Beyond Ripe: A Risk-Filled Romance with American Persimmons

Hunting for a wild and difficult native food like a persimmon gives us something more than calories.

It was my mom, of course, who introduced me to persimmons. Persimmons are perhaps the most embarrassing fruit to collect from public places. Much worse than black walnuts, which at least have the courtesy to look like nuts, even with their outer husks still on and greenish-brown, though they do stain your hands dark brown if you aren’t careful. No, persimmons are a different matter, because what you are collecting looks like rotten fruit, something that should not be eaten, or at least should have been eaten some weeks earlier.

You may have seen Asian persimmons in a grocery story. Those lovely orange orbs are another story. They look like something exotic, sure, but they do appear similar to other things you have eaten. The American persimmon, a native tree, is different. First of all, the trees are spindly and not so lovely on their own. In the south, where I live and grew up, ice storms often break off the thin branches closer to the ground. I suspect possums and raccoons also help, as they hunt after the sweet fruits at the narrow ends of boughs. (They are sometimes called possum apples!) And when the fruits are ripe, they hang off the barren branches, their leaves having already fallen to the ground. They look sort of pretty up there, a dusky orange against a cold blue sky.

Note the persimmon smash on the road. That’s the best way to find a ready tree as you are driving through the country.

But those high-up and pretty fruits, though ripe, are not the ones you want. In fact, a ripe persimmon is an inedible persimmon. Many folks in the south can tell you about the time someone, an older sibling perhaps, tricked them into biting into a firm, orange persimmon. The fruit at that stage are so astringent and full of tannins they will suck any moisture right out of your mouth, leaving you swearing off the very idea of gathering food from nature forever. If you’ve had this experience, you won’t soon forget it.

No, the ones you want are beyond ripe. They have been on the tree a while, after the first frost for sure. They have softened up quite a lot, called bletting, and when they are ready to eat, they fall to the ground. They are tender now, and wrinkled, and because they have fallen to the ground, they may have smashed a bit. They may have dirt on them, and they are lying next to seeds that have very likely been rejected by a raccoon, or by other persimmons that have been pecked by a bird or bitten by some other animal. They are probably still attached to twigs. They are, in fact, rotting slightly.

Don’t eat the pretty ones

And, of course, you are a young teen, probably, and mortified by anyone seeing you do anything weird, which is to say doing anything at all with your parents. What you are doing now is picking up squashed and dirty fruit by the side of a road and putting it into a grocery bag. If you didn’t happen to have a bag in the car, then you are holding gooey fruits in your hands, trying not to look like you are collecting poop from some unfortunate wild animal.

Even as an adult, trying such a fruit for the first time might be a bridge too far. As you break one open in your hands, you’ll find them full of large, dark brown, inedible seeds. But something about that rich amber pulp, now soft and similar in texture to the inside of a blueberry, is enticing. If you do take the risk and touch your tongue cautiously to the flesh, you’ll find a deep sweetness. To me, they taste like fall, like they have already had nutmeg added to them. Like an autumn fig. Like a secret forest treat.

You know you want to try it.

Maybe it’s the risk that makes them so special. You have to find a tree first, best located by an orange-y slick on the road below a skinny tree. No one I know cultivates American persimmons. You have to time it right, and the harvest day will be cold. Picked too early and the taste is terrible. Indeed, eating unripe persimmons can cause a woody phytobezoar, or foodball, to develop in the stomach. (Fascinatingly, these can be dissolved by Coca-Cola of all things!). So don’t snack too soon! From the look, to the tannins, to the embarrassment of collecting food by a roadside, it is easy to be dissuaded. Yet, when ready, they are truly delicious. A persimmon cake with buttermilk frosting tastes like the very best day in November. Persimmon pudding is an old-time favorite. For me, the absolute best way to use persimmon pulp is in a cheesecake. It’s enough trouble to make that I save it for Thanksgiving and make it on the Wednesday before.

I spoke with my class this week about the Slow Food movement, and they thought slow food might not be achievable in the U.S., where fast food and convenience reign. But I think hunting for a wild and difficult native food like a persimmon (or a mushroom or dandelion greens) gives us something more than calories. It connects us to our place, forcing us outdoors and into paying close attention to nature. It slows us down. It makes us take a risk, touching our tongues carefully to something that might not be quite right. You can’t commoditize an American persimmon, because it’s already past ripe. It’s instability forces us to eat here, now. When I took my daughter with me this year to pick them up off the ground, they connected me to my childhood and my mother. There’s no way to eat more locally than to eat a persimmon. It can be tricky to learn to love the fruit, but the rewards are great.

Local and lovely

Here’s my recipe for Persimmon Cheesecake, which I adapted from the America’s Test Kitchen’s Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake.

Thanksgiving favorites

American Persimmon Cheesecake

9 whole graham crackers
3 T sugar
½ t ground ginger
½ t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground cloves
6 T melted unsalted butter

1 ¼ cup persimmon puree
1 T vanilla extract
1 T fresh lemon juice
½ t baking powder
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
½ t ground ginger
¼ t grated nutmeg
¼ t allspice
¼ ground cloves
½ t salt
24 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
5 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup heavy cream

Brown Sugar and Bourbon Cream

1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sour cream
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/8 t salt
2 t bourbon

To make the crust, combine the dry ingredients in a food processor until evenly ground. I’ve also used a ziplock bag and crushed the graham crackers with a rolling pin. Add the melted butter and stir until combined. Press into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 325o for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the filling, process the persimmon puree by removing the seeds from the over-ripe persimmons and pressing through a food mill. I have also used a strainer and a spoon, mashing the pulp through the holes. Don’t worry about removing the skin. Mix the pulp with the vanilla, lemon juice, and a little baking powder (if desired). Set aside.

