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?
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
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.
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.
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.
Authentic is the bane of an anthropologist’s existence. Authentic implies one way; it implies the truth and the past. It ignores change and innovation, which all people are allowed.
I do love traveling, don’t you? I’ve been going back to some home places this last month, revisiting favorite parts of the country and, of course, favorite dishes. My journey began with a stop in New Mexico, a state I lived and worked in for a few years. I have to tell you, I love the food in New Mexico. When I was pregnant in Arkansas, all I wanted was ground lamb-stuffed sopapillas with red sauce from Angelina’s in Española, New Mexico. I actually shed tears about this craving. Bitter, bitter tears.
Honestly, Angelina’s is home to a few fabulous dishes, including their chile rellenos.
Some people think that New Mexican food is not “real” Mexican food. Here is a thing I want to tell you about “Mexican food”: It’s not one way. There is not a right way. There can be a way you like, for sure, but do not come at me with “authentic.”
Authentic is the bane of an anthropologist’s existence. Authentic implies one way; it implies the truth and the past. It ignores change and innovation, which all people are allowed. Now, anthropologists would like for people to be allowed change on their own terms and at their own pace, but cultural mixing and trying new things are truly features of being human.
Let’s take tortillas, shall we? I can’t tell you how many times that people in the U.S. have told me that corn tortillas are “authentic” and that flour tortillas are for gringos. In many parts of Mexico, people mostly make corn tortillas for themselves and they grow lots of corn. Lots of it, every spare place, like by the mailbox and in the backyard. Corn really is the thing. “Sin maíz, no hay país,” (without corn, there is no nation) as Francisco Toledo likes to say in his campaign against genetically modified corn in Oaxaca.
Yet in Sonora, a northern state in Mexico bordering Arizona, wheat has been cultivated from early Spanish colonial times. Wheat can be grown in winter and spring, times when corn cannot be grown there, allowing for two productive crops in a year. Indigenous farmers welcomed the introduction of this crop in the 16th century. Today, a specialty of Sonora, and also of the O’odham people, are tortillas sobaqueras. These flour tortillas are huge, stretching nearly from the hand to the armpit (or sobaco). I had these for the first time in Agua Prieta, Sonora, where they were served with local pride. And as a side note, when a Mexican friend ordered a chimichanga in front of me long ago in Nogales, Sonora, I asked naively, “But, are those really Mexican?” She said, “Well, people argue over whether they were invented in Sonora or Tucson, so I don’t know, but I love them.”
When someone at a restaurant asks me what kind of tortillas I want, I always ask, “Do you make either of them here?” And if they do, that’s the one I get. Homemade is always better. When I was working in Douglas, Arizona, right on the border, I interviewed a Mexican-American woman in her 80s. When I left her house, she sent me home with a dozen of her freshly-made flour tortillas. When her daughter heard, she was jealous almost to the point of anger. “Those are gold,” she told me fiercely, “They are like gold.”
My point here is not that flour tortillas are the best. I just want people to be open to difference, and to realize that difference may have it’s own “authentic” history. We had a favorite Mexican place in Little Rock that has closed. The Yelp reviews were full of complaints about how it wasn’t like what the reviewers had in San Diego or Dallas. If you asked the owners, they would proudly tell you what state in Mexico they were from and how their dishes were from that region. Many people claim that they know “authentic” Mexican, and dismiss what is in front of them, without realizing that Mexican cuisine is hugely regional. Embrace the local versions! Sure, some restaurants cater to Anglo tastes. I always ask what the waiter likes the best, though, and try that. Figure out what they do well and stop pretending that a chile relleno will be, or should be, the same everywhere you go.
In New Mexico, the green chile is king. Okay, someone is going to be mad that I wrote that because red chile sauce is also king. All you have to do is look at the ristras strung up on peoples’ porches and doors to know that. But, the smell of roasting green chile all over the state beginning in August is quite something. Grocery stores have giant drums set up for roasting, so you can get yours fresh. And you should definitely do that.
I’m just going to admit that the way I like chile rellenos best is the way they do it in New Mexico. I don’t even order them in other states anymore and I don’t make them myself. I know what I want when I ask for a chile relleno. I want them a little crispy. I want them with green chile on top. I want the chile itself a little al dente, with some chew to it.
And I want sopapillas to come with them. Big ones, with honey. Hot.
