktail napkins on ebay.

IMG_5290 IMG_5291This one has a wonky eye 

I think they were made in the 1950s.  I had these birds of a feather framed together, and they brighten up my laundry room.  (It’s not like I was going to buy original art to hang next to the washer.)

My family has always had a thing for hens and roosters, because our last name or some variation of it means “chicken” or “hen” in German.  I collected roosters for a while, starting in college, but there’s no real challenge to finding them — they’re everywhere — and I kept just a few when I got married.

When I was around 8 years old, I came across a book of riddles in one of my parents’ friend’s bathrooms.  They had those kinds of friends.  Anyway, one of the riddles involved a rooster, and I had no idea what was so funny about it, but when I told it to my parents (because they liked roosters) they about bust a gut laughing. From that point on, they would encourage me to tell it to their friends (“oh, go on, tell them your joke!”), who would also cackle with laughter.  Like I said, they had those kinds of friends.  Here’s the riddle, in case you’d like to teach your young ones to tell it for cheap laughs:

Q:  What’s the difference between a rooster, Uncle Sam, and an old maid?

A:  The rooster says “cock-a-doodle-do,” Uncle Sam says “Yankee doodle do,” and the old maid says “any cockle do.”

Again, they had those kinds of friends. [Note:  “cockle” is intentionally misspelled :)]

Well, just as some times you want cheap and easy wall art, or a cheap and easy laugh, some times you want a cheap and easy chicken dinner, and that’s what has inspired this Easy Chicken Pot Pie.  It’s tasty and satisfying factory-to-table fare that you can put together in about five minutes.  I was introduced to it when my friend Laura, herself a new mom, brought it over for my family after my daughter was born, and it was as appreciated then as it is now on busy school and work nights.  Cock-a-doodle-do!

Recipe type: Poultry, Main Courses
  • 2 9-inch pie crusts (I use Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts)
  • 2-3 cups chopped cooked chicken breast (I usually use rotisserie chicken)
  • 8 ounces frozen peas and carrots*
  • 8-ounces frozen corn
  • 1 can Campbell's Cream of Potato Soup
  • 1 can Campbell's Cream of Chicken Soup
  • ⅓ cup water
  • ½ teaspoon dried dill
  • 1 tablespoon dried minced onion
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • *Note: can substitute 1 pound of frozen mixed vegetables for corn and peas and carrots
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place one pie crust in a deep dish pie plate. In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients and mix well. Transfer filling to pie plate, and cover with remaining crust. Press edges of top and bottom crusts together, crimping decoratively. Cut 3 or 4 vents in top of crust. Bake for approximately 1 hour, or until crust is golden. Let stand 20 minutes before serving.

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Spoon the filling into the crust  003 (7)

 Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape

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Cheap and easy — like my parents’ friends


It’s Hatch chile time!  About 2 weeks ago, Hatch chiles showed up at my local grocery store.  Central Market is holding its annual 18th Annual Hatch Chile Festival from August 7-20.


Chuy’s restaurants get in on the Hatch chile excitement too, with their 25th annual Green Chile Festival, which runs from August 19 to September 8.

The Hatch chile grows in the Hatch Valley, an area that stretches north and south along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.  It’s a “designer” chile, developed at New Mexico State University over the past 130 years specifically for conditions in the Hatch Valley.  The peppers come in mild, medium, hot, and extra hot, although you can’t tell how hot they are just by looking at them.  Extra hot chiles have the strongest chile fragrance.

When buying fresh Hatch chiles, look for bright green, symmetrical peppers.  The peppers should be firm, with smooth skin, and feel heavy for their size.



For lots of interesting facts, photos, and videos about Hatch chiles, Hatch chile products, and scores of Hatch chile recipes, check out Central Market’s excellent website.

The smell wafting from the giant iron roasters in front of the grocery stores entices me to purchase bags of roasted chiles every year.  Usually I go home and stick them in the freezer, where they remain until they are destroyed by freezer burn months later.  But not this year!  Recently, I purchased a package of Frontera Green Chile Enchilada Sauce, and made green chile chicken and cheese enchiladas, which were quite a hit here.



Using my bag of freshly-roasted Hatch chiles, I made my own salsa verde, based on a recipe adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen.  It was surprisingly easy and surprisingly tasty, and I am already planning to go buy more roasted chiles and fresh tomatillos to make another batch or two to freeze.

Recipe type: Sauces
  • 1 pound tomatillos (10-12 medium), husked and rinsed
  • 3 fresh Hatch or serrano chiles, stemmed
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • ⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt, to taste
  1. Roast tomatillos and chiles, either by placing on grill or on a baking sheet under a broiler. Roast until blackened and blistered on one side, approximately 5 minutes, then turn over using tongs and roast the other side. Transfer tomatillos and chiles to a food processor or blender.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until golden, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Transfer onions and garlic to food processor or blender. Pulse to a rough-looking puree -- avoid overprocessing.
  3. Heat remaining ½ tablespoon of oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add puree and stir constantly for 4-5 minutes, until puree thickens and darkens slightly. Stir in the broth, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon, approximately 10 minutes. Stir in cilantro, and season to taste with salt.