Mix together the sugar and spices in a small bowl. Beat the cream cheese in a stand mixer (or with an electric beater) until smooth. Add all the spice mix in three additions and blend until well combined. Add the persimmon puree. Note that it has congealed! Mix well. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well. Add the heavy cream. Mix well, using a spatula to scrape the sides and bottom to fully combine. Pour the filling into the springform pan.  Wrap the springform pan with foil on the base so that the water bath won’t seep in the sides. Set that pan in a large roasting pan. Add boiling water (about a gallon) to the roasting pan until it comes halfway up the outside of the springform pan. This water bath will help the cheesecake cook evenly. Bake at 325o for 1 ½ hours, until a thermometer reads 150o in the center of the cheesecake.

Remove the roasting pan to a cooling rack and let cool there for about 45 minutes. Then remove the springform pan to the cooling rack to come to room temperature (about 3 hours). Wrap springform with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Serve with the Brown Sugar and Bourbon Cream.

To make the cream, combine all ingredients but the bourbon and whip until combined. Chill for at least four hours. When ready to serve, stir in the bourbon and whip until fluffy and about doubled in size.

Pura Montaña

What is a mountain if not impervious to the desires and endeavors of people?

Yo tengo sesenta y nueve años. Yo nací allí en el INVU. Allí vivió mi papá. Allí nos criamos nosotros y después nos fuimos a vivir a los Altos. Cuando papá se fue para allí, eso era pura montaña. Allí no había nada de casa, solo él. Mucha montaña.

I am 69 years old. I was born there in INVU (a part of San Luis, Costa Rica). My father lived there. There, we were raised and later we lived in Alto de San Luis. When my father was there, it was nothing but forest. There was not a house, only him. A lot of forest. 

Blanca Leitón Villalobos

It will be a long drive, I tell my students, up a winding road. They are excited and giddy. They have waited for hours in the airport café for us to arrive, after delayed flights and frustrating missed connections, slow immigration lines, and little food. At first, they comment on everything – the brightly painted walls, the city lights. They quickly tire of the topes, or speed bumps, that keep our trip slow and jostling. The nausea begins, the requests for Dramamine, and then they quiet. One vomits again and again, stopping us on the highway, in small towns, at the forest edge. They all drop off to sleep, exhausted from travel and the medication, but I remain awake, eager for my return after so many years. Darkness wraps us and, as we climb into the mountains, lights fade away. I feel glad when the trees begin to arch over the road, when the land becomes wilder.

As we turn onto the road to San Luis, my heart jumps at each familiar landmark. I know the edge of the road hides a long drop off the side of the mountain range. I don’t mention this unseen terror to my companions. I see the place where there was a rockslide. I see the cemetery. We must be there. We keep driving. I finally note the hand-painted circular signs pointing to our lodging for the next six weeks – Casitas de Montaña Cabuya. We head up, then steeply down to the small houses ready for us.

My daughter and I settle into our little house above the main campus, noting both the cheery bedspread and the holes in the walls, the lack of a mirror and the open kitchen. Our hosts assure us that the walk to the main campus is short, even if it was steep enough that our van spun its wheels and stalled multiple times trying to gain traction to climb the hill. There is no wifi, no lights outside, no sense of connection to anywhere but the little house we are in. We sleep together, eschewing the separate beds that have been made up for us in favor of curling close to the warm body and heartbeat of the other. It feels as if we are the only two people in the world, surrounded by a forest filled with unknown and potentially dangerous beasts. Instead of feeling familiar and comfortable, as I had on the drive, I absorb some of my daughter’s anxiety of being in a strange place.

Coffee plants line the road

In the morning, we see that we are next to another house, not so isolated after all. The main area of the casitas features two tremendous views, stretching out all the way to the gulf of Nicoya over volcanic hills and valleys. Coffee bushes, a small organic garden, and flowering plants grace the grounds. Our hosts are quick to point out the many bird species who call the area home. The flowers draw butterflies and hummingbirds. The casitas have porches that look out into lush plants that mask the dramatic drops to land below. Above us, cattle graze on a steep green slope, their hooves having worn narrow terraces into the thin soil. Vultures, swallows, and the occasional white hawk take advantage of the thermals and soar overhead. Clouds and rain drift in and out, sometimes exposing patches of blue sky or a mountain that was out of view.

One of our views

As I stand on the porch of the comedor, or dining hall, sipping their exquisite coffee, Don Mario approaches. We gaze out at the view covered by thick forest, clouds and fog, tall trees, and the occasional home. He says, “Forty years ago, everything looked like that hill,” gesturing towards the cows’ relatively denuded pasture. “You could walk for days and not come across tracks of a puma or of any animals. Now, if you walk even a short distance, you can see signs of all the animals, returning to the forest.” He explained the change began in the 1980s, only becoming more rapid as ecotourism began to take hold in the region. Now, people have organic gardens, small coffee holdings, and plants that entice birds and animals that tourists hope to see. He spoke with pride and enthusiasm about the changes and reforestation.

Cow pasture on the hill

Although I have translated his words as “forest,” the word he actually used was “montaña.” When I conducted interviews in San Luis in 2007, I heard the phrase “pura montaña” over and over again when people described the region in their parents’ and grandparents’ time. “Era pura montaña.” It was pure mountain. At first, I was confused. Had people altered the physical geography that much, leveling hills? I finally realized that native Costa Rican speakers were translating the word as forest. I knew the word for forest, though: bosque. In fact, I saw it used locally, where people talked about the bosque nuboso, or cloud forest, that supported a wide range of rare species. I also knew how people talked about wilderness – silvestre, selva (though the common desierto seemed unlikely in this context). Why montaña?

The class I am teaching involves learning to write about place. We emphasize that places are spaces made meaningful. Places contain relationships, symbolism, stories, histories. Likewise, landscapes encompass ideas about place for those who perceive them. Writing about the ancient Maya, Brady and Ashmore state: “landscapes are far from passive arenas or stage sets; then as now, they have played tangibly active roles in constant creation and shaping of Maya life” (2000, 126). Even areas seen as wilderness hold meaning for those who perceive them, and provide contrast in both positive and negative ways for those who live next to them.