Do you know how this is? I don’t order certain things in restaurants. I am always disappointed with gazpacho because it is not MY gazpacho. I like it the way I make it. I would never order chicken piccata in a restaurant. Mine is better, and also, chicken? Why would I get chicken if I could have something else? That better be some special chicken. Life is short, friends.
My strategy, again, is to get regional. Order what they are good at where you are. Get the huevos with the plantains and posole on the side and piñon-atole pancakes.
My father-in-law was born and raised in New Mexico, though he has lived in Colorado for many years now. He is completely particular about his Mexican food. For him, real Mexican food comes from New Mexico. He drives to a certain farm stand in northern New Mexico to buy his fresh and dried chiles. He is not compromising on this issue.
He makes a chile verde, which I will share with you, that is sometimes insanely hot and other times not so insanely hot, depending on the chile. It is what it is. He will serve it to you with corn or flour tortillas, rolled or flat. It’s not the presentation, it is the chile verde that matters.
He got this recipe from a guy he knew, now passed away, named Jesus. It was a family recipe and he was given it on the condition that he never change it. So don’t mess with it, or Jesus in Heaven will be mad. (You can blame my father-in-law for that one!) He says that, but my husband has an ancient hand-written recipe for chile verde from his dad that is substantially different from the version that his dad put in the fundraiser cookbook for the local ski club. What stays the same are the ingredients – the ratios vary with your taste and the heat of the chiles. So, for god’s sake do not put onions in while you cook the sauce, but you can sprinkle on raw onions when you serve and if you don’t (I don’t) people think there might be something wrong with you. I’m going to share the fancy typed version of the recipe with notes, because I think he has refined his technique over the years. He has also become more fond of a very hot version, and that’s just fine. Pretty much everyone who has this dish wants it again, so I think you’ll like it.
Jim’s New Mexico-Style Chile Verde
4-5 lb pork butt (old recipe says 3-4 lb)
20-25 whole roasted green chiles, a mix of medium and hot (old recipe says “green chiles”)
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced (old recipe says 3)
1 16-oz can of stewed diced tomatoes (old recipe says 28-oz can diced)
Roast the pork butt at 300 degrees for about 3 hours until done (old recipe says 325°). Cool enough that you can remove the hard fat and cut into 1-inch chunks, but reserve the juices. While the pork is roasting, remove the skin and seeds from the chiles and dice them (old recipe says put them in a blender). Don’t wash them too much with water or you will remove some of the heat and flavor. Combine all ingredients, along with salt and pepper to taste, in a large pot on the stove. Add enough water to get things boiling, but you will want to end with a fairly thick consistency. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 6 hours, adding more water as necessary.
You cannot eat these without beans. Jim makes them from dried pinto beans and he adds bacon or salt pork to them while they cook.
To serve, you can make stacked enchiladas with corn tortillas. Put down a heated tortilla, add beans and chile verde and cheese, and diced, raw onions, add another tortilla and repeat with chile verde and cheese. You could fix this up in a casserole to serve the family. You can also roll up the beans, chile verde, cheese, and onions in a heated flour tortilla and make burritos. Or you can put the beans in a bowl, add chile verde, and top with cheese and onions, and eat with a tortilla on the side. It’s how you like it!
As you can see, the ratios adjust the heat of the chiles. Cooking this will require tasting. If it’s too hot, you can add more tomatoes. Too mild, add some more roasted chiles. And remember, this recipe won’t be like the other chile verde you have had. It’s a regional dish. Enjoy!
Toward the end of night, about twenty small plates in, our waiter set a dish down and looked at me knowingly. “This one is really special, ” he said. “You are going to love it.” It was liver.
My family makes a meal plan each week. We sit down and talk about who has meetings or practices in the evenings and then we decide what we will make for each night. We get a list together and go shopping. That seems so organized, doesn’t it? It took me until my first sabbatical to figure out that this would be a good idea. I was 42 – and I had time off from work – before I could come to this conclusion. Before then, we’d just start gnashing our teeth and pulling our hair around midweek and decide we needed to go out to dinner, and then feel dissatisfied with our options and grump around for a while. Meal planning is better.
So this week during meal planning, I told my husband that I would make a mezze for the Fourth of July. He said, “You sure have a funny idea about the Fourth.”