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Stir the puree constantly

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Salsa verde


 Place shredded chicken and cheese on a corn tortilla

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 Roll ’em up, spread a little sauce on the bottom of a baking dish,

and place seam side down 

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 Cover with sauce and sprinkle with additional cheese

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 Bake at 350 degrees approximately 20 minutes,

until heated through and cheese is melted


It’s been really hot here this weekend.  Although I like to cook a hearty Sunday dinner in the cooler month(s), this time of year main course salads are my idea of a perfect Sunday dinner.  This Vietnamese salad was just right for my husband and I tonight, and there was still room for ice cream for dessert.

Recipe type: Salad, Main Course
  • 1 cup shredded roast duck (rotisserie duck from freezer section works great)
  • 3 cup finely shredded green cabbage
  • 1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
  • 2 large radishes, grated
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, plus 2 sprigs for garnish
  • 12 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced into rings (for optional garnish)
  • Vegetable oil, for frying shallots
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 5 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon honey (or to taste)
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. In a large bowl, mix together duck, cabbages, radishes, and mint. In a small heavy saucepan over high heat, add enough oil to come up ¼". When oil is hot, add shallots and fry until golden brown and crispy. Remove from heat, and using a slotted spoon, remove shallots from oil to paper towel-lined plate.
  2. To make dressing, place garlic in a mortar, and add pinch of kosher salt. Using pestle, mash garlic to a paste. Add fish sauce, rice vinegar, oil, and honey, mixing well. Pour over cabbage mixture. Mix in red pepper and black pepper.
  3. To serve, divide salad among two plates. Top with fried shallots and mint sprigs, and serve.





I found this at an estate sale last year.  I wasn’t quite sure what it was, so I called it an Alaskan herb chopper.  That weekend I went on a Boy Scout training campout (I know, I know), and on the table of sharp and pointy things, I was surprised to see another Alaskan herb chopper:


The man in charge of the table of sharp and pointy things told me it was an ulu knife (ulu meaning “cheap souvenir” in Eskimo languages), and that the ULU factory is located in Anchorage, Alaska.  Who knew?

According to the ULU factory website, the ulu knife is one of the most innovative tools that came from the Eskimo culture, and was the main cutting tool used by the Eskimos.  It was originally made from flat, thin rocks or slate, and the handles were carved from wood, ivory, or bone (mine is made from resin).  Eskimos used the ulu knife for everything including skinning seals, sewing mukluks, and eating blubber.  Today, according to the website, it is still a versatile tool  that is good for skinning fish and cutting meats, vegetables, cheese, and pizza.

On a recent visit to my Dad, guess what I found in his apartment?  Yep, an Alaskan herb chopper:

photo (2)

At this point, I was starting to feel like one of those people in a horror film who discovers that everyone around her has the same tattoo or necklace or something like that except her, and that something REALLY BAD is about to happen.  And now I want — make that need — to know who else has an Alaskan herb chopper?

Inspired by my versatile Eskimo tool, I decided to use it make a dish.  No, I did not use it to skin fish or eat blubber, but I did use it to . . . chop herbs!  Specifically, I used it to chop mint and cilantro for Thai-Style Chicken Salad.  It worked pretty well, and although it’s sharp enough that I wouldn’t try to get past airport security carrying one in my purse, it will never replace my beloved santoku knife.

This is not your tea room chicken salad (although those are perfectly tasty, too).  I’ve always made it using rotisserie chicken breasts — they really add to the flavor (and convenience).  Serve it with crackers for an appetizer or light meal.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Recipe type: Appetizer, Poultry, Salad
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 3 cups minced cooked chicken breast
  • ⅓ cup finely chopped shallot
  • ⅓ cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together lime juice, salt, chili powder, cilantro, mint, and sugar. Add the chicken, shallot, scallion, and mayonnaise, and mix until thoroughly combined.


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 The ULU knife reports for duty

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 Herbs annihilated by the ulu knife

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012I found this cute little vintage wooden duck bowl on ebay.  I liked the decorative carving around the edge and on the tail.  The bowl part is only about 4″ in diameter, and  I can think of a lot of uses for it.


It’s a little hard to see, but carved on the bottom are the words “Handmade in Yugoslavia.”  Yugoslavia broke up into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia in the early 1990s.

Did you ever wonder why we say “duck” when you want to warn someone to put their head down?  According to my interwebs research, the word duck referring to the bird, came from the verb “to duck,” meaning to bend down.  This is because many members of the duck family feed by “upending.”  In Dutch, the word “duiken” means “to dive.”  Many languages have words for “duck” and “end” that are similar– such as the Dutch “eend” for “duck,” and “eind” for “end.”  So the next time you are at a cocktail party and run out of things to talk about or people to make fun of, you can bore everyone with the origin of the word “duck.”  One step closer to being Cliff Clavin.