What is a mountain if not impervious to the desires and endeavors of people? Inalterable, dark, steady yet giving way to landslides, obstructing views while simultaneously offering the very best vistas. Might it feel more correct to speak of land as pura montaña rather than as forest? Might it make the accomplishment of transforming the space into a town with fields and cattle and houses and families even more profound? And what does it mean to watch that same land return to being pura montaña? Has that meaning changed for those who now benefit from ecotourism and, very notably, the funds that support research scientists and academics from all over the world?

For my own part, I moved from elation at greeting that mountain wildness again to fear of the unknown to the reassurance of a known and maintained landscape. Naming the birds and the plants, learning the shape of the trees that attract the capuchin monkeys, relaxing about fearsome snakes and biting insects – all these actions help me reclaim this place as familiar. I move from being in pura montaña to viewing it comfortably from a safe distance.

For my students, the process takes longer. It all feels like pura montaña. One student from the Rockies reminds the group to fully exhale, to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude. Everything is unfamiliar, so they bond like ducklings to our hostess who feeds them and smiles warmly at them. The dark night hours take them back to the mountain, where insects invade their casitas and internet and their beloved phones are unreliable. They turn to each other, commiserating about hardships and asking about which foods they miss the most. They spend time calling parents, scrolling social media, anything to take their minds off the mountain.

Eventually, though, they find that they know the song of the rufous-and-white wren. They look forward to empanadas for breakfast. The spider in their casita gets a name. They begin to talk about what they will miss when they leave. The montaña in their minds becomes replaced by the casitas that feel like home. They discover the place, space made meaningful. When they first arrived here, it was nothing but forest. Pura montaña.

Biscuits, My Mom, and Edna Lewis

If I had to choose a single page in a single cookbook that was the most precious to me, I would choose this one.

If I had to choose a single page in a single cookbook that was the most precious to me, I would choose this one: the recipes for cornbread and biscuits, written in my mother’s own hand, in a spiral bound composition notebook.

Stained from countless uses, it doesn’t actually have any instructions for the biscuits, save the temperature and how long to bake them. That knowledge didn’t need recording on paper for me. My mom wrote just five pages of recipes in this little notebook she gave me some time after I graduated from college. She later gave me a larger three-ring binder of Xeroxed recipes, also written in her own hand, from her own composition notebook with many more recipes that she’s felt the need to record over the years. It used to have a colorful collage she made glued on the front, but that has since been torn off from the number of times I pulled it off my cookbook shelf. I do have the black-and-white copy of that image on the first page in that notebook, along with her inscription to me.

That inscription bears a strong resemblance to the one she wrote in Edna Lewis’s classic cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. There she wrote:

My Big Queen

Have a wonderful time with this book – I have.

Love Mom

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, but neither side of my family was recently from the south. My maternal grandmother grew up in Memphis, but my mom had been raised in Kansas and New England, and my dad’s family was firmly from New York, having immigrated from Eastern Europe as Jews fleeing the pogroms and persecution at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, my childhood memories of food are tied to the south, in large part because of my mom’s love of food and what food could tell you about a place. I recall a drive we made once, a rather significant drive in my memory, to a place that sold Lebanese food in rural Virginia. I tasted zaatar for the first time there, and remember the taste of their feta, so unlike what we bought in the grocery store.

We made a pilgrimage to Freetown, Virginia, as well. It was a good two hours from where we lived (it’s faster today with improved roads and someone who is not my mom driving) but it was the childhood home of Edna Lewis, the descendent of formerly enslaved people who founded the town once they secured their freedom. She wrote the recipe Mom used for biscuits, stewed blackberries, and a wide range of other dishes. The community wasn’t much to look at then. Mostly a post office and fields, really. Most folks had moved away. Indeed, Edna Lewis wrote in her introduction that after reminiscing with her siblings about gathering and preparing food:

I realized how much of the bond that held us had to do with food. Since we were the last of the original families, with no children to remember and carry on, I decided I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding.

She wrote to preserve that connection to her ancestors, to the people who taught her about food and family and place. Her book is filled with stories, not just recipes. And the recipes reflect just who her people were in times of celebration. This is a book of Black joy if there ever was one.

Emancipation Day Feast

While I was a kid, my mom’s work on voting rights, restitution for forced sterilizations, and abolishing the death penalty had opened my eyes pretty young (for a white girl) to the depths of racism and anti-Blackness in Virginia. Her love of food and culture, though, shared the other side of the coin too. Her work allowed us to violate the apartheid of the south in the 1970s and 80s, and so I saw celebration and everyday living. And I learned about biscuits.

In my south, biscuits need to be right. They need to be able to be opened without a knife, just by pulling apart while still warm. They need to be pillowy on the inside and a little crispy on the outside. They often call for lard in the recipe, though I use butter today. My mom made a sign she hung in her kitchen in the early 80s that read: “Everything cooked in real Butter unless Lard is more appropriate.” I must note that my mom has also had long stretches of eating vegan in her life, so this sign is not truly representative of her today. But you get the picture.

Like Edna Lewis, food ties my family together. My brother shares my tastes and food memories, and our favorite dishes come from our mom’s handwritten notebook. This morning as she ate these biscuits, my daughter sighed and said, “I have eaten some good food in my life.” For her, biscuits will have to be right too. Cornbread as well, which we only eat with butter and molasses. It’s almost not worth eating them without the molasses in our household. Biscuits should be served with butter and local honey or homemade jam. Today’s jam came from our neighbor, who made it with the figs from the tree of our neighbor on the other side.

Fig Preserves, with oranges
With honey, my favorite

I should note that the biscuit recipe that I love, that ties me to my mom, differs from the one that appears in Edna Lewis’s book. Perhaps I have a different version than my mom had. You’ll also see that my mom has many versions of it based on the size of your crowd. I’ll write the instructions for the one scaled for a family of four. Of course, mine is a family of three, so I cut them to come out with nine biscuits, for fairness. You’ll do what is best for you.