Okay. That may be true. But maybe I want to be independent today! Also, maybe I like the peoples of the Middle East and feel they should be celebrated instead of foolishly banned from entry into the U.S. because of Islamophobia. There’s that. Also, it is very hot and this is the kind of food I want to eat when I’m hot.
And the food of the Middle East is so easy to love and yet so undervalued. My experience of food in the Middle East and Mediterranean has been transcendent at times. I also love the way people in the region cherish their food.
I grew up in a household where it was expected that you rave about your meals. You roll your eyes back and moan. You ask about spices and ingredients. You fight to scrape the dish it was cooked in. If you said, “That’s really good,” everyone knew that dish was a failure. Ecstasy, and nothing less, marked a meal as a success. My husband has had to adjust to these expectations. My closest friends generally meet these guidelines.
For example, once I gave my friend Jenn a Luxardo cherry in a cocktail I made her (Mr. Fancy – you will meet him in another post). Jenn said, “Oh my god! These taste like what cherries hope they will be when they grow up!” See, that’s my kind of girl. Enthusiasm.
Most of the people I met in the Middle East have been like this. My husband worked for several years on and off in Jordan. I was visiting him and he wanted to take me for a really good shawarma. We got a taxi and Brett directed the driver to take us to Third Circle (Amman is organized around large traffic circles). We drove around and Brett looked for the place but didn’t see it. The driver looked at us questioningly. Where should he stop? He then overheard Brett say the word “shawarma” to me and all was clear. He turned around in his seat and said, emphatically, “Shawarma! Second Circle!” He drove straight to the spot without discussion and dropped us right in front. I recall him being pretty confident he was getting a good tip.
A favorite restaurant in Amman served only two dishes: ful medames (made with fava beans) and hummus bi tahini. That’s it. It was packed, always. That spot was very humble and we loved it, but Brett took me and a friend one night to a very fancy restaurant. We ordered a mezze for three people, and we let the chefs pick the dishes.
Now, a mezze is usually understood as a starter, not the main course. You can have hot and cold dishes, generally small tastes, with meat and without. A good mezze will provide a mix of tastes. Claudia Roden, whose cookbooks I enjoy, tells me that the word derives from t’mazza, meaning “to savor in little bites” in Arabic. Think about tapas or antipasto platters. A mezze is the Middle Eastern or Mediterranean version of that. There are pickled things, and little pastries, and dips. Bright, fresh flavors and colors.
This restaurant we went to was really fancy. It had white tablecloths and about five people assigned to our table, including one who refilled my water glass after every sip. They brought the dishes a few at a time. Remember who I am now. I started exclaiming. I rolled my eyes. I insisted my dining companions try each dish and marvel at it with me. The waiter liked this display. He began to bring each dish with a bit more flourish. Toward the end of night, about twenty small plates in, he set one down and looked at me knowingly. “This one is really special, ” he said. “You are going to love it.”
It was liver. Fortunately, I DO really like liver, so we were in the clear. But my god, we rolled out of that place. It was one of the best meals of my life.
That meal was prepared in a Lebanese style, with a Lebanese chef. All throughout the Middle East, Lebanese cooking is highly praised. But, sadly, if you look up information on Lebanon – let’s say on Wikipedia – it will say nothing about the cuisine. This omission is a crime. I mean, the entry will mention cinema, for goodness sake, but nowhere does it note the intense admiration for the food throughout the region.
And that brings me to another point. I’ve been talking about “Middle Eastern food” as if it is one thing. It certainly is not. There is wonderful variation, to the degree that you can’t really find some common dishes across international boundaries. Koshari is all over Egypt, but I never saw it in Jordan. Mansaf of Jordan is pretty much only found there. Eating in Turkey is not the same as in Greece, and neither are just like Cyprus. I’m not even touching Iranian food! But all share the mezze concept, and all have inspired me at home.
When we lived in Tempe, I never made Middle Eastern food. I didn’t need to. We had Lebanese and Israeli and Palestinian all within walking distance of our apartment. Since moving to Conway, I’ve had to learn. I love that a Jewish girl from Virginia can’t live without her mezze.
Typically, I make a few types of hummus, babaganoush, and tabbouli. I buy dolmades and olives, usually some feta cheese too. Tonight, I mixed it up by frying some haloumi cheese, using some basil in one hummus, and baking my own pita. There was quite a bit of exclamation at our table. My family knows how to do it.