No one, however, seems to know the origin of the phrase “just ducky,” generally used to mean something is fine or wonderful.  I think “just puppy” might be a more appropriate description of something great.  Definitely not “just kitty,” though.

Inspired by the little wooden bowl handmade in the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, I made Smoked Duck, Mango, and Blackberry Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette.  The smoked duck breast comes fully cooked and frozen, and because it can be elusive to find, I will usually buy it and put in the freezer when I come across it.  You can also order it online.  It tends to be somewhat pricey, but a little goes a long way and it is really worth it for this special salad.  This salad really is just ducky.

  • For the raspberry vinaigrette:
  • ½ cup raspberry vinegar
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup grapeseed oil
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 5 tablespoons honey
  • For salad:
  • 6 cups mixed field greens or baby lettuces
  • 1 smoked duck breast, fat trimmed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced
  • ½ ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed
  • ½ cup fresh blackberries
  • ¼ cup shelled pistachios
  1. To make vinaigrette, whisk together all ingredients in a medium bowl. Transfer to serving container.
  2. To assemble salad, divide greens among two salad plates (chilled, preferably). Arrange duck and mango slices decoratively in a spoke-like fashion on top of greens. Arrange blackberries decoratively among mango and duck slices. Sprinkle pistachios over salad. Drizzle with vinaigrette, reserving unused dressing for another use.

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Smoked duck breast — the beginning of a great salad

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Just ducky!


Mad as a wet hen?  How about mad as a dirty duck?


IMGThe family that sleds together, stays together, right?  I was scratching my head trying to figure out what was going on in this vintage photo I found on ebay.  But the Rodeo is in full swing here in Houston, and all of a sudden it dawned on me — these are Alpine professional bull riders, honing their skills without the benefit of a mechanical bull.  Of course!


 Arm up, Bud!

Last year I watched two hours of professional bull-riding at the Rodeo.  It was fascinating.  The goal is to stay on the bull for 8 seconds.  That doesn’t sound so hard, until you see the bulls, and then you just start praying that the cute cowboy doesn’t fall off and get trampled or gored.  The bullriders, whether on a real bull or a mechanical one, wave one hand in the air to help maintain their balance.  As one person describes, bullriders don’t just wave their hand in the air to look cool, even though it does.  You’re not supposed to hold on with both hands–that’s why you only get one glove.  You waive your free hand in the air to help adjust to the bucking of the bull, much like a tightrope walker keeps his arms outstretched to help with his balance, or a drunk person keeps his arms extended trying to walk a straight line for the officer.

Part of the fun (OK, a lot of the fun) of the Rodeo is the carnival food.  There’s tacos, nachos, pizza on a stick, giant smoked turkey legs, chocolate-covered cheesecake, and bacon-topped cinnamon rolls, for starters.  Then there’s fried everything — red velvet cake, twinkies, cookie dough, Kool-Aid (huh?), and Fruity Pebbles, just to name a few.  (Local favorite columnist Ken Hoffman described Fried Fruity Pebbles as having the 4 basic food groups covered–sugar, fried, brown, and a stick.)


 My daughter said the Fried Oreos were to die for.  Or maybe she said they’ll kill you.


Fried Twinkie — yum or yuk?

I read that new this year is something called a Popcornsicle — “a ball of candy-coated popcorn on a stick kept in dry ice, making it so cold it emitted vapor clouds.”  I wonder if your tongue sticks to it if you lick it?  But more than anything, it wouldn’t be the Rodeo without barbecue. The Rodeo kicks off with the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, a three-day event where approximately 300 teams compete for barbecue glory.  You can smell the smoke for miles.


Do I smell barbecue?

Seems everyone’s got a favorite barbecue recipe, and my Mom was no exception.  French Barbecued Chicken was one of her most requested “dinner party” recipes — she used to boast that one of her friends told her she should never cook chicken any other way.  Inspired by the photo of the Alpine sledders and the smell of smoke wafting over from the Rodeo, I offer you French Barbecued Chicken.  It’s an oven-baked dish, and is about as French as I am (just like anything with water chestnuts in it is automatically crowned “Asian.”).  The “French” in the recipe is half an envelope of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.  This is, of course, not “barbecue” in the Texas sense of the word, but it is tasty, and you don’t need a smoker or a cowboy hat to prepare it.  Yee haw!

  • ½ package dry onion soup mix
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup catsup
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Pepper, to taste
  • 6 skinless bone-in chicken breasts
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place all ingredients except chicken in a medium bowl, and mix together until well combined. Place chicken, breast side down, in a 9" x 13" baking dish and cover with half of the sauce. Bake for 45 minutes, basting occasionally. Using tongs, turn chicken over and coat with remaining sauce. Bake an additional 30 to 40 minutes, until sauce is baked onto the chicken. Transfer chicken to serving platter and spoon any sauce remaining in the baking dish over the chicken.



Bon appetit, y’all!