The last one is always odd

The way I make the biscuits has changed over time. My mom used to make them without any kneading, just dropping them into a pie dish, where they rose in the oven to touch their sides together. Now we both knead them three times and cut them. I use a drinking glass, though I own biscuit cutters, because I like them a certain size. Flour that glass, people! No matter how many times I’ve made these, I always think of my mom as I do it. Same with pie crusts. I learned how to make food right from her. I got my tongue from her – my tastes are her tastes. My sense of scale with cooking belongs to her – too much is always better than not enough. People at your table should feel like they can eat as much as they want. And my style of appreciation of food came from her too. One should exclaim – often – about the food we eat. If people aren’t raving, it’s probably not good. (This one is not especially a good lesson, I admit. Don’t follow this one! But I can’t be truly friends with someone who hasn’t been ecstatic about my cooking at some point. It’s a character flaw on my part, I know, but you can blame my mom.)

As I pass this recipe along to you, I’m passing along my love of my mom. Biscuits are love transformed into nourishment. They are particular, they are personal, they are place that can be carried with you when you move. Don’t thank me for this recipe, thank my mom and Edna Lewis.

Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons cream of tartar (find this with the spices in your grocery store)

1/2 cup unsalted butter or lard

3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients; then cut in the lard or butter until well combined and the flour looks a bit like cornmeal. I use a food processor these days. Add the buttermilk until just mixed (I do 11-13 pulses with the food processor). Turn out onto a floured surface and knead about three times. Flatten the dough gently with your hand until it is about ¾ inch thick. Cut out with a floured biscuit or a drinking glass. You should have about 8-9 biscuits. Place on an ungreased pan and bake for about 13 minutes until golden brown. Serve hot with butter, honey, and jam.

Green Chile Casserole – Stay for the Story

I want to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you, too.

You can almost smell it, can’t you?

Not everyone is lucky when it comes to mother-in-laws, but I am. I got Maribeth Hill. We both remember our first meeting with perfect clarity. She remembers exactly what we were both wearing, down to our shoes, because that is one of her superpowers. I remember where we ate for dinner.

When we met, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get along. In some ways – ways that are easy to see – we are quite different. Maribeth seldom emerges from her bedroom without lipstick. She always wears jewelry to match her outfit, and had standing nail and hair appointments. I’m not very careful about my appearance, to be honest. She was raised in Enid, Oklahoma, while I came from the East Coast. We were, of course, from different generations. But it turned out that we were very similar in some less visible ways: we both love learning about new people, we can recall details about people’s lives without needing reminding, and we love to explore new foods.

Maribeth and I are quite different kinds of cooks. I like to read four or five recipes and combine them to make what I had in mind. Maribeth once told me, “I’m not sure why that dish didn’t come out – I followed the recipe exactly. I mean, if it tells me I have to stand on my head and chop the onions with my feet, I’m going to do it!” She loved eating what I cooked, though, and always made me feel so good about myself. That’s one of her superpowers too – the ability to make everyone feel seen and valued and interesting.

One of my biggest cooking disasters came quite early in our relationship. I was making Dutch babies (see Dutch Babies and Other Delights) for breakfast, which are cooked at high heat. I forgot that the day before I had cleaned some candlesticks by heating them slightly in the oven. I didn’t realize that some of the wax had dripped into the oven itself. While we were visiting over coffee, I casually glanced at the oven only to see flames leaping inside! I raced in, scooped out the wax, and hoped that no one noticed. Dutch babies remained one of Maribeth’s favorites for me to cook her, enough so that she bought a special pan for them that she kept at her home for when I visited.

That’s another favorite thing about Maribeth: she often planned ahead for my visits. I would get to her house and discover that she had the ingredients all ready for something I had made on a previous trip. It might be Dutch babies, it might be a quinoa salad, or a cocktail or delicious romesco sauce or bleu cheese and kalamata olive spread. I loved cooking for her.

We also went to the grocery store together more times than I can count. On those trips, away from everyone else in the house, we sometimes had our most intimate conversations. We talked about the things that were bothering us or worrying us while we drove to the store and back. We could read each other pretty well and are both gentle about pulling out what the other one needed to talk about. I love that those conversations happened in the most mundane space, the trip to the store.

At home, Maribeth was always moving. Cooking, setting the table with her dishes that delighted her, cleaning up after me. Planning the next meal, thinking about who would be coming over for dinner or a drink. Even when I cooked, she was completely engaged and active. She watched and prepped and suggested. She told me I was working too hard.

We liked going to restaurants together too. She loved to go out for breakfast and when we lived in Arizona, we enjoyed taking her and my father-in-law to fancy brunches at the resorts outside Tucson and Phoenix. They both loved going to places they would never think to try, like to a Mexican seafood spot in Guadalupe or the Cuban tapas place downtown. One of our favorite memories, though, was the time she and I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying for her oldest granddaughter’s wedding. The two of us ordered appetizers and cocktails and talked for hours, long after everyone else went to bed. She could tell you what we were wearing.

All of these small moments in food can tell you the story of our friendship, and about the person that she is, and was. Maribeth loved food as she loved life – with curiosity and vigor. She is at the end of that beautiful life now, suffering from terminal lung cancer. I have cooked my last meals for her. When we went for a visit in December, I made her a cherry pie although she had a failing appetite. She had told me that she always asked for the same birthday meal as a child: fried oysters, French fries, and cherry pie. And she ate that pie. When we couldn’t tempt her with anything else, she would agree to the pie. She agreed to several French 75s as well. She likes a fancy cocktail. Now, as she is fading, we – her family – take comfort in what she has decided to eat each day. The burrito bowl day was a good day. The day she sampled each flavor of ice cream offered reassured us.