Take a large eggplant and stab it a few times with a knife. Place it on a pretty hot grill and rotate it about every 10 minutes. After about 30-40 minutes, it should be collapsing and blackened on the outside. Bring it inside and let cool slightly in a colander. Cut off the top and discard. Peel off the blackened skin and discard, leaving the flesh in the colander to drain. Peeling should be pretty easy with just your fingers. After the bitter juices have drained out of the flesh, transfer to a food processor. Add 1-2 cloves of garlic smashed in a press, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, the juice of half a large lemon, 2 tablespoons of tahini, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Process until smooth and taste for salt, lemon, and tahini. This recipe must adjust for the size of your ingredients, so tasting is crucial. Serve with warm pita bread.
Spicy Herbed Chickpea Dip
(based on a recipe by Deborah Madison)
Drain and rinse one can of garbanzo beans. Place in a food processor with 1/4 cup warm water. Add 1-2 cloves of garlic put through a press. Blend briefly. Then add 1/2 cup fresh cilantro (or I used basil tonight), juice of one lemon, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon coriander, 1/4 teaspoon crushed fennel (I use a mortar and pestle), and a dash of cayenne. Process until smooth. Serve with more warm pita bread.
At the end of the trip, I asked a friend about whether I could buy some. He pointed to a table by the side of the road with filled plastic bottles, recycled for this purpose. “There’s some. Want me to stop?,” he asked. Uh, no.
I often ask myself how humans ever came up with some of the food we eat. Like bread. What happened there, with the yeast and the grinding up a grain that didn’t really seem like food for people? Who thought, I’m gonna mash this stuff up and let it sit around and then put it over the fire? Or noodles. Who thought boiling up a paste pulled into thin strips might be a good idea? We are inventive, we humans!
And then there’s alcohol. Did people just let things hang around long enough and then think, I’m gonna drink this anyway, even though it smells a bit off? I am fascinated by the human propensity to try out.
One of the great things about traveling is that you are going to try out quite a bit. The willingness to try really enhances one’s experience of a place. When I take students with me, they are often a bit reluctant to try the more unfamiliar tastes. In Oaxaca, one is truly compelled to eat insects, for example. Eating chapulines, a little grasshopper commonly cooked and seasoned, guarantees your return to the state, and once there, you will want to return.
Most people at least try it. I heartily encouraged my students to do so. My husband, though, embraced this culinary pleasure with vigor and we bought several varieties.
One of my unexpected pleasures while in Oaxaca was tepache. I was served a glass at a lunch on one trip. They told us that it was mildly alcoholic and made on the premises of the restaurant. Well, I admit that this statement struck a little fear into my heart. Like, what does “mildly” mean? And I’ve got a full day ahead of me and it’s a bit hot. And homemade alcohol is kind of a thing I’ve been warned about, and I’m avoiding raw vegetables and ice in Mexico, so this drink does not fall into my cautious eating plan.
But this is how it looked.
So you know I had to drink it. Oh, so refreshing. A bit sweet. Where had this drink been all my life?
Over the course of that trip, I was served a glass occasionally, but I never saw it on a menu. At the end of the trip, I asked a friend about whether I could buy some. He pointed to a table by the side of the road with filled plastic bottles, recycled for this purpose. “There’s some. Want me to stop?,” he asked. Uh, no.
After I returned home, I researched it a bit and found that it really is something that people brew for themselves. And it turns out that tepache also makes me wonder how anyone figured this out. It is made from the rinds of pineapple. The rinds. Of pineapple. Which have naturally occurring yeast on them. What?! People talk about tepache a bit like they do about kombucha. You ferment it on the counter. I am not 100% certain that it actually is alcoholic. More about this later.
I gathered up my courage and attempted it myself. It came out delicious, and about a week has passed and I have suffered no ill consequences. I feel safe passing it along to you.
My Recipe for Tepache
Start by getting a pineapple, a nice ripe one. Rinse it well. Cut off the leaves and discard. Cut off the rind and put in a large bowl. Cut out the tough core and throw that in the bowl too. Now cut up that tasty pineapple to eat later and put it in the fridge.
Now, most recipes have you just cover the rinds with water and stir in some sugar, but I didn’t do that. I don’t know what got sprayed on that pineapple coming to my store. And a lot of fruit goes through a quick heating and cooling process when it comes into this country (like mangos and avocados). So I figured my natural yeast might have been cooked already.
