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.
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.
We looked for mesquite trees for their shade often on that trip, relishing the cool they bring to the desert.
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.
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 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.
Enjoy while thinking of your generous and glorious friends.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!