On that visit in December, I asked her what dishes she thought she was most known for among her family and friends. She immediately said chile relleno casserole and her guacamole. Later, she told me that she’d have to add Yummy Potatoes to that list also. Last night, my 13-year-old daughter made her MeMe’s chile relleno casserole for our family for dinner. I’ll share that recipe below.

Z and MeMe

I wanted to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you too, and my love for her. When people complain about having to scroll down to a buried recipe, they forget that sharing stories of food, sharing food experiences, is the motivation for most women who write food blogs. We write the story because the story is the point. The relationship is the point. The experience and the learning and creativity is the point. Food is culture, people, and always made in community. And every time I eat this chile relleno casserole, I will think of my beautiful, warm, fun-loving, and loving mother-in-law, Maribeth Hill. She is the reason I’m sharing this with you.

Chile Relleno Casserole

  • 1 27-oz. can of whole green chiles (if you can get fresh roasted, do it!)
  • 1 lb Monterrey jack cheese (we used queso fresco last night)
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Dash of fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 cups (1 lb.) grated mild cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain the can if you are using canned green chiles. Slit the green chiles lengthwise and remove seeds. Slice the Monterrey jack or queso fresco into ¼ inch thick slices and place inside the chiles, laying them in a 13×9 inch ungreased pan. Mix the eggs, milk, flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Pour over chiles. Sprinkle the top evenly with the cheddar cheese. Bake for 45 minutes until browned.

A Recipe, with Love

If I’ve made this dish for you, I loved you.

Today I am going to give you a recipe that is filled up with love. I’ve been on the internet too much today and there has been a whole lot of not-love out there. I mean, just way too much of things that are anti-love. And this dish is going to help. It’s going to fill your belly and your heart. It’s the recipe I have been asked for more than any other dish I make, hands down.

I got this recipe from Deborah Madison, my favorite cookbook author, from her book, The Savory Way. My very favorite cookbook is another one of hers, but this was my first and the spine is broken right on the recipe.

Evidence of love

This was the first dish I made for my now-husband and it may still be his favorite thing I make, which is saying something. I’ve made it for dozens of students over the years at our annual party. If I’ve made it for you, I loved you. I hate to tell you, but if you’ve eaten this served from my kitchen, you might already love me back and have not fully realized that yet. It’s okay to admit it now.

I made this recently because at this time of year my garden and yard are overtaken by cilantro. I have so much I’ve been giving it away to friends. I have even bartered with it!

That is free-range cilantro among my rose bushes.

I know some of you don’t care for cilantro because of your genetics. I still love you. You might still like this dish, as some have claimed, because it is so fresh and good. But maybe they just said that because they loved me. I don’t know.

All good things

I have had to change the recipe because my daughter is allergic to sesame. I have added things, like cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas. I usually make it gluten free with tamari and rice noodles because I have a friend who can’t tolerate the gluten. It’s vegan, too, so all your friends can enjoy this in some form. I’m going to give you my simplified version below, because I love you.

The Sauce of Love

Peanut Sauce (from Deborah Madison’s Savory Way)

6 large cloves of garlic
1.5 ounces of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (about 2 Tbs)
1 large bunch cilantro, large stems removed

1/2 c natural peanut butter
1/3 c soy sauce (or tamari)
1 Tbs peanut oil
1 Tbs dark sesame oil
1 Tbs hot chile oil (I just use olive oil and mix in a little cayenne)
3 Tbs rice wine vinegar
3 Tbs sugar

Blend all but the last two ingredients in food processor or blender. Add the last two, adjusting to taste. And if you don’t have the fancy oils, just use olive oil. No one complains.

I serve this over cold noodles (even ramen work great) with chopped tomatoes, sliced green onion, ½ c cilantro, and tofu. Toss 1 lb of noodles with 2 tablespoons of peanut or sesame oil.

Before sauce

Properly dressed

I know I usually give you a little anthropology in these posts. But today, I feel kind of spent. I also am just motivated to put something good out in the world. That’s all I’ve got.

Grateful Cake

The combined loveliness of two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration.

In May and June of 2014, I took a group of college students on a study trip along the U.S.-Mexico border. They had all taken a course with me about cultures of the borderlands, and they were an amazing group of young women. Today, they are scattered around the country, but they keep in touch with me and with each other. As we read about the border in the news over the years, we all recall what we learned together.

This week, I got a present from one of them. She lives in Tucson now, working with refugees. She sent me a bag of mesquite flour made from beans she collected by the Santa Cruz river, and a jar of olives, also collected around town and cured herself. In this time of relative deprivation due to COVID-19 – deprived of friendship and of easy access to food – her gift felt like a little miracle. Both products took effort and planning, making wild plants into precious food. In both, the gratification from collection to consumption is quite delayed, but is all the more delightful because of the wait.

Mesquite pods ripening.  Photo Credit: Elissa McDavid

On our trip in 2014, the students tasted and ground the flour themselves for the first time. We sought the shade of a mesquite to do the work, and touched the flour to our lips cautiously. I recall what a pleasure it was to see their astonishment at how very sweet the beans are.

Anna grinds beans while we hide in the shade

We looked for mesquite trees for their shade often on that trip, relishing the cool they bring to the desert.

A lovely old one

Almost on the same day, a friend bought me wheat flour and yeast at the grocery store because she knew I had been unable to find either for weeks. I brought her a bouquet of flowers from my yard and a bunch of cilantro that I could easily spare. We made the trade in her driveway, keeping our distance. First, she put her goods on her car and retreated; then I approached and took hers and left mine. We sat about 15 feet apart and talked for a few minutes in the sun. Seeing each other’s living face, unmediated by a machine. I’m so grateful for that moment and for my former student, now friend, who thought of me in this dark time.

The combined loveliness of these two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration. I turned, of course, to From I’itoi’s Garden, a cookbook I have written about before. I knew the Tohono O’odham would have some good ideas about how to use mesquite flour. The Tohono O’odham people ate mesquite beans as a snack off the tree, or ground them into flour. The flour could be made into a porridge or into balls by mixing with water and drying in the sun to save for later. Today, the flour is used for all kinds of goodies with recipes in this great cookbook. I’m sharing their unaltered recipe here for the cake, though I modified it by making a layer cake and using an orange buttercream frosting. That was all me.