I brought 8 cups of water to a boil with 1 cup of turbinado sugar and one cup of brown sugar. It’s what I had on hand, but most recipes call for piloncillo, a hard, dark sugar chunk you can buy in Mexican groceries. Add 2 sticks of cinnamon and a few whole cloves. Let boil for just one minute to dissolve the sugar. Throw in the pineapple rinds and core and turn off the heat.
It will already smell great in your house. You can transfer to a glass pitcher, but I just left mine in the pot. Once it cools, I sprinkled a little yeast on top. Just a little. Just in case that other yeast was cooked. I covered it for 2-3 days. It gets a white foam on top. This is the yeast going to work. Do not freak out. This is what needs to happen. After about two days, strain it into a pitcher, discarding everything but the liquid. Store in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation.
A note on alcoholic content: I have no idea. I drank about an 8-ounce glass that first day after fermentation, over ice, and I loved it. I really didn’t notice any alcoholic effects. Then I made a wonderful cocktail of my own invention with it the next day, and it didn’t impact me at all. A couple days later, I made the same cocktail and I felt it. I don’t know if I was a little dehydrated or if the alcohol had gotten stronger.
Tepache Solstice (or just a Solstice at our house)
Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add one shot of dark rum and three drops of Angostura bitters. Top up with tepache and a slice of lemon. Finish by marveling at how some human figured all this flavor out.
The Tohono O’odham people have the desert food game down.
I love the desert. I first fell in love with the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, and later the Sonoran Desert worked it’s magic on me. I know that people love the cool mountains or the beach, and I do too, but sometimes a view in the desert can make my heart sing like no other landscape.
I felt that way from the first time I visited. I couldn’t wait to get back to that sky, that earth, and those gorgeous rocks.
I admit, though, that the plants intimidated me. Let’s take the cholla cactus, shall we? The cholla grows throughout both the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, and has at least 30 different species. Its flowers are often a brilliant fuchsia, sometimes a yellow, and it is often a bit spindly-looking. It has been known to hide, blending in when not blooming. And that sucker is mean.
It’s mean, I tell you! One summer when I was working on an archaeological survey project, I ever so gently brushed one with my hand. I was quickly alerted to my terrible error by the pain in my knuckle. I looked down, expecting to see a spine but it was the whole segment of the cactus. A chunk of cactus leapt out at me and grabbed my hand. Heaven forbid you try to use your other hand to get it off you. No! Gravity is not enough either because the spines are barbed. They want to stay in you. I did eventually get it off, but a tiny piece stayed under the skin in my knuckle for years. Years. I learned my lesson and gave that variety of cactus a wide berth.
Living in the southwestern U.S., one quickly becomes aware that people eat some kinds of cactus. For example, prickly pear jelly is pretty widely available, and if you haven’t tried nopales on your tacos yet, you’d better get on that. Made from the pads of the prickly pear, but without the skin or spines, nopales can be pickled or just grilled. So delicious!
But the Tohono O’odham people have the desert food game down. The Tohono O’odham Nation actually crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. Obviously, their ancestors were living on that land long before that border existed.
I have been delighted to get to know this tribe and their food traditions better, thanks to my husband’s collaborations there for the last several years. They make use of agave (yay!), mesquite beans, saguaro, and, yes, even cholla buds.
One thing that is important to know about the Tohono O’odham use of these desert plants is that they respect traditional preparations but are happy to embrace new recipes. The recipe I will share today comes from a wonderful book, From I’itoi‘s Garden. You should definitely get this book!
You can also order the cholla buds, called ciolim in O’odham, if you don’t happen to live in Arizona. I like Native Seeds/SEARCH as a source. Many people compare the taste of the buds to asparagus, and I would add that dried ones have a lovely smoky flavor as well.
Cholla Bud Antipasto Salad
Start with one cup of dried cholla buds.
To prepare them, cover them with twice as much water and bring to a boil. Reduce the water until the buds are poking out. Then cover the pot, reduce heat, and simmer until they are tender, maybe an hour or so.
Drain them and set aside. Saute 1/2 cup of red onion in about a tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Add the buds and 1 tsp. oregano and continue to cook about 3-5 more minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Chop 1/4 cup roasted red peppers and 1/4 cup kalamata olives. Add to a serving bowl with one clove of finely chopped garlic. Add the cholla bud-onion mix to the bowl, letting the heat work on that raw garlic. Toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. You could add salt, but I didn’t.
