June 25, 2008 · Updated 11:25 AM
"February is not an easy month to love, in spite of Valentine's Day being smack in the middle of it. For one thing, February weather is like your worst love affair - warm and full of promise one day, icy and forbidding the next. It's the month with the shortest number of days, but ask anyone you know and they'll probably tell you February seems to last twice as long as any other month.There's only one real holiday in February, coming up soon, a trumped-up holiday called Presidents' Day that replaced the traditional Washington and Lincoln birthdays and which gives some working folks a three-day weekend. Kids, of course, fare somewhat better. They get something called a winter break during February, although I've yet to figure out why or what they're supposed to do with it unless their parents also take a winter break and take them somewhere else to ski or sunbathe.February is a restless month, a period of waiting, a sort of limbo between dead of winter and early spring. We know spring is waiting to happen and some mornings we wake up convinced it's really on its way, only to have winter re-assert itself with a vengeance to remind us that February is fickle, at best, and can be outright treacherous. Our fingers itch to dig in the ground, to plant something. We thumb garden catalogs, mentally ordering plants and seeds we've no hope of putting in the ground for at least two more months. The urge to throw open doors and windows, to let fresh air into every stuffy room, is only dampened when we remember the heating bill. We alternate between a lethargic need to curl up and hibernate and spurts of energy that have us cleaning out the garage, painting bathrooms and planning summer vacations. On top of everything else, February is the hardest month to pronounce and to spell. How many people do you know who still say Feb-you-ary instead of Feb-roo-ary? And how long did it take you to teach your kids that there has to be an r in this month when they write it, whether they pronounce it that way or not?And then, making it the strangest month of all, along comes a Leap Year, when, for totally artificial, man-made purposes, fickle February is given an extra day, forcing us all to learn that awful little ditty about 30 days hath September, April, June and November......Phooey on thee, Phebyouairy.RecipesIf it's one of the curl up and hibernate, I need comfort food days of February, then try the first of these two recipes; if it's a spring is just around the corner day, then the other one will be just the ticket. And don't forget to plan something extra special for dinner on Feb. 29. After all, it only comes 'round every four years.Too Hot Too Hot Chili3-4 each, dried peppers (mild, such as pasilla, ancho or California; or hotter, such as cascabel, serrano)1 1/2 cups dry pinto beans8 cups water1/2 to 1 lb. bacon (depending upon preference)2 white or yellow onions, diced9-10 cloves garlic, minced3 to 6 fresh jalapeno peppers (or to taste), seeded and chopped2 lbs. lean sirloin, or lean, trimmed chuck steak, chopped into 1/2-inch cubes1 to 3 T. chili powder (I prefer ancho powder, but use what you have available)2 T. ground cuminCaynenne pepper, in amount you think tolerable by those who will eat the chili1-2 T. honey (I sometimes substitute 3-4 T. sherry wine)1 cup leftover coffee3 cups beef broth1 T. fresh cilantro, finely choppedSalt and pepper, to taste1. Place dried chiles in a bowl, cover with boiling water; place a plate or bowl on top to keep the chiles submerged and set aside to soak at least 1/2 hour, up to 2 hrs. Remove chiles from water, drain well (reserve the liquid), then slit open, remove seeds. (Be sure to wear plastic or rubber gloves during all of this and keep hands away from face and eyes). Place chiles in a blender, add a little of the water they soaked in and puree until they form a smooth paste.2. Rinse the pinto beans, place in a large cooking pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 min., then remove from heat and allow beans to stand for 1 hr.3. In a Dutch oven or large cooking pot, saute the bacon, then remove to paper towels to drain. Chop coarsely. Pour off all but about 1/4 cup of the bacon fat (or get rid of it all and use vegetable oil for next step, with only a slight loss in flavor).4. Over med. heat in the 1/4 cup bacon fat or cooking oil, saute the onion, garlic and jalapeno pepper until slightly softened. Add the meat and all spices and cook on high heat until meat is no longer red. Be careful not to burn the garlic/onion/pepper bits. Add the coffee, broth and additional cooking water from the chiles, if desired. Stir in the pureed chiles, bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer about 45 min. to 1 hr.. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid, then add the beans and bacon and as much of the bean cooking liquid as desired to make chili to your preferred thickness; continue cooking for 1 hr. longer, or until both beans and meat are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, adjust seasonings if necessary, stir in chopped cilantro and serve immediately, with corn bread or garlic bread and a tossed green salad.Note: Have sour cream, avocado slices and additional chopped cilantro for those who like to embellish their chili. With this chili, it's also a good idea to have lots of cold Pacifico/Modelo/Dos Equis, etc. and/or ice water, iced tea available. It will warm up even the chilliest February evening. If it's just too hot for your taste, cut back on the chiles, both fresh and dried, and eliminate the chili soaking water.Light and lemony, this cake is the breath of springtime you look for in February:Torta de Limone6 T. butter3/4 cup sugar1/3 cup (heaped, not leveled) ricotta cheese3 eggs, separated1 1/2 cups flour1 1/2 t. baking powderGrated zest of a lemon3 T. fresh lemon juicePowdered sugar, for dusting1. Grease a 9-inch round cake or springform pan; line bottom with waxed or parchment paper and lightly oil the paper and dust with flour.2. Cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the ricotta cheese, then beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. Add 2 T. of the flour and the lemon zest and juice.3. Sift together the remaining flour with the baking powder, add to batter and beat just until well blended.4. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold gently but thoroughly into the batter. Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven 45 min., or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 min. then turn cake out onto a rack to finish cooling. Dust cake generously with powdered sugar before serving."