The decoration was also me

Almond Mesquite Cake

2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup mesquite flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/3 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix dry ingredients together in a small bowl. Cream sugar, butter and eggs, and almond extract in a mixer.  Alternate adding dry mixture with milk  to the butter mixture in three additions each. Pour batter into two buttered and floured (and I used parchment paper) 9″ cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes.

Orange Buttercream Frosting

1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Zest of one orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons orange extract
3-4 tablespoons fresh orange juice

Slivered almonds, toasted

Beat together butter and  orange zest. Gradually beat in sugar until blended. Add liquids and beat. Taste for orange. I like it tangy.

Frost the cake and decorate with toasted slivered almonds. I put on a lemon blossom for prettiness.

We ate this sucker up.

Enjoy while thinking of your generous and glorious friends.


On the Importance of Growing Herbs

There’s a reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need.

I love traveling, as you know, and as I have grown older I’ve found that I like having a home base in a new country. I like being able to stay a week or so somewhere and rent a house or apartment for that time. I like having my own little kitchen, to be able to make coffee without having to get dressed and fix my hair in some fashion (you would understand this if you saw my hair in the morning), just to eat a little something with my coffee. You could save money this way too, by cooking for yourself instead of going to a restaurant. I find, though, that I seldom cook real meals while in these places.

Of course, one of the reasons for this is that I travel to eat local food. Honestly, it’s one of the things I like best about a new place – trying new food. Sharing food is a great way to connect with other people (please read How to Eat Like a Costa Rican), allowing them to teach you through offering what they value most. Certainly, eating the food introduces you to so much about a culture and environment. So cooking at home loses some of it’s allure for me when traveling.

Local cheeses, sampled outside Bellagio, Italy

But there’s another reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need. Is there a little known law prohibiting sharp knives in rental places? There must be! All pots must be dented and thin, and non-stick pans must be dangerously peeling. In one house in Costa Rica, there was no more than a single example of any given drinking vessel, meaning that each person’s cocktail or coffee was a radically different experience. There will be a colander, but it will be located in a dubious spot, like the laundry room or the bathroom, giving you pause about using it for your pasta.

Staple foods may or may not be there. Sugar is a big maybe, cooking oil may not be the freshest if it’s there at all. Anything other than that, salt, pepper, and some mysterious hot sauce in the fridge, is going to be absent.

I can handle that. I don’t mind buying oil at a market and leaving the remains behind for whoever cleans the place to take home. I like shopping at foreign markets, so this is fun too. But my cooking just doesn’t taste as good in a strange kitchen, and I know why: I depend on fresh herbs.

Parsley, garlic, thyme, oregano, and cilantro, all from my garden

I want you to start growing some herbs. When I lived in apartments, I kept herbs in pots on the window sill. When I rented a room in someone’s house in New Mexico, I begged to start a little garden in their back yard and they let me. I immediately put in some perennial herbs, like thyme and mint and oregano. When we were in Italy for a month, I bought a basil plant and kept it on the window sill and it’s the only reason I cooked at home. I grew a little basil plant in my first apartment in Arizona, and someone stole it off my porch and I cried some bitter tears, I tell you. (I may have written about this trauma elsewhere (The Terrifying Truth about Pesto), but I repeat it here because it was so cruel. If I live to be 100, I’ll be telling this story.)

The first garden I planted in my extremely ample yard, which was entirely grass when we move in, was devoted to herbs. My quart-sized rosemary has grown to a behemoth that shelters small animals, probably six feet in diameter today. My thyme and oregano have migrated around the garden, dying in one area and establishing themselves in another. The lemon balm may have been a terrible error, but I just can’t bring myself to eradicate it completely because it smells so good. I read a book years ago whose title and plot has entirely faded from my memory. My only recollection of it is a character who always planted gardens that were more than visually pleasing – they had to have a scent or a taste to accompany the leaves and flowers. My lemon balm reminds me of that book.

There is nothing I love more than running out to my garden, even after dark or in the snow, to fetch an herb I need for a recipe.

I shook the snow off these . . .

To add to this beautiful dish

Obviously, not everyone has the time or space or resources for a garden, but you might have it for your window sill.

If you do have room for a little herb garden, then I want to tell you about my pollinators. My herbs are a huge draw for a wide variety of bees, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars. In this age of insect decline, I am delighted to create a tiny, healthy environment for insects. I’ve watched swallowtail caterpillars decimate my parsley and fennel (they grew back), and seen little bees and wasps in my plants that I see nowhere else in town. Observing that one type of wasp come back every year to my leeks is a reward only matched by the beauty of their flowers.

A leek ready to bloom

Monarch butterfly and friends in the lavender

Pollinators amongst the rosemary, basil, Thai basil, and lemon balm

I’m writing this on a cold, dreary day in January, but my rosemary has tiny blooms on it, as it often does this time of year. My parsley is coming back and the cilantro volunteers are popping up all over the garden. My oregano is leafing out again under the dead and dried blooms of late summer. These three herbs – parsley, cilantro, and oregano – are the backbone for my chimichurri sauce, a recipe I’ve come up with from trial and error. We serve it on grilled meats and vegetables. Our favorite is on grilled chicken or steak, with chopped avocado, rolled in a warm tortilla. I am going to reward you with my special recipe, which is not at all “authentic” to Argentina, where chimichurri originates. It is tasty, though, and another excellent reason to grow your own herbs.

Add some fresh tomato if you like

Anne’s Chimichurri

¼ cup fresh parsley
¼ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup fresh oregano
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
½ cup of olive oil
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 shallot (about ¼ cup), chopped

Combine all ingredients in a food processor (or use an immersion blender as I do in a mixing cup) and blend until smooth. Taste for salt and enjoy on grilled veggies or meat.