I let this delicious mixture marinate, covered, at room temperature. You could refrigerate, but the buds will absorb the flavors better on the counter.
One tiny warning: you may find spines. I usually see them while sauteing. Be alert!
Serve next to your favorite cactus! Actually, I serve this on toasted French bread like bruschetta, allowing the bread to soak up the marinade. We also like to spread a little goat cheese on the bread and put the salad on top sometimes. I think it could be great with a crumble of feta cheese as well. You decide!
It took me a while to realize that not everyone knew what I knew – that food was around me and should be taken if it isn’t being used.
My mom believes that one of the important duties of parents is embarrassing their children. I am not extrapolating this idea from her behavior. She has said those very words to me multiple times, though now that I think about it I recall that she added the words “in public” to that sentence. She went about this practice in many ways during my childhood. Singing in the grocery store was a favorite, but not just singing along to the piped in pop muzak. She preferred madrigals, or better yet a round during which she would command me to sing my part. One of my favorite photos of her comes from a trip we took to a nearby fish hatchery, which attracted many birds. She had stuck egret and heron feathers in her hair, a bunch of them too. She looks beautiful, but also as strange as you might imagine. She did it in fun, to be silly, but we also took a walk that way in a public park. So.
We took many walks together. When I was five and six we lived in a rental house that backed up to open space along a stream near some power lines. She would take me and my brother on “adventure walks,” which meant we didn’t really have a plan or direction. We would just walk and see what we saw. Sometimes our cat, Flower, would walk with us. Sometimes we took adventure drives, going down roads not always on maps or with a plan. We even took an entire vacation that way one year. The plan was Drive North. It was one of my favorite vacations, actually.
On these adventure walks and adventure drives, we often engaged in another embarrassing-to-children activity: collecting food. I want to say “wild food,” but that is not entirely true. It was food in public. We swerved off the road more than once when we saw a blackberry bramble by the side of the road or in an open field. Now, someone owned that field, but there was no fence and you could only barely see a house. No one was maintaining that thicket. And those blackberries were not going to be wasted on our watch.
We picked low blueberries on Cape Cod out by a power line. We collected bags full of black walnuts from a city park. We never asked permission. Most of the time there was no one to ask. We just saw food lying around in public and so we gathered it. The one that always got the most stares were the persimmons. Wild persimmons are delicious, but they are not good until they are really squishy, usually just fallen to the ground. Picking up something gooey and orange-brown from the ground with your bare hands is highly likely to elicit stares from strangers. Or to prompt the question, “Is that . . . poop . . . or something?” Preteens love this question, I can tell you!
At first, I was pretty sure we were stealing. My mom, like me, is a Rule Follower, though. If it says “Stay on Trails,” then by god we are going to stay on the trail. We are not stepping off the trail. But if there is no sign, well, then we are free! And in some instances we feel the rules are very wrong, such as “This Is a Private Beach.” That is crazy, right? You can’t own something that is always moving. In that case we will walk right along where the waves meet the land, because that is fair. “Private beach,” ha!
Back to food! In addition to instilling in me the value of embarrassing my child (more on that later), my mom also managed to teach me what food looks like. I grew up in a city. While we had a little backyard garden, I wasn’t a country kid. It took me a while to realize that not everyone knew what I knew – that food was around me and should be taken if it isn’t being used. I moved to Portland, Oregon after college. We had a grocery store two blocks away, so we walked to get our groceries. On the way one day, I noticed a very messy sidewalk. When I looked around, I saw that there was a plum tree in the hell strip, that space between the sidewalk and the street. After watching for a couple of days, I concluded that no one was harvesting that tree and plums were just rotting on the ground. So, I brought some home. Some of my housemates were dubious at first. Perhaps it was an ornamental plum, not meant for eating. I bit into one – nope, super sweet! Happily, my housemates were an opportunistic and foraging bunch, so we ate the plums.
In Phoenix, where I lived later, many streets are lined with olive trees. Olive trees that make olives. Sure, you have to learn how to brine them and get a good recipe, but I had a friend who had grown up in Tucson who was happy to oblige me with one. So, I made olives! By that time, I was living with my now husband. We used to hike a lot and he has said that it seemed to him that I always found something to eat on those hikes. Look, ripe thimble-berries! (Are thimble-berries a thing, he would ask?) He says today that he really didn’t know anyone before me who just knew the names of plants who didn’t actually study plants. Thanks, Mom!
I had this lesson most profoundly driven home to me in Italy. I was teaching about observing local cultures to a group of students. I had them read an article about the landscape of Tuscany being shaped by food production, and then I assigned them to an hour-long walk down the road by our school. They had to take notes about what they could observe. We all went at our own pace, stopping to make notes in different places. When we came back, I couldn’t contain my excitement at all the food plants I had seen. In fields?, they asked. No, by the side of the road! They demanded a walk with me after lunch, on the same route, so I could show them the plants.
Some of them had not yet even noticed the ripening fig tree growing out of the wall at the end of the driveway. It was a big tree!
They certainly did not know about the rosemary next to it, nor the asparagus by the side of the road, nor the oregano, mint, and thyme, nor the caper bush. We walked along and I pointed out a peach tree, an apple tree, and a plum. They did see the olive groves and the grapevines, but those belonged to someone. These others were wild, volunteers by the side of the road.
What I loved, though, was how eager they were to know about the food. They tried everything! We ate some berries that looked like blueberries but were not blueberries. No one got sick later. Their enthusiasm for the hunt made me love them in a new way. On my course evaluation, several mentioned that walk as the highlight of their class. There is something so fun about gathering! Maybe it’s because humans have been doing it since before we were humans. Once you see the food, you want to see more food.
And it is delightful to share this food as well. In my family, we often gave the juiciest and most enormous blackberries we found to the person collecting alongside us, to eat warm right then and there. Seeing them moan with pleasure at its perfection was the best part of picking. Once, I discovered a patch of delicious wild strawberries on a hike with a boyfriend in New Mexico. We were picking and eating, and he held a huge one up for me to see and then popped it in his mouth. I knew we would never stay together at that moment.
In Italy, I would regularly see older women in untended areas with a kitchen knife and a grocery sack, cutting some greens to prepare that night.
In the U.S., I find I am collecting next to recent immigrants or alone. Mulberry trees, persimmon trees, walnuts, berries, wild greens. They are all out there, and I mean in big cities as well. But too many of us have been trained not to see them AS FOOD even when we can recognize them. We think we can only buy food in the store, or grow it in neat rows and raised beds. I write this blog post to entice you to see the food again. Get attached to your landscape! Discover what someone before you may have planted and abandoned. I promise you a great recipe for persimmon cheesecake in the late fall in return.
And if you are wondering, I totally embarrass my daughter with this today. When I told her what I was writing about, she said, “Remember that time when you were getting persimmons by the ‘No Trespassing’ sign?” It was for the other side of the fence, I protested! “Welllll,” she said, “Still.”
When my daughter was about two years old, we visited some good friends in Phoenix. She was sitting on their low garden wall, entranced by their elusive (to her) cat. She reached out for him and toppled backwards, right onto a small cactus. It wasn’t until we pulled her up that we saw the cut under her eye, sliced ever so neatly by the spine of a nearby agave. She cried bitterly as we pulled the cactus spines out of her back. Fortunately, her pain drew that little cat to her; he wove around her legs and let her pet him, finally, which stopped the tears. She still has a thin scar under her eye all these years later. She has had a thousand cuts and scrapes over the years. None of the others left a permanent mark.
Anyone who has spent any time in the Sonoran Desert knows the agave plant, though hopefully not in such a bloody manner. In fact, their range extends much farther than the Sonoran Desert, reaching north into Utah, throughout Mexico, and even down into parts of South America. Though I lived in Arizona for years, it wasn’t until I spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico that I fully came to appreciate agave and all it has to offer.
Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did! Before you leave this post already, let me reassure you that I was not a big drinker of mezcal before going to Oaxaca. My prior exposure to mezcal and tequila always seemed to be hearing about people wanting to get drunk quickly and then regretting that decision rather fervently. That is not what this post is about, I promise!