My mouth is watering just looking at you, chimichurri



How to Eat Like a Costa Rican

Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough. 

I just returned from three weeks in Costa Rica where I was conducting research on aging with a small team of three undergraduate students and another professor. Costa Rica is known for healthy living in general, with a life expectancy slightly greater than that of the United States. One region in particular is known for extreme longevity, and we went to investigate factors related to that pattern. We were not looking at diet, because so much has already been studied regarding what people eat, but people often brought up food when talking about what was different when they were children.

Costa Rican lunch with pork ribs, potato, beet salad, rice, black beans, green salad, yuca, and watermelon juice to drink, at Rancho Doña Elena in Hojancha

They talked about how they ate what they grew – rice, beans, corn, vegetables, fruit. They talked about how what they grew had no chemicals or pollutants, and how all that is different now, even for farm animals. They talked about collecting food in the forest, and hunting for wild animals to eat. They talked about how life was hard then, but how it was also beautiful. One woman spoke longingly about the land she was raised on – un ranchito – that her father sold when alcohol landed him in trouble with money. She described the little stream there, the plants, the animals that they raised for food, the beauty of the fields. She said, “Now it is all gone and we can never return.” She cleans luxury houses for people from Canada and France, and some Costa Ricans too. And she can cook.

One afternoon, she had come to our place for our interview and to clean (walking over an hour up steep hills as she did not own a car or motorcycle). Since she was killing time before she went home, she rummaged around in the fridge and cupboard, pulling out chicken and rice and a plantain. She asked us if we would mind if she cooked for us. She walked outside and grabbed some wild herbs and cooked up an incredibly savory but simple feast for us. We were bowled over by how tasty it was, but also by her generosity. She, like so many Costa Ricans, had found a way to share with us.

I had warned my students that people would want to share food with us, and that they would have things ready for us to eat when we arrived. Even though I knew this, I am still startled by how much people give, particularly when they often have so little.

It started with mangos. Mangos were ripe and mango trees are big. We were sent home with bags and bags of mangos.

Emma with so many mangos. Photo: Becky Sherman

It might be easy to see this gesture as getting rid of what you have too much of, but this pattern repeated constantly. One day, we had just met a woman when a guy came in her office with a bag of small fruit for her, which she purchased from him. I inquired about what it was, and she insisted on giving all of us some to try. They were nances, a small, yellow fruit that tasted like nothing else I knew. When we interviewed her at her home later in the week, we could see how very little she had to share, yet she didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Another woman had prepared atol for us. The version we received was a light purple color from the corn she had used and was solid and sweet, like a pudding. She pulled out two big bowls and watched with pleasure as we consumed them. When we returned in three days to pick up some materials from her, she had prepared chicha for us to try, and sent us home with a two-liter bottle. Made from the same corn as the atol, she let the corn-water mixture ferment until it was alcoholic. She was also sucking on a small fruit to help with her sore throat. When I asked what it was, she pulled out a bag and insisted that we take a sack with us. They were mamón, and I just couldn’t bring myself to take more from her, as she was using them to help cure her cold while she was working.

Beautiful mamón

When we walked out of her house, we were happy to see another woman we had enjoyed interviewing earlier that week. She was visiting a relative across the street and called out to us. Just as she did, another woman came down the lane on a bicycle with the basket filled with homemade bread, pan casero. Our friend quickly bought some for us – the best kind, filled with papaya jam – and insisted that we take it and try it since we had not had the chance yet.

Let me emphasize: no one had money to spare. No one was free of worry about getting enough work. One woman we met with talked of borrowing enough money when she was truly desperate to make atol to sell on the street. Her resourcefulness allowed her family to eat. Her home had chickens running through it, and fruit trees outside as some security from hunger.

Street view of a home in Sardinal

But everyone shared, all the time. And I started making more coffee when I knew people would come by, and serving whatever we might have in the house.

Eating like a Costa Rican means being ready to feed other people. Eating like a Costa Rican means valuing the flavor of the fruit or the vegetable, and appreciating how it was grown. The food I miss the most are the naturales, the drinks made from putting fresh fruit in a blender with water or milk. They vary daily, because the fruit you have varies.

This is how you look when you drink naturales de guanábana.

Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough.  Take pleasure in trying something new and sharing something that a guest has never tried.  I can’t promise it will make you live longer, but I can promise it will make you live better.


Recipe Bonus: Watermelon Juice!

Fill your blender with fresh watermelon. Don’t worry about the seeds. Add enough water to make the blender go and puree. Pour the blended watermelon through a strainer into a pitcher to refrigerate. The strainer will remove the seeds and some of the pulp so you don’t have to worry about it. Sometimes I like to add mint. Enjoy the most refreshing drink of summer!

Dutch Babies and Other Delights

If your guests are not crowing about it’s loveliness, then you need new friends or to coach them in better manners.

Today is my daughter’s birthday, so she planned the menu. I’m surprised that each year she has a new request for her birthday dessert, and a different dinner meal as well. Last year was chicken enchiladas with a chocolate cake that had a thick layer of mint frosting in the center and chocolate ganache on top.

I invented this one!

Other years it is spaghetti with key lime pie. I’ve had to invent a fair number of the desserts, including the cake just mentioned and a s’mores cake. This year her dessert and dinner are easy: snacky dinner (basically a French themed antipasto) and sopapilla cheesecake.

Her requested breakfast, though, has been pretty consistent. First of all, there has to be sausage. My girl loves her some breakfast meat, and link sausages are at the top of the list. And I think I’m not bad at delicious breakfasts, so she really has a list to choose from. My husband, for example, always goes for sourdough pancakes with our fresh blueberries.  My kid, though, always picks a Dutch baby.

Dutch babies are kind of a hit with guests, too. They look very impressive, I think, and they are incredibly simple to make. I use a recipe from James McNair’s book, Breakfast, which I highly recommend.

Smell the butter . . .