Agave flavors everything in Oaxaca in some sense. It has been cultivated for thousands of years across its growing region. People decorated pottery with agave designs. They stored it in caves. They used different varieties for needles, cloth, thatched roofs, paper, food, and for both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Recently, archaeologists Paul and Suzanne Fish of the University of Arizona (and others) have argued that agave wasn’t merely planted widely in the ancient U.S. Southwest, it was domesticated. That means that they see evidence of techniques used to make these plants more beneficial for those farming it. Indeed, we may need to speak of a fourth “sister” crop, complementing corn, beans, and squash, when considering its importance to indigenous people.
While I was in Oaxaca, I saw fields of multiple varieties of agave. I was also delighted to sample pickled agave flower buds. I might have eaten more than my share of those little honeys.
I was fortunate enough to meet with a shaman, or traditional healer, on one visit. A group of students and I participated in a temazcal. A temazcal is a kind of sweat lodge, and we used several plants during the sweat – coffee, mango, bouquets of basil, and definitely mezcal. Before the temazcal itself, the healer worked on two or three members of our group. Mezcal was used as a substance to purify both healer and the person in need of healing. At one point, our host filled his mouth with it and sprayed it vigorously all over the patient. It was offered many times throughout our visit, and he explained repeatedly that it was very pure. It could not give you a hangover, he said, because it was nothing but agave. The intention was never to get someone drunk, but to cure.
Our group was still shy about mezcal at this point. The idea of drinking early in the day, and right before sweating profusely, didn’t entice us.
Later in this trip, we visited a mezcal producer. Now, if you visit Oaxaca, you can take many tours of palenques for mezcal. They are made for tourists and export, and have numerous flavors and types available. That wasn’t where we went. On our way to Juchitán, a community on the coast, our wonderful guide took us by his favorite producer of mezcal. No one was around that day, and we were intimidated (okay, I was intimidated) by the family of turkeys roaming the site protectively.
Happily, we returned in a few days to find Telésforo Martinez and his sons available to show us their excellent mezcal. They produced every aspect of the spirit. They harvested the plants, keeping different varieties separate; they roasted the piñas, or hearts of the plants; and they distilled the alcohol.
To give us samples, they put a rubber tube into a cask and sucked until it began to flow into a small dried gourd. We then passed around gourd after gourd of mezcal, trying each type. This one is small and grown in the wild, this one is aged for so long, this one is the most popular. To take some with you, you simply paid for the amount you wanted and transferred it into a bottle that you brought with you.
Our kind and encouraging guide assured me that we would have no trouble getting them through U.S. customs. I just couldn’t believe him, so I bought labels at a store in town and decorated them to fool the agents.
Don’t laugh. That is totally convincing. Also, they didn’t stop any of us or question it at all.
One night in the city of Oaxaca, we ate at a wonderful restaurant called Zandunga. I had their fantastic red mole, but the highlight was truly my cocktail, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), made with local mezcal. People in Mexico and the United States tell many versions of the story of La Llorona. Always, she drowns her children and is doomed to cry for them forever. In some places, the tale contains elements of class inequality (she was poor but her love was a wealthy man who scorned her after she bore him children), in other places she is a warning to women (she was a neglectful mother who prefers the attention of men to caring for her young children). Some of you may know the gorgeous Mexican folk song of the same name, which originates in Oaxaca. Check out Lila Downs’ version if you are feeling weepy. (When the song came on as I watched the movie Coco with my daughter, I totally burst into tears.)
I approximated my own version of the cocktail when I got home. I swear I get a little teary with nostalgia for Oaxaca when I drink it.
You have to begin by making jamaica, a sweet drink from hibiscus flowers. You can find the flowers in any Mexican grocery.
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and then add 2 cups of dried jamaica flowers and 3/4 cup sugar. Boil for one minute. If you are using a non-corrosive pot, leave it there to steep for about 2 hours, or transfer to another container you can’t stain. After it has steeped, pour the liquid through a sieve over a pitcher to strain out the flowers. Push out all that liquid! Check for intensity. Sometimes I need to dilute the strength with cold water.
Enjoy over ice and keep in the fridge for a refreshing drink on its own.
For the cocktail, fill a tall glass with ice. Combine 2 shots of pineapple juice, 1/2 shot simple syrup, and 1 shot of mezcal. Top with jamaica. Add some freshly grated ginger to taste. I also sometimes throw in some Penzey’s crystallized ginger for extra fun. Stir and enjoy! I make this without alcohol as a special treat for my daughter.
If you aren’t listening to Lila Downs right now, I need to know the reason why. And before you ask, it is NOT just as good with tequila.