I don’t think they are terrible for you, until you put some goodies on top. Which we like to do. The traditional topping for a Dutch baby is lemon juice and powdered sugar. That’s nice, but that is not what we do. We like to have another family favorite with the Dutch baby: stewed blackberries.

Stewing in their own juices

These are so good. If you can convince yourself to freeze some of those berries you picked in the summer, this dish is a wonderful use for them. Of course, you can buy frozen berries at the grocery store too. These also are not so bad for you, so we feel the need to add cream and put lemon curd on the Dutch baby. I mean, that’s a little over the top, I know, but it’s just who I am.

Cream is almost always the right choice.

This trait is probably why you like me, if we are both honest.

Dutch Baby

4 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

lemon zest

8 ounces unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 475ºF. That’s going to be a while, so get to mixing! Beat the eggs until they are frothy and then gradually add the milk while beating. Gradually add the flour while beating as well. Mix in the vanilla. Zest your lemon into the batter.


By now the oven should be close. Using a cast iron skillet (mine is 11 inches) or other oven safe skillet, put your stick of butter in the pan. Add the pan with the butter to the oven to melt the butter. Watch it closely, because it will go fast! Remove when just melted and pour in the batter. Don’t freak out about the butter. You won’t eat it all. It just keeps things from sticking and it seasons your pan beautifully. Cook for 10-12 minutes, keeping an eye on the baby. It’s going to puff up a lot!

So beautiful!

Take it out to the admiration of friends and family. If they are not crowing about it’s loveliness, then you need new friends or to coach them in better manners. Serve immediately.


Stewed Blackberries

Boil 1/2 cup water with 1/4 cup sugar and a cinnamon stick for about 5 minutes. Add 4 cups of frozen blackberries (or a 16 oz. bag) and cover. After it simmers, reduce the heat to low and stir occasionally. You want the boil to be gentle.

Serve with the Dutch baby. My husband likes to coat the Dutch baby with lemon curd and then add a little blackberry juice on there for good measure. Others just keep it separate. Both ways are correct.


It looks fancy, but it is truly a breeze to make both of these. You should try it!

Summer. Isn’t. Over.

My garden wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much.

I’ve heard you all talking. I’ve heard the comments about getting back to school, about Labor Day, about not wearing white. I’ve seen you looking longingly at your sweaters. You’ve been thinking about making a casserole or baking some muffins, admit it. Just give you one cool morning and this is where we wind up.

My garden heard you too, and she is having none of it. She sent me here to correct these false rumors. First, she wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much. Second, she wants to emphasize that the equinox is just a formality anyway. Haven’t you noticed these nice warm days persist into October? Like, most years? She is going to make the most of it, and she suggests you do it too.


I made a sauce with these to go with grilled salmon tonight.

Actually, she’s been getting a little forceful about this point. Every time I go inside, I feel her saying, “Don’t you turn your back on me! Do you see these okra? When you get back they are going to be enormous and too tough to eat! I had better see you out here EVERY DAY until I say so!”

Those okra. I’ve had actual dreams of going to the garden and the okra had grown into small trees, taller than my head. You have got to watch those suckers every minute.

My tomatoes are a bit more gentle about it. They stop setting fruit when it gets too hot, but they are only too happy to start up again once things get reasonable again. My cherry tomatoes are ripe again and my slicing tomatoes are setting. That means we’ll have fresh tomatoes until the frost comes, which in Arkansas can be into November. And even then you can harvest and fry up the green ones. Such a good idea!

And this is the time when my basil just gets out of control. I have to harvest so much. So much. Basil goes in everything this time of year. The fact that you can eat basil every day is just proof that it is summer.

Summer eating is simple eating, in my opinion. The flavors of ripe veggies and herbs just want to be appreciated. You don’t really want complex sauces this time of year. You want corn that is barely cooked, with salt and butter. You want a caprese salad. You want green beans cooked just so. Summer cooking doesn’t really need a recipe, does it?

Keeping It Simple

But perhaps you aren’t sure about the green beans. Or how long to cook the corn. For you, I will write some not-recipes. Just in case you wanted them because you did not grow up with someone who made them. These are for you.

Green Beans, Just So

It is all so perfect.

First, snap the beans. That means you just snap off both ends of the green bean. Don’t worry about where and don’t cut them. Snapping, by bending until it breaks, helps you get beans that are fresh. Ideally, you can snap right to the edge. But if they don’t snap until you get close to the middle, you are better off with less of that bean. Flexible, bendy beans are not fresh. You want ’em snappy!

Bring some salted water to boil. Add the beans and boil only until they turn bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Meanwhile, get out a bowl to put those beans in. Crush a clove of fresh garlic and add a dollop of mayo to the bowl. When the beans are bright green, drain them and put them immediately, steaming hot, into the bowl. The heat of the beans will release the scent and flavor of the garlic and make a sauce of the mayo. Add fresh ground pepper and salt to taste.

Now, don’t freak out about the mayo. (I use Duke’s, by the way.) Mayo is oil and eggs. It’s not weird or some kind of chemical. The French make it. Just call it aioli. And if you just can’t abide it, toss with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. You might want the lemon even if you use the mayo.

So tasty with mayo

Corn on the Cob (Not a Real Recipe)

Seriously, I know you can’t believe you are reading this, but you might want it. First of all, get the corn in the husk and don’t put it in the fridge. I try to use corn the same day I get it. I think that’s the key to having really sweet corn because the cold starts working on the sugars. Husk that corn when you are ready to cook it. Boil enough water that the corn could submerge. Bring to a boil and add the corn. Return to a boil and let boil for one minute. You heard me. Turn the heat off and cover the pot for five minutes. Now it is done. Take it out of the pot and slather with butter and salt. The end.

And for dessert? Maybe you would like a fig.

You probably would like a fig.

So don’t rush into fall! It will get here soon enough and we will revel in winter squashes and persimmons. Just enjoy the now. If you don’t, I’m gonna hear about it from my garden.